Departing Yazd heading west meant leaving the desert plains and crossing a stark mountain range dominated by the 4075m high Shir Kuh. (Lion mountain)

Just over 400k to Shiraz but lots to see in the meantime

Climbing up past Taft was long and slow but the gradient was constant, the sun bright and the road condition good. Evenings come early during winter here and with the sun dipping and the pass still a way off I began glancing around for a place to sleep.

Well that demands investigation!

There were perhaps as many as forty caves in the complex and with a distinct chill in the air I jumped at the chance to sleep inside and take advantage of some convection currents.

As I rooted around seeking firewood in the gloomy twilight a trio of young Iranians arrived aboard two motorbikes. Having already brought my bike and gear into the caves I sat tight and watched to see what they were up to before announcing my presence. Lots of giggling, some smoke and a smorgasbord of munchies was an international language I am well versed in. I strolled over and said hello and gave them some biscuits to suppliment there already impressive sugar haul.

Peace restored I settled in for the night. 

Outside a full moon of uncommon luminosity bathed the stark landscape allowing me to wander the mountainside torchless. Inside my fire threw dancing shadows across the irregular hollows and ensured a comfortably warm night eating digestives and apples, drinking chi and reading about the travels of Ibn Battuta.

In 1326-7 The Moroccan visited Esfahan and Shiraz as part of his incredible travels across a post-Abbasid Islamic world and beyond. While these mountains lay a little east of his probable route it was exciting to imagine myself joining his path in the days to come.

I broke fast with porridge and banana under an azure morning sky.

Leaving the caves behind I rose towards the high plateau and the pass beyond through the hard landscape against unpredictable winds.

Hard but not unlovely. 

It was with a sense of loss that I helterskeltered down out of the mountains towards the dusty desert plain stretching ahead for some 150kilometres between me and the old road from Esfahan to Persepolis and Shiraz.

The road was a rarely interrupted straight line, well paved and lightly traffic, I settled into a productive rhythm abetted by an iPod blaring AC/DC.

Noon passed, kilometers fell away, fatigue joined me in the saddle.

Few sights can be as welcome to the tired, hot and thirsty self propelled solo traveler than that of a green oasis town rising on the horizon from a monotony of baked rock.

Fair AbarKooh. Her well kept public toilets and selection of cold drinks were only just outshone in my mind by the majesty of her Cypress Tree.

Estimated at over 4000 years old the magnificent Zoroastrian-Sarv is possibly the oldest living thing in all of Asia. At 25 metres she's quite a sight and I had her all to myself. The quiet park hidden in an out of the way part of Arbakuh, which itself is quite out of the way, was deserted and made for a pleasingly tranquil place to picnic.

I could have asked for few better companions than the majestic Sarv brooding with the sheer volume of events that have swirled around her. As a sprouting seed the Elamite's of the Zagros were sweeping down on their Bronze Age Summerian overlords in Ur and Babylon.

My kids school-project style tree-ring representation of the Sarv's history.

I ran out of rings before I reached the 1400's. That is to say that all the history outlined above only brings us up to the Renaissance!  Even taking huge liberties and overlooking important groups like the Mannaeans, Scythians and Ghaznavids; I still couldn't reach the modern period on my A4.

Qara Qoyunlu, the Safavids and Qajar let alone the 20th Century Pahlavi dynasty and the modern Islamic republic didn't get close.

The point is that Iran has a quantity of history that boggles the mind. The English may enjoy reminding Americans and Australians of their comparative lack of heritage but if you think remembering all the Kings, Queens and Roman Governors of England is tough; try adding another 2000 years of recorded history. 

With some of Iran's most striking historical sites just a days cycle away it was a fitting that I be reminded of the fundamentally fleeting nature of even Iran's human history when measured against some of the natural world's tempos.

Passing intriguing beehive structures as I depart AbarKooh

I pushed on hard to reach a bustling junction town called Surmanq at the end of the desert road. Passing up a quiet night camping in the pristine desert to roll into untidy urbanity with the light dying was uncharacteristic. But I'd heard an Iranian cycling legend, famed for his hospitality, lived in these parts and I'd resolved to seek him out.

My info was scant but clear: Hit the main road, turn south and ask for Sassan at a farm with a sign saying cyclists welcome. I spied no sign but with the light all but gone and the chill setting in I turned into the first farm compound I saw and resolved to ask directions to Sassan's place or beg permission to pop my tent.

My charades elicited little more than non-committal waves of the hand from the vaguely louche farm workers lounging by the gates. Taking this as permission to enter I did so and was immediately set upon by a small pack of excitable dogs. Undeterred I made friends as best I could and pushed my bike into the grounds flanked by a barking peleton. Spying a number of farmhands in various corners I waved but received little by way of curiosity as to what an encumbered cyclist was doing poking around their backyard.

A middle aged gent emerged from one of the farm houses, gave a friendly hello in excellent English and invited me in for tea without so much as a who the hell are you and what are you doing on  my lawn.

This was Sassan's brother. He had serendipitously popped in to grab something. Had I been ten minutes later he and the rest of the household would have been gone - not back till morning. Utterly unperturbed by the prospect of having an uninvited and dirty foreigner stay the night alone in the house he ushered me into the kitchen. Here he turned on the oil heater told me to eat what I liked from the fridge and put the English language TV news on for me before disappeared into the night.

I made a wonderful omelette and slept comfortably on a Persian rug pulled up next to the lowly rumbling heater.

The reason for the farm hands complete lack of surprise or interest was made abundantly clear the next morning when the sheer extent of Sassan and his family's history with cycle tourists was revealed.

Over a morning cup of tea Sassan showed me his extraordinary scrap book.

Men and women from half the countries of the world had passed through here. Page after page of hopes and dreams on two wheels.

This edition went back to the late 80's but a previous one contained decades and decades more. An incredible document that I was proud to add an entry to.

Leaving Sassan I knew myself to be on the cusp of the Iran that had been tantalising my minds eye ever since I had resolved to cycle here. Persia, the land of Cyrus, of Xerxes, of Darius. The ying to the ancient greeks's yang.

But if history is one damned thing after an other then on that day geography proved it can be one fucking hill after another.

A frustrating day in the saddle toiling against a headwind on a busy road with small, but sappingly never ending inclines led not to one of archeologies greatest treasures but rather a spartan evening camp made in the foothills some 20k short of the aimed and hoped for Pasargadae.

The frustrations of the day before melted away on on a gloriously crisp clear morning as I entered the ruins of the Achaemenid's first capital and the resting place of its architect. Cyrus the Great.

Cyrus's tomb greets me. Standing grandly alone; sepulcher towering.

Strabo reports an inscription, now gone, that reads:

"Passer-by, I am Cyrus, who gave the Persians an empire, and was king of Asia.
Grudge me not therefore this monument."

The man gave arguably the first deceleration of human rights and undoubtedly created the largest empire the world had then seen. This passer by grudged not.

(I mean really - we're talking about the only gentile in the Tanakh to be referred to as Messiah)

What little remains of Pasagardae is scattered across a broad and today barren plain.

A leap of imagination is required to fill in the echoing field of what remains with the bustling imperial capital it once was. I was struggling to do so as as I cycled round the site until I climbed the hill at the northern extremity of the plain.

The fortified terrace there provided a perfect vantage from which to survey the sweep of country.

From here it felt possible to see the promise, contained in this flat expanse, that had inspired Cyrus to construct his city.

A second breakfast shared with a pair of German tourists prepared me for a dash north snaking higher into the Zagros foot hills.

My mind was now turned towards the second Imperial Capital but I was very glad I didn't hurry past the modest signs pointing towards the Naqsh-e Rustam.

The friendly dromedary introduced me to the wonder hidden in this towering ridge line.

The oldest carvings date back to 1000BC but initially it isn't the antiquity of its individual parts but the grandeur of the whole which strike you.

My many limitations as a photographer combined to prevent me doing it justice so I include this panorama to better convey its impact.

As the sheer scale recedes it becomes possible to soak in the intricacy of the scenes portrayed.

One above all is immediately recognizable. A Greek man humbled before a Persian emperor. This could only depict the triumph of Sharpur I over Valerian in 260. The once invincible armies of Rome brought low as an Emperor for the first and only time in its long history became a prisoner of war and was either flayed alive, made to drink molten gold or kept humanely in Bishapur depending which source you choose.

Naqsh-e-Rustam is not simply some ancient world equivalent of a billboard come propaganda poster but rather a necropolis believed to hold the remains of Darius the Great, Darius II, Xerxes and Artaxerxes.

The doorway visible at the center of the cross high up the cliff is the entrance to the kings resting place

Having now seen the resting place of five Archamenid Kings I was eager to see the embodiment of their power and prestige in life.

I didn't have far to go, turning away from the rocky outcrop to skirt the wide plain reminiscent of Pasagardae, I began to make out the jutting of columns at the base of Kuh-i-Rahmat; the Mountain of Mercy.
Oh Persepolis. Hidden glory of the near east. Can that be you?

Rarely mentioned in contemporary accounts, Darius's reasons for building a new capital are shrouded in mystery but its majesty remains for all to wonder at.

Giggles at the entrance from groups of Iranian girls on school trips ignored with a friendly smile I prevailed upon the ticket keeper to mind my bicycle and ascended the sweeping steps onto the immense half artificial/half natural terrace and into Persepolis.

Enormous bull-men flank the imposing Gate of All Nations built by Xerxes.

Grafiti scars the gates entrance chamber.

But at what point does grafiti transcend petty, thoughtless desecration and become something more?

Dutch, English, German, French. High officials and low inscribed here including notables such as Lord Curzon and Henry Morton Stanley. A few hundred years may be yesterday compared to the antiquity of these stones but these recent inscriptions are undeniably historically illuminating; the question bugging me as I stood examining the neat scratchings was 'illuminating what?'

The imperialistic thoughtlessness of the commercial interests that dominated this region during the colonial period? The awe inspired in visitors from half the world away by even the only half uncovered remnants of Archamenid splendour? Perhaps simply the naivety of previous generations concerning the preservation of antiquities. 

Whatever interpretation chimes it is hard to revile such delightful script.

Persepolis is an epic story writ in a hand of flowing stone. 2500 years after its architects had finished their final flourishes they endure. 

So sparkling is that which remains that even the blackened scars of the night in 360BC when Alexander the Great, perhaps with half a mind on the torching of Athens some 150 years earlier, saw the city burned.

  Above, three of Archemenid archetectures most iconic images. Persian and Mede soldiers marching, a Two Headed Griffin, and the Faravahar of Zoroaster.

Below the Tomb of Kings, a Gopät-Shäh bull and the Tachara Palace. 

The sun was beginning to dip even before I had ascended to the plateau and as I slowly walked the remains of Darius's Apandana Hall the light took on a golden hue hurrying me onward up the hillside scree to the Tomb of Kings

Looking down from the Tomb of Kings westwards across the plain towards Naqsh-e Rustam

One last look at the ceremonial heart of the Achaemenid's pearl; an empire which at its Zenith stretched from Afghanistan to Macedonia; from Cyrenaica to the Aral Sea.

One repeating motif was unmistakable as I retraced my steps

A lion devouring a bull symbolising either the sun eating the moon with the coming of spring or the earth and sun eternally fighting.

This symbolism is manifested to this day in the festival of Nowruz. The Iranian new year; a secular celebration of the spring equinox first celebrated in Persepolis at her height.

Nowruz had first been described to me by Benham just before I left Tehran. Setting a traditional table with items representing different concepts and elements, the tradition of spring cleaning and visiting family were much on my mind as I regretfully left Persepolis behind.

The Immortals fading in the march of history

With the sun setting I needed a place to spend the night and I had designs on a spot with its own special place in history.

A quick recce later and I was pushing my bike through a recently enlarged gap in a fence towards wooded parkland in the lee of Persepolis where the bones of the Shah's tent city linger.

A moment frozen in time.

October 16th 1971 the party of the year, perhaps of the decade, was taking place here to celebrate the 2500 year anniversary of the Persian Empire. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah had erected scores of tents. The word does little justice to the lavishness of the interiors and grandness of the scale.

 Fit for a king: So they came. 

Royalty from Denmark, Sweden, Jordan, Malaysia, Belgium, Greece, Monaco, Nepal, Spain and Japan. Prime ministers, Presidents, and Consul Generals from the USA, China, USSR, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Italy, Germany and Brazil. The great and good from east and west came. Not to mention Haile Selassie and our own dear Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne. The unmatched opulence and sumptuous indulgence saw rumors of scandalous hedonism swirling.

'As the foreigners reveled on drinks forbidden by Islam, Iranians were not only excluded from the festivities but some were starving.'

That night the dignitaries were served Peacock the animal symbol of Iranian monarchy. The decadence of the festivities are often cited as a precipitory factor in the revolution that took place eight short years later which saw the Shah descend the Peacock Throne.

Skeletal spiders loomed out of the gloom as I weaved the bike along cracked concrete overwhelmed by a riotous invasion of greenery. Following the decrepit boulevard to the center of the once grand wheel of tents I discretely popped my own rather more modest version.

Occasionally I would see the torch light someway off of a possible security guard but mostly I had the place to myself. I wandered in the moonlight trying to imagine the scenes 43 years earlier and mostly failing to see beyond the abandoned theme park aesthetic.

One magic moment as I picked my way through the trees towards the northern edge of the park and found Persepolis glinting lit up by beautifully by spotlights and starlight just for me.

The canapes and champagne might not have been flowing but I felt privileged as hell.

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