Iran Part 1: Searching for the Iran of Ancient King of Kings

<Note: Some names and incidents in the essay, as with my past essays, have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.>
Iran Part 1: Searching for the Iran of Ancient King of Kings
¡°The Great God is Ahura Mazda, who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Xerxes king, the one king of many, the one master of many. I am Xerxes, the Great King, King of Kings, King on this great earth even far off King Darius¡¯ son, an Achaemenid. Proclaims Xerxes, the King: By the will of Ahura Mazda, this Gateway of All Nations I built. Much other beautiful was made within this Persepolis, which I constructed and which my father constructed. Whatever is beautiful, all that we built by the will of Ahura Mazda¡­may Ahura Mazda protect me, my kingdom, and what was built by me, and what was built by my father.¡±
The inscriptions proclaimed in three ancient languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, chiseled high above the huge statues of man-bulls, mythological creatures with the head of a stern bearded warrior wearing a Persian horned feather-cap and the muscular bodies of a bull. For 2500 years, these statues stood guard at the Gateway of All Nations, the entrance leading to the magnificent Apadana Palace of the Kings of the Persian Empire, at the royal city of Persepolis.
It was through these gates that ambassadors from numerous subject nations came to pay tribute to the Great King Xerxes, whose name meant ¡°ruler of heroes¡±, who was the reunifier of the first world empire history has ever known, originally set up by his great uncle, Cyrus the Great. Mind you, this was not the sado-machistic, body-piercing god-king leading a horde of monstrous, evil and cruel horde portrayed in Hollywood¡¯s 300, fighting against a band of three hundred brave, chivalrous Spartans; but a fair ruler of an empire, an re-unifier, law enforcer, crusher of Egyptian and Babylonian rebels (though he could not crush the rebellious Greeks led by the Spartans), a patron of civilization, architecture and the arts and the greatest builder of Persepolis.
There are many Iran¡¯s. There is Iran, land of ancient civilizations, centre of the first world empire stretching from Greece and Egypt in the west to the Indus River and the gates of China in the east, cradle of Persian culture, and land of great poets ¨C Ferdosi, Omar Khayyam, Hafez and Sa¡¯di ¨C who wrote of wine, heroes and their women. There is another Iran: The Iran of the Ayatollahs, of chador and hejab, the kill-joy state that bans singing, dancing, dating and tea-houses, of jihad and religious martyrs, the alleged state-sponsor of terrorism and the US-declared member of the Axis of Evil. Which is the Iran you knew?
I would like to find out myself, and so I flew from Sharjah to Tehran one sunny afternoon in late May.
Hurrah! Iran is country/territory number 172 for me and the second last stop of my 8 month long odyssey across parts of South Asia, Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean. And Iran, I dare say, is my favourite country on this journey and one of my best trips since I began independent travel in 1993. The Iranian people is incredibly hospitable and would probably first among the friendliest peoples anywhere if such a contest is ever held.
IKA, Imam Khomeini International Airport, named after Iran¡¯s late leader of the Islamic Revolution of 1978, was very modern. Built by a Turkish-Austrian consortium not too long ago, it has a chequered history. The Iranian Defence Ministry refused to let planes land there unless the management of the airport was turned over from the consortium. The airport was forced to be handed over to the Iranian Defence Ministry despite binding contract signed by the Iranian Government and the consortium.
The 30km journey to the suburbs of Tehran took only 20-30min but the next 30min was spent getting stuck in Tehran¡¯s notorious traffic congestion. Tehran is a metropolis of 12 million people ¨C some say as many as 20 million ¨C nobody really knew, but the city is an enormous urban sprawl as far as one could see.
I walked around the surrounding area, had quick late lunch at a kebab place. The weather was nice and cool. The high Alborz Mountains, which provides Tehran with plenty of water and a pleasant climate in this largely dry, desert land, still have traces of snow on its summit.
People seemed friendly. Strangers greeted me hello, or said ¡°Welcome to Iran!¡± The unfortunate thing was, few people spoke English, perhaps the result of prolonged international isolation. Ironically, it was the older generation who had lived through the Shah¡¯s pro-American days who could speak better English than the younger ones. Inevitably conversations were short and limited to ¡°how are you?¡± and ¡°where are you from?¡± Some teenagers were so intrigued to see me that they took photos of me using their mobiles.
Whatever it was, at least Iran has not followed the Libyans, which according to a friend, now requires those in school to learn African languages such as Swahili and Hausa, in line with Gaddafi¡¯s African Unity Policy. I wonder what that would do to Libyans¡¯ linguistic ability in 20 years¡¯ time.
I walked towards central Tehran to investigate flights to the south, and within minutes, booked a flight to Kerman in southeast Iran. Domestic flights in Iran are dirt cheap ¨C only about US$43 for this 10†5 hour flight across 1300km of this large country.
The Iranian government subsidizes fuel costs which is why plane tickets as well as gasoline are so cheap. Although among the top oil producers in the world, Iran is not benefitting from the oil bonanza. Iran has under-invested in the petroleum and oil refining industries over the last 30 years (since the Islamic Revolution). It does not have the capacity to refine the oil it produces and has to export them and then import refined fuel at much higher price instead. 40% of its domestic consumption has to be imported.
Worse, the Iranian government has been subsidizing domestic consumption of fuel ¨C gasoline in this country costs only US$0.08 per liter whereas mineral water costs US$0.11 per liter. With the huge jump in oil price, the total amount of subsidies the Iranian government has committed to has surged to unimaginable amounts. Given that very little had been invested in non-oil sectors, there is simply no revenue source to offset the huge increase in government deficit. Inflation has already risen to significant levels ¨C unofficial estimates at well above 20% - and popular discontent would further increase if the government increases fuel prices. In fact, when fuel rationing was announced in 2007, riots and arsons broke out immediately across the country.
Kerman could not be more different from Tehran. With only 300,000 inhabitants, Kerman is a sleepy provincial centre in the southeast desert waste of Iran. A number of people here wore the shawar kameez, the traditional dress of Afghans and Pakistanis ¨C not surprising as Kerman is not too far away from the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Kerman and the lands further east are considered by some as the wild east of Iran. The press reported about police skirmishes with bandits in which many people were killed, and the kidnapping of foreigners by local drug lords and Baluchi tribals unhappy with the government. But the streets looked peaceful and perfectly normal. In fact, Kerman is growing in importance as a regional centre, and with that, the appearance of many cars, flashy shop-fronts and tacky new buildings. It is a very decent- and normal-looking wild east if the term remains appropriate.
I visited Kerman¡¯s bazaar which is not quite a labyrinth typical of large Middle Eastern cities. I felt really good here after the mess that was Sudan. I also visited the Masjid Jamee (Friday Mosque) where I was a little apprehensive about taking photo especially in presence of worshippers, but people were so friendly. Many said, ¡°Welcome to Iran. Thank you.¡±
After the past few months in the Middle East, I have concluded that Libyan guys, with their keen Italian dress sense and penchant for fine cuttings, are the best dressed Middle Easterners. No matter how well the Gulf Arabs dress, their oversized belly spoils it all. As for Egyptian and Iranian men, they appeared to be stuck in the Elvis era.
In Iran, women are required by law to abide by the hejab dress code, which means that they must never reveal their hair, shoulders, body and limbs. In many places such as shrines, they must wear the chador which is an all-encompassing black coat. Foreign women must also comply with such laws or risk scrutiny or even arrest by the police. But thirty years after the Revolution, Iranian girls are constantly testing the hejab limits in various ways. Many wore pants with fine cuttings combined with elements of the latest Parisian designs. Yes, designer hejabs. I was told that wearing black jeans was now the in-thing and I have noticed many of these, till the next crack down, inshallah.
At every street corner were huge billboards showing faces of young men. These were the war dead from the bitter Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. Proclaimed as martyrs, their portraits could be found across the cities, towns and villages of Iran. Two decades might have lapsed since the war ended but the government continues to remind the people constantly of this terrible conflict, and some wonder if this is to boost the legitimacy of its rule.
The people at my hotel reception were intrigued about my adventures in Sudan: not so much about the places I visited or about the war and politics there, but more about any adventure of a sexual nature. ¡°How is the Sudanese woman on bed?¡± they asked. I tried to divert the topic by saying something lamely unrelated, ¡°Iranian women are beautiful and self-confident.¡± The reception guy shook his head and said, ¡°But Iranian women very difficult.¡± He raised his pointed finger to his throat and did the universal throat-cutting sign. ¡°You could loose your life if you were not careful.¡± A few years ago, a German businessman was sentenced to death for having sex with an Iranian woman, and in the wake of international shock and protests, he was fined and deported.
I got onto a 5-hour bus journey across dramatic but bleak, dry desert landscape flanked by bare peaks, to the city of Yazd, west of Kerman. The bus played video of what appeared to be a ghost movie. A fellow Iranian passenger pointed to the handsome, charming actor and said, ¡°That Iran¡¯s best actor, Muhammad Reza Golzar.¡± Previously a musician, Golzar is now the Brad Pitt of Iran. An Iranian girl later told me that ¡°he is cute, talented and has stolen the hearts of many Iranian girls. Who cares about acting alone?¡± The world is the same all over even in this aspect.
Upon arrival in Yazd, I went to the Silk Road Hotel recommended by Singaporean friends. This was a nice traditional house with courtyard where travelers hung around. Unfortunately, the hotel was full but they asked me to go to Oriental Hotel on the opposite side of the road, which was also run by the same people. The Oriental, too, had a great courtyard and it was full as well. The reception guy here took me to Oasis Hotel 50 meters down the road, which was run by the same people and had a similar layout. Wonderful, so far so good.
I returned to Oriental to have late lunch at the rooftop restaurant. It had a wonderful view of the skyline of Yazd ¨C amazing blue domes with intricate geometric patterns, slander phallic-looking minarets soaring to the skies, strange-looking wind towers that provide ventilation to the houses of this otherwise oppressively hot oasis town, and tall, hauntingly bare khaki mountains flanking the edge of this UNESCO-listed world heritage city.
The Oriental served great food ¨C more than kebab, kebab and kebab which were the usual choice in most Iranian eating places ¨C and they prepared the food fast too, all within 15 minutes. They knew the norm elsewhere in the world and what tourists love to see. Many places in Middle East and Africa take at least half an hour to prepare food, i.e., that includes time needed to buy the ingredients required (sorry, no refrigerator to keep food bought in advance, or because power does not work half the time), and prepare the food, apart from actually cooking it. Restaurants in most of these places simply have neither the customer volume to prepare food in advance nor the exposure to understand what travelers want.
The Oriental was also a great place to meet cool people on long term travel. A few were travelling for over one to three years. Here I met, among others, a German couple who had driven from Germany to India and now making the return journey; and a Brazilian couple on a three year road trip round the world ¨C yes, they had driven here all the way from Brazil, albeit hopping onto a few cargo boats between continents.
I also met Raj, a London lawyer of Indian descent. An Oxford graduate, he was a linguist that went on to law school and worked in major City law firms dealing with capital market transactions before moving on to a large American outfit. He speaks many languages, among them Hindi, Gujarati, French, German, Russian, Mandarin (half year in Hangzhou; he can write better Chinese than I do, as I have witnessed), and Spanish as well. For this 2-week holiday, he spent a week studying Farsi. Over the next few days, I would be amazed how fluently he communicated in Farsi and the attention he received from Iranians as a result.
I explored the old town of Yazd and its narrow streets. I visited Alexander¡¯s Prison, a depression within an ancient madressa where Alexander the Great had supposedly founded a prison. Here, I met rather brave Iranian girls who, despite oppressive gender rules forbidding socializing of the opposite sex, chatted with me and allowed me to take their pictures.
Despite the various restrictions the Islamic Republic imposes on Iranian women, such as the requirement to wear the hejab which is one of the most impracticable and crippling clothing ever invented, and various social restrictions that limit the Iranian woman¡¯s social circle (for instance, they are not allowed to be in the company of an unrelated male without the presence of other people), I have found Iranian women rather daring in approaching and talking to me on the streets. Some of them spoke fairly good English and allowed me to take photos of them. I attribute this to the self-confidence and independence acquired through education. There are more women than men in Iranian universities and the long-standing emphasis on education among the Iranians has probably brushed aside what religious inhibitions that might exist.
In contrast, Arab women in the other Middle East countries, despite not having major legal restrictions on social behavior or dressing, are a lot more meek and wary of the foreigner. Few have confidence even to greet or do small talk with foreigners. Fewer Arab women go to higher education and the social conservativism that exists prevents them from displaying significant independence.
Walking on Iranian streets, I sometimes find people staring at me, and occasionally even exchanging eye signals. I wander if this was due to curiosity about the foreigner after years of isolation, or something more carnal in nature. One should always be careful with respect to the latter. I mentioned earlier the German sentenced to death and later deported for sexual relations with an Iranian woman. Last year, images of the public hanging of two teenagers for their homosexuality shocked the world - it is unbelievable that such atrocities could still happen in the 21st century.
In Yazd, I met Hamid, a 19 year old Afghan refugee. Tall, talkative and handsome with short, brown-dyed hair, Hamid was born in Iran of Afghani Tajik parents. In fact, his parents were born in Tajikistan, brought over to Afghanistan and then on to Iran as children when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
Despite having lived in Iran all his life, Hamid, like most Afghans in a similar situation, remains an Afghan citizen. With no Iranian citizenship, these Afghans are often at the mercy of Iranian police and bureaucrats, cannot go to Iranian universities without paying exorbitant school fees and cannot get employed in many jobs.
Hamid has had a tough life and yet has learned to speak English, French and a bit of German, all from tourists who frequent the handicraft shop he occasionally works in. Iran might be the darling of travelers, but Hamid could not wait to get out of Iran ¨C he had been offered a scholarship to study in Germany and is now waiting for his visa. Hamid was even arrested by police once and badly beaten for uttering negative things about Iran. The visa he is waiting for is his chance to get out and reinvent himself. I wish him luck.
Hamid was the first of many Afghans I was to meet in Iran. Every one of them probably has a heart-rending tale to tell. I could not help but felt fortunate about myself whenever I hear such stories.
On a few occasions, I came across people who have ¡°oriental¡± looks. I realized who they were when someone asked if I was Hazara, a Shia tribe in Afghanistan who were supposedly descendants of Genghis Khan¡¯s Mongol army. The Hazara have the East Asian looks and live in Bamiyan Valley (in Hazarajat region) where the giant Buddhas used to be before they were destroyed by the Taleban. From then on, I occasionally told people I was Afghani-Hazara.
From Yazd, I went on a day trip to two Zoroastrian sites - Chak Chak and the Tower of Silence near Cham in the suburbs of Yazd.
Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Iran. Founded 2500 years ago by Zoroaster, this was one of the first religions of the world that proposes the concept of a single god, a concept later adopted by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Zoroastrians worship the fire as the symbol of their god, Ahura Mazda, and an eternal flame is always kept burning in their temples, sometimes known as fire temples. Many Zoroastrians would tell you that the flame in their temple had been burning for 2500 years, since the days of the great Persian Empire, and passed from temple to temple, till today.
The religion if often represented by layers of wings of a bird, which means purity of thought, word and action. They believe in the purity of elements, hence the dead must never pollute the sacred soil or the atmosphere. As a result, they neither bury nor cremate their dead. Instead, the dead are brought to ¡°towers of silence¡± where they were eaten by vultures, an ancient practice that makes sound theological sense but sends shivers to most other people. In the 20th century, however, this practice became illegal in Iran and the towers were no longer used. Most Zoroastrians bury their dead today, in graves lined with concrete, to prevent contaminating the soil.
Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Iran, until the Islamic armies of Arabia conquered the region. Today, 150,000 people continue to worship this ancient religion, of which a small number still reside in Iran (mostly around Yazd). Over half the followers live in Mumbai, India, where they call themselves Parsees. A few Parsee families live in Singapore where they are wealthy businessmen. The Parsees were descendants of Zoroastrian refugees who fled Iran for India when the Arabs invaded Iran, bringing Islam along. Today, the Parsees face a formidable challenge of overturning a drastic decline in their numbers, the result of their ancient rules of marriage, which discourages marriage with non-Parsees.
Chak Chak is an important Zoroastrian shrine 50km northwest of Yazd. Located in the mountains bordering the Dasht-e Lut desert, the setting of the shrine and its surrounding desert plains is spectacularly breathtaking. It is certainly a location that inspires the religious about the creation of the omnipotent almighty.
Cham is a small Zoroastrian farming village located about 15km outside Yazd. Whilst Zoroastrian women conform to the hejab dress code of the Islamic Republic, they never wear chadors. Instead they wear embroidered scarves of different colours which come closest to the colourful vibrancy of their ancestors who were the elite of ancient Persia.
The ruins of ancient towers of silence and associated religious and ceremonial buildings continue to stand in Yazd and surrounding areas, often in the most dramatic landscapes and setting. The towers often resemble citadels perched on cliff sides or small hills, overlooking the plains beyond, projecting the eternality and ever-presence of the almighty.
Picturesque in their eroded state, these eerie towers were often built on foundations of earlier Zoroastrian buildings and one could almost imagine the kings, priests and soldiers of ancient Persia still wandering in these ruins. How eerie and romantic can one get in such places?
From Yazd, Raj and I got on a bus to Shiraz, during which we passed some amazing landscapes. Iran is a huge and beautiful country, with a diversity of geographical features and landscapes. Whilst large parts of the country are covered by the desert, the presence of wetter microclimatic regions, high mountains, natural underground water reservoirs and a whole network of ancient man-made underground irrigation canals that harness what nature has provided, allow the country to have enough water for its many fertile river valleys and oases.
Ultimately, it is Iran¡¯s huge and flourishing agricultural sector that supports an unusually huge population of 75 million inhabitants. On the bus journey, we passed through many wonderfully green fertile oases and valleys, flanked by the shocking contrasts of bare dry mountain ranges and merciless brown desert plateaus.
We reached Shiraz at 6pm, as correctly predicted by the bus company. Iranian bus companies are probably among the most honest in the developing world in telling their customers how long their journeys would take ¨C perhaps even more so than those doing the Singapore-Malaysia route!
Located in southern Iran, Shiraz is a busy, bustling city of more than a million inhabitants. Its streets were crowded with vehicles, people and merchandise that spilled over from the city¡¯s many shops. Like all large Iranian cities, it was almost perilous crossing the streets. There was the usual suicide bomber traffic ¨C cars that increased their speed when they saw pedestrians attempting to cross. They would only slow down just as it looked as though they were about to run down the pedestrians. But if one did not attempt to step forward, there was no way these cars would even slow down at all. Some Iranians boasted that Iranians were the world¡¯s best drivers because they could drive in such wild traffic. I have heard the same nonsense from drivers in China, Egypt and Libya ¨C typical third world excuses for bad driving and lousy road ethics. (Singaporean drivers are awful but not quite as suicidal) During my stay in Iran, I had seen numerous accidents and wreckages. Countries like this have appalling accident rates and unless they change their attitude and increase police oversight, nothing would change.
Shiraz is one of Iran¡¯s greatest and most famous classical cities (but of course, Esfahan is the most famous one). From the time of the Arab conquest, through the Mongol and Timurid periods followed by the 18th century Zand dynasty during which Shiraz was the capital, the city flourished under the patronage of great foreign and local rulers. Shiraz became known as the cradle and heartland of ancient and mediaeval Persian culture. In fact, the word ¡°Persian¡± came from the word ¡°Fars¡±, which is the name of the province of which Shiraz is the capital today. The Iranians also use the word ¡°Pars¡± or ¡°Parsian¡± to mean Fars and Farsian ¨C the latter which I initially thought was ¡°Parisian¡± misspelled. But given the sophistication of Persian classical and mediaeval culture, Parisian might well have been an appropriate word.
During its golden age, Shiraz was renowned as the city of wine and poets. The shiraz, which fill the wine cellars all over the world, came from here. European merchants have long stayed in this city, exporting this wonderful grape and the wine produced from it, to the world over. Unfortunately, wine has been forbidden in Iran since the Islamic Revolution. A long heritage of wine-growing and appreciation dating back to the days of the Persian Empire more than 2500 years ago was washed down the drains.
Wine was the object of appreciation for many great poets, among them, no least two of old Persia¡¯s greatest, Hafez (1324 ¨C 1389) and Sa¡¯di (1207 ¨C 1291), who lived here. Wine, women and the good things of life ¨C these appear in the many works of these two poets, and their tombs in Shiraz are popular places of reverence and outings for ordinary Iranians. The Farsi language (aka Persian language or the ¡°language of Fars¡±) is a poetic and romantic one ¨C an image somehow inconsistent with the cold, heartless image of a fundamentalist Iran known to much of the world today.
At the tomb of Hafez, we saw Iranian families crowding around the grave of their revered poet: a father holding his young daughter¡¯s hand, touching the flamboyant carved calligraphy on the tomb¡¯s surface as if the wisdom and creativity of the mediaeval poet that reside in these words would somehow come alive; a young couple, almost certainly married or otherwise they might be in breach of the laws of the Islamic Republic (for dating without the presence of other relatives is strictly forbidden), their eyes melted in each other¡¯s stare, with their hands locked together most lovingly, stood nearby, perhaps drawing inspiration from the poet¡¯s Divan. Raj could not help but recite a line from a copy of the Divan-e Hafez he bought at the bookshop here. I said he should definitely hold a monthly public recital of Persian Poetry in London after the trip.
We looked for the teahouse mentioned in the Lonely Planet but unfortunately found it closed. We have been told that many teahouses have been closed in recent years by the henchmen of the Islamic Republic, for teahouse had been found to be the meeting place for unmarried men and women, and hence a place where scandalous and unlawful pursuits took place or could potentially take place to the sacrilege of Allah. Besides, too many men smoke waterpipes in these chaykhunehs, instead of devoting more time to the study of the Quran. The Islamic Republic could not allow such idle pleasures to take place and together with that, other idle and un-Islamic activities such as dancing, singing (though singing the Quran is strongly encouraged) as well.
Nearby, we walked into a conference centre where the 2nd annual conference of the Society of South Asian Archaeologists was taking place. We had an interesting chat with an academic from the Deccan College, Pune, India, one of the 50 archaeologists from India at this conference. She was surprised at the number of archaeological sites I visited in the last few months and said I should write about them. We had bumped into each other at the bazaar in the morning and she said that if we meet each other again, perhaps it was a divine sign that I should become an archaeologist. (Well, we were to meet her again the next day, in Persepolis as well as Pasargadae. Is that a sign from the Almighty?)
We visited the Citadel of Shiraz which has an interesting exhibition of old photos of the city and municipal life. It was remarkable how similar the costume and headdress of 19th/early 20th C were to those of townsmen in the old Central Asian khanates and cities of Kokand, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand in the same period. This, together with the obvious Persian architecture (especially the intricate and elaborate rectangular gateways of mosques) of these great cities and the fact that these cities used to speak Persian (instead of Uzbek as claimed by the modern-day government of Uzbekistan), is further evidence of the extent of the Persian cultural sphere in most of Central Asia.
We explored the labyrinth that is old Shiraz, as well as the many grand old mosques including the Regent¡¯s Mosque/Masjed-e Vakil and Emamzadeh-ye Ebne-e Hamze, the mausoleum of the nephew of the seventh Shiite imam. The latter is magnificent, for it has a huge dome resembling a tulip bulb, complete with intricate geometric patterns, and its interior is a treasure house of glasswork ¨C its inner walls are covered with thousands of small mirrors, reflecting light at different angles and intensity. The devout might well think he was at the gateway of Allah¡¯s promised paradise.
The entrance of the main buildings contained a long account of the story of the imam¡¯s nephew, who settled here with his followers and lived anonymously and most virtuously to escape the persecution of the Sunnis. They were discovered one day and massacred to the last man. When beheaded, the head of the imam¡¯s nephew fell onto his outstretched palms. The head shouted ¡°Allahu Akbar¡± (God is great), and the headless torso walked a few steps before collapsing to the ground. Today, his tomb has become a shrine where the devout pray and hope for their prayers to be met.
¡°Dariusm the Great King, King of Kings, King of lands, the son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid. Proclaims Darius, the King: This kingdom which I hold, from the Scythians who are beyond Sogdiana, from there as far as Ethiopia, from India, from there as far as Lydia, Ahura Mazda the greatest of the gods bestowed upon me. Me may Ahura Mazda protect and my royal house.¡±
Inscription, Apadana Palace, Persepolis.
The first great empire in what is today Iran was that of the Elamites who lived in the southwest where they fought constantly against the Babylonians and Assyrians. Next came the nomadic early Persians who gradually replaced the Elamites as masters of the land.
However, it was during the reign of Cyrus the Great that the great Persian Empire was established, when he conquered territories ranging from Greece in the west to the Indus River (in today¡¯s Pakistan) to the east. He established his capital in Shush, the old capital of the Elamites, but also stayed at the old Median capital at Ecbatana (today¡¯s Hamadan), and later built a new capital at Pasargadae where his tomb now rested (though his remains were no longer there, probably scattered by the vengeful troops of Alexander the Great who later conquered the Persian Empire).
The empire was in disarray by the time of Cyrus¡¯ grand son, Darius the Great, who defeated the pretenders to the throne and rebel princes and states, reunited the country and established a new ceremonial capital at Persepolis near Shiraz in 512 BC. Darius¡¯ son, Xerxes, hugely expanded Persepolis and adorned it with monumental palaces and buildings.
In the wind-swept basin that was Persepolis, a huge terrace or raised platform was built, and on it, grand halls where rulers of subject nations were received as well as many monumental palaces and administrative buildings. Huge sculptures of real and mythological creatures were raised, together with symbols of vigour and power, such as that of a fierce lion with its jaws on a bull ¨C projecting the image of imperial power and strength. On the famous Apadana Staircase were carvings of ambassadors, soldiers and servants of more than 20 subject nations, among them Egypt, India, Arabia, Parthia, Armenia and Greece, arriving at the court of the Persian king, bringing tributes and exotic products from their lands. The grandeur of that era could be imagined from these carvings as well as the many columns that have remained standing.
All these came to an end in 330 BC, during a visit by Alexander the Great, the Macedonian empire builder who had earlier conquered the Persian Empire. After a night of drunken frenzy, the whole city complex was destroyed, burned to the ground. Some said it was an accident; others said it was a revenge for the destruction of Athens by the Persian king Xerxes 150 years before that; some blamed it on Alexander¡¯s sadness after the death of his favourite lover-general.
During the day, we also visited other great Persian ruins, such as the amazing royal necropolis at Naqsh-e-Rostam, with amazing sculptures of great Persian kings, and their battles against rival-claimants to the throne, rebels and the Romans, and their investiture by gods; and Cyrus the Great¡¯s capital and tomb at Pasargadae ¨C all UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pasargadae is located on a windswept plain where Cyrus defeated his enemies, reunited his father¡¯s empire and built his capital. Not much has remained of Cyrus the Great¡¯s capital except a few columns scattered across the plain. It must be great to be here early in the morning, before the tourist hordes arrive, and when it was still misty, with the silhouette of distant hills forming the backdrop for these lonely columns.
What was irritating was the crowd who overwhelmed what could have been a pretty picturesque scene. They must have been a group of university students or army conscripts, all fascinated by our presence. I must have been the most exotic foreigner there and many mobbed me for a photo with or of me. Maybe this could be second career for me, to be photographed by Iranians curious about foreigners.
With this, I left Shiraz and leaped more than one millennium across history, to Esfahan, the city which was for the longest period, the capital of Persia. Esfahan, with its magnificent monuments, palaces, mosques and gardens, is the epitome of the architectural brilliance and rich artistic heritage of the golden age of mediaeval Iran, an era during which Persia was the heart of the Silk Road, enriched by the trade and commerce that passed its territory.