Iran: The Ruins of Persepolis and a Desert Crossing

November 2016

 

Shiraz is definitely a good base to explore the area, especially the fabulous ruins of Persepolis with its sidekicks — Naqsh-i Rustam and Pasargad (also spelt Pasargadae). From here Tehran is quite a distance away (880km), and we are going to slowly return to the capital by road, but with several night stops and detours along the way.

 

Persepolis is only 60km from Shiraz, but today we are leaving Shiraz for good — the plan is to spend the night at an ancient caravanserai lodge, 480km away across the desert, after visiting the above three sites. It’s going to be a long day!

 

A quick drive along an excellent dual carriageway quickly brings us to the complex which houses the famous ruins of Persepolis.

 

It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1979, but ‘Presepolis’? Don’t tell me it’s a typo! — Persepolis was started in 518 BC by King Darius I the Great (who ruled 522-486 BC). The name comes from the Greek ‘Perses Polis’ or ‘City of the Persians’. I think it’s a really cool name.

 

For orientation please see this plan of Persepolis — we are going to enter via the left stairway at #1, the Terrace Stairway.

 

Here are renditions of how Persepolis would have looked like, for better appreciation of the ruins. We are going to climb the left staircase at the bottom right, where the road ends.

 

The whole Persepolis complex is on a terrace, cut into the rocky slope of a mountain. This is the grand entrance, via the Terrace Stairway. There are two flights of stairs, one opposite the other — we take the left one. Each step is 40cm deep and only 10cm high. The gentle slope is meant for dignitaries to comfortably walk in their full ceremonial attire. Nice, huh?

 

On the terrace proper, the first thing one passes through is The Gate of All Nations. In reality this is an enclosed grand hall built to impress foreign visitors — now only the pillars are left. Note the bulls with heads of bearded men – a pair of ‘lamassus’ — a protective deity probably derived from Assyria.

 

The Gate of All Nations have some semblance of a hall when viewed from the side. Just imagine an ornate box full of statues and colourful stuff. Visitors entering this hall would have been dazzled by the magnificent introduction to the Achaemenid Empire. It’s also called the First Persian Empire and flourished 550-330 BC — a 220-year rule.

 

The pillars of the hall are full of graffiti, mostly from the distant past, such as this one from 1810. Persepolis is a fine example of Achaemenid style of architecture. Of course now everything is protected, so no more such vandalism.

 

I guess this pair of griffins is an Achaemenid style — 2500 years old and still looking perfect. The Persians regarded the griffin as a protector from evil and witchcraft. It’s actually a powerful icon — body of a lion, but head and wings of an eagle. A king on land and also in the air.

 

These look like two huge bull-wannabes. The bull is also a deity for protection. Though construction of Persepolis started under Darius I, it was his son Xerxes I (the Great, 486-465 BC) and Artaxerxes III (358-338 BC) who brought glory to this seat of government.

 

Ruins do not actually do justice to the real things at all. In real-life we are supposed to be seeing beautiful, majestic, colourful buildings surrounded by impressive landscaping, decorations and statues. Not this sad pile of stones and broken statues and pillars. Visiting ruins always brings a tinge of sadness to me … imagining what it would have been.

 

This looks like a bull, jutting from what must have a been an important building. The Achaemenid Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC. It was one of the biggest empires in history, spanning from the Balkans and Libya in the west, to Central Asia and the Indus Valley in the east. Maybe Ladakh too? 🙂

 

Such a huge territory, not bad for an empire of 2500 years ago. After wandering the ruins for 30 minutes I come across what I have always wanted to see in its original form and place — the famed stone relief, or stone art of Persepolis.

 

This must have been the fad of the filthy rich and powerful back then — impressing visitors with stone art showing what they have been up to. Like pictures of their army in full gear.

 

Behind the terrace there’s the hill, so we climb it to have a good view of the complex. Imagine the whole space filled with important buildings down there, befitting an emperor and his court. Palaces, sleeping quarters, audience halls, treasury, plazas, gardens, ponds and fountains, the whole lot.

 

Behind us, stuck to the side of the rocky hill, is a royal tomb. This one is believed to belong to Artaxerxes II Mnemon (ruled 404-358 BC). There’s another similar tomb further to the right which is said to belong to Artaxerxes III Ochus (358-338 BC). These are minor kings towards the end of the empire.

 

But the true spectacle is still down below. What a splendid spot for a tomb with a view. The main building material is limestone. Really tough stuff, still standing after 2500 years.

 

We got down to the terrace after the climb, and enter the highlight of the ruins — the stone art of the grand stairway to the Apadana, or the Audience Hall, designed by Darius I the Great himself.

 

This is the grand stairway to the Audience Hall, where foreign delegations would tread in their ceremonial garbs, along a gentle slope. What’s fascinating are the amount and quality of the continuous stone relief on the walls at the sides of the stairs. It’s like telling a story.

 

Guardsmen are ever-present. The Apadana or the Audience Hall was built specifically to receive and impress foreign delegations who brought precious gifts to pay homage to the King of Persia. It is one of the oldest buildings at the complex.

 

People from various parts of the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from the Balkans and Libya in the west, to northern India and Central Asia in the east, presented tributes to the great king, and in return received gifts from him.

 

Looking at the double-hump camel, this bunch most likely came from Bactria, a huge area in central Asia, just north of present-day Afghanistan. A very long journey for them to get here.

 

Rams are a popular present for the king too, from people in northern Persia.

 

More precious gifts for the king, also from people in northern Persia. Note that wearing a beard was the norm.

 

These look like people from western Anatolia in present-day Syria and Turkey, bringing offerings to Darius I.

 

These seem to be a soldier from Persia flanked by two from Media, a region to the north. We can distinguish them mainly by the headwear. Maybe they are an alliance since Medes are also Persians.

 

These are the Immortals, the elite royal guards within the Achaemenid Persian army. Said to number only 10,000 soldiers, they must be of Persians or Medes (from Media in northern Persia) origin. Fought and won many battles, but lost to Alexander the Great.

 

Another recurring theme at Persepolis is a lion hunting down a bull. Yes, there used to be a big population of Asiatic Lion in Persia. Unfortunately now all gone except for a small protected colony in Gujarat, India.

 

Here we can see the lion and bull motif again, but this time outside the Apadana. More stone art of the guardsmen, and there’s also a tablet of old Persian cuneiform.

 

Close-up of the ancient Persian cuneiform, said to be adapted from Sumerian cuneiform. It was developed by order of Darius I for his use to inscribe monuments. I think Darius I was a really forward-thinking sort of guy.

 

Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the Achaemenid Empire — it was founded by Zoroaster, a Persian, 3500 years ago. Zoroastrians worship the single god Ahuramazda, they pray five times a day like Muslims. Cyrus and Darius I were pious people and Darius I liberally sprinkled Persepolis with religious symbolism. This is the ‘faravahar’ which symbolises Zoroastrianism, with Darius I himself riding the wings.

 

I finally find Darius I the Great at Persepolis! Above him the sacred symbol of Zoroastrianism.

 

A very important relief showing Darius I the Great himself, with his crown prince Xerxes I behind him, has been removed from here (Apadana) to the National Museum of Iran in Tehran. Here’s me admiring that particular scene in Tehran — note his feet which do not need to touch the floor, and his awesome curly beard too.

 

Let’s end our tour of this fabulous place by watching a fantastic rendition of Persepolis, to really appreciate what the ruins are all about. How I wish I could time-travel and see the real thing for myself.

 

We are soon on the road again, this time just a 16km hop to a place called Naqsh-i Rustam. I am not too sure what to expect there except that I know it’s a necropolis — a place of the dead.

 

There you go — hillside tombs like the one we saw at Persepolis. Except that there are four of them (one tomb faces left, and is hidden from this angle). These tombs are believed to belong to Darius I the Great (ruled 522-486 BC), Xerxes I (486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (465-424 BC), and Darius II (424 BC – only 45 days). So all the big boys are here!

 

Another angle shows all four tombs. Let me see … (left to right) … Darius II — Artaxerxes I — Darius I, the Great — Xerxes I. And in the foreground, in front of Artaxerxes, is the sacred Cube of Zoroaster from 5th century BC. Lotsa of very, very old stuff around here.

 

Close-up of the tomb of Darius I, the Great. Unfortunately all the tombs were looted following the brutal conquest by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. There’s nothing there any more, all gone.

 

Dead kings of thousands of years ago done, we proceed to a place called Pasargad, some 80km by road.

 

A cool sunny day it is, being autumn in the desert, but we are tempted by these pomegranates on the roadside.

 

I am surprised by the quality of these Iranian dual carriageways so far. Well-engineered, no potholes, no bumps, and of course no toll. The scenery along the way is also superb. Desert scenes never tire me.

 

An hour later we see our destination, with its distinctive UNESCO World Heritage Site logo.

 

Why is Pasargad so famous, that anybody who goes to Persepolis must come here? It’s the tomb of Cyrus the Great (lived 600-530 BC), the grand-daddy of them all. The founder of the Achaemenid Empire, he lived here and ruled 560-530 BC, and named Pasargad his first capital. Then his son moved it to Susa, until Darius the Great built a new one called Persepolis.

 

Cyrus’s tomb, like all other royals tombs here, has been looted, so there’s virtually nothing inside it. It was damaged, but Alexander the Great, who had great respect for fellow Great Cyrus, ordered the tomb to be restored, less the looted stuff of course.

 

It’s a popular photo spot, this huge tomb is, and we are obliged, like any good traveller, to help fellow travellers. But the tomb is empty. It is said that when they opened the tomb, they found “a golden bed, a table set with drinking vessels, a gold coffin, some ornaments studded with precious stones and an inscription on the tomb” — all gone.

 

What a lovely Persian family, what a proud race — Cyrus is probably their progenitor.

 

Leaving the Pasargad compound, lost in the romance of the awesome Achaemenid Empire and Cyrus, I am jolted back to the present state of affair.

 

Yes, soon we are on the road again, this time crossing a huge desert with the aim of reaching our lodging before nightfall. That’s a 370km drive, with 150km of it on the open desert floor.

 

Excellent roads means speeding selfish people, so what’s better than these stategically-placed speed cameras?

 

Travelling the desert is always full of anticipation, and it’s exciting to see spectacular mountains and vegetation.

 

We are more or less just south of central Iran, and Mashhad is way on the other side of the country, next to Turkmenistan. Hence the big distance.

 

This is an important junction, where we deviate from the highway which goes to Esfahan and all the way to Tehran. We take a detour to visit Yazd, and in doing so we are crossing a 150km-wide desert.

 

We always encounter modern-style towns along the way, and this one is quite unique. This is Abarkooh.

 

And as always, the main way into the town centre is adorned with pictures of martyrs — local folks who died in fighting for the country, especially in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. Only in Iran a town greets its visitors with its dead. Takes a while getting used to. But that’s the Shiite way — glory in sacrifice.

 

Something interesting in Abarkooh is this big object from 400 BC. It’s a storage for ice and frozen foodstuff saved over from winter time –to be preserved via this naturally-cooled ancient refrigerator, aided by freezing cold desert night. It’s called ‘yakhchal’ — please read more HERE.

 

An oasis such as this place is actually a huge fruit orchard. Autumn is always a good time for such fruits.

 

After Abarkooh, we see more ancient stuff by the roadside. That’s the interesting bit about travelling in the desert — we get to see preserved stuff from centuries ago, thanks to the dry weather.

 

A prominent mountain comes into view as we end our desert crossing. There’s a village here, so there must be water.

 

We rounded the mountain and far away on the other side we see the sun setting.

 

Soon it’s dusk and we hope our lodging is somewhere before those jagged peaks, not too far away. It has been a very long day, visited three historical sites, lots of walking, crossed a big desert, and now the temperature is dropping to freezing level. We miss a hot dinner, a hot shower, and a warm bed!

 

~ THE END ~

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