Saturday, May 30, 2009

And Who Mentions The Temple?


Mahan Esfahani (or am I mistaken and it is this Mahan Esfahani)from New College, Oxford who published this letter in the London Times Literary Supplement:

Persian tolerance

Sir, – Robert Hillenbrand’s review of the British Museum exhibition Shah ‘Abbas: The remaking of Iran (May 8) makes a rather misleading statement in discussing the plurality of faiths and peoples in Safavid Persia, alluding to a “tolerance hitherto rarely encountered in Iran [until the period of Shah ‘Abbas]”. In fact, it is generally acknowledged that religious diversity and tolerance were cornerstones of Persian history dating back to the Achaemenid period (559–330 BC).

This was thanks to the example set by the Emperor Cyrus the Great, who freed the Jews from the Babylonian captivity and issued a decree for the rebuilding of Bet HaMikdash, the “Holy Temple” of Jerusalem. The Seleucid period (312 BC–63 BC) following the conquests of Alexander saw a fascinating fusion between Hellenistic and Mazdaistic religious traditions, a plethora of “mystery religions”, and early philosophical trends that were later to influence Gnosticism. More closely to the currents of the Safavid dynasty, the Mongol Il-Khanate rulers (1256–1335 CE) were renowned for inviting artisans and craftsmen from all over Central Asia and the Islamic World, and sponsored a richly diverse urban culture that, as in Islamic Spain, was remarkable for the freedoms enjoyed by religious and ethnic communities.

That the Safavids (and the later dynasty of the Kadjars, who ruled Iran until 1925) were Turkic peoples speaking the IndoEuropean Persian language and practising a faith of Arab origins speaks to the tradition of tolerance and cosmopolitanism that existed in Persian statecraft and culture long before the advent of Islamic fundamentalism and, certainly, before the idea of “tolerance” became part of the common vocabulary of the West. The Safavids, in many ways, were the inheritors of this aspect of Persian civilization.

Maybe ancient history can help us get out of the current Iranian situation?

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