History Long Read

Clash of civilisations: Iran vs. the West

Iran – or Persia – has frequently been portrayed as a civilisational foe. Yet classical Greek attempts to rationalise their enemy go beyond our own shallow interpretation.

IF YOU LIVE in the United States, Israel, or Saudi Arabia, you will frequently see Iran portrayed as something of a civilisational enemy. Each country has locked in an Manichaean struggle with the Islamic Republic, which is typically represented as an alien nation existing in total opposition to Western or Sunni values. This has manifested itself recently in the debacle over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s false imprisonment, in Donald Trump’s attempts to tear up Obama’s hard-won nuclear deal, and in the proxy war raging across the Middle East between Iran and the Saudis.

If it truly is a clash of civilisations, the advantage is decisively with Iran. In 1971, the country – controversially – celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the foundation of the first recognisably Persian empire; overseen by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the commemoration drew upon two-and-a-half millennia of historical and cultural inheritance. By contrast, Saudi Arabia has 274 years of statehood, the United States 242, and Israel 70. With such a vast span of time behind it, it should come as no surprise that Iran, or Persia, has been the arch-enemy to countless rivals.

It was, perhaps, the classical Greek civilisation that first identified Iran – more specifically the Persian Achaemenid Empire – as its Manichaean foe. Between 499 and 449, the two fought a series of apocalyptic wars during which successive Persian emperors sought to complete their conquest of the fractious Greek city states, including Athens and Sparta. The conflict has entered the canon of Western civilisation, and continues to appear in art, in print and on screen, most recently in Frank Miller’s 300, and its eponymous film adaptation. The mythical defence of Thermopylae by 300 Spartan warriors against one of the largest armies ever raised defines Western narratives of patriotism, and the defence of civilisation against barbaric eastern hordes, as well as our understanding of Iran, some 2,500 years later.

Yet, at the time, the Greeks were able to appreciate a nuanced view of Persia’s behaviour that our modern narratives too often lack. Herodotus is our main source, although possibly not a representative one. In his efforts to write an objective, evidence-based account – for which he has earned the sobriquet ‘the Father of History’ – he eschews personal reflection and judgement, and therefore writes a far more balanced appraisal of Persian culture, traditions, and motives than might be expected. Writing centuries later, the biographer Plutarch accused Herodotus of being ‘philobarbaros‘.

‘The Persians’, he writes, ‘claim [Asia] as their own, Europe and the Greek states being […] quite separate and distinct from them.’

His major work, The Histories, seeks to rationalise the Persians’ motives for war. For instance, he takes care to establish the ‘perpetual enmity’ between Greece and Persia as one brought about by coherent civilisational differences; the conflict, he writes, came as a direct inheritance of the Trojan War, which was later viewed by the Persians as an attack on their custodianship over the Asian continent. ‘The Persians’, he writes, ‘claim [Asia] as their own, Europe and the Greek states being […] quite separate and distinct from them.’ Herodotus therefore frames the war against Greece as a rational action on Persia’s part, based on pre-emptive self defence – in the case of Troy, it was the Greeks who were the first aggressors – and insurmountable cultural differences.

Despite his willingness to comprehend their motives, Herodotus cannot escape portraying the Persians in adversarial terms, unavoidably coloured by his Greek attitudes and biases. He is clear that their motivation for war was ultimately ‘the conquest of the whole of Greece.’

The Achaemenid Empire began with Cyrus the Great (c. 600-530 BC), who, having thrown off the Median yoke and united Persia under his rule, undertook a massive campaign of expansion, conquering first the kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia, and then the vestigial Babylonian Empire in Mesopotamia. Under his illustrious successors, Cambyses II (unknown-c. 522 BC), Darius the Great (c. 550-486 BC), and Xerxes the Great (c. 518-465 BC), the empire swelled to encompass Egypt, northern Arabia, parts of central Asia south of the Aral Sea, much of modern Pakistan, and even areas of the southern Balkans. At its zenith, it contained a higher proportion of the world population than any empire before or since. These emperors adopted the title Xšāyathiya Xšāyathiyānām (Shahanshah): King of Kings.

Though undoubtedly a mighty conqueror, Cyrus was no tyrant. Indeed – in stark contrast to modern Iran – Cyrus the Great has been described (admittedly anachronistically) as an early champion of human rights. The so-called Cyrus Cylinder, a clay cylinder covered by text in the local Akkadian cuneiform script, appears to be a declaration by the emperor himself affirming the right to free worship by his recently-conquered Babylonian subjects. ‘I took great care,’ he says, ‘to peacefully [protect] the city of Babylon and its cult places.’ He appreciated the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional composition of his realm, and chose to present himself as a more enlightened ruler than his defeated Babylonian predecessor, Nabonidus. ‘I resettled all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabonidus had brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods in their shrines.’ All he asked in return was that ‘all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask Marduk and Nabu each day for a long life for me and speak well of me to him.’

In addition – and unusually for the era – Cyrus and his successors repudiated the use of slavery; in the Talmud, it is he who frees the Jews from their captivity in Babylon, and the Achaemenid capital at Persepolis was built by paid, rather than forced labourers.

Cyrus’s tolerance is reflected in his approach to administration. Rather than impose an authoritarian, Persian-centric rule over the dozens of disparate realms, nations, races and religions that comprised his empire, Cyrus created an innovative system that delegated authority to these regions. He devolved power to vassal kings called satraps, each one afforded a degree of regional autonomy, though ultimately accountable to Cyrus. The satrapy system became the basis of future multi-ethnic empires, including those of Alexander the Great, Parthia, and Sassanian Persia.

In addition, Cyrus and his successors repudiated the use of slavery; in the Talmud, it is he who frees the Jews from their captivity in Babylon.

Far from the feared despot we might expect of an ancient emperor, Cyrus’s reputation for tolerance and magnanimity made him a well-respected, beloved, almost paternal figure among his citizens. To the Babylonians and the Jews, he was a liberator; of his other subjects, the Greek historian Xenophon wrote ‘those who were subject to him, he treated with esteem and regard, as if they were his own children, while his subjects themselves respected Cyrus as their “Father”.’

Cyrus was the archetypical ‘enlightened despot’. His legacy is at odds with our popular impression of Achaemenid Persia as a land of maniacal conquerors; films like 300 invite us to sympathise with the Greeks, while the Persians are portrayed as ravenous eastern hordes. This is likewise at odds with the willingness of contemporary Greek writers – including Herodotus and Xenophon – to ascribe comprehensible, rational explanations to the Persians’ beliefs and behaviour. We should be willing to do the same with Iran.

Understanding Iran, like ancient Persia, requires a nuanced and layered approach. A caricature of mad mullahs making anti-west pronouncements is no more accurate a portrayal of modern Iran than evil, anti-Greek despots leading hordes of dark-skinned warriors is of Achaemenid Persia. Although Iran does not show the same commitment towards human rights as Cyrus the Great, we shouldn’t use that fact as an excuse to fall back on the narrative of a civilisational foe. Iran’s history shows it has more in common with the tolerant West than we may think.

But doing this is hard. We shouldn’t be fooled into believing that Herodotus was a unique paragon of tolerance. He is all-too willing to highlight Cyrus’s supposed bloodlust, and his narrative of the conquest of Babylon omits entirely his commitment towards protecting local faiths. He is even given a slightly fetishised, gloating death – one that Herodotus admits may not be true – in which he corpse is beheaded and dipped in blood by the Scythian queen Tomyris as a symbolic act of vengeance. In the end, even Herodotus couldn’t let his objectivity get in the way of the clash of civilisations.

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