Only a short few weeks after departing from Western Anatolia in Turkey, we already find ourselves gazing upon the wonders that stand before us in Persepolis. The 2,400 kilometres (149 miles) journey that led from the Aegean Sea to Iran was formerly known as the Royal Road, supposedly taking 90 days to cross by foot. Much of what we know today about this ancient Persian route that crosses modern-day Iran has been reconstructed from the writings of Herodotus, who himself coined the term ‘Royal Road’. Constructed under the command of Achaemenid King Darius I in the 5th Century BC it connected major cities from Susa, South West Iran, to Sardis, modern-day Manisa.
Although the idea for such a highway may have been borne out of military and political considerations, the Royal Road went on to serve as an integral link in the Silk Roads. This was enhanced largely by Darius’ own modernisation of the road through the introduction of systematic military checkpoints alongside Caravanserai. Travellers were therefore not only offered a place to sleep for the night and the chance to change horses, but were also guaranteed safety. These protected caravanserais ensured that in the years following the fall of the Persian Empire the road continued to be used by merchants and traders crossing the route. Of the many Caravanserais we passed during our travels across Iran, the most memorable was in the old mud-brick village of Kharanaq, 70 kilometres (110 miles) from Yazd. Here we bumped into fellow travellers from the Netherlands, Hungary and Japan, exchanging tales and sharing our food with them, giving us a glimpse of what it might have been like at a Caravanserai during the days of the Silk Roads.
Of note was the city of Isfahan, a city that, served as the capital of the Persian Empire throughout several periods of history and most recently during the Safavid dynasty. The decision to make this city the capital of the empire relied heavily on its role as a crossroads between travelers heading north, south, east and west and the fact that it was a city of particular importance to the Silk Roads. Today, remnants of this historic role remain visible and imbedded in the city, where, at the Royal Square (Naqsg-e Jahan Square/Imam Square), one can find, on a regular basis, markets of all types selling goods, including jewelry, rugs and carpets, food products and much more, just as it might have been centuries ago. Furthermore, from this day, goods found in this market travel to other locations to be sold often using routes and caravans reminiscent to those of the past.
The Royal Road extended from Susa to India through Persepolis, and it is from this remarkable setting that we are lucky enough to write our sixth diary entry. Whilst we have been spoilt by archaeological sites since our time in Western Turkey, Persepolis remains the most spectacular of our journey thus far. Only from the hill overlooking the entire site is it possible to take in the vast expanse and incomparable grandeur that made Persepolis the prized gem of the Achaemenid Empire. Persepolis, conceived by Darius the Great, embodied the Persian pillars of cultural and religious tolerance. This tolerance is evident in the eclectic architectural influences that feature throughout Persepolis’ structures, staircases and gateways, which were designed by architects from the furthest provinces of the Persian Empire.
Herodotus wrote, “There is nothing in the world that travels faster [across these routes] than these Persian couriers”. We wonder what he would make of the recent cargo trains from China’s Zhejiang province, 10, 689 kilometres (6,642 miles) away, which arrived in Tehran in just 14 days. Excitement in Iranian headlines have also generated by the completion of the North-South transportation corridor, connecting Iran with Azerbaijan and eventually India with Russia, via Iran. One can only imagine Darius the Great’s delight as modern-day Iran seeks inspiration from the 6th Century Royal Road in their revival of the Silk Roads. Through their construction of overland routes the ancient cultures of Iran were able to cooperate with countries near and far on issues ranging from culture to commerce; it is these very routes that laid the foundations for the Silk Roads. Only time will tell whether Iran’s new projects will have the same lasting impact as those during the Silk Roads.
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