Persepolis, Bishapur, Kazerun, Fars province, Iran
I have never entirely come to grips with Persepolis despite the fact that my first visit was with Alireza who is one of the finest, most knowledgeable guides I have had the privilege of working with, and Mike Kozuh who, with a Ph.D in Ancient Eastern Civilizations, could read the cuneiform inscriptions on the walls like a newspaper. When Alexander the Great destroyed Persepolis in 330BC, he did not pussyfoot around – excluding the astonishing Apadana staircase, there is little left. It is said that one night he got completely plastered and hoisted some undoubtedly beguiling, equally drunken slattern onto his shoulders who torched the halls. The city, much of which was built of wood, was incinerated. It has also been suggested that it was revenge for the burning of the Athens Acropolis by Xerxes in 480BC, but this seems unlikely since Alexander was Macedonian, not Greek. It is much more likely that Alexander deliberately inflicted this final touch of defeat on the Persians, to indicate to them that their empire, their days of glory were most determinedly over, and to destroy any hope of revival they might have entertained, and remove any vestige of what they once had been, he thoroughly razed their legendary ceremonial capital.
Persepolis was built as a ceremonial capital by the Achaemenid dynasty; begun by Darius the Great in the 6th century BC, continued by his son, Xerxes in the 5th century BC and then his son Artaxerxes, also 5th century BC, it was burned to the ground by Alexander the Great in 330BC. Having defeated Darius III at the Battle of Issus the same year - “all that belongs to you is now mine” - he deliberately destroyed Persepolis, glittering symbol of the empire’s power and might. Iranians are not unbiased or even-handed about this event and call Alexander “the Macedonian” as for them he was not remotely great at all. The Gate of all Lands was a waiting area where notables were led to await their audience with the King. Mounted on stone bases are two human-headed winged bulls who were ‘guardians’ of the city.
There is so little left that I have never been able to get my imagination to bridge the gap between what the eye sees and what the experts tell you must once have been. I dutifully toured the site again but with the exception of the phenomenal carvings of the Apadana staircase, Persepolis leaves me unmoved, I am evidently a cultural incompetent. And Ibn Battuta, as was his wont when world-class sites were pre-Islamic, sailed past without visiting or even mentioning them.
Carved on the inner staircase of the Apadana are 'The Immortals' - so-called because there were ten thousand of them and whenever one died he was immediately replaced. In battle they were legendary because it seemed when one fell another appeared in his place - another reason they were feared as 'immortal'.
From there we drove a short distance to where there are some Sassanian rock carvings. The Sassanians used this method to let people know about events in the empire, usually victories of some sort. One of the great carvings is of the powerful Zoroastrian priest Kartir, an unmitigated scoundrel, his right hand in the Sassanian gesture of respect – the curled forefinger.
Kartir, powerful Zoroastrian priest.