Elvis and Arlo In Iran
A travelogue of two American tourists during their first visit to Iran
April 16-26, 2009

April 16: Tehran
April 17: Tehran
April 18: Tehran-Yazd
April 19: Yazd
April 20: Pasagardae
April 21: Shiraz
April 22: Persepolis
April 23: Isfahan
April 24: Isfahan
April 25: Isfahan
April 26: Abyaneh-Kashan

April 22

Earth Day. The drive to Persepolis from Shiraz passes many military bases.  It is rather sad that (as in America) so much wealth is tied up in such projects rather than being used for good. We also see the rails for a new train line from Isfahan to Shiraz. Apparently, the whole route is being built at once; machines and workmen can be seen along the route.  This seems a much better way to use oil money.

The approach to Persepolis passes the forest of pine trees and tents that remain from the Shah's disastrous celebration of the 2500 birthday of the Iranian monarchy, the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great.  The incredible amount of money (perhaps as much as $200 million!) he spent on this blow-out was one of the primary instigators of the Revolution. The site of Persepolis had been threatened by “the hanging Ayatollah” Sadegh Khalkhali.  Khalkhali was known for his antipathy towards pre-Islamic Iran. In 1979 he wrote a book "branding king Cyrus the Great a tyrant, a liar, and a homosexual" and "called for the destruction of the Cyrus tomb and remains of the two-thousand-year-old Persian palace in Shiraz, Fars Province, the Persepolis.".  In addition, the proposed dam and railroad beds that threaten Pasagardae also threaten Persepolis.

Persepolis is in a very dramatic site. A wide plain (sadly paved now) leads your eye to the gateposts of Persepolis, and the mountains loom in the background. Persepolis, or Takht-e Jamshid, the modern Iranian name, was the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid dynasty. The earliest remains of Persepolis are believed to date from circa 515 BC. André Godard, the French archaeologist who excavated Persepolis in the early 1930s, believed that Cyrus the Great chose the site of Persepolis, but that Darius the Great built the terrace and the great palaces. They were completed during the reign of his son, Xerxes the Great.

persep0olis approach02

We walk up the stairway to the plateau; the stairs are designed to have very small risers so the court could ascend them gracefully in their robes. We imagine Darius and Xerxes ascending these steps, and later the young Alexander, followed by his generals Ptolemy, etc. What amoment!

At the top is the 'Gate of all Nations' (referring to the subject nations of the Empire); on each side are the remains of huge Assyrian-style winged bulls with bearded king's heads. They are all that remains of a grand hall. Above each entrance, in three languages, was the inscription: “I am Xerxes, the Great King, King of Kings, King of countries containing many kinds (of men), King in this great earth far and wide, son of King Darius, an Achaemenian....I built this Gateway of All Nations. I built many other beautiful things in Persia. I built them and my father built them. All beautiful things we built, we have built by the favor of Ahuramazda..”

persepolis gateway nations front

We then cross an enormous courtyard to view the wonderful Apadana stairways: Rows of intricate bas reliefs show scenes from the New Year's festival and processions of representatives of twenty-three subject nations of the Achaemenid Empire: First are carvings of Medes and Persians soldiers and court officials. The carved men hold hands, or carry an umbrella to protect the king...charming, human gestures.  Next is the stairway depicting all the subject peoples...Cappadocians, Afghanis with camels, Lycians, Africans...all bearing appropriate tribute gifts for 'Now Rooz', the Zoroastrian new year that this site was apparently intended for. These various groups are each led by the hand by an Achaemenian official, warmly, apparently to convey that they came in a spirit of friendship and not as sullen subject peoples. Although the same style of carving appears throughout, the subtle differences in features, dress, and transport are captivating.

persepolis stairway emissaries 2

The Throne hall has stone doorways decorated with court scenes and scenes of the king fighting monsters. In the Treasury, two large stone relieves depict Darius I on is throne  being approached by a high dignitary whose hand is raised to his mouth in a gesture of respectful greeting.  We move through the courtyards past splendid carvings and reliefs scattered almost carelessly about.

persepolis lion head

From the royal tombs above the site, you get a real sense of the passing of time. The great Persian and Macedonian leaders all walked down below...but the site was forgotten for centuries.  Even now, the Iranian children come here only as a park and picnic site, not to get a feeling for their history. The tombs themselves carry old Zoroastrian symbols: The Farvahar, the sun, and fire.

Persepolis from above

We encounter two young women executives from Tehran who are touring the site; they know less than we about the site (which is sad) but are pretty alienated from their government (which seems to be common, at least among the educated English-speaking Iranians we encounter).

Because a Chinese diplomat recently attempted to carry off a historic souvenir (he was caught at the airport), you cannot touch the carvings, which is a pity.  

We wandered off from the local expert guide Hossein kindly provided us, as we were our usual cat-like selves and preferred to go off on our own rather than follow the group tour. At lunch, we meet a handsome Persian cat, but he is rather shy.

Naqsh-e Rostram is a very dramatic butte containing the graves of Darius the Great, Xerxes I, Darius II, and Artaxerxes I. The tombs  are carved out of the rock face. They are all at a considerable height above the ground.

Naqsh-e Rustam

The tombs are known locally as the 'Persian crosses', after the shape of the facades of the tombs. The entrance to each tomb is at the center of each cross, which opens onto to a small chamber that had contained the king in his sarcophagus.

The relief carvings are very detailed and dramatic.  One shows the submission of the Roman Emperor Valerian after his defeat and capture by the Sassanian Shah Shapur. The Iranians believe that Shapur treated Valerian as a royal hostage, providing him with a palace, an early example of "enlightened self-interest". In the west there's a (probably apocryphal) story that Shapur kept the conquered Valerian alive so that he could make him kneel down and serve as Shapur's mounting block for getting on his horse . A few wildflowers and a lonely tree cling to the cliff.  A great site to celebrate Earth Day.

Naqsh-e Rustam shapur, valerian and philip2

Back in Shiraz, we wander around.  A man proudly points out a painting of Daroush (Darius)decorating a wooden balcony.

darioush mural shiraz

We stop back at the Mausoleum of Shah-e-Cheragh. to take photos of the outside. The guards make it clear that non-Muslims are welcome to enter so long as we obey the law (no cameras, a chador for me). We pass on the offer, having already seen the interior.

At the Shiraz airport, a merchant importunes George to buy me a Faravahar pendant. She says “You buy, you’re a good man.  You no buy, Mister, you bad!”  George is bad and passes on the purchase.

We have the worst seats in history on the airplane to Isfahan, in the last row. Hossein has the window seat...except there is no window.  It is very hot and airless, and I begin to feel unwell. A friend of Hossein's in the front of the plane kindly changes seats with me. Once off the plane and in the cool night air in Isfahan, I begin to feel better. As soon as I’m tucked in at the Ali Qapu Hotel, I instantly fall into a deep sleep. Poor George and Hossein don't sleep as well, worrying about me.