Iran: A Source of Civilization

 My first encounter with Persia / Iran was in a Dutch poem “de tuinman en de dood” (The Gardener and Death) written in 1858 by P.N. Van Eyck.

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It was part and parcel of the repertoire my father recited when he thought the circumstances suitable. He learned the poem at his high school in Amsterdam in the late 1940s. Van Eyck did not develop the poem out of thin air: the famous Arab Sufi mystic, philosopher and writer Rumi (1207 – 1273) already wrote on the theme of the aristocrat – in his version Suleyman / Solomon, an encounter with the surprised Death and a gardener trying to run away from the inevitable.

Where is this magical city Isfahan: was it a city that was still there in a modern transformation, like Rome or Mecca, or a city that resurfaced through archeology as had Nineveh? As a small child I wondered and dreamed about this far away world. This summer there was (and still is, until 18 November) a brilliant exhibition in the Drents Museum in Assen revolving around the ancient culture of this area where our civilization started 6000 years ago.

Before you use an atlas or google maps, a small digression about map making is in order. The Dutch are historically famous for their map making, but a bit biased as well. What is the problem: the earth is a sort of ball (let’s not engage in flat earth discussions), while a map is a flat piece of paper. To make that transformation, cartographers use a projection. The still most commonly used projection is the Mercator projection. Mercator (1512-1594), a Dutchman, did a good job for the regions close to home: northwestern Europe. He was not interested in the fact that closer to the equator the malformation of the patches of land with his projection was considerable. For instance: the main island of Great Britain (Scotland, Wales, England) is approximately 209.000 sq km. The island Papua – New Guinea (near Indonesia) is almost four times the size (821.000 sq km). If you look it up on most maps today, you’ll see that Papua – New Guinea looks a lot smaller than Britain. With this deforming aspect in mind you can imagine what a huge country Iran is (Map: © Drents Museum).Screen Shot 2018-11-03 at 12.47.40 PM

One of the influential cultures of the region we now know as Iran was the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids, a culture that existed as a great empire from 550 until 330 BCE. From Plato (Alc 1:120-122) we know that the ancient Greeks admired the culture and knowledge of these Persian kings. One of the most important of the Achaemenid kings was Darius the Great. He built the road known as the royal road to Sardis (in modern day Turkey) which connected the people living in his kingdom[1] (the white line on the second map: © Drents Museum).

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One of the main features of the Achaemenid culture was their respect for cultures other than their own and the religious freedom within their empire, a feature that earned a lasting respect through many cultures. A beautiful example of this respect can be found near Edinburgh (Scotland) in a small – and, until two decades ago, derelict – chapel dating from the fifteenth century belonging to the St. Clair family: Rosslyn Chapel[2].

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Many of us know of Rosslyn Chapel through the movie The Da Vinci Code based on Dan Brown’s novel (the money provided by the visitors since the movie premiered made restoration work on the chapel possible).

Inside the elaborately decorated chapel is only one carved inscription: Forte est vinu. Fortior est rex. Fortiores sunt mulieres: sup om vincit Veritas (Wine is strong, the king is stronger, women are stronger still, but the truth conquers all)[3]. The backstory is: king Darius asks three young men of his guard what is the strongest thing in existence. Each of them gives one answer of the proverb; Zerubbabel, the Jewish guard of the Persian king, mentions that truth is the ultimate victor. Because of this answer the Jews were granted permission to leave Babylon (Babylonian exile), return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.

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The inscription [4] is at a center location in the chapel next to the carved story of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.
Darius III was the last Achaemenid king. He was murdered after his surrender and against the peace treaty by the troops of Alexander (356 – 323 BCE). What Alexander? The Alexander who is called ‘the Great’ in Western Europe, the same Alexander the Persians called ‘the Damned’ for centuries. This Alexander – or Cyrus the Great (the 6th century BCE Achaemenid ruler) – may also appear in the Qur’ān, as Dhū al-Qarnayn (Q 18:83-101).[5]

The exhibition in the Drents Museum shows the most wonderful handcraft and a very high standard of development. The Achaemenids weren’t the only ones to use their skills: for almost 6000 years, one kingdom after another developed, and their inhabitants invented, aspects of life and governmental organization we still use: sealing of trade goods with a rolling seal with some depiction or text on it so the earthenware pot could only be opened once.

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Writing (tablet picture: © Drents Museum).[6] The astrology signs (Aries, Taurus, Virgo, etc) as we know them, to name a few. And…gardening. Techniques for growing crops as well as flower cultivation were of a very high standard. Rumi and van Eyck did not choose the gardener as the key player in their literature for nothing. The biblical hanging gardens of Babylon belonged to the culture of the Persians for millennia.

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King Darius also built the city of Persepolis. It must have been an impressive complex in its full glory and still very much warrants a visit (picture of the Gate of all Nations: © Drents Museum).


Author: Tine (W.) Goedhart


[1] Vlisteren van V.T. & Nokandeh J., eds.  Iran, bakermat van beschaving. W. Books B.V., 2018. Catalogue accompanying the exhibition.

[2] Exterior detail picture, Tine Goedhart.

[3] The Earl and Countess of Rosslyn. Rosslyn Chapel. Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers, Ltd., 2017.

[4] The Earl and Countess of Rosslyn. Rosslyn Chapel. p. 45 Peter Smith Photography at Newbury Smith Photography.

[5] See, e.g. Van Bladel, Kevin. “Heavenly cords and prophetic authority in the Quran and its Late Antique context.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 70, no. 2 (2007): 223-246.

[6] For further discussion, see Robson, E. (2018). 1. Do Not Disperse the Collection! Motivations and Strategies for Protecting Cuneiform Scholarship in the First Millennium BCE. Sharing and Hiding Religious Knowledge in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam(pp. 8-45).   Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. Retrieved 2 Nov. 2018, from