Andrew Stone explores ancient sites in Iran.

Darius the Great did not do things by halves. Eager to leave his stamp on Persia 2500 years ago, he instructed architects to celebrate his empire which reached from Athens to India.

They responded with Persepolis, a stupendous ruin magnificent in scale and audacity.

Visiting Persepolis, an hour's drive from Shiraz, it is impossible not to be awed by the monumental achievements of the driven kings who held sway over much of the ancient world.

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Take a guide because the remnants of the acropolis cover 12ha, and its secrets can surface through the talents of an interpreter.

You enter the site by climbing 111 stairs so carefully built that you cannot tell you are walking uphill. They were designed so visitors could reach the formal gateway with minimal effort. Today the steps are covered with protective boards, but with a little imagination it is possible to picture great processions from subject nations arriving to pay homage to the Achaemenidian rulers. Two enormous human-headed winged bulls guard the entrance of the All Nations Gateway, where the motives of visitors could be determined by the palace guard.

Beyond the gateway, the majesty of Persepolis unfolds. There are halls, palaces, a Treasury, chunks of broken columns and great sculptures lying about. Prepare to be bowled over.

By all accounts Darius was an equal opportunities guy. Clay tablets recovered during archaeological digs showed he paid workers with money or goods. Employment rights included the dole, maternity leave and insurance — all this, centuries ago.

As you wander in the shadow of towering columns and alongside immense foundations, you wonder how they built the masterpiece. It took decades, involved huge workforces and engaged the creative minds of Persian architects.

It took more than one king, too. Xerxes, Darius' son and successor, directed a lot of the work. Artefacts found at the site have helped scholars solve the riddle of its construction.

Stone for the walls and basement was cut from nearby quarries. Blocks were split by stonecutters who made grooves in rock faces and forced wooden wedges into cracks.

Water poured on the wedges caused them to swell and break the rock along accurate lines. Cut blocks were laid on boards on top of logs. Mules dragged the stones to the site.

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Earth mounds were built to lay shorter walls and columns, while scaffolding, pulleys and wheels helped crews construct the 20m high ceilings of the large palaces.

Artisans added striking flourishes with reliefs to adorn the staircase leading to the sprawling Apadana or Audience Palace, which took 30 years to create. The building could host 10,000 guests, its roof supported by giant cedars bought from far away Lebanon.
Just a handful of the great columns, styled with bulls, lions and eagles, remain.

A woman sitting in an archway in the village of Abjaneh. Photo / Creative Commons License
A woman sitting in an archway in the village of Abjaneh. Photo / Creative Commons License

Figures carved in stone along the staircase depict visitors carrying gifts and tributes for the Persian rulers. Ethiopians arrive with giraffes, North Africans lead antelopes, Arabs bring camels and Mediterranean arrivals carry cloth and honeycombs. The detail is quite stunning — right down to the cuticles on their fingernails — and all very old.

It was too good to last. Alexander the Great swept through Persepolis, looting the city and destroying all he could. According to classical accounts, he needed 10,000 mules and 5000 camels to carry away the booty.

Grave robbers pillaged royal tombs cut deep into rock on a hillside behind the site, and at the spectacular mausoleums at Naqsh-e Rostam, just a few kilometres away. The work to create these ancient masterpieces an only be imagined. Four royal tombs were hewn in the shape of a cross in an imposing rock face. Above each tomb entrance, large reliefs offer clues to the kings laid to rest inside. Archaeologists argue the toss over the meaning of the ancient stone reliefs. Never mind. The setting is stunning, and the grandeur of these Unesco treasures undeniable.

Ninety minutes north lies another World Heritage Site. Called Pasargadae, the centrepiece of these striking ruins is the memorable tomb of Cyrus the Great, who was around before Darius.

The mausoleum has long been emptied of its precious contents, and Alexander gave the place a working over when he put Persia to the sword, but the limestone tomb survives, solid and heavy and full of powerful stories.

The site has its mysteries. A stone wall held up by 20th century scaffolding is mentioned in ancient texts as Solomon's prison. It was once a three-storey square tower with a windowless cell on the top floor. On an upright block, a robed, winged figure has been carved, its presence suggesting a conquered visitor paying tribute to the king who ran the show.

Elsewhere, carved decorations show a man with the body of a bull, a lion-like demon, and a priest wearing a costume of fish scales.

Pasargadae once was a vibrant royal showpiece with palaces, temples and gardens. It would seem its artists had a sense of fun.

Not everything old in Iran is unoccupied. Abyaneh is a wintry mountain village off the road to Kashan. Known as the "red museum of Iran", the town is a curious mixture of ochre mud brick homes with little wooden balconies and tiny wooden entry doors.

Villagers cling to centuries old customs with traditional clothes and unchanging ways.

Donkeys laden with firewood clip-clop up steep sharp turning cobbled paths, and stern-faced residents eye visitors with a fierce protective gaze.

Down the mountain from Abyaneh lies the sweetest town in all Iran. Qamsar grows acres of Damask roses, distilled to make rose water. Pickers pluck flowers early in the morning, which are then boiled in big pressure cookers so the steam condenses as rose water, which is used in traditional medicine for colic, stress and heart disease. What's more, the petals make a fine jam. It is a source of great pride to Qamsar's producers that their rose water is used in cleansing ceremonies in Mecca.

Depending where you head after Qamsar you may need to stow your camera and prepare for modern geopolitics. The nuclear enrichment facility of Natanz is nearby, its location heavily protected. But it is possible to put aside any insecurities.

Near Natanz there is a stunning 13th century fort, seemingly resistant to political change and nature's ways. Sand — and, not so far away, sharpened steel. Elements of a timeless land.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Qatar Airways

flies from Auckland to Iran, via Doha, with Economy Class airfares starting from $2369.

DETAILS

NZ Travel & Tour

hosts small group trips to the Republic. Costs depend on duration of tour but a 15-day trip starts at $5390.