Europe’s Iranian Connections

Review of the book Towards One World. Ancient Persia and the West, by Warwick Ball. London, East & West Publishing, 2010).

To Warwick Ball (WB), an Australian archaeologist specialising in ancient cultures, the contribution of Persia to Europe has been greatly overlooked and his book Towards One World aims to set the record straight. To WB, Europe created the fallacy of ‘Greek therefore European’ when it decided to single out Greek civilization to be its roots. This in turn originated the mistaken idea that the culture of the West is entirely western, as well as the disingenuous concept of West versus East.

One clarification that WB provides in the beginning of this book is about the names ‘Persia’ and ‘Iran’. Contrary to what many people think, the name ‘Iran’ is not a modern name for ‘Persia’ but the most correct name for that country. The explanation is simple. While the name ‘Persia’ is a Hellenised form of Fars or Pars, a southern province that borders the Persian Gulf, the name ‘Iran’ derives from ‘Eranshabar’, meaning ‘country of Iran’. In this book the name ‘Persia’ is used for this is how Iran was known in the ancient world.

WB depicts ancient Persia as a civilization that was not just mighty but wise as well. The wisdom of ancient Persia is implicit in the title of this book, a reference to the ancient Iranian idea of a single universal world that transcends political and ethnic boundaries. The West, of course, only came up with a similar idea – Universalism –, during the seventeen century Enlightenment. Another point that WB makes in this book is that although the Persian presence in Europe occurred in its fringes and lasted for a mere sixty years, Persia’s legacy to Europe is comparable to that of the Phoenicians, Arabs and Turks, who remained in Europe for several centuries.

Where exactly in Europe was Persia? What exactly constituted the Persian legacy to Europe?

Persia’s foothold in Europe was indeed small and short-lived. It happened when the Greek colony of Ionia and adjacent Greek lands on the west coast of Anatolia (present day Turkey) became part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. The latter was the empire created around 550 BCE by Cyrus the Great, from a coalition of Persian tribes united under the house of Achaemene, and was the largest empire of classical antiquity. It lasted until 331 BCE when it was conquered by Alexander the Great.

In order to understand where in Western culture one can find the Persian ideas one needs first to recognise the three main descriptors of the West: the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition, the Classical Greek philosophy, and the set of values formed around liberal democracy such as the concept of the ‘open society’. However, if one considers an open society to be one that is open to influence from abroad, then the ancient Persian culture was one. ‘The Persian Empire created an international world that allowed peoples, goods, ideas and artistic creativity to move on a scale much greater than the Silk Route’, says WB. During its presence in the Anatolian peninsula the Persians imposed a unity that not only outlasted its own empire but preserved the idea of a civilization that is capable of receiving and giving.

The Judaeo-Christian religious tradition of the West absorbed many concepts from Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion, including the ideas of a single universal creator, final judgement and paradise. As for classical Greek philosophy, the last descriptor of Western culture, it was valued by the Persians well before the West decided to rescue it from the dust bin of its history. Although it is commonly known that Europe recovered classical Greek philosophy from the Muslim Arabs, during the Renaissance, it was from the Persians that the latter got it. The story of how this happened is well-described in this book. It all began in 260 CE when Shāpūr I, Persian king of the Sasanian dynasty, after winning the Battle of Edessa (modern Urfa, in Turkey), took many Roman prisoners, including Emperor Valerian, and sent them to several newly founded cities in Persia, especially to Gundishapur (or Jundaisabur) in Susiana. Gundishapur was not only a centre of Greek learning which had received the teachers of the Academy of Athens after the latter was closed under the orders of the pope, but was also a centre for the translation of Greek texts into Syriac, a variation of Aramaic, the official language of the Persian Empire. As it happened, Syriac was also one of the first languages to evolve from the first alphabetic system that the ancient Phoenicians invented in the second millennium BCE. Arabic speaking Muslims took the classical Greek scripts from the Persians after Persia became islamized.

Another thing one gets from this book is that archaeology has come a long way since it emerged out of antiquarianism. If in its beginning archaeology used to run after history, nowadays it is history that runs behind archaeology, thanks to its new techniques and new ways of studying the relics of the past. In the past, the strong elements of classical Greek architecture mislead scholars to overlook other cultural elements used in conjunction to it, says WB. Although ancient Persia borrowed the Greek architecture, it often combined it with elements from other cultures. One example he cites is the tomb of Mausolus, a local governor or satrap in Anatolia, a province of the Persian Empire, in Halicarnassus (today’s Bodrum, Turkey), considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. For many years its style was considered to be purely Greek; nowadays it is recognised that it also had the funerary tradition of Anatolia.

Ancient Persia not only left a long lasting influence in Europe but in Asia as well. The greatest influence of Persia worldwide is linked to its practical decision to adopt Syrio-Aramaic, then a global language, as the official language of its Empire instead of Persian. As a result of that, related languages of Central Asia such as Bactrian, Kharosshtiand and Soghdian, survived well into the first millennium AD. Also, in the ninth century the Uighurs adopted the Soghdian-Aramaic script to create a written form of Turkish. Last but not least is the written Mongolian language that Gengis Khan commissioned to the Uigur scholars, which survives until today, although its script was changed to the Cyrillic in the 1920s.

As already mentioned, WB is a fierce critic of the concept ‘West versus East’ which to him is a stereotype that stands on the way of good relations between countries. One example of that is the use of the phrase ‘West versus East’ to explain the terrorism committed under the aegis of the Islamic jihad. WB shows that the West has a shared responsibility since the Islamic jihad was created as a counter-offensive to the Holy War of the Crusades, a concept formulated in 622 by Heraclius, emperor of the Roman Empire in Byzantium (610-641), when he introduced the idea that killing was an act of sacred piety that the almighty himself approved. From the ISIS insurgency to Iran’s nuclear programme and the surge of Syrian refugees in Europe, many of the problems of the twenty-first century are linked to the ‘West versus East’ stereotype. To WB, putting such stereotyping aside is one step towards finding the best course of action to tackle such problems, as it would facilitate the involved parties talking to each another.

The book Towards One World puts forward the message that Persian culture not only permeated into the Hellenistic and the Roman societies but also left its mark in its religion and political ethos and organization. This book also puts right an array of historical bias and misconceptions about the relation between Persia and Europe. The book is aimed at Europeans, in the first instance, but there is a faint suggestion that perhaps English-speaking Iranians would welcome it too, in the following sayings: (i) Ancient Persia was once a highly tolerant and pluralistic society; (ii) Persian civilisation survived the investiture of Islam; and (iii) the new Persia that emerged was different from the old one.

One question that WB implies is: how much of the values of ancient Persia are still latent in the minds of the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran that exists since 1979?

Although WB’s book is academic but due to the clarity of the author’s ideas and the didactic and beautiful illustrations it is also amenable to the lay reader. WB’s views are balanced and they can be taken as a contribution to the process of finding a peaceful solution to the problems affecting both the West and Iran. Although there is no easy answer, at least this book points in the right direction. It ends with a poem by the thirteen century Persian poet Sadi inscribed over the entrance of the United Nations building in New York:

The sons of Adam are limbs of each other,

Having been created of one essence.

When the calamity of time affects the limb

The other limb cannot remain at rest.

If though hast no sympathy for the troubles of others

Though art unworthy to be called by the name of a human.

Sadi, Gulistan, Book I x (ca. 1259)

                                                                                                                                               

Jo Pires-O’Brien is a Brazilian living in England. She is the editor of PortVitoria, an digital magazine about the Iberian culture for speakers of Portuguese and Spanish.

 Acknowledgement

Revision: Carl O’Brien

 Citation:

WARWICK BALL. Towards One World. Ancient Persia and the West. London, East & West Publishing, 2012. Review by: PIRES-O’BRIEN, J. Europe’s Iranian Connections. PortVitoria, UK, v.12, Jan-Jun, 2016. ISSN 2044-8236, http://www.portvitoria.com/archive.html.

Note

A Portuguese version of this review is available in PortVitoria magazine:

http://www.portvitoria.com/BookReviewTOW.html

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