Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Persepolis Day

FAQ if you are going to Iran #2: Why Iran?

There really is no one simple answer. There are however a number of not very complicated ones. For starters, I had not been there, a fact which by itself, is not enough. There are a lot of countries I have not been to, 104 of them to be precise. Although there is the fact that during my visit to India, it seemed like every time I liked a work of art, building or garden, I would learn that it was actually Persian.

But there were 2 factors that swayed me more then any others. One was the absolutely fabulous Mezrab cafe in Amsterdam. Many summers ago, I stumbled across their former space in the Joordan and decided to go inside for a bite to eat. I was greeted by this kind and wonderfully gracious woman, whom I would later dub Mama Mezrab. She told me about her musician son, who was on tour, and suggested I stay for the musical jam session that evening. One bite of the heavenly ash-e-reste soup and one note of her even more heavenly singing voice and I was hooked. I began to hang out at the Mezrab every chance I got, eventually meeting her husband, her ridiculously talented son and the majority of Amsterdam's Persian community. It was always an oasis of warmth, kindness and creativity that made me long to visit this place this they spoke of.
The second factor and metaphorical last straw was the blog Humans of New York. Run by a photographer named Brandon, it and its wildly popular facebook page routinely feature portraits of ordinary New Yorkers telling a small bit of their stories. The guy's ability to succinctly capture the humanity (no pun intended) of the everyman is spellbinding. This past winter, he took his talent to Iran. Seeing his photos and realizing that this dude was American and was somewhat of a journalist, yet had managed to get a visa, got my gears a-turning. If he could do it, surely I could to. And that is how I decided to go to Iran.

But that answer is kind of long and rambling, so I found a shorter more visual response to the 'why Iran?' question. I would do a google images search for Persepolis, copy and paste the link and send my inquirers something along the lines of "This. This is why I am going to Iran."

On my second full day in Iran, I got to actually see this place for myself. Believe it or not, I was actually concerned that this was so early into my agenda. I mean talk about peaking early, here I saw myself with 15 days to go and already having crossed the big highlight off of the list. 1st world problems. This is what they look like. "Woe is me. I saw that really spectacular world wonder thingie so early into my vacation, the one I took in a country most people never get to see. Now what?? Why do these things always happen to meeeeee! (sniff)".

We began the day jumping through all the procedural hoops necessary to extend my visa, a story that is even duller than it sounds, yet necessary to prevent the certain to be more exciting story resulting from me showing up at the airport with an expired visa.

With that resolved, we got a somewhat late start to the day and still reeling from a 40+ hour journey, I promptly passed out in the car that was to take us to Persepolis. I knew we were stopping somewhere before we got to the main event, but I honestly did not have much of a clue as to where we were going or what we would see.  All of these factors combined to give me one hell of a surprise when I woke up at Naqsh-e-Rustam,  aka the Necropolis,  home of four seriously cool Achaemenid tombs carved right into the rocks.

Created for a succession of kings from 493 BC-400 BC, they are an incredible sight to see and reminded me a bit of Jordan's Petra (aka one of my favorite sights ever).  How did I not know that there was a mini-Petra in Iran?  Were there other surprises in store for me?  Perhaps, I was not peaking early after all.

Interspersed among the tombs were reliefs depicting very heroic-looking scenes.  These had been added after the fact, during the Sassanid period.  As it turns out, the Sassanid kings were having a bit of a credibility problem and opted to do a bit of PR work by jumping onto the more popular Achaemenid Empire's bandwagon. They strategically placed reliefs celebrating their ascend to power alongside the tombs of their ancestors, as if to imply "I am Darius the Great and I approve these Sassanids".

The work was superb and the fact that the reliefs remain in such good condition, particularly in a country where the Supreme Leader has stated that he doesn't get the whole hullabaloo about Persepolis, since it is just a bunch of old rocks, is astounding. The resultant public outcry from that statement caused him to walk it back somewhat.  I guess we should just be relieved that he did not take a chisel and add his own mug to the site.

In all, we were there for about an hour, in which time I had gone from being in a rush to get to Persepolis to not wanting to leave.  It was during this time that I felt it was only fair to warn Yasna that I take a lot of photos, although I am guessing she inferred it from the shooting frenzy that spanned the four tombs.

A short 12 kilometer drive later, we were there.  We are at the reason I had come to Iran. Yasna, now cognizant of what she had on her hands, a tourist with a short attention span and an itchy trigger finger (and now thankfully a valid visa that would hopefully keep her from sharing a cell with misguided hikers) had a game plan.  We would go through the complex once with her explaining everything to me and then she would let me- and my camera- loose to shoot to my heart's desire.

As we climbed the 111 steps to this ceremonial capital built by the very same Achaemenid kings whose tombs we had just visited, I was positively giddy.  It was via these steps that dignitaries from other nations once arrived bearing gifts to play tribute to the kings.  Now they transported a surprisingly small number of visitors. When we got to the top, we were face to severed face with the entrance to the Gate of All Nations, the very spot so prevalent in all those photo links I had been sending out.

It felt unreal to me that I was actually here.  I had seen bits and pieces of Persepolis in museums around the world, but I was now standing in Persepolis. It more than made for the (somewhat substantial) aggravation I had gone through in getting my entry visa.

This 'sculpture' was never completed but provides great insight to the creative process in effect.

Yasna led me along the same route the visiting dignitaries would have followed, eventually ending up at the Apadana Palace, the site of the great audience hall.  This is where the presentation of the gifts would have taken place, as depicted by murals of people bringing everything from camels to chaffs of wheat (note: I am guessing only one of those two got invited back).

One oft repeated image is that of a lion mauling a bull.  This has been interpreted as representing the defeat of Spring over Winter...don't ask me how, it just has.

"Great!  Just great!  All I brought is a pair of cups from the Pottery Barn and these dudes behind me had to go and bring a pair of rams."

After a thorough explanation, Yasna gave me an hour to shoot to my heart's content.  While this may seem like enough, this is Persepolis and I wanted to capture every single bit of it.  This led to my one and only lie while in Iran.  A guy came up to me, wanting to know if I needed a guide.  I explained to him that I had a guide and pointed in the general direction of Yasna.  Undaunted, he switched sales tactic.  He now wanted to know if I would be interested in a Persian husband.  Concerned about the amount of time this persistant dude was going to take up, I changed my response to "Why Iran?" and told him that I already had one.  That was why I had come.

The symbol of the Zoroastrian religion. 
Leaving there, I lost count of how many times I uttered the phrase "That was amazing."  But there is a reason I kept saying it.  It was because it was freaking amazing!!

On our way back to Shiraz, we made one final stop at Hafez' tomb.  Hafez was a famed Persian poet, whose work is still hugely popular and whose tomb is something of a pilgrimage site. It was also the site of one of Brandon's photos in Humans of NY.

It felt crazy to me that I had only been in the country 48 hours and had already seen so much, but fortunately I was wrong about one thing.  The best was still to come...

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