António de Gouveia and the Fascination with Persepolis

Exhibition poster with a photograph of Antoin Sevruguin

By Ivo Dos Santos Martins

Until 6 May 2018 the National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden) in Leiden is hosting the exhibition Fascination with Persepolis. This exhibition is inspired by the work of photo-historian Dr. Corien Vuurman whose doctoral dissertation was published in 2015. Although relatively small, the exhibition takes full advantage of its limited space to convene a coherent and compelling narrative of the men and women who contributed to unveiling Persepolis anew. Not included in this iconographic exhibition for obvious reasons (there isn’t a single image that depicts him), is the Portuguese priest Fryer António de Gouveia (1575-1628), who was one of those rediscoverers.

A walk through the exhibition
Such a long fascination is fittingly represented by two diametrically opposed exhibits. At the entrance of the ‘Muse hall’, the visitor is greeted by a 17th century fanciful engraving while, at the far end of the gallery, a 21st century 3D reconstruction plays on a small monitor. The engraving is the artwork of Jan Janzoon Struys, who visited Persepolis around 1672, and was one of the first depictions of the site to have reached Europe. The lack of realism is striking.

Struys’ idyllic representation of the royal tomb of Persepolis

The digital reconstruction was released in 2004 as part of the documentary Iran: Seven Faces of Civilization by Iranian scholar Dr. Farzin Rezaeian. In it, the entire complex is recreated from drone footage in accordance with paper-based reconstructions by Frederich Krefter (1971).

Between the dreamlike imagination of the oldest drawing and the digital accuracy of modern reconstructions, a diverse range of images and objects illustrates the journey to rediscovery of ancient Persepolis. Plates, photographs, modern objects and archeological artifacts illustrate the work of travelers, archaeologists, diplomats and photographers.

Several books from the Leiden University Library collection are among them. Noteworthy are the travel accounts by Struys (1676), Cornelius de Bruijn (1711) and Jean Chardin (1711), the Atlas of P. Coste and E. Flandin (1851) and the panoramic photographs of Marcel Dieulafoy (1894-5) and E. F. Schmidt (1953). An album showing two platine-printed photographs taken by Albert Hotz, who is credited as the first Dutch photographer to have visited the Persepolis Plain in 1871, is part of the same collection.

Gate of All Nations: Early photograph by Luigi Pesce (1858)

Of the diverse iconographic material reunited in the exhibition, the pioneering photographs of the Italian Luigi Pesce (1858), the semi-professional photographs of the Iranian Sam Ala of the Khan Estakri family (1930’s), that of German writer Annemarie von Nathuis (1924), several Iranian family photos of the 1950-60’s (coll. Kanran Najafzdeh), and the professional photographs of Harold Weston (1921) and a photograph of Queen Julianna and Shah Reza Pahlavi amid the columns of Persepolis (1963) stand out.

The object on display which no doubt lures the attention of any visitor is a complete nineteen century photographic set including a concertina-type travel camera, plates and developing chemicals and accessories from 1858 (Ruud Hoff collection). A small vitrine contains a few archaeological artifacts found at Persepolis. These include two bags with fifty-five pottery sherds from the 1923 Ernest Herzfeld’s excavations (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin coll.); three clay tablets from Persepolis archives recording legal matters (RMO coll.); and a small stone-slab from the palace of Darius I depicting a Persian soldier in bas-relief (RMO coll.). Regrettably, little reference is made to the major archeological excavations initiated in 1931. These excavations, which brought to light most of the complex, were conducted under the direction of Ernest Herzfeld (1931-1934) and Erich Schmidt (1934-1939) and promoted by the Oriental Institute of Chicago.

Older “fascinations”
Fascination with Persepolis centers on Europeans travelers and their iconographic records of the last four centuries. However, the appeal of the ruins of Čehel Menār captured the imaginations of earlier European travelers as well. Moreover, European curiosity for Persepolis extends far beyond iconographic sources and archeological excavations. As is briefly mentioned in the exhibition, European visitors have traversed the Marv Dasht plain since the 14th century. The Italians Fryer Odoric of Pordenone (ca. 1318) and Josafat Barbaro (1474) were the first to leave a written records of their visits (Vuurman 2015:26).

Gradually, European voyages through Safavid Persia (1502-1736) become more numerous and frequent. Indeed, António de Gouveia reports that, by the early 17th century, the great affluence of visitors was felt as a nuisance to the inhabitants of the Marv Dasht plain: “The inhabitants of the place, oppressed, or bored of the many people who came to see this marvel, armed themselves several days against it working as much on unmaking it, as what it probably took to make it…” (Gouveia, 1611: f.32).

This was a result both of the European age of expansion and of the strategic importance of Safavid Persia as a counterweight to the growing power of the Ottoman Empire. The voyages of Geofry Ducket (1569), Pietro della Valle (1621), Garcia de Silva e Figueroa (1619), Jean Chardain (1666), J.J. Struys (1672) and Cornelius de Bruijn (1704-5) are to be understood within this context.

Besides these, several Portuguese voyagers journeyed in Persia during this period. With the capture of the island of Hormuz (Jazīreh-ye Hormoz) in 1515, a privileged gateway into Persia was opened and various Portuguese ventured inland: diplomats seeking the Sha’s alliance, missionaries linking up with isolated Christian communities, shipwrecked seafarers wishing to reach Europe via Aleppo.

António de Gouveia
The account of António de Gouveia (or Gouvea following its original spelling), an Augustinian missionary and diplomat, stands out from other Portuguese travel literature. His book, Relaçam em que se tratam as guerras e grandes victorias que alcançou o grãde Rey da Persia Xá Abbas do grão Turco Mahometto, & seu filho Amethe (…),was published in 1611. In it, Gouveia significantly contributes towards the identification of Persepolis and the first modern report on the cuneiform writing system.

Front page of António de Gouveia’s Relaçam em que se tratam as guerras (1611)

António de Gouveia was born in 1575 in Beja, Portugal. Professing as an Augustinian in Lisbon, he was posted to Goa in 1596. A few years later, Gouveia was chosen to lead the ninth Portuguese embassy to Persia. On 15 February 1602 Gouveia’s party set sail from Goa only arriving at Hormuz on April 10th. Another month would pass before the Portuguese delegation was allowed to set foot on Persian shores and start its search for the court of Shah ‘Abbās I (1588-1629), which they would find in late September in the city of Maxed (Mashhad) (Carreira 1980:93).

On the way there, António de Gouveia collects a vast array of information not only on Safavid Persia of political, religious and ethnographical interest, but also on historical matters. By virtue of his religious education, he shows considerable knowledge not only of Biblical but of Classical texts as well. Such background proves useful when Gouveia seeks to make sense of the oral information he receives and the reality of what he sees.

After a stay in Lara, the embassy reached the city of Xiraz (Xirás) on 15 June. Gouveia identified this city with Persepolis saying that in ancient times it was “the head of all the Kingdom of Persia” (Gouveia 1611, f.25v.). Gouveia associates to this city the story of Persepolis’ destruction by Alexander at the request of a friend. He was perhaps quoting from memory since he names Campaspe of Larissa instead of the Athenian Thais (Diodorus Siculus, Universal History VII:71).

“(Xiraz) is today thriving, even though it has been destroyed one time by the Tartars and another by the Arabs, not to speak of that ancient ruin to which Alexander the Great has once reduced it, ordering its burning to please Campaste (sic) his friend, who had so asked him, though later he repaid that damage in ordering its reconstruction.” (Gouveia 1611 [1609], f.26)

Evidently, Xiraz was not Persepolis. But when Gouveia reached nearby Chelminirá (Čehel Menār, i.e. “forty minarets”) he partially corrected the mistake. Refuting Joseph Barbaro’s claim that Xiraz had once stretched to the ruins, Gouveia reckons that these were potentially the remnants of an older city, eventually ancient Xiraz (Gouveia, 1611, f.31).

In a lengthy description of the ruins Gouveia mentions several details like the column’s capitals with “beautiful figures”, the dimensions of the columns and the big stone gates with “lions and other ferocious animals, who still appeared to want to instill fear” (Gouveia, 1611, f.31v.).

Gouveia’s interpretations of the tombs are drawn from Biblical texts and, unlike Barbaro before him (Vuurman 2015: 26), he is somewhat able to make an accurate identification… by chance. He attributes the three tombs to Cyrus, the Biblical Queen Vashti and the King Ahasuerus, whom he dubs to be one of the Artaxerxes (Gouveia, 1611 f.30). And indeed, one of Persepolis’ tombs belongs to Artaxerxes III (Carreira 1980:93).

All in all, António de Gouveia tends to be cautious when putting forward his interpretations. For example, he precludes himself from speculating on who might have been the builder of the complex, preferring instead to refer to a source which he cannot read:

“The letters which declare the foundation of this complex structure, and which should declare its author as well, though they are at several places quite distinct; alas there is no one who can read them, because they are neither Persian, nor Arabic, nor Armenian, nor Hebraic which are (the scripts) which today roam through those parts, and therefore everything contributes to let forget what the ambitious King desired so much to make eternal.” (Gouveia, 1611: f.32)

Cornelius de Bruijn’s copy of Persepolis’ inscription (1711)

Thankfully, these characters and the location of Persepolis didn’t remain enigmatic for much longer. Some ten years later, Gouveia’s diplomatic successor, the Spanish Garcia de Silva e Figueiroa, links Čehel Menār with Persepolis. In 1704-5 Cornelius de Bruijn’s reproduction of those same characters initiates 150 years of efforts to decipher cuneiform.


Achour-Vuurman, Corien J.M. (2015), Fascinatie voor Persepolis: Europese perceptie van Achaemenidische monumenten in schrift en beeld, van de veertiende tot het begin van de twintigste eeuw. Gronsveld: Barjesteh van Waalwijk van Doorn & Co’s Uitgeversmaatschappij.

Gouveia, António de (1611), Relaçam em que se tratam as guerras e grandes victorias que alcançou o grãde Rey da Persia Xá Abbas do grão Turco Mahometto, & seu filho Amethe (…). Lisboa: Pedro Crasbeeck, 25-32.

Carreira, José Nunes (1980), António de Gouveia e a Escrita Cuneiforme, in: Do Preste João às ruínas da Babilónia : viajantes Portugueses na rota das civilizações orientais. Lisboa: Editorial Comunicação, 83-94.

Across the Ocean – A trip to the USA in the service of Assyriology

By Melanie Groß

In mid-November 2017, when the sky over Leiden was grey and draped with clouds, I was given the opportunity to cross the big pond for a three week work and study trip. I visited some major cities on the east coast of the United States, which all had been founded in the early 17th century by European immigrants.

Boston Skyline

Boston, Massachusetts – A hotel full of scholars

My first station was the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts. There the Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) took place over four days (15–18 November). The event, which was the biggest of its kind ever, was opened in the evening of 15 November by the thought-provoking plenary address of Irene Winter reflecting on Archaeology, Object History and Art History. The following three days were packed with sessions from among which more than ten were held at the same time. The majority of the lectures in these sessions were related to Middle Eastern archaeology, ranging from the Neolithic period to Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and dealt especially with the Mediterranean and Levantine region and the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Northern Iraq, which in recent years has become one of the most attractive areas for Middle Eastern excavation campaigns.

Scholars presented current excavation projects and their findings including such gained from the application of ancillary archaeological disciplines like Archaeobotany and Zooarchaeology and of scientific examination methods including geological and biochemical analyses. Also the use and results of online and digital technologies including Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software and 3D modelling software were demonstrated in several lectures. In this regard I should mention in particular the multifaceted initiative CRANE (Computational Research on the Ancient Near East) whose activities were presented by several scholars. Moreover, important discussions were conducted in connection with Cultural Heritage Management and Cultural Diplomacy.

Old State House, Boston

A number of sessions were dedicated to special topics such as “Houses and Households”, “Feasting and Foodways”, “Senses and Sensibility” and “Seals, Sealing Practices and Administration”. These topics were addressed not only by archaeologists but also discussed from a historical point of view and on the basis of the textual sources. Also in the very inspiring workshop “Mesopotamian Civilizations: The Economic Scope of Institutional Households”, organised by Claudia Glatz, Jacob Lauinger and Piotr Michalowski, both archaeologists and philologists gave lectures about economic aspects of state institutions of periods such as Ur III and Middle Babylonian. It was in this context that I was given the opportunity to talk about the “Workforce of the Palace and Temple Institutions in the Neo-Assyrian Empire” as it appears in the palace documentation from Nineveh. Together with Ben Haring and Miriam Müller, I was one out of three people who represented the Institute of Area Studies (LIAS) of Leiden University.

Also from among the papers focussing on textual sources, several dealt with the application of digital technology and addressed methods such as text imaging, palaeography and semantic analysis in the spirit of Digital Humanities. Highly interesting was the presentation of Katrien De Graef about the “Prosopography of Old Babylonian Sippar” (SiProsOB), a relational database, which was established on the basis of more than 8,500 texts at Ghent University. Another fascinating talk given by Adam Anderson dealt with the application of network analysis in order to establish relations between c. 5,000 unprovenanced Old Assyrian texts. Both lectures were particularly interesting also in connection with the Leiden project “Persia and Babylonia” and the establishment of the database “Prosopography of Babylonia”.

North End, Boston

Several special meetings and receptions, including the Welcome Reception on Wednesday evening and the Harvard Museum Reception on Saturday evening, accompanied the intensive ASOR Conference program. On these occasions the conference participants could meet and get acquainted with each other and have a chat about current research projects and future collaborations over a glass of wine. Furthermore, the coffee breaks and lunch breaks provided the opportunity to stroll around between the poster presentations and browse recently published books presented at the publishers’ desks.

Before the conference had started off, I actually had the opportunity to visit the city of Boston. I explored the city on a cloudless day by walking the Freedom Trail. Along this trail one meets several historical sites and buildings and learns quite a lot about the American Revolution and key events such as the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party. I visited the Old State House, which had been the seat of the provincial governor of the British Empire before America’s independence – a scenario which reminded me of the Persian governor controlling the satrapy of Babylonia, walked through the old neighbourhood of the North End, which had received its typical flair from Italian immigrants, and climbed the former battle field Bunker Hill. Boston also has a Museum of Fine Arts, which houses an Ancient Near Eastern collection where you can look at Neo-Assyrian reliefs from Kalhu (Nimrud) and panels of the Ištar Gate from Babylon.

New Haven, Connecticut – A small city and a big University campus

 On Sunday, 19 November, I took the train and continued my trip along the east coast southwards. My next destination was New Haven, Connecticut, and the Yale Babylonian Collection. After my arrival I took a walk through the city and soon ended up strolling around the huge and impressive Yale University campus, which is dominated by Neo-Gothic buildings.

Sterling Memorial Library, New Haven

The next three days, 20–22 November, I spent my time in the Yale Babylonian Collection to study and take pictures of archival documents originating from 1st millennium Sippar in Babylonia. Founded by its first curator Albert T. Clay in 1911, the Yale Babylonian Collection is located in the Sterling Memorial Library since 1925 and houses more than 45.000 objects, mainly cuneiform tablets of all different text genres and from all different periods. Throughout my visit to the collection its current associate curator Agnete Wisti Lassen and Klaus Wagensonner provided me with advice and support and never grew tired to quickly find some other tablets for me. I experienced a very welcoming and relaxed atmosphere, which made me work at ease. The days passed by quickly and before I knew it I stood at New Haven’s train station again. It was Thursday morning or, more explicitly, the morning of Thanksgiving, one of the major national holidays in America.

Yale University Campus, New Haven

New York City – A quiet day and big crowds

 I was about to travel to New York City. Already at the station in New Haven, which seemed unusually quiet, I assumed that everyone was staying with family and friends. After having arrived at my accommodation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and after a walk through downtown Manhattan, I realised that this must be the most extraordinary day of the entire year in this country and especially in this major city. Well-known for its vibrancy, many parts of the city were deserted except perhaps from midtown Manhattan where the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade had taken place in the morning hours. I visited a few tourist attractions such as the Highline, an aerial greenway on the West Side of Manhattan, and the 9/11 Memorial, which in contrast to many other attractions were not closed on this special day. In the evening I luckily met a friend with whom I indulged in a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and let the evening fade away somewhere in Soho.

Empire State Building, New York City

After the stillness follows the storm. The storm came soon – what followed was Black Friday. Masses of people filled the underground trains, flowed through the shopping streets and were queuing at attractions. Less surprisingly, tourist magnets such as the Broadway, the Grand Central Terminal and the Rockefeller Centre were crowded with people. After a while I left all this behind and headed for a museum by no means I did want to miss. After I had gotten some fresh air in New York’s green lung Central Park, I went straight to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was pleased as punch and could not get rid of a permanent grin while seeing the Ancient Near Eastern Art collection but also other collections including those of Egyptian Art and of Greek and Roman Art. I stayed until the bitter end – that is, until closing time at 9.00 PM – in order to try to read cuneiform royal inscriptions through the vitrine glass, to look into the eyes of the Greek historian Herodotus and to enter the Roman Temple of Dendur like a priestess of Isis.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Nebuchadnezzar II Cylinder from Sippar, MET New York, MMA 85.15
Marble bust of Herodotus of Halikarnassos, MET New York, MMA 91.8

On my last day in New York City I decided to first spend some time away from the tourist crowds and went to a small and charming flea market in Brooklyn. After I had spent some dollars, I went one last time to Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge from where one can see at a distance the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island. I went back to the area of the Metropolitan Museum and visited the exquisite Frick Collection, got some food in Chinatown and looked for second hand books in the Strand Bookstore. After two days and approximately 20 hours on my feet I was glad to finally get some rest and have a good sleep. On Sunday morning, 26 November, I worked some hours in a bustling café in Williamsburg and, then, the time was already ripe to get to my final station Philadelphia.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Two cuneiform collections in one metropolis

Once I had arrived in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, I used the remaining hours before sunset to visit the city’s Old Town. One of the historically most important buildings there is the Independence Hall in which America’s independence from Great Britain was ratified in 1776. Furthermore, one can wonder at the Liberty Bell, which was rung the first time on the occasion of the public reading of the Independence Declaration on 8 July 1776.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Monday and Tuesday of the following week, 27–28 November, I worked in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Rare Book Department houses amongst other marvellous things the European and Oriental manuscripts collection as well as a collection of about 2,800 cuneiform tablets. Both collections were a gift of the lawyer and collector Mr. John Frederick Lewis and his widow Mrs. Anne Baker Lewis. While the majority of the cuneiform tablets dates to the Ur III period, I was again looking at archival documents from 1st millennium Sippar. The staff of the library department was extremely friendly and helpful and to my relief they never complained about my continuous requests for handing me over another of the precious clay tablets.

Free Library of Philadelphia

On Wednesday, for a change, I went to the other side of the metropolis and spend my day looking at and taking pictures of cuneiform tablets housed by the Babylonian Section of the Penn Museum. Its associate curators Grant Frame and Philip Jones made it possible that I could set eye on a number of tablets on a rather short notice. It was a great experience to sit and work in an office, which accommodates almost 30,000 tablets, and to have a “gezellige” lunch in the museum’s Pepper Mill Café. On Thursday morning I spent my last hours in Philadelphia again at the Rare Book Department before I had to say goodbye and make my way to the airport. Fortunately I arrived in Leiden on time and was able to attend the inaugural lecture of our project leader Caroline Waerzeggers. I admit, I was bit jetlagged but the prospect of the future of Assyriology, as it was set out by the new Professor of Assyriology, kept my eyes wide open.