Up and Down the Royal Road

Kangavar to Kermanshah (5 October 2015)

I finally met the guide who was originally assigned to me for my extension tour. I had discovered during the group tour that P was nothing short of legendary, not only for his guiding abilities but most notably for his knowledge of Iran. My local tour agency trusted him immensely and he would have guided my group if the other group from Hong Kong had not booked him more than a year in advance.

We drove out of Hamedan and arrived in Kangavar not long after. There is a temple of Anahita there which I understand is the largest discovered in the country so far. I have to say that I came expecting to be wowed, even if I knew it would not be Persepolis. But what laid before me as I walked into the compound was a large mound of stones and dirt. The excavation is probably still in an early stage although the authorities appear to have started restoring the site already.

Remains of Anahita temple in Kangavar

Remains of Anahita temple in Kangavar

Restored ceremonial stairway

Restored ceremonial stairway

On top of the mound

On top of the mound

I told P that I hoped that they would learn more about the site. But sadly like S the previous day P did not think that the authorities would be of much use in conserving and protecting the site. That is unless they found the site to be useful in generating money. I did not want to ask P where the money would go to.

Remains of columns

Remains of columns

Remains of drainage system

Remains of drainage system

View of Kangavar from the mound

View of Kangavar from the mound

We continued down the highway and further west along the Royal Road cum Silk Road. I had always wanted to travel along the Silk Road and I used to think that I would do that in China. Just two years ago I would never have imagined that I could ever be in Iran, much less travel along the Silk Road in that country.

The modern highway led us to Bisotun where we stopped. On one side of this nice pavement beyond the gate and ticket office was the sheer cliff of Mount Bisotun. The cliff was perpetually shrouded in this mist which I was told was actually dust. Now where were all the carvings that Bisotun was so famous for?

Mount Bisotun

Mount Bisotun

I walked by Hercules without noticing him. In fact I even wondered why P had stopped in the middle of nowhere while continuing to talk to me. Then he pointed at a spot on the cliff wall and told me to look. And there he was, Hercules. I was pleasantly surprised!

Hercules in the rocks

Hercules on the rocks

The real wonder here however was the inscription of Darius I, also known as the Great. It was further down the pavement but much higher up the cliff. I could barely notice it if not for the scaffoldings supporting a platform just below the inscription itself. It was that small. If it was meant to be seen and marvelled by passersby I really have no idea how anyone could have noticed it from the foot of the mountain without neon lights screaming its presence.

Bisotun Inscription from the foot of the mountain (just above the scaffoldings)

Bisotun Inscription from the foot of the mountain (just above the scaffoldings)

I was nevertheless quite determined to see the inscription up close although nowadays it was usually only accessible to scholars. Quite frankly I would not have been so determined if I had not seen a bunch of tourists going up. There was a make shift sort of gate blocking access to the scaffoldings and I waited behind it with some local visitors to see if I could get in. A guard came along and spoke to the local visitors. They were told that it was closed to visits and they told me the same thing in English.

For some reason I decided to wait a bit at the gate. I wanted to at least find out why the group of tourists that had gone in could do so but not me. And then I happened to turn around and saw P, who was waiting for me below the cliff, whip out his phone and made a call. Somehow I thought that that call had something to do with me. And true enough a guy, whom I found out was the local guide for the tourists who had managed to get it, came and opened the gate for me. I was in!

I discovered that the tourists were the same ones I had bumped into at the Avicenna Monument, the same group with the Oxbridge professor. The group was split into two since the platform could not hold everyone and I joined the second group waiting at the foot of the scaffoldings. The first one was already up enjoying the view with the professor.

The group consisted of retirees from Australia, Canada, the UK and US and led by an academic from Oxford.  I understand that they managed to get in to see the inscription by telling the authorities that they were history scholars. I had to pretend that I was one too although I would not be able to explain why a youngish Asian guy was studying Persian history with a bunch of Caucasian retirees. I thought the guard did look at us with a sort of suspicious amusement, as if he knew we were lying about me but was too polite to say so.

His thoughts were however of no importance to me. I was going up to see the inscription!

The scaffoldings looked and felt far too flimsy and too tiresome to climb but no one complained. I think everyone understood how special this opportunity to see the inscription was. I myself was getting pretty excited as I climbed the rickety steps.

It felt rather unreal when I finally saw the real thing.

Bisotun Inscription

Bisotun Inscription

The Bisotun Inscription is about 15 metres high by 25 metres wide and 100 metres above the ground on a sheer rock face.

As with all such inscriptions, the Bisotun Inscription was meant to be a billboard boasting of the king’s might and power, although I still thought that it was too small and high up the cliff to be that noticeable to passersby. But this particular inscription was still royal propaganda at its best! It showed Darius I stepping on Gaumata, the person who dared challenge his right to the throne, and nine figures each representing a rebellious tribe put down by him bound and standing meek and short before the great conqueror.

Or maybe usurper. Some historians apparently believed that Darius might have been a usurper himself and that he had no legitimate right to the throne. If this is true, then Darius tried to whitewash his crime with the Bisotun Inscription by invoking the name of Ahura Mazda. Farahavar is in the inscription looking down benevolently at him.

P had also pointed out to me that this inscription was placed in this area for a strategic reason. We were in the northwest of the country and this used to be Median territory. Placing this inscription here was Darius’ way of subtly telling the Medes that he was the boss there. Median power was at the time not too distant a memory.

Cuneiform inscription up close

Cuneiform inscription up close

The writing tells the story of Darius and how he had quelled the multiple rebellions that had resulted in the deaths of the previous two kings. It is written in three languages, Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. The Bisotun Inscription is regarded as the Rosetta Stone of cuneiform writing.

I left the platform feeling perhaps a little more excited than I should. I spoke to the Oxford professor for a bit, to thank him for letting me go up there (it was his tour after all). Perhaps he had been up there too many times before but he seemed quite blasé about the whole thing. He was somewhat surprised to see how excited I was about having been up there. On hindsight, maybe I was more excited about having the chance to see something that I had no right to. But we are still talking about a very important monument here.

View from the platform

View from the platform

View from the platform

View from the platform

When I rejoined P I discovered how lucky I really was. P was a friend of the group’s local guide’s brother and using this connection he got me in with a phone call. That was amazing luck! I just happened to be in the right place with the right people around me at the right time.

We drove further down the highway to the city of Kermanshah. I started noticing that there were more and more military bases along the way. And then it struck me that we were actually really close to the Iraqi border. To think that the Iran-Iraq war had happened just thirty years ago and pictures of the Iranian soldiers killed in that war were still hung up along the streets in every city I had been to in commemoration. Nowadays however, according to P, Iran and Iraq are like brothers.

We had one more set of rock relief carvings to see in Kermanshah. Taq-e Bostan is another site with a propaganda piece situated next to the ancient highway. These were however created by the later Sassanids and much more accessible to passersby. As expected, the carvings show Sassanian kings being ordained by Ahura Mazda and given the authority to lord over the people.

At Taq-e Bostan

At Taq-e Bostan

At Taq-e Bostan

At Taq-e Bostan

Ancient bridge on the Royal Road

Ancient bridge on the Royal Road

There was one last place to visit in Kermanshah however before we headed back to Hamedan for the evening. P had wondered if I would even be interested in the Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk, but since it was still so early in the day I decided that we should make a stop there. And I made the right choice. The Qajar-era tekyeh has some pretty tile works and surprisingly some have non-Islamic themes.

Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk

Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk

Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk

Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk

Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk

Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk

Faces of holy personalities not drawn ostensibly to prevent idolatry

Faces of holy personalities not drawn ostensibly to prevent idolatry

After having seen Golestan Palace in Tehran, I did have a good impression of Qajar taste in tile work. However P remarked that the Qajari kings were probably the stupidest in Iranian history. I suppose those kings were prone to the usual excesses that people in power frequently were.

Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk

Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk

Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk

Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk

Definitely un-Islamic tile work at Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk

Definitely un-Islamic tile work at Tekyeh Moaven-al-molk

One particular Qajari king however actually changed the Farsi language because of his personal preferences. He became a Francophile after a visit to France. His love for things French caused Iranians to say “merci” for “thank you” even today.

But still, some wonderful art works were created under their watch. And as with all the great kings depicted or described in the inscriptions and rock carvings along the Royal Road, they are no longer in power but exist only in history books.

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