Persepolis was one of five capitals of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (along with Susa, Babylon, Pasargadae, and Ecbatana) which stretched from the northern border of India in the East to Egypt in the West for about two hundred years. Persepolis represents not only the opulence of the Persians, but also the extent and diversity of the empire; it was at Persepolis that peoples from all over the empire brought tribute to the king. It was during his invasion of the Persian Empire that Alexander the Great burned down Persepolis, leaving only a ruin. Today Persepolis remains an example of how powerful and prosperous the Persian Empire was.
Backstory and Context
Darius the Great began construction of Persepolis around 515 BCE,which was continued under his successors Xerxes and Artaxerxes. Darius himself, in an inscription in Elamite (an extinct language, spoken by inhabitants of southwestern Iran), claimed responsibility for the construction of the complex in the name of “Auramazda,” an ancient Iranian deity. Persepolis was built on a raised terrace which measured "450 X 300m" (approximately 492 X 328 yards), matching the length of the Athenian Acropolis, but was of greater width. Though Persepolis was never mentioned by contemporary Greek sources prior to the conquest of Alexander the Great (they thought Susa was the sole capital of the Persian Empire), there is evidence of architectural influences by Ionian Greeks (Greeks who lived on the western coast of Asia Minor).
Persepolis remained one of the four capitals of the Persian Empire until the invasion of Alexander the Great. After Darius III lost to Alexander at Gaugamela, succeeded by the surrender of Susa, Persepolis remained defiant. Tasked with preventing Alexander from entering the satrapy (province) of Persis (south-western Iran), the satrap (governor) Ariobarzanes held Persepolis against the Macedonians. Ariobarzanes built a wall across the Persian Gates, a narrow pass close to Persepolis, and waited outside for Alexander's forces. When the Macedonians did arrive, he charged and broke their line, but was killed in the process; this caused the Persian forces to retreat. On his way to Persepolis, Alexander received a letter from the head of the city that if he made it to Persepolis before the returning defensive forces, the city would be his. Alexander's forces raced to the city and arrived first, taking Persepolis from the Persians. It was during Alexander's acquisition of the city that Persepolis was burned down. To this day it is still debated whether the fire was an accident after a night of heavy drinking, or if it was started deliberately for a variety of reasons, one being revenge for the burning of the Acropolis in Athens during the Greco-Persian Wars. Whatever the reason, one of the greatest cities of the ancient world was left a ruin, a scorched skeleton of a once-great empire.
It was not until September 15, 1931 that Persepolis was added to Iran’s national list of monuments, making it a national landmark. In 1971 the Shah of Iran held an internationally broadcasted parade in Persepolis celebrating the 2,500 year anniversary of monarchical rule in Iran. A bill was passed in 1980, banning unlawful excavations in Persepolis, taking a step further to preserving Persepolis. To this day the protection of the site is taken up by the Iranian Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, and in 2001 the Persepolis Research Base was established to handle conservation.
If one were visiting the palace during the height of the Persian Empire, one would climb the double staircase up to the Gate of All Nations on the northwestern side of the site. From there one would find the palaces of Xerxes and Darius along with the Hall of 100 Columns and the Apadana. The builders of these halls and palaces constructed columns which would have held up a cedar beams and a ceiling made with mud plaster; at the top of these columns were carvings of human or animals such as bulls, lions, griffins, and even human-headed bulls. To the east of the complex were the tombs of Artaxerxes II, Artaxerxes III, and Darius III.
Persepolis is filled with impressive reliefs demonstrating different aspects of the empire. Throughout the complex there are representations of a hero fighting different kinds of animals, the king with the prince or attendants, the attendants on their own, and the king on his throne, supported by his subjects. From these reliefs, what the Persians valued and how the king wished to be viewed is clear: complete domination over his subjects. The reliefs on the stairs leading up to the Apadana have long been of interest. Along these stairs, representatives of the peoples of the empire were represented bringing tribute to the king. Each representative had a Persian or Mede (both Iranian peoples) leading them by the hand. The representatives for the peoples of the empire were organized in the relief by their dress and appearance. One of the delegations presented in relief were Ionian Greeks, who wore no hats but were clothed in cloaks. Cappadocians, ancient peoples of modern-day Turkey, covered their heads with hats that had ear-pieces, and had shoulder-cloaks. Indians had no footwear to speak of and wore skirts and had a band in their hair. These peoples brought with them products associated with where they lived. The Ionians brought bowls, cloth, and balls of yarn; the Cappadocians brought horses and clothes; the Indians brought donkeys, jars, and axes. These products were seen as “gifts” for the king, but could be better described as tributes, a symbol of the close connection between king and subject. The center of the frieze originally had the king sitting on his throne, presumably receiving the gifts of his subjects; this image was replaced for unknown reasons with the relief of a bull being attacked by a lion.
Persepolis was not only home to impressive architecture, but also to the best sources on the Achaemenid Persian Empire from the inside. These can be found in the Persepolis Fortification and Treasury Archives. Both archives, named for the location they were discovered, contain clay tablets in which administrative details were taken down. The Fortification Archive dealt with the intake and redistribution of resources within the region of Persepolis; the Treasury Archive dealt with the payment of “specialized craftsmen.” Within these archives are the names of those who helped build Persepolis, though they were not named as a form of getting credit, but instead to receive payment for duties performed. These archives are a peek into the running of the Persian Empire from a source that did not originate from the outside.
Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Persepolis.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Accessed April 16, 2020. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/114/.
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