Friday, March 2, 2012

Post #200 - Kingdoms Come, Kingdoms Go

More from my 2006 trip:

The plain where Daryoosh built his palace compound.
A short bus ride out of Shiraz took us to the fabled Takht-e-Jamshid or Persepolis (Greek for “city of the Persians”), arguably the center of the world when it was begun by Daryoosh (“Darius the Great”) in 518 BC, and one of three U.N. World Heritage Sites in Iran. It was here to which kings from scores of smaller kingdoms came to pay their respects to the “king of kings” resident there, and from which messengers went forth (in the world’s first postal service, similar to the 19th Century pony express in the American West) to the far-flung lands under its control. The artwork that still remains – stone staircases, miles of bas relief, great portals and mammoth columns – must be mere traces of what once was. The whole group of buildings, which had required 150 years to build, at 125,000 square meters would dwarf any modern metropolis’ convention center complex.  One could not help trying to imagine what it would have been like to visit the center of the empire when things were in full swing -- affairs of state being decided, dining for hundreds, a vast entourage of merchants, servants, priests and hangers-on...

Our first encounter, when ascending the grand staircase where supplicants would have come to court, was with some small birds – a type of finch – that inhabit spaces between the massive stone blocks that comprise the walls of Persepolis, one of the 500+ species of bird that inhabit Iran. (Iran has been at the forefront in biodiversity preservation, and the International Convention on Wetlands was formulated at a conference held in Ramsar, Iran. About 5% of the country’s territory is held in protected environmental areas.)

The sun was terribly strong, and shade was scarce, but none of us would have passed up a chance to walk the stones trod by the ancients or to run our hands over the carved stone walls that still create awe and respect in those who visit. While Athens’ Acropolis is in the midst of a bustling capital, Persepolis lies alone in a vast landscape of wind-worn rocks, where much of the time the only sound is the song of the hardy little birds that stay when the tourists withdraw. What was the Macedonian boy-emperor Alexander thinking when he put the torch to this splendid palace-city?

Approaching the necropolis
When finally leaving Persepolis, we passed by a group of tents belonging to a small group of Qashqai nomads who live as their ancestors have for a thousand years, a reminder of the cultural richness of Iran, where a minority of its citizens have Farsi (Persian) as their first language. (In other parts of the country they might have been Baluch or Bakhtiari, Turkoman or Azeri.)

Then, we visited Naghshe Rostam – burial site of the kings, where funerary chambers are carved deep into the rock face of a mountain, 60 or 70 feet off the floor of the plateau that was chosen for its prominence beside a historic trade route. The carvings still declared, to those who can read them, the importance and wealth of those who were buried there. Relief pictures associate – indeed, equate -- the victory of the particular monarch over his enemies with the victory of good over evil in the Zoroastrian cosmology.  It strikes me that so many Americans today equate a victory of our nation on the battlefield or in commerce with a cosmic victory of good over evil  Did the emperor of that time have grounds for his self-assured assumptions?  Do we?

§ § § § §

After a luncheon at a roadside restaurant, we made a short detour into a sparely-populated agricultural area to visit the Tomb of Siroosh (Cyrus the Great), an ancient mausoleum that now sits in the middle of a wide, flat field of grasses and wild flowers. As we walked toward the tomb, Char Simons, a professor at Evergreen University in Olympia, WA, pointed out a sign that stood in front of a low building at the side of the road; on it was hand-lettered in white on a sky-blue background:

“Welcome to the Land of the Freeborn, Poets, Devouts, Philosophers and Heroes/ Shahid Salim Passargad High School.”

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In one of our in-transit “sharing” sessions on the bus, I read the following prayer:

Lord, guide my feet to walk in Iranian shoes.
Lord, guide my hands to reach out to theirs.
Lord, incline my head to listen and understand.
Lord, let my mouth give forth only kindness.
Lord, strengthen my legs to carry me till my journey’s end.
Lord, give us Your peace.

§ § § § §

Later, our guide put recorded music on the bus’ PA system. Expecting to perhaps hear traditional Iranian music, we were surprised and charmed by his “mix tape” from college days that included: “Stand By Me”, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”, “Unforgettable”, and other Motown and R&B standards. This led to an impromptu songfest of spirituals, camp songs and show tunes sung by the delegates that lasted until no more could be thought of by any of us, as the miles passed under our wheels and led us to Esfahan – the city that Iranians call “Half the World.”

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