Aug 26, 2007 - published work, travel    No Comments

Packing the Persepolis punch

Although Iran is far more famous these days for its ambitious President Mahmud Ahmedinijad and its uranium enrichment plans, its historical treasure far outweighs that claim to fame. One such treasure is the once famous city of Persepolis, about 400 miles south of the capital near the modern city of Shiraz, just over an hour’s flight from Tehran. It was the seat of a powerful dynasty of Zoroastrian kings who ruled this region 2,500 years ago, and even today its ruins convey a sense of royal power. Founded by Persian King Darius the Great in about 518BC, the site’s Iranian name is Takht-e-Jamshid – The throne of Jamshid – the mythical King of Iran. It was also called Parsa, but when the Greeks came they changed the name to Persepolis, meaning the city of Persians.

One of the most awe-inspiring monuments of the ancient world, Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenian Empire. It was built during the reign of Darius I, and developed further by successive kings. The various temples and monuments are located upon a vast platform. At the head of the ceremonial staircase leading to the terrace is the ‘Gateway of All Nations’ built by Xerxes I and guarded by two colossal bull-like figures.

Perhaps the most splendid architectural expression of the Achaemenid Empire, the city was built on a huge half-artificial, half-natural terrace. The main characteristic of Persepolitan architecture is its columns. Grey limestone is the main material used in the buildings in Persepolis. The greatest palace was named Apadana and was used for the Shehenshah’s (King of Kings) official audiences. The work began in 515 BC during Darius’ era and was completed 30 years later, by his son Xerxes I. The palace had a grand hall in the shape of a square, each side being 60 metres long with 72 columns, 13 of which still stand on the enormous platform. The columns carried the weight of the vast and heavy ceiling. The tops of the columns were made from animal sculptures such as two headed bulls, lions and eagles.

A visit to Persepolis is the cultural highlight of any visit to Iran. This scribe visited the city at the height of summer, but such is the magical aura of the place that one feels transported to another era. The remains such as bas-relief wall and sculptures provide an insight into hearts and beliefs of the ancient Iranians. The wall depicts the coronation of one of the Achaemenid kings where ambassadors from different countries are paying homage to the new king and presenting gifts from their kings. The cuneiform inscription informs us that Parthians, Abyssinians, Greeks from Odysseus’s Ionian Islands, Arabs, Indians and Gandarans from Afghanistan, all came to pay tributes to the Persian king. One can almost imagine how it must have looked back then

The great king Alexander is not a well-liked figure in Iran which should not come as a surprise because he was responsible for the demolition of the great palaces, when a drunken party ended with the burning of the palaces, the effects of which can still be seen in the Tachara, Darius’s private palace, where the stone is blackened and clearly heat-damaged. When this scribe asked a few local students what they thought about the Macedonian invader, they unanimously said that he was a terrible man. He was an invader who was only interested in adding land and countries to his empire, a violence junkie and a looting drunkard. “Quite like American forces in Baghdad,” added one student.

The buildings at Persepolis are divided into three areas – military quarters, the treasury, the reception and occasional houses for the King of Kings. These include the Great Stairway, the Gate of Nations built by Xerxes, the Apadana palace of Darius, the Hall of a Hundred Columns, the Tripylon Hall and Tachara palace of Darius, the Hadish palace of Xerxes, the palace of Artaxerxes III, the Imperial Treasury, the Royal Stables and the Chariot house.

A visit to Persepolis is highly recommended for history and architecture aficionados, in fact it is recommended for anyone who likes beauty. It definitely is worth bearing the heat, the scorching sun and the dust.

Originally published in Dawn
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