Month: August 2017

History is not a plant: Some thoughts on high school and undergraduate (ancient) history curricula

History is not a plant: Some thoughts on high school and undergraduate (ancient) history curricula

Last September, a student enrolled in my 1st year undergraduate course “The Ancient Mediterranean World” came to me after the first class because he wanted to tell me that it was the first time he had heard that the ancient world was diverse and characterized by many cultural interactions. “So far, all I was taught in high school was that the Greeks and the Romans were the ancestors of the West. I felt alienated so until today, I’ve never had any interest for ancient history”. The student was a Canadian of Asian origin who grew up in the Toronto area and was enrolled in the History program.

Recent online storms surrounding the whitewashing of ancient Mediterranean history should not entirely come as a surprise given what (little) most western high schools and universities teach students about Antiquity. Despite survey courses on Ancient Mediterranean, or on ancient “world” history, two fundamental, intertwined problems persist: 1. Very little space is allocated to the teaching of ancient history 2. State curricula, publishers, and teachers alike still tend to fetishize the Greek and Roman worlds on the ground that they are the “roots” of “western” civilization.

Anyone who has taught a survey course on ancient Mediterranean history at the undergraduate level has faced the challenge of finding a satisfying textbook. To date, such publications tend to dedicate 20 to 25% of their pages to what precedes the Minoans and follows Justinian. In other words, they remain “Classical” history textbooks, albeit ones endowed with bonus chapters that act as prologue and epilogue to an essentially Graeco-Roman narrative. As a result, whoever seeks to offer students a more balanced initiation to the wide-ranging sets of cultures, States, and historical dynamics that made up the ancient Mediterranean is forced to complement the said textbook with a selection of readings for all the weeks where something else than Greek and Roman history is planned. As the table below shows, Ralph W. Mathisen’s Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations, the most recent of such textbooks available in English, does a better job, dedicating 39% of its pages to non Graeco-Roman cultures. Alas, the book’s many factual inaccuracies and methodological issues seriously undermine this quantitative improvement[1].

Textbook Total pages (introduction to conclusion) % non Graeco-Roman content % Graeco-Roman content Pages on early Islam
2004. Winks, R.W. and S.P. Mattern-Parkes. The Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: OUP. 255 25% 75% 1p.
2008. de Blois, L. and R.J. van der Spek. An Introduction to the Ancient World. London; NYC: Routledge. 295 23% 77% 0p.
2010. Nagle, B. D. The Ancient World. A Social and Cultural History. Eighth edition. Boston: Pearson. 302 20% 80% 2p.
2015. Mathisen, R.W. Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations. From Prehistory to 640CE. Second Edition. Oxford: OUP. 535 39% 61% 6p.

Table 1: Recent ancient (Mediterranean) history textbooks available in English

All the above textbooks reproduce – willingly or not – a botanical model of “civilizations”, whereby “early civilizations” such as Mesopotamia and Egypt (other cultures and States tend to get a minimal treatment at best) set the tone for the “rising and blooming” of ancient Greece and Rome, whose trajectory leads to the “fading” or “decline” of Late Antiquity and early Islam (speaking of which, can we just stop with the whole “Fall of the Roman Empire” thing, please?).

Things are not better at the secondary level, on the contrary. Let me provide you with a Canadian example. The 2015 version of Ontario Curriculum, Grades 11 and 12 (thereby OC11-12) articulates the importance of history as a topic to be studied in very Canado- (and Euro-)centric terms:

“The study of history enables students to more fully appreciate heritage and identity, both in Canada and around the globe, the diversity and complexity of different societies, and the challenges and responsibilities associated with participation in the international community. It also enhances students’ understanding of the historical roots of many current issues around the world. In doing so, it helps prepare students to fulfil their role as informed and responsible Canadian and global citizens.” (OC11-12, 15)

Now the province of Ontario’s secondary school program offers four history courses in grades 7, 8, 10 and 11. The three first ones focus exclusively on Canadian history (Grade 7: New France and British North America, 1713–1800, Canada, 1800–1850: Conflict and Challenges; Grade 8: Creating Canada, 1850–1890, Canada, 1890–1914: entitled “Changing Society; Grade 10: Canadian History)[2]. While the heavy focus on Canadian history makes sense from a nation-building perspective, the disproportionate weight allocated to Canadian history in the history curriculum can only lead to a myopic conception of history and, as stated in the quote above, of “heritage and identity”. Only in grade 11 are students offered a course that goes beyond the chronological and geographical realms of Canadian history. The course in question is entitled “World History to the End of the Fifteenth Century”. In other words, let’s cram c.6,000 years of world history in teenagers’ heads in the course of one year!

Beyond the gigantic scope of the course, which makes the 3 Canadian history courses look like super-specialized ones, its very structure is surprisingly outdated. Indeed, according to OC11-12 (p.318-319), it ought to be divided into 4 chronological and civilizational “strands” that seem to come straight out of Edward Gibbon:

  • Early Societies and Rising Civilizations
  • Flourishing Societies and Civilizations
  • Civilizations in Decline
  • The Legacy of Civilizations

If one excludes a grade 4 course entitled “Early Societies, 3,000 BCE – 1500 CE” that belongs to a strand called “Identity and heritage” (p.21), Discovery Channel-style documentaries and, for the curious and nerdy bunch, personal readings, this course represents the only introduction to ancient and medieval history most Ontarians will ever get in their lifetime. No doubt similar conclusions apply to many other Canadian provinces, American States, and other countries worldwide. Students enrolled in History, Classics, Medieval Studies or other related programs, or the many who take ancient/medieval history courses as electives at the university level, will acquire a more thorough knowledge of history. But, as seen above regarding Antiquity, survey courses often remain formatted according to a traditional conception of ancient history, and current textbooks are far from satisfying.

Another issue has to do with the fact that, for all sorts of institutional and systemic reasons, undergraduate curricula also tend to marginalize pre-1500 history (or, in the case of Classics, non Graeco-Roman history) altogether. Indeed, the extremely wide chronological breadth of Ontario’s “World History to the End of the Fifteenth Century” course mirrors many North American undergraduate history programs’ chronological requirements. Depending on the degree they are enrolled in, students need to take a certain (generally reduced) number of pre-1500 credits. In the case of the University of Toronto for example, since all ancient historians are appointed outside the History department, no ancient history course is compulsory for students enrolled in a history degree. Students can – and some do – of course take courses offered in the Classics or Near and Middle Eastern Studies Departments, but they don’t have to. This is not the case at the Scarborough and Mississauga campuses, where ancient historians are also integrated in the History program faculty. Departmental boundaries of the sort should not be taken lightly, as they directly impact not only the students’ breadth and depth of learning, but also, ultimately, on how they view the world. They are also, I suspect, behind the tendency of many historians of later periods to see “novelties” or “innovations” where, in fact, many ancient parallels are known (I’m looking at you, British Empire!).

Compressing most of human history into a very limited and stereotypical narrative whose subtext still reproduces colonial-era identity politics, whether in the name of nation-building or of “identity and heritage” appreciation, has serious, long-term repercussions on the ways in which citizens understand the world. As Pierre Briant has argued in this blog, teachers and academics have a responsibility when it comes to curriculum building, in-class teaching and textbook writing. How we can better meet this challenge is an urgent question, which can have critical repercussions in the way general audiences understand and conceive the past, and its intricate webs of relationships to the present. The time seems ripe to seriously revamp and update the way pre-Renaissance history is taught in high schools and undergraduate survey courses and textbooks.

Katherine Blouin

[1] My review of this textbook is currently beind peer-reviewed by Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

[2] The articulation of the course titles according to French and British Empires on the one hand, and to the history of the Canadian State on the other, would be worth a post in itself. The same goes for the space dedicated to/treatment of native American history.

Indiana Jones must retire: Archaeology, imperialism and fashion in the digital age

Indiana Jones must retire: Archaeology, imperialism and fashion in the digital age

As Eminem would say: “Guess who’s back? Back again? Indy’s back! Tell a friend!” Indeed, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford have announced that a fifth film will soon be added to the Indiana Jones franchise. Details of the plot have not been released yet, but we know that Ford will then be a 77-years old white, male, American “Professor of Archaeology, expert on the occult, and how does one say it… obtainer of rare antiquities” in charge of saving the world from yet another “exotic” evil. According to Disney Chairman Alan Horn, “Indiana Jones is one of the greatest heroes in cinematic history, and we can’t wait to bring him back to the screen in 2019”. If you say so.

Indiana Jones has been – and still is – both a blessing and a curse for the fields of archaeology and ancient history. A blessing because it has served for more than a generation as a misleading yet efficient passion-trigger for all things related to Antiquity. I was 3 years old when the first installment of the Indiana Jones franchise came out. I still remember vividly the feeling of utter amazement I experienced when, a few years later, I watched on tv Harrison Ford’s tanned, beige-dressed character “find” the “Lost Ark”. There was something about the ancientness and mystical sacredness of Steven Spielberg’s sandy Middle East – that is, his totally Orientalist depiction of the region, but the child version of myself could not grasp that just yet – that bemused me. Fifteen years after The Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, I saw a dubbed version of The English Patient at a movie theater in Québec city. The experience led to my only true actor crush (apart from Idris Elba, but he doesn’t really count for he is kind of a universal crush). I thought that Count Almásy (aka Ralph Fiennes with a tan and Enrique Iglesias’ sad dog eyes) was so sexy, all the more so since he seemed to have survived all his adventures, desert “explorations” and love tragedies by holding on to a worn-out copy of Herodotus’ Histories, which he made a point of casually reading and quoting pretty much any time he had a chance to. Indiana Jones and Count Almásy.


Figure 1: The English Patient’s Count Almásy with his copy of Herodotus’ Book II

Two white, male explorers in the 1930s and 40s “Orient”. One American boosted with testosterone-fuelled heroism and on the “right” (that is, American) side of history. The other, a European forced to work with the evil Nazis in order to save the love of his life. The latter’s fate, and therefore the more dramatic nature of the story on which Michael Oondatje’s novel then Anthony Minghella’s movie are based, must explain why he, contrary to Indiana Jones, never made it in the mainstream as the archetype archaeologist.

How many times have I heard questions like “You work on Egypt? So you do like Indiana Jones?” It can be hard for scholars working in the field to not meet these topoi with an eye-roll. In general, the view is that they show how the “masses” don’t understand nor appreciate what we, highly educated and overworked nerds, do. But don’t they, really? Or to put the question differently: To what extent have archaeology at large, and Egyptology and the Classics more specifically, themselves contributed to the creation and ongoing popularity of the Indiana Jones archetype?

Whether we like it or not, Egyptology, Classics, and archaeology are products of the colonial context that characterized late 19th and early 20th centuries European and North American scholarship. As such, they were put to the service of European and American empires, whose élites have been legitimizing their dominion and “civilizing” mission through a complex array of historicized identity constructs, starting from the still conspicuous Us/West/Graeco-Roman vs Them/East/Orient paradigm[2]. As a result, most high school and university curricula are still comfortably reproducing colonial ways of conceiving and performing historical, philological, and archaeological work. To paint the situation with bold strokes: Generally speaking (I exaggerate, but just a little), the “Greeks” and the “Romans” are still portrayed as the ancestors of the “West”; philological knowledge (and the mastery of Greek and Latin in the case of Classics) is deemed essential, followed (in decreasing order) by literature-based historical knowledge and the mastery of material – that is unwritten – evidence; despite the increasing anglicization of the field, scholars are expected to master the four European languages that dominated 19th and 20th geopolitics and academia (English, German, French and Italian); in formerly colonized countries, power dynamics and the division of labour/living conditions between foreign “researchers” and native “workers” have not evolved much since the late 19th century[3]. In the classroom, besides ancient Greece and Rome, Mesopotamia pops up in some survey courses because this is where agriculture and writing were invented, so it’s kind of a must. Mesopotamia’s close contender, “eternal” Egypt, remains the utmost exotic of all ancient civilizations, and a temporary source of obsession for almost every child (in some cases, this phase never dies out and some of the children in question go on to study Egyptology or, for lack of it, Classics). As for the many other peoples and cultures that made up the ancient Mediterranean world, they tend to be, depending on the level and institution, superficially brushed over, confined to the “enemy” (the Persians, Carthaginians, Gauls, Parthians/Sassanians) role, or simply ignored. Such dynamics surely explain, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, why, beyond the 1st year survey classroom, Classics remain overwhelmingly white.

Another issue, which partly stems from the previous one, is the quasi-absence of compulsory training in post-colonial theory at the undergraduate and graduate levels. As a result, apart from a few exceptions that tend not to make it to the mainstream, scholarship on the ancient Mediterranean and Near East is most often conservative-to-belatedly-trendy in its theoretical and methodological approaches. This is especially true of Egyptology and Classics. When scholars venture out of the beaten tracks and produce what is, within their specific field, an innovative work, they most often capitalize on what has been done many years before in other disciplines within the Humanities and Social Sciences[5]. There are, of course, exceptions (for instance, the digital work done by papyrologists, which started over 3 decades before the “digital Humanities” became a thing). But more often than not, full-on innovation and transdisciplinary conversations that venture beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries still tend to be met with resistance.

The same can be said when it comes to real, thorough, self-critical engagement with the roots, history, and current ethical challenges faced by the disciplines that focus on the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world. Instead, there is a tendency to worship the “good old days”, those when a small group of mostly white, male scholars trained in the most exclusive academic institutions of their time, could chat in Latin, recite all of Homer by heart while sipping whiskey at the faculty club, and confidently review the last opera they attended in a plethora of modern languages. While several of these early scholars were truly inspiring minds who did absorb and produce a formidable amount of knowledge (and while there is absolutely nothing wrong per se with sipping whiskey and enjoying good opera!), the time might be ripe to balance these heroic portraits by properly assessing and analyzing their often racist, imperialist, elitist, and therefore Orientalist conception of scholarship. Otherwise, we run the risk to fossilize ourselves in an outdated, Indiana Jonesque bubble, further and further away from the realities of the rest of academia, of our classrooms, and of today’s world.

The problem is, the Indiana Jones archetype sells very well and, accordingly, seasoning one’s public persona with a bit – or a hell of a lot – of Indy magic is a tempting self-promotional strategy for archaeologists in need of funding, attention, or both. It is also one that, alas, contributes to perpetuate the imperialist stereotypes associated with the “explorer” and the places/periods that are subject to his/her “exploration”.

The open affection of many American archaeologists for Indiana Jones’ characters is such that in 2008, the AIA awarded Harrison Ford the Bandelier Award for Public Service in Archaeology. The announcement was made a few days before the première of the 4th installment of the franchise:

“”Harrison Ford has played a significant role in stimulating the public’s interest in archaeological exploration,” said Brian Rose, President of the AIA. “We are all delighted that he has agreed to join the AIA’s Governing Board.””

In the video issued by the AIA, a few archaeologists go on to emphasize how Indiana Jones contributed to initiate young people to archaeology and, in many cases, encourage them to turn their newly found passion into a subject of study, if not a career. The video mixes shots of scholars with scenes from the Indiana Jones movies. We notably see Indy walking in a thick jungle, Indy facing an Arab mob (clearly recognizable because they wear gallabeyas and turbans; the badest of the bad guys is dressed in black and holds a spear); a turban-clad, alla Lawrence of Arabia Indy doing some magic on the replica of an Egyptian temple. In his pre-recorded thank-you speech, Ford confesses that “it is quite disarming to see that the Indiana Jones films have been an inspiration to archaeologists”. Judging from his facial expression, he seems honored, yes, but perhaps also slightly amused, if not uncomfortable to see the character he played lauded by the USA’s main archaeological association. In her book Lives in Ruins, Marilyn Johnson sums up the relationship she’s observed between American archaeologists and Indiana Jones in those words:

“Every archaeologist I interviewed worked Indiana Jones into the conversation, usually with affection, as if mentioning a daredevil older brother. Wherever they happened to stride, archaeologists absorbed his swagger. Grant Gilmore told me, “It’s tongue-in-cheek, but if you scratch any archaeologist, deep down inside they want to be him, one way or another”. Battered Indy-style hats bobs across the archaeological landscape, among the bandannas and keffiyehs (Arab head wraps) and baseball caps. Archaeology departments costume parties double as Indiana Jones conventions. “For whatever reason”, one female grad student confided, “the guys all own fedoras and whips”.” (Johnson 2014, 129)

Nowhere on the AIA site or in the video do we find an acknowledgement of – or distancing from – the utterly Orientalist and at times racist and sexist tone of the Indiana Jones movies. Nowhere does the AIA fully reconcile its decision to celebrate that Indy did indeed make 1930s-style archaeology more widely known and popular with the fact that it also helped spread an utterly inaccurate and highly colonial image of the discipline as well as of several non-white communities (including some that have been increasingly marginalized and stigmatized in the USA since 2001– Indigenous, Arabs, South Asians, Muslims). As much as one could argue that I lack humor and that this award should be taken with a witty detachment, it is hard not to also see it as a vivid testimony of the still highly white, male, and, whether we like it or not, colonial nature of American archaeology.

What about Indy’s fate beyond the USA?

The most famous case is no doubt Dr Zahi Hawass. The former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities has been astutely portraying himself as the Egyptian Indiana Jones for years, to the delight of all the Discovery Channels of the world and of his fan base worldwide. Given the unmistakably colonial nature of Indiana Jones’ outfit, one can but marvel at the ironic genius through which it was appropriated by an (US-trained) Egyptian Egyptologist, all the more so one as powerful as Dr Hawass. An article published in a 2009 issue of the New Yorker describes his public persona in those terms:

“Hawass’s brusque manner does not make him a natural television personality, but he has the keys to the country, and has no objection to seeing himself—an Egyptian politician with a formidable management style—reflected in the Western media as Indiana Jones. He makes an astute trade: access for attention. He can make the red tape fall away, and, in return, television tells a story of Egyptian Egyptology.”

Dr Hawass has, indeed, a true understanding of what western – and especially American – audiences want to hear and see about ancient Egypt, and he is excellent at using his position of authority and personal charisma to both educate them and comfort them in their fantasies whenever he is on outreach duty (which is, still today, very often). His regular interventions in western media have no doubt contributed, at least until the 2011 Revolution, to swell the already large number of western tourists travelling to (and spending money in) Egypt. Given that the Ministry of Antiquities’ budget comes in large part from the entrance fees paid by visitors to Egypt’s museums and archaeological sites, his strategy, which has been decried openly or behind closed doors as too mercantile, makes sense financially speaking.


Figure 2: Dr Zahi Hawass at Giza

Dr Hawass also used his iconic Stetson hat and Indiana Jonesque look for philanthropic purposes. While exiting the Toronto leg of the touring The Discovery of King Tut exhibit in 2009, I was stunned to see Zahi Hawass-style hats sold in the gift shop. The success of the initiative was such that a new series of hats have been produced recently, as this witty post from Dr Hawass’ website reveals:

“People ask me all the time, Why is your hat more famous than Indiana Jones’s hat? I always answer them that the Indiana Jones hat is a fake one, mine is the real Egyptologist’s hat!

Replicas of my hat were sold by a company before, and all the profits from selling the hat went into the construction of the Children’s Museum in Cairo. Now, King Tut Tours are making a new replica of the hat, the profits from its sale will go directly as donations for Al-Orman Cancer Hospital in Luxor, the first hospital for treating cancer patients in Upper Egypt.”

Sold 75 US $ each, the USA-made hats can be bought online via the website of King Tut Tours – a California-based travel agency specializing, as its name indicates, on Egypt. Dr Hawass’ fashion venture did not stop with his hat. Indeed, in the spring 2011, an article from The New York Times detailed how Dr Hawass had lent his name to a man’s wear brand that was scheduled to go on sale at Harrods’, in London:

“[A] line of rugged khakis, denim shirts and carefully worn leather jackets that are meant, according to the catalog copy, to hark “back to Egypt’s golden age of discovery in the early 20th century.”

“Zahi Hawass is a novel fashion line, not just for the traveling man, but the man who values self-discovery, historicism and adventure,” says the Web site for the company that designed the line.”

In this case too, the profits are said to have gone to charity[14]. According to James Weber, who shot the line’s glossy ad campaign, the photo shoot took place in the Fall 2010 on the NYC site of the King Tut exhibit. Weber published the ad’s pictures on his blog – including one featuring a young, white, Indiana Jones-looking male model seated on what looks like one of the gilded chairs that belong to the royal treasure of Tutankhamun. The translation of the blog’s content and its publication, along with the pictures, on several Egyptian websites, led to a wave of critics in Egypt. A group of activists and journalists also sought to have Dr Hawass prosecuted for “endangering Egyptian artifacts”. Dr Hawass refuted these accusations in a statement published on his blog, and stated that the chair was a replica[17]. This controversy happened shortly after the Egyptian Revolution, that is at a time when many of the high officials in position under Mubarak’s rule were under intense scrutiny, if not accused of abuse of power. The time also corresponds to the short period during which there was a relatively open freedom of press in the country. Given that, the negative reaction to Dr Hawass’ clothing line ad in Egypt might also be symptomatic of a local discomfort with, if not resistance to, Dr Hawass’ flamboyant strategy for the promotion and the financing of ancient Egypt’s heritage abroad. In mid-2011, that is a few months after the clothing line scandal, Zahi Hawass left the Ministry of Antiquities. He nevertheless remains very active as a public speaker and ambassador of Egypt’s ancient history, as his personal website and presence of most social media platforms show.

To come back to Zahi Hawass’ short-lived fashion venture: Who is the target audience for these clothes? The two passages from the catalogue quoted above are telling. The line is, it is said, meant to reference Egypt’s “golden age of discovery in the early 20th century”[18] and should therefore appeal to the “traveling man who values self-discovery, historicism and adventure” is. Who could such a man be?

What about those who, among the western archaeologists working in Egypt, have a particular taste for early 20th century, colonial-style attires, both on and off the field? You thought pith helmets – one of the most easily recognizable symbols of British colonial might – 1930s gaits, and Crocodile Dundee-esque outfits were a thing of the pre-Nasser past? Well, you’re wrong. Not only are such outfits still deemed acceptable by many western archaeologists, but some of them also willingly advertise their “vintage” tastes on social media. One such Instagram account, which is managed by an academic, transports us in the realm of The Great Gatsby meets The English Patient. The numerous hashtags added to the images’ captions include #archaeology, #history, #egyptology, #explorers, #explorersclub, and #indianajones. Less than a handful of Egyptian workers (three of whom are referred to as “our Egyptian family” in one instance) appear in the pictures; when they do, they are mentioned by name and appear to be members of the mission the main protagonists of the account are part of. Apart from a couple of early 20th-c. hotels (whose presence seems to result from the fact that they are remnants of a “glamorous past”[19]), no modern settlement is represented. What is shown of Egypt is reminiscent of the frontispiece of the Description de l’Égypte: A deserted landscape cut through by the Nile river and dotted with impressive Pharaonic monuments covered in hieroglyphics, ready to be “explored” by white “experts”, whose lavish and civilized lifestyle matches the long-gone sophistication of ancient Egypt’s mystical grandeur. In that regard, the Classical-style frieze (which shows an Apollo-looking, Muses-leading Napoléon driving the Mamluks out) surrounding the Description’s frontispiece’s rendition of Egypt serves as a powerful statement of the power relationship at stake: Egypt is defined by and for the male, European conquerer’s ability to penetrate, occupy, and, to paraphrase a now famous political slogan, “make her great again”.

DE Frontispice bordure

Figure 3: Frontispiece of the Description de l’Egypte

The erasure of post-642 AD Egypt and of the Egyptians themselves from the frontispiece of the Description de l’Égypte is a stunning Freudian slip, a powerful window into the enduring (sub)conscious relationship that links a large proportion of western scholars to Egypt. Let’s be real, here: In general, what matters to a substantial number of such scholars is only ancient Egypt and the ancient Egyptians. Accordingly, unless you’re an archaeologist, to specialize on aspects of ancient Egypt’s history and culture without ever having visited the country is not deemed a problem within the field. Based on my experience, the overall proportion of scholars specializing on Predynastic-to-early-Arab Egypt who also genuinely love and respect the country as it is today is relatively small. Instead, it is common to hear western scholars specializing on ancient Egypt complain about its contemporary state, including its population, which is described using the whole array of usual Orientalist topoi. I once had a world-renowned Coptic scholar confess to me that he didn’t like going to Egypt because of “the Egyptians”, while a senior white archaeologist who has been excavating there for decades told me that he “deeply hates the country and detests its people” (when I asked him why, then, he kept working in Egypt, he answered that it was “because this is where the work has to be done”). The subtext of such assessments seems to be that as far as Egypt is concerned, ancient=greatness and modern=backward. Therefore, ancient Egypt’s presumed greatness legitimizes the time and efforts western scholars dedicate to it, while encounters with its modern equivalent appear to be an optional-to-irritating distraction. This logic is similar to the one underlying Egypt’s touristic appeal among the “masses”. Finally, since we’re at it, shall we also talk about Arabic, which is still not commonly accepted as one of the main languages in the field? In that regard, the situation is comparable to other “colonized” languages within the broader field of ancient history and archaeology, such as modern Greek and Turkish. When the suggestion of adding modern Arabic to the official languages of the International Association of Papyrologist (IAP) – i.e. French, English, Italian, and German – was made by Usama Ali Gad, Rachel Mairs, and myself last summer at the IAP’s conference in Barcelona, one of the responses we got from a white scholar during the Q&A was: “I want to attend conferences where papers are in languages I understand”.

How can one be so passionate about the remote, highly abstract past of a place, yet not care the slightest about – or even, in some cases, despise – the diachronic trajectory of these environments and of the peoples that have, later on and to this very day, called it home? My intention is not to point fingers nor to judge individual colleagues here. Rather, I want to pose the question of the overarching sets of representations whereby such positionings have come to be deemed viable.

Such a zoomed-in, myopic image of Egypt belongs to a Eurocentric set of representations of colonized lands by colonial powers that is, alas, still very much kept alive both within and outside of academia. Take the case of the Explorers Club. On March 31 2017, the “Explorers Club Annual Dinner 2017 took place on Ellis Island. The Club, which was founded in the early 20th century, defines itself in these words:

“The Explorers Club is an international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore. Since its inception in 1904, the Club has served as a meeting point and unifying force for explorers and scientists worldwide. Our headquarters is located […] in New York City. Founded in New York City in 1904, The Explorers Club promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air, and space by supporting research and education in the physical, natural and biological sciences. The Club’s members have been responsible for an illustrious series of famous firsts: First to the North Pole, first to the South Pole, first to the summit of Mount Everest, first to the deepest point in the ocean, first to the surface of the moon—all accomplished by our members.”

The Explorers Club is a colonial-era club that managed to remain in activity despite (or thanks to) the evolution of post-WWII geopolitics, and whose elitist nature is protected by a strict co-sponsorship policy[21]. More generally speaking, the idea of “exploration” is, in itself, a colonial construct, which stems from the idea whereby the world outside of white, European dominion remained to be “explored”, “conquered”, and “civilized” (or enframed, to paraphrase Timothy Mitchell[22]) by the superior rationality of white men. It is, as a matter of fact, an environment where Indiana Jones and Count Almásy would not have felt out of place. Unsurprisingly, Zahi Hawass was a distinguished guest of the club’s Northern California chapter in 2013[23].

The aesthetic and timing of the Instagram account mentioned above coincide with a recent interest for the history of tourism and archaeology in Egypt and the Near East. Yet while several recent publications[24] provide critical and politically-informed perspectives on various sets of primary evidences, including archival pictures, the account doesn’t offer any acknowledgement of the potential issues raised by the colonial nature of the outfits and social scenes it promotes. Wearing vintage clothes from the 1920s is certainly not a problem per se. But having white scholars appointed as faculty in western universities set up a photo shoot in Egypt, on the archaeological concession they direct, wear for that occasion a full-on Lord Carnarvon-style outfit, including pith helmets and genuine WWII-era gaiters, and complete the scene with a darker-skinned Egyptian worker dressed in a gallabeyah and positioned from behind is a problem (or if one thinks it isn’t, then a justification note would be more than in order). In the absence of any self-critical assessment from its author and actors, the account appears to be showcasing, in the name of academic and artistic self-promotion, insensitive, white-privileged gazes onto Egypt’s (and more generally, Near Eastern and Asian) ancient and modern history. The account’s curatorial anchoring resides in the realm of the Orientalist fantasy, far, far away from anything written since Edward Said, and in disjunction with the historical experience and sensibilities of most inhabitants of modern and contemporary Egypt.

This makes me think of Beyoncé. Despite all the narcissism that shows in the pop icon’s latest work, she has been able to brilliantly subvert artistic references and aesthetic codes traditionally associated with American whiteness (Secession war era fashion and architecture, Renaissance Art, Catholic iconography) in order to propose a complex, politically-engaged reflection on contemporary America, its history, and the plight of its Black communities. Whoever has watched Formation or Lemonade cannot not see that.

Bey plantation

Figure 4: Caption from Beyoncé’s Formation video

Zahi Hawass’ appropriation of Indiana Jones’ looks offers another example of a colonizer’s outfit being recuperated by a member of a historically colonized community for self-assertive purposes (in this case, the “self” can potentially be all at once Dr Hawass himself, Egypt’s heritage, and Egypt as a whole). To see, in contrast, white scholars trained in prestigious institutions display utter disregard for the complex, historical and sociological references their outfits, photographic work, and attitudes allude to is baffling. Or is it? What if such cases are symptomatic of more complex, pervasive issues within the fields of Egyptology, archaeology and ancient history?

It is too easy to mock the examples provided so far without questioning the mechanisms that allowed such public personae to fully manifest themselves in the first place. The AIA’s tribute to Harrison Ford, the long-lasting popularity of Zahi Hawass and the following of Indiana Jonesque pages on social media are testimonies to the ongoing popularity of and nostalgia for colonial imageries/memorabilia/fashion among large segments of western (especially North American in the cases mentioned here) populations. As written above, this phenomenon is not disconnected from more open forms of apology of colonialism and imperialism [25]. Moreover, the image of Egyptology and ancient Mediterranean history in general (Classics included) among the “general public” (whatever that means) is remains largely Orientalist. While scholars are very prone to laugh at the many clichés and stereotypes that shape the way ancient civilizations are portrayed in mass media and seen by non-specialists, we should not forget that these very stereotypes have been, for most of us, the starting point, the spark that ignited our passions, fueled our initial interest for Antiquity. They are also an important getaway to private funding, something which many archaeologists understand perfectly.

Addressing the issue of the colonial roots and structure of these disciplines is a scary can of worms because it poses the difficult question of their very legitimacy and raison d’être. If “the West” is not the solely the “heir” of “the Greeks and Romans”, then why should “Classical” history and literature be compulsory in high school? And why should the Greeks and the Romans matter more in western school curricula than ancient, Native American cultures and peoples, or than the Phoenicians, the Persians, or ancient China and India? If “the Egyptians” were not a “spiritual”, “mysterious”, and “millennial” civilization, then what’s the point in studying them, financing digs, and preserving Egypt’s Pharaonic heritage?

The past year has seen an increase in the hijacking of ancient history and the uncritical rerouting of the aesthetic codes associated with early 20th century archaeology by ideologically-minded individuals and groups. One can think of the selective and tendentious recuperation of Greek and Roman imagery by “alt”, i.e. extreme right, white supremacist groups; of the apology of western-style looting (including the defense of the British right to own the Elgin Marbles and the coverage of “findings” done in the UK by local “treasure hunters”); of religiously-motivated acquisitions of undocumented or poorly documented artifacts from Egypt and the Middle East; of death threats against Sarah Bond, who published a work on the coloring of ancient marble statues; of the surreal online bullying Mary Beard was subject to after she defended the documented reality of ancient Britain’s diversity. It is as irresponsible from scholars working on the ancient world to deflect the question of the decolonization of the field by appealing to a white-privileged nostalgia for the “good old days” as it is to contemptuously ridicule the proponents of such nostalgic discourses. In the era of Trump, Brexit, white supremacy, neo-fascism, and globalized forms of terrorisms, in an age, in other words, where the Humanities are at the most relevant yet most threatening crossroad they’ve faced in decades, we cannot afford to sweep our existential issues under the rug anymore. Lest we see the Indiana Jones franchise never come to an end, it is up to us, through a more widespread and enduring array of small-to-large scale initiatives, to decolonize Antiquity-related learning, teaching, and research, within and well beyond academia. Who’s in?

Katherine Blouin

[1] Works by Barbara Goff, Timothy Mitchell, Malcolm Reid, and Phiroze Vasunia are a great start.

[2] See, regarding Egypt, Stephen Quirke’s excellent Hidden Hands (2010).

[3] A few years ago, I attended a keynote speech by a world-renowned ancient historian. Two friends who are socio-cultural anthropologists came with me. I myself enjoyed the talk, and thought that it proposed an innovative argument. Yet my two friends both shared the same puzzling feeling: This conversation took place among anthropologists over 30 years ago, so why are ancient historians only jumping in now?

[4] “Any profits he makes, Mr. Hawass said, will go to the Children’s Cancer Hospital in Cairo, which offers free care to children with cancer. The director of the hospital, Dr. Sharif Abul Naga, confirmed that in an interview, although he said that there was not yet a written agreement. He said that Mr. Hawass had contacted him about the possible donation this month.”

[5] Neither the company’s website nor Zahi Hawass’ blog post responding to his critics are accessible anymore.

[6] This period might as well be called “the height of the British Empire” or “the time when Egypt was under British occupation”, but that would not sell as well, so fair enough.

[7] I’m referring to a quote from a high-profile archaeologist regarding “old legendary hotels” that appears in Johnson 2014, 133.

[8] Marilyn Johnson’s Lives in Ruins dedicates pp.130-133 to the Club (which she visited with long-time member Greek archaeologist Joan B. Connelly).

[9] See on the matter Timothy Mitchell’s seminal Colonising Egypt (1988).

[10] A “Grand celebration” in honour of Lawrence of Arabia and Lowell Thomas is also taking place at the NYC branch of the Club in September 2017 .

[11] See notably:; ; ; ; ; ; Malcom Reid’s two most recent monographs are also relevant here.

[12] Let’s just, also think of Boris Johnston’s, Nicolas Sarkozy’s and, more recently, Emmanuel Macron’s remarks regarding colonial and post-colonial subsaharian Africa.

On Darius and the many Alexanders, on Polybius and Montesquieu, on Iran and India: An interview with Pierre Briant, Part 2 (Français, English, فارسي, Türkçe)

On Darius and the many Alexanders, on Polybius and Montesquieu, on Iran and India: An interview with Pierre Briant, Part 2 (Français, English, فارسي, Türkçe)

Voir ci-dessous pour version française

فارسی / Persian: Interview PBriant Part2 Persian ; Türkçe: Interview_Briant_Turkçe

Part one of the interview is accessible here

Pierre Briant is Honorary Professor at the Collège de France, where he held the Chair of History and civilization of the Achaemenid world and of Alexander’s empire from 1999 to 2012. He has published extensively on a wide variety of topics, including the Persian Empire, the relationships between Darius and Alexander, and the historiography of Alexander the Great. He is also the founder of Achemenet. His latest monograph, Alexandre. Exégèse des lieux communs, came out in 2016. This 2-part interview is the result of a long conversation between Pierre Briant and myself, which took place via facetime in May 2017. The many topics we discussed allowed us to look back at over half a century of scholarship in the fields of Classics, ancient history, archaeology, reception and postcolonial studies. 

The English translation is mine. We owe the Persian one to Sara Mashayekh. We are very grateful to her, as well as to Prof. Touraj Daryaee, Director of the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at University of California, Irvine, for their generous help. The Turkish translation was done by Nilda Taşköprü, Executive Secretary of the Institut d’études anatoliennes d’Istanbul‘s Director, Dr Jean-François Pérouse. We wish to thank them both warmly for their kind support.

Katherine Blouin

Katherine Blouin : What is the situation with Achaemenid studies in the countries that were formerly part of the Achaemenid world?

Pierre Briant : Achaemenid history belongs to Iran’s ‘national narrative’. It is part of their memory, of their history, of their immaterial heritage. This interest for the Achaemenids is mythified, since the Achaemenids were, just like Alexander, integrated in the Book of the Kings. Despite what has been said, the 1979 Revolution has not erased the pre-Islamic past. When Rafsanjani was president, he went to Persepolis and said « Iran has two pillars: Islam and the Achaemenids ». So, this is something important, as also show the recent demonstrations of the opposition around the tomb of Cyrus in Pasargades[1].

As for historical research, we should start by saying that there has been a strong interest in the past and in archaeological work since the time of the Qajar kings. Such initiatives did not, therefore, solely stem from a European impulse. Yet, no Iranian university currently offers a historical curriculum that is as strong and conceptualized as what we can find in EU countries or in North America. There are however many Iranian archaeological missions, of restoration, of rescue, with well-built programs, which can be led by mixed teams made of Iranian and European archaeologists, for instance in Pasargades or Persepolis, and several excavations are starting here and there. There are also unique documentary resources in Iranian museums – for instance in Tehran, where part of the Persepolis tablets is kept (the rest being ‘transitorily’ in Chicago since the 1930s).

In the other countries located on the territory covered by the Achaemenid Empire, research is mainly archaeological in nature. Many fieldwork projects were started in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, and for a time in Iraq as well. There were many discoveries, especially in western Turkey, but also in the Caucasus. For instance, excavations in Azerbaijan have led to the unearthing of an Achaemenid palace with its paradise (garden), which is something absolutely extraordinary.

KB: When did you go to Iran for the first time and what memories do you keep from that journey?

PB: I first went to Iran quite late. Since I’m not an archaeologist, I did not travel from dig to dig. I was invited there after the publication of the History of the Persian Empire. It was, I think, in 1996 or 1997. I was invited by the l’Institut Français de Recherche en Iran (French Institute of Research in Iran), which was directed at the time by an archaeologist, who is also a friend, Rémy Boucharlat. From there I took a plane and went to Shiraz, and from Shiraz I reached Persepolis by taxi. I spent the whole day there. The taxi driver wondered what had happened to me because usually, travelers would not remain on the site for so long. It was very moving to be there. I was stunned by Persepolis, Pasargades, Susa also. It was very important to go to these sites, which I had talked about but didn’t know. I went back several times, especially to archaeological sites, including in other countries, in Egypt, in Turkey. It was also important for me to meet many Iranian colleagues, on fieldwork as well as in universities. I kept in touch with many of them, and I plan to go back, probably next year. The History of the Persian Empire was translated twice in Iran and others of my publications were also translated. Once on my way back from Iran, as we landed in Paris early in the morning, a young woman came to me and said: “Are you Pierre Briant?”. I said: “Yes”. She started crying. Not because she had just met me (!), but because her father, who had just passed away, was the translator of the History of the Persian Empire.

KB: I suppose it was also striking to see the country’s topography and environment for the first time?

PB: Yes, for sure. The variety of landscapes is incredible when we travel by air, and by car. I did a wonderful trip in 1997 or 1998. We were four: Rémy Boucharlat, George Rougemont, who was working on the corpus of Greek inscriptions from Iran, Paul Bernard, and myself. We travelled through a great portion of Western Iran by car, we drove through the Zagros, where I found my ‘brigand peoples’. It was also very important to see the sites. When you read publications on Persepolis, Pasargades, Susa, and you see the pictures, it’s good. But when you have all of this in front of your eyes…it’s like a young scholar who studies Greek history and visits the Acropolis for the first time. One of my geography teachers used to say: “Geography ought to be done with one’s feet”. I would say that the same applies to archaeology. You need to work there, to walk through the sites, to go back.

I owe my interest in archaeology to Jean-Claude Gardin, who worked on large irrigation networks that had been discovered northern Afghanistan. He had read my article on the brigands and had asked me (around 1978) to become part of his research team. He wanted me to bring together all the written sources on pre-Achaemenid and Achaemenid Bactria so as to feed the project (a task which led to a book in 1984). After that, I did field surveys in Turkey for 6 years with colleagues from Bordeaux, and I also prospected in Iran with Boucharlat. Archaeology has therefore contributed substantially to my research, and it is very present in History of the Persian Empire. More generally, archaeological and iconographical sources have always been a source of enrichment, of reflection and of new hypotheses for me.

KB: You are among the pioneers in the field of environmental history. I have in mind your two volumes of 1982 (Rois, tributs et paysans. Études sur les formations tributaires du Moyen-Orient ancien et Etat et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien), as well as the collective volume on qanats (Irrigation et drainage dans l’Antiquité. Qanats et canalisations souterraines au Moyen-Orient, en Égypte et en Grèce, 2000). To what extent have these works been influenced by anthropological approaches?

PB: Rois, tribus et paysans gathers articles that were written between 1973 and 1980. Pierre Lévêque offered me the opportunity to bring them together in one volume. If one wants to know how I worked in the 1970s, I think that the answer can easily be found in this book. It notably contains an assessment of the issues of continuities/ruptures between the Achaemenid Empire and the Hellenistic kingdoms, which I wrote in 1979[2]. I published État et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien that same year (1982). The genesis of this book is interesting. I published a very big study, which should have been a book in the 1976 issue of Dialogues d’Histoire ancienne (« Brigandage, dissidence et conquête en Asie achéménide et hellénistique » = “Robbery, dissidence, and conquest in Achaemenid and Hellenistic Asia”), and that led me to collaborate with an ethnologist specializing on Iran named Jean-Pierre Digard. He had himself worked on the nomad peoples of today’s Zagros and had published an article on these issues in 1975 in Studia Iranica. At the end of his article, he made a call for collaborations. He was very surprised to receive a response from an ancient historian. I met him and asked him whether he would be one of the two respondents included at the end of my article. After that, I kept on working with ethnologists in the context of Paris’ Centre d’études et de recherches marxistes (Marxist study and research centre). It included a group that focused on nomadic, pastoral societies, whose members had created a mixed, EHESS/Cambridge University Press series called Sociétés pastorales. They asked me if I wanted to turn my article into a book. It is in this context that État et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien was born. I both condensed the original article and enlarged its scope so as to include pre-islamic Arab societies as well as the Scythians of Central Asia. This book truly fascinated me, because I started working on topics I was not familiar with, especially the pre-Islamic Arab world. I approached it by combining data from neo-Assyrian sources (inscriptions and reliefs) with Classical sources as well as the few relevant Achaemenid sources. Jean-Pierre Digard also invited me to contribute to an ethnozoology conference that took place at Maisons-Alfort in 1977. I gave a paper on ovine breeding in the Achaemenid Empire; for the first time, I made extensive use of the documentary resources available in the Elamite tablets from Persepolis. The progress I’ve made over all these years are due not only to new data, but also to the fact that I had the opportunity to meet colleagues who made me discover fields I did not know. I talked earlier about archaeology. I could also say the same of numismatics, ethnology, anthropology. I was very sensitive to all these currents, as well as to the Marxist one. I took part in the Centre d’études et de recherches marxiste (Paris) in the early 1970s. There, in the “Ancient History” section, I worked with (for instance) Pierre Lévêque, Claude Mossé, Yvon Garlan and Maurice Godelier. The latter, an ethnologist, took part in our debates sometimes. Such discussions considerably opened my mind. It is also during this period that I discovered the « Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP) », which we can come back to.

KB : And what about the volume on the qanats?

PB : I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by questions related to irrigation. I had discovered this text from Polybius (10.28) a very long time ago, and I had talked about it for the first time in 1980 in an article that came out in an Paris-based, Iranian journal (which has since then disappeared) called Zâman[3]. I talked about it again several times until I organized this conference in Paris. In the meantime, in 1992, while I was at the Institut français d’archéologie orientale in Cairo (IFAO), I learned that the archaeologists who worked at Ayn Manawir had discovered Demotic texts that included the name of Darius. Not only were the local archives of a village (written in Demotic on ostraca) discovered in this western desert site, but the fields of the said village – of which a study was recently published by Damien Agut-Labordère and Claire Newton in ARTA[4] – were also discovered. The site also includes underground drains, which were somewhat comparable to qanats.  I knew that Polybius’ vocabulary was also found in Greek inscriptions from Europe. This is therefore how I conceived this volume. It answers a long-lasting question I had on Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism, which had been translated in French with a foreword by Pierre Vidal-Naquet[5]. According to Wittfogel, the Achaemenid Empire belonged to the so-called hydraulic empires. He did not know Polybius’ text, which shows, on the contrary, that the work was decentralized at the level of the villages, and that these villages were requested by the Achaemenid administration to dig underground canals, in return for which they were granted fiscal immunity for five generations. This project that part of a reflexion on archaeology and the use of Greek texts to understand the Achaemenid realia. The conference perfectly met the aim I had tried to achieve: bring together specialists from different horizons (Greece, Egypt, Middle East) and working on different sets of data (Greek epigraphy, Greek literary texts, Demotic texts, archaeological prospection, etc.). I’m all the more proud of it that it was the first scientific colloquium I organized at the Collège de France, for it took place a few days after my Leçon inaugurale, in March 2000. I’m happy to see that the book gathered and still gathers a wide audience[6].

My interest was articulated around more conceptual reflexions on the structure and nature of the Achaemenid Empire. Can we talk of a tributary empire? Is the concept of AMP a usable one? One can consider that this phase of reflexion is now outdated, as an article published in 1991 by Maurice Godelier shows[7]. Even though we consider that the AMP is not an operative concept anymore, all I’ve done during those years has taught me a lot. I’m not a theoretician, I’ve progressed a lot through Marxism, my reflections on the AMP and the relationships between irrigation work and State structures. I don’t regret my work within this particular research group in the 70s and 80s. When we undertake studies of this type, there are always two types of results: the immediate result and the long term one. The immediate result might be relatively invisible, if not negligible 20 years later[8]. But all the reflections I’ve had, all the contacts I’ve made with people in all sorts of fields, in all countries, from the USSR and USA to Europe, East Europe, including the GDR at a certain time, Canada, all this built me intellectually speaking. No research is negligible in the long run. Never. Sometimes we realize after 2 years of research that our efforts will not lead to a book or an article. Already the fact of knowing this and having the courage to tell ourselves that we won’t write a book on this topic, it means that we’ve progressed a lot in the meantime.

KB : Of all the Alexanders you analyze in your latest book (Alexandre. Exégèse des lieux communs), is there one you prefer?

PB : Yes. It’s the Alexander on which I’ve worked for 8 years of my life, who led to a book that came out in 2012, and without which my latest one would not have been possible. It is the Alexandre des Lumières (Enlightenment Alexander[9]). When I arrived at the Collège de France, I kept on working on the Achaemenid Empire through Achemenet, the conferences I organized and those to which I participated, seminars, articles. At the same time, I dedicated my courses to the historiography of Alexander, what I call the history of the elaboration of interpretative processes. Why does Alexander still trigger today the images that we see circulate? Traditionally, we used to say – and I said it myself not too long ago – that there was no historiography of Alexander before Droysen and his Geschichte Alexanders der Großen[10]. I started an in-depth work on the question in 2003-2004, and while teaching my course at the Collège de France in 2004, I realized all of a sudden that there was an alexandrology before Droysen, and this is when I discovered the Alexander of Montesquieu. I realized that in reality, Droysen’s image had been preceded and prepared by Montesquieu and many other European philosophers-historians, especially in Scotland and in England in the second half of the 18th century, but also in Germany during the first third of the 19th century. That’s why, when I was invited to give a lecture in Toronto in 2005, I chose as my theme a 18th century Scottish writer, William Robertson, who had developed, in the footsteps of Montesquieu, an image of Alexander that was also close to Plutarch’s[11]. By the way, I must say that Montesquieu brought me back to the qanats. While reading L’esprit des lois’s table of content, I all of a sudden came across a chapter entitled « Des pays créés par l’industrie des hommes » (XVIII.6). I told myself : « Who knows, maybe Montesquieu quotes Polybius? ». That was the case! I thus wrote an article on qanats and irrigation according to Montesquieu : the author of L’esprit des lois was the first (in 1748) to present a historical commentary on Polybius’ qanats.

After that I kept on all these studies, I travelled a lot through European literatures. I went through all of French, English, German, and through part of Italian and Spanish literature from the end of the 17th to the beginning of the 19th c. And thereby I unveiled what I called the Enlightenment Alexander, showing that in fact, when Droysen starts to work on his Alexander in 1830, a great deal of work had been done, published and that therefore, at least in essence, his image is the one from Montesquieu and many French, English and German philosophers from the 18th c.[12] It is very interesting to discover a completely new research field. I dedicated all of my courses at the Collège de France to the 18th c.; the title was “History of Alexander and history of European expansion”. Apart from a passage from Momigliano’s inaugural lecture at UCL [1953] and a very short passage in Bickerman, nobody had anticipated the existence of the Enlightenment Alexander. The 2016 books owes therefore a lot to the 2012 one, because the latter allowed me to fill in an important and even decisive gap. And, in turn, filling this gap made the trajectory that followed understandable, from Antiquity until today.

KB: What about cinema? Is there a movie on Alexander or the Persian Empire that you are particularly fond of?

PB: I have a favourite one. It is not Robert Rossen’s, and it is not Oliver Stone’s either[13]. It is Sikandar, a movie that was shot in India in 1941 by an Indian director, who also happens to be an actor, Sohrab Mohdi, whose name indicates that his background is a Parsi one from Bombay. The movie is a proto-Bollywood one style-wise. It is interesting to see how the first scenes take place in Persepolis: To my knowledge, it is the only, even modest, studio reconstitution of Persepolis in any movie whatsoever. Neither Rossen nor Stone is interested in landscapes, in peoples, as if the Achaemenid Empire did not exist! When Sikandar starts, we see a bearded man arrive on a chariot. He sits on a throne. We think that a bearded Alexander is a little surprising a thing, but it is not Alexander, it is Aristotle. He warns Alexander and says: “Beware of women, you cannot be both conqueror and in love”. That’s why Alexander sends Roxana away, who precedes him in India. The movie thus adopts the Indian vision. We are in 1940-1941, at a time when there were two historiographical schools in India: The British – therefore imperialist – historiography, according to which Alexander was both a very important man for India and a precedent to the British conquerors, and on the other hand, Indian historiography, which promoted a completely different narrative, namely that Alexander led at most a raid that lasted a few months and that did not have any civilizational impact on India, all the more so since Poros won. At the end of the movie, we see Alexander and Roxana, who are lovers again, leave India and go back, most probably to Persepolis. Mohdi, the director, has obviously adopted the narrative of Indian historiography. It is interesting to see how the Times of India, in a quote that has been reproduced in Phiroze Vasunia’s work, considers Poros to be the example of an Indian leader who behaves nobly, since he considers that it is best to die a free man than to live as a subject. The political message of the movie was therefore adopted by the press of the time[14].

KB: Do you have any travel suggestions in Iran?

PB: My first suggestion would be not to go in a group. Tourism has always been widely open in Iran, except for Americans, all the more so now because of Trump. Avoid summer because temperatures are very high, even though altitude makes it more bearable in the area of Shiraz and Persepolis.

There are things one cannot avoid: Tehran, a megalopolis that is sometimes difficult because of pollution, and its Archaeological Museum, but I would leave the capital quite quickly and head to Isfahan, an exceptional city, which is an hour away by plane. You can then go to Shiraz, a city that deserves to be walked through and visited. From there you are very close by car to Persepolis, Naqsh-e Rustam and Pasargades. You can easily spend at least 3-4 days exploring the area. Should you be interested in the Achaemenids, I recommend Susa, where the humid heat is dreadful. Southern Iran is less known but there are interesting places. There is also the Caspian Sea. Going west from Tehran, you can go to Hamadan (the ancient Ecbatana) and also to Behistun, where there is a great relief of Darius I, and to the very beautiful Sassanian site of Taq e-Bostan, and to so many other places…

KB: Finally, a word on Edward Said and Orientalism?

PB: I discovered Edward Said late. When Orientalism came out (1978), I had already mulled over these questions by myself, but in a purely empirical fashion, through an analysis of the Greek vision of the Achaemenid Empire. I was very much influenced by another author, Samir Amin, who had worked on eastern, precapitalist formations. I worked a lot on those issues, especially using the Classical texts that dealt with Alexander’s conquests. I had been struck by the proto-Orientalist vision of the Greeks at the time I wrote the Que sais-je on Alexander (1974). I worked on that because it was the only way for me to deconstruct Greek texts while stripping them from the inside, and revealing what I call the ‘informative Achaemenid kernel’. As I keep repeating, it doesn’t mean we have to reject all use of Classical texts, of course not. Many Greek texts contain information that need to be extracted from the interpretation they are embedded in. It’s always been my aim and my method. I was thus in favour of a decolonization of Achaemenid history, which was for the longest time dominated by a Eurocentric vision. The idea of the decolonization of Alexander is itself very present in my 2016 book (ch.2-3), simply because Alexander was completely integrated into the colonial vision of the 18th to 20th c. In an article that came out in 1979, I show how the specialists of the Orient were Orientalists in both meanings of the term: the scientific one, and the Saidian one, would we now say.

Reading Said made me both – how should I say – enthusiastic and disappointed, because his reflection only really starts with Bonaparte in Egypt, if we exclude a brief and rather poor reference to Aeschylus’ Persians. I would thus say that I was marked by Said especially when in worked on the 18th, 19th, 20th c., but it was not for me an absolute discovery. Of course, Said brings many things in his field, but what he talks about concerns our studies in an only indirect way, except through the methodological extension of his analysis to Antiquity.

The preceding remarks explain why I keep saying (including in the last chapter of my 2016 book) that we ought to stop writing books entitled Alexander the Great. I’m not the first one to say it, but what should we propose instead? If you look at the historiography on Alexander at the moment, we can only be surprise, because, like Rossen’s or Stone’s movies, many books aimed at the general public are built following a narrative thread that goes back to Antiquity, and they completely ignore the Achaemenid Empire. To use one of my favourite comparisons, it’s as if a French historian who studies the 1870 war doesn’t introduce Bismarck or Prussia.

If you take Stone’s movie, you have a projector that does a close-up on Alexander, and the viewer follows this close-up all the way to the Indus, Babylon, his death. Beyond the projector, you don’t see anything. You don’t know who is who, you don’t know there was an empire (even though Darius is staged but according to traditional topoi). This explains why we keep on saying that Alexander was the first one to have conquered a global empire, which is nonsense, because, from a geopolitical point of view, he only acquired for his own profit Darius III’s empire on Achaemenid borders. I feel like many historians disembark in Asia Minor in the wagons of Alexander’s army. In a cheeky way, I like to compare them to the embedded journalists in today’s armies. They seem to be describing an Alexander who conquers an empire that doesn’t exist.

I think, on the contrary, that the scientific rehabilitation of Achaemenid history must impact the historiography of Alexander: what lacks is not yet another Alexandre le Grand, but a history of Darius and Alexander. More broadly still, the vision needs to open itself up to a wider and more meaningful period than the conquests of 334-323.

What I propose is not to be stopped by boundaries that don’t have scientific legitimacy anymore. We must recognize the existence of a historical field that goes from the Balkans to the Indus, from 350 to 300 BCE. It is therefore a field that includes the reigns of Philip II, Artaxerxes II to IV, Darius III and the Diadochi. This makes up a coherent ensemble: Philip II’s Macedon, the Achaemenid Empire, the conquest, then the transformation the transformation into the Hellenistic kingdoms. This corresponds to chronologically wide geopolitical vision, which allows us to understand something. Because at the end of the day, only one question matters, at least as far as I’m concerned: What has Alexander’s conquest changed, and how did this change come about?

To reintroduce the Achaemenid Empire in the longue durée is, therefore, an absolute necessity, and it is a task I keep on considering a priority – therefore my current and upcoming research, which keeps on taking into account all at once the Achaemenid world, Alexander’s empire, and the period of his first successors: This is the research field of which, relentlessly, I claim the scientific legitimacy.


[1] See for instance e.g.

[2] Many of these articles, as well as more recent ones, are now available in English in Kings, Countries and Peoples. Selected studies in Achaemenid History (Stuttgart 2017, Amélie Kuhrt transl.).

[3] The article in question is reproduced in Rois, tributs et paysans, pp.406-430.


[5] voir


[7] « Le concept de mode de production asiatique : un concept stimulant mais qui est d’une portée limitée », Actuel Marx 10 [1991] : 181-199.

[8] See Annales HSS, mai-juin 2002, pp. 515-663 : Politique et contrôle de l’eau dans le Moyen-Orient ancien.

[9] Now translated into English as The First European. A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire, at Harvard U.P. (2017).

[10] It was published in 1883, then made the volume I of his Geschichte des Hellenismus in 1877


[12] See “Alexander and the History of European expansion: The Views of the Enlightenment”,


[14] See « Alexandre le Grand au rythme des présents successifs »,


Darius et les Alexandres, Polybe et Montesquieu, Iran et Inde: une entrevue avec Pierre Briant, partie 2

Katherine Blouin : Où en sont les études achéménides dans les pays de l’ancien monde achéménide?

Pierre Briant : En Iran, l’histoire achéménide fait partie du « roman national ». C’est une partie de leur mémoire, de leur histoire, de leur patrimoine immatériel. Cet intérêt certain pour les Achéménides est mythifié, puisque les Achéménides ont été, comme Alexandre, intégrés dans le Livre des Rois. Malgré ce qui a été dit ici et là, la Révolution de 1979 n’a pas effacé le passé pré-islamique. Quand Rafsanjani était président, il est allé à Persépolis en disant « L’Iran a deux piliers : l’islam et les Achéménides », donc c’est quelque chose d’important, comme le montrent également les manifestations récentes de l’opposition autour du tombeau de Cyrus à Pasargades[15].

Du point de vue des recherches historiques proprement dites, il faut commencer par dire que, dès l’époque des rois Qajars, il y a eu un intérêt marqué pour le passé et pour les recherches archéologiques. Celles-ci ne sont donc pas nées seulement sur une impulsion venue d’Europe. En revanche, il n’y a pas actuellement dans les universités iraniennes  un cursus historique qui soit aussi solide ni aussi conceptualisé qu’il l’est dans les pays de l’Union Européenne ou en Amérique du Nord. En revanche, il y a de très nombreuses missions archéologiques iraniennes, de restauration, de sauvetage, avec de programmes bien constitués, qui peuvent être menés par des missions mixtes composées d’Iraniens et d’archéologues venus d’Europe, par exemple à à Pasargades ou à Persépolis, et de très nombreux chantiers s’ouvrent ici ou là. Et il y a aussi des ressources documentaires uniques dans les musées iraniens – par exemple à Téhéran, où se trouve une partie des tablettes de Persépolis (l’autre partie étant « transitoirement » à Chicago depuis les années 1930).

Dans les autres pays situés sur le territoire de l’empire achéménide, les recherches sont surtout archéologiques. Beaucoup de chantiers ont été ouverts en Égypte, en Turquie, en Syrie, en Afghanistan, pour un temps en Irak aussi. Les découvertes ont été très nombreuses, en particulier en Turquie occidentale, mais également dans le Caucase. Par exemple, des fouilles en Azerbaïjan ont mis au jour un palais achéménide avec son paradis (jardin), ce qui est quelque chose d’absolument extraordinaire.

KB : Quand êtes-vous allé en Iran pour la première fois et quels souvenirs en gardez-vous?

PB : Je suis allé en Iran pour la première fois très tardivement. N’étant pas archéologue, je ne voyageais pas de chantier en chantier. J’y suis allé après la publication de L’histoire de l’Empire perse. C’était, je pense, en 1996 ou 1997. J’étais invité par l’Institut français de Recherche en Iran, qui était dirigé à cette époque par un archéologue qui est aussi un ami, Rémy Boucharlat. De là j’ai pris un avion et suis allé à Shiraz, et de Shiraz je me suis rendu à Persépolis en taxi. J’y ai passé une journée entière. Le chauffeur de taxi se demandait ce que j’étais devenu parce qu’en général, les voyageurs ne restent pas là aussi longtemps. C’était vraiment très émouvant. J’ai été ébloui par Persépolis, Pasargades, Suse également. C’était très important d’aller sur des sites dont j’avais parlé mais que je ne connaissais pas. J’y suis retourné plusieurs fois, sur les sites archéologiques en particulier, dans d’autres pays aussi, en Égypte, en Turquie. Ça a aussi été une chose importante que de rencontrer de nombreux collègues iraniens, sur les chantiers comme dans les universités. J’ai gardé des contacts nombreux, et je compte d’ailleurs y retourner, probablement l’année prochaine. Histoire de l’Empire perse a été traduit à deux reprises en Iran et d’autres de mes publications ont aussi été traduites. Au retour d’Iran une fois, au petit matin en arrivant à Paris, une jeune femme me dit : « Vous êtes Pierre Briant ? ». Je dis : « Oui ». Elle s’est mise à pleurer. Pas parce qu’elle venait de me rencontrer (!), mais parce que son père, qui venait de mourir, était le traducteur de Histoire de l’Empire perse.

KB : Je suppose que ça a dû aussi être frappant pour vous de voir la topographie et l’environnement du pays pour la première fois?

PB : Oui, tout-à-fait. La variété des paysages est extraordinaire quand on voyage en avion ou en voiture. En 1997 ou 1998, j’ai fait un voyage formidable. On était quatre : Rémy Boucharlat, George Rougemont, qui travaillait sur le corpus des inscriptions grecques d’Iran, Paul Bernard, et moi-même. On a fait en voiture une bonne partie de l’Iran, on a traversé le Zagros, où j’ai retrouvé mes ‘peuples brigands’. Ce fut aussi très important de voir les sites. Quand vous lisez des publications sur Persépolis, Pasargades et Suse et que vous voyez des photos, c’est bien. Mais quand vous avez ça sous les yeux…C’est comme un jeune chercheur travaillant sur l’histoire grecque qui visite pour la première fois l’Acropole. Un de mes professeurs de géographie avait coutume de dire : « La géographie, ça se fait avec les pieds ». Je dirais qu’il en va de même de l’archéologie. Il faut travailler sur place, traverser les sites, y revenir.

Je dois mon intérêt pour l’archéologie à Jean-Claude Gardin, qui travaillait en Afghanistan sur les grands réseaux d’irrigation découverts au nord du pays. Il avait lu mon article sur les brigands et m’avait demandé (vers 1978) de participer à son équipe de recherche. Il voulait que je réunisse toutes les sources écrites sur la Bactriane achéménide et pré-achéménide pour nourrir le dossier (ce qui a donné naissance à un livre en 1984). Par la suite j’ai fait des prospections en Turquie pendant six ans, avec les collègues de Bordeaux, et j’ai fait des prospections en Iran avec Boucharlat. L’archéologie a donc été un apport important qui est très présent dans l’Histoire de l’Empire perse. Plus généralement, les sources archéologiques et iconographiques ont toujours été pour moi une source d’enrichissement, de réflexion et de nouvelles hypothèses.

KB : Vous faites partie des pionniers dans le domaine de l’histoire environnementale. Je pense à vos deux volumes publiés en 1982 (Rois, tributs et paysans. Études sur les formations tributaires du Moyen-Orient ancien et Etat et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien), ainsi qu’à l’ouvrage collectif sur les qanats (Irrigation et drainage dans l’Antiquité. Qanats et canalisations souterraines au Moyen-Orient, en Égypte et en Grèce, 2000). Dans quelle mesure ces travaux se sont-ils aussi nourris d’approches anthropologiques?

PB : Rois, tribus et paysans est un recueil d’articles écrits entre 1973 et 1980. J’ai eu la chance que Pierre Lévêque me propose de les rassembler en un volume. Si quelqu’un veut savoir comment j’ai travaillé au cours des années 1970, je pense qu’il peut y arriver assez aisément en lisant ce recueil. On y trouvera en particulier le bilan que j’ai dressé en 1979 sur les problèmes des continuités/ruptures entre l’empire achéménide et les royaumes hellénistiques[16]. J’ai publié État et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien la même année (1982). La genèse de ce livre est intéressante. J’avais publié une très grosse étude, qui aurait dû être un livre, « Brigandage, dissidence et conquête en Asie achéménide et hellénistique » dans les Dialogues d’Histoire ancienne 1976, et j’ai été ainsi amené à collaborer avec un ethnologue, spécialiste de l’Iran, Jean-Pierre Digard. Il avait travaillé lui-même sur des peuples nomades du Zagros à l’époque contemporaine. Il avait publié un article sur ces problèmes en 1975 dans la revue Studia Iranica. À la fin de l’article, il avait lancé un appel à collaboration. Il avait été très surpris d’avoir une réponse venant d’un historien de l’Antiquité. Je l’ai rencontré et lui ai demandé s’il voulait être l’un des deux intervenants à la fin de mon article. J’ai continué à travailler avec les ethnologues au sein du Centre d’études et de recherches marxistes à Paris. Il y avait un groupe spécialisé sur les sociétés de pasteurs nomades, dont les membres ont créé une collection mixte entre l’EHESS et Cambridge University Press qu’ils ont appelée Sociétés pastorales. Ils m’ont demandé si je voulais écrire un livre à partir de mon article, et c’est dans ces conditions qu’État et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien est né. J’ai à la fois concentré l’article d’origine et je l’ai élargi aux sociétés arabes préislamiques et aux Scythes d’Asie Centrale. Ce livre m’a absolument passionné, parce que je me suis mis à travailler sur des sujets avec lesquels je n’étais pas familier, en particulier le monde arabe préislamique. Je l’ai abordé en combinant les données tirées des sources néo-assyriennes (inscriptions et reliefs) et celles qui venaient des sources classiques et des rares sources proprement achéménides. C’est aussi Jean-Pierre Digard qui m’a invité à participer à un congrès d’ethnozoologie qui a eu lieu à la Maisons-Alfort en 1977. J’y ai présenté un travail sur l’élevage ovin dans l’Empire achéménide, où, pour la première fois, j’ai utilisé abondamment les  ressources documentaires des tablettes élamites de Persépolis.

Les progrès que j’ai pu faire tout au long de ces années s’expliquent non seulement par l’utilisation de documentations nouvelles, mais aussi par la chance que j’ai eue de rencontrer des collègues qui m’ont fait découvrir des domaines que je ne connaissais pas. Je parlais tout à l’heure de l’archéologie. Je pourrais aussi parler de la numismatique, de l’ethnologie, de l’anthropologie. J’ai été très sensible à tous ces courants, le courant marxiste aussi. J’ai été actif au sein du Centre d’études et de recherches marxiste au début des années 70. Dans la section « Histoire Ancienne », j’ai travaillé auprès (e.g.) de Pierre Lévêque, de Claude Mossé, d’Yvon Garlan de Maurice Godelier, qui, en ethnologue, participait parfois à nos débats. Ces discussions m’ont beaucoup ouvert l’esprit. C’est aussi dans ces années que j’ai découvert le « mode de production asiatique », dont on peut reparler.

KB : Et qu’en est-il de l’ouvrage sur les qanats?

PB : Je ne sais pas pourquoi, les questions d’irrigation m’ont toujours fasciné. J’avais découvert ce texte de Polybe (10.28) il y a très longtemps, et j’en avais parlé pour la première fois en 1980 dans un article paru dans une revue publiée par des Iraniens à Paris (disparue depuis lors), du nom de Zâman[17]. J’en ai reparlé à plusieurs reprises jusqu’au moment où j’ai organisé ce colloque à Paris. Entre temps, en 1992, alors que j’étais de passage au Caire à l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale, j’ai appris que les archéologues qui travaillaient à Ayn Manawir avait découvert des textes démotiques contenant le nom de Darius. Ce site du désert occidental a offert en effet non seulement les archives locales d’un village, écrites sur ostraca en démotique. On a aussi découvert les champs du village, sur lesquels une étude récente a été présentée par Damien Agut-Labordère et Claire Newton, et publiée dans ARTA[18]. On y a retrouvé également des galeries drainantes souterraines, qui étaient un peu comparables aux qanats. Je savais que le vocabulaire de Polybe se retrouvait aussi dans des inscriptions grecques d’Europe. C’est donc ainsi que j’ai conçu ce volume. Il répond aussi à une interrogation de longue date sur le volume de Wittfogel Le despotisme oriental, qui avait été traduit en français, avec un avant-propos de Pierre Vidal-Naquet[19]. Wittfogel prétendait que l’empire achéménide faisait partie des empires hydrauliques. Il ne connaissait pas le texte de Polybe, qui montre au contraire que le travail était décentralisé au niveau des communautés villageoises, qui était chargées par l’administration achéménide de creuser ces canaux souterrains, en contrepartie de quoi le roi leur donnait une immunité fiscale pendant cinq générations. Ce projet faisait partie d’une réflexion sur l’archéologie et sur l’utilisation des textes grecs pour comprendre les realia achéménides. Le colloque représentait parfaitement ce que j’ai cherché à impulser : réunir des spécialistes venus d’horizons divers (Grèce, Égypte, Moyen-Orient) et travaillant sur des données d’origines diverses (épigraphie grecque; textes littéraires grecs; textes démotiques; prospections archéologiques, etc.). J’en suis d’autant plus fier que ce fut la première manifestation que j’ai organisée au Collège de France, puisque le Colloque a eu lieu quelques jours après ma Leçon Inaugurale, en mars 2000. Je constate avec plaisir que le livre a eu et a toujours une grande audience[20].

Mon intérêt pour la question était articulé avec des réflexions plus conceptuelles sur la structure et la nature de l’empire achéménide. Peut-on parler d’un empire tributaire? Est-ce que le concept de mode de production asiatique est utilisable? On peut considérer que cette phase de réflexion est devenue en partie obsolète, comme le suggère un article publié en 1991 par Maurice Godelier[21].  Néanmoins,  même si on considère que le mode de production asiatique n’est plus un concept opératoire, tout ce que j’ai fait pendant ce temps-là m’a beaucoup appris. Je ne suis pas un théoricien, j’ai beaucoup progressé à travers le marxisme, mes réflexions sur le mode de production asiatique et sur les rapports entre travaux d’irrigation et les structures étatiques[22]. Je ne regrette rien de mon activité dans ces groupes de recherche en particulier au cours des années 70’ et 80’.  Lorsque l’on fait des études de ce genre, il y a toujours deux types de résultats : le résultat immédiat, et à long terme. Le résultat immédiat peut être relativement invisible, voire négligeable, 20 ans après. Mais toutes les réflexions que j’ai entreprises, tous les contacts que j’ai eus avec des gens dans plein de domaines différents,  dans tous les pays, depuis l’URSS et les États-Unis en passant par l’Europe, l’Europe de l’Est, y compris la RDA à une certaine époque, le Canada, tout cela m’a construit intellectuellement parlant. Il n’y a jamais de recherche qui soit négligeable à long terme. Jamais. Parfois on s’aperçoit après deux ans de recherche que vos efforts n’aboutiront pas à un livre ou un article. Déjà le fait de savoir et d’avoir le courage de se dire qu’on ne va pas écrire de livre sur ce sujet-là, ça veut dire qu’on a beaucoup progressé entre temps.

KB : Parmi tous les Alexandres que vous analysez dans votre dernier livre (Alexandre. Exégèse des lieux communs), y en a-t-il un que vous préférez?

PB : Oui. C’est l’Alexandre sur lequel j’ai passé 8 ans de ma vie, qui a donné lieu à un livre paru en 2012, sans lequel mon dernier livre n’aurait pas été possible. Il s’agit de l’Alexandre des Lumières. Lorsque je suis arrivé au Collège de France, j’ai continué à travailler sur l’empire achéménide à travers Achemenet, les colloques que j’ai organisés et ceux auxquels j’ai participé, les séminaires, et des articles. En même temps, j’ai consacré mes cours proprement dits à  l’historiographie d’Alexandre, ce que j’appelle l’histoire de l’élaboration des processus interprétatifs. Pourquoi Alexandre évoque-t-il encore aujourd’hui les images que l’on voit circuler?  Traditionnellement, on disait – et je le disais moi-même aussi il n’y a pas très longtemps – que l’historiographie d’Alexandre n’existait pas avant Droysen et sa Geschichte Alexanders der Großen, publiée en 1833, puis intégrée en 1877 à titre de volume I de sa Geschichte des Hellenismus. J’ai commencé à travailler en profondeur sur la question  en 2003-2004, et dans le cours que j’ai donné au Collège de France en 2004, j’ai réalisé tout d’un coup qu’il y avait une alexandrologie avant Droysen, et c’est alors que j’ai découvert l’Alexandre de Montesquieu. Je me suis aperçu qu’en réalité, l’image d’Alexandre de Droysen avait été précédée et préparée par Montesquieu et par bien d’autres des philosophes-historiens européens, tout particulièrement en Écosse et en Angleterre dans la second partie du XVIIIe siècle, mais aussi en Allemagne dans le premier tiers du XIXe siècle. C’est la raison pour laquelle, lorsque j’ai été invité en 2005 à donner une conférence à Toronto, j’ai choisi comme thème un auteur écossais du 18e siècle, nommé William Robertson, qui avait lui-même développé, dans les traces de Montesquieu, une image d’Alexandre, proche également de celle de Plutarque (

En passant, je dois aussi dire que Montesquieu m’a ramené aux qanats. En dépouillant les chapitres de L’esprit des lois, j’ai considéré  tout à coup un chapitre intitulé « Des pays créés par l’industrie des hommes » (XVIII.6). Je me suis dit : « On ne sait jamais, peut-être que Montesquieu cite le passage de Polybe ». C’était le cas!  J’ai donc écrit un article sur les qanats et l’irrigation d’après Montesquieu : l’auteur de l’Esprit des lois a été le premier (en 1748) à présenter des commentaires historiques sur les qanats de Polybe.

J’ai par la suite continué toutes ces études, et voyagé beaucoup dans les littératures européennes. J’ai dépouillé toute la littérature française, anglaise, allemande, un peu italienne et espagnole d’entre la fin du 17e et le début du 19e siècle. Et donc j’ai mis au jour ce que j’ai appelé l’Alexandre des Lumières, où j’ai montré qu’en fait, quand Droysen commence à travailler en 1830 sur son Alexandre, énormément de travail avait déjà été fait, publié, et donc que, au moins dans son essence,  l’image qu’il en donne est celle qu’en donnaient Montesquieu et un grand nombre de philosophes français, anglais et allemands du 18e siècle[23]. C’est très intéressant de découvrir un champ de recherche complètement nouveau. J’ai fait tous mes cours pendant ces années au Collège sur le 18e siècle, sous le titre « Histoire d’Alexandre et histoire de l’expansion européenne ». À part un passage de la leçon inaugurale de Momigliano en 1953 à UCL et un très court passage dans un article de Bickerman, personne n’avait pressenti l’existence de l’Alexandre des Lumières. Le livre de 2016 doit donc beaucoup à celui de 2012, car celui-ci m’a permis de combler une lacune importante et même décisive, et, à son tour, combler cette lacune a rendu intelligible le parcours que j’ai fait ultérieurement, depuis l’Antiquité jusqu’à nos jours.

KB : Et côté cinéma, y a-t-il un film portant sur Alexandre ou l’Empire perse que vous aimez particulièrement?

PB : Il y en a un que je préfère. Ce n’est pas celui de Robert Rossen, ce n’est pas celui d’Oliver Stone non plus[24]. C’est un film qui a été tourné en Inde en 1941, Sikandar, par un réalisateur indien, qui est aussi un acteur, Sohrab Mohdi, dont le nom indique qu’il est d’origine Parsi de Bombay. Le style de ce film est proto-bollywoodien. Il est intéressant de noter que les premières scènes se passent à Persépolis : c’est à ma connaissance  la seule reconstitution en studio, même modeste, de Persépolis dans quelque film que ce soit. Ni Rossen ni Stone ne se sont intéressés aux paysages, aux gens, aux peuples, comme si l’empire achéménide n’existait pas!  Lorsque Sikandar commence, on voit un homme barbu arriver sur un char. Il s’assied sur un trône. On se dit qu’un Alexandre barbu c’est un peu surprenant, mais ce n’est pas Alexandre, c’est Aristote. Il prévient Alexandre et lui dit : « Méfie-toi des femmes, tu ne peux pas être à la fois conquérant et amoureux ». C’est pourquoi Alexandre renvoie Roxane, qui le précède elle-même en Inde. Le film prend donc le parti de la vision indienne. Nous sommes en 1940-1941, à une date où il y a deux écoles historiographiques en Inde : l’historiographie britannique, donc impérialiste, qui considère qu’Alexandre était à la fois un homme très important pour l’Inde et un précédent des conquérants britanniques du pays, et, d’autre part, l’historiographie indienne, qui tient un tout autre discours: à savoir qu’Alexandre a mené tout au plus un raid qui a duré quelques mois, et qui n’a eu aucun impact civilisationnel sur l’Inde, et d’ailleurs Poros a finalement gagné. À la fin du film, on voit Alexandre et Roxane, qui sont redevenus amoureux, quitter l’Inde et retourner sans doute vers Persépolis. Mohdi, le réalisateur, a visiblement pris le parti de l’historiographie indienne. Il est intéressant de voir comment le Times of India, dans une citation reprise dans les travaux de Phiroze Vasunia, considère Poros comme l’exemple d’un dirigeant indien qui se comporte noblement, puisqu’il considère que mieux vaut mourir en homme libre qu’être vivant en étant sujet. Le message politique du film a donc été repris par la presse de l’époque[25].

KB : Avez-vous des suggestions voyage en Iran?

PB : Ma première suggestion est de ne pas y aller en groupe organisé. Le tourisme a toujours été largement ouvert en Iran, sauf pour les Américains, à plus forte raison en ce moment à cause de Trump. Évitez le sommet de l’été, parce que les températures sont très élevées, même si du côté de Shiraz et de Persépolis l’altitude la rend plus supportable.

Il y a des choses que vous ne pouvez pas éviter : Téhéran, qui est une mégapole parfois difficile à cause de la pollution, et son Musée archéologique,  mais je quitterais assez vite la capitale pour aller à Ispahan, une ville exceptionnelle, qui est à une heure d’avion. Vous pouvez ensuite aller à Shiraz, qui est une ville qui mérite d’être parcourue et visitée. De là, vous avez tout près en voiture Persépolis, Naqsh-e Rustam et Pasargades. Vous pouvez facilement passer 3-4 jours au moins à explorer ce secteur. Si les Achéménides vous intéressent je vous recommande d’aller à Suse, où il fait toutefois une chaleur humide épouvantable. L’Iran méridional est moins connu mais vous y trouvez des choses intéressantes. Il y a aussi la Caspienne. En allant vers l’ouest à partir de Téhéran, vous pouvez aller vers Hamadan (l’ancienne Ecbatane) mais aussi à  Behistun, où se trouve un grand relief de Darius I, et vers le très beau site sassanide de Taq e-Bostan, et tant d’autres choses encore…

KB : Un mot en terminant sur Edward Said et l’orientalisme?

PB : Edward Said, je l’ai découvert tard. A la date de la parution d’Orientalism (1978), j’avais moi-même beaucoup réfléchi sur ces questions, mais de manière purement empirique, à travers une analyse de la vision que les Grecs avaient de l’empire achéménide. J’ai été beaucoup influencé aussi par un auteur, Samir Amin, qui avait étudié les formations précapitalistes du Moyen-Orient. J’ai travaillé beaucoup sur cette question en particulier à partir des textes classiques qui portent sur la conquête d’Alexandre. J’avais été très frappé par la vision proto-orientaliste des Grecs, dès l’époque où je préparais le Que sais-je sur Alexandre (1974). J’ai travaillé là-dessus parce que c’était la seule façon pour moi de déconstruire les textes grecs tout en les décapant de l’intérieur, et de mettre à nu ce que j’appelle le ‘noyau informatif achéménide’. Comme je ne cesse de le répéter, cela ne signifie pas que l’on doive rejeter le recours aux textes classiques, bien entendu. Beaucoup de textes grecs contiennent des informations qu’il faut dégager de l’interprétation dans laquelle ils sont immergés, embedded comme on dit en anglais. Ça a toujours été mon objectif et ma méthode. J’étais donc partisan d’une décolonisation de l’histoire achéménide, qui a été longtemps dominée par une vision européocentrique. L’idée de la décolonisation de l’histoire d’Alexandre est elle-même très présente dans mon livre de 2016, tout simplement parce qu’Alexandre est complètement intégré dans la vision coloniale du 18e au 20e siècles. Dans un article paru en 1979, je montre que les spécialistes de l’Orient étaient orientalistes dans les deux sens du terme : au sens scientifique, et au sens saidien du terme, dirions-nous maintenant. J’ai développé ce point dans mon dernier livre (2016; chapitres 2-3).

En lisant Said, j’ai été (comment dire?) à la fois enthousiasmé, et un peu « déçu », parce que sa réflexion commence réellement avec Bonaparte en Égypte, si l’on met de côté une brève et assez pauvre référence aux Perses d’Eschyle. Je dirais donc que j’ai été marqué par Said, surtout quand j’ai travaillé sur les 18e, 19e et 20e siècles, mais que ça n’a pas été pour moi une découverte absolue. Said apporte évidemment beaucoup de choses dans son domaine, mais ce dont il parle ne concerne qu’assez indirectement nos études, sauf par extension méthodologique de ses analyses à l’antiquité.

Les remarques qui précèdent expliquent pourquoi je ne cesse d’affirmer (y compris dans le dernier chapitre de mon livre de 2016) qu’il convient de cesser d’écrire des livres intitulés Alexandre le Grand.  Je ne suis pas le premier à le dire, mais que proposer à la place? Si vous regardez l’historiographie d’Alexandre à l’heure actuelle, on ne peut qu’être surpris, car, comme les films de Rossen et Stone,   beaucoup des livres destinés au grand public sont bâtis sur une trame narrative que l’on connaît depuis l’Antiquité, et ils ne prennent nullement en compte l’Empire achéménide. Pour utiliser une de mes comparaisons favorites, c’est comme si un historien français qui étudierait la guerre de 1870 n’introduisait ni Bismarck ni la Prusse.

Si vous prenez le film de Stone, vous avez un projecteur qui fait un close-up sur Alexandre, et ce close-up le spectateur le suit jusqu’à l’Indus, Babylone et sa mort. En dehors du trajet du projecteur, vous ne voyez rien. Vous ne savez pas qui est qui, vous ne savez pas qu’il y avait un empire (même si le personnage de Darius est mis en scène mais selon des références traditionnelles). C’est ce qui explique qu’on continue à dire qu’Alexandre est le premier à avoir conquis un empire mondial, ce qui est une folie, puisque, du point de vue géopolitique, il  n’a fait que reconstituer à son profit l’empire de Darius III sur les frontières achéménides. J’ai l’impression que beaucoup d’historiens débarquent en Asie Mineure dans les fourgons de l’armée d’Alexandre. D’une manière peut-être impertinente, j’ai tendance à les comparer aux journalistes embedded dans les armées d’aujourd’hui. Ils semblent présenter un Alexandre qui conquiert un empire qui n’existe pas.

Je pense au contraire que la réhabilitation scientifique de l’histoire achéménide doit avoir des conséquences dans l’historiographie d’Alexandre : ce qui manque, ce n’est pas un enième Alexandre le Grand, mais  une histoire de Darius et d’Alexandre. Plus largement encore, la vision doit s’ouvrir à une période plus large et plus signifiante que celle des conquêtes 334-323.

Ce que je propose, c’est de ne pas se laisser arrêter par des frontières qui n’ont plus de légitimité scientifique. Il faut reconnaître l’existence d’un champ historique qui va des Balkans à l’Indus, d’environ 350 à 300 avant notre ère. C’est donc un champ qui inclut le règne de Philippe II, d’Artaxerxès II à IV, Darius III et les diadoques. On arrive là à un ensemble cohérent : la Macédoine de Philippe II, l’empire achéménide, la conquête, et puis la transformation et la disparition dans les royaumes hellénistiques. Cela correspond à une vision géopolitique assez large chronologiquement, qui nous permet de comprendre quelque chose. Parce qu’au fond, il n’y a qu’une question qui vaille, du moins de mon point de vue : Qu’est-ce que la conquête d’Alexandre a changé, et comment ce changement est-il intervenu?

Réintroduire l’empire achéménide sur la longue durée est donc une nécessité absolue, et c’est cette tâche que je continue pour ma part de considérer comme prioritaire — d’où mes recherches récentes et à venir, qui continuent de prendre en compte aussi bien le monde achéménide que l’empire d’Alexandre et la période  de ses premiers successeurs : tel est le champ de recherches dont, sans relâche, j’affirme la légitimité scientifique.


[15] Écouter par exemple « L’Empire perse: les usages d’une mémoire », et .

[16] Plusieurs de ces articles ainsi que des articles plus récents sont aujourd’hui disponibles en anglais (Kings, Countries and Peoples. Selected studies in Achaemenid History, Stuttgart, 2017, Amélie Kuhrt transl.).

[17] L’article en question est reproduit dans Rois, tributs et paysans, pp.406-430.


[19] Voir


[21] « Le concept de mode de production asiatique : un concept stimulant mais qui est d’une portée limitée », Actuel Marx 10 [1991] : 181-199.

[22] Voir le dossier que j’ai dirigé dans les Annales HSS, mai-juin 2002, pp. 515-663 : Politique et contrôle de l’eau dans le Moyen-Orient ancien.

[23] voir “Alexander and the History of European expansion: The Views of the Enlightenment”,


[25] Voir « Alexandre le Grand au rythme des présents successifs »,