In Iran Episode 39

About Nilanjan Hajra

Nilanjan Hajra, 49, is a poet, traveller and gourmet. He earns his living as a journalist.

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“So you see what your Alexander the Great had done!” says Somayeh as a deep sigh escapes her. The oblique emphasis on ‘your’ and ‘great’ doesn’t escape me.

‘Parsa’ in old Persian. Parseh in modern Farsi. Takht-i-Jamshid in popular parlance and Persepolis in English: the vast palace complex of the Achaemenid Empire, two and a half millennium old. Overwhelmed by the panoramic sweep in front of me, I don’t react to her comment. But I am absolutely clueless as to why she would suddenly associate Alexander III of Macedon with us.

On hindsight it is occurring to me, as I write these lines, that I should have quoted for her what our very own poet laureate Rabindranath had actually remarked as he stood watching the same sight 85 years ago: “Alexander has left nothing in this world that can be considered as a comparable compensation for the loss of Persepolis.” Who else but Rabindranath could have hinted so unmistakably at the need to totally rewrite the history of civilization in those heady days of colonialism in 1932? But arguments over the history of civilization were the farthest from my thoughts as I stood humbled by the sight of one of the world’s most talked about sites in the history of civilization.

As Somayeh returns after purchasing the tickets we walk towards the legendary 111 steps of Persepolis. What I see for the next six hours will take a whole lifetime to absorb into my system. No degree of scholarship in history, no number of photographs even by the finest photographers of the world can generate the sense of eerie wonder that drowns you when you climb up 63 steps, pause for a moment on the landing toimagine that Xerexes (486-465 BCE), the son and successor of Darius I, used to ascend the same flight, 2500 years ago, move on up another 48 steps and enter through the Gate of All Nations into the world of the Cyrus the Great’s stunning legacy of civilization.

Cyrus II lived between BCE 590-80 and 529. And within these 50 odd years he built an empire that stretched from the Aegean Sea to River Indus, with its centre at what is now the Fars province of Iran, his birthplace. What kind of legacy did the founder of the Achaemenid Empire leave behind? I also had the fortune, many years ago, in 2000, to stand in front of that small invaluable object, which gives us some essential hints to the kind of Emperor he was. Displayed at the British Museum, made of fired clay, barrel shaped, 21.9 centimetres in length, clearly joined around the middle, and with bizarre letters inscribed on it in close lines, the object is known as the famous Cyrus Cylinder.

History had to wait till yesterday, the March of 1879, for the main portion of this object, now marked as Cylinder A, to be discovered by archeologist Hormuzd Rassam while carrying out excavations in Babylon on behalf of the British Museum. On it were inscribed 35 lines in Akkadian cuneiform script. But that was only one broken portion of the cylinder; where was the other part of the priceless piece? No one knew. And history had to wait yet another 92 years before the remaining smaller portion marked as Cylinder B, could be rejoined with A and returned to its almost original 2500 years old shape. The Cyrus Cylinder is conjectured to have been churned out of a potter’s wheel and carefully baked, close after the capture of Babylon by Cyrus II in 539 BCE.

The story of this reunion is fascinating in itself. In 1920 J B Nies a Brooklyn clergyman and collector of ancient objects was fascinated by a small broken burnt-clay object, with cuneiform inscriptions on it, at an antique dealer’s shop. He purchased and kept it with his other collections. On his death in 1922, all his objects were passed on to Yale University. It lay there till 1970, when Paul Richerd Berger, a Munster University scholar stumbled upon the piece, and on research was stunned to realize that it was the broken portion of the Cyrus Cylinder, with 10 more lines. The two portions were joined in 1972.

The 45 lines, inscribed on the Cyrus Cylinder is a proclamation by Cyrus, which, while celebrating the emperor’s capture of Babylon,  utter words that hinted at that basic tenet of civilization, which continues to elude us to this day. Even as Cyrus declares, “All kings who sit on thrones, from every quarter, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea, those who inhabit [remote districts (and) the kings of the land of Amurru who live in tents, all of them, brought their weighty tribute into Shuanna, and kissed my feet”, he also hurries to add in the very next sentence, “From Shuanna (1) I sent back to their places to the city of Ashur and Susa, Akkad, the land of Eshnunna, the city of Zamban, the city of Meturnu, Der, as far as the border of the land of Qutu – the sanctuaries across the river Tigris – whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus – to the fury of the lord of the gods – had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy.” (2)

Proclaimed as the first charter of human rights, in simple words it means that one of the primary duties of the all-powerful Emperor is to respect the religions of others and not to discriminate among his subjects, but to ensure even for the vanquished, happiness and peace. Three hundred years later in India, Ashoka the Great was proclaiming very similar responsibilities of the Emperor. Such were some of the tenets on which the great Achaemenid Empire was founded and run. After the death of Cyrus, his son Cambyses ruled for a brief seven years and died in 522 BCE. Following his death after a brief but ugly violence over succession, Darius I, belonging to a collateral branch of the royal family ascended the throne, and shifted his capital from Cyrus’ Pasargad to Persepolis.

We ascend the 111 stairs that gently slope up, each lost in our own thoughts. Now I am face to face with time frozen. I stretch my hand and touch it: it’s cold and smooth: two winged lamassus, bulls with heads of bearded men, bearing on their back the burden of two tall columns and a beam: The Gate of All Nations, against the backdrop of the vast Firouz-blue sky dipped in the molten gold of an October morning. A crisp odorless wind is blowing like a happy song. The whole place is bustling with tourists. There is a sense of joyful incredulity in the air.

I turn around. Somayeh is keenly watching me, standing still, hands in her tight trouser pockets, the rusari blown almost out of her head, a streak of her blond hair fluttering over her narrow light forehead. My heart stops for a moment: God! She is beautiful. For once I forget to click. She is smiling. But do I notice the smile of her thin pink lips receding into a hint of pain within her dark eyes? Ruins. I can read in her eyes those eternal lines of our finest poet Jibananda Das:

“Flicker the quiet lamps here and there — a moist whiff– a soft hubbub;

The boats have drawn close to the bank;

Eternal are these tales

Assyria is in dusts today, in ashes Babylon.”

Into ruins must end all mighty magnificence. As Somayeh watches me, a musafir from a far-away land touching with uncertain fingers, the grandeur of her history, I see her confronting, face to face, the vast ruins of her past. But then she is not of the brooding sort, and quickly giggles the poignancy of the moment away, insisting that I pass on my camera, so that she can snap me at the entrance of the legendary Persepolis.  For once I don’t say ‘No’.


Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra


  1. Shuanna is Babylon
  2. Translation source: British Museum: Accessed on May 30, 2017. 10:30 p.m.


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