The Silk Road, China

Monday, 30 April 2007

Persepolis - when Persia ruled the world

After its (of course now historical!) tradition in wine making, Persepolis is what now makes Shiraz a household name. It is one of the biggest tourist draws in Iran, offering a glimpse of the First Persian Empire in c500BC. At its height, it was the greatest Empire the world had seen, stretching from Egypt to India across Syria and Palestine right up to the Danube. For the first time in history, the Persian Empire pulled different peoples into a common (if loosely governed) experience. It laid the foundations for classical civilisation and the world's most widespread religions.

Persepolis itself provides evidence of a cosmopolitan exchange of ideas across the empire. Conceived by Darius the Great, its columns have Egyptian and Ionian influence and its bas reliefs contain Greek detail. Its purpose was to demonstrate the might of the Empire and therefore, quite amazingly in my view, the city was used just once a year as the place where the subjects from the different nations in the empire would come to pay homage to the great Persian kings.

Today, thanks to Alexander the Great who razed the city to the ground in 330BC, there is a hint of Ozymandias about the arrogance of Persepolis. The stone is now yellow instead of the highly polished black marble in its heyday. The huge entry staircase and standing columns give some idea of the scale of the place, but - perhaps more than Palmyra - quite some imagination is required to feel what it was once like. Fortunately, the sand has preserved very well the stunning bas reliefs (of countless subjects bringing tribute).

We had found Iran quiet (in terms of tourists) and so were intrigued to see how crowded Persepolis would be. Although far from deserted, the site was quiet and about one quarter of its visitors were foreigners. This has been the story since 9/11 all over Iran: people we have spoken to involved in tourism have had to diversify (into carpet exports, for example) to make ends meet. Entrance to Persepolis was just 25p - less than the cost of the can of Coke we bought next to the ticket office...

The heyday of the First Persian Empire is still remembered by Iranians today. Before the revolution, the Shah attempted to tap into national pride by harking back to the days of Cyrus the Great and visiting his tomb. Today, one of Tehran's football teams carries the name Persepolis - something that would be hard to imagine for, say, Stonehenge! Persian greatness in ancient history undoubtedly contributes to Iranian pride and a strong sense of identity quite separate from that of its Arabic neighbours.


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