It’s Easter Day.
Today is the day I’ve been looking forward to the most. The chance to see Persepolis played a pivotal role in the decision to come on the trip in the first place. The news that we are to stop at some tombs on route only serves to heighten the anticipation. Nothing prepared me for what I was about to see. Reminding me immediately of Petra, these four vast rock-cut tombs mounted high on the escarpment face are intimidatingly grand. Naqsh-e Rostam is the site of four royal tombs. Framed by an overall cross shape each tomb is entered through a small central doorway, which is in turn framed by bas-relief architectural detail. At the top of the cross is the depiction of the deceased and in the hazy morning light I pick out Darius I, Darius II, Artaxerxes I and Xerxes I (with the help of a guidebook). Epic names conjured from history; almost too legendary to believe I am staring at their final resting place.
Thoughtfully, someone has constructed a long mound running parallel to the tombs so you can scramble up and be treated to a head on view of the tombs. A definite bonus for aesthetics but also from a personal point of view, as a woman having to wear a head scarf on a blustery day it really helps not having to tilt your head back to try and take a photo and risk exposing your head as a rogue gust of wind catches you unawares. It becomes something of an obsession, believe me. And one I won’t miss. At all.
Unlike in Petra, there are no obvious scaffold holes. I start to imagine some sort of wooden scaffold system propped up against the rock face that would allow the stone masons to chisel away at such great heights. The process must have been visible for some distance and I want to imagine the fever of excitement amongst the locals when the first tomb was finished and the scaffolding removed. I think the sun or altitude may be getting to me but it’s quite fun to inject a little life into a place.
Below each of the cruciform tombs is a dramatic relief. Carved later, in the Sassanid period and incredibly from where the name of the site derives, these bas-reliefs showing battle and jousting scenes and royal and religious depictions. Though in stone there is such life in these reliefs. The exaggerated curls of the men’s hair, the swish of a horse’s tail and the flow of a garment. I momentarily lose the group as I have lagged behind happily snapping away (and day dreaming about days gone by) and I find them slightly down the path gazing up at yet more Sassanid reliefs.
At the foot of the rock face, a solitary square stone tower rises from a deep trench. Its sides are pitted with small rectangular indentations and though the tower is Achaemeneid the repetative regularity of the decoration reminds me of the pattern of tiny windows in some Fascist architecture. I fear I may be alone in thinking this.
After half an hour I find my jaw aching, I have literally been wandering around with a dropped jaw. If this has a physical affect on me, What is Persepolis going to do to me?
“I am Darius, the great King, King of Kings, King of the lands, King upon this earth…”
And so starts a translation of the Elamite inscription of the foundation stone at the original entrance to Persepolis. Darius, a man of overwhelming modesty, evidently.
Climbing up the stairs past the regular cyclopean walls of Persepolis, an entrance added later by Xerxes, brings me face to face with two winged bulls. These are the first I’ve ever seen in situ and quite frankly I’m swept away. I am totally transfixed to the point that the zillions of Iranian holiday makers that are swarming up the stairs, waving selfie sticks too close to my head and battling for pole position to see the majestic Gate of All Lands (Gate of Xerxes) melt away and it’s just me and what is left of the constant gaze of the hacked out faces of the winged bulls.
Their presence is commanding and mesmerising and if the effect was to awe then it succeeded. I stood there for longer than I had intended. We had already negotiated more time in Persepolis than had been allotted and I knew I would need every second of it. In a hasty panic I dash from one end of the gate to the other and unconciously become entranced with the mirror pair of wing bulls.
I snap out of it, start photographing like a crazed lunatic and then dash to the next monument – The Unfinished Gate. At first the outline is not clear but soon the raw, unfinished silhouettes of two bulls heads loom above me.
I feel the jostle of people around me and move on. The population of Iran has basically descended on this site and my dream of wandering leisurely through the ruins stopping to admire, take photos and wander on evaporates. I need a game plan. My strategy is now to dash to empty spots. People tend to move in herds so as they clear out I step in. This does entail not quite seeing the site in a logical pattern but needs must. But please do note that on the inside, this approach is killing me.
My first empty spot finds me in the doorway of the Throne Hall. Here the wide doors jambs in the flat light seem of no interest (probably hence the vacant spot) but up close the outlines of rows of men who form part of the audience entourage of the King. The crispness of some of the surviving profiles of the faces leave me dumbstruck. Others are pitted and have seen the ravages of weathering. In their defence, this site was allegedly torched by Alexander the Great so we’re in fact lucky to have as much as we do survive unscathed.
I continue to dart around the site in a random fashion and my eyes are feasting on the quantity and richness of the reliefs that cover most of the liminal spaces. Throne bearers, guards and audiences rally around the throned King at the top of the relief. In other instances men daintily position a little umbrella canopy over the King’s head. Curls of beards are abound. It’s a wonderful visual labyrinth of people and decorative motifs. There is some (actually a lot) of repetition in the reliefs but this sucks you in and you start believing you can only spot a couple of variations but yet some elements are unique.
The overall visual impact of the most famous structure in Persepolis—the Apadana (the Audience Palace)—is somewhat marred by the numbers of chador-clad women, short-sleeved shirted men and the odd tourist that are flocking through the site and gaps are hard to come by. But patience prevails and small openings in the veil of people arise and I nudge in. I find myself face to face with figures I’ve only seen in books; depictions familiar to so many people even if their origin or context is not known by the observer. The lines of profiled figures with their large almond eyes, pointy beards and bundle of neat, tight curls of hair arranged around their faces. Standing in front of them now is extraordinary and a privilege.
While the figures are familiar the other details are completely unfamiliar. Serenely carved trees break up the lines of people and animals and carts punctuate the orderly scene of delegations bringing gifts to King Xerxes.
Of course, people who know me, will appreciate my delight at spotting some camels in the queue of stone delegates.
I continue around the site in a hurry and find one of my group sitting on a bench, smoking and gazing at one of the decorated sides of the Apadana. With eyes fixed on the reliefs I am just that bit envious of the time he is taking to sit and soak up the splendour of the monument. Perhaps I will regret not taking the time to absorb my surroundings but after a brief salutation I scamper on because there is still much to see.
Inside the Apadana, the scale of the building is hard to grasp. It occupies a large space but only once you accept that the few standing towering columns represent only a fraction of those that would have supported the roof do you get an idea of the monumentality. It apparently could host 10,000 people. Staggering. The bulbous column bases lay strewn amongst the remnants of the fallen columns and depictions of snarling leonine faces litter the ground. Despite lying in ruins the building is majestic.
I make my way towards Darius’ Palace where I fight my way to the front of the crowds to take a few photos for an acquaintance on Twitter who has expressly asked for some detailed shots of a relief, actually a missing part of the relief, for her studies. I am happy to oblige but without being able to explore the inside of the palace I understand little of its grandeur. This is the case for most of the rest of the site. Views across buildings but prohibited entry means tantalising glimpses from afar of reliefs carved in doorways and a giant puzzle of fallen stones.
Time is against me and I vow, as I stare up at a relief of the personification of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god, that I shall return without the crowds and without the time constraint.
That makes leaving the site somewhat easier. I know I haven’t taken it all in. I know that I have barely digested that I have been to Persepolis, that I have stood looking in awe at buildings that legends like Darius and Xerxes had built and that once thrived with ancient Persian life. That the site today was crowded helped with reimagining that last element at least.
Eyes dry from the dust and from staring through my lens, I take a last look back at the mighty walls of Perseoplis before leaving.
We made a short stop at the tomb of Hafeziah, a 14th century poet now entombed under a 20th century octangonal kiosk. Hafeziah was famed for knowing the Quran by heart as a small child and wrote poetry about love. Our guide reads a translation of one of his works but we are moved more by hearing the poem in Persian – the sonorous tones of Farsi have a far more powerful resonance in such circumstances.
I still feel a little wrenched from Persepolis but the mosque we then visit is a gentle reminder that I’m here to see more than just archaeology. The shades and tones of pink of the Nasir-al Molk Mosque are a refreshing change from the hues of blue and green we have seen so far. Patterns, textures and intricate decorations that should clash, don’t – they blend into a sea of shapes, forms and colours that play off each other and are clean and dazzling on the eye after the dust of Persepolis.
I settle in my hotel room before dinner, scooting through my photos and reading up on the details of Persepolis that had flashed past me earlier that day. I’m reminded of the tombs we saw in the morning that had surprised and staggered me beyond words and I become wonderfully fascinated by the Achaemenids and have a rush to learn more.