Pseudo-Scholarship about Iran: Insulting Cyrus the Great

Article below by John Limbert appeared in the LobeLog website on November 3, 2016. Kindly note that none of the pictures and their corresponding captions appeared in the original LobeLog release.

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John Limbert is Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He served 34 years in the Foreign Service, including 14 months as a hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran.  He has recently authored Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History for the US Institute of Peace.

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What is it about Harvard that impels its people to produce pseudo-scholarly non-facts about Iran? Four years ago a presi­den­tial candidate and graduate of the Harvard Business School claimed that Iran needed its alliance with Syria to achieve “access to the sea.” Perhaps they don’t use maps at the Business School. A couple years ago, a former professor and secretary of state who received his Ph.D. from Harvard warned darkly about a newly reconstructed “Persian Empire” that was about to dominate the Middle East.

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The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae where Alexander paid his respects. The tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage site (Source: Public Domain).

Such ahistorical nonsense and geographical mishmash never seems to die. In a recent Time article called “The Iran Paradox,” the current dean of Harvard’s (and Tuft’s) Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy continued this unfortunate precedent. About Iran he wrote that “the inheritors of that [i.e. Cyrus the Great’s] imperial tradition are today’s Shi’ite Iranians, and their present-day ambitions for the Middle East…will roil the already tense region deeply over the next few years.”

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The Cyrus Cylinder housed at the British Museum (Source:  Angelina Perri Birney).

Of course there once were mighty Persian empires. The Book of Daniel tells of the great “empire of the Medes and Persians whose laws alter not.” In the sixth century BCE, Cyrus created a vast multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire whose organi­zing principle was acceptance and support of local customs and beliefs. About 539-538 BCE, the ruler spelled out that policy in the famous “Cyrus cylinder” of Babylonia, which many Iranians today proudly claim was the world’s first universal declaration of human rights. One can argue about Cyrus’ motives, but no one can argue with the success of his program.

Cyrus Koresh Kourosh street in Jerusalem

When History goes beyond Politics: Koresh or Cyrus street in Jerusalem. There is currently no street named Cyrus or Koroush in Tehran, the capital of Iran today. There is also an “Iran” street in Israel.

But all that happened over 2,500 years ago. What is the relation of Cyrus’ vast empire to the current Islamic Republic and its clumsy foreign policy? None. In the past there were great Persian empires, whose armies burned Athens and humbled mighty Rome. But the last of those empires disappeared over 1,400 years ago with the victory of the in­vading Arab Muslim armies over the Zoroastrian Sassanians. Since then, Iran has either been a province of larger empires or a country confined roughly to its present-day borders. Its history for the last 200 years has been anything but imperial. More often it has been invaded, divided, threatened, manipu­lated, and exploited by outside powers.

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Journalism and Academia join to promote Eurocentricism: Matthias Schultz of Spiegel Magazine (July 15, 2008) and Harry de Quetteville of the Daily Telegraph (July 16, 2008) wrote parallel articles attacking the legacy of Cyrus the Great and his ancient legacy; both publications even criticized the people of Iran for appreciating the historical memory of Cyrus. See responses to the Spiegel article and the Daily Telegraph.

Iran today remains home to many monuments and memories of imperial glory, each a veritable Ozymandias. Iran retains only what British historian Michael Axworthy properly calls “the empire of the mind.” From time to time Iranian politicians will recall Iran’s past glories and issue bombast about reconquering territory lost centuries earlier. Such state­ments, however, ignore reality and are nothing but whistling past the graveyard in an attempt to conceal the Islamic Republic’s current weaknesses.

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Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia (Picture Source:  Angelina Perri Birney). Like many of the founding fathers and those who wrote the US Constitution, President Jefferson regularly consulted the Cyropedia – an encyclopedia written by the ancient Greeks about Cyrus the Great. The two personal copies of Thomas Jefferson’s Cyropaedia are in the US Library of Congress in Washington DC. Thomas Jefferson’s initials “TJ” are seen clearly engraved at the bottom of each page.

What our Fletcher colleague calls “Shi’ite Iranians” are in no way the inheritors of Cyrus’ imperial tradition. Instead, the Islamic Republic today operates from a position of weakness caused by both cultural isolation and its own diplomatic ineptitude. It has managed to alienate almost all of its neighbors with the exception of chaotic Syria and tiny, land­locked Armenia. When the Islamic Republic’s rulers allowed a mob to trash Saudi diplomatic premises in January 2016, and then made only a grudging apology, they only further isolated themselves from much of the Arab world. Iran’s foreign influence today is feeble, and consists mostly of backing factions in the most dysfunctional places, including Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Contrast such ineptitude with the skills of Cyrus and his successors. Such a performance by his compatriots would make Cyrus the Great, if he were alive, turn over in his grave, as Yogi Berra would say.

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Eurocentricism meets Hollywood: cartoon-like portrayal of ancient Iranians in the movie “300” – For more on this topic read here – and for more on Eurocentricism, consult here…

The persistence of such shallow pseudo-scholarship, especially among those associated with one of the world’s greatest universities, is inexplicable—unless perhaps the moon is always full over Cambridge and Somerville. Those presenting such an account of current events are certainly not learned in their subject. Instead, in order to argue for a questionable policy (for example, “a proactive approach to the Iranian challenge”) they repeat the empty phrases (“inheritors of an imperial tradition”) they have heard and that at first blush seemed profound. On closer examination, however, such ideas are only hollow catchphrases with no bases in scholarly history or geography. They also insult the memory of Cyrus the Great.

Piece of carved wood suggests Persian taught maths in Japan 1,000 years ago

The report posted below on October 6, 2016 by Gabriel Samuel of Britain’s Independent newspaper was first released by the Japan Times on October 5, 2016.

Kindly note that excepting the first image, all other images and accompanying descriptions are from Kaveh Farrokh’s Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia.

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The piece of wood was discovered in the 1960s but as only now been fully analysed Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.

Archaeologists have unearthed a piece of wood revealing ancient Japan was a “cosmopolitan” nation “where foreigners were treated equally”, including details of one Persian man teaching maths more than a millennium ago.

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Scientists analysed carvings on the wood using infrared imaging technology, which appeared to name a Persian lecturer who worked at a facility where government ministers were trained in the former Japanese capital of Nara.

Previous discoveries have revealed Japan had direct trade links with Persia as early as 600AD, but this is the first time it has been suggested a Middle Eastern official may have been employed in the country at that time.

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Sassanian influences upon Japanese arts: the case of the metalwork plate of Shapur II hunting lions (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg – Inv. S-253) and motif-parallels in Japanese textile arts (Source: Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia).

Akirhiro Watanabe of the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, who led the survey, suggested the man was likely to have taught mathematics due to Persia’s renowned expertise in the subject. As noted by Watanabe to the Japan Times:

Although earlier studies have suggested there were exchanges with Persia as early as the 7th century, this is the first time a person as far away as Persia was known to have worked in Japan… This suggests Nara was a cosmopolitan city where foreigners were treated equally”.

Throughout the 17th century, thousands of Persian merchants were known to travel to the city of Nagasaki for the purposes of trade, but it is now believed the ties between the two countries date back far earlier.

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Sassanian and Soghdian merchants were actively trading with China, a process that led to Iranian links with ancient Korea and Japan (Source: Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia).

Nara was the capital of Japan between 710 and 784, before it was shifted to Kyoto and later to present-day Tokyo.

A vast ancient tomb with colourful painted murals opened to the public at a museum in the Nara Prefecture last week, another impressive find by the local archaeological surveying team.

Last month, archaeologists were left baffled by the remarkable discovery of ancient Roman coins while excavating the ruins of Katsuren Castle on Okinawa Island recently.

The four copper coins were originally thought to be a hoax before their true provenance was revealed through detailed scanning.

Structure of the Parthian Army (2016) – (۱۳۹۵) ساختار ارتش اشکانیان

A new monograph-booklet has been published in Persian (with an English section) on the structure of the Parthian army by Kaveh Farrokh (University of British Columbia-Continuing Studies) and Gholamreza Karamian (Tehran Azad University-Central Branch, History and Archaeology Department):

کاوه فرخ و غلامرضا کرمیان (۱۳۹۵). ساختار ارتش اشکانیان. تهران: خانه تاریخ و تصویر ابریشمی. Farrokh, K., & Gholamreza Karamian (2016). The Structure of the Parthian Army. Tehran: Khaneye Tarikh va Tasvire Abrishami.

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Parthian armored lancer (Picture Source: Civilization Fanatics Center).

The monograph-booklet examines the development, equipment, tactics, strengths and weaknesses of the Parthian military.

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Parthian Shiva-tir (Horse Archers) engaged in discharging their missiles (Source: Ancientbattles.com). 

The monograph-booklet is a prelude to an upcoming English-language textbook on the Parthian Army to be published by Pen & Sword Publishing in England.

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The Parthian relief at Andika discovered by Dr. Gholamreza Karamian and Farzad Astaraki. The specific location of this relief is in the northern village of Darvish Ahmad that is 50 kilometers from western Andika in Khuzestan Province. The GPS position of the site is: N 32 23 32/3 and E 49 30 21/5. The dimensions of the Andika relief are 2 meters (length) by 1.20 meters (width) (Courtesy of Dr. Gholamreza Karamian and Farzad Astaraki).

Nidhi Subbaraman: Early humans in Iran were growing wheat 12,000 years ago

The article below by Nidhi Subbaraman first appeared in NBC News on July 4th 2013.

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Among stone grinding tools, clay figures shaped like humans and animals and carved bone artifacts, archaeologists have harvested ancient grains from an early human settlement that are preserved 12,000 years. The finds suggest that generations of communities were earnestly experimenting with plant cultivation since the last Ice Age, and that agriculture, which laid the foundations for later civilizations, emerged concurrently in a number of locations that archaeologists recognize as the “Fertile Crescent” of the near east.

Iran farming-nbcnews-2Wild barley was found in the sediments of Chogha Golan (Source: NBC News).

Since the early 1960s, when the first signs of farming were discovered in parts of Israel, archeologists have uncovered scores of ancient farming communities in Turkey, Syria, Iraq dating a few thousand years older than the first evidence of farming found in Mexico and China. Whether they shared their ideas about farming or came to them independently has remained an open question.

Now, a detailed history of plant cultivation gleaned from sediments at the Chogha Golan site in Iran suggest that the eastern section of the Fertile Crescent was as active as better known sites in the west. A group of scientists present their findings of ancient lentils, wheat, barley and pea grass in the Thursday issue of Science.

The samples themselves aren’t remarkable to look at. “It’s very dried and cracked and looks like something you want to brush off your table unless you know it’s priceless remains,” Melinda Zeder, an archaeozoologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who studies ancient domestication practices, told NBC News. “To look at them they’re not much but the stories that they tell are remarkable.”

Iran farming-nbcnews-3Clay figurines shaped like people and animals were unearthed found at Chogha Golan (Source: NBC News).

Scientists have already found a rich collection of stone tools, clay figurines in the shapes of people and animals, and carved bone artifacts. But the researchers at this site were struck by the abundance of plant material that they found with it.

Usually, “If you get a seed or two you’d be happy,” Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tubingen in Germany, and one member of the research team told NBC News. But at Chogha Golan, “With one bucket we’d get a handful of material,” he said. The researchers analyzed 21,500 plant samples collected from a small section of the site, which in some sections is 8 meters deep.

The new site also suggests why farming may have evolved. One line of reasoning suggests that it arose when early humans wanted to feed larger groups — when just hunting and gathering wouldn’t do.

Iran farming-nbcnews-4The site in the Zagros Mountains in Iran contained 8 meters worth of archaeological layers (Source: NBC News).

But Zeder believes the timing of the evidence from this site — in a warming phase after the Pleistocene ice age — shows “a whole other kind of image.” To her, it suggests that cultivation arose during a period of abundance and bounty, and early people took this opportunity to mess around with wild varieties of barley, wheat, lentils and pea grass.

At about the same time, in pockets of the populated world, human communities were beginning to perform burial rituals and start feasting, Zeder said. “All of this is directed at sustaining communities.”

Though earliest humans weren’t planning for it, agriculture set them on the path to a more settled, a more social life, and eventually more innovative life.

Iran farming-nbcnews-1Stone tools and clay artifacts were collected from a site in the Zagros Mountains in Iran, where humans were cultivating plants 12,000 years ago (Source: NBC News).

You do not get the cooperation and the time to make important new kinds of discoveries that require a more sedentary, more village kind of setting,” Hendrik Bruins, a researcher at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev told NBC News. “I think the article is an important new piece of information from the Eastern part of the near east.”

Plant samples were collected by floating small amounts of soil and burnt residue from the dig sites in water. The wheatey remnants of grains and cereals rise to the surface from which they can be scooped up.

Whether it’s a single person who had one “Aha moment,” or whether it evolved “democratically across the entire region,” Zeder said, “Being able to parse that out gives us a better idea of human history, of how people have faced challenges in the past, and how we as a species have got where we got today.”

Italian AGON Journal article: Ties of Greco-Roman civilization with ancient Iran

The AGON academic Journal of Italy (Università degli Studi di Messina; chief editors: Professor Massimo Lagana & Professor Salvatore Albanese) has published an article by Kaveh Farrokh which examines historical ties between Greco-Roman civilization and ancient Iran. The article can be downloaded in full from Academia.edu below:

Farrokh, K. (2016). An Overview of the Artistic, Architectural, Engineering and Culinary exchanges between Ancient Iran and the Greco-Roman World. AGON: Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali, Linguistici e Letterari, No.7, pp.64-124.

The article in AGON (Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali) begins as thus:

Apharban, the Persian ambassador representing Sassanian king Narses (r. 293-302 CE) during negotiations with the Roman general Galerius1 in the aftermath of his victory over Sassanian forces in 291-293 CE stated the following to his Roman hosts:

It is clear to all mankind that the Roman and Persian empires are like two lights, and like (two) eyes, the brilliance of one should make the other more beautiful and not continuously rage for their mutual destruction” [Peter the Patrician, fragment 13; translation made by Canepa (2010, p. 133)].

The article examines the process and history of the long-standing relations between the Greco-Roman and ancient Iranian civilizations, notably during the during the Achaemenid (559 BCE-333 BCE), Parthian (250 BCE-224 CE) and Sassanian dynasties (224-651 CE). Works of researchers such as Professor Nik Spatari, whose works examining East-West ties in the context of ancient Calabria in southern Italy are also cited:

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Professor Nik Sparati (Left) and his book “L’ enigma delle arti Asittite della Calabria Ultra-Mediterranea” (Published by: MuSaBa: Santa Barbera Art Foundation & Iiriti Editore, 2002). Note that the book jacket features the superimposed images of Darius the Great and Persephone (also known as Kore), the Mediterranean Goddess: Spatari has discovered Achaemenid-Persian artistic influences upon the Persephone (Kore) image. Among other ancient Iran-Italy ties, Spatari and his team have also discovered strong parallels between Sassanian architecture and the Basilica di Massenzio.

Architecture is one of the areas examined in detail from the time of the Achaemenids to the end of the Sassanian era. As noted by Professors Curatola and Scarcia a common theory postulates that:

“…domed spaces in Christian buildings in Europe derive from the Armenian model, which, in turn, comes from Sassanian Persia: This can be attributed to geographic proximity and also to the fact that for long periods Armenia was contained within Eranshahr. “ (Curatola & Scarcia, 2007, p. 92).

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The Sarvistan palace built in the 300s AD [1], floor plan of Sarvistan by Nik Spatari [2] reconstruction of Sarvistan by Oscar Reuther, “Sasanian Architecture,” in Survey of Persian Art, Figure 152). [3] the Basilica di S. Marco in Veneziana built in the time period of 1100-1300 AD [4] and floor plan of the Basilica di S. Marco (Pictures used in Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006.

Sassanian Iran was to leave a profound legacy on Romano-Byzantine architecture during its tenure in 224-651 CE. As noted in the paper however, architectural influences from ancient Iran can be traced back to the earlier Parthian and Achaemenid eras.

Farrokh Lecture-UBC-Tirgan-YSU

A lecture slide used in instruction for Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division (this was also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006, the annual Tirgan event at Toronto (June, 2013) and at Yerevan State University’s Iranian Studies Department (November, 2013) (Slide is Copyright of University of British Columbia and Kaveh Farrokh). The above slide discusses the parallels discovered by Professor Nik Spatari with respect to the “tri-chamber” design at Firuzabad and the Basilica di Massenzio. The floor plan of Ardashir’s palace and the “tri-chamber” (note yellow arrows) have been outlined by the Calabria research teams who noted of the parallels with the Basilica in Rome.

The ties of the Greco-Romans and ancient Iran are examined in a variety of other contexts besides architecture, notably the arts (Darius-Persephone motif, silverware, motifs such the Senmurv, etc.) and technology (communications, Qanat aqueducts, windmills, etc.).

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An example of technology exchanges: an old water wheel in Tehran (Image: Farda News) [at Left]; reconstructed water wheel based on the ancient Persian model from Cordoba, Spain (Image: Graham Beards in Public Domain). The Greco-Roman and ancient Iranian civilizations often engaged in the exchange of technologies in antiquity. The Persian water wheel spread from ancient Iran to Rome (which introduced this technology into Europe) as well as China in antiquity (Kurz, 1985, p.563)

The culinary arts (transmission of cooking styles, exchange of nuts, fruits, etc. ) are also examined. The pistachio plant for example, was first located in the Khorasan and Soghd regions; these were first cultivated in West Khorasan and were unknown by other peoples until the Achaemenid era.

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The Achaemenids were the first to commercially grow the pistachio in ancient Iran and export this to neighboring countries more than 2500 years ago (Image: Public Domain). By the Sassanian Era the pistachio was considered a delicatessen (mostly used in baking and in cookies). Pahlavi texts dating to the Sassanian era mention the Gorgani pistachio as especially famous at the time. The Roman world not only adopted the pistachio (already known by Greco-Iranian contacts) and spread this to the European peoples.