Visiting Persepolis’s contemporary: Susa, Western Iran

by Caroline Sandes

My room in the Apadana Hotel, Shush, was the scene of a massacre. When I got to it, the small fridge was swarming with ants. I pointed this out to the man from reception. He grunted and disappeared, reappearing about five minutes later with a large aerosol can. He rapidly dispatched the ants in jets of spray; I felt a little guilty.

Shush is a small town not very far away from the Iran-Iraq border. It’s not really on the tourist trail despite being the site of ancient Susa. The complex of 400 hectares includes the remains of the palace, the Apadana, of Susa, constructed by Persepolis’s principal builder, Darius the Great. With Persepolis Susa was once one of the great capitals of the Persian Empire.

I could see the site from my hotel room and as soon as I had sorted myself out and cleared up the ant carnage I set off to visit it. It was closed. A rather cross looking security guard shooed me away with the explanation of ‘not working’.

So I took up my favourite occupation of going for a wander. Shush, as with pretty much everywhere in Iran, has a very long history and was not always the comparatively small town that it is now. There is evidence of occupation from 5000 years ago and it was occupied more or less continuously until the Mongols destroyed the place in 1218 AD. It is also famous for having the Tomb of Daniel (of lion’s den fame) and so was a place of Jewish pilgrimage. The Mongol destruction put an end to that as well. Nowadays the Tomb of Daniel is a place of Islamic pilgrimage, though the complex with its curious pinecone-shaped tower was only built in the 1870s. I didn’t go in as the weather was very hot and clammy and the thought of wrapping myself up in a much-used black chador to visit it put me right off.

There was a market off the main street, where I ducked into one of those tiny falafel restaurants for a falafel sandwich, which was delicious. From there I wandered down the main street. It was lined with small shops with all their goods tumbling out onto the street or hanging from the wooden shelter that ran the length of the pavement. You could probably get anything there. As it was I needed some more biros which I bought from a dusty stationery shop, pointing to a box of blue ones the man had under the glass counter. He took what amounted to a few pence from the collection of coins I held out. Along the road edge of the pavement were more traders, all their goods carefully laid out on blankets. This reduced the pavement to a curvy single-file path requiring much dodging and weaving to get down it. There was a notable number of men wearing keffiyehs, but not being far from the Iraqi border, I suspect that they were Arabs rather than Iranians, which probably also explains the welcome number of falafel stands which I hadn’t noticed so many of elsewhere.

As it was mid afternoon by this stage, and really very hot, and both the site and the museum were closed, I retreated back to the hotel restaurant for some tea and to write up my journal. I thought then I might as well have something more substantial to eat, so asked for the menu. The menu looked a little challenging: they had gone to the trouble of translating it but in fact had just translated it from Persian script to Latin script, so it was in reality still in Persian. But there were pictures, so I just pointed at something that looked good and hoped for the best.

When I went out later, the site was open, or at least the stern guard had been replaced by a more laid-back guard who waved me in. The archaeological complex of Susa really comprises several sites. First there had been the capital of the Elamite Empire but it had been destroyed by Ashurbanipal, the last king of the Assyrians, in 646 BC. Darius the Great rebuilt it. This Apadana of Susa, while a contemporary of Persepolis, survives in nothing like the majestic and much cared-for ruins of the latter. Instead it is a mound of odd foundations, bits of toppled columns and the occasional sculpture. It’s occupied by grasses, birds, shrubs and a couple of abandoned dogs, who barked with a kind of half-hearted crossness from the safety of another mound. There was plenty of signage, in English too, which helped make some sense of it. In some ways the challenge of trying to understand the site made it as interesting as Persepolis, and as with Persepolis, you can look out over the surrounding countryside, though it is much greener here.

Beyond the Apadana, there were several other areas: the Acropolis, the Royal City and beyond that the Craftsmen City, but these were even less distinctive: odd shaped grass-covered earth mounds and hollows. The stratigraphy of some was evident where there had been minor landslides, leaving bits of pottery and bone hanging out of clearly differentiated occupation layers. A lot of archaeological work has been done on the site already since it was rediscovered by a British geologist, William Kennet Loftus, in 1852. It was mostly excavated by the French from the 1880s almost continuously until the 1979 Revolution. The French are responsible for the large red brick castle, Chateau de Morgan that sits in the middle, right on the site of the Acropolis, and therefore overlooking everything. It was built from the late 1890s to protect the French archaeologists and their finds from marauding tribesmen that often had free rein in the region at the time. The castle is not open to the public so you can only wander round it, peering up at its red brick walls.

While I was exploring the site, some storm clouds that had been gathering in the distance, finally broke. I took shelter under a tree, with the only other two visitors to the site, an elderly Iranian couple, but it was pretty useless. Huge hailstones were followed by monsoon-style rain complete with thunder and lightening, and I was soon dripping about as much as the tree was.

The next morning the small museum was open. Most of the excavated finds are in the Louvre in Paris, but there are some still here, including some of the coloured reliefs from the Apadana, that also give you an idea of what those at Persepolis would have looked like. But I had no time to linger as I needed to go on to another town, Shushtar, and to visit some intriguing archaeological sites, including a ziggurat, on the way, so it was back to the hotel for some breakfast and to organise a taxi as that was the only way to get to the sites.

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