Updated: Apr 1, 2020
The drive from Isfahan to Shiraz takes about six hours, across a mostly barren landscape, but it’s full of interest, nonetheless. There were flocks of multi-hued sheep and goats, along with their shepherds and the occasional border collie, fields of corn, craggy mountains and the odd military base sporting Mercedes-Benz army trucks. We stopped at a tiny village for a ‘health break’ and were promptly set upon by locals wanting to know where we were from, and if we could do them the honour of breaking our journey so they could host us for lunch. This hospitable offer was made so frequently, and with such humility that we were humbled by the spirit and kindness of the people, wherever we went in Iran.
By lunchtime, we were deep into the heartland of the Achaemenids, who ruled from 550-330BC. Three hundred years earlier, the Medes (from the Medean region in the Zagros mountains) and the Persians (from around Shiraz), became linked through marriage, culture and a love of horses and celebratory boozing, in no particular order. The Medes elevated themselves to the rank of superpower by allying with the Babylonians and Persians and scorching the Assyrians’ capital, Nineveh, in 612 BC. Not content with playing underling to the Medes, the Persian aristocrat, Cyrus II (aka ‘the Great’) saw off the Medean king, Astyages, who also happened to be his maternal grandfather, at Pasargadae, which was conveniently where we were having our ‘picnic’ lunch.
(I use the concept ‘picnic’ loosely. There were no wayside restaurants on our long journey, so we had to make do. Our bus stop nourishment consisted of a cold collation of tuna, beans, corn, pickles – all tinned – fresh cheese and bread (bought fresh from a roadside baker en route), served under a lean-to that was leaning precariously in the heat of the day.)
Cyrus went on to capture Lydian Anatolia and nuke King Croesus, then Babylon and Syria, and finally his empire stretched from Greece to the modern Chinese border, and from the Russian steppes to Libya – an area only ever exceeded by the Roman Empire at its greatest.
To control such a huge empire, he implemented a vast network of royal roads and royal horsemen, with posts a day’s ride apart (they could cover the 1600 miles Persepolis-Susa-Babylon-Sardes in less than a week), and an army of 10,000 known as The Immortals (there were always substitutes on hand to step into the breach in the event of mishap, so the number of actives was always 10,000).
Cyrus wanted to build an empire not only based on military superiority but also on justice, culture and religious tolerance. The Cyrus Cylinder (now in the British Museum) is probably a record of the speech he made at Babylon granting the exiled Jews the right to return to Jerusalem and providing for the building of a new temple in the Holy City. The cylinder is now regarded as the world’s first ‘cultural bill of rights’ and its words have become the unofficial motto of the UN.
Cyrus made Pasagardae his capital, and it was to here that his body was returned after he was (according to Herodotus) killed by a warrior queen – Tomyris of the Massagatae – whilst attempting to conquer central Asia. Tomyris was a tad vindictive. After his death, she had Cyrus’ head dipped in a skinful of blood, making good her threat to ‘give him his fill of blood’ as payback for his use of trickery rather than skill on the battlefield when he ordered the wine-poisoning of her troops and the capture of her son, who subsequently suicided.
Cyrus’ ziggurat style tomb sits alone in the middle of a windswept plain and it’s beautiful in its simplicity and serenity, at 35′ high, made of huge golden stone blocks. The tomb’s inscription reads: “I am Cyrus, King of the world, great King……therefore do not begrudge me this little earth that covers my bones.” Contrary to its simple exterior, the tomb would have been decorated in precious metals, ivory and imperial plunder. Alexander the Great’s troops looted the interior of its treasures on a stopover to Persepolis in 330BC, much to his disgust.
The rest of the Pasagardae site is pretty uninteresting (it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site), although that didn’t stop the archeology-starved enthusiasts among us from tramping around the debris for a couple of hours while the rest of us cooled our heels and Hussein, our bus driver, progressively lost his cool, knowing he had a long hard drive into Shiraz in the late evening.
We finally arrived at our hotel (owned by Iranian Air) at 7pm, and launched into dinner in the garden at 7:30; our umpteenth treat of barley soup, kebabs, salad and, for dessert, ‘tea, coffee or jelly(!)’ in 20 days.
Next morning we headed off early to drive to Persepolis. But first we detoured to a place previously unknown to me, Naqsh-e Rostam. It’s Breathtaking (with capital ‘B’), even ‘awesome’.
Approaching from the plain, the first glimpse is of a sheer rock wall, with four enormous royal tombs carved into its face. These are the Achaemenid tombs of their great kings, Darius I (the Great) and Darius II, Xerxes and Artaxerxes. After Cyrus’ death, his son, Cambyses II, extended the empire into Egypt but died there ‘unexpectedly’, which led to a period of infighting among the contenders for the throne. Darius, a distant relative, along with his courtiers, settled the matter by invoking the Gods – the owner of the first horse to neigh at dawn would be the new boss cocky. It’s no surprise that the horse belonging to Darius won the round (with a little prodding). To the end, Darius was always a little too keen to promote his regal rights, per his tomb inscription “If now you shall think: how many are the countries which King Darius held? Look at the sculptures” . Darius had inherited the military genius and ambitions of Cyrus, and he extended the Achaemenid empire into Ethiopia, Afghanistan and India, and west along the Danube and into Greece. However, he also understood that managing a vast empire required sophisticated administration and infrastructure, and undertook a vast road and canal building programme, including the precursor to the Suez Canal. Persepolis was his ceremonial palace creation, showcasing imperial splendour. Whilst following Cyrus’ example of not imposing the Achaemenids’ Zoroastrian religion on those conquered, he implemented an empire-wide banking system, uniform weights and measures, and established a powerful navy to repress piracy and encourage trade. Our man Xan (Alexander the Great) finally put paid to the Achaemenids’ empire in 330BC, the final straw being the burning of Persepolis.
After Xan’s death, his military generals (historically tagged the Seleucids) made a dog’s breakfast of trying to control the Iranian territories and eventually withdrew to the fertile lands of the Euphrates. With the Seleucids withdrawal, the power vacuum was filled by the Parni – a tribe moving down from the Asian steppes, but little trace of the Parthian rule is visible in Iran. By the time they’d lost most of Mesopotamia, the Persian Sasan family moved into the breach, hailing from close to Persepolis, and within sight of the great royal tombs of Naqsh-e Rostam. Which brings us to the second glory of the site – the Sassanid sculptures. These seven enormous and exquisite rock sculptures sit below the royal tombs, plus a couple of the beauties lurk around the corner. They depict the various battles won (primarily over the Romans Emperor Valerian, but also Philip the Arab), jousting scenes and ceremonies honouring the Sassanid Kings and the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda and divinity Anahita, the goddess of fertility and war. Their Sassanid provenance is certain because all the figures are garbed in billowing silk – even when the stars of the show are mounted on stationary steeds – evidencing the Sassanids pivotal location on the Silk Road. The horses are similarly all kitted out in equine finery.
Also at the site is the Achaemenid shrine to Zaroaster, standing 12.6m high, commonly called a fire temple, which it isn’t, because there’s no chimney, so it may have been a mortuary chamber or held royal archives or battle standards. It’s all marvellous. But our main destination for the day was Persepolis, Darius the Great’s extraordinary city covering 13 hectares, the construction of which began around 515BC. It was still unfinished in 330BC when Xan looted then torched it. According to Plutarch, it took him 10,000 mules and 5,000 camels to carry away the booty from what was a revenge attack for the Achaemenid firing of Athens. The massive stones used in the construction were quarried from mountains several kilometres away and moved by thousands of labourers (including Greeks) using rolling logs to bring them to the site. The complex included a treasury, military quarters, small private rooms and huge reception areas. The entrance is via a great double staircase, with low risers, probably to allow horses to be ridden up and then through the Gate of All Lands, one of Xerxes’ contributions to the complex. Here, trumpeters would have welcomed visitors through the enormous wooden doors flanked by giant sculptures of two quadrupeds. Two enormous human-headed winged bulls face into the palace area, topped with a cuneiform inscription: “ I am Xerxes, the great king, King of Kings this great earth far and wide…By Ahura Mazda’s favour I have made this Gate of All Lands. Much that is beautiful has been built in this (region) which I and my father (Darius) have built. All that has been built and appears beautiful…we have built by the favour of Ahura Mazda “. A graffiti vandal by the name of Stanley (of Dr Livingstone fame) tagged the gate when he stopped by in 1870. The construction of the Hall of 100 columns used stone columns 20 metres high with addorsed animal capitals designed to carry ceiling crossbeams of Lebanese cedar. There are examples of my favourites, the homa birds, on the way to the main reception areas. I’ve always thought George Curzon (Viceroy of India at the turn of the century) a mean-spirited, arrogant little toad, and his description of the staircases at Persepolis does nothing to change my opinion. “ It is all the same, and the same again, and yet again…..there is no variation in their steady, ceremonial tramp “. It’s impossible to imagine anyone concluding thus if they’d seen the staircase reliefs depicting envoys from a vast geography in ‘national’ dress, bringing gifts, including:
Ethiopians and Nubians (giraffe, okapi)
Libyans (antelope and chariot)
Parthians (Bactrian camel, metal objects)
Ionians (cloth, honeycombs or balls of yarn)
Cappadocians (garments, and leading horses)
Soghdians (from Samarkand, bringing horse and metalwork)
Gandhara (now Pakistan, with a humped bull)
Babylonians (fringed cloth and a humped bull)
Armenians (horse and double handled ewer)
Arians from Baluchistan (lion skin)
Elamite archers (a lioness and two cubs)
plus Egyptians, Dragianans (from Northern Afghanistan), Sagatians and a battalion of priests and flora reliefs on the ‘down’ side of the stairway.
Near Darius’ winter palace is the western staircase ordered by Artaxerxes III, decorated with priests carrying food, vessels, lambs and deer, and it’s just beautiful. After lunch at a local restaurant we stopped by three other Sassanid sculptures at Naqsh-e Rajab, which were probably by a spring. These show the kings receiving their powers from Ahura Mazda, the court attending the king, and the high priest explaining the newly codified Zoroastrian religion, instituted via an imperial formulation of the scriptures, but so at odds with the religious pluralism of Cyrus and Darius. The Sassanids were, however, efficient administrators in town planning, irrigation, schools, colleges and hospitals. Their exploits are recorded in the ‘Shahnameh’ epic poem – inspiration for later Iranian artists and which re-established Persian as a language of culture and art in the C10-C11 Islamic period. Our final day was a scheduled long trip to the west, 125km from Shiraz, to visit Bishapur. The forecast was for a hot day. They lied. It was sweltering – so hot that glory of the Sassanid rock carvings (Valerian and his buddies being put to the sword again) and city ruins were lost on us. But the drive was fabulous, through dramatic mountain scenery, culminating in what is thought to be the gorge Xan tried to pass through known as the ‘Gates of Persia’. Xan famously tried to march 30,000 troops through a gorge which is only wide enough for a two lane highway and was promptly scuttled by the Persians hurling rocks from the mountain tops on either side. His losses were enormous and he suffered the further indignity of not being able to retrieve his dead. But there was another amazing geological formation on the way back to Shiraz – a vast mountainside with a massive section one-third up its height and the full length of the range, which looked for all the world like the sculptures of battalions marching in the rock reliefs to which we’d become accustomed. Inspiration for the ancients, perhaps?