Notes on the Iran/Persia Conflict: A Travelogue -- Part Four

This is part four of seven. See also: Parts One, Two,and Three.

Part Four: The Alleged Attempted Lynching at Persepolis--1980

The pre-Islamic heritage of the middle east and central Asia hasn't always been as appreciated by Moslems as it is now, note the notorious destruction of the Giant Buddha's in Bamiya, Afghanistan back in March of 2001, or the sale of the Elgin marbles, and all that ancient Egyptian art in various museums around the world. It was something like that which almost happened in Persepolis back during the dark days of the hostage crisis when the limits of revolution were reached. As to the details of the incident below, I cannot vouch for the details, and I never found out the names of the people involved, all I know is that a second tour guide acknowledged the event took place. (Any more information on the subject would be appreciated.)

According to Islamic lore, in the year 610 of the Christian Era, a certain Abu l-Qasim Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allāh al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was ordered by the Archangel Jabril to read out loud from a book that didn't yet exist. Prior to that, the world was in the "age of ignorance" and what was produced didn't matter all that much.

For the next 1,189 years, most of what was built by the hands of man prior to that was either ignored or destroyed. True, the works of certain Greek and Jewish philosophers were preserved and studied. Euclid and Galen were very useful, after all, but what was left of the great library at Alexandria was burned to the ground (although some Moslems blame that on Christians) and much of everything else was left to rot. then the Turks and Mongols came raping and pillaging their way west...and then in 1799 Napolean Bonaparte came to Egypt to restock the Louvre museum. The "Age of Ignorance" is what brings many tourists to the Middle East, and that doesn't sit well with everyone living there.

Persepolis is the jewel of Persia and the number one tourist attraction in all of Iran. Going all the way to Iran and not seeing it for yourself is a minor crime, and innumerable Achaemenid sculptures on the reconstructed walls are breathtaking. There are also the rock cut tombs of Achaemenids Artaxerxes 2nd and 3rd, one of whom was the husband of Queen Esther. (we'll never be sure which it was).

Going from the parking lot to the ruins, you pass the ticket office, a souvenier shopping center, and a theater showing a filmed introduction to the site, which is, sadly, only in Farsi. Then you pass through teh various gates, which are decorated in motifs from various parts of the Achaemenid Empire. Babylonian sphinxes, Griffins from Central Asia, bulls and horses, and lines and line of people carved in bas relief on walls showing every nation in the then known world bringing gifts to the Shah. Imagine a mural in the national headquarters of the IRS showing happy people waiting on line holding cash and get the idea. They also show Ahura Mazda fighting his nemisis Arhiman, and Darius, Xerxes, and various Artaxerxeses worshiping AM. There is also a little museum there which is actually a reconstructed palace, which shows all sorts of small goodies...

Now why would anyone want to wipe this Unesco World Heritage site off the face of the Earth? Well, on the one hand Alexander the Great, who burned the place down in around 330 BC, had an excuse, he and his men were completely blotto and didn't know what they were doing. But what about that Mullah thousands of years later?

From what I was told, and the two sources could be wrong, the guy and his followers wanted to erase any traces of Mohammed Reza Shah, who had fled the country earlier in the year. The Shah had decided to mark the 2500th anniversary of Cyrus the Great with a huge party at Persepolis, and forgetting that the soiree had actually made a substantial profit in subsequent tourist revenue in the following two years, the mullahs, armed with bulldozers and pickaxes headed to the site to cleanse it of pre-Islamic foulness.

The locals from the surrounding villages and the city of Shiraz met them with greater numbers and almost lynched them. Persepolis was saved!..and so were the many bas-reliefs made in the area by Sassanian Shahs from the first half of the First millennium CE, Some of which were defaced by Moslems in the age of the Abbisd Caliphs. For that you cannot blame the current regime.

A few days later, on our way from Shiraz to Istfahan, we stopped at the tomb of Cyrus in Parsagad. there were some bas reliefs of a guy in a fish suit and a few other minor things, the city Cyrus built there was mostly made of wood, and that all rotted away ages ago. But the tomb itself was made of stone, and because the locals claimed that it was the tomb of Solomon's mother, it had survived the vandals. I noticed that someone had left a bouquet of flowers on the stairs leading up to the entrance in tribute.

At lunch afterwards, we debated whether or not it was a statement against the current regime or just a loving tribute to a great man.