Persepolis, à la Grecque

Photo/Effie-Michelle Metallidis

Shiraz, Iran
Tehran Bureau | passport

My hand scrapes along a wall of fallen Persepolis as the sun wanes. We’ve reached the site just as the centuries-old ritual between sun and stone begins, the play of light evoking how far the remains have endured, surviving not merely ancient grudges, but modern arrogance. A pass under the Gate of Nations reveals as much: the American journalists Henry M Stanley of The New York Herald has already been here in 1870 as per a carefully chiseled inscription; so has a DSP E Andre, who also carved his name into the base of the entry gates in 1899, while J Granytam, JB Marrige and Wm Lundt all took their time to etch their names in cursive in 1810.

I can only imagine witnessing the grandeur of Persia’s glory a few hundred years ago, when the absence of digital cameras and websites made viewership an exclusive affair. The heightened adrenalin that, much like mine, coursed through veins of travelers passing through the remains of what Alexander the Great had, in his immensely delirious state, torched to the ground. Or, according to the historian Diodorus Siculus, what Alexander the Great had, in his immensely delirious state, had torched to the ground at the command of Thais, an Athenian woman whose vitriol caused the historian to enthuse that “the sacrilege committed by Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the Acropolis of Athens was avenged by a single woman, a fellow-citizen of the victims, who many years later, and in sport, inflicted the same treatment on the Persians.”

But the journey I made to Iran during late November of 2008 wasn’t on the premise of rehashing bygone enmity. Nor was it to examine Persian relics as a DSP E Andre or Wm Lundt; nor was it to ride the coattails of a new-found Orientalism. I came as a Mediterranean whose roots were mottled by centuries of conquest and empire, whose ethnic identity seemed as malleable as the red clay of sequestered Abyaneh. I did not come as subject nor conqueror, but as Alice, peering through the looking glass, and watched as a remote language re-aligned itself in a familiar pattern that told of the same humor, hospitality, culture and traffic violations.

It is the folly of nationalism that has disrupted the complexity of geography, thrusting Iran and Greece into their present states without paying much heed to the intertwined history both cultures continue to share. From the carved Greek and Persian inscriptions on a horse at Shaipur’s Parade in Naqsh-e-Rajeb, to the controversy kicked up over Hollywood’s interpretation of Thermopylae in 2006’s 300, to the fact that history still calls Persia’s crown jewel a name given to it by the Greeks, the ghosts of past alliances linger, and they walk among the living.

It is partly through a raging 19th century Hellenophilism, trumpeted by the likes of Byron and other romantics, that has kept Greece in the popular imagination of the West, while Iran, its shah, its revolution and its past, have slowly drained from the annals of collective memory. In imagining Iran, my generation has had little to draw on other than the sound bites of antagonism: the Iranian hostage crisis, Iran Air flight 655, sanctions, isolation, distortions further parlayed into the imagination through portrayals like Frank Miller’s comic book yarn of the freedom-loving Spartans facing Xerxes’s barbarous empire.

Staring at the remains of Persepolis now with Greece in mind, the relics of these two ancient civilizations seem to collude together as only former centers of the world can. There is something of the retired cabaret dancer in both of them; a sad beauty that only hints at past performances of a stunning nature. In Iran, the relics of the fallen empire aspirate an empty grandeur. In Pasargade, only columns and a mute tomb remain. The hollowness consumes the space between the monuments, the vapid breath of the valley. Naqsh-e-Rostam and Naqsh-e-Rajab are quiet, made all the more remarkable by the fact that they exist off of the E-7 highway, the path of modernity at pains to make concessions for no one. There, in an area marked off by a fence and some gravel, the remains of Sassanid bas-reliefs. Further down the road, tufts of withered grass on the dirt path leads to the tombs of Achaemenid kings. The casual nature of their existence, 4000 years of history chiseled into rock that follows along an asphalt road, reminds me of a mother with too many children to look after. There are simply too many layers to count, too many historical moments to cordon off and venerate.

The sites are at once glorious, tragic, forgotten and persistent, and nowhere more so than at Persepolis. I shuffle through the gravel, following the stele of a regal procession showcasing delegates of the 23 nations under the empire. How to parse and separate them? How to delineate between East and West, Greek and Persian, here or there, when no such partition exists in the mind, when then, as now, labels fray like threads when put under intense pressure?

It is maddening. And all the time, ever-present, ever-watchful, the eyes of Persepolis. The soldiers, the demi-gods, the lions, the lamassus, the Gopat-Shah, even defaced, even the replicas. Large, round, rubbed with a dark tint that lends dimension to their muteness. Ever-watchful of their environs and their visitors, the round surface of each orb, all-encompassing, as was the empire from which they emerged.

And yet among the difference, I find myself experiencing a strange sense of deja vu. The empire – the Hellenic, the Persian – worn down by time, pollution, visitors and memory, their ruins still speaking of a shared legacy, as when one Iranian friend journeyed to the Acropolis and, upon hearing his background, have a Greek remark, “You didn’t come to finish the job, did you?”

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