Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Persepolis celebrations

When we Westerners learn about antiquity we naturally focus on those nations who had the most bearing on our present situation. We therefore scrutinize Ancient Greece as so many of our cultural concepts, conventions and customs originate from this nation. We are prone to marginalize the other great cultures simply because they are just that - other. The Persian Empire was arguably as sophisticated, advanced and progressive as its Western neighbors, but it is often portrayed as a brutal hoard of barbarians.

As many readers know, I am a keen reenactor and am a member of The Hoplite Association. We portray life in 5th century BC Greece and the surrounding lands. Many of us choose to be Persians and consequently I have learned more about their culture. In my reading I would occasionally come across grainy 70s photographs of an enormous parade of Ancient Persians and had frequently wondered where these photos had been taken. I discovered, after some time, that in 1971 the Iranian monarchy held a massive celebration of the 2500th anniversary of their culture. The event was the talk of the year and was, according to Wikipedia, "the most notable international social event in the 20th century involving royalty and heads of state." The event was contentious at the time due to its cost - variously quoted at between $22m and $200m. 1,724 men dressed as members of the Iranian armies from various periods including some in wonderful costumes from Ancient Persia. They were accompanied by cavalry and chariots and paraded around the impressive ruins of the great city of Persepolis.

Perhaps the reason this event is not more widely known is that it was described in less-than-glowing terms after the Iranian Revolution. The event is regarded as the swan-song of the Iranian monarchy and was cited as evidence of the monarchy's excesses, and therefore contrary to the spirit of the modern Islamic Republic. The photographs demonstrate that it was a stunning event and it is a shame it's not more widely publicized. Orson Welles, most famous for his portrayal of the sort-of-fictional tycoon and partygoer Charles Foster Kane,  summed up the celebration by proclaiming, "This was no party of the year, it was the celebration of 25 centuries!"