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Iran - A Misguided Na(o)tion

By Natasha Deboo

 Iran, as a country, has been subject to great prejudice from the outside world, especially sympathisers of USA. And, while I agree that every country has its merits and faults, one should not be deceived or disillusioned by Iran’s outward reputation, or its political aspirations, both of which are often prejudicially over-hyped by the media. Let’s leave that aside for the moment. Let’s instead talk about its history and the rich culture it commands.

In this holiday issue, I shall cover the imposing and awe-inspiring ancient city of Persepolis, which now lies in ruins and declared as one of the World Heritage Sites of UNESCO. Just as Tehran is the political capital of Iran, Shiraz is said to be its poetic capital. It is known for its famous poets like Haafiz and Saadi, and for its imposing historical monuments like Naqsh – e – Rustom, Naqsh – E – Rajab, Persepolis and Pasargade.

Persepolis is the most important historical monument in Iran. Persepolis literally means ‘City Of The Persians’ and was the spring capital of the Achaemenian kings, displaying great pomp and splendour. Our first view of Persepolis left us all astounded. The city, perched on a platform, built on the foot of Kuh – e – Rahmat, (Mountain of Mercy) looked grand and imposing. To reach the top, there is a double flight of stairs. There are 111 steps on each side. The steps are very wide in width and short in height, so that chariots could easily ply over them and noblemen could scale them graciously. Talk about architectural genius so many years ago! It is said that the four lions on the Ashoka pillar were influenced by a similar capital at Persepolis. And when you see it for yourself, you can easily notice the uncanny resemblance.

Though it was Darius the Great who started building Persepolis, all his successors continued to build it. ‘Alexander the Accursed’ destroyed Persepolis one night in a drunken fit. As a result, all the wooden roofs and pillars were destroyed. It is said that Alexander pressed into his service the use of 2,000 camels, 4,000 horses and 10,000 mules to carry the loot from Persepolis back home.

What has survived the ravages of time; however, are the stone carvings and imposing pillars. Human–headed two–winged bulls flank the entrance to Persepolis. The architectural brilliance in an age without machines and cranes is difficult to imagine. The roof was supported on fluted columns, each resting on an intricately carved base.

The capital on the column consisted of two bulls, Homa birds, or lions, with their faces turned in the opposite directions. How the capitals were lifted up to that height taxes one’s imagination quite a bit! It is interesting and heartening to note that unlike the great pyramids at Egypt, Persepolis was not built by slaves.

In fact, there are stone tablets of that period indicating that each worker received a daily wage comprising a sum of money, a bottle of wine and a leg of lamb. What’s more, women worked side by side with men and enjoyed paid maternity leave. This sort of emancipation was unheard of even a century ago in the so called modern world!

Such was the high culture and civilization of ancient Persia! Another very distinguishing feature of the construction of Persepolis is that there was no cement used to join two blocks of stone. What they used instead, was a gargantuan metal pin, one you can crudely call a ‘huge staple pin’. This pin was ‘stapled’ between the two blocks of stone, thus ensuring that each piece of the palace was perfect.

There are also carvings of the mythical Homa bird. This figure has the paws of a lion to indicate strength, the head of an eagle to depict flight and ascendancy and the ears of a bull depicting wisdom. It is a symbol of good luck, to wish strength, growth and wisdom to all those who visit Persepolis. It is incidentally also the ‘Iran Air’ symbol. There are also other etchings on stone, of hundreds of soldiers preparing for war. What is amazing is the sheer detail carved by the stone masons of that era.

There is also depiction of the ‘10,000 Immortals’, which was an elite fighting force, for quelling any uprising in the empire. This army was so called because if any soldier fell ill or died in battle he would be immediately replaced by another, such that the number would never fall below 10,000.
The immaculate symmetry is also very commendable. If a wall has 123 soldiers sculpted, then the wall directly facing it also has the exact number of soldiers, and so on. There is also a relief which portrays Xerxes the Great sitting majestically on a throne carried by several attendants. The painstaking effort and the eye for detail in each frieze leaves you breathless and with a yearning for more.

The largest structure at Persepolis is the Apadana where the great kings themselves used to hold court. Next to the Apadana is a structure called Tachara or ‘Mirror Palace’. The Mirror Palace is called so because the stone is polished enough for one to see one’s reflection.
Carvings of people from different countries, including India (clad in the traditional dhoti, with a cow and spices as gifts); their costumes and weapons; and the various gifts that they are bringing to the king, adorn the eastern staircase of the palace. 
The panels depicting ambassadors of different countries are separated by etchings of cypress trees wishing everyone a long life. Elsewhere, there are also etchings of date palms to wish everyone a sweet life.
Some distance away are the tombs of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III. At the far end of Persepolis is a stone panel depicting Darius The Great seated on his throne with a staff in one hand and a flower in another. Before him are two small fire altars and an emissary addressing the great king with his hand raised in salutation.

A replica of the image of Cyrus The Great with an Egyptian head-gear and long Elamite dress, seen at Pasargade, is also on display. There is also a museum which is built over a ruined palace in an attempt to reconstruct and make visitors get a feel of what Persepolis originally looked like more than two and a half millennia ago, complete with stump, column, capital, beam and roof.
It is very difficult for us to think of this ‘war-torn’ country of Iran as being blessed with such beauty. The truth is that one must never trust the myopic vision and opinions of others unless you first see it for yourself. What’s one man’s meat is another’s poison, and beauty always lies in the eye of the beholder.
Excerpted from the Book titled: “Iran – Tracing Footprints Through Time” By Natasha V Deboo Published in 2009.


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