Persepolis – Looking at Really Old Stuff

Persepolis, Iran


I woke up on Tuesday like a kid at Christmas. Today was the day I was going to hike through the ruins of Persepolis and all around the monuments to a bunch of dead kings. These are the days that I live for. I met Bahman in the lobby and almost skipped to breakfast I was so excited. We were getting an early start in order to have the site to ourselves.

We reached the ruins of Persepolis in under an hour and during most of the drive, Bahman provided me with a history of the site and an overview of what I would see. Construction on the city of Persepolis began around 518 BC under Darius the Great. The city took 150 years to build and was used for approximately 231 years until Alexander the Great destroyed the city in 331 BC and killed Darius III ending the Archaemenian empire.

Our first stop was actually outside the ruins where a luxurious complex, including a hotel and luxury tents with marble bathrooms, was constructed under the last Shah of Iran to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy in 1971. The party held at the complex to celebrate the ocassion included monarchs and dignitaries from 60 nations and the party was so opulent it outraged the Iranian citizens. So while the goal of promoting tourism to Iran was met, the goal to instill national pride was not. In fact, many point to this party as the beginning of the end for the Shah.

The site is pretty desolate now with rusting tent frames the only thing that remains of the tents while the hotel has seen better days, although the array of birds around the grounds, including flamingos, a falcon, pelicans and swans was pretty impressive.

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Xerxes Gateway (entrance to Persepolis)

So after a brief walk around, we continued on to the entrance of Persepolis with only a handful of people in sight. At this point I caught my first glimpse of Persepolis and I could see it was so well preserved and so, so huge it left me speechless (and those of you who know me realize how hard that is….)

Anyway, we entered through the Grand Stairway which at one time featured trumpeters to herald the arrival of each visitor. Unfortunately, there were no trumpeters to greet us. But we continued anyway through a magnificent arch where the noble people were separated from the common folk. The commoners got to follow one route through the city and the nobles had another. Bahman told me we were nobles so we took the noble route. Fine by me!

The arch we passed under to enter the site is known as Xerxes’ Gateway (pronounced Zur sis) or the Gate of all Nations. At one time there were 28 nations under Archaemenian rule and the artwork is a tribute to all 28 nations and reflects the fact that all of the conquered nations were welcome. On top of the arch were bull like figures guarding the entry. (Yes, once again Bull you are a focal point in ancient history!)

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North Stairway of Apadana Palace

After a couple quick pictures we turned to the right and wandered southeast down the noble path into the blazing sun toward the Apadana Palace and staircase. The construction was commenced under Darius I and completed by Xerxes I almost 2500 years ago.

The staircase we accessed to get to the palace ruins was on the north side of the palace and was covered in bas relief carvings including a lion attacking a cow. Bahman told me this was symbolism for the changing season from winter to summer. Cool. Once we reached the top of the staircase, you could see the enormity of the Palace. Unfortunately, there was not much of the grandeur remaining apart from a few columns.

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Xerxes Hall of Audience

We moved on from the Palace to other palaces believed to be constructed during the reins of Darius I and Xerxes I. (Each ruler built his own palace of course … why would you want a hand me down palace from a dead king when you had access to slaves and stones and artisans to build your own?!)

The first palace we visited was the Winter Palace also known as Takara. (Every king needs a winter palace that sits only yards away from the main palace right?) The Winter Palace was fabulous with many doorways still standing containing beautiful bas relief carvings of soldiers and guards. And something rather interesting I learned was that where carvings on the doorways faced in toward the palace, the doorway was an entrance and where the carvings faced away from the palace the doorway was an exit. Clever.

To the east of the Winter Palace was the Hadish Palace, which also had a fabulous staircase and amazing bas relief carvings. I think I took at least five pictures of the carvings which featured soldiers standing guard facing forward from left to right on the south side of the staircase and from right to left on the north side of the staircase. The carvings were very well preserved and you could even make out the detail in the soldier’s uniforms.

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Hadish Palace Stairway

To the south of the Winter Palace was an unfinished structure that featured a few pillars and remains of what was going to be yet another palace on the site. It is believed that this may have been under construction when Alexander the Great destroyed Persepolis.

We then moved towards the middle of the site to a palace known as Tripylon or Xerxes’ Hall of Audience, which featured a number of carvings of Darius I. One of the columns showed Darius I on his throne with crown prince Xerxes standing behind him. Another column showed Darius I being shaded by an umbrella. As I have said before, it was good to be king (uh after reflecting a moment let me qualify that … it is good to be king as long as you had an army to protect you since your enemies usually wanted your head on a platter….)

Immediately behind and to the right of Tripylon was the Haremsara, the former residence of the Harem. This area had been turned into a museum featuring remains of artifacts discovered on site. The building had been rebuilt and looked rather out of place at the site. We did not go into this building.

We walked around the outside of Tripylon and headed back in a northerly direction to see the north staircase of the Apadana Palance. Now while the east staircase was nice (although somewhat faded) and the carvings on the other palaces were pretty grand, the carvings were nothing in comparison to what was exhibited on the northern staircase. This staircase was simply the masterpiece of the site and to that end, it was protected by a permanent shelter.

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A “bull-like creature” at Persepolis

The staircase featured a variety of scenes that provided a pictorial history to the Archamenian empire and the conquered nations, including three tiers of figures with each tier containing soldiers, guards and immortals. The upper tier was for the royal procession and included scenes of royal chariots, horses and valets. The lower two tiers featured Persians in feathered hats and Medes in round caps. The southern portion of the staircase featured delegations from 23 nations that made up the Archemenian empire at the time. Each delegation contained features of the nation represented. Etheopians had short curly hair, Turks carried swords and on and on it went. The faces and features of each delegation were different and varied. It was simply stupendous.

We spent at least ten minutes examining the staircase and various carvings. I really did not want to leave, but we eventually moved on to the Treasury, which was unfortunately a big let down after the staircase. All that remained of a once spectacular building was the base of each pillar. I had to agree with Bahman … not much here.

The last major building was the Palace of 100 Columns. It was another masterpiece with an amazing array of columns, door frames and remnants of animals guarding the Palace. The columns contained bas relief carvings of kings, soldiers and representatives of the entire 28 nations which once made up the Archemenian empire at the height of its supremacy. And the statutes of animals included horses and “bull like creatures”…. (Just for the record, a “bull like creature” should never been mistaken for my friend the Bull.)

At this point, Bahman suggested we climb the hill to see the tomb of Artaxerxes II. (Artaxerxes III was also buried there, but was located on another hillside at the far end of the site.) The climb looked easy enough, but it was a looooong way up and in the thin mountain air (almost 6,000 feet), I knew all those Iranian treats were going to come back to haunt me. However, never one to back down from a challenge, I agreed so off we went up the mountain.

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High above Persepolis

I took the climb in an easy does it manner, but Bahman had to do what men do and he sprinted ahead of me up the hillside. Show off! Five minutes later I caught up to him … and he was sucking air … Ha! Not so easy is it big guy?! We hiked the rest of the way up the rocks and scrub breathing hard and guzzling water. It was a hot, hard climb (and yes my always present hedjab made it that much more difficult), but when we finally reached the top …. OH. MY. GOD. Now the tomb was pretty cool with the burial chamber carved high up into the rocks, but the view of Persepolis was absolutely magnificent. We could see the entire site and beyond and really got a feel for just how large it was. We hung out at the top for a while before making the very easy climb back down. (I was tempted to run ahead just for show, but cut Bahman some slack….)

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Panorama of Persepolis

Once back down, we walked the remainder of the bits and pieces of ruins …. and then it was time to leave, but I REALLY did not want to go. Bahman said that if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I must have lived in the middle east since I absolutely love the ruins, the history, and the architecture in this part of the world so much.

So we had been at the site about 3 hours as we walked back under the archway we had originally entered. And it was clear we beat the rush. As we were leaving there were a number of bus loads of Iranians (very few foreign tourists) walking in. That early bird saying was so so true. Because Bahman and I had arrived so early we had been able to enjoy the site virtually all to ourselves. It had been an awesome morning.

Anyway, we got back in the van and Hamid drove us about an hour away to the next site: the ancient burial tombs of the Archemenian kings dating to the 1st century BC. It is believed that Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I and Xerxes I are buried there (Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III are buried at Persepolis as I previously said, and poor old Darius III was a big fat looser in his battle with Alexander the Great and got no fancy resting place.)

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Panorama of the Naqsh-e Rostam (King’s Tombs)

So the burial grounds were pretty spectacular and dated to the 1st century BC. The burial chambers were carved out of cliffs high above the ground and featured amazing carvings with the kings standing at fire alters supported by subjects from the various nations comprising the Archaemenian empire. (Similar to the burial site we visited at Persopolis. Below the tombs were eight Sassanian (a later dynasty than the Archaemenian dynasty) bas relief carvings featuring conquests and royal ceremonies dating from the first century AD.

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1st Century AD Sassanian Bas Relief Carvings

Bahman suggested we take a walk beyond the four burial sites to a location about a 1/4 mile away dating to the first century AD featuring additional Sassanian bas relief carvings. We made the quick hike through the reddy brown sands and boy was it was worth it. As we rounded a turn we were met with beautifully carved scenes that had been totally protected from the wind and rain because of how the scenes had been carved into the stone surrounded by protective folds in the rocks. The carvings were far better preserved than anything we saw at the main site and were simply gorgeous. In addition, Bahman pointed out an unusual carving showing a man who clearly predated the Sassanian era (since the clothing was so different). Bahman said the carving is believed to have originated under the Elamite era dating to 1250 BC. Yep … that’s pretty old.

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1250 BC Elamite Bas Relief Carving

We finally left the site and headed for lunch at this pretty cool outdoor restaurant featuring a duck pond. The lunch included kabobs with a very smokey flavor, eggplant, yogurt and yep those ever present grilled tomatoes. And the big event during the lunch was an X-rated show put on by a couple of the ducks in the pond beside our table. Let’s just say that we last saw the male duck sleeping it off in the sun.

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At the tomb of Cyrus the Great

Our next stop was another hour down the desert road at Pasargadae which is home to the tomb of Cyrus the Great. As we walked to the tomb, Bahman related the story to me of how Cyrus came to power. Cyrus’ grandfather was King and one of the king’s wisemen advised the king that his daughter would give birth to a son who would defeat the king and take his crown. The King ordered the baby killed, but instead of following the orders and killing the baby, the child was given to a shepherd and his family to raise without the King’s knowledge.

At the age of 4 young Cyrus was defeating all the peasant children at games and competitions and showing such wisdom for his age that he was brought to the King’s court to play with the noble children. Young Cyrus bested these children as well and the King heard of this and ordered the child brought to him. The king soon realized that the child was actually his grandchild and he was so happy that he had the child returned to the palace from the shepherd’s home. By age 18, Cyrus was a threat to the crown and so the King banished him to a far away region against the advice of his wisemen who told the king to have Cyrus killed. Eventually Cyrus united the men of the region to which he was banished and used an army of men to defeat his grandfather. Cyrus spared his grandfather’s life and eventually built the Archaemenian empire by conquering lands, but sparing the people he conquered. Cyrus the Great was believed to be a very benevolent ruler and has been credited with the First Charter of Human Rights …. (no commentary from me here on the irony …..) He is still revered in Iran.

Anyway, for such an incredible ruler, the tomb was a pretty simple design featuring six stone tiers with a very austere rectangular burial chamber at the top. The tomb was at one time surrounded by gardens, but now sits in a desolate area on the Morghab Plains.

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4,000 year old Cypress Tree

So after the visit, we had a quick tea break with the requisite dates and nuts and hit the road again on the way to Yazd (our overnight stop). We made yet one more stop on the trip and this time pulled over in Abarqu to see the oldest tree in the world: a 4,000 year old cypress. And while the tree trunk was massive, the tree was in remarkably good shape. A nearby caravanserai (ancient resting spot) added to the history of the site and rosemary bushes gave the area a wonderful scent.

When we arrived, the locals were in the process of building a new wall around the courtyard surrounding the tree. I snapped a quick picture of one of the young men doing the masonry work and my photo drew tons of laughter from the other men. (He was a pretty good looking guy and I guess they were giving him a hard time about me singleing him out.) Anyway, one guy rattled off something to me in Farsi and pointed at another guy a few feet away. Bahman immediately told me in English that the man he was pointing at was the foreman and they wanted me to take his picture. I immediately pointed and clicked a picture and that drew even more laughter. I am not sure I understood the joke, but to hear the men laughing was pretty fun.

Now the town of Abarqu was pretty typical of the desert towns in central Iran. Lots of low rise buildings made out of stone with few windows and few green spaces. The town kind of reminded me of one of those dusty old western towns from the movies – only with mosques.

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Ice House in Abarqu

As we left the town, Bahman pointed out a large triangular beehive looking building that he told me was an old 19th century ice house used by the locals. It had many underground levels and was used to keep produce and meats cold. Another clever invention.

We continued to drive the winding desert road passing by nomads and endless miles of sandy desert and scrub brush terrain. Eventually the Shercoo mountains came into view (not sure about the spelling). As we reached the foothills, Bahman had Hamid pull the van over to the side of the road as the sun began to set, and he got of the van and motioned for me to follow him. We wandered down the little desert slope and stopped in front of what I thought was a very narrow stream. It was not.

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Looking at the Qanat by the Road

Bahman explained to me that Iran is a very dry country with 22% of the land arid desert and just 17% arable land. As a result, almost 2,000 years ago the Persians developed a system of irrigation in which they dug qanats, which are underground channels from a water source to the location where the water is needed. The system depended upon gravity and required the water source to be higher than the desination. Most of the tunnels were started near the hills and mountains and continued into vast channels throughout the region. The tunnels were obviously dug by hand, were just wide enough for the men to crawl through as the tunnels were dug and included a sophisticated system for disposing of the dirt. Some of the channels for the water were above ground and this was one of those channels. This was absolutely fascinating to me.

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Driving through the mountains to Yazd

Anyway, after wandering around (and avoiding snakes … or at least Bahman told me to avoid snakes – not sure he was serious or not, but he got a good laugh out of the look on my face) we got back in the van and headed up into the mountains. The scenery was beautiful as the sun set on the desert mountains. We soon reached the crest of 10,000 feet and made a gradual descent into Yazd where we would be spend the night and most of the next day.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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