Architectural engineering, art, religion, tenets of kingship, dynamics and dimensions of socio-economic relations, history of empires: Persepolis offers all these, and more, depending on the Musafir’s interests. More than anything else, however, Persepolis proclaims the evanescence of human achievement.
Lost for hours in the ruins of gates, halls, columns, staircases, bizarre animals and birds, stoned faces, symbols and inscriptions, I realize it is all meaningless without hyperactive imagination fortified with layers and layers of information. For instance, what I see in front of me are dull dirty off-white skeletons of architectural constructions with resounding names: Gate of All Nations, Palace of 100 Columns, Apadana Palace, Great Double Staircase, Tachara Palaces so on and so forth. Add to it these two informative sentences: ‘And yet there is no doubt that a sea of colors once waved through the palaces of Persepolis.’ And ‘I realized much later that the monuments on the site including the façades must have been a visual bombshell!’
In 2010 Alexander Nagel, then a research scholar at the Michigan University, and now an Assistant Curator with the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Institute, arrived at these ruins with hydrolic ladders, state of the art cameras, digital microscopes, XR fluorescence spectometres and a whole lot of other intriguing contraptions. His motivation was, among other things, the first quotation about Persepolis originally being a ‘sea of colours’: a comment by German architect Friedrich Krefter, who had made a seminal contribution to the excavation of these ruins in the early 1930s. After painstaking research using all the latest gadgets he could lay his hands on, Nagel concluded that in the heady days of Achaemenid power these monuments were cumulatively a ‘visual bombshell’. Now that you have these pieces of information, give your fancy a free run. Should your imagination be lazy, turn to the History of Art in Persia, a pioneering work in the field composed as early as in 1892, by Georges Perrot and Charles Chipiez and get the bomb ignited.
I imagine the vast dazzle going up in flames, all the delicate colours, the overwhelming Persian blue, which Nagel concludes must have been the primary colour of Persepolis, spattered with blood, screaming women and children fleeing for shelter, animals being charred tied to their stakes, dark smokes bellowing out with an acrid odor of burnt flesh. I imagine a completely drunk Alexander ordering his troops to let loose their vengeance in a frenzy that he felt should last until their hearts and bodies were unable to squeeze out any more retribution.
Quickly I am transported back to a similar golden sunny day in September, 2005. The dull off-white skeletons of Persepolis merges in my vision into the dull off-white remains of Acropolis. My Greek friend Paulin narrates to me how exactly 150 years before Alexander’s drunken fit, in a devastating assault on Athens, Achaemenid emperor Xerxes burnt down the whole city including the Temple of Athena under construction, in 480 BCE. Historians have yet not resolved to unanimity how far was Alexander’s decision driven by a real urge to avenge that destruction, and to what extent was it a deftly calculated propaganda-tool to impress the Macedonians for garnering their support to his audacious military march across the world.
As the sun begins to soften in the west, we drive to Pasargad, the capital of the pre-Darius Achaemenid Empire. More scattered ruins of the early Achaemenid period, the most visited of which is an arrangement of huge block of bare stones. The starkness of the monument appears to be starker when I learn that it’s the tomb of the real founder of the Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus II. A curious couple lends some colour to the vast dull dusty vista: the tall bearded husband sporting an antiquated rifle poses for his spouse, wrapped in a bright pink chador, and the couple quickly becomes the subject of an exotic frame for a large group of amused Italian tourists.
Our next stop is a little distance away: Naqsh-i-Rustam. I have no clue to how the name of the hero of the epic Persian poem Shahnameh, penned by the late 10th – early 11th century poet Ferdowsi, came to be associated with this stark rock-face of a hillock, now painted golden by the receding sun. Cut out on the rock-face are the tombs of Darius, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes and Darius II. All these tombs, including that of Cyrus II, were looted by Alexander’s troops. More screams, more sabre-rattle, more bloodshed.
I feel saturated: a whole day neck-deep in the rise and fall of empires. I feel restless. Enough. It’s time to be back into the mundane, into a casual middle-class home, bubbling with shrill tantrums of Somayeh’s daughter, into an evening of loud soap-opera TV serials. The green highway-sign is such a huge relief: Shiraz 95 Km.