By Alistair Bell
Friday, February 2, 2007; 6:45 AM
MEXICO CITY, Feb 2 (Reuters Life!) - Fascinated by cultures as old as their own, Mexicans are pouring into museum exhibitions in wonder at ancient Middle Eastern artifacts never before seen in the Western Hemisphere.
Nearly 14,000 people visited the "Persia, Fragments of Paradise" display from Iran in Mexico City's Anthropological Museum on a recent Sunday, the highest single-day attendance in years.
That followed a blockbuster show of Egyptian archeological artifacts here last year that was one of Mexico's most successful ever, pulling in 600,000 people in three months.
Some of the over 300 pieces in the Persia exhibition come from regional sites in Iran and have not been displayed in the capital Tehran before, never mind outside the country.
Jewelry, silverware, a headless statue of ancient King Darius I and a 14th century leather-bound Koran help trace the history of civilization in Iran from the stone age to the Qajar dynasty that ended in 1925 .
A stone plaque inscribed in cuneiform script from the ancient city of Persepolis, destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, is one of the highlights.
"I didn't know Iran had such fabulous stuff, like gold cups and statues," said retired clerk Sergio Zavala, 68, on his fourth visit to the Persia display. "I always used to think of Iran and Iraq just as places of conflict," he said.
Proud of their own pyramids and Aztec ruins, Mexicans have an easy affinity for other ancient cultures, said Mexico's national museums director Enrique Ortiz.
"One of our sources of national pride is obviously all our indigenous past and the same happens in Iran," he said.
IN THE NEWS
Governments boosted Mexico's museum culture by promoting the arts after the Mexican Revolution early in the last century and a growing middle class has flocked to archeological exhibitions in recent years.
Media coverage of the Middle East heightened interest in the Iran and Egypt exhibitions.
"They are in the news and that awakens a curiosity to find out about their cultures," said writer Homero Aridjis.
The exhibition coincides with an Iranian political offensive in Latin America. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an ally of U.S. foe Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, paid his second trip to the region in January.
While the Persia exhibition carried no political message, it gave Iran the chance to improve its image in a part of the world where it is often mistakenly taken for an Arab country, or associated only with the Iraq war and the nuclear standoff with the United States.
"Our idea was to show the real culture of Iran especially at this time when some people get the wrong idea through false information," said Roohi Sefat, the Iranian ambassador in Mexico.
Mexican authorities plan to take the show to two other venues, including Tijuana on the U.S. border. Chile and Colombia have shown an interest in hosting the exhibition once it leaves Mexico, museums director Ortiz said.