Shiraz, a day’s drive through the Zagros Mountains, is Iran’s city of courtly love.
The tombs of the 12th and 13th-century poets, Saadi and Hafez, generate the kind of respect that the British reserve for Shakespeare.
Ali, the eager student guide, wants his clients to appreciate this so he jumps out of the cab and dashes into his house to fetch his Farsi-English Hafez compendium. “At least the wine is from the blood of grapes, not the blood of man,” he reads as we linger over our fruit smoothies. This may be an apt historical insight into the city that provided the Shiraz grape, but the wines it underpinned are no longer on the agenda.
Shiraz’s real honeypot is Persepolis, 55km out of town but half a world away. Remote, magnificent and unmissable, the ancient city, sheltered in a bowl in the hills, was conceived by Darius I at the height of the Persian Empire in 515 BC. What an era it must have been as the Achaemenian dynasty, a succession of Dariuses and Xerxes, added lustre and, ultimately, their own magnificent rock tombs to the masterpiece. Best of all is a palatial staircase decorated with bas-reliefs of annual tithes brought by 23 vassal states – lions, elephants, camels and domestic livestock preserved in perfect detail over 2,500 years.
In 330BC, Alexander the Great rolled by on his great Asian conquest and burned it down. When I arrive in the morning, I share the magical ruins with schoolgirls wearing jeans and platform shoes under their chadors. “Where you from?” “Inglestan?” “You like Iran?” “You like to visit my home? My parents would be very happy to offer you dinner.” I have enjoyed such exchanges in many public places, sometimes followed up by insistent phone calls repeating the invitations.
On this occasion, I turn them down, lingering in Persepolis till sunset. What a privilege it is to be alone in such a magnificent site. Climbing up the hill for an overview, it is easy to imagine the worker ants manhandling the stones into place and the predatory Grecian conqueror trying, but failing, to destroy them.
Five centuries later, Iran retains the zest for progress and the love of art that underpins Persepolis and Isfahan. Only the ayatollahs stand between it and its rightful rewards on earth.
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