Classical Egypt, Egyptian Classics : Toronto graduates in Classics reflect on their first encounter with Cairo and Alexandria

Classical Egypt, Egyptian Classics : Toronto graduates in Classics reflect on their first encounter with Cairo and Alexandria

Guilty Orientalists

This spring, Prof. Katherine Blouin planned and executed a trip to Cairo and Alexandria for the six extremely lucky members of a graduate seminar on “Orientalism and the Classics.” We spent the week utterly overwhelmed by the beautiful architecture and museums bursting with papyri. Besides giving us the opportunity to engage in the standard sightseeing, the trip aimed to further illuminate the history of Western scholarship in Egypt. We toured the Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO), and we participated in a workshop entitled “Orientalism and the Classics,” which featured one talk on the biases that have prevented Western scholars from adequately acknowledging the history of wine production in the Mareotic region of Egypt, and another on the failure of 19th century scholars to learn Arabic, despite their frequent research trips to Egypt. These activities drew attention to the hold Orientalist attitudes had on our discipline, and we felt empowered to critique and resist their influence.

At the same time, we often found ourselves making the very sorts of observations about Egypt we had been critiquing during our seminar and at the workshop. I repeatedly stifled the thought that the older buildings in Alexandria were beautiful in their own crumbling way, or that the spice market in Cairo, was “just how I imagined it,” namely, colorful, bustling, fragrant– in a word, exotic. The six of us joked that we should call ourselves the “Guilty Orientalists,” because we continually caught ourselves and each other having these sorts of reactions to the sights that surrounded us.


Picture 1: Pharaonizing street art, Cairo (credit: Katherine Blouin)

In academic settings, such as our seminar at the University of Toronto or the “Orientalism and the Classics” workshop in Cairo, we had been faced with countless examples of 19th-century scholars who embodied a voyeuristic and exploitative academic gaze. In exploring the museums and sites of Egypt, however, we became aware of our own Orientalizing perspective, which we hoped to have already exorcized. Without having taken the “Orientalism and the Classics” seminar, we may have been less attuned to our own reactions to the cities we visited, but without the trip we may never have appreciated the pervasiveness of the Orientalizing attitudes we were critiquing: despite our active attempts, we ourselves were unable to fully eliminate these biases.

– Chiara Graf, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

Of mosques and men

I have to admit that when we first received our itinerary for the Egypt trip, I was most excited about our planned excursions to the ancient sites – and antiquities museums – the Pyramids, the Serapeum in Alexandria, the Egyptian Museum. This was the Egypt I wanted to see, since it was the Egypt I was most familiar with. To think about the “modern,” non-ancient Egypt in the weeks before the trip was a little frightening, given the recent April bombings. In the last few weeks before the trip, I could not help but think in the back of my mind that Egypt is, after all, very close to ISIS’ caliphate, the new media boogieman. Ancient Egypt, I thought, was what I would enjoy most, not so much the rest.

Oh, how wrong I was. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy every aspect of the trip, I now have a new found appreciation for Egyptian history post 500 CE. On our second day in Cairo, we had the wonderful opportunity to explore the old city centre, the site of the spice market and many medieval and Ottoman period mosques, with Islamic art and heritage expert Karim Badr. My knowledge of medieval Egyptian history before our trip was spotty at best. I knew the general outline of the political history, but my knowledge really only focused on areas where Egypt bisected with western European history, like Saladin and the Crusades, or Napoleon’s invasion. The names of the Mamluk and Fatimid rulers Karim mentioned as he pointed to all the old buildings admittedly went over my head, but seeing what remains of their city really brought into perspective just how rich and diverse the history of Egypt really is, and how unsatisfactorily it is presented in the West. Visiting the old mosques, built by these unfamiliar rulers, I was struck by how reminiscent of European medieval churches they were, and realized how Egypt’s Islamic history was not such a foreign entity.

Though most of the mosques we visited in Old Cairo were no longer in operation, we did have the opportunity to visit a few still open to worshipers. These visits changed my outlook on the institution of the mosque. Before this trip, I had never been in a mosque, and though I never believed the media’s hype that mosques were “dens of radicalism,” I still only really pictured them as places of worship and religion only. Yet when I was in the Al Jame’Al Anway mosque, near the old medieval wall of Saladin, there was almost no “religion,” or at least the stereotypical version of “religion” I had in my mind, to be seen. Instead, the place was more like a park, where people could come to get out of the heat, rest, or simply hang out with friends. The image of a little child chasing after a rubber ball on the polished marble floor (Picture 1) has forever changed my view of the function of “the mosque” in society.

Old Cairo was but one amazing experience that our trip to Egypt gave us, and I cannot deny that when we finally did get to see the ancient sites, I was no less awestruck. However, Old Cairo in some ways was for me the unexpected highlight of our trip, since it challenged my preconceived notions of “modern” Egypt, that is, non-ancient Egypt. This Egypt is no less fascinating than that of the people who built the Pyramids or Alexandria, and indeed needs to be better acknowledged in the West.


Picture 2: Ibn Tulun mosque, inner courtyard (credit: Drew Davis)

– Drew Davis, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

Ancient Greek literature in the flesh

Throughout our trip, some of my favorite things to see as a student of literature were papyri of texts that I recognized. Among many other examples, we saw a page of the Iliad, a fragment of Gallus, and a page of Menander, carefully preserved and on display in museums in Cairo and Alexandria. Because I’m used to reading texts after they have been edited and presented in neat, bound, modern books, it’s startling and exciting to me to see the delicate pieces of papyrus that have preserved them for thousands of years. It’s thought-provoking, too—looking at a shred of Misoumenos behind glass really makes a New Comedy student like myself realize how little stands between her and having no Menander at all.

In the Egyptian Museum, we had the privilege of visiting the lab where papyrologists work on the conservation of their collection. We spent an afternoon there learning about how papyri are cleaned, preserved, and displayed in a room that is crowded with storage cabinets and filled with tools and equipment that I’d never seen before. In the same way that I don’t often think about what ancient texts look like before they’re edited and published, I don’t often think about the work that goes into saving them from deterioration. When you spend all day, every day, reading millennia-old texts out of books that you touch, carry around, write in, and know well, it’s surprisingly easy to forget how far removed from you those texts actually are. The distance between modern classicists and the literature that we study is measurable not only in miles and in years, but also in technological advancements and academic interventions. The papyri collection in the Egyptian Museum was a salutary reminder to me of something that I should never forget in my modern library—how contingent the survival of ancient literature is, and how much work goes into keeping it.

– Rachel Mazzara, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

The Ancient Library lives again


Picture 3: The interior courtyard of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (credit: Emily C. Mohr)

Those who have the opportunity to visit Alexandria, as my peers and I did this past spring on a class trip to Egypt, will observe that the ancient Library of Alexandria lives again in its modern instantiation, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Completed roughly fifteen years ago, the Bibliotheca boasts storage for millions of volumes and exists as one branch of an elaborate complex, including four museums, a Planetarium, and a conference center for hosting thousands, just to name a few.

First endowed by Ptolemy I, the ancient Library of Alexandria existed as a part of the larger palatial infrastructure, itself attached to the Museion, and provided lecture halls, meeting and multipurpose spaces, and a dining room for its guests. The vast compound served as a model for a community research institution similar to today’s colleges and universities. Intentionally “dedicated to recapturing the spirit of openness and scholarship of the original,” the Bibliotheca does not fail to impress.[1]


Picture 4: An interior glimpse of the Bibliotheca from the main viewing platform (credit: Emily C. Mohr)

The project of the ancient Library was an intellectual one in many arenas: it advanced Alexander’s goal of spreading Greek culture and positioned its multinational host city as a dominant force in the Mediterranean. The enormous scale of the Library, which may have stored up to a half a million volumes, and its ambitious classification system distinguished it from other ancient libraries in the Hellenistic kingdoms, such as those of Antioch and Pergamon. As did the Library in antiquity, the Bibliotheca now symbolizes Egypt’s cultural and intellectual achievements and advertises the growing contributions to scholarship from Arabic-speaking researchers.

Although the ancient Library fell into disrepair sometime during the late Roman Empire, the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina achieves its aforementioned purpose and acts as a testament to its ancient predecessor. It is a thriving research institution, faithfully serving its community of local students and scholars, along with visitors from around the world, who queue down the street waiting for access. Perhaps the most encouraging aspects of the Bibliotheca are the sense of camaraderie it fosters among its users and the promise that it holds for future generations: As the academic world diversifies, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina readily offers its services to a new ensemble of academics that pays homage to Alexandria’s ancient reputation.


Picture 5: The external facade of the Bibliotheca, inscribed with the languages of the world (credit: Emily C. Mohr)

– Emily C. Mohr, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

Moments in Masr

I immediately felt the urge to pinch myself upon looking up at the Pyramids in front of me; the moment hardly seemed as if it could be real. As a wonder of both the ancient and modern world, many people have only ever dreamt of seeing the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and here I was fortunate enough to be standing in front of them. Yet while walking among the Pyramids certainly is a moment I will never forget, what this trip in its entirety emphasized to me the most was that Egypt, or Masr, is so much more than just it’s Pharaonic past.  The ancient history is astounding – no doubt about it – but so is the more recent history (as in the past two thousand years…), and of course the country’s wonderful culture and people.

Just the city of Cairo, for instance, blew my mind because of the different cultures and religions that had taken root there over the centuries. In that city, Coptic Christian churches were constructed as early as the 4th century, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun was built by the Turkic Abbasids sometime in the 9th, one of the oldest universities in the world, Al-Azhar, was founded under the Fatamid dynasty, and in the middle ages the Ayyubid ruler Salah al-Din (known in the west as Saladin) commissioned the construction of the Cairo citadel.

What’s more, much of this multicultural and multi-religious history can be appreciated just by strolling the streets of old Cairo (for instance in the Khan el Kalihi and in Coptic Cairo) or peering inside all the city’s wonderful museums (like the museum of Islamic art or the Coptic Museum, both located in central Cairo). In true honesty, the various styles of architecture and art made me contemplate a completely new field of history to study. At the very least, the visit opened my eyes to a history that I truly had previously had only limited exposure to, and now am eager to improve my knowledge of.


Picture 6: An afternoon in Zamalek (credit: Katherine Blouin)

And yet, it must be mentioned that Egypt is not just its past either. The amalgamation of so many histories has over time pinnacled into one of the most beautiful cultures (and I must add, cuisines) of our present world. Some of my most vivid memories of the trip to Egypt do not even involve the (stunning) historical sites and museums mentioned above. Everyday experiences, such as watching locals smoke shisha at an ahwa (or coffee-house), drinking tea with mint on the roadside, eating gooey fresh dates right off the tree, or watching fresh bread being delivered in rectangular shaped baskets on the heads of bicyclists, are other instances that strongly illustrated to me the richness of life in this country.

Egypt is living history, and like other countries and cultures, much more than what is read in textbooks or seen on the news. I am enormously thankful for having the chance to join my Professor on such a trip. Travel is one of the best ways to learn and experience the many ways in which we as humans live, as well as clear the mind of any preconceived notions installed there by the colonialist or Orientalist discourse which has unfortunately long been perpetuated in the western world. I plan to visit Egypt again in the future, as there are still not only so many places to see and moments to experience, but culture to learn from.

– Shona Scott, Ma candidate, York University

Cairo first hand

When asked about my experiences in Egypt, the first thing I find myself trying to convey to others is how I was amazed by the long and diverse history of Cairo upon visiting the city. I have always been enamoured with Pharaonic Egypt since a young child, and admittedly, I set out on this trip with my excitement and expectations directed mostly towards seeing the antiquities and sites of ancient Egypt. The Pyramids of Giza and Cairo’s Egyptian Museum certainly did not disappoint my anticipations. However, I saw so much more of Cairo than just the relics of the Pharaonic past, and these other facets of the city’s history left a deep impression upon me. My peers and I visited some of the oldest Coptic churches in Cairo, as well as the Coptic museum, where we saw wonderfully preserved wooden and textile artifacts and religious icons. We also wandered through the spice market of Islamic Cairo, which was tucked beneath an old mosque, and explored several of the district’s historic mosques and mausoleums. With the guidance of our knowledgeable friend, Karim, we learnt all about the history of Islamic Cairo, an era about which I know little, but that I am now eager to learn more about. Visiting these different districts, Coptic Cairo and Islamic Cairo, left me with a deep impression of the different historical and cultural layers of this ancient city, both as they existed in the past, and as they are still enduring in the present. Pharaonic Egypt is just the very start of Cairo’s story. Cairo is a city with an incredibly rich and varied heritage, which is reflected in the city’s present life by the different, coexisting traditions and religions of its inhabitants. In our seminar last fall, we discussed how in the past (and still to some degree now) Egypt had commonly been defined by only its Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, and Roman phases in European scholarship. However, it was not until I experienced Cairo first hand and caught a glimpse of its historical and cultural complexity, that I understood the true meaning of our discussion, and realized that a consideration of Egyptian antiquity alone provides only a very shallow understanding of Cairo’s past, as well as its present.

– Naomi Neufeld, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

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 »,

Well beyond Alexander: An interview with Pierre Briant, part 1 (Français, English, فارسي, Türkçe)

Well beyond Alexander: An interview with Pierre Briant, part 1 (Français, English, فارسي, Türkçe)

Voir ci-dessous pour version française 

فارسی : PB interview Persian ; Türkçe: Interview_Briant_Turkçe

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 : Where does your interest for Classical Studies and Achaemenid history come from?

Pierre Briant : I did my graduate studies at the University of Poitiers in the early 1960s. I was very quickly interested by Greek history (I liked ancient Greek, which I had learned when I was very young). When I prepared my agrégation [a competitive postgraduate examination aimed at the top-level members of the teaching profession] in 1964-1965, the question for the ancient history program was on the Hellenistic world. That’s when my passion for this period started to develop. I read for instance Rostovtzeff (Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, 1941), and I’ve remained deeply influenced by his approach, which highlighted continuities between the Achaemenid and Hellenistic worlds. In 1965, after having received the agrégation, I started working on a Ph.D. that focused on Antigonus I Monophthalmus, one of Alexander’s successors, under the supervision of Pierre Lévêque. At the time, I was a high school teacher in Montpellier, where I remained until 1967. That year, I was hired as an Assistant in ancient history at the University of Tours. From that moment on, I had more time to work on my thesis, which I defended in Besançon in 1972.

After my thesis, Pierre Lévêque asked me what I was planning on doing. I told him I had projects on the diadochi, it was a bit vague. He then told me : “I’ve been asked to update the Que sais-je on Alexander by Paul Cloché, but I don’t have the time, I have too much work. Would you want to do it?” I said yes. I read Paul Cloché’s Que sais-je and it was so far away from what I wanted to do, so narrative, that I wrote to the Presses Universitaires de France to tell them that what I could do was to completely rewrite the book. They accepted, so this Que sais-je came out in 1974. It is while I was preparing this volume and working on Asia Minor and Phrygia under Antigonus that I started being attracted to the Achaemenids. My Ph.D. work had led me to work on the issues related to the transition between the Achaemenids and the diadochi. This is when I got confronted for the first time to the problem of continuities vs ruptures, as I studied more closely a passage from Plutarch (Eum. 8; see Antigone le Borgne, 1973, p.80-89); for the first time, I was in a situation that allowed me to discuss Rostovtzeff’s theses. I came back to it afterwards, in an article that discusses this specific problem (see Rois, tributs et paysans, 1982, pp. 95-135).

More generally, to come back on the general context of the early 70s, I was reading everywhere that everything had changed after Alexander’s conquest, that there was a sudden passage from a phase A to a phase B. Yet no one was explaining what the phase A was, neither the specialists of Achaemenid history (despite the interesting Olmstead’s History of the Persian empire [1948]), nor the authors of the so numerous books on Alexander. Since I couldn’t find the answer anywhere, I started to work by myself on this phase A. That’s how I gradually entered Achaemenid history, via the history of Alexander.

Starting from 1974-1975, I kept on working on these topics while preparing a study (published in 1976 in Dialogues d’histoire ancienne) on what Greek authors called the mountain brigands of the Persian Empire, and more specifically those of the Achaemenid Zagros. The idea was that these brigands were threatening even royal residences, including Persepolis. By going back to the textual evidence, I showed that this was a very partial, and false, vision of the relationships between the Great King and the peoples of the Zagros in Achaemenid times, which relied, rather, on gifts and counter-gifts. This is when I started going beyond the Classical sources (without abandoning them, of course), and working on the Persepolis tablets (a corpus which was then almost unknown by Classical scholars). I remember that in 1970, I had asked the University of Tours’ library to buy Richard Hallock’s 1969 volume (Persepolis Fortification Tablets): the librarian was quite surprised to see me interested in those matters. From then on, the history of the Achaemenids, of Alexander, and of the diadochi was a united one. This is why in 1999, when I entered the Collège de France, I named my chair « History and civilization of the Achaemenid world and of Alexander’s empire ».

KB: Speaking of which, I was struck by the name of your chair inasmuch as my impression was that it encapsulates your conception of the Achaemenid world. Was it for you a way to challenge the traditional disciplinary boundaries in the field of ancient history?

PB: Yes, for sure. I like to see myself as a “passeur”, because to study the transition between the Achaemenid and Hellenistic world requires one to combine all at once sources and questions that, until then, belonged to different, mostly separate fields. Things have now changed, especially among those who work on Babylonia or Hellenistic Egypt; they are aware of the necessity to take into account what has traditionally been called the ‘pre-Hellenistic period’ (a questionable expression with a teleological twist). But a lot still needs to be done, especially when we look at Hellenistic history textbooks. They start either with Alexander or with his death. All of a sudden, a world appears, and students have no idea of what existed before.

KB: Indeed. One of the things I find particularly frustrating when I teach introductory courses of ‘Greek’ or ‘Roman’ history is the delay between the rhythm at which scholarship evolves, and that at which textbooks are being updated. Do you have any thoughts on how this issue could be better addressed?

PB: Publishers are partly to blame because they like to ceaselessly reuse the same categories. For them, there is Classical Greece and the Hellenistic world, but the Achaemenid world is often absent. Teachers are also partly to blame since in universities, ancient history is generally – although there are exceptions – reduced to ancient Greece and Rome. It would be necessary, I think, even though I’m aware that this is not an easy task, for whoever is contacted by a publisher to impose his/her scholarly vision. In the case of a Hellenistic history textbook, the Achaemenid world ought to be present, not so much to stress continuities in all domains, but also to show students the nature and rhythm of the changes brought about by the Hellenistic kingdoms. To be perfectly honest, I must say that I felt a strong resistance from my colleagues when I was at the University of Toulouse (1974-1999). I taught Achaemenid history there and in 1996, I think, I created an introductory module dedicated to ancient Near Eastern history. Many students enrolled, but some colleagues were telling me that it was preferable to focus on Greece and Rome, instead of dedicating time to fields that did not concern “us”. As you can see, it is very hard to change things. But I am not completely without hope, even though my reasoned optimism sometimes hits itself on the wall of reality. It is now up to your generation to change things.

KB: To come back to the question of the relationship between academics and editors. I think that those of us who have permanent, secure positions are less vulnerable than junior or unemployed scholars. That being said, do you think that more senior scholars have more of a responsibility?

PB: Yes, for sure. But senior scholars ought to have understood what the issue is, and this is not always the case. As I’ve said, things change (as shows, for instance, the recent French textbook Les mondes hellénistiques published in 2017 by Clancier, Coloru and Gorre), but too slowly for my taste . There is still this break between the Aegean and Near Eastern world. When we created the Rencontres d’histoire économique de Saint-Bertrand de Comminges, we (Jean Andreau, Raymond Descat and myself) in the early 1990s, we made it a point to invite specialists of Rome, Greece and the Near East. People benefitted greatly from the discussions, so much so that the formula was replicated by others, in other fields (for example the conference on the qanāts that I organized in 2000 with specialists of Greek History, Egyptian and Near Eastern History, geographers, archeologists). When I look back at my trajectory, I am particularly proud to have contributed to building bridges between different fields that until then ignored each other (or communicated through very narrow and intermittent channels).

KB: In what way do you think that new technologies, social media and the digital Humanities can help better transcend these barriers? I’m of course thinking of the website Achemenet, which you founded.

PB: The idea came to me when I came to Paris in 1999. I was at the time working on the Bulletin d’histoire achéménide, where I was updating all the available bibliography on the Achaemenid Empire. As I was going from year to year, I could see new documents coming from all the countries of the empire, from Samarkand to Sardis, and the idea came to me as an obvious fact: internet was the only way to gather and make accessible to all such data. I had become acquainted with internet during my numerous trips to the USA in the late 1980s. I remember a friend from Chicago telling me: “You want to order foie gras on the internet? I go on Yahoo”. I had no idea what that meant. When I came back to France, I told myself that I needed to have an email address. Luckily, I was then in Toulouse, and the Sciences faculty had a server. My first email address ( dates from 1990.

KB: And Achemenet?

PB: When I arrived at the Collège de France in 1999, I found someone who could provide me with technological assistance, as well as a colleague, Francis Joannès, who works on Achaemenid-Babylonian tablets and was enthusiastically ready to collaborate with me. The first demo of the Achemenet website took place in July 2000, during the International Assyriological Conference, which was taking place at the Collège de France. After that, we involved more collaborators, updated our techniques, etc. Achemenet is now 17 years old.

KB: It’s a teenager!

PB: There you go! The initial idea was to put online all the primary sources that had to do with imperial Achaemenid history, all the texts in all languages (Aramaic, Elamite, Babylonian, Greek, etc.), iconographic documents, coins, etc. That’s what we started doing and that’s what we’ll keep on doing thanks to new collaborations. I was able to create this program thanks to the Collège de France and the CNRS. I must add that the complete revamping of the site (2010-2012) also benefitted from private and public foundations such as the Fondation du Collège de France, the Fondation Bettencourt- Schueller, The Iran Heritage Foundation, the Soudavar Memorial Foundation and the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute. But, of course, the gathering and interpretation of the documents was done with the help of colleagues from several countries. I am now passing on the torch to Damien Agut (CNRS/UMR ARSCAN, Nanterre[1]), a young colleague who specializes on 1st millennium BCE Egypt and who, together with Michel Chauveau, made available on Achemenet the Demotic ostraca of Ayn-Manawir. I am particularly happy to see that this editio princeps is open-access! The site will be hosted very soon on a CNRS-server[2].

We need to keep in mind that the chair I occupied between 1999 and 2012 at the Collège de France was the only one in the world that was specifically dedicated to the Achaemenid Empire. The only comparable position is currently at the EPHE (Paris). For the past 6 years, a gifted Dutch colleague (Wouter Henkelman) teaches seminars on the Elamite world, and works on the publication of a portion of the Persepolis tablets (some of which he made available on Achemenet.

But we should not be too pessimistic either. It is also because of the compartmentalized nature of scholarship, which leads so and so to specialize on Aramaic, Demotic, or Babylonian texts, or on archaeology, iconography or numismatics, that Achaemenid history is not being taught regularly at the moment.  Each colleague introduces students to a different part of Achaemenid history. This is why, in my view, a site like Achemenet is so vital: it contributes in a powerful way to the development of Achaemenid history across the world. A good indicator of this is the online journal ARTA, which we created in 2002. Since then, more than 50 articles were published. These are often very long and with many pictures, something which online publication allows; they are almost in all cases dedicated to the publication and historical analysis of new or recently discovered sources, be they written, iconographical or archaeological ones. This journal, the only one exclusively dedicated to Achaemenid history, filled a lacuna, and it is open-access. In sum, for a field like this one, the ability to express oneself on the internet is really the only way to disseminate knowledge and generate vocations and partnerships.

KB: According to you, what causes this quasi-absence of University positions on Achaemenid history worldwide?

PB: Many reasons explain this phenomenon. First, Achaemenid history is trapped between three jaws: the ‘eternal’ Greece, the ‘millennial’ Egypt, and the ‘mysterious’ Orient. What I mean by that is that there are three individualized and well-defined research fields: ancient Greek history, Egyptology and the history of the 3rd to 2nd millennium BCE Near East. Thus at the Collège de France, there is regularly a chair in Egyptology, another one in Assyriology, and there are always one or more specialist(s) of the Greek and Roman world. Traditionally – I’m not saying that all scholars still think like this – the history of the ‘Orient’ stopped with the conquest [the fall!] of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BCE, which is actually the start of Achaemenid history (even though the Elamite pre-history of the Achaemenid empire is currently deeply studied as well). Egyptologists traditionally focus their attention on more ancient periods. As for Hellenists, they would have to deal with the Achaemenids only when discussing the Persian wars and Alexander’s conquests. There was no field specifically dedicated to the Achaemenid Empire per se. That’s what I tried to do, as much as I could, by trying to familiarize myself with each of these fields, so that I could conceive the book I wrote in 1992-1993 and published in 1996 (Histoire de l’Empire perse = From Cyrus to Alexander, 2002).

Another factor that comes into play is a linguistic one. Let’s take Pharaonic Egypt: You must learn hieroglyphics. It is not that easy, yet fundamentally, it is not beyond the humanly possible. As for Assyriology: you need to learn the cuneiform script and the languages that used this script (there are several linguistic subdivisions within this field). Greece: you learn ancient Greek (and Latin). If you wish to work on the Achaemenid Empire, all the more so on several of its regions at a time, you must be able to use not only Greek (epigraphic, literary) sources, but also Achaemenid evidence, that is royal inscriptions (but there are not that many), and texts in Aramaic, Lycian, Phrygian, Egyptian (in hieroglyphics or Demotic), Elamite, Babylonian, etc. Compared to what I faced in the early 1970s, things are easier now for students, especially if they work in Paris, London, Chicago, or Leiden. There, they can learn ancient Greek, the cuneiform script, Elamite, Aramaic, etc. Problems come later: Few supervisors will encourage their students, even the motivated ones, to prepare a thesis in Achaemenid history, simply because he/she won’t be able to find an academic position that fits his/her scholarly credentials. This is obviously the fundamental obstacle to the development of Achaemenid studies, not only in France, but in all countries.

KB: So would you say that the multilingual nature of Achaemenid sources is a central factor?

PB: That’s not what is central. We need at some point to have senior and junior people believe that Achaemenid history is fundamental, that it is not a peripheral field, but one that has its own scientific legitimacy. I will always remember a textbook on the history of the ancient Near-East written by someone remarkable – Paul Garelli – in the 1960s for the Nouvelle Clio series. Achaemenid history appeared in the section dedicated to the ‘peripheral worlds’. On the other hand, if you are aware from the start of the fundamental nature of Achaemenid history, things are easier. Even though they don’t master the empire’s 15 languages, students can embark on the journey. I did it in an empirical manner. I worked using the translations of Elamite texts, then directly on the texts themselves. And then at the same time, I was working using the translations of Babylonian and Aramaic texts, and was looking in parallel at the original text and read all the philological articles. So it’s not easy, but one can manage, as long as one allows oneself the means to do so. However, without any institutional support from universities, it is a very hard. You need to accept to work by yourself, which I did until 1982-1983, that is until the year when I started building bridges with scholars from other countries who were facing similar challenges. Seen in this light, my appointment at the Collège de France is a important moment, not only for me, but for the discipline, which could thenceforth count on this platform to, if I can say so, become more attractive thanks to conferences, seminars (published in a new series called Persika) and, of course, Achemenet.

KB: What about the next generation? Are you optimistic?

PB: Yes and no. I’ll start with the no. No, because Achaemenid history is fashionable these days, but among people who are mostly trained as Classicists, and who do not work systematically with Achaemenid sources. An opposing trend developed in the UK with the Achaemenid Workshops. These workshops were created in Gröningen (Netherlands) in 1980 by Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, then internationalized in 1983 under the joined direction of Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg and Amélie Kuhrt. They wanted to launch a new conception of Achaemenid history, one that I had been defending independently from them for a decade or so at the time. I have been a regular participant to the workshops, and I have regularly worked with Heleen (until her death in 2000) and Amélie[3]. We were basically saying: Greek sources, yes, but we ought to use them with much critical thinking, and in order to do Achaemenid history, we need to use, first and foremost, sources that come from that very empire (obviously with the same critical mind). It was an obviousness. However, contrary to the claims of an absurd and sterile polemic, no one ever suggested that we discard Classical sources (cf. e.g. From Cyrus to Alexander [2002: 693-5: Another “Achaemenid” source, The Alexandrian historians], or Darius in the shadow of Alexander [2015: x-xv]).

As for the ‘yes’ part of my answer, I say “yes” because changes are happening in different areas. First in the field of Achaemenid Babylonia, which has grown in a fantastic way these past 15 years, thanks to the ability to access the documents housed in the British Museum. The same goes for Hellenistic Babylonia, which is studied not only using Greek Hellenistic sources anymore, but mostly starting from Babylonian and cuneiform documents. This field developed considerably in all European countries as well as in the USA. These scholars are aware of the need to study 1st millennium BCE Babylonia in order to properly link the Achaemenid and Hellenistic periods, all the way until the Parthian period. We could say the same, or almost, regarding Saite and Hellenistic Egypt, or regarding Anatolia, not to speak of Bactria.

Part 2 of the interview is accessible here

Notes, English text



[3] She has recently translated into English 28 of P.Briant’s articles. These are now gathered in Kings, Countries and Peoples. Selected studies on Achaemenid History (Oriens et Occidens 26), Stuttgart, 2017.


Bien au-delà d’Alexandre : Une interview avec Pierre Briant, 1ère partie

Katherine Blouin : D’où vient votre intérêt pour les études classiques et l’histoire achéménide?

Pierre Briant : J’ai fait mes études supérieures à l’Université de Poitiers au début des années 60. J’ai été très vite intéressé par l’histoire grecque. (J’aimais bien le grec, que j’avais appris très jeune). Lorsque j’ai préparé l’agrégation en 1964-65, la question au programme en histoire ancienne portait sur le monde hellénistique. C’est alors que je me suis pris de passion pour cette période. J’ai lu par exemple la somme de Rostovtzeff (Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, 1941), et je suis resté profondément influencé par son approche, qui mettait en relief les continuités entre le monde achéménide et le monde hellénistique. En 1965, après l’agrégation, je me suis lancé dans une thèse d’État sur un successeur d’Alexandre le Grand, à savoir Antigone le Borgne, sous la direction de Pierre Lévêque. J’étais alors Professeur au Lycée de Montpellier, où je suis resté pendant 2 ans, entre 1965 et 1967. En 1967 j’ai été nommé Assistant d’histoire ancienne à l’Université de Tours. À partir de ce moment-là j’ai eu plus de temps pour travailler sur ma thèse, que j’ai soutenue à Besançon en 1972.

Après ma thèse, Pierre Lévêque m’a demandé ce que je comptais faire. Je lui ai dit que j’avais des projets sur les diadoques, c’était un peu vague. Il m’a dit : « On m’a demandé de refaire le Que sais-je? sur Alexandre de Paul Cloché, mais je n’ai pas le temps, j’ai trop de travail. Est-ce que vous voulez le faire? ». J’ai dit oui. J’ai lu le Que sais-je de Paul Cloché et c’était tellement loin de ce que je voulais faire, tellement narratif. J’ai donc écrit aux Presses Universitaires de France en disant que ce que je pouvais faire, c’était de le réécrire complètement. Ils m’ont dit oui, donc j’ai publié ce Que sais-je en 1974. C’est en préparant ce livre et en travaillant sur l’Asie Mineure et la Phrygie à l’époque d’Antigone que j’ai été attiré vers les Achéménides. Ce travail de thèse m’avait en effet amené à étudier les problèmes liés à la transition entre les Achéménides et les diadoques : c’est là que je me suis confronté pour la première fois à la question des continuités/ruptures, en étudiant de près un passage de Plutarque (Eum. 8; voir Antigone le Borgne, 1973, p.80-89); pour la première fois, je fus placé dans la situation de discuter des thèses de Rostovtzeff. J’y suis revenu ultérieurement dans un article spécifique (voir Rois, tributs et paysans, 1982, pp. 95-135).

Plus généralement, si je reviens au contexte de la première partie des années 70’, je voyais écrit partout que tout avait changé avec Alexandre, donc on passait d’une phase A à une phase B, mais personne n’expliquait ce qu’était la phase A, ni du côté des livres sur les Achéménides (malgré tout l’intérêt de l’History of the Persian empire [1948] de Olmstead), ni du côté des si nombreux livres sur Alexandre. Comme je ne voyais nulle part la réponse, j’ai commencé à travailler moi-même sur cette phase A. C’est ainsi que je suis peu à peu entré dans l’histoire achéménide, à travers l’histoire d’Alexandre.

À partir de 1974-1975, j’ai continué à travailler sur ces sujets-là et j’ai préparé une étude qui est parue en 1976 dans les Dialogues d’histoire ancienne sur ce que les auteurs grecs appelaient les brigands des montagnes dans l’Empire perse, en particulier dans le Zagros achéménide. On parlait de brigands qui menaçaient jusqu’à l’existence des résidences royales, y compris Persépolis. En reprenant tous les textes j’ai démontré que c’était une vision très partielle et très fausse des rapports entre le Grand Roi et les peuples du Zagros à l’époque achéménide, qui étaient fondés, en réalité, sur le don et le contre-don. C’est à ce moment-là aussi que j’ai commencé à découvrir toute la documentation proprement achéménide, et que j’ai appris à sortir des sources classiques (sans les abandonner, bien au contraire), et à travailler sur les tablettes de Persépolis (une documentation alors à peu près inconnue des historiens classiques). Je me souviens que j’avais fait acheter dès 1970 le gros volume publié en 1969 par Richard Hallock (Persepolis Fortification Tablets) par la bibliothèque de l’Université de Tours : la bibliothécaire s’était montrée très étonnée que je m’intéresse à ces choses. À partir de ce moment-là, le champ de recherches sur l’empire achéménide, Alexandre, et les diadoques ne faisait qu’un. Pour cette raison, lorsque je suis entré au Collège de France en 1999, j’ai nommé ma Chaire « Histoire et civilisation du monde achéménide et de l’empire d’Alexandre ».

KB : Le nom de votre Chaire m’avait d’ailleurs marquée dans la mesure où il me semble qu’il illustre parfaitement votre conception de la complexité du monde achéménide. Était-ce une façon de remettre en question les frontières disciplinaires traditionnelles dans le domaine de l’histoire ancienne?

PB : Oui, sans aucun doute, j’aime me voir comme un passeur, dans la mesure où étudier la transition entre le monde achéménide et le monde hellénistique, c’est tenter d’allier dans un même champ des documentations et des interrogations qui relevaient alors communément de champs différents et largement fermés l’un à l’autre. Aujourd’hui les choses ont évolué, surtout chez ceux-celles qui travaillent sur la Babylonie ou l’Egypte hellénistiques, qui considèrent qu’ils doivent prendre en compte ce qui a été souvent appelé la « période pré-hellénistique » (une formulation contestable d’inspiration téléologique). Mais il y a encore beaucoup de chemin à faire, particulièrement lorsque l’on regarde les manuels d’histoire hellénistique. On commence en général soit avec Alexandre, soit à la mort d’Alexandre. Tout à coup, un monde apparaît, les étudiants n’ont aucune idée de ce qu’il y avait auparavant.

KB : Effectivement. Une des choses que je trouve particulièrement frustrantes en tant qu’enseignante de cours généraux d’histoire « grecque » ou « romaine » est le délai entre le rythme auquel la recherche évolue, et celui auquel le contenu des manuels est mis à jour. Avez-vous des pistes de solution à proposer?

PB : Les éditeurs portent une part de responsabilité, car ils aiment à reprendre sans cesse les mêmes catégories. Pour eux, il y a la Grèce classique et le monde hellénistique, mais le monde achéménide est le plus souvent absent.  Les enseignants ont aussi leur part de responsabilité, car dans les universités, l’histoire ancienne reste, sauf exception, réduite à la Grèce et à Rome, particulièrement en France en raison des programmes immuables des concours de recrutement (CAPES et Agrégation), où l’histoire ancienne est réduite à la Grèce et à Rome.  Il conviendrait, me semble-t-il, même si je sais que ce n’est pas toujours facile à faire, que les collègues approchés par un éditeur imposent leur vision de chercheurs; dans le cas d’un manuel sur le monde hellénistique, il convient que le monde achéménide soit présent, non pas nécessairement pour postuler des continuités dans tous les domaines, mais aussi pour pouvoir montrer aux étudiants la nature et le rythme des transformations apportées par les royaumes hellénistiques. Je dois dire aussi, pour être tout à fait franc, que j’ai senti une grande résistance de la part de collègues lorsque j’étais à l’Université de Toulouse de 1974 à 1999. J’y ai enseigné l’histoire achéménide et en 1996, je crois, j’ai créé un module d’introduction à l’histoire du Proche-Orient ancien. Beaucoup d’étudiants venaient, mais des collègues me disaient qu’il valait mieux se concentrer sur la Grèce et Rome, au lieu de prendre du temps pour des domaines qui n’étaient pas de notre ressort. Comme vous voyez, c’est très difficile de faire changer les choses, mais bon, je ne suis pas complètement désespéré, mais mon optimisme raisonné se heurte parfois à la réalité. C’est votre génération maintenant qui doit faire changer les choses.

KB : Pour revenir à la question du rapport entre chercheurs et éditeurs : Je pense aussi que ceux d’entre nous qui avons des positions permanentes sommes aussi moins vulnérables que les jeunes chercheurs sans emploi ou à contrat. Ceci étant, croyez-vous que les chercheurs seniors ont une responsabilité supplémentaire à cet égard?

PB : Oui, certainement. Mais il faut que les chercheurs seniors aient compris de quoi il s’agissait, ce qui n’est pas toujours le cas. Comme je le disais, les choses changent (en témoigne par exemple en France le récent manuel Les mondes hellénistiques paru en 2017 sous les signatures de Clancier, Coloru et Gorre), mais trop lentement à mon goût. Il y a encore cette coupure entre le monde égéen et le monde proche-oriental. Lorsque nous (Jean Andreau, Raymond Descat et moi-même) avons créé les rencontres d’histoire économique de Saint-Bertrand de Comminges au début des années 1990, nous avons décidé d’inviter des spécialistes de Rome, de la Grèce et du Proche-Orient. Les gens ont tiré beaucoup profit des discussions, si bien que la formule a été reprise par d’autres, dans d’autres champs (par exemple le colloque sur les qanāts que j’ai organisé en 2000 en faisant appel à des spécialistes d’histoire grecque, d’histoire de l’Egypte et du Moyen-Orient, des géographes et des archéologues). Lorsque je fais un retour sur mon parcours, je suis particulièrement fier d’avoir contribué à créer des ponts entre différents champs qui s’ignoraient (ou qui communiquaient à travers des contacts personnels et intermittents).

KB : De quelle façon pensez-vous que les nouvelles technologies, les médias sociaux, et les digital humanities peuvent aider à transcender davantage ces barrières? Je pense évidemment au site Achemenet, dont vous êtes le fondateur.

PB : L’idée s’est imposée à moi lorsque je suis arrivé à Paris en 1999. Je travaillais à ce moment-là sur les Bulletin d’histoire achéménide, où je mettais à jour toute la bibliographie sur l’empire achéménide. Au fur et à mesure des années, je voyais apparaître des documentations nouvelles dans tous les pays de l’empire, de Samarkand à Sardes, et l’idée m’est venue comme une évidence : la seule façon de les rassembler et de les mettre à disposition de tout le monde, c’était d’utiliser internet. J’avais été sensibilisé à internet après mes nombreux voyages aux États-Unis, à la fin des années 80. Je me souviens qu’alors, un collègue et ami à Chicago me dit : « Veux-tu commander du foie gras sur internet? Je vais sur Yahoo ». Je ne savais pas ce que ça voulait dire. Quand je suis revenu en France, je me suis dit qu’il fallait que j’aie le courrier électronique. Fort heureusement, j’étais à Toulouse et à la fac des sciences, il y avait un serveur dédié. Mon premier courrier électronique date donc de 1990 (

KB : Et Achemenet?

PB : Lorsque je suis arrivé au Collège de France en 1999, j’ai trouvé quelqu’un qui pouvait m’aider techniquement, et un collègue, Francis Joannès, qui travaille sur les tablettes babyloniennes d’époque achéménide, prêt à collaborer avec enthousiasme. La première démonstration du site d’Achemenet a eu lieu en juillet 2000, lors de la Rencontre assyriologique internationale, qui a eu lieu au Collège de France. Après, nous avons élargi le champ de collaborations, changé des techniques, etc. Achemenet a maintenant 17 ans.

KB : C’est un adolescent!

PB : Voilà! L’idée de départ était de pouvoir mettre en ligne toutes les documentations primaires qui sont relatives à l’histoire impériale achéménide, tous les textes dans toutes les langues (araméen, élamite, babylonien, grec, etc.), les documentations iconographiques, les monnaies, etc. Ce qu’on a commencé à faire et ce qu’on va continuer à faire en établissant d’autres collaborations. J’ai pu mener à bien la création de ce programme grâce à l’aide du Collège de France et à l’aide du CNRS. Je dois ajouter que, dans la phase de rénovation totale du site (2010-2012), nous avons bénéficié également de l’aide de Fondations privées et publiques, telles que la Fondation du Collège de France, la Fondation Bettencourt-Schueller, The Iran Heritage Foundation, the Soudavar Memorial Foundation et the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute. Mais, bien sûr, le travail de rassemblement et d’interprétation des documents fut mené grâce à la collaboration de collègues de nombreux pays.

Je vais maintenant transmettre le flambeau à un jeune collègue qui est au CNRS, Damien Agut (CNRS/UMR ARSCAN, Nanterre[4]), un spécialiste de l’Egypte du premier millénaire, qui, avec Michel Chauveau, a mis en ligne sur Achemenet les ostraka démotiques d’Ayn-Manawîr. Je suis particulièrement heureux de ce qui est une editio princeps en ligne! Le site sera très bientôt hébergé sur un serveur du CNRS[5].

Il faut considérer qu’à l’heure actuelle, la chaire que j’ai occupée au Collège de France de 1999-2012 était la seule dans le monde qui était dédiée spécifiquement à l’empire achéménide. La seule comparable est à l’EPHE. Depuis 6 ans, un jeune collègue hollandais (Wouter Henkelman) y enseigne le monde élamite, et plus particulièrement est chargé de la publication d’une partie importante des tablettes de Persépolis, dont il a mis une centaine en ligne sur Achemenet.

Mais il convient de ne pas être trop pessimiste non plus. Si l’histoire achéménide n’est pas actuellement enseignée régulièrement, c’est aussi en raison de la division du travail érudit, qui amène tel-le ou tel-le à se spécialiser sur les textes araméens, sur les textes démotiques, sur les textes babyloniens, ou bien encore sur l’archéologie, l’iconographie ou la numismatique. Chacun de ces collègues introduit une facette de l’histoire achéménide à ses étudiants. C’est ce qui rend encore plus décisive (à mes yeux) l’existence d’un site et d’un programme comme Achemenet, qui contribue puissamment au développement des connaissances sur l’histoire achéménide dans le monde. Le montre très clairement la revue en ligne que nous avons créée en 2002 sous le nom ARTA : depuis lors, plus de cinquante articles ont été publiés; ce sont souvent des articles très longs et très illustrés, car la publication sur internet le permet; par ailleurs, ces articles sont presque uniquement consacrés à la publication et à l’analyse historique de documents nouveaux ou/et récents, aussi bien des documents écrits que des documents iconographiques et archéologiques. Cette revue est venue combler une lacune, puisque c’est la seule revue exclusivement dédiée aux études achéménides. Qui plus est l’accès est aisé et libre : chacun-e peut télécharger les articles comme bon lui semble. Bref, pour un champ comme celui-ci, avoir la possibilité de s’exprimer sur internet est vraiment la seule façon de diffuser les connaissances, de susciter des vocations et des collaborations.

KB : Qu’est-ce qui selon vous explique cette quasi absence de chaire universitaire d’histoire achéménide dans le monde?

PB : Plusieurs raisons expliquent ce phénomène. D’abord, l’histoire achéménide est prise en étau, entre trois mâchoires : La Grèce ‘éternelle’, l’Égypte ‘millénaire’, et l’Orient ‘mystérieux’. Je veux dire par là qu’il y a trois champs de recherche qui sont très bien individualisés et repérés : l’histoire grecque, l’égyptologie, et l’histoire du Proche-Orient aux 3e et 2er millénaires avant notre ère. Ainsi au Collège de France, il y a régulièrement une chaire d’égyptologie, une autre d’assyriologie, et il y a toujours un ou plusieurs spécialiste(s) du monde grec et romain. Traditionnellement – je ne dis pas que tous les chercheurs pensent encore ainsi – l’histoire de l’ « Orient » s’arrêtait avec la prise [la chute!] de Babylone par Cyrus en 539, ce qui est le début de l’histoire achéménide (même si la préhistoire élamite de l’empire donne lieu actuellement à des études très importantes). Les égyptologues concentraient traditionnellement leur attention sur les hautes périodes. Pour les hellénistes, les Achéménides apparaissaient lors des guerres médiques et de la conquête d’Alexandre. Il n’y avait pas un champ dédié à l’empire achéménide en tant que tel. C’est ce que j’ai essayé de faire à ma mesure en essayant de me rendre familier de chacun de ces secteurs, de manière à concevoir le livre que j’ai écrit en 1992-1993 et qui est paru en 1996 (Histoire de l’Empire perse).

Un autre facteur est linguistique. Prenons l’Égypte pharaonique : Vous devez apprendre les hiéroglyphes. Ce n’est pas si simple que ça, mais fondamentalement, ce n’est pas une tâche surhumaine. L’assyriologie : vous apprenez le cunéiforme et les langues que véhicule cette écriture (il y a de nombreuses subdivisions linguistiques à l’intérieur de ce champ). La Grèce : vous apprenez le grec (et le latin). Si vous voulez travailler sur l’Empire achéménide, à plus forte raison sur plusieurs régions à la fois, vous devez être capable d’utiliser les sources grecques (épigraphiques ou littéraires), mais aussi et surtout les sources proprement achéménides, c’est-à-dire les inscriptions royales (mais elles ne sont pas nombreuses), les textes araméens, lyciens, phrygiens, égyptiens (en hiéroglyphique ou en démotique), élamites, babyloniens etc. Aujourd’hui la situation pour les étudiants est plus aisée que ce que j’ai connu au début des années 70’ du siècle dernier. En particulier s’ils travaillent à Paris, Londres, Chicago, ou Leiden,  ils ont accès à des cours de grec, de cunéiforme, d’élamite, d’araméen, etc. Le problème vient plus tard : peu de directeurs conseilleront à un étudiant même motivé de faire une thèse en histoire achéménide, tout simplement parce qu’il-elle ne trouvera pas à l’université de poste qui corresponde à sa formation de chercheur. C’est là évidemment l’obstacle fondamental au développement des études achéménides, non seulement en France mais dans tous les pays du monde.

KB : Vous pensez donc que la question du multilinguisme des sources achéménides est un facteur central?

PB : Ce n’est pas ça qui est central. Il faut qu’il y ait à un moment donné des gens seniors et juniors qui pensent que faire de l’histoire achéménide est fondamental, que ce n’est pas seulement un champ périphérique, mais un champ qui a sa propre légitimité scientifique. Je me souviendrai toujours d’un manuel sur l’histoire du Proche-Orient ancien fait par quelqu’un de tout à fait remarquable, Paul Garelli, qui était paru dans les années 60’ dans la collection Nouvelle Clio. L’histoire achéménide y était traitée dans la section des « mondes périphériques ».  En revanche, si vous avez cette conscience première du caractère fondamental de l’histoire achéménide, les choses sont plus claires. Même sans maîtriser les quinze langues de l’empire, les étudiants peuvent se lancer dans l’aventure. Je l’ai fait de façon empirique. J’ai travaillé sur les traductions de textes élamites, ensuite directement sur les textes eux-mêmes. Et puis en même temps je travaillais sur les traductions des textes babyloniens et araméens, et je regardais en parallèle le texte original et lisais tous les articles de philologues. Donc ce n’est pas facile, mais on peut y arriver, à condition de s’en donner les moyens. Par contre, sans base institutionnelle dans les universités, c’est très difficile. Il faut accepter de travailler en franc-tireur, ce que j’ai fait jusqu’en 1982-1983, date à laquelle j’ai noué des liens étroits avec des chercheurs, qui, dans différents pays, se trouvaient confrontés aux mêmes difficultés. De ce point de vue, mon élection au Collège de France est à marquer d’une pierre blanche, non seulement pour moi-même, mais pour la discipline, qui a eu dès lors une vitrine, rendue plus attirante encore (si je puis dire) grâce à l’organisation de colloques, de séminaires, publiés dans une collection créée alors (Persika), grâce aussi bien sûr à Achemenet.

KB : Qu’en est-il de la relève? Êtes-vous optimiste?

PB : Oui et non. Je vais commencer par le non. Non, parce que l’histoire achéménide est à la mode, mais auprès de gens qui sont essentiellement de formation classique, et qui ne travaillent pas systématiquement sur les sources achéménides. Un courant s’est même créé en Grande-Bretagne qui veut se poser en opposition aux Achaemenid workshops. Ces Workshops ont été créés en 1980 à Gröningen aux Pays-Bas par Helen Sancisi-Weerdenburg puis internationalisés à partir de 1983 sous la direction commune d’Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg et d’Amélie Kuhrt : elles voulaient lancer une nouvelle conception de l’histoire achéménide, que j’avais moi-même déjà proposée indépendamment depuis une dizaine d’années. J’y ai d’ailleurs participé régulièrement, et j’ai régulièrement collaboré avec Helen (jusqu’à sa disparition en 2000) et avec Amélie[7]. On disait grosso modo : les sources grecques, oui, mais il faut les utiliser avec beaucoup d’esprit critique, et pour faire de l’histoire achéménide, il faut recourir, d’abord, aux sources qui proviennent directement de cet empire (évidemment avec le même esprit critique). C’était d’une rare évidence. Mais, contrairement à ce que prétend une polémique absurde et stérile, personne n’a jamais proposé de ne plus recourir aux sources classiques (Cf. e.g. Histoire de l’empire perse [1996: 713-715] : Une autre source « achéménide », les historiens d’Alexandre, ou Darius in the shadow of Alexander [2015: x-xv]).

Pour ce qui est de la part positive de la question précédente, je dis aussi « oui » parce que des changements s’opèrent dans plusieurs secteurs. D’abord le domaine de la Babylonie achéménide a connu un développement absolument fantastique ces 15 dernières années, en raison de la mise à disposition de ressources documentaires du British Museum. Il en va de même de la Babylonie hellénistique, non plus uniquement à partir des sources hellénistiques grecques, mais surtout à partir de la documentation babylonienne en cunéiforme. Ce champ s’est développé dans des proportions considérables dans tous les pays européens et aux États-Unis. Ces chercheurs sont conscients de la nécessité d’étudier la Babylonie du 1er millénaire avant notre ère, soit de faire le lien entre la période achéménide et la période hellénistique, jusqu’à la période parthe. On pourrait faire la même remarque, ou presque, à propos de l’Égypte entre l’époque saïte et l’époque hellénistique, ou encore à propos de l’Anatolie, sans parler de la Bactriane.

La seconde partie de l’entrevue est disponible ici

Notes, texte français




[7] Elle vient de traduire en anglais 28 des articles de P.Briant. Ceux-ci sont désormais réunis dans Kings, Countries and Peoples. Selected studies on Achaemenid History (Oriens et Occidens 26), Stuttgart, 2017.


Decolonizing CanLit Prize Culture

Decolonizing CanLit Prize Culture

by Karina Vernon

One by one the prominent players in Canada’s news and culture industries who so brazenly broadcast their support of a fictional “Appropriation Prize” last week are issuing apologies and stepping away from their high-profile positions. But the struggle for justice in Canada’s culture industries is far from over.

Hal Niedzviecki, the writer who penned the editorial “Winning the Appropriation Prize” has resigned his position as editor of The Writers’ Union of Canada’s quarterly journal after writing, “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so—the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.” Jonathan Kay, who called on Twitter for the establishment of an actual Appropriation Prize last week has now stepped down as editor of The Walrus; on Wednesday the CBC announced that Steve Ladurantaye, who pledged on Twitter $100 to found the Appropriation Prize, has been removed from his position as managing editor of The National.

That these three have stepped away from their high-power positions as culture brokers is a necessary thing. Their public support for an Appropriation Prize is a brazen affront to Indigenous people across Turtle Island, to Indigenous writers, to writers of colour, and to their own colleagues in the media. As Indigenous critic Jesse Wente pointed out during his soul-shaking interview with Matt Galloway on CBC Metro Morning, to not “believe” in cultural appropriation, as Hal Niedzviecki so bluntly put it, is to be willfully blind to the material and social conditions that underpin our everyday existence as people in this country. “We have to understand that cultural appropriation is institutionalized, it is the very foundation of what Canada is built on,” Wente said. “And not just cultural appropriation, but appropriation of all things Indigenous: our lives, our lands. This is what this nation was founded on. It was the policy of the government to do this. To ignore, to pretend now, that we somehow have moved on beyond this and that somehow we’re all on equal footing and thus we can all share equitably is to fail in your responsibility as a storyteller.”

While these three elites of Canada’s culture industries have stepped down, they leave in place and intact, all the institutions and cultural structures that put them there in the first place. What we need is a deep rethinking of CanLit’s deeply-embedded neocolonial structures along the lines outlined by TWUC’s Equity Task Force. As Joshua Whitehead puts it in his powerful “Notes on Indiginegativity: An Addendum” “CanLit is burning and has been for quite some time […] Here’s what I found in the aftermath: I am not CanLit, my words don’t recognize canonic or tectonic borders, I have all of Turtle Island to nourish and energy with my story. I am not CanLit. I am an Indigenous storyteller writing for Turtle Island, I am Indigenous Lit.”

Despite decades of work and struggle, CanLit’s institutional structures and cultures remain, as have been revealed again and again this year, deeply colonial. This also includes CanLit’s prize culture. It is telling to me that Niedzviecki writes in his editorial, “My writing advice is in opposition to [the] traditional axiom. I say: Write what you don’t know. Get outside your own head. Relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you, who you didn’t grow up with, who don’t share your background, bank balance and expectations. Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize.” To Niedzvieki, the “big goal” of writing is not writing itself nor the personal and social transformations that brilliant writing enacts; the goal of writing is the winning of a prize. No doubt awards such as the Scotiabank Giller, the CBC Canada Reads contest and the Governor General’s Literary Awards, to name only a few, help to shed light on and make stars of Canadian authors, and as such, are crucially important to the publishing industry. It is wonderful when prizes serve to elevate marginalized voices; when they help bring important issues and histories to prominence, and when prize money goes to help support writers who need it. But the sense that these prizes perpetuate is that writing is an individual—not a collective—achievement. Prize culture is rooted in the western political philosophy of individualism: prizes serve to exalt an individual writer and their achievement rather than acknowledging the ways words and stories are always tied to larger contexts. This is, after all, how the phenomenon of Joseph Boyden was created.

But there are other models. In The Land We Are: Writers and Artists Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation, editors Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill and Sophie McCall speak about Rebecca Belmore’s work Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, a work produced in 1990 in the wake of the Mohawk uprising at Kanesatake. In Balmore’s land instillation, larger-than-life wooden megaphones are tilted toward the land, inviting Indigenous people to speak to the land they wish to protect (1). Such artistic practices acknowledge the ways that art draws on collective resources, including land water and air, and is tied to collective communities, past, present and future.

What if instead of prizes for individual authors we think for a time about literature prizes going to the communities that help support them? Can we think about literary prize money going to land and water defenders, and to the communities that help support them? Can we begin to think of literary prizes being awarded to collectivities, to community groups, organizations and presses that help bring writers and their words to light? How can we transform CanLit in these and other ways to build a revitalized and truly equitable literary culture?

Karina Vernon is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toronto

A “global message of unity, peace and understanding”? Pepsi’s white, privileged gaze on protesting bodies

A “global message of unity, peace and understanding”? Pepsi’s white, privileged gaze on protesting bodies

Pepsi made the buzz for all the wrong reasons this week with its “Join the conversation” ad featuring Kendall Jenner as a top model-turned-social healer. In face of the massive backlash it faced on social media, the American multinational finally pulled out the controversial ad and released this statement:

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

That no one at Pepsi thought for a moment that there was something insensitive and utterly inappropriate in the scenario of this ad, in its use of Black Lives Matter references, and in the starring of Kendall Jenner – a young woman whose private and public life couldn’t be more disconnected from the plight of millions of young, impoverished and marginalized Americans – is simply baffling, all the more so in the context of the current, Trumpian administration. There is of course nothing new in companies trying to capitalize on social movements for mercantile aims (one can remember how, as early as last Fall, Toronto store Serpentine appropriated Black Lives Matter to promote Black Friday sales). Yet this particular ad is particularly interesting in that the supposedly “global message of unity, peace and understanding” it stages is all but that. Instead, it promotes a white privileged, Americanocentric vision of diversity that is altogether sweetened, edulcorated, trivialised, and ultimately totalitarian. This is visible not only in what it shows – and this is certainly what has attracted the most attention by viewers – but also in what it doesn’t show.

First, this is not a protest! The march featured in the ad is a staged street-party and the police are simply safeguarding and protecting citizens, so-called equal participants of a shared conversation. The policemen are, well, men. They are young, they are good looking, and the Pepsi-drinking one seems somewhat happy to have an opportunity to flirt with a member of the Kar-Jenner clan. All references to the real militarization of police forces, a phenomenon that is on the rise in the USA and elsewhere in the world, are absent: No massive number of officers, only one helmet in sight, no combat unit, no arm in hands, no tear gas tanks, no water hoses, no horses, no tanks. As for the marchers, they are all young, happy, and seemingly free. In short, they seem to be en route for Coachella more than participants in a politically-charged march. One almost feels like casually quoting Voltaire’s “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”.

In the light of the rise of social movements in and outside the USA that followed the 2009 economic crisis, and in the light of the massive protests that have been staged recently against police violence and Trump’s regime, how much more out of touch can an advertisement be and how much more naive can the Pepsi commercial-makers be in assuming that people would embrace this supposedly feel-good ad? If anything, it has served to alienate young citizens (visibly its target audience) of today who actually consider themselves political and who may have participated in a protest. The thing is, protests are becoming a more common feature of our life – whether we watch them online and on tv, participate in them, or know someone who does – and as such become good material for advertising campaigns, whose main aim is profit and not social justice (references to Mad Men’s Don Draper by some of the ad’s critics are right on point in that regard). Another recent example that comes to mind is Chanel’s Spring 2015 Protest runway, which took place in 2014. Presented as a feminist act, the show, created by Chanel’s designer Karl Lagerfeld, did also face some backlash, but not to the extent Pepsi’s ad did. Importantly, apart from street fences, it did not feature references to police or coercive forces.


The Pepsi ad does also a good job at exploiting racial stereotypes: Easy clichés include the hard-working, sweaty Asian cello player, who is both passionate about music and persuaded by activism; the dancing black men, who portray the stereotype of hip-hop and street dance linked to blackness; Kendall’s black assistant, whom she throws her blonde wig at before joining the march; and the black and brown Muslim bodies that replace and simultaneously make conspicuously absent the Arab Muslim (this absence acts as a telling Freudian slip on the part of Pepsi). A particularly troubling character is the South-Asian looking, hijab-wearing photographer, whose main purpose in the ad is to convey the idea that Muslim young women are not defined by their veil. The current strength of this fetishizing trope in American culture, media, and advertisement has already been commented upon. Yet Pepsi also reinforces and invalidates this simplistic message in other ways: The photographer is the only individual in the whole ad whose religious affiliation is made clear (unless we assume that the black young man wearing a beige tunic and hat is a Muslim, in which case we’d have two identifiable Muslims vs no other identifiable member of religious communities), and she is also the only one with a ring on her marriage finger. Her character does not participate in the march. Rather, as she seems upset not to have any worthy picture in her studio, she hears the street rumour and runs outside in search of good photo opportunities. Her female, Muslim, married identities therefore both define her and strip her of complexity. As a photographer, she is able to exist and thrive as a witness – not an actor – of the protest.


What about the fact that the peace-making role is given to a white, wealthy, ultrafamous reality tv star-turned-supermodel who joins the walk towards its end, after she has been winked at by the Asian cello player? The ad, as well as the many hilarious memes it has generated, speak for themselves.

We’d like to draw a parallel between Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi performance and the famous 2004 Super Bowl’s Pepsi ad, which, contrary to the 2016 one, was – and still is – a hit. Set in a Roman amphitheater, it features Beyoncé, Pink, and Britney Spears. The three women play sexy-looking yet fiesty gladiators who, through a passionate rendition of Queen’s “We will rock you”, unite instead of fighting each other, thereby succeeding in turning the audience against the despotic emperor, who is played by Enrique Iglesias. The ad ends with the women throwing Pepsi cans at the cheering, toga-wearing crowd, while a lion pops up behind the fallen – and soon-to-be-devoured – despotic emperor.


Like the Chanel fashion show mentioned above, this ad aims at promoting a feminist message. While Karl Lagerfeld’s protest walk directly echoed French protest culture, the 2004 Pepsi ad layered feminism in historical (the Roman games; the despotic Roman emperor) and Orientalist (the sexy, exotic, female warrior) tropes. Both the 2004 and the 2016 ads share common narrative features: sexualized female heroin(s) played by world-known American stars; an instrumentalized crowd; a face-to-face with authority of which the heroin(s) comes out victorious; an uplifting tune from music legends (Queen/the Marley family). Why, then, did the 2004 ad become so successful why the 2016 one had to be pulled out? The answer may lie in the focus of the ad: In the 2004 one, the supreme heroins are the three gladiators. They lead the narrative from start to end. They are fierce, empowered, active. They, as their song, rock. They sing at the crowd, not at the emperor, who is relegated to a comic, disempowered role. In the 2016 one, the narrative revolves around the marchers. The photographer, the cello player, and Kendall Jenner join a movement that is already in full motion. The supermodel doesn’t share Beyoncé, Pink and Britney’s fierceness. Her role is a mute one. She does not say, scream, nor sing a single word. She does not contest nor resist authority. She does not fight for her life. And although she joins the march, the emphasis is put on her peaceful, almost flirtatious encounter with the policeman. Kendall’s character is not an empowered feminist, social, nor political activist (if she would have been, she wouldn’t have thrown her wig at her black, female assistant!). Rather, she represents white privilege, in all its obliviousness, naïveté, and patronizing glory.

What to make of all this? By reproduction these stereotypes and silencing these bodies, Pepsi alienated the true subject (the ‘protestor’) to a lifeless identity that is unrecognizable to itself. Also present is a level of exploitation and ontological impoverishment, as well as the denial of the realities of risk and violence usually involved in protests, where the police are armed to the teeth and ready to respond aggressively. The paradox of the advertisement is that in presenting protests as fun-loving and peaceful events where the police are open to sharing a can of Pepsi with the protestors, Pepsi presents the viewers with an appearance of recognition. However it is a false recognition, of co-operation, peace and hope, that denies the dehumanizing practices that commonly lead people to protest in the first place – where racism, sexism and subjugation are realities and not simply packaged as opportunities for getting together. The protesting bodies become capitalistic objects of marketing, as well as merchandise and tools in a logic of neoliberalism. That might be where the “global” in Pepsi’s ad lies.

Katherine Blouin and Girish Daswani

Katherine Blouin is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Toronto

Girish Daswani is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto