Persepolis – visiting a total cultural highlight

Gate of the people

The wide approach to the ancient site of Persian Persepolis is full of lively families and small groups. They are visiting Persepolis as an outing on the last of three consecutive holidays. Early picnickers had already begun to select good spots on the lawn between the pine trees along the road side and beside the huge parking lot. We join the long queue at the ticket office, where two men hand out tickets and change from a huge drawer full of banknotes.

Although the ticket office building is quite new the whole operation has a very makeshift character. But at the famous UNESCO site of Persepolis, the tickets are even stamped with today’s date, making them appear very orderly. After all the ruins of the Achaemenid city are one of the best-preserved sites from ancient Persian history and one of the top sites in Iran.

Stones in the summer heat

Palace of Darius in Persepolis

After filling up the water bottles (yes, tap water is drinkable in most places in Iran), we walk up the grand staircase to the palaces. We rather like the idea that visitors have done so for more than 2000 years. Like them, we arrive at the Gate of All Nations with its huge figures of lamassu, an ancient Persian deity similar to a centaur but with a bull’s body and a man’s head.

It’s midday, the sun is vertically above us and the light is not at all right for pictures but everyone is frantically waving cameras and selfie sticks. It is almost unbearably hot. Most Iranian women are wearing hats or baseball caps on top of their head scarves. We even notice several children whose sun heads are dripping with water to keep their heads cool. We consider using our drinking water to soak our head scarves, but luckily the top attraction inside the visiting area has been furnished with a roof and the huge illustrated staircase of the Apadana Palace is now lying in the shade.

The Apadana Palace

Relief of Assyrians visiting Persepolis with rams
The Assyrian delegation with sheep, depicted at the Apadana Palace, Persepolis

The Apadana Palace was probably only used as a huge reception hall for the spring festival of Nawruz. Archaeologists even believe that the whole town and palace complex of Persepolis was perhaps only in use during that festival and never functioned as a royal residence or a regular settlement.

Nawruz is still the most important festival in Iran. In the ancient times of the Achaemenid kingdom it was the occasion when every nation under the rule of the Achaemenid Shah-in-Shah, or “King of Kings” had to send a delegation bringing gifts for the ruler. The number of visitors must have been impressive, considering that the Achaemenid kings controlled 28 different tributary countries and colonies.

Delegations from all nations visiting Persepolis

The delegations had to register at the Gate of All Nations first, where each delegation was issued a Persian attendant and a time slot to join the procession into the reception hall to present their offerings. On the staircase of the Apadana, the reception hall, the procession of visiting envoys is pictured in a huge stone relief. Each delegation is recognisable in their local attire and by the gifts they bring.

relief of Ionians visiting Persepolis with gifts
The Ionian delegation bringing wool, depicted at the Apadana Palace, Persepolis

We spend a lot of time marvelling at the well-preserved stone-carvings, figuring out what the Indians or the Elamites are bringing. The latter cradle lion pups in their arms, while the Indians are only carrying very small bags. Scientists think they contain gold powder because they look so heavy. Some people such as the Lydians are wearing funny hats, while the Libyans’ hairstyle appears slick and lavish.

Then we follow the sign-posted visitor circuit along the throne hall of Xerxes I, several other buildings, a huge treasure house and some royal tombs higher up in the surrounding mountains. We also visit the nearby sites of Naqsh-e Rajab and Naqsh-e Rostam. Both are royal tombs of the later Sassanid dynasty with interesting stone carvings. At the Naqsh-e Rostam site, there were already Achaemenid tombs high up in the rock wall, and the Sassanides re-used the site to inherit some of the glory of their famous predecessors.

Naqshe Rajab near Persepolis
Sassanid royal tomb at Naqshe Rajab near Persepolis, Iran

Is it worthwhile visiting Persepolis?

If you have the chance to visit Persepolis, it would be inexcusable not to do so. As mentioned, for us it was an absolute sightseeing highlight. The reliefs and the layout is so well preserved that you can almost see the Nawruz procession moving up the stairs. Explanations on-site are rather limited, so bring a good guidebook (we used the DuMont Kunst Reiseführer Iran). Shops near the parking lot also sell some materials in English.

How to visit Persepolis on public transport

Most individual tourists visit with a chartered taxi from Shiraz, which is 40–50 US$ for a half day tour including Persepolis, Naqsh-e Rajab and Naqsh-e Rostam (transport only). You could also join a half-day tour for 35$ including entrance fees for these three sights. As we prefer to spend as much time as we want at the sites – presumably more than a half-day trip – but didn’t want to rent a car for the whole day, we decided not to prearrange anything. We took the public minibus to the town to Marvandasht, from there we went by taxi to Persepolis.

After we had finished sightseeing there we paid one of the waiting drivers to bring us to Naqsh-e Rajab. We then hitchhiked from there to Naqsh-e Rostam and found other Iranian tourists who had two free seats in their car and went back to Shiraz. This way we could spend as much time as we needed at the sites. In the end paid we only 10 US$ for transport.

As it was a busy holiday day it was easy to get around without prearranged transport.

Have you been to Persepolis? Or do you want to go?

NB: Our travels to Persepolis was not sponsored in any way. We paid all travel expenses ourselves.

4 Comments

  1. i spent a couple of days there in 1968, October, so just nicely warm, being a stopover on my way to India in my Landrover. I arrived about an hour before sunset so many of the relief carvings at the sharp angles stood out so dramatically and beautifully. I was mentally speechless.
    Then there were no guards, fences or entrance fees, completely open and I don’t remember more than 3 or 4 other people there. I stayed for the next day to wander round, taking a few photos, sitting around trying to place myself in its ‘glorious’ and tumultuous past.
    I slept there the next night and thought how beautiful,differently, it would have been if there had been a large moon to enlighten it – sadly there was no such moon.
    Worth visiting? No doubt.

  2. Ah, how strangely different it must have been.
    We have been to some places that were both spectacular and empty of tourists – Abu Simbel after the revolution, or the petroglyphs of Tamgaly in Kazakhstan. But never on this scale …

  3. It sounds wonderful and we always enjoy historical sites – the only problem with most of them is that they are jam-packed with tourists and you don’t have a chance to soak up the history. Siem Reap was a recent example of a place where although just fabulous, you have a hard time appreciating it because of all the people. Persepolis sounds spectacular, more so because there are so few people.
    Many, many years ago I went to the Great Zimbabwe ruins, old fort walls on a hillside overlooking a valley. We were there alone with a bunch of monkeys. I still remember it, just because it’s so rare that you feel like Indiana Jones would just having a place to yourself. The paradox of modern tourism!
    Nice post,
    Frank (bbqboy)

  4. In fact, considering that we were there on a “happy” holiday (on the “trist” holiday the day before the site was closed) the crowds were quite bearable. By far most of them were Iranians, and the few foreign tourists come in groups and rush through in an hour in early morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat. So, presumably, on a summer weekday around noon you would be all alone.
    If you are looking for *really* empty archaelogical sites we know dozens of them in Central Asia. Some examples:
    Uzbekistan:
    http://www.westwards.de/westwards/2015/06/paikent-varakhsha.html
    https://westwards.de/2013/07/hot-days-and-cool-conversations-in-termiz.html
    Tajikistan
    http://www.westwards.de/westwards/2014/10/sarazm-unesco.html
    Kazakhstan
    http://www.westwards.de/westwards/2014/10/tamgaly.html
    http://www.westwards.de/westwards/2014/09/akyrtas.html

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