‘Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?’ a man beside me says, by way of introduction, as we climb the Stairs of All Nations to the Achaemenid capital of Persepolis.
‘What is? Persepolis?’ I say, confused.
‘Yes, of course, Persepolis,’ he replies, annoyed by my insolence.
‘But I haven’t even seen it yet,’ I reply (Persepolis, in my defence, is built atop a 13 metre high terrace; when you are standing at the base of the terrace the city is entirely concealed from view).
The man looks at me as if I were mad and storms off.
Stairs of All Nations (all I have seen of Persepolis thus far)
I’m not fazed by the peculiar exchange with the effusive Iranian man; it isn’t the first time I’ve experienced a passionate outpouring of national pride in Iran.
And it certainly isn’t the first time I’ve heard an Iranian express their love for the Achaemenid capital of Persepolis.
The founding of Persepolis
The city of Persepolis (which is a Greek word meaning: City of the Perses i.e. Persians) dates to 515 BCE. There is speculation that the location for the city was selected by none other than Cyrus: the first of the Achaemenids (read more on Cyrus in my post on Pasargadae).
Construction of the city didn’t begin until the reign of Darius I.
Darius I, also known as Darius the Great, was the 4th king of the Achaemenid Empire. Darius ruled while the empire was at the peak of its powers. He presided over the construction of Persepolis until his death in 486 BCE (at which point his son Xerxes I took over).
Gate of All Nations, Persepolis
At the top of the Stairs of All Nations you’ll find the Gate of All Nations. This is the main entrance to Persepolis; from here the city at last begins to reveal itself.
The Gate of All Nations is guarded by lamasi: mythological creatures with the bodies of bulls (or sometimes lions), the heads of men, and the wings of eagles (or angels).
I’ve been fascinated by lamasi ever since I first saw one – a statue of one, that is – on display in the Near Eastern Antiquities exhibit in the Louvre.
I was so impressed I even purchased a bookend in the shape of a lamassus. 😀
Seeing a lamassus in-situ, rather than in a museum, was a goal of mine. They’re from Assyria originally, rather than Persia. But the Persians copied them, and here they are, in Persepolis, acting as sentinels at the entrance to the Achaemenid capital.
The Apadana, or Audience Hall, was built during the reign of Darius I and is one of the oldest structures in Persepolis. It was here that Darius would receive the tributes that were brought to him from across the Achaemenid Empire.
Sculptural reliefs of Persepolis
The Achaemenid Empire, circa 500 BCE, was the largest empire the world had ever seen, stretching from India in the east to Libya in the west, from Oman in the south to the Black Sea in the north.
Each year during Nov Ruz (Persian New Year) delegations from throughout the empire would travel to Persepolis to present the emperor with gifts from their native lands. These occasions are captured in sculptural reliefs throughout the city.
Amongst the carvings you can find depictions of the Thracians (from Bulgaria) bringing gifts of spears and horses, Arabs bringing garments and camels, Libyans bringing and oxen and chariots, Indians bringing gold, Sogdians (from Uzbekistan) bringing swords and axes, Bactrians (from Afghanistan) bringing Bactrian camels.
And the list of conquered peoples goes on and on; there are the Greeks, the Cappadocians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Elamites, the Medes, the Lydians, the Nubians, the Armenians, and so on, and so on.
And they all came to Persepolis bearing gifts from their homeland.
The Tachara was a palace built by Darius I (although he died before it was completed). The Tachara, as you can see in the picture above, is in relatively good shape compared to many other parts of the city.
This is because the Tachara was one of the few buildings that wasn’t destroyed by Alexander the Great’s armies.
And that brings us to the swift, destructive end of Persepolis.
In 330 BCE Alexander the Great swept across Persia and conquered the Achaemenids. He set fire to the city as payback – or so it is said – for the burning of Athens by Xerxes I in 480 BCE.
Persepolis was mostly made of wood; it was built out of enormous cedar logs brought from Lebanon and teak brought from India.
Only the largest structural elements in the city were made of stone.
And the stone elements, thanks to Alexander’s fire, are all we have left of Persepolis today.
Which means the Persepolis you see in 2018 is more or less the Persepolis as seen by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE; after he had exacted his revenge and reduced the city to cinders and ash.
A sobering thought to leave you with. 🙂
Practical information and how to reach Persepolis:
Persepolis is 60 km, or one-hour’s drive, from the tourist hub of Shiraz, on the Shiraz-to-Yazd Highway. It’s possible to reach the site using public transport, but the easiest and quickest way to get there is to hire a taxi in Shiraz (full day taxi hire in March 2017 costs US$40-50).
Read more on Persepolis in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.