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How Iran became a cradle of civilization

Sabine Oelze ad
April 13, 2017

Ancient Persians were visually oriented and close to nature. Artifacts that only narrowly escaped theft are now on show for the first time outside of Iran. The German exhibition reveals the origins of present-day Iran.

Iran exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle
Image: Bundeskunsthalle Bonn

Jiroft, a fertile plain located 230 kilometers (143 miles) south of the city of Kerman, is now reminiscent of a large piece of Swiss cheese or a gigantic molehill after thieves looted the ancient tombs there.

A photograph in the exhibition "Iran. Ancient Culture Between Water and Desert" in Bonn's Bundeskunsthalle museum shows the extent of the devastation. The thieves planned to sell their valuable plunder at auctions in western countries. But at the very last moment, police succeeded in arresting them and securing the cultural relics.

They can now be admired outside of Iran for the very first time. The part of the collection on show in Bonn includes clay statues of praying men and women, terracotta figurines, gold jewelry, jars, vases and other vessels made of chlorite, alabaster and other stones.

Wild animals and mythical creatures

The richly decorated artifacts provide a great deal of information about the daily life of the inhabitants of southeastern Iran during the Bronze Age, as well as their beliefs and myths. Scenes of combat and mythical heroes wrestling with animals of prey are recurring motifs on the vessels. On one of them, a muscular man is holding two leopards in the air by their tails. On another, a river seems to be flowing out of the foreheads of water buffalos, and on still another, a snake is coiling around a vessel.

Iran exhibition in Bonn's Bundeskunsthalle
A muscular hero wrestles with two leopardsImage: Bundeskunsthalle Bonn/D. Ertl

"These are divine beings doing superhuman things. It's all about subjugating nature's wild forces," explains curator Barbara Helwing, who worked for the German Archaeological Institute in Iran until 2007. She adds with a chuckle, "Nowadays, Iranians promote their fitness studios with this muscle man."

In 2003, Iran made an effort to retrieve the objects stolen from the plain of Jiroft, recounts Helwing. "What we're exhibiting comes from the first confiscated collection of objects found in Jiroft. They were retracted from Sothebys and other auction houses."

How the region was settled

Numerous multimedia stations provide visitors with all kinds of information about Iran. Several tectonic plates border each other deep beneath the country. The collision of the plates has result in the formation of huge mountains.

Around 7000 BC, richly vegetated oases flourished in the fertile valleys, at the limits of deserts and at the banks of the Caspian Sea - perfect locations for people to settle down. Additional settlements also developed in remote valleys in the mountains that offered protection against attacks carried out from the Mesopotamian lowlands.

Around 3800 BC, the first city-state with a centralized administration was established in Iran. Animated films in the exhibition show that the people were quite capable of complex city planning. Cylinder seals imprinted with architectural drafts prove that even multi-story buildings were constructed.

Iran exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle
People drank from goblets in the form of animals Image: National Museum of Iran/Bundeskunsthalle Bonn

After a devastating fire destroyed the city of Chogha Mish, the already densely populated city of Susa became a significant trade center. Donkeys, camels and ships served as means of transport for the sale of copper and silver.

The influence of nature

The exhibition's 400 items enable the visitors to travel back to the very beginnings of civilization and a culture that was both visually oriented and close to nature. "These cultures drew their visual inspirations from their surroundings. Back then, wild goats existed in the Zagros Mountains where people first settled down. They can be found decorating the jars and pots," says Susanne Annen, co-curator of the exhibition.

In approximately 3000 BC, Iran disintegrated into little fiefdoms. Their military leaders were buried together with their daggers, as a finding from the Caspian Sea shows. Animal-inspired relics found in the tombs once served in drinking rituals that were celebrated at graves. People drank from gold goblets decorated with vultures, ibexes and goats.

Jewelry from the tomb of two princesses

The relics found in Jiroft aren't the only archaelogical treasures that have left Iran for the first time. Also on display are the luxurious objects, mainly gold jewelry and bracelets, found in the tomb of two Elamite princesses.

Iran exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle
The Elamite princesses wore valuable gold jewelryImage: Bundeskunsthalle Bonn/D. Ertl

The Elamite tomb containing two female skeletons in two bronze sarcophagi from the sixth century BC was discovered by construction workers in 2007 near the village of Jubaji close to the Persian Gulf. The princesses had been provided with objects for their journey to the next world.

"It was great that these rings were inscribed. They show that we can reconstruct the names of their ancestors, which is how we have a direct reference to the royal Elamite family," said Helwing. The Elamites mostly settled in the lowlands located in the southwestern region of present-day Iran.

The exhibition ends in a green area. A Persian paradise garden stretching over 400 square meters (4,300 square feet) has been reconstructed in the inner courtyard of the Bundeskunsthalle based on the existing garden of a huge house in Iran.

Exotic flowers, fountains and a balcony decorate the garden where visitors can relax while absorbing an ancient civilization marked by its great love for fantastical decorations.