Through the land of the Persians (April 6-9 2016)

After spending another night at Mehdi’s home in Baharestan, we departed for Persepolis on April 6th. This time Mehdi had arranged a taxi driver for us, whom he gave detailed instructions about the route and the prize. We left early and spent most of the morning riding through the endless plains of Fars province. As we went south the ground became more arid and the terrain more rugged. Rocky hills covered in isolated bushes and clumps of low grass arose around us. This truly was a barren wasteland and it was hard to imagine that the two most important Iranian empires – the Achaemenid and the Sasanid – had arisen from this province.

Gate of All Nations, Persepolis
Gate of All Nations, Persepolis. Author: Alborzagros

Pre-Achaemenid Persia
While watching the scenery, I was reminded of the hypothesis that the name ‘Persia’ is derived from the Median word Parsava, which means ‘border land’. Now I could see why. According to this hypothesis the ancient Persians were Median pioneers who settled the less hospitable frontier areas. Although Fars province was not very fertile, the Persians had the luck to encounter Elamites living in the region. The Elamites were an ancient people that had been living in Iran since at least the third millennium BC. They spoken their own isolate language and had a state tradition going back thousands of years. When the Persians arrived in the region around 650 BC they subdued the native Elamites and tried to emulate their administrative system, including the Elamite script. This may have facilitated Persia’s transition to a state society early on. That the Persians had good organizing skills is evident from the fact that they built ‘qanats’, underground canals meant to bring groundwater from the mountains to the farms in the plane. This gave them an edge over their Median brothers. Under Teispes the Persians united all of eastern Elam under their banner and gave their kingdom the ancient Elamite name of Anshan.

Achaemenid Tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam
Achaemenid Tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam. Photo by Daan Nijssen.

Naqsh-e Rustam
Thanks to our early departure we arrived at Naqsh-e Rustam early in the afternoon. The sun was at its highest point, the air was dry and temperatures rose above 20 degrees Celsius: the perfect weather for me. In Tehran we had seen snow and in Hamadan we had faced the cold, but it was finally starting to look like a vacation. Naqsh-e Rustam is a site consisting of numerous rock carvings dating to different periods. The most impressive sights are the tombs of the Achaemenid kings Darius the Great (521-486 BC), Xerxes (486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (465-424 BC) and Darius II (424-404 BC) that have been carved into the sand-colored rock. The tombs themselves are not visible nor accessible, only the entrances. These entrances are adorned with rock reliefs depicting two queues of people carrying the throne of the King of Kings. Each person represents one subject nation. The rock relief is the same with every tomb, which is why even archaeologists are not sure which tomb belongs to which king. Below the tombs of the Achaemenid kings the early Sasanid kings have left their own rock reliefs, often depicting the King of Kings on top of a horse, fighting his enemies. The most famous one is a depiction of the Sasanid king Shapur I (AD 242-272), along with the manacled Roman emperor Valerian and a kneeling Roman emperor Philip. In his wars against the Romans Shapur succeeded in capturing Valerian in battle and forcing Philip to pay a tribute of 500.000 denarii, which greatly boosted the confidence of the Persians. Another significant sight is the Ka’aba-ye Zardosht, or the Cube of Zoroaster, an Achaemenid tower falsely attributed to the famous Iranian prophet. Its real function is unknown, but here too the Sasanid kings and even a high priest named Kerdir left their inscriptions.

The Tachara complex at Persepolis.
The Tachara complex at Persepolis. Photo by Daan Nijssen.

We arrived at Persepolis later that afternoon and decided to book an appartment at a bungalow park located about 2 kilometers away from the site. The appartments were quite luxurious and they were located in a park with tall trees that offered shade from the sun. Sprinklers continuously watered the grass. It was a great place to rest, relax and enjoy the surroundings. By the time we were well rested, Persepolis was already closed. We decided to visit this site early next morning. I had heard a lot of laudatory commentaries on Persepolis, so my expectations were quite high. The most impressive part of the site, although not necessarily the most beautiful, was the huge stone terrace on which the city was built. Such a terrace was also known as a ‘throne’ of ‘takht’. Medieval Persian traditions therefore named the site Takht-e Jamshid, after the legendary Iranian king. In reality Persepolis was of course founded by Darius the Great, the man who basically refounded the Achaemenid Empire after Cyrus’s dynasty had died out. There were many impressive structures on the site, most noticeably the Gate of All Nations, with its winged bulls guarding the entrance, the great columned halls, the thick walls and the famous Apadana staircase with reliefs depicting representatives of all nations bearing gifts for the King of Kings. The latter was much smaller than expected. In fact, the whole site was smaller than expected. I knew beforehand that Persepolis was ‘only’ a palace complex, not an entire city, but I had still pictured it bigger. What I did find impressive was how such an enormous palace could exist in the middle of a desert, with no residential towns nearby.

Me in front of Cyrus's Tomb
Me in front of Cyrus’s Tomb

Later than afternoon we went to Pasargadae, the capital city of Cyrus the Great. Unfortunately, we had a taxi driver (again!) who had little patience and would only let us watch each part of the excavation for five minutes. The archaeological site of Pasargadae encompasses a large area, but only a few structures still stand. The best preserved structure is the tomb of Cyrus; a humble grave, but nonetheless impressive if one knows the significance of the person buried there. The contemporary Babylonian and Hebrew sources give us only a glimpse of the impressive campaigns fought by Cyrus, which brought him and his army of semi-nomadic horsemen to the Aegean Sea in the west and the foot of the Tien Shan in the east. Cyrus managed to unite the region now known as the Middle East under his rule and knew how to get local elites to obey his orders. He won the respect of the Median and Persian warlords through his prowess in war and gained control over the Babylonian Empire by making a deal with the Babylonian priesthood. He was also a master at PR, making his subjects believe that he was a savior sent by the gods to overthrow illegitimate regimes. Beside the tomb of Cyrus, the most impressive sight was the hill fort known as Takht-e Madar Suleyman (Throne of Solomon’s Mother). In a way it reminded me of Ecbatana or Tepe Nush-i Jan, because it was located on a high and steep acropolis, but it also reminded me of that other ‘takht’ – Persepolis – since on top of the hill an impressive platform of huge stones was built. Unfortunately, we could only view the Palace of Cyrus, with its columned halls, from a distance.

Ali and I in the garden of Hafez.
Ali and I in the garden surrounding the Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz.

Serene Shiraz
I am not the kind of person who uses pretentious words for no reason. However, sometimes a situation is so hard to describe accurately that I have to pick a word that I would never have used otherwise. In case of Shiraz, I have chosen to use the word serene. We arrived in Shiraz in the evening of April 8th. From the barren wastelands of Fars we drove straight into the city center, with its broad streets dotted with subtropical trees. Apparently, Shiraz had no crowded and ugly suburbs. All of the city appeared to be part of the city center. Shiraz is located in a valley between two mountain ranges, so space is limited. Apparently the Shirazi’s are masters at city planning. Ali and I decided to take it slow the next day, which would be our last full day in Iran. We took a city map and decided not to make any plans. First we headed towards the Tomb of Hafez, the famous fourteenth century Persian poet. The Tomb of Hafez was located in a serene garden filled with flowers and fruit trees of all kinds. Although the garden was filled with mostly Iranian tourists, there was a quiet atmosphere. The beauty of the nature, the scents and the soothing Persian music allowed me to finally come to a complete state of relaxation. If I hadn’t been so curious about the other sights of the city, I would probably have stayed there the whole day. Early in the afternoon, however, we started to wander through the city. We got lost many times, but we did see many beautiful sights. Ali guided me through the Shah Cheragh shrine, where the remains of Ahmad and Muhammad, two companions of Imam Reza, were buried, and other Shia places of worship. I was struck by the serene and tolerant atmosphere in these holy places. The people were calm, not at all stressed or annoyed. They didn’t seem to mind the presence of some tourists who walked among them. I again got the same feeling that I had in the garden of Hafez. It was a good last day.

Inside the Shah Cheragh shrine.
Inside the Shah Cheragh shrine.

To be continued…
We’re almost home, but a perfect trip like this of course cannot end without a downside. Stay tuned to read more about my experiences with Turkish Airlines…