Archive | September 2020

West is East & East is West

We all have nostalgic memories of the time before Covid, our own private summers of 1914. In my case it’s a trip I took on the coattails of the Oxford Modern History Faculty, and in particular of Abigail Green and Faridah Zaman, to Woking, where we saw the oldest purpose-built mosque in the country (once part of Gottlieb Leitner’s Oriental Institute) and heard from Tharik Hussain about an amazing community history project, Everyday Muslim, led by Sadiya Ahmed. We rounded off the day with a visit with Tharik to Brookwood Cemetery.

Many things I saw and heard and discussed on that day stick in my mind, and I remember also that the weather was dreadful, nothing like the summer of 1914, but something I really haven’t stopped thinking about since is the beautiful Parsi (Zoroastrian) section of the larger cemetery at Brookwood. I’m writing about it now (the trip was back in February) because I’m pondering a lecture I plan to give on Classics and British India; also, though, because of things said in the context of the 2499th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae to do with the Greek/Persian conflict as an archetypal assertion of (superior) West v. (inferior) East. What I offer here is something to lob into that pot, perhaps, but I hope that what emerges most strongly is the respect of this complete outsider for the longstanding Parsi community in this country, and for the power of its cultural expression.

I return to the simple visual impact of the Parsi cemetery, hard to capture in writing. Here, though, is a clip from The Sphere, a long-discontinued Empire-wide newspaper which on July 13th, 1901 welcomed the consecration of the cemetery (the Parsee Burial Ground had been established in 1862, so this was, I suppose, a reorganization of the space on a more formal basis) with the following report:

From the British Newspaper Archive

At the heart of the cemetery stands the tomb (on the left) of Nowrosjee Nashirwanjee Wadia, a leading light in the Bombay cotton industry (The Times April 24, 1952, p.6), and it is a replica of Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargadae, establishing an Achaemenid theme further illustrated in the Sphere report by architecture and architectural decoration evoking Persepolis. The tombs of the Tata family that now mark the boundary to the avenue similarly (the one on the left is very like the Wadia tomb without the elevation):

The symbolism of this style of funerary architecture is powerful and clear, a claim to cultural continuity with the Ancient Persian builders of Persepolis and Pasargadae. The Parsis are an Indian minority, concentrated particularly in Mumbai, who trace their descent from Zoroastrians who left Iran in the wake of the Arab conquest, or that is the tradition. The religion they profess is of enormous antiquity in Iran, and while there is debate whether the Achaemenid kings themselves observed anything strictly definable as Zoroastrianism, Parsis can reasonably claim religious and cultural community with that early period of Persian history.

There is an excellent collection of essays on Zoroastrianism in M. Strausberg and Y. S.-D. Vevaina, The Wiley Companion to Zoroastrianism, which I’m currently part-way through. One of the editors, my colleague Yuhan Vevaina, also replied to a typically ill-informed enquiry from me about Brookwood with some fascinating scholarship on other Achaemenid revivals in modern times, one of them a close parallel to what I’m talking about here.

R. Schmitt and M. Stolper, “An Old Persian cuneiform inscription on a tomb in the Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 136 (2016), 591-601, is a lovely thing, a scholarly edition of a Persian cuneiform text composed for a mausoleum built less than a century ago. The tomb, in an Achaemenid style of architecture and decoration, was constructed, and the text presumably composed, between 1922 and 1924 for Phirozshaw D. Saklatvala, a representative of the interests of the Tata family (to whom he was related) in the United States. It holds Phirozshaw and his wife Mae, who died in 1934 and 1939 respectively, Phirozshaw’s brother Behram (d. 1944), and an infant daughter of the Saklatvalas, Jerbai, who died in 1920 or 1921, and thus, rather poignantly, motivated the construction of the tomb from 1922. The mother of the Saklatvala brothers, also Jerbai, is buried at Brookwood, as is another brother, Shapurji, who was twice MP for Battersea North, representing the Communist Party. Here are the Tata mausolea again, and Jerbai is the reclining figure on the right beyond the stone pergola–Shapurji is also commemorated there:

The New York Saklatvala tomb is another piece of funerary architecture making powerful use of Achaemenid models, then, and there is every reason to believe it drew some inspiration from Brookwood. N. N. Wadia’s tomb doesn’t feature cuneiform, but it does imitate in its main inscription the style of Achaemenid monuments: I AM NOWROSJEE NASHIRWANJEE WADIA/ OF THE ANCIENT ARYAN RACE OF PERSIA/ A CITIZEN OF THE LOYAL TOWN OF BOMBAY/ WHO LIE HERE PEACEFULLY UNDER/ THE FAR OFF SKY OF WIDE FAMED BRITAIN.

What Yuhan also pointed me towards was discussion of “Neo-Achaemenism” within Iran, where it carries a significant extra charge. A lot of attention is given to Persepolis ’71, the spectacular performance staged by the last Shah in 1971, featuring a pageant of Iranian history back to the Achaemenids, to mark 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. A speech by the Shah before Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargadae, with an audience of heads of state from across the world, kicked proceedings off. The Shah was claiming a status for his country in world affairs, a Great Civilisation to compete with others, based on the grandeur and antiquity of Ancient Iranian culture in particular. As such, the narrative presented sidelined the Islamic history of Iran, and that, alongside the expense and general excess of Persepolis ’71, ended up fuelling opposition to the Shah’s regime, leading ultimately to the Islamic Revolution at the end of the decade.

Talinn Grigor reads Persepolis ’71 as a kind of internalized Orientalism, Western perceptions of Iranian history adopted by the Shah of Iran, then fired back at a Western audience as a plea for acceptance. (Something somewhat similar is happening on Afghan banknotes, I suggested a few years back.) In contrast, Neo-Achaemenism in Parsi culture lacks the essential controversy of the Shah’s gesture, there being no profound religious tension in a Parsi identity rooted in Achaemenid Persia. But there are still ways of looking at N. N. Wadia’s tomb that put less emphasis on the archetypal conflict of Greeks with Persians, the original assertion that East is East and West is West, and more on the commonality fostered by a shared focus on these ancient events.

The observation I’d make is a bit similar to Grigor’s, that to take Achaemenid Persia as one’s point of reference intersects with significant British or Western myths of origin. That includes the Persian Wars, of course, but also Alexander the Great, who went to Pasargadae to pay his respects to Cyrus, and burned Persepolis to the ground, but for our purposes was also a figure who played a very important role in British Imperial perception of India, and self-perception of their own role there. Lugubelinus has had a lot to say on this matter in the past, but try this hat for size. In other words, Achaemenid Persia is the image of Iran most familiar, and interesting, to the West, too. What gives this thought some force is that the Parsi community was one of the most successful communities within British India, and the most loyal (as N. N. Wadia says of Bombay), commercially and politically integrated with the British rulers of India to a greater degree than any other, hence (among other things) the strong Parsi presence in Britain at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The claim to Achaemenid heritage on Wadia’s tomb and elsewhere in the cemetery is proud and assertive, then, but it also grants the Parsis a role in the grand Imperial story of ancient origins.

We can sharpen that point, though with less precision than I imagined in the first version of this blog. The article in Encyclopaedia Iranica on “PASARGADAE”, by D. Stronach and H. Gopnik stresses, perhaps overstresses, the debate surrounding the identity of the site, and the tomb at the heart of it. The Tomb of Cyrus, the model for N. N. Wadia’s tomb, was not identified as such to general satisfaction, they suggest, until George Nathaniel Curzon’s Persia and the Persian Question in 1892, and then the publication of Ernst Herzfeld’s doctoral dissertation in 1908. Curzon devotes twenty scholarly pages of his Persia and the Persian Question to Pasargadae (Vol. 2, 71-90), and fifteen of them to the identity of the Tomb which follows from the first (the evidence is primarily in the Alexander historians): I can offer you the option of a scan from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, formerly the Viceroy’s residence, or from the library of the Archaeological Survey of India. If his identification of the tomb had been as seminal as Gopnik and Strobach suggest, that would be very close in time to the construction of Wadia’s tomb in 1900, and the contribution to an arch-imperialist and indeed Viceroy of India would be interesting.

In actuality, however, as Lindsay Allen has pointed out to me, there is good reason to believe that the tomb at Pasargadae would have been confidently identified as Cyrus’s in certain circles earlier than this. Once again, Talinn Grigor has a very interesting article, “Parsi patronage of the Urheimat”, Getty Research Journal 2 (2010), 53-68, on Indian Parsi involvement in cultural and political developments in Iran in the nineteenth century. Her marvellous survey of what books Parsi boys might have encountered at Elphinstone College in Bombay (which we can certainly assume was N. N. Wadia’s alma mater) includes at least three works that toyed with, or firmly asserted, that it was Cyrus’ tomb, James Morier’s Journeys through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor (1812), Robert Ker Porter’s Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia (1821), and James Fergusson’s Palaces of Nineveh and Persepolis Restored (1851). Here is the building as sketched by Ker Porter:

As Grigor puts it, though, “Educated urban Parsis, who admired and wrote about Iran’s ancient heritage, predominantly read European literature found in British institutions” such as the library of Elphinstone College. It follows then that, even as they recovered their Achaemenid heritage, they did so in works that typically pursued the identification of Pasargadae out of a Western, and classicizing, preoccupation with those places that were relevant to Greek history. Wadia’s proud assertion of independent Persian identity, in other words, also expresses, explicitly in his own voice but implicitly too, a claim to belong. Being mischievous, the Tata purchases of Corus (British Steel) and Jaguar Land Rover might, if we insisted on reading Thermopylae etc. as a charter for perpetual East/West conflict, be Persia’s belated revenge for Salamis. Or you could rather say that for Nowrosjee Nashirwanjee Wadia there simply was no ongoing conflict between East and West, Persian and Greek, just the one shared history.

It occurs to me that I’ve pondered before both the power of Zoroastrian imagery, and its capacity to resolve cultural difference: On St. George and his day. The dragon-slayer is not a bad story to share, either.