I’ve left Tehran behind for three days to visit Shiraz. I arrived two nights ago, and will leave for Tehran and Paris tomorrow night (my flight schedule is the most ‘interesting’ I’ve had for a long time; I have to wait from around midnight — when I arrive from Shiraz — to 06:45, for my flight departure for Paris. I’m not sure yet how I will occupy myself at Khomeini airport in the middle of the night).
My main motivation in coming to Shiraz was to visit Persepolis, as well as the other archaeological sites. For the last two days I hired a car and driver and we covered several hundred kilometers across the desert visiting ancient ruins. Some of these sites were indeed extremely ancient, almost three thousand years old.
But how to describe Persepolis itself? I will try. The scale of the site is overwhelming; I spent almost three hours there and took over one hundred photographs. It is easily comparable in extent to the Foro Romano, the ruins of ancient Rome at the center of the Italian capital — but it is several hundred years older.
The entire city is built on a terraced plateau, which one reaches by climbing a monumental staircase. The steps are shallow, we are told, so that visiting dignitaries could mount them gracefully in their flowing robes. At the top, one passes between two enormous slabs which have been sculpted with beautiful bas-reliefs. Incongruously, at eye level, the stones have been covered with a range of graffitis from late 19th century and early 20th century explorers. I noticed at least one “count” something or other, a Gentleman Explorer for sure, and I tried to imagine what his trip to Persepolis must have been like and what the city would have looked like with many important monuments still hidden under sand.
On the terrace there are many ruined palaces to visit, as well as the famous Apadana staircase, one half of which whose bas-reliefs are much better preserved than the other because they passed the centuries under the sands. Serried ranks of princes and kings pay tribute, for eternity, to king of the Achaemenids.
One palace, known as ‘Hadish’ near the corner of the complex intrigued me. I had arrived very early, at around 08.30, and there was no-one else at this corner of the ancient city apart from a bored security guard. In this palace, all had been destroyed except the frames of a door and window. On the ground one could see the stone stumps of many columns. The window frame must have been at least a meter in thickness. I looked out across an expanse of semi-arid desert, a small stand of trees in the near distance. The sun shone from a faultless blue sky as it probably had done 2,500 years ago. It was here in this palace, some say, that the fire was started by Persepolis’ conquerors — Alexander the great — which destroyed the city. The fire was fueled by the wooden columns supporting the roof, either accidentally in a drunken party (this is before the Islamic Republic, remember) or deliberately in retaliation for the destruction of Athens by Xerxes.
Three hours had passed, and I returned to the car and took tea with Ari, my driver, on the ground near our car under the shade of some trees. Throughout the morning I had had a constant, throbbing headache which I realised was the symptoms of caffein withdrawal — I had dared to leave my coffee maker in my bag at the left luggage at Mehrabad airport. I was extremely grateful for the tea. (Incredibly, it’s now three days since I have had coffee; thankfully, the headaches passed after the first day). Ari had worked for years in hospitals in Shiraz and very scrupulous when it came to hygine, carefully labeling our respective tea mugs. He had also studied a great deal of history, and he tried to answer my many questions.
There was still more to see. After tea, we drove six kilometers to the necropolis, the burial grounds for Achaemenid kings. From the distance, I saw a long ridge of mountains and I thought to myself, after spending a morning looking at bas-reliefs: “those look like monuments.” As we cam closer I realised they were monuments; hewn into the side of the mountain were four enormous tombs, tens of meters high, cross-shaped, with bas-reliefs below. These were the resting places of Darius II, Artaxerxes, Darius I and Xerxes I whose bones were placed in these chambers after the vultures had picked them clean. One bas relief was blank; asking Ari he told me that in fact this bas relief had been planned to commemorate a victory never happened.
Our last destination was Pasagarde, where the tomb of Cyrus the Great stands in a desolate windswept plain. Centuries ago it was surrounded by a walled garden, but everything was destroyed by Alexander’s invading armies. A few hundred meters away are the ruins of his palace; incredibly one column is still standing and written on it, near the top, in cuneform script, are the words “I am Cyrus, the Achaemenid king”.
Although this inscription is not particularly hubristic, leaving Pasargade and reflecting on what I had seen throughout the day I was more than a little reminded of Shelly and the ruined statute of his king Ozymandias, staring out across the desert on his vanished empire, where, today, “nothing beside remains.”