Persepolis, Iran – capital of the Achaemenids, destroyed by Alexander 4

‘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)

Stairs of All Nations, Persepolis, Iran

‘The Great Double Staircase at Persepolis’ by Marcus Cyron, 2010. Available online at under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. Full terms at

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

Persepolis, Iran

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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).

Persepolis, Iran

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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

Gate of All Nations, Persepolis, Iran

Gate of All Nations. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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).

Gate of All Nations, Persepolis, Iran

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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. 😀

Gate of All Nations, Persepolis, Iran

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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.

Apadana, Persepolis

Apadana, Persepolis, Iran

Apadana. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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

Sculptural relief, Persepolis, Iran

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Sculptural relief, Persepolis, Iran

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Sculptural relief, Persepolis, Iran

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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.

Tachara, Persepolis

Tachara, Persepolis, Iran

Tachara. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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.

Tachara, Persepolis, Iran

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

This is because the Tachara was one of the few buildings that wasn’t destroyed by Alexander the Great’s armies.

Hall of 100 Columns, Persepolis, Iran

The remains of the Hall of 100 Columns. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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, Iran

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Persepolis, Iran

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

And the stone elements, thanks to Alexander’s fire, are all we have left of Persepolis today.

Gate of All Nations, Persepolis, Iran

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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).

Most tourists will visit Naqsh-e Rustam and Persepolis as a half-day trip. Throw in Pasargadae and it becomes a full-day excursion.

Read more on Persepolis in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.

More on Iran:

Naqsh-e Rustam – unearthly cliff tombs of the Achaemenid emperors

Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pasargadae

Si-o-se-pol and the Safavid Bridges of Esfahan

Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun, Yazd – Zoroastrian tower of silence

Posts on northern Iran:

Rainbow Mountains – are there rainbows? or is it all a sham?

Babak Castle – windswept mountaintop stronghold of Azeri rebel leader

Takht-e Soleyman – royal Zoroastrian sanctuary and fire temple

Kandovan – it’s Cappadocia minus the tourists

Posts on western Iran:

The Historic Hydraulic System of Shushtar

Bisotun – cliff inscription of Darius the Great

Chogha Zanbil – the original ziggurat

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4 thoughts on “Persepolis, Iran – capital of the Achaemenids, destroyed by Alexander

  • Karen White

    What an amazing site. It looks immense. The sculptural reliefs look incredibly beautiful. It must have been wonderful to see them and I’m glad you finally saw your Lammasus in situ!!

  • Kim Salisbury

    Just joined you. I live near the Coso Range petroglyphs in southeastern California. If you’re up on them, I’m up for anything resembling them. I’m seeing an East Eurasian thru Pacific trading network tens of thousands of years ago. There are visual concepts of Mongolian-style yurts in the glyphs here. Too lengthy to describe now. There is stone evidence here of successful attempts at recording the actual day of summer solstice thru laborious carving of stone.

    I would greatly appreciate any knowledge of people able to ascertain the actual day of summer solstice!

    May the road rise up to meet you.

    • Benjamin White Post author

      Hi Kim. Thanks for your comment. Sorry but I don’t know anything about the Californian petroglyphs, and can’t help you with your question about summer solstice either. Sounds very interesting though! Best of luck, Ben