Visiting Persepolis, the ancient source of Iran’s power


June 5, 2008

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The ancient Persian capital of Persepolis, in a vast and arid plain 40 miles from Shiraz in southern Iran, is the greatest ancient site between the Holy Land and India. This is a rare place that actually exceeded my high expectations. My main regret in traveling through Iran on my first visit (back in 1978) was not trekking south to Persepolis. Now, visiting with my public television film crew 30 years later, I've finally experienced it.

We arrived after a long day of driving — just in time for that “magic hour” before the sun sets. The light was glorious, the stones glowed rosy, and all the visitors seemed to be enjoying a special “sightseeing high.” Iranians were savoring this reminder that their nation was a huge and mighty empire 2,500 years ago.

Iranians visit this grand ceremonial headquarters of the Persian Empire with a great sense of pride. For an American, it would be like having Monticello, Cape Canaveral, and Mount Rushmore all rolled into one magnificent sight. The soul of Iran is Persia, which predates the introduction of Islam here by a thousand years.

Persepolis was the capital of the Persian Empire back when it reached from Greece to India. For nearly 200 years, from 518 B.C. to 333 B.C., this was the dazzling home of the “King of Kings.”

Built by Darius and his son Xerxes the Great around 500 B.C., it's a complex of palaces of the greatest kings of the day. They were so strong no fortifications were needed. Still, 10,000 guards were permanently posted here. Walking through the mighty “Nations' Gate,” you can imagine dignitaries from the 28 nations subjugated by Persia also entering — “we're not worthy”-style — to pay their taxes and humble respect to the emperor.

Like the message future superpowers would sell their subjects, ancient cuneiform inscriptions above the gate say the same thing in three languages. Roughly: The king is empowered by God. Submit totally to him for the good of Persia. All nations can live in peace if you are compliant.

Grand royal tombs, the scale of Egyptian pharaohs or Mount Rushmore, are cut into the adjacent mountainside. The awe-inspiring tombs of Darius and Xerxes come with huge carved reliefs featuring ferocious lions: Even in death, they're reminding us of their great power.

But no empire lasts forever. In 333 B.C. Persepolis was sacked and burned by Alexander the Great, the Macedonian Greek who turned the tide against Persia. Ending Persian dominance, he spread his Greek culture all the way to India. Persepolis has been in ruins ever since.

Western tourists

The temperature dropped dramatically (as it does in the desert when the sun goes down). I pressed my body against the massive stone walls to feel the warmth stored in the stones. (The next morning, under a blistering sun, I hugged the same wall to catch the cool of the night that it still possessed.)

The approach to this awe-inspiring site was marred by a vast and ugly tarmac with 1970s-era light poles. This is left from a party the Shah threw celebrating the 2,500th-year anniversary of the Persian Empire and designed to remind the world that he ruled Persia as a modern-day Xerxes or Darius. The Shah flew in dignitaries from all over the world, along with dinner from the finest restaurants in Europe. Iranian historians consider this arrogant display of imperial wealth and Western decadence the beginning of the end for the Shah. Within a year, he was gone and Khomeini was in. I think the ugly parking lot and light poles are left here so visiting locals can remember whom their revolution overthrew.

I saw more Western tourists visiting Persepolis than any other single sight in Iran. (In comparison to the elegant way Iranian women wear their required scarves, the female tourists looked gawky in scarves, though none looked as silly as me, wearing my script as a sun hat.) The Western tourists were from all over Europe and Australia — all with local guides, most with the Lonely Planet guidebook to Iran, and everyone marveling at how Iran has great tourism potential.

Persepolis has the majesty of Giza or Luxor in Egypt. And I was most struck not by the international tourists, but by the local people who travel here to connect with their Persian heritage. Wandering the sight, you feel the omnipotence of the Persian Empire and get a strong appreciation for the enduring strength of this culture and its people.

Edmonds-based Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio.