(Or is it Isfahan? Nobody seems to be able to proffer a convincing argument for either so I’m going by the spelling used on my map and guide book)
Our day starts with a surprise stop at a rocky outcrop (Naghsh-e Rajab) on the opposite side of the valley to the royal tombs that we had seen the day before. One of the group members had read that there were more reliefs in amongst these boulders and blissfully we were due to pass them on our way to Pasargadae. A short walk brought us to an amazing sight. In touchable distance there were a series of vivid Sassanid reliefs depicting Shapur I on horseback in various stages of his investiture. Shown in one relief alongside the God, Ahura Mazda, and jointly clasping the ring of authority, Sharpur I is no shrinking violet when it comes to advertising his power and rank.
The sun picks out his clump of curls and his distinctive crown in majestic form on the facing relief as he sits atop a horse in slightly deeper relief than the attendants queuing behind him, which include his sons and nobles, serving to emphasise his commanding presence and their subordination.
It was thrilling to see this set of reliefs at close hand and witness the details of inscriptions, the folds of clothing, and the decoration of the sheathed swords. Contrasting with the crisp detail was the faceless protagonist – Shapur’s face has been deliberately hacked out and disfigured leaving only a droplet earring falling from his ear as a recognisable feature.
We all clamber back onto the bus and take one last look at the crucifix shadows cast on the royal tombs on the far side of the valley before driving towards Pasargadae.
“O man, I am Cyrus who founded the empire of the Persians and was king of Asia. Grudge me not this monument”
There is no sign of this inscription as told to us by Strabo but its absence does not diminish the sentiment. It’s actually impossible to begrudge Cyrus the Great his truly humble tomb in which he was buried in 529 BC .
Set on a low stepped base, the small pitched roof tomb stands proud on the plain. I’m just bowled over by its simplicity and power it imbues. The swirl of people moving around its base distract me so I push my camera to my eye and use the viewfinder to frame just the blocks of warm sandy stone against the backdrop of mountains and the soft puffy white cloud against the blue sky. I instantly feel alone with Cyrus. I’m moved beyond words. I refrain from releasing the shutter and just hold the pose to soak in the view through an admittedly watery eye. Just me and Cyrus. The weight of that moment still hangs with me.
[small update: I happened to be in the British Museum after my Iran trip so of course headed to see the Cyrus Cylinder. It was late opening at the BM and I found myself in the Iran gallery at 8pm. This time it was just me, Cyrus… and my mother. After having seen his tomb it was similarly humbling to see this small artefact in real life]
From behind me I suddenly hear our guide and I lower my camera and rejoin the group. The guide is reading out a translation of the inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder. Held at the British Museum from soon after the moment of its discovery in 1879, this small barrel-shaped clay object is heralded as the ‘first declaration of human rights’. It also includes a rather immodest declaration that Cyrus was “King of the universe” – a statement more commonly uttered from the lips of small boys with a tea towel tied around their necks as a cape and a sword made of celotaped-together loo rolls. But I’ll forgive him and I certainly won’t grudge him his poignant, moving place of rest.
We hop on a battered and dusty bus that drives us to an excavated area some distance from the tomb. On the horizon I just make out what looks to be the sheer edge of a stoney escarpment but is in fact made of hewn stone and I learn that the citadel, known as Takht-e Madar-e Soleyman (Throne of Soloman’s Mother) was once located here until its destruction by the Seleucids in 280BC. We navigate our way around the excavated columned room that is described as a residential palace.
In one corner, a rectangular column stands tall and above the scrawls of graffiti are two unmistakable wedge-shaped lines of cuneiform and below them, two other lines of text. I have gauged on this trip that the three languages (Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian cuneiform) of the Achaemenid Empire are used for grand declarations and although I am not professing to being fluent in any of them I will admit I am getting familiar with the recurring shape of the opening words “I am Cyrus…” in each of the three languages.
I will confess that so drawn was I to the archaeology that I singularly failed to digest what the plan was for our group at this site so I presumed that we would visit the other excavated areas dotted around. My failure was my undoing. I rejoined the group to discover that was our visit over and we were to head to Esfahan. I looked around in a panic. There was still plenty to see and I had miscalculated, or rather, if I had known time was so short I would have dashed between sites. I look longingly at the tantalising glimpses of gateways, columns and towers that shimmer in the distance knowing I won’t see them up close. I feel a sudden pang of sadness. I’m here, in Iran, at this great site and I’m being dragged away. I just need a few minutes to… They are empty thoughts and I board the bus that slowly and bumpily takes me away from them and my last glimpse of the site is through the dust cloud thrown up by the bus.
I’m not entirely sure why this all digs as deep as it does but I shed a tear or two on the bus and brushed them away with the back of my hand. I think it was because I was unexpectedly so moved by the tomb and I have a growing admiration for the Achaemenid dynasty and I just feel robbed of the chance to see more of their world. As we get off the bus a young and lean Iranian boy strides up alongside me, looks up at me and asks why was I crying. I’m somewhat startled by the direct question from a complete stranger and as I struggle to find an answer he asks me whether I am crying for his country. This causes another tear to roll down my face as I now feel embarrassed for the selfish reasons why I had been caught up in a teary moment and I feel guilty for not crying for his country. I wipe away the tear, tell him his country and people are wonderful and that I’m not really crying, it’s just that I have a cold. How ridiculously British am I? Possibly the lamest excuse/lie I have ever mustered in my lifetime but at least I do have have a cold. Just not a tear-inducing one. He smiles a broad smile and drops back to rejoin his family. I continue towards the exit a little stunned by the encounter and appalled by my feeble behaviour. My visit to Cyrus’ tomb has been in many ways an emotional and memorable experience.
Back on board the bus I pull myself together and listen to my audiobook while staring out of the window and watch the Zagros mountains fall away behind us as we approach Esfahan.
We arrive early in the evening and the sun is just hovering above the skyline so a few of us decide to walk to the famous main square – the Maydan-e Imam. Five times bigger than St Mark’s square in Venice, the Maydan-e Imam is nothing but imposing as you enter through one of its gateways. Its scale dwarfs everything and everyone that occupies its space.
The string of arcaded shops that enclose the space are low in height and their flat roofline is only interrupted by the bubble shape of the mosque domes, the vertical streaks of the minarets and the blocky outline of a palace. Behind, the soft dark pink shades of the mountains are the only thing that ruffle the dusk sky. It’s quite an introduction to this city.