Persepolis and Robert Byron

Neither has any art.

It was not easy for Byron to go and visit Persepolis: in his book, we curiously read about his exchanges with Herzfeld, the German archaeologist who was conducting excavations and research at the site. Herzfeld did not want to grant Byron any permission to visit and more importantly to take photos of the site. From The Road to Oxiana emerges a portrait of Herzfeld as a stubborn and secretive man, jealous of his work and reluctant to share information with others, at least with travelers not related to the academic world, and that can publish the photos before his survey is completed.

Darius’s palace, Persepolis. (WikiCommons)

Byron persists, and manages, on the 2nd of March 1933 to go and visit Persepolis.

Now, what Byron notes in his travelogue about Persepolis, as what he writes about Naqsh-i Rustam, is quite incredible: Persepolis? Not that beauty you would expect!

The description that Byron does of Persepolis is interesting also for how it is structured. Byron tries to explain why Persepolis has been for so long praised. And it has much to do with the transportation:

“In the old days you arrived by horse. You rode up the steps on to the platform. You made a camp there, while the columns and winged beasts kept their solitude beneath the stars, and not a sound or movement disturbed the empty moonlit plain. You thought of Darius and Xerxes and Alexander. You were alone with the ancient world. You saw Asia as the Greeks saw it, and you felt their magic breath stretching out towards China itself. Such emotions left no room for the aesthetic question, or for any question.

Today you step out of a motor, while a couple of lorries thunder by in a cloud of dust. You find the approaches defended by walls. You enter by leave of a porter, and are greeted, on reaching the platform, by a light railway, a neo-German hostel, and a code of academic malice controlled from Chicago. These useful additions clarify the intelligence.”

Persepolis. (WikiCommons).

A rationalization, we can call it. If you arrived there by horse, tired for a long journey, for sure you would have been impressed by reaching the site. But today? You go there so comfortably, that you are keen to criticism. As such, this passage can tell us a lot about modern tourism and travel.

The passage continues with a description of the various parts of the site: the columns (architecturally infertile); stairs, platforms, and doors (neither has art); the decoration (a horrid shock); the crenellation (ugly enough in themselves).

Byron’s visit to Persepolis, makes me think of the visit of another traveler: Carsten Niebuhr (Arabia Felix). Niebuhr, who arrived there on horseback, in 1675, and was the first European traveler to visit the ruins. He was absolutely stunned by the site. As Hansen writes: “For Carsten Niebuhr the ruins were without exception the greatest experience of the tour; they outshone even the pyramids of Egypt, and […] constitute ‘the jewel of his journey'”. He spent there one month, carefully copying the cuneiform inscriptions. An endeavor that made him literally blind.

Reproduction of cuneiform inscriptions drawn by Niebuhr.

Was Niebuhr’s excitement due to the fact that he arrived there on a horseback? Byron would probably say so.

Something that emerges is certainly Byron lack of excitement for anything that is not Islamic art. The same treatment was reserved for the Naqsh-i Rustam, that Byron visited just before Persepolis: also there, Byron was not impressed.

Inscription by ‘Adud al-Dawla, Persepolis 344/955 © Sheila Blair

But similarly to Naqsh-i Rustam, also Persepolis could have given Byron a wonderful gift related to the Islamic history of Iran. If in Naqsh-i Rustam there is a Buyid inscription, in Persepolis there are several, carved on the rocks that had been already carved by the Persian Achaemenid ancestors of the Buyids. Two inscriptions were made by Adud al-Dawla, the first in 955 and the second shortly after that one. Other inscriptions were rock-carved by Baha’ al-Dawla in 1001Abu Kalijar in 1046, and ‘Amid al-Din in 1053.

Byron’s description and attitude towards Persepolis clearly stand out.

Second inscription by ‘Adud al-Dawla, Persepolis 344/955-956 (detail) © Sheila Blair

I have thought about why Byron was not impressed at all. Despite his general attitude towards anything that is not Islamic (as we see in Naqsh-i Rustam, here, and in the way he describes, later on, the Bamiyan Buddhas), here maybe we can find another reason.

It was not easy for Byron to reach and visit Persepolis: Herzfeld did not want to grant him any access to the site (let alone permission to take photos), and Byron had to fight for it. Probably he was simply disappointed he wasted so much time and strength fighting for something that was not ‘special’ to his parameters.

Byron’s letter to Herzfeld, recorded in his travelogue (2nd of March 1934)

Probably we’ll never know… it is a fact that Byron does not seem to have taken any photograph of Persepolis. Herzfeld won, but in the travelogue, this is not said.



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