By Ahmad Rafat
For the first time ever, archaeological treasures from the Museum of Persepolis and the National Museum of Iran travelled abroad earlier this year for an exhibition titled “Lions and Bulls from Ancient Persia to Aquileia.” The show was held at the National Archaeological Museum in the historic city of Aquileia, in northern Italy.
Included in the exhibition were 25 exceptional pieces from the archaeological sites of Persepolis, Hamadan, Amlash, Kurdistan, Amarlou, and Hajiabad (in Fars). These are usually kept at the Museum of Persepolis and National Museum of Iran today. The objects, all of them representations of lions and bulls, included statuettes, a rhyton, a plate, a dagger, a bracelet, a plaque, a stone weight and ceramic dishes. They date from the beginning of the Achaemenid empire to the end of the Sassanid empire.
Jebrael Nokandeh, Director of the National Museum of Iran, said at a press conference in Rome that discussions about the exhibition began in 2015, and were finalized during President Hassan Rohani’s visit to Italy. Support was provided by the Chamber of Commerce of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region and by the Danieli Group, which recently signed two agreements with Iran for the production of aluminum and steel.
By far the finest and most important piece on display in the exhibition was the Ecbatana golden rhyton, on loan from the National Museum of Iran. For archaeologists, the exquisite design of this rhyton makes it a more beautiful example than the one at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The lion is characteristic of metalwork during the Achaemenid period. It was used as a cup for drinking wine. Similar designs of this lion and of the rhyton – which weighs 1,875 grams and is made of pure gold – can be seen in many of Persepolis’ bas-reliefs.
Italian archeologists were active in Persepolis from 1964 all the way up to the Iranian Revolution. Among them was Giuseppe Tilia, who spent 15 years at Persepolis working on preliminary site research and restoration. This courageous archaeologist stood firmly in front of the bulldozers with which Mohammad Sadeq Khalkhali intended to destroy Persepolis during the first weeks of the Revolution, and forced them to retreat.
Another renowned archeologist and oriental scholar, Professor Giuseppe Tucci, spent the best years of his life overseeing excavations in Iran. He founded the Societas Iranologica Europaea (S.I.E.) in Rome at the Giuseppe Tucci National Museum of Oriental Art.
The 111-page exhibition catalogue offered explanations as to why the show was held in Aquileia.
“Persepolis was the most important and most beautiful city of its time, which in the year 330 BC was taken by Alexander III of Macedonia and destroyed three months later in a terrible fire,” wrote the curators in the catalog introduction. “The ruins of Persepolis, located 50 kilometers from the city of Shiraz and a representation of the grandeur of that empire, can be visited today. Aquileia was also one of the most important cities and centers of trade and governance of the Roman Empire. It was taken and burned by Attila in the year 452 AD.”
Lions and bulls are archaeological symbols in many parts of the globe.
The lion once lived in Iran and across Mesopotamia. The last Iranian lion is said to have been hunted some 80 years ago. In ancient cultures, the animal symbolized kingdom and power, and was as important as the sun and light in religions such as Mithraism. For the Sumerians, the lion was the symbol of one of their most important gods, Lamassu. And in Persepolis, the lion can be seen in many of the bas-reliefs: the stairways of the Apadana Palace depict lions and their cubs bringing gifts to the king.
The bull was another important symbol in past civilizations, and is a sacred animal in India still today. One of the oldest representations of animal sacrifice is that of Mithra slaughtering a bull, with the blood of the bull soaking the ground where wheat is growing. The bull has also been the symbol of fertility.
In Mithraism, the cosmos was divided into two groups: winter and summer, or coldness and warmth. The lion was seen as symbolizing warmth and the sun, while the bull was seen as symbolizing winter and the cold. The lion’s dominance over the bull, which is depicted in some of the bas-reliefs, is a representation of the arrival of New Yea and spring, and heralds the beginning of warmer days.