At the height of its powers, the Persian Empire stretched from the Hindu Kush in the East to the coast of Asia Minor in the West. Within this great territory, the Achaemenid Empire was divided into several provinces called satrapies. These provinces were home to some of the greatest cities in the Middle East.
From royal capitals like Pasargadae and Persepolis to administrative centers like Susa or Babylon, Persia controlled important cities. Here we’ll cover the histories of these cities during the Achaemenid period and what happened to them. Here are the nine greatest cities of the Persian Empire.
1. Pasargadae – The First Great City Of The Persian Empire
After Cyrus the Great rose in rebellion in 550 BC and defeated the Medes, he began to establish Persia as a dominant power. To mark his great victory, Cyrus began the construction of a palace-city fit for a King. This would become Pasargadae.
The site that Cyrus chose was on a fertile expanse of plains near the Pulvar river. Throughout Cyrus’s 30 year reign, Pasargadae became the religious and royal center of his growing Achaemenid Empire. A mighty fortress guarded the northern approach to the city, whilst a gorgeous royal park became the main feature.
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This garden drew influences from other prominent Middle Eastern empires, such as the Assyrians, but it also established its own traditions. The garden was laid out in a geometric pattern, with water channels to keep the foliage lush around a central pool. Simple buildings around the garden were designed not to detract from the beauty of the park.
Cyrus also built at least two palaces at Pasargadae, as well as an apadana or entrance hall which often received dignitaries. Pasargadae is the resting place of Cyrus himself, and his simple but imposing tomb continues to be one of Iran’s most cherished monuments.
2. Persepolis – The Jewel in The Achaemenid Crown
After the short reign of Cyrus’s son Cambyses, the throne was claimed by Darius the Great. Wishing to put his own stamp on the Persian Empire, Darius began the construction of a palace city of his own. He raised his capital, Persepolis, about 50 km downriver from Pasargadae.
After construction began in 518 BC, Persepolis quickly became the new royal epicenter of the Persian Empire. Around the city itself, a community of artisans and builders sprang up as they worked to create an impressive complex in the shadow of the mountains.
Darius had a mighty palace and grand apadana constructed at Persepolis. This vast hall must’ve been an imposing sight for the dignitaries that came from all over the empire to pay homage to Darius. These ambassadors are depicted in detailed bas-reliefs that still survive today.
Persepolis continued to expand after Darius’s death. His son, Xerxes I, built his own palace at the site, much larger than his father’s. Xerxes also raised the Gate of All Nations and finished the Royal Treasury.
Xerxes’s successors would each add their own monuments to the city. But in 331 BC, Alexander the Great invaded the Achaemenid Empire and razed Persepolis to the ground.
3. Susa – Administrative Center Of The Persian Empire
One of the oldest cities in the Middle East, Susa may have been founded as far back as 4200 BC. For centuries it was the capital of the Elamite civilization and was captured several times throughout its long history. In 540 BC it was Cyrus who took control of the ancient city.
Following Cyrus’s death, his son Cambyses named Susa as his capital city. When Darius came to the throne, Susa remained Darius’s preferred royal retreat. Darius oversaw the construction of a new grand palace at Susa. To build it, he hoarded the finest materials from across the Persian Empire. Babylonian bricks, cedar timber from Lebanon, gold from Sardis, and ebony, ivory, and silver from Egypt and Nubia were all used.
As the administrative hub of the Achaemenid Empire, Darius made sure that Susa was well connected. The city forms one of the main centers along the Persian Royal Road, a vast route stretching for 1700 miles connecting the distant cities of the empire.
Susa fell to Alexander during the young Macedonian’s conquest, but it was not destroyed like Persepolis. Susa continued to function as an important center for subsequent empires that ruled Persia, such as the Parthians and the Seleucids.
4. Ecbatana – First Conquest of The Persian Empire
When Cyrus rebelled against the Medes to establish the Persian state, his opponent was King Astyages. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Astyages had visions of his grandson usurping his throne. To prevent that from happening, Astyages ordered his daughter’s baby to be killed. But his general Harpagus refused and hid the child away. That child was reportedly Cyrus the Great.
Eventually, Cyrus did rise to overthrow Astyages, who invaded Persia to suppress the revolt. But Harpagus, in command of half of the army, defected to Cyrus and handed the Astyages over. Cyrus marched into Ecbatana and claimed the Median Capital as his own.
Ecbatana would remain one of the Persian Empire’s most important cities for the duration of Achaemenid rule. It became an important administrative hub and was also the preferred summer residence of several Persian kings. The city was a formidable fortress said to be ringed by seven concentric keeps, although this may be an exaggeration by Herodotus.
Like many cities of the Achaemenid Empire, Ecbatana fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BC. It was here that Alexander ordered the assassination of one of his generals, Parmenion, on suspicion of treason.
5. Sardis – Mint of The Achaemenid Empire
After subjugating Ecbatana, Cyrus continued to increase Persian influence throughout the region. In Lydia, a kingdom encompassing part of Asia Minor and the Ionian Greek cities, King Croesus was disturbed. He had been an ally and brother-in-law to Astyages and sought to move against the Persians.
Cyrus defeated Croesus at the Battle of Thymbria. As per tradition, Croesus withdrew at the end of the campaign season. However, Cyrus pursued him and besieged Sardis. Croesus abandoned the unguarded lower city, where the poor dwelled, and cowered in the citadel above. Cyrus wasn’t to be denied and eventually took the city in 546 BC.
Lydia had been a wealthy kingdom and was now under the control of the Persian Empire. Sardis’s wealth came from its gold and silver mints, which allowed the Lydians to be the first civilization to mint pure gold and silver coins. Sardis governed one of Persia’s most important provinces and was also the final city on the Persian Royal Road.
Greek forces burned Sardis during the Ionian Revolt. Darius retaliated by suppressing the rebellion and razing the Greek city-states of Eretria and Athens. Sardis was rebuilt and remained part of the Achaemenid Empire until surrendering to Alexander in 334 BC.
6. Babylon – Symbol of Persian Dominance
In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great entered Babylon as a peaceful conqueror. The capture of Babylon, one of the oldest and most important cities in Mesopotamia, cemented Persia’s status as the dominant power in the Middle East.
After defeating the army of King Nabonidus at the Battle of Opis, Cyrus’s forces reached the city. Babylon was too strong for a lengthy siege. While Babylon celebrated an important festival, the Persians diverted the Euphrates to allow them to breach the walls.
Both Cyrus and Darius respected Babylon’s prestige, allowing the city to retain its culture and customs. Both kings attended Babylon’s important religious festivals and took their title as King of Babylon very seriously. Babylon remained an important administrative center and site for art and learning.
Cyrus and Darius authorized grand building projects in Babylon, particularly favoring the powerful priesthood of Marduk, the patron god of the city. But when Babylon rebelled against the heavy taxes of Xerxes’s rule, he punished the city harshly, allegedly destroying a sacred statue of Marduk.
When Alexander brought the Achaemenid Empire to its knees, Babylon was one of his most prized conquests. He ordered the city not to be harmed, and Babylon continued to thrive.
7. Memphis – Persian Capital of Egypt
Egypt proved troublesome time and time again for the Persian Empire, with two distinct periods of Achaemenid rule. After the death of Cyrus, his son Cambyses invaded and subjugated Egypt in 525 BC.
Memphis became the capital of the Egyptian satrapy, beginning the first period of Persian rule in Egypt; the 27th Dynasty. Memphis was one of Egypt’s oldest and most important cities. It was where all Pharaohs were crowned and was the location of the Temple of Ptah.
When Darius took the throne several revolts broke out, including in Egypt. Darius quelled the uprising by demonstrating favor to the native Egyptian priesthoods. He would continue this policy throughout his reign. Darius completed the Suez Canal and codified Egyptian law. He also built several temples for the Egyptian gods.
But during Xerxes’ reign, Egypt rebelled again. Xerxes ruthlessly crushed the revolt, but his successors would continue to experience difficulties. The 27th Dynasty was overthrown in 405 BC during the reign of Artaxerxes II by an Egyptian called Nectanebo II, who declared himself Pharaoh.
In 343 BC, Artaxerxes III reclaimed Egypt and reestablished Memphis as the capital to begin the second period of Achaemenid rule as the 31st Dynasty. But this was short-lived, as Egypt willingly surrendered to Alexander in 332 BC.
8. Tyre – Naval Base of Persian Phoenicia
When Cyrus was conquering lands for his nascent Persian Empire, the Phoenician city-states along the coast of Lebanon were rapidly annexed. Cyrus captured Tyre in 539 BC, and initially, the Phoenician city-states were permitted to retain their native kings.
Brilliant seafarers and successful merchants, the Phoenician cities opened up new economic possibilities for Persia. Tyre had grown rich and prominent through its trade in purple dyes made from Murex sea snails as well as other commodities such as silver.
Tyre and the other Phoenician states would also prove a useful military ally. However, there were some incidents. When organizing an expedition to capture Carthage, King Cambyses called on the services of Tyre. However, the city refused to attack its descendants.
During the Greco-Persian Wars, the Phoenicians formed the bulk of the naval forces deployed by Darius and Xerxes. Under later Persian rulers Tyre revolted several times, including in 392 BC at the urging of Athens and Egypt. Tyre was free of Persian rule for a decade before the rebellion ended.
Ironically, Tyre was the Phoenician state who resisted Alexander when the others surrendered. Unfortunately, this led to the city’s infamous destruction in 332 BC.
9. Miletus – The Greek Subject of The Persian Empire
Before the arrival of the Persians, Miletus had been a prosperous Greek colony in Ionia on the coast of Asia Minor. The city was a center for trade and learning, and it was here that the first Greek philosopher, Thales, was born.
Miletus fell under the command of Persia when Cyrus defeated King Croesus of Lydia in 546 BC. The whole of Asia Minor became subject to the Persians, and Miletus continued as an important trading hub.
However, Miletus would prove troublesome for Persian kings. It was Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus, who instigated the Ionian Revolt against the rule of Darius the Great in 499 BC. Aristagoras was supported by Athens and Eretria but was defeated in 493 BC at the Battle of Lade.
Darius had all of the men in Miletus killed before selling the surviving women and children as slaves. When his son, Xerxes, failed to conquer Greece, Miletus was liberated by a coalition of Greek forces. But after the Corinthian War was ended by a Persian treaty, the Achaemenid Empire reclaimed control of Miletus.
Alexander besieged the city in 334 BC and his capture of Miletus was one of the opening acts of the fall of the Persian Empire.