July 22, 2013
Imagine a high plateau to the north of present day Shiraz. Set amid rocky bare mountains at 1630 m, imagine lush fields watered by an elaborate system of underground qanats or water channels that are fed by mountain snow. Imagine it is sixth century BC. The even more ancient empire of the Medes to the north has been vanquished and it is the era of the Achaemenids. It is here that a grand palace is built glorifying the kings and the sons of kings. Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes are names that resonate in history books and live on in the ruins today. In its heyday this was an empire that stretched from Macedonia in the west to Egypt and Nubia in the south to the Indus river in the east.
Originally called Parsa, we now know it as Persepolis – a name coined by the Greeks. It is through the writings of the historian Herodotus and the general Xenophenon that word of this wondrous city trickles down to us. Like all others, this empire too came to an end; the two hundred years of wealth and prosperity was brought to an end when Alexander the Great’s army came though and this city was razed to the ground. All that remains today are the ruins. For centuries even the ruins were hidden from sight by dirt and sand and it is only in the early part of the 20th century that it was brought to light. And what a wondrous sight it is!
Covering some five sq. km, the entry to the complex is via high stone gates, carved into a mythical creature with the body of a lion, the face of a man and the wings of an eagle. There is grace, strength and exquisite detail in every line of the sculpture. The cunieform inscriptions on the gate are clearly visible and speak of the vision of the ancients. Called the Gate of All Nations, it was through this that all visitors came. The inscription declares “King Xerxes says – by the favour of Ahura Mazda, this gate of all nations I built. Much else that is beautiful in Parsa, I built and my father built.” And so it is.
The area is divided into palaces and residences and audience halls and a royal treasury. All that stands today are some of the basic structures and some staircases and arches. Some of the tall ionic columns on their bases of lotus still stand but most lie broken on the ground. But there are carvings everywhere – on the arches, along the staircases, along the walls and on every available surface. The length of the staircase leading to the Apadana Palace is carved in relief depicting processions of subjects. It shows 23 delegations carrying gifts to the king – a veritable pantheon of all the peoples of the then known world, the dresses and the headdresses proclaiming their nationality. Even the features are different and distinct. There are Persian nobles in their long flowing robes followed by Medes in their tied dresses and round hats. There are the military in their shields and armour and weapons. There are Egyptians in their distinct clothing and the Kashmiris and Thracians. There are the Partians and Cappadocians and the Elamites.
It is Cyrus who is credited with the first known charter of human rights. The famous Cyrus cylinder discovered at the Marduk temple of Babylon and now housed in the National Museum carries an inscription on it. It says that Cyrus “strove for peace in Babylon and all the sacred sites of his kingdom and he abolished forced labour for those (Jews) who had been enslaved in Babylon”.
At one corner lies the remains of the ancient treasury. Although once it contained fabulous wealth, nothing remains of this once vast area except the bases of some 250 columns. It is said that Alexander the Great needed 3000 camels to carry away the riches from this treasury before razing it to the ground. Above it all is a high ridge and carved into it are the tombs of Artaxerxes I and II. The face of the ridge is smoothed into a vertical wall and carved into the rock are figures of the kings being blessed by Ahura Mazda and the eternal flame of the Zoroastrians.
Sitting at the foot of the tomb, looking out over the vast ruins it is easy to imagine how it was in the days of old. The hot winds of Shiraz carry with them a whisper of the trumpets sounding the approach of royal personages. I can almost see the swirl of rich robes as the nobles glide up the long shallow staircase and hear the hum of a thousand people. I can smell the incense from the burners along the halls mingling with the smell of foods cooked in saffron and spice. I can almost picture it all from the days some 2600 years ago.