There: I said it.
Persepolis: that must-see historical destination in Iran. One of the ancient cities, silk trade stronghold, mighty civilization of long forgotten times. Of course I went there! Everyone does.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Persepolis.
The journey from Shiraz is easy and cheap, either by taxi or one of the many tours.
There are English speaking guides, multi language labels and some nice spots to watch the sunset. There’s even an overpriced café or two in case you go hungry.
But I’m not the kind of person who enjoys archaeological sites… at all. I walked around the Forum Romanum in Rome knowing that I should be impressed. I went to the Acropolis because geez, who goes to Athens without visiting the Parthenon? I went to Persepolis because the guidebooks and public opinion told me I had to.
Yet like many people, I have a hard time bringing these ancient civilizations to life when walking amid piles of crumbled rocks and toppled columns. Even in European cities, which history is much more known to me, my imagination runs short. In Persepolis, it was dry as the desert.
I had seen the famous Iranian carvings that were brought/stolen from Persepolis many times: in museums. I can’t even exactly remember where, but their image always stayed with me. They are in London, definitely. Paris too, probably. Rome or Istanbul? And funny enough I had a much easier time relating to the ancient city when I was only presented two or three well preserved art pieces. An infographic to top it off, or an animation to go with it. Add some jewellery and decorative objects in the mix and all of a sudden I’m dreaming of silk trade merchants, grand palaces and colourful gates. A single earring can make me try and imagine the woman who wore it: How did she perceive beauty? When did she wear that thing? Did she chose it herself or was it chosen for her? Was she free? Was she happy? These small aesthetics of a long gone society teach us a lot and, with a little fantasy they can create a (probably historically incorrect but none the less epic) vision of what the old times must have looked like.
And that is why I like museums: combine the right stuff on display with the right amount of carefully selected information, perhaps some ethnic background music, and boom! My mind does the rest.
In Persepolis, just like in the Acropolis, my mind didn’t to sh**. It saw rocks and ruins and no matter how hard I tried to mentally re-erect those pillars and rebuild those palaces… it simply wouldn’t work. I don’t know how high those roofs were supposed to be. What colours the stones were painted in. I don’t know what the street life must have sound like. Who lived between these walls? Was it only royalty and priests? Or were there merchants, traders, handicraft-men? Were there animals? Was there music? Were there wooden structures stretching out into the desert? Where did the normal folk live, in tents?
I could guess all these things, but yet it just wasn’t enough. The ruins stayed ruins and the rocks stayed rocks. The only thing that I managed to mentally animate were the local dresses of the time, thanks to the endlessly repeated carvings of kings, soldiers and merchants in long gowns. Some had beards, some had that famous knotted hair, some drove camels, some walked, some carried cows or rode horses.
I saw the desert of Uzbekistan before me as I brought those colourful figures to life. Much more than Persepolis (or Iran, for that matter), Uzbekistan managed to fill me with silk road enthusiasm. It was so easy to travel back in time there, to the slave markets, caravanserai, endless bazaars,… The whole country seemed to breath it. In Iran I never really got that feeling.
If Persepolis sparked any creativity in my brain, it was fuelled by past travel experience and knowledge learned else where. Memories of grand museums, Uzbekistan mosques and desert vistas.
I will admit though, that I was childlike happy when I saw some of the well preserved carvings under that ugly shelter they erected above them. There is something magical about standing on the same ground where that art once beamed in glory. It feels good to see those carvings outside of a museum, in the country where they belong. On the exact soil where they were meant to be.
And even though that ecstasy faded rather fast, it is the dearest memory I have of my visit to Persepolis and the tombs.
I know I’m not allowed to say all this out loud.
I know I’m supposed to LOVE Persepolis, like everyone does.
And I know it’s definitely outrageous to suggest that the steep entrance fees (200.000 rial for the tombs, then again for the site, then again for the palaces inside) are not worth it.
But I’ll tell you the truth: if I had been honest with myself from the start and have stood a little taller in the face tourist consensus, I wouldn’t have paid. Just think about how much glorious food 800.000 rial could have bought me!!!