It is not from Montesquieu's "Persian Letters" that we will learn about Persia.
In the days when the schoolmaster cleared our brains and filled them with historical notions, we knew that Persia was one of the empires whose origins went back long before the origin of Christ.
The names of Cyrus and Darius blazed in the retrospect of a past of glory and wisdom, that Rome had not been born, and a long dynasty of rulers had illustrated that throne which the laws of Zoroaster enveloped with the virtue of their precepts.
But so much has been unlearned that it is hardly possible to retain in our memories a few very pale and rudimentary fragments of the history of the Persians, just enough to know almost nothing about it.
The popular imagination has charged it with the task of teaching it about Persia. A great desert with oases and camels, leathers, weapons, extraordinary carpets, a King of Kings whose guttural and emphatic name it is impossible for him, in spite of his good will, to remember, who from time to time abandons his palaces and gardens of Teheran, his harems and his favourites, to visit the capitals of Europe, and who, like a hero of a thousand and one nights, moves around in a constellation of stones, a halo of diamonds. This is enough to satisfy his thirst for knowledge and his appetite for history.
There is, however, something else than this overly simplistic conception.
There is a Persia which, for 2,500 years, has always been there when so many nations and kingdoms shaken by revolutions, trampled by invasions, stolen by conquests, are wiped off the map of Europe, and it is already a lot to reach the age of the great patriarchs.
There is a Persia which, for long centuries, remained frozen in its oriental fatalism, incarcerated in the immobility of its traditions, buried in the lethargy of its ideas, around which the rumours of progress came to die as the waves of the sea break madly against the hostility of the rocks, and which, for the last fifty years, has been pushing back this torpor which has left it in a state of inertia, has been pushing back the torpor that was atrophying it, pushing back the laziness that was eating away at it, and regaining the courage and will to modernise, to build railways and roads, to welcome new industries, to open up affably to foreigners, to come closer to other nations and to follow them in their civilising march.
And it is perhaps for this reason that of all the peoples of the East, the best sympathies and the best encouragements go to her, because one feels how hard the effort must be, how painful the stage, how slow the ascent, and how much merit there is in recovering by a new orientation.
The Persian section opens with a monumental door meticulously copied from that of the palace in Tehran, brightened up with these green and blue tones, whose crudeness is not outrageous in these countries of radiant light.
On the pediment, the Persian lion, the sword and the imperial diadem. At the back of the section, a tiny but sumptuous salon, dominated by a beautiful portrait of the Shah, his chest crossed by a large light blue cord.
Armchairs and stools of white satin, strewn with gold and blue embroidery, hangings and carpets of high luxury form the furnishings.
In the centre of the compartment, superb samples speak to us of the country's wealth: gallnuts, sulphur, opium, rice, figs, almonds, grapes, sesame, cotton, and rose water, with the delicacy of its scent, the sweetness of its perfume reminds us that the rose is as dear to the Persians as the chrysanthemum is to the Japanese, the peppery carnation to Spain, the edelweiss to Switzerland.
A showcase contains lamps, amphorae, necklaces, cups, frames, boxes, a whole collection of engraved jewellery, chiselled to perfection, with an exquisite love of detail; the Mes manufactures persanes group has collected priceless turquoise stones that eternally retain that enigmatic and almost human blue that turns green when the stone is heading towards death, trays adorned with the most beautiful and precious stones, and a collection of other objects.
and which are eternally preserved in that enigmatic and almost human blue which turns green as the stone moves towards death; trays adorned with ivory designs; coins of the highest antiquity and sunk into the ground in distant times; red copper whose brilliance has not been dulled by eight centuries.
And then there are, from Mr. Sifico, rare pieces, museum pieces for the admirability of their work and the respectability of their age, a Koran whose parchment is decorated with illuminations of extraordinary execution, weapons inlaid and damascened by workers who seem to put all their soul into the perfection of their work, a waistcoat
of King Antiochus, mosaics and earthenware of every splendour, carpets...
Carpets! What can be said about them that has not been said a hundred times. Incalculable riches amassed slowly, day by day, as if successive generations were devoutly passing on to each other like a sacred heritage the formula for enclosing the shimmering prism of colours in the canvas of wool, the science of nuanced and diaphanous combinations, the secret of colours over which wear and tear has no hold and of which a century cannot succeed in attenuating the vivacity and fading the brightness; marvels whose hands linger to caress the velvety texture as if they emanate a soft and voluptuous magnetism of milky flesh or of the down of these black swans whose indolent beauty glides over the deep ponds starred by water lilies.
©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition Universelle de Liège 1905