Movie: How are Iranians and Greeks portrayed?
Dr. Kaveh Farrokh
Written: November 30, 2004
Republished: November 28, 2006
Dr. Kaveh Farrokh
just released one of the latest of its epic blockbusters: Alexander
the Great. Directed by distinguished director Oliver Stone, the
movie endeavors to recreate the events of the Hellenic conquests
and the downfall of the first Persian Achaemenid Empire. It is important
to note however, that simply because a movie is high budget, casts
high profile Hollywood actors and is directed by top ranking directors,
does not make it flawless.
Beyond the entertainment
value of Oliver Stone's latest project, a number of serious errors
do exist in the movie, many which may appear trivial. These "trivial"
errors will nevertheless be of consequence to both Iranians and
it has been my Greek friends and colleagues who bought the flaws
of Oliver Stone's "Alexander" picture to my attention.
There are a total of five overall errors that will be listed and
(1) The Battle of Gaugamela:
has relied on Professor Robin Lane Fox, one of the world's foremost
experts in the area of Alexander and Hellenic Studies. His book
is a standard reference text in the area of Alexandrian Studies:
R.L. Fox. Alexander
the Great. London: Penguin, 1986 and 1994.
reviews of his book by critics and scholars, Dr. Fox does not understand
the military of ancient Persia. A typographical shot of the battle
of Gaugamela, shows the Greeks advancing in ordered and disciplined
ranks. In contrast, the armies of Darius III are shown as little
better than an amorphous mob. This is a false image of the Achaemenid
army. The Achaemenids used drums and musical instruments to direct
the marching tactics of their troops in battle. Second, the Achaemeneans
used the decimal system, which was in fact, unknown to the Greeks
of the period. Persian units were formed in legions of 10, 100 or
1000 or 10,000. A typical term was "Hezar-Patesh" (roughly
equivalent to "leader of a thousand men").
the Persians had developed a sophisticated system of heraldry and
their troops wore standard uniforms. The Greeks were certainly excellent
fighters and were thoroughly organized, but this does not mean that
the Persians were not. At the time, the Greeks were militarily superior
with respect to armaments, tactics and military training.
imbalance changed with the coming of the Parthian and Sassanian
cavalry. The Iranian Savaran (elite Cavalry) successfully halted
and defeated many of the later Greek-Hoplite inspired Roman armies.
Many Romans attempted to imitate Alexander and failed against Persia.
These include Marcus Lucinius Crassus at Carrhae, Marc Antony at
Tabriz (where he failed twice), Gordian III at Mesiche, Phillip
the Arab near modern Syria, Valerian at Barbablissos, and Julian
the Apostate in Mesopotamia. I personally doubt that Hollywood will
recreate these spectacular Roman defeats as these will challenge
contemporary western notions of the Alexandrian legacy. In addition,
many Iranians today are unaware of the proud legacy of the Parthian
and Sassanian Savaran.
elementary grasp of Iranian militaria should not inspire much confidence
with respect to accurate portrayals of Iranians in general. You
may wish to read the following books by Professors Sekunda and Head
who are experts on the uniforms, dress and equipment of the ancient
Greeks and Achaemenid Persians.
The Persian Army: 560-330 BC. England. Osprey Men at Arms Elite
D. Head. The
Achaemenid Persian Army. England: Montvert Publications, 1992.
There are many
errors with the uniforms portrayed as "Persian". As you
will see in these books, the colors and materials of Achaemenid
Persians were invariably bright with a mix of shades of purple,
Saffron, red dyes, shades of blue and green, mixed with darker browns
(almost Burgundy) and black. These fashions and regalia were resuscitated
during the Sassanian dynasty (226-651 AD). Only the Persian archers
(and a few guards) are shown with some accuracy; the same cannot
be said with respect to the other "Persians" of the movie
is the "Arabesque" way in which ancient Persians are portrayed
in this battle. I was shocked to see Arabian camel riders used to
portray one of the vanguards of Darius III's attack on Alexander
at the battle scene. Arabs were simply auxiliary units in the Achaemenean
army at the time, and were not a major factor. Camel troops were
never a major battle order in the armies of Persia. I also noticed
that an infantry troop of the Achaemenid advance guard was speaking
in Arabic. Persian is not related to Arabic; it is an Indo-European
language akin to the languages of Europe and India.
This may be
the usual Hollywood habit however of portraying Iranians as Arabs,
a topic we will re-visit later in this commentary.
(2) Confusing Persia with Babylon
It is very interesting
that Professor Fox does not refer to the Achaemenid capitals in
Susa, Maracanda (Samarqand), Media or Persopolis. The destruction
of Persopolis by Alexander is a major event - instead the movie
shows Alexander entering the city of Babylon, implying that this
was the administrative capital of Persia. Babylon was simply another
satrapy of the empire; not its capital. Babylon had already been
incorporated into the Persian Empire in 539 BC by Cyrus the Great
(559-530 BC). Why is Persopolis and its destruction not mentioned?
There was also the destruction of the three major Zoroastrian texts
by Alexander - also not referred to in the movie.
A possible reason
for this may be found in Professor Fox's.interview with the distinguished
journal "Archeology Today" (Riding with Alexander) (enter
link below into your internet browser):
Note the statement
below, and how indicative it is of Professor Fox's lack of understanding
of Classical Achaemenid Persia:
understood that the separate "parts" of Oliver's drama
must be "color-coded" and
which could not totally
depart from audiences' expectations of Greek or Babylonian imagery"
Note the statement
"Greek or Babylonian imagery". This statement implies
that Persia had no real arts worth mentioning, and that Persia is
simply an extension of Babylon or at best interchangeable.
As noted previously,
Babylon was not a major power at the time of Alexander. Persian
arts and architecture were an eclectic synthesis of indigenous (e.g
Median, Elamite), Lydian, and Mesopotamian styles, including Babylonian.
The city-palace of Persopolis is very distinct and cannot be crudely
termed as Babylonian. It is, to put it mildly, shocking, that the
treatment of Persian studies is addressed at such a shallow level
by Professor Fox.
point must be made, especially with respect to the reason why Alexander
was so violent in his conquest of Persia. The Greeks were simply
taking revenge for the earlier invasion of their country by Darius
the Great and his son Xerxes. The Greeks paid a heavy price for
their battles at Marathon (490 BC), Thermopylae (17th September,
490 BC), Athens (27th September, 490 BC), Salamis (29th September,
490 BC), and Plataea (479 BC). It is significant that when Xerxes
burned Athens, he ordered the sacred statues of the Greek gods to
be removed and brought to Persia. The Greeks revered their gods
and this Persian act was a national insult to them. Most contemporary
Iranians are not aware of these facts. This certainly is not an
excuse for what happened at Alexander's time, but it does help put
these events in perspective.
Iranians demonize Alexander, the man did come to develop a great
deal of respect for Persia. The more Alexander stayed in Persia,
the more "Persian" he became, in manners and in dress.
Alexander paid his respects at the tomb of Cyrus the Great and indeed
saw himself as the heir of Cyrus. The Greeks so admired Cyrus the
Great, that they saw his manner of government as a model. You may
wish to read the Greek "Cyropedia". If Aristotle made
racist statements about the Persians (and this is shown in the movie),
it must also be made clear that many Greeks also praised the Persians
(see Xenophon or Plutarch in his discussion of the Parthian general
Surena). A very positive aspect of the Alexander movie is that Alexander
praises the "east" for its architecture and civilization.
It is possible that Alexander was poisoned by some of his officers
for becoming too "Persian".
(3) The Blondism of Alexander
A very serious
concern of the Alexander movie is the promotion of the idea of the
"Nordicism" of ancient Greece. Put simply, this is the
thesis that ancient Greeks were not only predominantly blonde, but
"Nordic", in the manner of present-day Scandinavians and
Nordicists have long argued, since the late 1700s, that the people
of ancient and modern Greece are unrelated. Nordicism argues that
the "ancient" Greeks were the "true" Greeks
in contrast to the non-Nordic people of Greece today. This view
is exemplified by the Austrian Hellenicist, Professor Fallmerayer,
in the 1830s, who noted that "not a drop of pure Greek blood
runs in the veins of modern Greeks
" To this day, Fallmerayer
is recalled with bitterness and derision in Greece. It is worth
noting that Fallmerayer never set foot in Greece in his entire lifetime.
For further discussion on these issues you may wish to read:
"Guide to Peoples of Europe", especially pages 207-216.
Published in London by Times Books in 1994.
analysis of Greece is not entirely correct. While true that the
Ottoman Turks ruled Greece for 400 years and that previous Byzantine
rulers (e.g. Emperor Nikopherous) had to import colonists from present
day south Italy to help repopulate parts of Greece ravaged by wars,
many of these "Italian" colonists were themselves ancient
Greek, settled in regions such as Calabria and Southern France since
the times of Darius the Great and earlier. In any event, there has
always been a strong and predominant Greek element in areas such
as the Peloponnesos.
As for the lack
of mainstream Nordiscism in modern Greece, this has to do with the
history of ancient Greece itself. Mainland Greece was already settled
with indigenous Mediterranean peoples, such as the ancient Minoans,
before the arrival of the Classical Greeks. Ancient Greece, like
today, was a mixture of Mediterranean and "blonde" peoples.
This leads to
a very crucial question: why have no Greek actors been selected
to portray classical Greeks such as Alexander, Hephaestion, Ptolemy
I, Olympias, King Phillip II, Cassander or Antiginous? For a review
of the cast, click on the following links (enter links below into
your internet browser):
Israeli actor, Raz
Degan who portrays Darius III
If one were
to use Classical Greek works of art (vases and statues specifically)
as a standard for prototypical Greek physical appearance, one can
then easily find a plethora of modern Greek actors and actresses
today who can portray ancient Greeks. It is interesting as to why
Oliver Stone did not select Hollywood actors of Greek descent or
from mainland Greece.
goes further however. Colin Farrell, a dark haired Irish actor,
who plays Alexander, is portrayed literally, as a bleached blonde.
The notion of Alexander being Flaxen-haired or blonde is itself
a matter of considerable doubt if not strong dispute. As noted by
my friend George Tsonis, a Greek-Canadian and a scholar of Greek,
Roman and Persian history, the Greek word for Alexander's complexion
is "Xanthenein" (fair). This description simply marks
Alexander's complexion as being fairer than the other Greeks of
his time. Yes, he was relatively fair, but not necessarily flaxen-blonde
in the Nordicist sense. From the Tufts University Lexicon "Xanthenein"
is roughly translated as fair or a yellowish-brown color. A related
term, "Xanthizo", can also be to "make yellow"
or "brown". No wonder there is confusion!
most western scholars rely on for their references, does not actually
describe Alexander's hair color, only his complexion. This is a
quote from Aelian on the hair; below is the Anglisized Greek from
Cyrillic and the English translation below that:
de ton Filippou apragmonos oraion legousi genesthai' tin men gar
komin anasesyrthai afto, xanthin de einai'"
the son of Philip is reported to have possessed a natural beauty:
his hair was wavy and fair"
To see the debates
raging about Alexander's true appearance see the following discussion
panel (enter link below into your internet browser):
A very non-Nordic
portrayal of Alexander is evident in the Pompei Mosaic. It is agreed
by a majority of scholars that the painting is a faithful rendition
of an original Hellenistic painting of the 3rd century BC. As you
will witness in the painting below, this Hellenic-Roman version
of Alexander is very different from the contemporary Hollywood fantasy
interpretation (see photo below):
As you see in
the photo, this is a very different Alexander than what many western
scholars and Hollywood would have us believe.
appears to refutes the notion of Alexander being blonde. Nevertheless,
a number of western scholars remain determined to push forward an
image of Alexander that may be false. There are scholars who are
actually convinced that the Pompei mosaic is proof of Alexander's
Nordic blondeness! Even in allowing for poor reproductions, the
mosaic clearly shows a 'brown' haired person with a Mediterranean
or modern Iranian profile. Many Greek and Iranian people today have
auburn-brown hair, which can appear to be somewhat "blonde"
The point from
the Greek perspective however, is not simply whether Alexander was
blonde or not. After all, the Dorian Greeks were blonde as a rule,
just as the original Persians and Mede settlers of ancient Iran
were as well. The issue is that of using the notion of blondeness
to project a specifically non-Greek Nordic west European image.
Irrespective of whether Alexander was blonde or not, he represented
the culture of ancient Greece, which is not necessarily the same
as that of modern Western Europe.
and Rome, as we will note again further below, were Mediterranean
empires, very different from the inhabitants of interior and northern
Europe. The peoples of western and eastern Europe were very different
from the Classical Greeks in culture, language and temperament.
To obtain an introduction to the history of the northern Europeans,
you may wish to read:
D. Rankin. Celts
and the Classical World. London: Routledge, 1996.
The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation. Thames &
adopted a great deal of their civilization and identity from the
Greeks and the Romans. Even the name "Europe" is derived
from the ancient Greek term "Oropia". It may not be an
exaggeration to state the following: with their adoption of Greco-Roman
culture, west European scholars in particular, have essentially
affected a "Nordic makeover" of the ancient Greeks and
Romans. As Western culture has adopted the mantle of ancient Greece,
it has also adopted Alexander as its own son; to the point that
Alexander and ancient Greece are viewed as identical with ancient
Western Europe and Scandinavia.
of favourite historical figures does not end with Alexander. Jesus
Christ, is frequently portrayed as a slightly built, tall blonde
Nordic man. Jesus or Jeshua, was a Jew from West Asia who spoke
Aramaic. It is now acknowledged by a number of researchers that
much of what we accept as the "appearance" of Jesus is
not altogether accurate. Jesus would most likely have resembled
a modern Fertile Crescent Arab or Jew from places such as Jerusalem,
Amman, Hebron, Damascus or Basra. Scientists have recently reconstructed
the image of Christ as he would have most likely appeared in his
lifetime in ancient Palestine and Judea (see photo below):
that you witnessed in the attachment is very different from the
icons we are used to seeing in the churches and Christian arts of
Northwestern Europe. How many images have you seen in North American
or Western European churches that show the Aramaic Christ? It would
seen that, like Alexander, the "real image" of Jesus has
shifted in accordance with politics, ideology, dogma and popular
culture over the centuries. Interestingly, many cultures across
the world today interpret Jesus' physical appearance in accordance
with their own anthropomorphic image
It appears that
Hollywood has successfully associated a certain physical appearance
with modernity, progress, success and rationalism. By implication,
that which is not of that "certain look" is in danger
of being associated with all that is the antithesis of that. With
this logic, historical reality is bent to fit a manufactured reality:
This movie contains
a number of concerns to Greeks in particular, such as Macedonia
being "different" from the rest of Greece, a very contested
issue in the Balkans these days. Although not generally reported,
the government of Greece, which had originally supported the Alexander
picture, withdrew its funding and support for Oliver Stone's project.
There was to
have been co-operation between Stone and the Greek government, but
this was apparently changed when the details of the script became
To be honest,
I was left confused as to whether the Macedonians were Greek or
not. This may be an attempt to placate those who view Macedonia
as "different" from Greece, not unlike those who try to
argue that Kurds and Azerbaijanis are not Iranians. The Greeks,
like the Iranians today, are now confronted with having to defend
their historical heritage against those who have territorial claims
against their nation. The Oliver Stone picture, in my opinion, does
not clearly define Macedonians as Greeks.
to these concerns, many Greeks are offended by the bisexual portrayal
of Alexander. It is also rumoured that many Greek associations may
have plans to sue Oliver Stone.
Greek terminology and its translations by western scholars may have
played a role in the "bisexual" interpretation of Alexander.
We have already seen how the term "Xanthenein" has been
stretched to paint a "Scandinavian" Alexander.
(5) The Portrayal
of Roxanna and the Perpetuation of the "Hollywood Persian"
My wife Parnian
and I, as Iranians, found the portrayal of Roxanna insulting. This
portrayal has been defined by the aforementioned Professor Fox,
whose has already been noted for his shallow understanding of Persian
arts and architecture. Professor Fox's portrayal of Roxanna also
indicates that he has very little knowledge of Iran's anthropological
of ancient Iranians is outright comical, if not insulting. The inaccurate
Hollywood portrayal of Iranians is exemplified by the selection
of Rosario Dawson,
Rosario Dawson potrays Roxanna
a very talented,
beautiful and intelligent black actress, to star as Roxanna, an
ancient Iranian queen from Soghdia-Bactria. Roxanna was not black,
anymore than Alexander was Scandinavian. Having Rosario Dawson portrayed
as Roxanna makes as much sense as having Lucy Liu, an Asian-American,
portraying Queen Victoria of Great Britain.
The term Roxanna
is derived from Old Iranian "Rokh-shwan" or "face
(Ruksh) - fair skinned-shiny (shwan)". Roxanna was related
to a North Iranian tribe known later as the Sarmatians, the remnants
who survive in the Caucasus and Russia as the Ossetians (ancient
Alans or Ard-Alans)
such as Pliny repeatedly describe ancient North Iranian peoples
such as the Alans and Seres as "
flaxen (blonde) haired
blue eyed nomads
" (see Wilcox, p.19). Rosario Dawson
does not fit the description of an ancient Iranian woman, especially
from Northern Iranian stock. The Ossetians of today, descendants
of ancient Northern Iranians, predominantly resemble northern Iranians
and Europeans and speak an archaic Iranian language (like the Avesta
of the Zoroastrians). Blondism is very common among these descendants
of ancient North Iranians in cities such as Beslan and Vladikafkaz.
It can be argued that Roxanna was a brunette, however, she was of
Northern Iranian stock, which would still make her very different
from actress Rosario Dawson.
There are plenty
of talented actresses of Iranian descent in North America alone
that would well fit the historical Roxanna. Oliver Stone could have
just as easily selected an Iranian actress, however he relied on
the historical "expertise" of Professor Fox. The question
that can be addressed to Professor Fox is this: what makes Rosario
Dawson so representative of Iranian women and Roxanna in particular?
Is the Professor aware of the anthropology and history of ancient
Iran as it was at 333 BC?
is the design of Roxanna's costume in the movie. Note the photo
showing the marriage of Alexander to Roxanna. Roxanna appears to
wear a Burka-like veil constructed of strips of metallic mesh in
which the face is partly hidden. See the photo (enter link below
into your internet browser):
is partly correct if we base the costume on the Saka Paradraya Iranian
speaking tribes of the present-day Ukraine (8-4th centuries BC).
The decorations on the headgear are simply wrong and Iranian queens
did not wear face masks of any type. For a discussion of the Saka
Paradrya, known in the west as Scythians, consult:
The Scythians 700-300 BC. London: OspreyPublishing, 1989.
See colour plate G.
Once you have
consulted Professor's Cernenko's book, it will be evident how flawed
the costume design is, not to mention the colors. None of the reconstructions
by Professor Gorelik, which Cernenko has consulted, show any type
of face masks for ancient Iranian women. Ancient Iranian women,
who were found in military, religious and political leadership roles,
simply did not wear such attire during courtship, marriage or everyday
It is not clear
why Professor Fox has chosen a Burka-like face mask for Roxanna
at Alexander's wedding. Variants of this face mask are present in
Afghanistan today, mainly the result of former Taliban rule and
very conservative Pashtoon tribal society, which very strongly identifies
itself with the culture of ancient Arabia.
Even more interesting
is the "Arabian Nights" portrayal of an Achaemenid harem.
Harems certainly existed in Persia and the later Roman and Byzantine
courts, however the specifically "Arabian" appearance
accorded to the Achaemenids is simply consistent with the Hollywood
tradition of portraying Iranians as Arabs.
the movie portrays the "Persians" with Arabian styles
of music and dance. This portrayal is not based on factual information;
it is a Hollywood portrayal. From the scant evidence that exists,
we do know that one of the Persian styles of dance strongly resembled
the dances of the Kurds of today; a style also seen in western Turkey,
Greece and the Balkans today. As for music, we have no notes or
scales from that period, and "Arab music" as we know it
today simply did not exist at that time; it is a much later creation.
Arabian music can trace its beginnings to the Bedouin tribes of
Arabia - it later borrowing heavily of Sassanian and Greek scales
(after the 7th century AD).
are enough to question the historical accuracy of the Alexander
picture. It seems that when it comes to Iranians and their identity,
history is easily "re-written" for the benefit of popular
entertainment. As Professor Fox has duly noted in an interview with
the movie "could not totally depart from audiences' expectations".
The "audience" undoubtedly has "expectations"
as to what Iranians "should" look like.
Fox's rudimentary knowledge of Persia's anthropology, you may wish
to refer to:
In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archeology and Myth.
London: Thames & Hudson, 1989.
Read pages: 9-23, 48-56, 78, 266-272.
article by Dr. Oric Basirov is posted as well.
For color reconstructions
of ancient Iranians see:
P. Wilcox. Rome's
Enemies (3): Parthians and Sassanid Persians. London: OspreyPublishing,
T. Newark. The
Barbarians. London: Concord Publications Company, 1998.
See Page 7 (the Saka - ancestors of today's Lurs and Seistanis)
and 30 (ancestors of the Ard-Alan).
Iran today is
very much a genetic tapestry that includes blondism in Northern
and Western Iran (e.g. Parsabad, or Talysh), as well as among Iranian
peoples such as Lurs, Azeris, Mazandaranis, Kurds and Boyer-Ahmadis.
Iran is also home to Arabians in Khuzistan and the Persian Gulf
coast, Asiatic Turcomens in the Northeast, as well as the Baluchis
near Pakistan, who have a strong Dravidian admixture. You may wish
to read the very thorough and precise compendium of Iranian peoples
F. Hole (Editor).
The Archaeology of Western Iran: Settlement and Society from Prehistory
to the Islamic Conquest (Smithsonian Series in Archaeological Inquiry).
Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.
W. B. Fisher
(Editor). The Cambridge History of Iran: Volume 1, The Land of Iran.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
(especially the Cambridge History of Iran series) will provide a
more informed and less misleading analysis of Iran's anthropological
history than that offered by Professor Fox.
As seen in this
commentary, Hollywood portrayals of Iranians are in stark contrast
to reality. Until the Arabian arrivals in the 7th century AD, the
majority of Iranians would have looked no different from the Greeks
or Romans. Greek and Roman references to classical Iranians do not
refer to them as different in the "physical" sense; differences
lay mainly in manner of government, philosophy and to a lesser extent,
mythology. The Azadan nobility of the Parthian and Sassanian Savaran
(elite cavalry), more than 500 years later than Alexander, are described
by Peter Wilcox as "
very similar to the Celts
similar to Northwest Europeans
" (p.6). There are still
many short stories in Southern Italy today which accurately portray
the temperament and appearance of the Persians as they would have
appeared in antiquity.
* * *
powerful historical revisionism of a number of mainly northwest
European historians such as Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) or the aforementioned
Fallmerayer, the Greco-Roman world and Persia have profoundly influenced
each other in areas such as architecture, the arts and crafts, the
sciences and medicine, mythology, military and engineering technologies.
While true that one can find a number of anti-Persian references
in Greco-Roman sources, these were in the context of wars that broke
out between these powers. A perfect example of this is how the movie
explicitly shows Aristotle deriding the Persians as inferior to
the Greeks. Modern Greeks place this in context and see Aristotle
as expressing the political climate of his day. Iranians are very
well liked and respected in Greece and are seen as the heirs of
a great civilization. Alexander himself came to greatly appreciate
the Iranians and their culture. It is a shame that the movie did
not show Alexander as paying homage to the tomb of Cyrus the Great.
As noted previously,
Greco-Roman historians who were prepared to acknowledge and highly
praise the Persians (e.g. Xenophon, Plutarch, etc.). Today's popular
culture, education systems and movie entertainment industries in
particular, seem to be providing a very selective and distorted
view of Persia with respect to antiquity. Many are simply not aware
(or wish not be aware) of Persia's importance and status in antiquity
let alone her major contributions to world civilization.
Romans and Persians had much more in common with each other than
with the relatively unsophisticated Celtic and Germanic peoples
who were roaming the Northern European forests. For an incisive
discussion of these little discussed topics consult:
Calabria, L'enigma Delle Arti Asittite: Nella Calabria Ultramediterranea.
Italy: MUSABA, 2003.
As far as I know, this book has still not be translated from Italian
to English. Still an excellent read, especially with the illustrations.
In Search of Zarathustra: The First prophet and the Ideas that Changed
the World. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002.
I look forward
to the day when we will see blockbuster movies of Shapur I (241-272)
who defeated three Roman emperors in his lifetime and destroyed
a third of Rome's armies. Even more dramatic would be to see movies
made of the life and times of figures such as Zarathustra, Aryaman,
Shahrbaraz, Mani, Mazdak, Babak, Abu Ali Sina or Omar Khayyam.
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