Persepolis, the Capital City of Ancient Persia

Set atop a plateau at the foothills of Iran’s Zagros mountains, specifically the Kuh-i Rahmat, or the “mountain of mercy,” the ancient city of Persepolis gives a sense of just how grand and powerful the first empire of the Persians was at it’s zenith. However in 330 BCE the conquering Greek-Macedonian army of Alexander of Macedonia conquered the city and soon after set it to the torch. Today the ruins of Persepolis are great source of pride for the Iranian and Persian peoples, reminding them of just how great they and their empire once were.

Artist conception of Apandana palace at Persepolis

The Importance of Persepolis to Iranians

For generations after the Arab conquest of Iran, the city of Persepolis laid almost forgotten and consumed by the sands of time. Few ventured to this remote area of the rocky desert outside the city of Shiraz, and even fewer still knew the significance of what these ruins represented. In fact, those who did know of the site called it Takht-i Jamshid, meaning “throne of Jamshid,” the mythical king from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, or “Book of Kings.” Few knew that a very real line of powerful kings actually ruled most of the known world from this very site. It was only in the 1930s that a team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago began to excavate the site in earnest and uncovered many of the mysteries of Iran’s glorious past.

It is really difficult to describe in words just how important the ruins of this ancient city are to all Iranians, including even the more Islamic-oriented ones. “If poetry is one of the pillars of Iranian identity, then another can be found nearly forty miles to the northwest of Shiraz, at Persepolis.” 1

In 1971, the then Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, hosted probably the most extravagant party in Iran at the time at the ruins of Persepolis. Ostensibly, the celebration was held to commemorate 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran (the 2,500 anniversary of the Persian Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great), though many thought that the real purpose was for the Shah to fulfill his ego by making his otherwise unremarkable rule appear to be something great. Whatever his true motive, the event was truly grand:

The affair attracted thirteen presidents, ten sheikhs, nine kings, five princes, two sultans, and an assortment of lesser dignitaries and hangers-on. A vast silk-lined tent that housed the apartments of the Shah and his wife was decorated by the house of Jansen in Paris with red-velvet drapes and gilded chairs. It was surrounded by smaller tents, all with marble bathrooms, sitting rooms, refrigerators and even ironing boards for the maids…. Lanvin designed the court’s uniforms, Baccarat the goblets. Maxim’s of Paris led the team of chefs and caterers. Except for caviar that was served in quails’ eggs, the food and wine were flown in from Paris as well. 2

It is estimated that the cost for the Shah’s grand gala at Persepolis was in the range of $200 million, a gigantic sum in those days. It’s not hard to see then why the Shah’s opponents, especially the Ayatollah Khomeini, were more than ticked off.

The City

It is believed the foundations for Persepolis were laid by Darius I 515 BCE, a time when the Persian Empire was arguably at its height. Darius I, also known as Darius the Great, was of a line of kings known as the Achaemenids. The ancient Persians called the city Parsa. However, most of the world knows the city by its Greek name Persepolis which means “City of the Persians.”

Artist conception of Persepolis

Founded by Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid empire had four rotating capitals: Ecbatana, the old capital of Media, Susa, once the capital of the great state of Elam, the fabled city of Babylon and finally, Persepolis. Unlike the first three, Persepolis’ role was a bit different than the other, mostly administrative capitals. Located in the heart of Persia proper itself, Persepolis was the ceremonial capital where the Achaemenid Kings were coronated and great festivities and ceremonies took place. Though the foundations and first palace were started by Darius I, his successors, including his son Xerxes I and their descendents up until the last Achaemenid King, Darius III, are all believed to have expanded and added to Persepolis. In fact, Persepolis was still under construction for 150 years or so until Alexander of Macedonia burnt the city to the ground.

Persepolis Today

Though a city in ruins, even today, a walk through Persepolis gives one a sense of just how vast and exquisite the city must have been during its heyday.

In the the north-west corner of the site there is a large double-stairway built by Darius’ son Xerxes that leads to the what is known as the “Gateway of All Lands.” This gate is guarded on each side by a large Assyrian-like winged bull with a human head. It was from this gateway that every year during the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, ambassadors and representatives of the various Persian subject peoples came offering gifts, taxes and blessings for the Persian king. It is believed that trumpets sounded when foreign dignitaries arrived to begin their ascent up the staircase, leading them to the Gate of All lands. Guards and aides then led the dignitaries though the gate and into the presence of the Great King.

Layout of Persepolis

One of the other impressive sections of Persepolis is the Apadana Palace, also built by Xerxes I. Excavated in 1932, the well-preserved bas-reliefs of the Apandana staircase display three levels of nobles, soldiers and subjects. One level depicts Persians and Medes who made up the 10,000 immortals, the elite bodyguards of the king. There are also depictions of Persians and Medes from noble families as well as a some sort of royal procession taking place. The most impressive of all of these bas-reliefs though are on the left side of the staircase wall where representatives of 23 saptraps (administrative units like provinces) are represented. One can identify Babylonians, Greeks, Indians, Egyptians, Scythians, Bactrians, Israelites, Lydians and even Ethiopians. On the top of the Apandana is what remains of the hall of 36 columns, each one approximately 65 feet high. This audience hall could reportedly hold 10,000 people.

Delegation from Lydia

The southwest section of Persepolis is home to the private palaces of Darius I and Xerxes. Darius’ palace, known as Tashara, has some of the best bas-reliefs depicting the Great King and is covered with cuneiform inscriptions in what were the three main languages of the empire: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. Next to Tashara are Hadish, one of Xerxes’ palaces, and another unfinished one that thus far doesn’t have a name. The later was probably in the process of being built when Alexander arrived in 330 BCE.

Nearby are the remains of one of Persepolis’ oldest buildings, the royal treasury. The gold and other precious metals and jewels that must have occupied this complex are long gone, being looted by Alexander of Macedonia when he conquered the city. It is reported that to transport all of the wealth that had been stored within the treasury chamber, the Greeks and Macedonians had to put together a baggage train of over 3000 camels. One interesting thing that archaeologists did find in the treasury were stone tablets written in Elamite and Akkadian that gave accounts of the wages paid to several thousand workers. This is interesting because it means that unlike the cities of most other empires in the ancient world which were built with slave labor, Persepolis was built by paid laborers.

Carved into the hill behind the treasury are the tombs of the Achaemenid Kings Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III. If you are able, climb up the hill to get an awesome panoramic view of Persepolis and the surrounding countryside. Perhaps that’s the reason why these two kings chose this site to be their eternal resting place.

Ruins of Persepolis today

Finally there is the Hall of 100 columns, started during the reign of Xerxes I and completed by his successor, Artarxerxes I. It is believed that envoys came here to present gifts and tribute to the Persian king which were then stored in the nearby treasury building.

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