The Ancient Persian Empire

Tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the West have been heightening. After years of appeasement in the hope of getting something in exchange, Western leaders now seem to have realized that multilateral talks on the nuclear issue inevitably lead nowhere. Hence, the idea of imposing UN sanctions is gaining consensus among the once-reluctant Europeans. No doubt that the Ahmadinejad factor is playing a significant role in further isolating Iran from the rest of the world.

The international community and public opinion are growing suspicious of the Mullahs' plans, and they are right to be. In every international dispute between two sides, psychological war is the rule, not the exception. In the case of the Iranian nuclear issue, we are witnessing just such an example: threats of an imminent military strike by the United States and Israel, naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf and so on. But the reality is much more complicated, and it looks as if neither the Americans nor the Israelis are disposed to attack Iran, at least for now.

Unfortunately, many ignore that the Iranian people are the main victim of the Islamic regime and its reign of terror and oppression, for the last twenty-eight years. There seems to be a worrisome trend to mix what the Ayatollahs' regime stands for with Iran as a nation as a whole. Without any doubt, this might well be the result of ignorance, as well as the lack of a deep knowledge of Iran's history, society and culture. 

A much heated debate was sparked by the controversial movie 300, which relates of  the famous Battle of Thermopylae between the Spartans and the Persians. The producer, Frank Miller, portrayed the first as 'heroic fighters' resisting a supposedly 'brutal' assault carried out by a million-man Persian army led by Xerxes.

According to the defenders of the movie, it is after all "fiction", not pretending to be devoid of historical inaccuracies; on the other side, the Iranian community voiced dismay at what they see as an insult to Iran's pre-Islamic past. By a careful analysis, it is not hard to realize that the movie is highly flawed factually. Here is an account of some of the main episodes as featured in "300" and the historical facts Mr. Miller didn't bother to show:
  • Three-hundred Spartans are seen fighting to the last man in order to defend Greece from Persian invaders led by an unscrupulous emperor dreaming to enslave it and impose a tyranny. In reality, Xerxes - the grandson of Cyrus and husband of Esther, the Queen of Israel  - was not properly the typical emperor of the period. He was a generally revered and respected ruler known to the conquered nations for his tolerant behavior. Unlike all the other empires, the Persian distinguished itself by  never owning slaves. On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence showing that slavery was never practiced. It was Cyrus the Great, not the Greek Alexander, who liberated the Jews from slavery in Babylon.
  • The Persian soldiers are characterized as women-hating, racist and undemocratic. Historically, they were none of the above: rather, it is noteworthy that Xerxes's most influential collaborators were female fighters who became Persian citizens and his very same wife was a Jew. Women enjoyed equal opportunities and prominent roles and were granted the right to vote, hold custody of their children and contribute to the decision process. In addition, the empire used to respect the religious, social and political freedoms of the populations they conquered.
It may well be that Frank Miller did not mean to portray the Persian army as a bunch of thugs and his only objective was to make a fantasy-based work. But the impression one has by watching the movie without being moved by emotionalism is that it looks as if it is sending a political message directed at the Mullahs, that in part explains why so many are enthusiastic about it.

Today Iranians around the world are united in boycotting 300; two petitions have so far collected tens of thousand of signatures, growing by the hour. Before criticizing the reaction, it would be good for everyone to draw a line between the legitimate desire to mock the Ayatollahs and - on the other side - targeting a civilization that dates back to tens of centuries before Islam and whose enlightened principles have always been opposed by the current Islamist regime. It would be also good not to forget about the important contributions and legacy the Persian Empire left to the world, before dismissing it as "yet another non-Western entity". Here are just a few reminders:

  • (6000 BC) - Invention of the brick.
  • (3000 BC) - The ziggurat. The Sialk ziggurat, according to the Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran, predates that of Ur and any other of Mesopotamia's 34 ziggurats.
  • (1700 BC) - Invention of the windmill.
  • (576 BC to 529 BC) - Under the rule of Cyrus II the Great, the Cyrus Cylinder was issued. This is considered to be the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights in history. It was discovered in 1879 in Babylon and today is kept in the British Museum.
  • (980 - 1037) - Avicenna, a physician, writes "The Canon of Medicine", one of the first manuals of modern medicine.
  • Algebra and Trigonometry (erroneously considered as an Arab invention).
A film is a fiction, of course, but it can also have an impact on viewers that might lead to further prejudice toward Iran as a nation at large. It is high time to identify the real enemy to fight, that is a rogue regime committed to the destruction of Israel and everything that does not fit their ideology of death.

Next time, Frank Miller may think about making a movie on it. He would without any doubt be applauded by seventy-million more people.

Stefania Lapenna is an Italian freelance writer and blogger living in Sardinia, Italy. She blogs at Free Thoughts and is a contributor to Publius Pundit.
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