August 15, 2015

A Palace in the Desert. Persepolis

In an arid desert area, thirty minutes from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, lies the ruins of Persepolis, once one of the greatest cities on earth. Founded by King Darius I in 518 BC it was the capital of the Persian empire and inspired awe from those who visited it. The ancient Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, described it as "...the richest city under the sun". And so it remained until Alexander the Great looted and burnt it down two hundred years later as revenge for the Persian sacking of Athens.

It remained mostly hidden beneath layers of ash until the early twentieth century when full excavations began. Yet it came close to suffering the fate of many of the archaeological wonders of the region, such as Nimrud, which are being blown up by the followers of ISIS today, when, after the Iranian revolution, the regional revolutionary commander ordered it to be leveled and sent in army bulldozers to destroy the site.

The locals were horrified and went as far as laying down in front of the bulldozers, in a scene similar to the lone protester in front of the tanks in Tienanmen Square although not captured by cameras, to prevent them from reaching the site. Luckily word came down from Tehran that the site was not to be destroyed and the bulldozers were removed before any damage was done.

We have a lot to be thankful for to those brave individuals who helped stop the destruction of this amazing archaeological site. To visit Persepolis is to walk around a living museum, the vast sculpted surface displays are now exposed to the elements (before they would have been shielded by the, now burnt, wooden roof covering the palace) and will obviously require more preservation techniques and covering in the future, but today you can wander and examine closely the intricate drawings of the ancient artists.

The complex would have been a huge building project, half cut out off the Kuh-i-Rahmat mountain and built on a huge terrace, which requires visitors to ascend an impressive staircase to approach Persepolis. To actually enter, you have to walk through the 'Gate of All Nations', which are flanked by two magnificent winged bulls. At this point any emissary or subject would know they were dealing with a very powerful and important King. Today, even in its ruined state, it is still very impressive.

Despite the burning and destruction by Alexander, much remains of Persepolis. The many buildings, columns,and the channels where the canals brought water into and through the whole complex, and the magnificent reliefs that adorn the palace walls. A set by the staircase in the main Apadana palace show the King's army on one side, and then subjects from many nations bringing gifts to the King, including camels and treasures. A small wire separates you from the intricately carved reliefs, but you can still get very close to admire and photograph them.

There is a small museum on site, which has very few treasures from the site, the best ones are at the National Museum in Tehran, and also in the British Museum, Louvre, and in Chicago, but it is worth a quick visit to see the reconstruction of how the Palaces looked before Alexander's destruction. Behind the museum there are some ancient tombs cut into the hillside, which are worth the small climb up to them, but they are not as impressive as the nearby Royal tombs at Nagshe-e Rostam.

This is a place you can easily spend a day wandering slowly around and taking in the beauty and artistry of the Achaemenid era palace. At this time, prior to a major resurgence of tourism to Iran, it is wonderful to explore Persepolis with few other visitors and not fight to get a good position for a photograph, a totally different experience to somewhere like Ephesus, which is now over run with tourists. The entrance fee is an absolute bargain at only US$5. Undoubtedly both these things will change in the years to come.

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