Persepolis – the most amazing ruins most people will never see

The unique 2500 year old ruin of the capital of the Achaemenid Empire? The site of the 1971 extravagant celebrations of 2500 years of monarchy which provoked a backlash that grew into the  1979 Islamic revolution? Are you with me yet? Possibly not, as the spectacular old Iranian city of Persepolis is not a site visited by many tourists, with Iran still seen as an unlikely holiday destination for most westerners.

The spectacular ruins of Persepolis, Iran.

First built circa 550 BC, and often rebuilt after being razed to the ground over the centuries by such luminaries as Alexander the Great, I found the ruins of Persepolis spectacular, with a style different to anything I saw in neighbouring countries. I particularly liked the strange animals like the griffions and the “push-me-pull-you” horse. The name Persepolis literally means “Persian City”. I stayed in the alluringly named nearby town of Shiraz, becoming somewhat disappointed when I remembered that Iran is a non-alcohol country.

The party of 25 centuries in Persepolis, Iran.

I think I might’ve enjoyed being at the (reputedly) $200 million party thrown by the Shah of Iran at Persepolis in 1971, celebrating 2500 years of the Persian monarchy. Who wouldn’t enjoy a guest list of A-list royalty, 5000 bottles of champagne, meals courtesy of Maxim’s de Paris, and a luxurious air-conditioned “tent” city fitted out with marble bathrooms, the finest French bed linens and exquisite Persian carpets? Well, possibly the ordinary Iranians who were banned from going anywhere near the festivities.

The party that changed Iran.

Many experts credit this over-the-top party as the “beginning of the end’ for the Shah, proving how out of touch he was with ordinary Iranians and their beliefs. The festivities ignored centuries of Islamic rule in Iran, provoking scorn from a certain Ayatollah Khomeini, and added momentum to the groundswell of discontent that led to the revolution in 1979.

After the revolution Persepolis was initially despised by the regime for its association with the former excesses, and it was left to fall into disrepair, much as I saw it when I visited 11 years later in 1990. But recently Iran has begun to promote Persepolis as a tourism destination again, and is even promoting plans to rebuild the famed “tent city”, this time as a tourism centre and accommodation for tourists – may be worth a visit after all these years.