The Path Less Ridden

Ashes of the Achaemenids

Approaching Shiraz in Southern Iran, you enter the heartland of the ancient Achaemenid Empire. At its peak, it stretched over a demesne as far west as the Balkans and Eastern Europe, south as far as Egypt and Sudan, north to the Caucasus and Central Asia, and east to the Indus Valley including parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, it was the first truly multicultural empire. Dozens of kingdoms were absorbed into the empire by its greatest king, Cyrus the Great, and were allowed to keep local religions and customs – as long as tribute was paid in both gold and soldiers. It is perhaps best known in modern culture from the film 300, depicting the Battle of Thermopylae. The empire lasted from the 6th Century BC until its destruction by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. What remains, particularly at Persepolis, are some of the most important and impressive archaeological ruins in the world.

Our first stop on the road was the ancient capital of Pasargadae, dating from 546 BC. Far less remains here then at famed Persepolis, making it an ideal introduction to the ruins – it would have been disappointing to have visited it afterwards. The most important structure here is the tomb of Cyrus the Great himself: a fairly plain, unimposing structure for such an important historical figure – but that may be the reason it survived the ages so well.

PA163261

PA163266

 

The remains of the summer palace are nearby, mostly foundations with enough standing columns and carving to give a sense of the scale and grandeur – but still leaving plenty of work for the imagination to do.

PA163270

PA163278

PA163283

PA163289

PA163304

 

On a nearby hilltop are the remains of a fortress – only the large slab walls standing firm against time and the elements.

PA163325

PA163341

PA163331

 

Fifty kilometres further southwest, you reach the fringes of Persepolis, with two rock-carving sites. Naqsh-e-Rostam contains the cliffside tombs of four of the most important kings of the Achaemenids – Darius I and II, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I. They’re huge, monumental sections of the sheer rock wall that have been carved out in bas-relief, including a small funerary chamber in the centre. They’re visible from over a kilometre away on the nearby highway, and loom over you as you approach.

PA173346

PA173418

PA173409

PA173397

 

Each tomb is carved in a similar pattern, with the symbol of Ahuramazda, the god of Zoroastrianism at the top, then the king being supported by his subjects from different nations, then faux-columns flanking the entrance to the ossuary.

PA173367

PA173383

PA173371

 

There are also a number of fine bas-reliefs dating from the later Sassanid period (2nd and 3rd Century AD), depicting military victories and coronations – seeking legitimacy by linking themselves to the earlier empire.

PA173369

PA173404

PA173373

PA173376

PA173359

PA173389

 

Nearby at Naqsh-e-Rajab, hidden in the folds of a hillside, are more finely detailed Sassanid carvings.

PA173425

PA173428

 

Finally, we arrived at Persepolis itself. Built as a ceremonial palace, mostly for receiving the annual tributes from subject nations, it was designed from the outset to impress foreigners – and still holds that power today. Elevated on a flat terrace, half excavated from the mountainside and half built up from the plain below, it’s a long walk through the scorching sun to the site, giving you time to appreciate its scale.

PA173435

PA173771

 

Access to the palace is, as it was 2500 years ago, via the grand staircase. Its shallow steps allowed nobles in long robes to climb gracefully.

PA173440

PA173442

PA173448

 

One of the most impressive remaining features, the Gate of All Nations, is the formal entrance to the complex. Protected at each corner by enormous mythical guardian statues, it is marked with both an ancient cuneiform inscription by its builder, Xerxes I, and more modern graffiti.

PA173764

PA173765

PA173491

PA173471

PA173484

PA173462

PA173452

PA173455

 

Just south of the Gate of All Nations is the largest building at Persepolis, the Apadana Palace, used for official audiences.

PA173522

PA173530

PA173534

 

The most famous part is the eastern staircase, where extensive detailed carvings show Persian and Median soldiers, as well as motifs symbolising royal power and legitimacy.

PA173595

PA173552

PA173555

PA173571

PA173579

PA173580

PA173604

 

Other carvings depict representatives from the subject nations, bringing tributes from each of their countries – ranging from horses and chariots, to camels, fabrics and precious metals.

PA173593

PA173586

PA173592

PA173591

 

There are a number of other ruined palaces and halls scattered nearby, some richly decorated with more carvings and bas-reliefs.

PA173609

PA173614

PA173617

PA173621

PA173639

 

Also around are shattered statues and column-heads.

PA173539

PA173543

PA173748

PA173755

 

The treasury was once almost as large as the Apadana palace, although now only the foundations remain. It is said Alexander the Great needed 3,000 camels to carry off the contents when he sacked the city. One of the most important carvings is here, depicting Xerxes receiving his just tribute – it was most likely moved by a subsequent king for political reasons.

PA173666

PA173707

PA173708

 

Climbing the hill behind the complex gives both a panoramic view over the ruins, and access to two more cliff-carved tombs, likely those of Artaxerxes II and III.

PA173688

PA173693

PA173675

PA173677

PA173685

 

Redescending to the complex, at the rear is the Palace of 100 Columns, with more carvings depicting the King battling various beasts and monsters.

PA173716

PA173733

PA173742

PA173719

PA173730

 

Thoroughly impressed (and more than a little sunburnt), we continued on to Shiraz.

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *