Persepolis, Iran

by Caroline Sandes

Persepolis rises up on its plateau – tall classical columns keeping sentry above the walls. Up you go, trying to resist the urge to take two at a time of the shallow steps that lead up to Xerxes’ magnificent Gate of All Lands; the two colossal mythical guardian bulls between which you must pass making you feel insignificant. And then there it spreads out before you in all its ruined glory, the site of Persepolis, watched over by Artaxerxes II and III’s tombs cut into the rock above the site. And if you turn around, you can look down the long straight avenue and out to the mountains beyond with the blue sky behind, your fellow tourists looking some-what antlike below.

The earliest remains of Persepolis date to 518 BC, just four years after Darius the Great came to power. He is responsible for much of the building of Persepolis, one of the capitals of the Persian empire. Building continued on the site until the defeat of the Achaemenid dynasty by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Whether Alexander ordered Persepolis to be burnt or it was an accident remains a mystery. Herodotus doesn’t mention Persepolis in his Histories, but he does detail all that history and mention all the people you come across depicted in the reliefs of the surviving ruins. So there on the Apadana Staircase you come face to face with all the peoples of the empire, including the Ethiopians, Greeks, Cappadocians, Bactrians with a two-humped camel, Elamites with a lioness and cubs, Indians, and the wonderfully unpronounceable Orthocorybantians with their pointy hats, to name just a few. In March every year, Iranians celebrate their national new year holiday, Na Ruz. This procession of stately people carved onto the Apadana Staircase had come from all parts of the Persian empire, stretching from East Africa to India, bearing gifts for the emperor to celebrate the same Na Ruz some 2500 years ago.

Built into the site is a museum and library, though the museum was being redone and was closed while I was there. There are remains of the grand, multi-columned buildings that originally occupied the site, and many examples of friezes and carvings that adorned the walls. They would have originally been brightly coloured, and I later came across an example in the small museum in Shush – site of Susa, the Archaemenid’s winter capital. Persepolis really only survives because it disappeared under the perpetually accumulating dust and sand, until it was rediscovered in the 1930s. It must have been a wonder to gradually uncover the people on the Apadana Staircase.

When the Iranian Revolution happened in 1979, apparently an ultra hardliner had suggested that Persepolis be bulldozed, not least because of its association with the disliked and subsequently deposed Shah. The Shah had staged an extravagant if unpopular celebration (not least because most of the attendees were foreign dignitaries not Iranians) at the site in 1971. The untidy rusting remains of the tents constructed for the occasion near the entrance to Persepolis are still discernable.

I spent several days at Persepolis – it was one of the highlights of my trip. For the first night I stayed at the Apadana Hotel, right beside the site. The low and elegant hotel built in the 1950s has that feel of faded grandeur about it. While waiting for my room, I was delighted to see that they had an espresso machine so I could appease  my suffering caffeine addiction. Dinner that evening was a close call – the dining room, it said, opened at 8pm. When, however, I appeared at 8pm it was still firmly closed. As there is only the hotel and the site, there was no where else to eat. But not to worry, the kind man at the reception desk said he would cook me dinner – was chicken kebab okay; he would bring it to my room. Sure enough after a while, he appeared with a tray laden with food – chicken, salad, flat bread, rice, pickled garlic, all of it delicious.

I was extremely lucky to have a contact at Persepolis, via a contact in London,  the libarian. So the next day I went to meet her as planned. Not only did she arrange for me to be shown round by the site archaeologist, but when there was a problem at my hotel (I think actually they had a bus tour and my room was needed)  leaving me without a room for my second night, she kindly insisted I stay with her family. As she starts work at 7 in the morning, she was finished by 2pm so we went back to her parents’ house in nearby Marvdasht for a delicious and multi-dish lunch, though it struck me that this was normal and not something put on because they had a visitor. As it was quite hot outside, we spent most of the afternoon chatting, and in the evening ordered pizza. We had thought to go out but her father was a little concerned of the attention we might draw in the small town where quite evidently I was not Iranian…

On my last day at Persepolis, it was cloudy and in fact rained, curtailing a visit to Naqsh-e Rostam – the rock-cut tombs high above ground level of various emperors including, apparently, Darius I. The weather made Persepolis seem stern and foreboding.

Then it was back to Shiraz. Luckily the site archaeologist was driving back so he gave me a lift to Shiraz bus station, and in true Iranian fashion it would seem,  got my bus ticket, made sure I knew what time it left at, and safely deposited me in the waiting room.  

I did in fact have some time, so I set off for a walk but coming back got lost amongst the busy streets in the gathering gloom of the rainy evening light. Thankfully, I soon righted myself and got back to the station in time, to catch the overnight bus to Ahvaz in western Iran. For the last part of my trip I was getting off the beaten track as I wanted now to see Susa. 

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