Preserving Persia's glorious past

Persepolis exhibition showcases Oriental Institute's ongoing work on ancient Iran

Although it has remained for 2,500 years a collection of toppled columns, ornate but broken sculptures of majestic bulls, and eroded carvings of subjects bearing tributes, Persepolis in its ruins is a place of awesome beauty.

The ancient Persian city, about 550 miles south of Iran’s capital of Tehran, was the site of a major Oriental Institute excavation in the 1930s—one of the most important research projects in Middle Eastern archaeology. The institute continued its work in Persepolis at the prehistoric site of Chogha Mish, in particular, until the Islamic revolution in 1979. Today the Oriental Institute remains the nation’s premier center for the study of ancient Iran, and its scholars hope the Persian Empire will play an important role in its future archaeological research.

“No other American university has the depth on Persia and Iranian archaeology that the University of Chicago has,” says Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, who was among the half-dozen institute scholars who spoke last year at an international conference in Tehran. “We have an exceptional museum collection of artifacts, a rich history of pioneering archaeology, and scholars who are engaged in studying the languages of ancient Persia and involved with archaeology there.”

A special exhibition at the Oriental Institute Museum, on display through September, underscores the remarkable role the institute has had in studying the cultures of Iran. “Persepolis: Images of an Empire” shows how airplanes and photography launched a new era for the study of ancient civilization, and document the site’s grand ceremonial audience halls, palaces, great stone portals, and carved scenes of kings and their courtiers.

“[These photographs] are hauntingly beautiful windows to the past,” says exhibit curator Kiersten Neumann. “They present a promise of the opulence and lavishness that was Persepolis, yet they also capture its solitude and melancholy—the resolute ruins of a once equally determined empire.”

Persia defined meaning of empire

The Persian Empire was a power for more than 200 years that ruled many different cultures—from Greece and Egypt to Central Asia and India.

Evidence of the great empire is highlighted in the Oriental Institute’s Persia Gallery, just steps from the Persepolis exhibition, which traces the region’s evolving cultures from prehistoric times to the arrival of the Islamic period. A massive bull’s head, one of the colossal sculptures that glorified the power of the empire, presides over the gallery. But in a nearby glass case lies something less majestic, but nonetheless important: Shattered plates from the banquet tables of the halls that were destroyed when Alexander the Great and his army marched into Persepolis in 330 B.C.

Lessons continue to be learned from the empire even today, says Matthew Stolper, the John A. Wilson Professor Emeritus in the Oriental Institute, who studies a collection of fortification tablets excavated in the 1930s that document a highly developed administrative and political system.

“These documents are providing a river of new information about the languages, art, religion, society, economy, and institutions of Persia and its continental empire,” says Stolper, whose team is recording the tablets. Documents in Elamite and Aramaic, Old Persian, and Greek yield surprises as well.

“I heard from a scholar who was studying numbering systems, and he even put one of the tablets we published on the cover of his book,” he says. 

Preserving Iran’s cultural heritage

In October 2015, Stein and five scholars from the Oriental Institute presented papers at an International Congress of Iranian Archaeologists, held at Tehran University. The papers emphasized the strength of the Oriental Institute as the major U.S. center for archaeology.

Stein also met with the leadership of the Iranian Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization to discuss potentially resuming archaeological projects in Iran. Although the organization was receptive to the idea, such resumption is dependent on government approval by both Iran and the United States.

Oriental Institute archaeologist Abbas Alizadeh, who holds both Iranian and U.S. citizenships and worked at Chogha Mish as a student, is working in Tehran on a project to organize a number of the collections of the Iran National Museum in Tehran. Alizadeh, an employee of the museum on leave from the University, was asked last summer by the museum’s director to begin the project, which will help register pottery and other material, including artifacts from Chogha Mish returned last year from the Oriental Institute.

The Persian Empire plays an important role in future plans by the institute to conduct archaeological digs and work with colleagues in what Stein calls “the other Mesopotamia”—a broad region the Persians ruled in central Asia, including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

“We feel that any area that was part of the Persian Empire is an area where we can do work,” he says.

Guillermo Algaze, PhD’86, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, and an expert on Middle East archaeology, says, “Almost from its very beginnings as an institution, the Oriental Institute made itself a leader in scholarly research on ancient Iranian civilizations. I fully expect that the institute will continue its role at the forefront of research in this area in the future, as Iran becomes increasingly integrated into the world at large.”