I love Shiraz – deep, red and Australian. But Shiraz the city from which the grapes originated, is nice too. Set in central Iran, the modern city of 1.6 million dwells alongside the ancient seat of power of the great Achaemenid dynasty, Persepolis.
Excavated in the 1930s from the layers of dirt from the encroaching desert and earthquakes that have shaken this land in past centuries, Persepolis is up there with Rome’s ruins, those colosseums on the Greek isles, Egypt’s great monuments… High columns still tower over the plains below, and the faces of lions, bulls and mankind stare into the past.
The 2500-year-old site is heavy with symbolism – bulls for protection, eagles for freedom, the griffin for royalty and man… for wisdom. There are sphinxes everywhere – a man’s body with a bull’s head, or with a lion’s head – mounted on columns up to 17 meters high or lining what were grand entrances where foreign ambassadors and local dignitaries entered the Persian court. During its reign, the dynasty’s lands spread from India to the Danube River.
Alexander the Great, that muscular Macedonian who managed to charm countries such as Egypt into giving themselves unto him, was not so charming by the time he hit Persia. He sacked and burnt Persepolis in the 320s BC, after he’d sent a caravan of 30,000 horses and camels back home, carrying the city’s great treasures.
Shiraz is flanked by stony mountain ranges in which the ancient kings of the Achaemenid tribe are buried. High up in a cliff face, their graves are dug deep into the stone, with stories of their empires carved around the portal where their bones were interred after being snacked on by vultures.
I remember the kings’ names from the few periods when I was awake during Ancient History: there was Darius the Great, Xerxes, Artaxerxes and Darius the second, the stars of Herodotus’ ‘The Persian Wars’.
“I fell asleep in Ancient History at school,” I confessed to my guide, the glamorous Yasma.
“So did I,” she confessed.
And together, travel writer and tour guide looked up at the bas reliefs of past wars and hard-won victories, as the swallows flew in and out of the empty tombs far above us.