In the summer of 260 AD, the Roman emperor Valerian made a fatal mistake. In order to free the provincial capital Edessa, today’s Şanlıurfa in Turkey, from its Persian besiegers, he and his legions went against the Persians without sufficient education. The Romans were trapped in the plain between Edessa and Carrhae, and Valerian and his entire army had to surrender. He was the first ruler of Rome to fall into enemy hands. A rock relief above the grave of the great king Shapur in Naqsch-e Rostam near Persepolis captures the events for eternity: It shows Shapur on horseback, grabbing the imprisoned emperor by the arm, while another Roman emperor, Philip the Arabs, is fighting against the Persians also got the short straw, kneeling before the Great King. Valerian’s future fate is uncertain: a late antique church clerk reports that he was whipped and tortured to death while in captivity, while Persian sources claim that the Romans and their leaders were settled in southwestern Iran, where they built bridges and dams.
Greek verses and a Roman head
Valerian’s actions were also fatal because he did not listen to the lessons of history. A good three centuries earlier, one of his ancestors, Publius Licinius Crassus, had moved with his legionnaires to the plain near Carrhae and there fell into the trap of the enemy’s armored riders and archers. At that time the Parthian dynasty ruled Iran, now the house of the Sassanids sat on the throne, but they cultivated the military tactic of ambushes as well as the tradition of the aesthetically elaborate display of victory. The severed head of Crassus, reports Plutarch, was presented to the Parthian king during a performance of Euripides’ “Bacchae” by an actor with resounding verses: “We bring home from the mountains / The glorious prey, the bleeding game.”
Who were the Persians who first taught the Greeks and Romans and later the Byzantines and Ottomans to fear? The exhibition in the James-Simon-Galerie on Berlin’s Museum Island, organized by the Museum of Islamic Art together with the exiled Sarikhani Collection, provides a purely cultural-historical answer. The realpolitical events through which a geographically fissured region characterized by mountains, plateaus and river valleys merged into small and large empires and later into a linguistically and religiously united nation must be considered. What helped the Iranian cultural area on its way to modernity was what made it difficult for others to survive in times of power: its openness to outside influences. Iran became strong by not rejecting the foreign, but absorbing and adapting it.
It began as early as the fourth millennium BC with the kingdom of Elam. Its capital, Susa, on the slope of the Zagros Mountains, served as a distribution station for the metal supplies that flowed from the mountains into the plains of Mesopotamia. The figures made of stone, clay and bronze, the golden cups and belt plates that were found in Susa and its hinterland reflect the cultural pull of the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires, which replaced each other as the dominant power in the Near East. With the Achaemenids, whose empire, which existed from 550 to 330 BC, stretched from Egypt to the Indus, a Persian dynasty ruled the entire fertile crescent for the first time.
But not from there, but from the restless Aegean western border, where the armies of the Achaemenid rulers Darius and Xerxes were defeated at Marathon and Salamis, the decisive artistic impulse came. One of the most beautiful exhibits in the exhibition is a drinking horn with a stand in the shape of a horse’s body from the fifth century BC, which is Persian in shape but entirely Greek in design. With the conquest by Alexander the Great, Greece finally became the dominant culture in the Persian Empire. The hunting bowls, vases, busts and drinking horns of the Parthians and Sassanids can hardly be distinguished from the throne treasures of Hellenistic petty kings, they preserve the legacy of antiquity in early Christian times.