I was up to an early start as the guide taking us to Persepolis arrived at 7.30. As it was a shared group tour the coach picked some others on the way – from Finland, Japan and Argentina.
Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the great wonders of the ancient world, embodies not just a grand architectural scheme but also a great idea. It was conceived by Darius the Great who, in 520 BC, inherited the responsibility for ruling the world’s first known empire founded by his predecessor Cyrus the Great who wrote what is considered to the the first charter of Human Rights, nowadays found in the British Museum. Indeed, he considered that workers should have insurance, should be paid according to their skills and amount of work, and he freed the enslaved Jews from the Babylonians. He considered that everyone should be free to practice their faith and that no one should be coerced into converting to another religion. Darius went further and installed equal pay for women, if not more if they were more skilled than men. Under Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, the Persian Empire eventually became the largest empire in human history up to that point, based on a model of tolerance and respect.
Persepolis was embellished with the succession of Kings and by the 4th century BC it was an elaborate project of palaces and treasuries. Inevitably the city attracted the envy of powerful rivals and in 330 BC it was burnt down by Alexander the Great.
The guide first showed us Xerxes’ gateway, also called Gate of all Nations, that once heralded the important of important dignitaries. Unfortunately, some have signed their names on the stone – but now some are part of the history, such as Henry Morton Stanley or McDonalds! On top of the columns, unfortunately not in its past glory, were griffins who were a support to the roof.
We then headed to the Apadana Palace which would have be used to receive foreign delegations and was the venue for big parties. The engravings by the side of the staircase are particularly revealing. We can see the cypress and the lotus flower, symbols of Iran, and then a lion and a bull. The lotus flower is probably a Zoroastrian sign representing the calendar: one centre (one year) surrounded by twelve petals (twelve months). Contrary to what it looks like at a first glance, this isn’t a fight or hunt. Indeed if it were the lion would have attacked the bull by the neck. Instead, it is pushing the bull out of the way – it is an astrological sign and the bull represents winter and the lion summer. Effectively Summer is pushing Winter out and this corresponds to the New Year, celebrated on the 21st of March, which dates back to the Zoroastrians, so perhaps they were Zoroastrian at that time, as indicated by some engravings.. On the left side are bas-reliefs of what would have been visitors from the empire visiting and offering gifts – in the below photo you can identify the Greeks by their hairstyles.
During our free time I clambered up a steep stone ‘staircase’ to the Tomb of Artaxerxes II. It also provides a great view over Persepolis and a greater appreciation of its scale! By that stage I was getting very warm so I decided to climb down – being made of wool is not ideal in those temperatures!
I re-joined the party and we stopped at the cliffs neighbouring Persepolis featuring four rock-hewn tombs called Naqsh-e Rostam, a necropolis. It is believed that Darius II (the most important tomb), Artaxerxes I, Darius I and Xerxes I were buried there. Their bodies would have been deposited here but contrary to popular belief they were not mummified like in Egypt. Instead they would be lathered with some sort of honey, then wrapped in fabric and placed in the coffin, surrounded by gold and silver for the afterlife. The door was to be sealed for ever, however Alexander the Great and his soldiers opened the tombs to loot the goods and it is unknown where those precious offerings now are. Facing the cliffs is Bun Khanak, thought to be a fire temple, although this is disputed by historians who think it could also have been a Treasury.
We all headed back to the van and after a short drive stopped for lunch in a very pleasant guest house. Lunch was a rice and meat dish which reminded me a little bit of a ‘plov’, an Uzbek dish, along a rice omelette, some pickled vegetables, yoghurt and some dates. It was delicious and what I needed as I had had breakfast quite early this morning! We were treated to local music and singing by the owner who agreed to take pictures with me and the group.
Our next stop was Pasargadae where Cyrus the Great was buried, about an hour drive away. The ruins are a lot smaller than Persepolis and the tomb consists of a modest rectangular burial chamber perched on six plinths. It is believed that Cyrus started building a city there during his lifetimes but the site was abandoned after his death by Darius who went to build Persepolis. In the future centuries, to avoid the tomb being looted, the villages invented a story stating that in fact it held the remains of Solomon’s mother, a story that protected the tomb.
By the end of the afternoon I was very tired, probably because of the stifling heat. The driver dropped us back to my hostel where I decided to go out for dinner in a local restaurant called Balo. It was a rooftop with comfortable tables and blankets if you get chilly! I was a bit greedy and ordered a kind of aubergine dip, a cold soup made of yoghurt, cucumber and spices, as well as aubergine frittatas.
Off to bed for an early bus to Yadz!
In the meantime, I can say that I had a lovely time in Shiraz. The city is beautiful and welcoming and I felt less likely to get run over!