Iranian Panoramas

22 March 2011

During our visit to Iran, my sister Maria Kouijzer, who is a professional photographer, made these two nice panorama photos.The first one shows Persepolis from the southeast…


… and the second one the great square of Isfahan, taken from the terrace of the Ali Qapu Palace. From left to right you can see the entrance to the bazaar, the Lotfollah Mosque, and the Shah Mosque.


Persepolis 2011

19 March 2011

The Cyrus Cylinder in a Crystal Ball

A visit to the ruins of the palaces of Persepolis is always a pleasure and a prerogative. There are two hotels in the close neighborhood, which make it is easy to spend the two days you need without being forced to return to Shiraz. Compared to last year, the visit is even more delightful, because some shops have been reopened and there’s a new, small pub next to the Queens’ Quarters. The old pub, beyond the Treasury, used to be closed but is now a restaurant.

The reopening of the pub was long overdue. You cannot spend several hours on a site without having a cup of tea or coffee. The souvenir shop – well, let’s be honest: most of the objects are crap, and it is only rarely that they are so tasteless that they get a campy beauty of their own. I am glad I saw that replica of the Cyrus Cylinder in a crystal plastic ball. (Interesting question: Shi’ites and Roman Catholics have produced the most beautiful art – how come that in Iran and Italy, they also sell the most terrible kitsch?)

Still, it is better if they sell ugly objects and outdated books than nothing at all. Of course, I would prefer that they had a decent bookshop where you can buy, say, an excavation report (compare the Museum of Tabriz), but crap is at least something. People do take those souvenirs with them, will laugh about them at home, but will also say that Iran is a beautiful country where you can see, for example, the most splendid tile work in the world. They will add that the Iranians are friendly and courteous, that the landscape is incomparable, and that they had a superb holiday. They will show photos, and will convince others that Iran is not the terrible place it appears to be in the western media. This will – I hope – convince others to visit Iran. Postcards may have the same result, and fortunately, they are now for sale.

I will leave it to pundits to discuss the political benefits of people losing prejudices, and just mention that the road to good bookshops and nice souvenirs starts by creating a larger market. Persepolis is back on track.

Yet, much needs to be improved. What greatly disturbed me was “The World Heritage, Introduction Salloon” in front of the entrance. I passed along it, and there were loud sounds coming from it; an English voice explained the significance of the site, making several exaggerated claims. Now I can live perfectly with that; the Greeks believe they’ve invented about every art you can think of, in Syria they claim to be the cradle of religions, and I won’t even mention Israel, so the Iranians may boast a bit too much as well. But what I find unacceptable is the noise. Even when we were watching the Gate of All Nations and the Apadana, we had some difficulty to talk, because of the loudspeakers. I got the impression that no one entered the World Heritage Introduction Saloon, and it is not hard to understand why.


10 July 2010

Hall of Hundred Columns

If I say that Persepolis has moved to this URL, you will understand that you have come across a new installment of the highly irregular and highly irrelevant series called Moving Livius.Org. Actually, it’s the last installment, because I’ve now moved all html-pages away from the /a/-directory, which means that html-pages and jpg-files are now separated. I can now move forward to a content management system and leave behind a website that is essentially still running on 1994 software.

It is fitting that Persepolis receives this place of honor, because it is one of the most splendid places in the world. It is of course a matter of taste, but I think most people will agree that it is more impressive than, for example, Palmyra, Petra, or Lepcis Magna.

Gate of All Nations

Persepolis is actually part of a larger archaeological complex that also includes Naqš-i Rustam, Naqš-e Rajab, Istakhr, and the little-known Takht-e Rostam. The best way to visit it, if you are a tourist, is to do those sites in the early morning; Naqš-i Rustam takes about two hours, Naqš-e Rajab half an hour, while the two other sites can be used to have a picknick. They are not of the greatest importance and you may in fact ignore them without having the idea that you’ve lost very much.

A sphinx

After lunch, go to Persepolis itself. In the afternoon, especially after, say, half past four, the light will be softer. A first introduction takes about four hours. Then you’ve seen most buildings and understand the site.

Now the big trick: you must return the next day. Until ten o’clock, the light will be fine, and because you now know the site, you can really appreciate it. At half past ten, you want to be away anyhow, because the tourist buses from Shiraz will arrive by that time. During my two last visits, we took a hotel in the Persepolis compound itself, which was perfect.

A Nubian

Of course you can stay longer, but this double visit will for most tourists be sufficient. For a specialist, however, there will always be something new to discover. Personally, I am increasingly interested in the Hellenistic objects found in and near Persepolis. Of course, Alexander did not destroy it all: that would be impossible with ancient technology. The Palace of Darius, for example, has survived pretty well. The main symbols of the Achaemenid court ritual, the Apadana and the Treasury, were what Alexander destroyed. In the museums, you will find several Hellenistic objects.

Anyhow, if you haven’t been in Persepolis, you should go to Iran. The Iranians will welcome you, as they have done for centuries. So my last picture today is a drawing by Cornelis de Bruijn, one of the first westerners to visit the site (and a fellow-Amsterdammer). The new webpages are here.

View from the north

Persepolis and Priorities

16 March 2010

Darius' palace used to be accessible

I just returned from Iran. In Tehran, I met a man who told me that he had recently visited Persepolis, and had been a bit disappointed. There were weeds everywhere, the site looked neglected, and there was no path to the rock tombs, he complained. I was surprised to hear this – and not because the third complaint was a bit unfair. (Persepolis is an archaeological site and the construction of a path, even on a rock, might damage what’s still in the ground.) Yet, before I left Holland, I had already read this news article, so the man’s complaint seemed corroborated. Wondering what to expect, I traveled south.

And indeed, the site appears to be a bit neglected. Many sites are fenced off: the palace of Darius, the palace of Xerxes, the Tripylon – all inaccessible. The small restaurant on the edge of the southern terrace (inaccessible since at least 2004) was closed, which is something of a disaster, considering the fact that Persepolis is a very large complex and even a superficial visit takes several hours. When I take a group around, we stay in a nearby hotel and return next day.

The bookshops and souvenir shops were also closed, but I can live with that, although I would have liked to buy a postcard or two. The site also looked a bit dirty, as if the cleaners were on strike. But as long as the site is not damaged, I can live with that too. It will no doubt be temporarily.

All this will of course be hailed with joy by those people who only like to read articles about sorrow & misery in the Islamic Republic. To be fair and balanced, I add that there are now finally fences at the rock tombs, that closing the palace of Darius is due to restoration works, and that the subsite at Istakhr has been made more accessible. As usual, it’s all about priorities.


8 December 2009

The statue in Shapur's cave

Today, I moved the pages of Bishapur, one of the places I like most in Iran. During my first visit, we were especially interested in locations that were Alexander-related, so we visited a lot of Achaemenid sites; yet, we all agreed that Sasanian Bishapur, for which we had not been prepared, was among the highlights of our trip. The six rock reliefs and the city are really spectacular. I already blogged about the recently reopened museum.

I’ve returned several times, and on each occasion, I discovered something new or met someone interesting. But the best memories belong to the climb to the cave with Shapur’s statue, one of the most splendid places in the world – not the cave with the statue, which is interesting but not very special, but the valley. It is the most beautiful place of Fars. You’ve just not been in Iran if you haven’t climbed that rock and enjoyed the scenery.

The Bishapur pages are something of a jubilee: has now reached its 3500th page. I also added a very brief article on the Persepolis Treasury Tablets, and a third page of Amsterdam stone tablets, which brings the grand total to 3502.

And because there’s something to celebrate, here is the last version of my Google Earth markers (1437 sites).

Two Poorly Understood Sites

9 November 2009

Rujm al-Malfouf

To be honest, I wanted to call this topic “two mysterious sites”, but as we all know, ancient historians must avoid clichés like “mystery”, “lost city”, and “treasure” – that would be the equivalent of “gathering war clouds”, “ghosts from the past”, or “child of nature”. Yet, today I have to introduce two sites that are, well, quite mysterious:

Go there to learn more, and understand less. Two other items: LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer has added an article on Roman fire worship to his Antiquaries’ Shoebox, and on his blog, Bill Heroman refers to a common mistake about the Temple of Herod.

Common Errors (16): Persepolis

28 June 2009
The Palace of Darius I the Great: not destroyed by fire

The Palace of Darius I the Great: not destroyed by fire

In the first weeks of 330 BCE, Alexander the Great captured the capital of the Persian Empire, which the Macedonians and Greeks called Persepolis, “City of the Persians”. The living quarters were looted immediately, and when the invaders continued their expedition in early Spring, the palaces were destroyed as well.

Our sources are not in agreement about the way this happened. According to Arrian (Anabasis, 3.18.11), it happened after deliberations; it was a well-planned operation. On the other hand, Curtius Rufus (History of Alexander, 5.7.3-12) and Plutarch (Life of Alexander, 38) say that Alexander was drunk – by no means excluded.

Scholars have so hard been trying to find out what happened exactly, that they ignored a more important question: did it actually happen? The problem is that many buildings were simply left intact: the Gate of All Nations and the Palace of Darius the Great, for example. Of course, the wooden and the limestone parts have vanished, but the gates, windows, and lower parts of the walls are still standing. No traces of vandalism here.

Something else happened in the Palace of Xerxes: hardly anything survived. Fragments of the columns that once supported the roofs of Xerxes‘ rooms were discovered far away: these palaces were the victims of a gas explosion (a “delayed flash-over”, as the fireman I once interviewed on the subject explained). There’s also evidence for arson in the Treasury and the Apadana, the throne room where the Great King received embassies of the various nations. Here, the excavators found a stratum of one to two feet of charcoal: burnt cedar wood.

And that’s the smoking gun. These buildings were extremely significant: the Palace of Xerxes, because he had attacked Greece in 480; and the Apadana and Treasury, the symbols of the ritual of gift exchange that was Achaemenid equivalent of the social contract.

Of course fires are unpredictable, but why, out of a set of twelve momuments, were exactly these three buildings destroyed? It is almost impossible that these buildings, and these buildings only, were destroyed by a random process. The arsonists in Persepolis were not drunken vandals: this was a well-organized action.

<Overview of Common Errors>

The Discoverer of Persepolis: Cornelis de Bruijn

15 March 2009
Cornelis de Bruijn: painting by Godfrey Kneller

Cornelis de Bruijn: painting by Godfrey Kneller

Whenever a Dutchman visits Persepolis, he will be pleasantly surprised. Upon entering the big gate he is greeted by a fellow-Dutchman: a man named Cornelis de Bruijn left behind his signature more than three hundred years ago.

OK, that was vandalism – but if anyone would have had a right to cut his name in one of the monuments, it would have been De Bruijn, whose story is part and parcel of the story of Persepolis. He was born in 1652 and became famous with a book on his travels to Italy, Egypt, Jerusalem, the Aegean Sea, and Constantinople. Published in 1698, it soon became a best-seller, and it is easy to understand why: being a trained painter, he could add splendid illustrations. For the first time, Europeans could get an idea of the interior of the Great Pyramid, could see the Column of Pompey in Alexandria, or enjoy a view of Jerusalem or Palmyra, Smyrna or Constantinople.

De Bruijn’s Signature in Persepolis (on the Gate of all Nations)

De Bruijn’s Signature in Persepolis (on the Gate of all Nations)

These drawings were unique, and the book was translated into several languages – unfortunately, not all of them very accurate. The English edition (1702) was based on the French one (1700), and until the twentieth century, you would not be able to find De Bruijn’s book in the catalog of, say, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, unless you knew that the English translator had been capable of mistranslating even the author’s name (Corneille le Brun).

In 1703, De Bruijn left Amsterdam for a voyage that would bring him to Russia, Persia, Ceylon, and Java (where he discovered a small kangaroo-like animal that is still called Thylogale Brunii). It was his visit to Persepolis, however, that made him immortal. In November 1704, he arrived in the capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, where he was to stay until January. Although several European travelers had already offered descriptions of the site, none of them spent two and a half months amidst the ruins, became so well-acquainted with the site, or added such marvelous illustrations to his book.

De Bruijn’s account consists of several parts. First, he describes the terrace and its buildings, which can easily be identified with the remains that are visible today. De Bruijn is not always able to interpret the buildings, but recognizes that the rock reliefs belonged to royal tombs. He also mentions the four Achaemenid tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam and the Sassanian rock reliefs, which he believes to be representations of the legendary Persian hero Rustam. (This must be information from a local guide.) Next, De Bruijn compares his observations to what is written by the ancient authors. For example, he is able to identify Median and Persian dresses. In the next chapters, he describes the history and customs of the ancient Persians. All this is based on Greek and Latin sources, but he impartiality adds a chapter with the Persian side of the story.

De Bruijn’s Copy of a Royal Inscription (XPb)

De Bruijn’s Copy of a Royal Inscription (XPb)

De Bruijn’s combination of antiquarianism and historiography was later popularized by Winckelmann and Gibbon, but was still rare in the early eighteenth century; in fact, De Bruijn was one of the first to attempt to corroborate a historical account by using artifacts. How innovative this was, becomes clear when we take into account that even today, it is possible to become an ancient historian without taking part in an archaeological excavation.

De Bruijn’s Persian book, published in 1711, was no success, even though the reviews in the Acta eruditorum and Journal des Sçavans were enthusiastic. But the Dutch Republic was involved in the War of Spanish Succession and suffered heavily; few people could afford to buy the book. Worse, people found it hard to believe his story. The painter-traveler died in 1727, bankrupt and forgotten.

You can find a longer biography here.