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Middle East Brian Dispatch

Persepolis: Sacked, Hacked, and Packed
April 19, 2000

Have you heard the story of Ozymandius? This is actually a very short story. A traveler is wandering in the desert and he comes upon the rubble of a giant statue.
All that remains of this great statue is two large feet and an inscription below them: "'My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings, Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!'" The man looks around to all corners of the horizon and sees the same thing: sand, sand, and more sand. If Ozymandius had indeed ruled over a vast kingdom, it had long since crumbled into dust. Only two big feet remained.

I think about this legend of Ozymandius when we visit the ruins of Persepolis here in Iran. This was once a grand city and the summer capital for ruling Kings, but now visitors can only stroll through the ruins and wonder what life was like back then. What did they leave behind? Sculptures, gigantic marble columns, some pottery shards, and proclamations of their own greatness. Large stone tablets engraved with ancient cuneiform writing trumpet the greatness of these ancient Kings, and they sound so similar to the boast of Ozymandius. They probably thought their kingdoms would last forever, but now the only inhabitants of Persepolis are a steady stream of tourists.

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When I look around now, it is hard to believe that anyone would build a great city here at the base of Mt. Rahmat. Just like the traveler in the story, everywhere I look I see the same thing: desert, desert, and more desert. But supposedly this region used to be much more fertile than it is now. Even as we drive through the desert we occasionally see an oasis where palm trees are blowing in the breeze and green bushes cover the ground. I imagine that this entire region must have been like that in the days when Persepolis was being built. It must have been a fine location, because it took 150 years to build this city! They must have loved the spot. If I were going to spend 150 years building something, I would definitely make sure it was in the right place too!

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As you might have guessed, many rulers built this grand city. Darius the Great started building Persepolis in 512 BCE. He was a King in the Achaemenian Empire, and the capital of the empire at the time was the city of Pasargadae, farther to the north. Successive Achaemenian Kings, Xerxes and Ataxerxes, added their own touches over the next century and a half, and soon the glory of the city was known around the world. The palaces were completed in 425 BCE, and they were used until Alexander the Great conquered the region in 330 BCE. He moved in for a few months and then Persepolis burned to the ground. Some people think that Alexander burned Persepolis on purpose because Xerxes had sacked Athens, but there is no clear proof that this is true.

Even though this city is only a shadow of its former self, it still took all afternoon for us to explore it. This place is huge! And not just huge in that it covers a lot of ground, but huge in the sense that everything is HUGE! The columns are huge, the statues are huge, the stairways are huge - everything was done in grand style. I spent most of the afternoon jumping around on old columns and squinting into the sun at towering gateways carved from stone.

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These men have traveled from many lands to present the King with offerings
Xerxes' gateway is the first thing that you come to when you walk up the entrance stairs. It towers over you, and the columns on either side of the gateway are carved into the shape of a fantastic animal that is neither man nor beast. It just looks like a big mysterious gatekeeper with wings and a beard and a hat and four legs. Sounds crazy, huh? But it sure makes an impression on first-time visitors, and that was very important back then. The King received many visitors, and extravagant No Ruz celebrations were often held here at the palace. The stairways leading up to the main palace are carved with a scene showing people who are all in a line bringing gifts to the King. Each step has another person who is climbing up to the next step with gifts in hand. They are like little skinny Smurfs climbing the stairs with you.

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The rock relief carvings are one of the coolest things here at Persepolis. There are over three thousand figures here that have survived the ravages of time. As a matter of fact, after Persepolis burned in 330 BCE it became like the kingdom of Ozymandius when the desert sand swallowed it. Undisturbed for two thousand years, it was re-discovered in the 1930s and subsequently excavations began. These carvings are well preserved because the sand protected them from the sun and the wind that would have worn them down in time.

People from many lands are represented here, and you can tell them apart by how they are dressed. For example, the Persians wear long-sleeved shirts and the Medes (those from the Mediterranean) wear short-sleeved shirts. You can still see even the finest details like curly hair or swirly robes in this ancient stone.

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Most of the main structures of Persepolis have fallen, but the groundwork of the palace is enough to keep you busy for awhile. Once you pass through Xerxes' gateway you can proceed to the Palace of Darius and jump around on what remains of the 36 columns that once stood here. Then, once you are warmed up, you can go to the Hall of One Hundred Columns and really wear yourself out! If you are still looking for adventure, then head up the hill to Xerxes' tomb which overlooks the city and the land beyond. Walk down slowly (because by now you WILL be tired) and step into the museum for some cool air and some cooler artifacts. Museums may seem boring sometimes when it's just pottery shards and rocks, but this one has some awesome stuff that was recovered during the excavations in the 1930s.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said--"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

The coolest things for me were the large stone tablets written during the rule of King Xerxes that proclaimed his greatness and the power of the Achaemenian Kingdom. The tablets start out by thanking God - "Ahura Mazda is Almighty God who created the Earth, created the heavens and created happiness for people…" - and then proceed to list the amazing qualities of the King himself. They talk about his skill in battle and his excellence on horseback. The King assures his followers that he will reward those who submit to his will, and promises the continued greatness of the Achaemenian dynasty. In other words, he tells everyone "I'm the best King around and I rule over all you see. Stick with me and everything will be just fine." It sounds a lot like Ozymandius, doesn't it? The King of all, you see? All that remains of these mighty rulers are stones and sand.


cuneiform - composed of slim, triangular elements, as the characters used in writing
rubble - broken fragments from the decay of a building
ravages - the damage resulting from destructive actions
groundwork - a foundation or preparation made before hand
boasts - to puff oneself up in speech

As you know, Persepolis did end up being swallowed by sand just like the kingdom of Ozymandius. I always wonder how such magnificent cities can just fall apart and then disappear for centuries until they are rediscovered by accident. Will someone dig up New York City someday? It's possible. If so, what will they learn from the remains of our once-powerful cities? Perhaps they'll find the boasts of business tycoons like Donald Trump who claim eternal greatness through architecture. What are we passing down within our own culture and within the world today? I hope that we are passing down more than just grand gestures and proud words. Will you be an Ozymandius or a King Xerxes whose proud words are covered by the sands of time? It's up to you, for we all have a legacy. I hope that the legacy of the 21st century is a tale of many cultures learning to live together on this wonderful planet. What will your legacy be?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Chardors, Pepsi, and the Great Satan: A History of Modern Iran
Monica - Visit to Kashan: At HOME at the Khan-é Broujerdi
Monica - Visit to Kashan: At SCHOOL at the Madrasé-yé Agha Bozorg
Team - Turn Off That Faucet! Water Doesn't Grow on Trees, You Know

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