Persepolis in modern-day Iran was commissioned and built by Darius I (r.522-486 BCE), the great king of the ancient Persian Empire. The complex consisted of several opulent architectural buildings and palaces, which served as the ceremonial capital of the ancient Persian Empire. The Persians named the city Parsa, although it is better known by its Greek name, Persepolis.
Persepolis is situated approximately 30 miles northeast of Shiraz, in the province of Fars, located in southwestern Iran. It is located at the convergence of the Pulvar (Sivand) and Kor rivers in a valley surrounded by mountains. The building project started between 518 and 515 BCE and the city was destroyed in 330 BCE by the Greeks under Alexander the Great.
Why Did Darius Need Persepolis as His New Capital?
A cuneiform inscription at the entrance of Darius’ palace at Persepolis reads:
“Darius the great king, king of kings, king of countries, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenian, built this palace.”
Controversy and unrest surrounded the succession of Darius I, the Great, to the throne of the Persian Empire. Bardiya (r.522 BCE) was in control of the Persian Empire when his brother Cambyses II (r. 530-522 BCE), who was away campaigning in Egypt, died in 522 BCE. Bardiya was assassinated shortly after succeeding him as king. There was speculation that Darius was behind the murder. This led to rebellions and unrest by the Persians.
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It is assumed that Darius I commissioned the construction of Persepolis to leave behind these complications, and in the process establish his reputation and power. This also required relocating the new capital city at a distance from the old capital of Pasargadae and the other administrative centers and royal palaces of Babylon, Susa, and Ecbatana.
Persepolis – An Ingenious Location in the Mountains of the Persian Empire
The remote and fairly inaccessible mountainous location of the new city was chosen primarily for safety and security from internal and external threats.
According to some historians, the new capital’s location was generally unknown to the rest of the world for extra security from attack until Alexander the Great conquered Persia. This idea does not add up, as part of the extreme opulence was to display the power, might, and resources that Darius had under his command — to the Persians and outside visitors and envoys alike. This last view seems to be confirmed by deciphered cuneiform texts found at Persepolis.
The secure location made Persepolis the ideal place for the royal treasury as it was deemed the safest place in the Persian Empire. It was also the most secure location to store tributes, archives, artifacts, precious treasures, and valuable art.
Persepolis’s main complex consisted of 9 buildings when completed by Darius’ successors around hundred years later. The names and images of Darius I, his son Xerxes, and grandson Artaxerxes, frequently appear on the various surfaces of the ruins which remain of the ancient city.
Persepolis: The Grandest of Ancient Capital Cities
No costs were spared. The city was meant to be a showplace for the might, wealth, and abilities of the Achaemenid kings and the Persian Empire. Vast amounts of luxurious and costly materials were imported from every known country in the ancient world, including Lebanese cedarwood, purple dye, expensive metals, Egyptian cotton, and Indian gold.
Construction materials included stone, mudbrick, and wood. Decorations were lavishly applied, including exquisite reliefs, and perfectly made fired and glazed bricks of yellow, brown, and green. It is surmised that the double doors of the main buildings in the royal complex were made of wood and covered with elaborately decorated metal.
The workforce included skilled artisans and artists from across the Persian Empire and also from other independent countries. A particularly fine and unusual engraving of animals and a human done with a needle, controversially removed with a foot from a statue of Darius, is, for instance, believed to be the work of a Greek artist. It is now in the Met Museum, New York.
Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979, Persepolis is a representation of the brilliant architectural design of the ancient Achaemenid Dynasty.
Construction of Persepolis
Darius commissioned the construction of Persepolis ca 515 BCE. The first 3 buildings of the complex are believed to have been completed before his death, and the fourth building, the treasury, was started but completed by his son Xerxes (r.486-465).
The location, known today as the Marv Dasht plain in Iran, was cleared and leveled before construction could begin. The builders elevated the terrain to form a level platform of 1,345,488 square-feet 60 feet above ground level. A portion of the complex was cut out of the Mountain Kuh-e Rahmet (Mountain of Mercy). Cavities were filled in with soil and rocks, bound together by metal clips.
The freshwater supply, sewage system, and groundwater drainage systems were well-planned and executed engineering marvels. The engineers made use of several techniques to ensure adequate yet safe supplies and run-off systems for floodwater from the melting snow and precipitation.
The buildings were constructed with mud bricks and massive, precision-cut stone blocks assembled without mortar. The surfaces of these grey limestone blocks were polished to a shiny, marble-like appearance.
The Apadana or Audience Hall
Darius started the project with a council hall and his palace. Next was a grand, wide dual staircase, known as the Persepolitan stairway, with shallow steps on each side leading from the entrance hall to the palace.
The Apadana, a massive 200-foot-long, hypostyle audience hall boasting a roof of cedar beams from Lebanon, is perhaps the most well-known of the ruins. Its roof was supported by 72 columns, 62-feet above the terrace level. Resting on each of the columns were animals, such as the Lion and Bull sculptures, representing the king’s authority.
Dignitaries with their servants from the various states of the Persian Empire would bring gifts and pay tribute to the king in this grand area. Countries and nations of dignitaries, envoys, and representatives of vassal states are clearly identifiable from bas reliefs carved into the walls of the terrace below the Apadana.
According to Herodotus, the Greek historian, Darius I built to impress:
“Cyrus was a father, Cambyses was a master, and Darius was a shopkeeper.”
(Herodotus, The Histories)
Persepolis was the shop front for Herodotus’s shopkeeper!
Xerxes: The Bigger, the Better
At the Gate of All Nations, Xerxes, son and successor of Darius, built a majestic palace with an audience hall. Xerxes was infamous for his womanizing, cruel tactics, and excessive spending. He insisted that his palace be double the size of his father’s. The audience hall featured a cedar roof supported by four 60-foot-high columns.
An L-shaped harem with three decorated doorways, and a fourth secret door connecting directly to the palace, was built to accommodate 22 apartments. The treasury was located behind the harem. The treasury in Persepolis also served as an armory and storage area for valuable items and written records. The Hall of 100 columns (The Throne Hall) followed, believed to have been completed by Xerxes’ son and successor, Artaxerxes I (r.465-424).
Successors Enlarged the Citadel
Further structures, built in the complex by successors to the throne of the Persian Empire, include the royal stables and chariot house, which is thought to have been located behind the treasury and the palace of King Xerxes. The city’s garrison, in which the army lodged, was built near this.
Darius’s bodyguard and ‘shock force’, famously known as the Ten Thousand Immortals, were also housed here. The complex was surrounded by three walls with intervals between each wall. These walls served as security structures for the protection of the citadel, with towers above each wall that were always staffed by security guards. It is not clear which successor built the walls or when they were built.
Plunder and Destruction of Persepolis
The Persian Empire was defeated, and the city of Persepolis was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. According to Diodorus Siculus in his Library of World History, Alexander and his troops were celebrating and in their drunken stupor, urged on by their womenfolk, set fire to the city. Some historians surmised that the reason for this destruction was revenge for the sack of Athens by Xerxes in 480 BCE.
Before the fire was started, Alexander allowed his troops to plunder the city, and he removed the palace treasures over a period of days. Again, it is Diodorus Siculus who describes the vast quantity of magnificent treasures removed to safer locations.
“Alexander went up to the citadel and took possession of the treasures stored there. They were full of gold and silver, with the accumulation of revenue from Cyrus, the first king of the Persians, down to that time. Reckoning gold in terms of silver, 2,500 tons were found there. Alexander wanted to take part of the money with him, for the expenses of war and to deposit the rest at Susa under close guard. From Babylon, Mesopotamia and Susa, he sent for a crowd of mules, partly pack and partly draught animals, as well as 3,000 dromedaries, and with these he had all the treasure conveyed to the chosen places.”
Luckily Achaemenid records were neither looted nor destroyed. Cuneiform inscriptions on the buildings and monuments were left intact by the blaze. In addition, the clay tablets and seals from the treasury and archives were only strengthened by the heat. In 1933 two sets of gold and silver plates with tri-lingual inscriptions were discovered under the palace of Darius.
Persepolis Was the Pride of the Persian Empire
In 1971, the ruins of Persepolis were cleaned up, polished, and repaired for the lavish 2,500-year anniversary celebrations of the Persian Empire by order of the last Shah of Persia/Iran.
French archaeologists had a monopoly on excavating the site until Ernst Emil Herzfeld obtained permission in the 1930s to excavate there by permission of the ruler of Persia at the time, Reza Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty.
A French architect, Egyptologist, Iranologist, and gifted artist, Charles Chipiez, reconstructed many of the Persian Empire’s ruined buildings on paper – among them the buildings and monuments of Persepolis.
A restoration laboratory was opened at Persepolis in December 2021 to restore objects from the site and vicinity. It is equipped to restore physical, chemical, and biological damage caused by the environment and human traffic.
The former magnificence of this ancient city remains evident in the ruins. We feel compelled to envision the splendor that once was part of this astonishingly wealthy city. Vivid colors and hues of stone and cedarwood, magnificent reliefs, extravagant purple curtains and cushions, and lavishly decorated furniture and walls must have truly awed every person who saw it in ancient times!