Visiting the legendary site of Bisotun, Kermanshah.................................Ramdas Iyer
14.05.2014 - 15.10.2014
Current day Iran and a part of ancient Persia sits in the cradle of civilization and a traveler may find himself deficit with time if at least 6 weeks are not budgeted to cover all its great historical sites. Persia was consolidated into one of the greatest empires man had known in antiquity between 550BC and 330 BC. In those two hundred years the statecraft employed by the Achaemenid kings ( after founder Achaemenan) is still taught in political science classes universally.
My journey to Bisotun began in Hamadan. This present day city was built on the ruins of Ecbatana, the great capital of the Median Empire and the first capital of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenids, prior to the construction of Persepolis by Cyrus the great, circa 480 BC. Alexander the great sacked the fabled city of Ecbatana in 331 BC. It is said that Alexander's army employed 10000 mules to carry the treasures of this great city. When I stood on its ruins. which was already in poor condition I felt great sorrow for this city.
Before I proceed any further I wish to inform my readers that there may be a lot of historical references in this article that may either confuse or confound someone who is not versed in Greek/ Persian history. While it is not my intent to confuse you, I believe that this story might lose its significance if these appropriate historic markers are not inserted.
During my recent trip to Iran in May of 2014, I had the privilege to obtain a visa and conduct independent travel with a driver/guide all over the country. Being an American or a British citizen has many disadvantages as the representatives of the Great Satan may be subjected to harassment in short notice. This is not true for many European nationals like the French or the Italians, who seem to visit Iran and can travel independently by domestic transport without an escort.
Like any seasoned traveler I put forth a plan through an agency which was then approved by the Ministry of Tourism and a tour number issued to the agency on my behalf. One has to conform to this itinerary including staying in the stated hotels and not straying anywhere independently. While seeming constrained, it was never monitored but was a Damocles sword over the head. My wife who accompanied me to pick up my visa was given a head cover when we visited the Iranian desk of the Pakistani Embassy in DC in order to collect my visa. It was amusing to see the American Iranian women at the Embassy who were wearing their head cover like they were ready to walk down a runway at the Milan fashion show; subtle and sexy.
Most Americans travel to Iran in a group. As an independent traveler I was subjected to questioning by a bunch of officers at the airport. It was more like a high school hazing. One guy asked me that if I had an Indian passport on me which will make it easy for me to exit. The real problem that prevented the immigration officials from making my entry easy was a new directive to fingerprint independent travelers from the US on entry. But since the only device at the airport was not working they had a "moral' struggle about letting me off easily.. Once inside the country everything was fine and all the check points routinely verified my US passport or just waved me through after seeing my Indian face. Iran and India have a relationship at a very core level stemming from their Aryan and Mughal histories spanning several thousand years. The Achaemenids secured their eastern border with ancient Indian kingdoms through treaties while they were busy expanding their western provinces.
The main subject of this essay is my visit to the great World Heritage site of Bisotun. Even though I got there ultimately, I had fallen in love with another location instead with little time to spare for Bisotun. I forced my well meaning guide to change my plans and go to Qazvin and Alamut mountains, home of the legendary Assassins of the Shiite religion. I thought that this trip will be more spectacular than just reading famous inscriptions. A quandary that affects many who have a large travel list but with limited time. So I had my travel agent alter my plan trepidation to spent the night in Qazvin (former capital of Persia) in order to visit the Alamut mountains. As a matter of procedure the police were notified accordingly.
(For almost two centuries, from 1090 until 1273, the Order of Assassins operating out of the Alamut mountains played a singular and sinister role in the Middle East. A small Shiite sect known as Ismailis, tamed more powerful enemies using shocking means: Murder. Even the most powerful and carefully guarded rulers of the age—the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs, the sultans and viziers of the Great Seljuk and Ayyubid empires, the princes of the Crusader states, and emirs who ruled important cities like Damascus, Homs, and Mosul—lived in dread of the chameleon like Assassin agents. Source: http://www.historynet.com/holy-terror-the-rise-of-the-order-of-assassins.htm). ISIS today is not too different.
As I was visiting the sites of Hamadan, I suddenly realized that they could be covered in one day, leaving us a full day to go to Bisotun despite my scrapping the original itineraray. I argued with my guide that we had filed two plans; the original Bisotun plan and the latter Alamut mountains plan. My guide pleaded with me that he could lose his license if plans were changed and also insisted that I could be in danger of being detained. I bet on the fact that we were approved for Bisotun earlier so it was a security risk worth taking after seeing the dismal state of the immigration computers on arrival in Tehran.
Kermanshah where Bisotun is located is barely 50 miles from the Iraq border. The route was peppered with roadblocks that it was quite a risk to undertake this visit. It was a city that was destroyed by the Iraqi army with US weapons given to the Shah in 1980 after Ayatollah Khomeini had one of the greatest revolutions of modern human history. Over a million Iranians had died in and around the Kermanshah province. That war left a nation that still obsesses about their "Martyrs" with photos of dead persons all over the country. (See Plate)
Bisotun is home to Darius I inscriptions and bas reliefs (circa 500 BC )that left a written history of the Persians high above a rock bluff at 1000 ft from the road below. The raod from Hamadan to Kermanshah is an important road link to Iraq since it is where the great Shiite pilgrimage sites of Mosul, Najaf, and Karbala are located. The British without much thought put Shiasms holiest sites into the newly created Arabic country of Iraq, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire( 1918) .They did the same thoughtless deeds all over the Arabian Peninsula, during the creation of Israel and the partition of India in 1947. Colonial imperialism is still resented the world over and many countries in the middle east and Africa have never recovered from it.
The drive from Hamadan to Kermanshah was beautiful with green fields, mountains and four lane highways. Remember that it is a pilgrimage route. Iraq is where Islam's 4th Prophet and the founder of Shiism, Imam Ali, is buried in Najaf. Najaf is the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. The hoardings on the roadside were extremely militaristic. Sign boards showing Iranian might, photos of martyrs from the Iraqi war etc. An interesting contrast with the USA, home to the greatest war machines in the world,is that one does not see military presence anywhere.
I soon arrived in Bisotun unmolested. The Kermanshah province is mostly populated by the Kurds. An Aryan race as old as Persia itself. They are some of the most hard working and friendly people one can encounter in the middle-east. I had the same feeling about Kurds whilst in Turkey a few years earlier. These are a people trapped between Iran, Iraq and Turkey who survived over millennia through tribal alliances with the great powers of Persia and Greece, and converted to Islam after the Arab conquest of 780 AD and tolerated the Ottoman Empire. The middle east was divided under the auspices of the League of Nations (1918-22)mandate after the collapse of the Ottomans. The Kurds ,Assyrians and Turkmen the major tribes in the region were left out while carving different nations, creating several problems in Iraq, Syria and Turkey that we are aware of today. The land of Kurdistan encompassing the three countries mentioned above remains a major thorn on the side of each government not willing to offer territory for an independent Kurdistan. Perhaps this short lesson serves as a backdrop of what is happening in the middle east with ISIS, Syria and Turkey. As of today Turkey is not getting involved with a much needed war with ISIS since they are unwilling to compromise their rigid position regarding an independent Kurdistan.
Given this modern and ancient backdrop, I wish to celebrate the great site of Bisotun and the inscriptions which indeed a was a hair raising experience. The Achaemenid or First Persian Empire, was founded in the 6th century BC by Cyrus the Great. The dynasty draws its name from king Achaemenes, who ruled Persis between 705 BC and 675 BC. The empire expanded to eventually rule over significant portions of the ancient world, which at around 500 BC stretched from parts of the Balkans and Thrace-Macedonia in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east, making it the largest empire the world had yet seen . The Achaemenid Empire would eventually control Egypt as well. At the height of its power after the conquest of ancient Egypt, the empire encompassed approximately 8 million square kilometers spanning three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa. At its greatest extent, the empire included the modern territories of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, all significant population centers of ancient Egypt as far west as Libya, Thrace and the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, much of the Black Sea coastal regions, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, much of Central Asia, Afghanistan, China, northern Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and parts of Oman and the UAE. Hindustan was always an ally going back 2600 years!. Hence its affinity to India and vice versa.
In 480 BC, it is estimated that 50 million people lived in the Achaemenid Empire. According to Guinness World Records, the empire at its peak ruled over 44% of the world's population, the highest such figure for any empire in history. The Bisotun inscriptions(480 BC) are a powerful statement of a literate ,imperial and progressive society never before seen by man. What is more important is its location 1000 ft above the main highway connecting the Levant region consisting of Palestine and the pre Arab kingdoms of Assyria, Babylon and Lydia. It was also the land connector for future penetrations of Alexander and his army.
Darius I(550BC-486BC), the greatest of the Persian kings had subjugated most of the middle-east as described earlier. Furthermore, he wanted to leave a legacy behind for humanity to understand his achievements. In my own theory, it was also the highway connecting the ancient axial religions of Buddhism in the east, Zoroastrianism in the center and Judaism to its west. It was also a highway connecting many well known pagan religions born in Babylon (Marduk), Greece(Zeus) and Egypt (Osiris)
The greatness of the Achaemenids was in their capacity to tolerate other religions since 4 million Persian ruled 50 million subjects. I suspect the British in India did not tamper with religion for 200 odd years for the same reason and when they did so, it gave rise to a mutiny. Another folly of history typically never followed by imperialists.(read Barbara Tuchman's -March of Folly).
In the 3 languages that these inscriptions were carved; Babylonian, old Persian and Elamite, Darius I begins by stating the following powerful sample of the inscriptions:
• I am Darius the great king, king of kings, the king of Persia the king of countries, the son of Hystaspes, the grandson of Arsames, the Achaemenid.
• My father is Hystaspes [Vištâspa]; the father of Hystaspes was Arsames [Aršâma]; the father of Arsames was Ariaramnes [Ariyâramna]; the father of Ariaramnes was Teispes [Cišpiš]; the father of Teispes was Achaemenes [Haxâmaniš].
• That is why we are called Achaemenids; from antiquity we have been noble; from antiquity has our dynasty been royal.
• Eight of my dynasty were kings before me; I am the ninth. Nine in succession we have been kings.
• By the grace of Ahuramazda am I king; Ahuramazda has granted me the kingdom.
• These are the countries which are subject unto me, and by the grace of Ahuramazda I became king of them: Persia [Pârsa], Elam [Ûvja], Babylonia [Bâbiruš], Assyria [Athurâ], Arabia [Arabâya], Egypt [Mudrâya], the countries by the Sea, Lydia [Sparda], the Greeks [Yauna], Media [Mâda], Armenia [Armina], Cappadocia [Katpatuka], Parthia [Parthava], Drangiana [Zraka], Aria [Haraiva], Chorasmia [Uvârazmîy], Bactria [Bâxtriš], Sogdia [Suguda], Gandhara [Gadâra], Scythia [Saka] Sattagydia [Thataguš], Arachosia [Harauvatiš] and Maka [Maka]; twenty-three lands in all.
These inscriptions go on for 1200 lines, in three languages with a life size bas relief of the king in front of his 9 subjugated emperors with the Zoroastrian angel/god Ahuramazda hovering over him. Note: Ahura=Light and Mazda= wisdom.
While there are many ancient carvings and inscriptions stretching over 1000 years at this site, the Bisotun inscription is a clear historic record from 2500 years ago. The greatness of Darius even reflects in the way these were inscribed in 3 languages at a great height for posterity to appreciate his achievement. While I can be verbose on this subject, by the grace of Ahuramazda, I wish to stop my main article here. I felt privileged, and fortunate for being in this great historic outpost.
In conclusion I wish to make the following personal observations on Iran:
Iran was a great country in antiquity and still has some great minds. Bisotun is a testament to that thought. Persia is not to be confused with Iran. Persians are people of the Shiraz region, home of the Achaemenids. Iran is a nation of several tribes of which the Persians are a sizable political majority. Turkmen, Bakhtiari, Baluchis, Kurds, Pashtuns, Lurs and Tajiks to name a few, constitute this historic land.
Because of their history, they believe that they should have the upper hand in the middle-east as they are a great people. I personally sense that they may be the brightest people in the middle- east outside of Palestine. But Iran is not what it used to be ; its government is a petty theocracy which wills itself to eliminate other countries. I feel sorry for its people who are very similar to Indians in mentality. They are not religious and even the religious ones are put off by the hypocrisy of the ruling Mullahs.
They have been taken advantage by the Americans and the British ever since oil was first struck in Iran in the 1800s,first by the British and then the Americans who were their last puppet masters. The revolution in Iran was indeed one of the people without any coercion by anyone. We must salute their revolution against the west. But unfortunately it did not redeem the country. It turned to be a failed revolution of hypocrisy, selfishness, meaningless theocracy, theft and usurpation of a beautiful land by the Mullahs. the End.
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Venkat Santosh for editing the material for relevancy of content.
Wikipedia : Translation of the inscriptions
Prof. John Lee "The Persian Empire" in Teaching Company lecture DVD