The Persian Empire was founded in around 550 BC by Cyrus II, called Cyrus the Great. His dynasty is known as the Achaemenid, named after the legendary king Achaemenes. The empire lasted for 200 years, encompassing diverse peoples and reaching its greatest extent under Darius I.
The Persian Empire is the name used to refer to a number of historic dynasties that have ruled the country of Persia (Iran). Persia’s earliest known kingdom was the proto-Elamite Empire, followed by the Medes; but it is the Achaemenid Empire that emerged under Cyrus the Great that is usually the earliest to be called “Persian.” Successive states in Iran before 1935 are collectively called the Persian Empire by Western historians.
The name ‘Persia’ has long been used by the West to describe the nation of Iran, its people, or its ancient empire. It derives from the ancient Greek name for Iran, Persis. This in turn comes from a province in the south of Iran, called Fars in the modern Persian language and Pars in Middle Persian. Persis is the Hellenized form of Pars, based on which other European nations termed the area Persia. This province was the core of the original Persian Empire. Westerners referred to the state as Persia until March 21, 1935, when Reza Shah Pahlavi formally asked the international community to call the country by its native name. Some Persian scholars protested this decision because changing the name separated the country from its past. It also caused some Westerners to confuse Iran with Iraq; so in 1959 his son Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi announced that both Persia and Iran can be used interchangeably.
The Persian Empire dominated Mesopotamia from 612-330 BC. The Achaemenid Persians of central Iran ruled an empire which comprised Iran, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, and parts of Asia Minor and India. Their ceremonial capital was Persepolis in southern Iran founded by King Darius the Great. Persepolis was burned by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. Only the columns, stairways, and door jambs of its great palaces survived the fire. The stairways, adorned with reliefs representing the king, his court, and delegates of his empire bringing gifts, demonstrate the might of the Persian monarch.
The first record of the Persians comes from an Assyrian inscription from c. 844 BC that calls them the Parsu (Parsuash, Parsumash) and mentions them in the region of Lake Urmia alongside another group, the Madai (Medes). For the next two centuries, the Persians and Medes were at times tributary to the Assyrians. The region of Parsuash was annexed by Sargon of Assyria around 719 BC. Eventually the Medes came to rule an independent Median Empire, and the Persians were subject to them.
The Achaemenids were the first line of Persian rulers, founded by Achaemenes (Hakaimanish), chieftain of the Persians around 700 BC.
Around 653 BC, the Medes came under the domination of the Scythians, and the son of Achaemenes, a certain Teispes, seems to have led the nomadic Persians to settle in southern Iran around this time — eventually establishing the first organized Persian state in the important region of Anshan as the Elamite kingdom was permanently destroyed by the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal (640 BC).
The kingdom of Anshan and its successors continued to use Elamite as an official language for quite some time after this, although the new dynasts spoke Persian, an Indo-Iranian tongue.
At this time, the Persians were still tributary to the Median Empire ruled by Astyages.
Cyrus rallied the Persians together, and in 550 BC defeated the forces of Astyages, who was then captured by his own nobles and turned over to the triumphant Cyrus, now Shah of the Persian kingdom.
As Persia assumed control over the rest of Media and their large Middle Eastern empire, Cyrus led the united Medes and Persians to still more conquest. He took Lydia in Asia Minor, and carried his arms eastward into central Asia.
Finally in 539 BC, Cyrus marched triumphantly into the ancient city of Babylon. After this victory, he set the standard of the benevolent conqueror by issuing the Cyrus Cylinder. In this declaration, the king promised not to terrorize Babylon nor destroy its institutions and culture.
The Cyrus Cylinder is an artifact of the Persian Empire, consisting of a declaration inscribed on a clay barrel.
The cylinder of Cyrus the Great was discovered in 1878 by the Assyrian archaeologist Hormuz Rassam in his excavations at the site of Babylon. It is barrel-shaped, around 23cm long and 11cm wide, and is inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform. Now housed in the British Museum, it includes a detailed account by Cyrus of his conquest of Babylon in 539BCE and his subsequent humane treatment of his conquered subjects. It has been hailed as the world’s first declaration of human rights.
The (incomplete) inscription on the cylinder starts by describing the criminal deeds of the Babylonian king Nabonidus (lines 4-8); as well as how Marduk, the Babylonian god, had looked for a new king and chosen Cyrus (lines 9-19). It continues with the famous:
“I am Cyrus, king of the world, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world” (line 20)
After a description of Cyrus’ ancestry and of royal protocol (lines 21-22), it goes on to explain how Cyrus established peace and abolished forced labour (lines 22-25):
“The people of Babylon . . . the shameful yoke was removed from them” (line 25)
The inscription continues by detailing reparative building activities in Babylon as well as asking for prayers for Cyrus (lines 25-28). It makes specific reference to the Jews, who have been brought to Babylon – and who Cyrus supported in leaving for their homeland.
Demonstrating his religious tolerance, Cyrus restored the local cults by allowing the gods to return to their shrines:
” . . the gods, who resided in them, I brought back to their places, and caused them to dwell in a residence for all time.
And the gods of Sumer and Akkad – whom Nabonidus, to the anger of the lord of the gods, had brought into Babylon – by the command of Marduk, the great lord, I caused them to take up their dwelling in residences that gladdened the heart” (lines 32-36)
The cylinder describes the Great King not as a conqueror, but as a liberator and the legitimate successor to the crown of Mesopotamia. Cyrus seems to have had no idea of forcing his new subjects into a single Persian identity, and had the wisdom to leave intact the functioning institutions of each kingdom he attached to the Imperial Crown.
Cyrus officially crowned himself “King of Babylon and King of the Land” on the first day of spring 538BCE. After the coronation, which was in Marduk Temple, Cyrus apparently publicly declaimed the words found on the cylinder.
Inscription corroborates many of the details in Ezra 1:1-5 describing Cyrus supporting the Jews in returning to Judea from captivity to rebuild the Temple in 537BCE. Isaiah also backs up the idea of Cyrus as a benign and chosen ruler:
“Thus saith the Lord to the anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden . . . he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the Lord of hosts” Isaiah 45: 1-13
Upon his taking of Babylon, Cyrus the Great issued the declaration, containing an account of his victories and merciful acts, as well as a documentation of his royal lineage. It was discovered in 1879 in Babylon, and today is kept in the British Museum.The royal history given on the cylinder is as follows: The founder of the dynasty was King Achaemenes (ca. 700 BC) who was succeeded by his son Teispes of Anshan. Inscriptions indicate that when the latter died, two of his sons shared the throne as Cyrus I of Anshan and Ariaramnes of Persia. They were succeeded by their respective sons Cambyses I of Anshan and Arsames of Persia. Cambyses is considered by Herodotus and Ctesias to be of humble origin. But they also consider him as being married to Princess Mandane of Media, a daughter of Astyages, King of the Medes and Princess Aryenis of Lydia. Cyrus II was the result of this union.
Cyrus was killed during a battle against the Massagetae or Sakas.Cyrus’ son, Cambyses II, was next in line to rule. When Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 BC he was employed in leading religious ceremonies (Chronicle of Nabonidus), and in the cylinder which contains Cyrus’s proclamation to the Babylonians his name is joined to that of his father in the prayers to Marduk. On a tablet dated from the first year of Cyrus, Cambyses is called king of Babel. But his authority seems to have been quite ephemeral; it was only in 530 BC, when Cyrus set out on his last expedition into the East, that he associated Cambyses on the throne, and numerous Babylonian tablets of this time are dated from the accession and the first year of Cambyses, when Cyrus was “king of the countries” (i.e. of the world). After the death of his father in the spring of 528 BC, Cambyses became sole king. The tablets dated from his reign in Babylonia run to the end of his eighth year, i.e. March 521 BC. Herodotus (3. 66), who dates his reign from the death of Cyrus, gives him seven years five months, i.e. from 528 to the summer of 521.
It was quite natural that, after Cyrus had conquered Asia, Cambyses should undertake the conquest of Egypt, the only remaining independent state of the Eastern world.
Before he set out on his expedition he killed his brother Bardiya (Smerdis), whom Cyrus had appointed governor of the eastern provinces. The date is given by Darius, whereas the Greek authors narrate the murder after the conquest of Egypt. The war took place in 525, when Amasis had just been succeeded by his son Psammetichus III. Cambyses had prepared for the march through the desert by an alliance with Arabian chieftains, who brought a large supply of water to the stations.
King Amasis had hoped that Egypt would be able to withstand the threatened Persian attack by an alliance with the Greeks.But this hope failed the Cypriot towns and the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, who possessed a large fleet, now preferred to join the Persians, and the commander of the Greek troops, Phanes of Halicarnassus, went over to them. In the decisive battle at Pelusium the Egyptians were beaten, and shortly afterwards Memphis was taken. The captive king Psammetichus was executed, having attempted a rebellion. The Egyptian inscriptions show that Cambyses officially adopted the titles and the costume of the Pharaohs, although we may very well believe that he did not conceal his contempt for the customs and the religion of the Egyptians.
From Egypt Cambyses attempted the conquest of Kush, i.e. the kingdoms of Napata and Meroe, located in the modern Sudan. But his army was not able to cross the deserts after heavy losses he was forced to return. In an inscription from Napata (in the Berlin museum) the Nubian king Nastesen relates that he had beaten the troops of Kembasuden, i.e. Cambyses, and taken all his ships (H. Schafer, Die Aethiopische Königsinschrift des Berliner Museums, 1901).
Another expedition against the Siwa Oasis failed likewise, and the plan of attacking Carthage was frustrated by the refusal of the Phoenicians to operate against their kindred.
Death of Cambyses
Meanwhile in Persia a usurper, the Magian Gaumata, arose in the spring of 522, who pretended to be the murdered Bardiya (Smerdis) and was acknowledged throughout Asia. Cambyses attempted to march against him, but, seeing probably that success was impossible, died by his own hand (March 521). This is the account of Darius, which certainly must be preferred to the traditions of Herodotus and Ctesias, which ascribe his death to an accident. According to Herodotus (3.64) he died in the Syrian Ecbatana, i.e. Hamath; Josephus (Antiquites xi. 2. 2) names Damascus; Ctesias, Babylon, which is absolutely impossible.
According to Herodotus, Cambyses sent an army to threaten the Oracle of Amun at the Siwa Oasis. The army of 50,000 men was halfway across the desert when a massive sandstorm sprung up, burying them all. Although many Egyptologists regard the story as a myth, people have searched for the remains of the soldiers for many years. These have included Count Laszlo de Almasy (on whom the novel The English Patient was based) and modern geologist Tom Brown. Some believe that in recent petroleum excavations, the remains may have be uncovered. A 2002 novel by Paul Sussman The Lost Army Of Cambyses recounts the story of rival archaeological expeditions searching for the remains. The empire then reached its greatest extent under Darius I. He led conquering armies into the Indus River valley and into Thrace in Europe. His invasion of Greece was halted at the Battle of Marathon.
Darius I, who ascended the throne in 521 BC, pushed the Persian borders as far eastward as the Indus River, had a canal constructed from the Nile to the Red Sea, and reorganized the entire empire, earning the title ‘Darius the Great.’
Darius (Greek form Dareios) is a classicized form of the Old Persian Daraya-Vohumanah, Darayavahush or Darayavaush, which was the name of three kings of the Achaemenid Dynasty of Persia: Darius I (the Great), ruled 522-486 BCE, Darius II (Ochos), ruled 423-405/4 BCE, and Darius III (Kodomannos), ruled 336-330 BCE. In addition to these, the oldest son of Xerxes I was named Darius, but he was murdered before he ever came to the throne, and Darius, the son of Artaxerxes II, was executed for treason against his own father.
According to A. T. Olmstead’s book History of the Persian Empire, Darius the Great’s father Vishtaspa (Hystaspes) and mother Hutaosa (Atossa) knew the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster) personally and were converted by him to the new religion he preached, Zoroastrianism.
The empire of Darius the Great extended from Egypt in the west to the Indus River in the east. The major satrapies or provinces of his Empire were connected to the center at Persepolis, in the Fars Province of present-day Iran. The Royal Road connected 111 stations to each other. Messengers riding swift horses informed the king within days of turmoil brewing in lands as distant as Egypt and Sughdiana.
One of the most awe-inspiring monuments of the ancient world, Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenian empire. It was built during the reign of Darius I, known as Darius the Great (522-485 BC), and developed further by successive kings. The various temples and monuments are located upon a vast platform, some 450 metres by 300 metres and 20 metres in height. At the head of the ceremonial staircase leading to the terrace is the ‘Gateway of All Nations’ built by Xerxes I and guarded by two colossal bull-like figures.
Darius was the greatest of all the Persian kings. He extended the empires borders into India and Europe. He also fought two wars with the Greeks which were disastrous.
Darius established a government which became a model for many future governments:
- Established a tax-collection system;
- Allowed locals to keep customs and religions;
- Divided his empire into districts known as Satrapies;
- Built a system of roads still used today;
- Established a complex postal system;
- Established a network of spies he called the “Eyes and Ears of the King.”
- Built two new capital cities, one at Susa and one at Persepolis.
In the 5th century BC the vast Persian Empire attempted to conquer Greece. If the Persians had succeeded, they would have set up local tyrants, called ‘satraps’, to rule Greece and would have crushed the first stirrings of democracy in Europe. The survival of Greek culture and political ideals depended on the ability of the small, disunited Greek city-states to band together and defend themselves against Persia’s overwhelming strength. The struggle, known in Western history as the Persian Wars, or Greco-Persian Wars, lasted 20 years — from 499 to 479 BC.
Persia already numbered among its conquests the Greek cities of Ionia in Asia Minor, where Greek civilization first flourished. The Persian Wars began when some of these cities revolted against Darius I, Persia’s king, in 499 BC.
Athens sent 20 ships to aid the Ionians. Before the Persians crushed the revolt, the Greeks burned Sardis, capital of Lydia. Angered, Darius determined to conquer Athens and extend his empire westward beyond the Aegean Sea.
In 492 BC Darius gathered together a great military force and sent 600 ships across the Hellespont. A sudden storm wrecked half his fleet when it was rounding rocky Mount Athos on the Macedonian coast.
Two years later Darius dispatched a new battle fleet of 600 triremes. This time his powerful galleys crossed the Aegean Sea without mishap and arrived safely off Attica, the part of Greece that surrounds the city of Athens.
The Persians landed on the plain of Marathon, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Athens. When the Athenians learned of their arrival, they sent a swift runner, Pheidippides, to ask Sparta for aid, but the Spartans, who were conducting a religious festival, could not march until the moon was full. Meanwhile the small Athenian army encamped in the foothills on the edge of the Marathon Plain.
The Athenian general Miltiades ordered his small force to advance. He had arranged his men so as to have the greatest strength in the wings. As he expected, his center was driven back. The two wings then united behind the enemy. Thus hemmed in, the Persians’ bows and arrows were of little use. The stout Greek spears spread death and terror. The invaders rushed in panic to their ships. The Greek historian Herodotus says the Persians lost 6,400 men against only 192 on the Greek side. Thus ended the battle of Marathon (490 BC), one of the decisive battles of the world.
Darius planned another expedition, but he died before preparations were completed. This gave the Greeks a ten-year period to prepare for the next battles. Athens built up its naval supremacy in the Aegean under the guidance of Themistocles.
In 480 BC the Persians returned, led by King Xerxes, the son of Darius. To avoid another shipwreck off Mount Athos, Xerxes had a canal dug behind the promontory. Across the Hellespont he had the Phoenicians and Egyptians place two bridges of ships, held together by cables of flax and papyrus. A storm destroyed the bridges, but Xerxes ordered the workers to replace them. For seven days and nights his soldiers marched across the bridges.
On the way to Athens, Xerxes found a small force of Greek soldiers holding the narrow pass of Thermopylae, which guarded the way to central Greece. The force was led by Leonidas, king of Sparta. Xerxes sent a message ordering the Greeks to deliver their arms. “Come and take them,” replied Leonidas.
For two days the Greeks’ long spears held the pass. Then a Greek traitor told Xerxes of a roundabout path over the mountains. When Leonidas saw the enemy approaching from the rear, he dismissed his men except the 300 Spartans, who were bound, like himself, to conquer or die. Leonidas was one of the first to fall. Around their leader’s body the gallant Spartans fought first with their swords, then with their hands, until they were slain to the last man.
The Persians moved on to Attica and found it deserted. They set fire to Athens with flaming arrows. Xerxes’ fleet held the Athenian ships bottled up between the coast of Attica and the island of Salamis. His ships outnumbered the Greek ships three to one. The Persians had expected an easy victory, but one after another their ships were sunk or crippled.
Crowded into the narrow strait, the heavy Persian vessels moved with difficulty. The lighter Greek ships rowed out from a circular formation and rammed their prows into the clumsy enemy vessels. Two hundred Persian ships were sunk, others were captured, and the rest fled. Xerxes and his forces hastened back to Persia.
Soon after, the rest of the Persian army was scattered at Plataea (479 BC). In the same year Xerxes’ fleet was defeated at Mycale. Although a treaty was not signed until 30 years later, the threat of Persian domination was ended.
Darius was killed in a coup led by other family members. At the time, he was preparing a new expedition against the Greeks. His son and successor, Xerxes I, attempted to fulfill his plan.
Enthroned in Peresepolis, the magnificent city that he built, Darius I firmly grasps the royal scepter in his right hand. In the left, he is holding a lotus blossom with two buds, the symbol of royalty.
Xerxes I The Great, was the son of Darius I The Great and Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great. He was appointed successor to his father in preference to his eldest half-brother, who were born before Darius had become king.
After his accession in October 485 BC he suppressed the revolt in Egypt which had broken out in 486 BC, appointed his brother Achaemenes as henchman (or khshathrapavan, satrap) bringing Egypt under a very strict rule.
His predecessors, especially Darius, had not been successful in their attempts to conciliate the ancient civilizations. This probably was the reason why Xerxes in 484 BC abolished the Kingdom of Babel and took away the golden statue of Bel (Marduk, Merodach), the hands of which the legitimate king of Babel had to seize on the first day of each year, and killed the priest who tried to hinder him.
Therefore Xerxes does not bear the title of King of Babel in the Babylonian documents dated from his reign, but King of Persia and Media or simply King of countries (i.e. of the world). This proceeding led to two rebellions, probably in 484 BC and 479 BC.
Darius had left to his son the task of punishing the Greeks for their interference in the Ionian rebellion and the victory of Marathon. From 483 Xerxes prepared his expedition with great care: a channel was dug through the isthmus of the peninsula of Mount Athos; provisions were stored in the stations on the road through Thrace; two bridges were thrown across the Hellespont.
Xerxes concluded an alliance with Carthage, and thus deprived Greece of the support of the powerful monarchs of Syracuse and Agrigentum. Many smaller Greek states, moreover, took the side of the Persians, especially Thessaly, Thebes and Argos.
A large fleet and a numerous army (some have claimed that there were over 2,000,000) were gathered. In the spring of 480 Xerxes set out from Sardis. At first Xerxes was victorious everywhere. The Greek fleet was beaten at Artemisium, Thermopylae stormed, Athens conquered, the Greeks driven back to their last line of defence at the Isthmus of Corinth and in the Saronic Gulf.
But Xerxes was induced by the astute message of Themistocles (against the advice of Artemisia of Halicarnassus) to attack the Greek fleet under unfavourable conditions, instead of sending a part of his ships to the Peloponnesus and awaiting the dissolution of the Greek armament.
The Battle of Salamis (September 28, 480) decided the war. Having lost his communication by sea with Asia, Xerxes was forced to retire to Sardis; the army which he left in Greece under Mardonius was in 479 beaten at Plataea. The defeat of the Persians at Mycale roused the Greek cities of Asia.
Of the later years of Xerxes little is known. He sent out Satapes to attempt the circumnavigation of Africa, but the victory of the Greeks threw the empire into a state of slow apathy, from which it could not rise again. The king himself became involved in intrigues of the harem and was much dependent upon courtiers and eunuchs. He left inscriptions at Persepolis, where he added a new palace to that of Darius, at Van in Armenia, and on Mount Elvend near Ecbatana. In these texts he merely copies the words of his father. In 465 he was murdered by his vizier Artabanus who raised Artaxerxes I to the throne.
In the Bible, in the Book of Ezra, Xerxes I is mentioned by the name ‘Ashverosh’ (Ahasuerus in Greek). It is noted that, during his reign, as in the reign of his predecessor Darius and his successor Artaxerxes, the Samaritans wrote to the Persian king full of accusations against the Jews.Ahasuerus also appears as the King in the Book of Esther, and is traditionally identified with Xerxes.
In the story told in this Biblical book, Ahasuerus dismisses his Queen consort Vashti and then chooses the Jewess Esther as his queen. The king’s minister Haman, feeling insulted by Esther’s cousin Mordecai, convinces Ahasuerus to decree the destruction of all the Jews in the Persian Empire, but Mordecai and Esther manage to reverse their fate through their influence with the King.
Neither Vashti nor Esther are known from other sources. According to Herodotus, the Queen consort of Xerxes was actually Amestris, daughter to Otanes. Most historians consider the ‘Book of Esther’ to be a historical fiction, and assume that the events depicted therein did not actually occur.
Artaxerxes continued building work at Persepolis. It was completed during the reign of Artaxerxes III, around 338 BC. In 334 BC, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian armies of the third Darius. He marched into Iran and, once there, he turned his attention to Persepolis, and that magnificent complex of buildings was burnt down. This act of destruction for revenge of the Acropolis, was surprising from one who prided himself on being a pupil of Aristotle. This was the end of the Persian Empire.
Xerxes’s Hall of the 100 Columns is the most impressive building in the complex. It is also the most crowded–a jumble of fallen columns, column heads, and column bases.
Persepolis (Takht-e Jamshid or Chehel Minar) was the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid dynasty. Persepolis is situated 70 km northeast of the modern city of Shiraz in the Fars Province of modern Iran. In contemporary Persian, the site is known as Takht-e Jamshid (Throne of Jamshid) and Parseh. To the ancient Persians, the city was known as Pārsa, meaning “The City of Persians”. Persepolis is the Greek interpretation of the name Πέρσης πόλις (Persēs polis: “Persian city”).
Archaeological evidence shows that the earliest remains of Persepolis date from around 515 BC. André Godard, the French archaeologist who excavated Persepolis in the early 1930s, believed that Cyrus the Great chose the site of Persepolis, but that Darius the Great built the terrace and the great palaces.
Darius ordered the construction of the Apadana Palace and the Debating Hall (the Tripylon or three-gated hall), the main imperial Treasury and its surroundings. These were completed during the reign of his son, King Xerxes I. Further construction of the buildings on the terrace continued until the downfall of the Achaemenid dynasty.
The first westerner to visit Persepolis was Antonio de Gouveia, from Portugal, who wrote about cuneiform inscriptions following his visit in 1602. His first written report on Persia, the “Jornada”, was published in 1606.
The first scientific excavation at Persepolis was carried out by Ernst Herzfeld in 1931, commissioned by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Herzfeld believed the reasons behind the construction of Persepolis were the need for a majestic atmosphere, a symbol for their empire, and to celebrate special events, especially the “Nowruz”. For historical reasons, Persepolis was built where the Achaemenid Dynasty was founded, although it was not the center of the empire at that time.
Persepolitan architecture is noted for its use of wooden columns. Architects resorted to stone only when the largest cedars of Lebanon or teak trees of India did not fulfill the required sizes. Column bases and capitals were made of stone, even on wooden shafts, but the existence of wooden capitals is probable.
The buildings at Persepolis include three general groupings: military quarters, the treasury, and the reception halls and occasional houses for the King. Noted structures include the Great Stairway, the Gate of Nations (Xerxes), the Apadana Palace of Darius, the Hall of a Hundred Columns, the Tripylon Hall and Tachara Palace of Darius, the Hadish Palace of Xerxes, the palace of Artaxerxes III, the Imperial Treasury, the Royal Stables and the Chariot House.
Persepolis is near the small river Pulwar, which flows into the river Kur (Kyrus). The site includes a 125,000 square meter terrace, partly artificially constructed and partly cut out of a mountain, with its east side leaning on Kuh-e Rahmet (“the Mountain of Mercy”). The other three sides are formed by retaining walls, which vary in height with the slope of the ground. From 5 to 13 meters on the west side a double stair, gently slopes to the top. To create the level terrace, depressions were filled with soil and heavy rocks, which were joined together with metal clips. Around 518 BC, construction of a broad stairway was begun. The stairway was planned to be the main entrance to the terrace 20 meters above the ground. The dual stairway, known as the Persepolitan stairway, was built in symmetrically on the western side of the Great Wall. The 111 steps were 6.9 meters wide with treads of 31 centimetres and rises of 10 centimetres. Originally, the steps were believed to have been constructed to allow for nobles and royalty to ascend by horseback. New theories suggest that the shallow risers allowed visiting dignitaries to maintain a regal appearance while ascending. The top of the stairways led to a small yard in the north-eastern side of the terrace, opposite the Gate of Nations.
Gray limestone was the main building material used in Persepolis. After natural rock had been levelled and the depressions filled in, the terrace was prepared. Major tunnels for sewage were dug underground through the rock. A large elevated water storage tank was carved at the eastern foot of the mountain. Professor Olmstead suggested the cistern was constructed at the same time that construction of the towers began.
The uneven plan of the foundation of the terrace acted like a castle whose angled walls enabled its defenders to target any section of the external front. Diodorus writes that Persepolis had three walls with ramparts, which all had towers to provide protection space for the defense personnel. The first wall was 7 meters tall, the second, 14 meters and the third wall, which covered all four sides, was 27 meters in height, though no presence of the wall exists in modern times.
Ruins of a number of colossal buildings exist on the terrace. All are constructed of dark-grey marble. Fifteen of their pillars stand intact. Three more pillars have been re-erected since 1970. Several of the buildings were never finished. F. Stolze has shown that some of the mason’s rubbish remains. These ruins, for which the name Chehel minar (“the forty columns or minarets”) can be traced back to the 13th century, are now known as Takht-e Jamshid – تخت جمشید (“the throne of Jamshid”). Since the time of Pietro della Valle, it has been beyond dispute that they represent the Persepolis captured and partly destroyed by Alexander the Great.
Behind Takht-e Jamshid are three sepulchres hewn out of the rock in the hillside. The façades, one of which is incomplete, are richly decorated with reliefs. About 13 km NNE, on the opposite side of the Pulwar, rises a perpendicular wall of rock, in which four similar tombs are cut at a considerable height from the bottom of the valley. The modern Persians call this place Naqsh-e Rustam – نقش رستم or Nakshi Rostam (“the picture of Rostam”), from the Sassanian reliefs beneath the opening, which they take to be a representation of the mythical hero Rostam. It may be inferred from the sculptures that the occupants of these seven tombs were kings. An inscription on one of the tombs declares it to be that of Darius Hystaspis, concerning whom Ctesias relates that his grave was in the face of a rock, and could only be reached by the use of ropes. Ctesias mentions further, with regard to a number of Persian kings, either that their remains were brought “to the Persians,” or that they died there.
The Gate of All Nations
The Gate of all Nations, referring to subjects of the empire, consisted of a grand hall that was almost 25 square metres, with four columns and its entrance on the Western Wall. There were two more doors, one to the south which opened to the Apadana yard and the other opened onto a long road to the east. Pivoting devices found on the inner corners of all the doors indicate that they were two-leafed doors, probably made of wood and covered with sheets of ornate metal.
A pair of Lamassu’s, bulls with the head of a bearded man, stands by the western threshold. Another pair, with wings and a Persian head (Gopät-Shäh), stands by the eastern entrance, to reflect the Empire’s power.
Xerxes’ name was written in three languages and carved on the entrances, informing everyone that he ordered it to be built.
Darius the Great built the greatest and most glorious palace at Persepolis in the western side. This palace was named Apadana (the root name for modern “ayvan”). The King of Kings used it for official audiences. The work began in 515 BC. His son Xerxes I completed it 30 years later. The palace had a grand hall in the shape of a square, each side 60 m long with seventy-two columns, thirteen of which still stand on the enormous platform. Each column is 19 m high with a square Taurus and plinth. The columns carried the weight of the vast and heavy ceiling. The tops of the columns were made from animal sculptures such as two headed bulls, lions and eagles. The columns were joined to each other with the help of oak and cedar beams, which were brought from Lebanon. The walls were covered with a layer of mud and stucco to a depth of 5 cm, which was used for bonding, and then covered with the greenish stucco which is found throughout the palaces. At the western, northern and eastern sides of the palace there was a rectangular veranda which had twelve columns in two rows of six. At the south of the grand hall a series of rooms were built for storage. Two grand Persepolitan stairways were built, symmetrical to each other and connected to the stone foundations. To protect the roof from erosion, vertical drains were built through the brick walls. In the four corners of Apadana, facing outwards, four towers were built.
The walls were tiled and decorated with pictures of lions, bulls, and flowers. Darius ordered his name and the details of his empire to be written in gold and silver on plates, which were placed in covered stone boxes in the foundations under the Four Corners of the palace. Two Persepolitan style symmetrical stairways were built on the northern and eastern sides of Apadana to compensate for a difference in level. Two other stairways stood in the middle of the building. The external front views of the palace were embossed with pictures of the Immortals, the Kings’ elite guards. The northern stairway was completed during Darius’ reign, but the other stairway was completed much later.
The Throne Hall
Next to the Apadana, second largest building of the Terrace and the final edifices, is the Throne Hall or the Imperial Army’s hall of honour (also called the “Hundred-Columns Palace). This 70×70 square meter hall was started by Xerxes and completed by his son Artaxerxes I by the end of the fifth century BC. Its eight stone doorways are decorated on the south and north with reliefs of throne scenes and on the east and west with scenes depicting the king in combat with monsters. Two colossal stone bulls flank the northern portico.
In the beginning of Xerxes’s reign the Throne Hall was used mainly for receptions for military commanders and representatives of all the subject nations of the empire. Later the Throne Hall served as an imperial museum.
Other palaces and structures
There were other palaces built. These included the Tachara palace which was built under Darius I, and the Imperial treasury which was started by Darius in 510 BC and finished by Xerxes in 480 BC. The Hadish palace by Xerxes I, occupies the highest level of terrace and stands on the living rock. The Council Hall, the Tryplion Hall, The Palaces of D, G, H, Storerooms, Stables and quarters, Unfinished Gateway and a few Miscellaneous Structures at Persepolis near the south-east corner of the Terrace, at the foot of the mountain.
Tombs of King of Kings
It is commonly accepted that Cyrus the Great was buried at Pasargadae. If it is true that the body of Cambyses II was brought home “to the Persians”, his burying-place must be somewhere beside that of his father. Ctesias assumes that it was the custom for a king to prepare his own tomb during his lifetime. Hence the kings buried at Naghsh-e Rustam are probably Darius the Great, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I and Darius II. Xerxes II, who reigned for a very short time, could scarcely have obtained so splendid a monument, and still less could the usurper Sogdianus (Secydianus). The two completed graves behind Takhti Jamshid would then belong to Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III. The unfinished one is perhaps that of Arses of Persia, who reigned at the longest two years, or, if not his, then that of Darius III (Codomannus), who is one of those whose bodies are said to have been brought “to the Persians.”
Another small group of ruins in the same style is found at the village of Hajjiäbäd, on the Pulwar, a good hour’s walk above Takhti Jamshid. These formed a single building, which was still intact 900 years ago, and was used as the mosque of the then-existing city of Istakhr.
Cyrus the Great was buried in Pasargadae, which is mentioned by Ctesias as his own city. Since, to judge from the inscriptions, the buildings of Persepolis commenced with Darius I, it was probably under this king, with whom the sceptre passed to a new branch of the royal house, that Persepolis became the capital of Persia proper. As the residence of the rulers of the empire, however, a remote place in a difficult alpine region was far from convenient. The country’s true capitals were Susa, Babylon and Ecbatana. This accounts for the fact that the Greeks were not acquainted with the city until Alexander the Great took and plundered it.
At that time Alexander burned “the palaces” or “the palace,” universally believed now to be the ruins at Takhti Jamshid. From Stolze’s investigations it appears that at least one of these, the castle built by Xerxes, bears evident traces of having been destroyed by fire. The locality described by Diodorus after Cleitarchus corresponds in important particulars with Takhti Jamshid, for example, in being supported by the mountain on the east.
The relevant passages from ancient scholars on the subject are set out below:
- (Diod. 17.70.1-73.2) 17.70 (1) Persepolis was the capital of the Persian kingdom. Alexander described it to the Macedonians as the most hateful of the cities of Asia, and gave it over to his soldiers to plunder, all but the palaces. (2) +It was the richest city under the sun and the private houses had been furnished with every sort of wealth over the years. The Macedonians raced into it, slaughtering all the men whom they met and plundering the residences; many of the houses belonged to the common people and were abundantly supplied with furniture and wearing apparel of every kind….
- 72 (1) Alexander held games in honour of his victories. He performed costly sacrifices to the gods and entertained his friends bountifully. While they were feasting and the drinking was far advanced, as they began to be drunken a madness took possession of the minds of the intoxicated guests. (2) At this point one of the women present, Thais by name and Attic by origin, said that for Alexander it would be the finest of all his feats in Asia if he joined them in a triumphal procession, set fire to the palaces, and permitted women’s hands in a minute to extinguish the famed accomplishments of the Persians. (3) This was said to men who were still young and giddy with wine, and so, as would be expected, someone shouted out to form up and to light torches, and urged all to take vengeance for the destruction of the Greek temples. (4) Others took up the cry and said that this was a deed worthy of Alexander alone. When the king had caught fire at their words, all leaped up from their couches and passed the word along to form a victory procession [epinikion komon] in honour of Dionysius.
- (5) Promptly many torches were gathered. Female musicians were present at the banquet, so the king led them all out for the komos to the sound of voices and flutes and pipes, Thais the courtesan leading the whole performance. (6) She was the first, after the king, to hurl her blazing torch into the palace. As the others all did the same, immediately the entire palace area was consumed, so great was the conflagration. It was most remarkable that the impious act of Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the acropolis at Athens should have been repaid in kind after many years by one woman, a citizen of the land which had suffered it, and in sport.
- (Curt. 5.6.1-7.12) 5.6 (1) On the following day the king called together the leaders of his forces and informed them that “no city was more mischievous to the Greeks than the seat of the ancient kings of Persia . . . by its destruction they ought to offer sacrifice to the spirits of their forefathers.”…
- 7 (1) But Alexander’s great mental endowments, that noble disposition, in which he surpassed all kings, that intrepidity in encountering dangers, his promptness in forming and carrying out plans, his good faith towards those who submitted to him, merciful treatment of his prisoners, temperance even in lawful and usual pleasures, were sullied by an excessive love of wine. (2) At the very time when his enemy and his rival for a throne was preparing to renew the war, when those whom he had conquered were but lately subdued and were hostile to the new rule, he took part in prolonged banquets at which women were present, not indeed those whom it would be a crime to violate, but, to be sure, harlots who were accustomed to live with armed men with more licence than was fitting.
- (3) One of these, Thais by name, herself also drunken, declared that the king would win most favour among all the Greeks, if he should order the palace of the Persians to be set on fire; that this was expected by those whose cities the barbarians had destroyed. (4) When a drunken strumpet had given her opinion on a matter of such moment, one or two, themselves also loaded with wine, agreed. The king, too, more greedy for wine than able to carry it, cried: “Why do we not, then, avenge Greece and apply torches to the city?” 5) All had become heated with wine, and so thy arose when drunk to fire the city which they had spared when armed. The king was the first to throw a firebrand upon the palace, then the guests and the servants and courtesans. The palace had been built largely of cedar, which quickly took fire and spread the conflagration widely. (6) When the army, which was encamped not far from the city, saw the fire, thinking it accidental, they rushed to bear aid. (7) But when they came to the vestibule of the palace, they saw the king himself piling on firebrands. Therefore, they left the water which they had brought, and they too began to throw dry wood upon the burning building.
- (8) Such was the end of the capital of the entire Orient. . . .
- (10) The Macedonians were ashamed that so renowned a city had been destroyed by their king in a drunken revel; therefore the act was taken as earnest, and they forced themselves to believe that it was right that it should be wiped out in exactly that manner.
- (Cleitarchus, FGrHist. 137, F. 11 (= Athenaeus 13. 576d-e))
- And did not Alexander the Great have with him Thais, the Athenian hetaira? Cleitarchus speaks of her as having been the cause for the burning of the palace at Persepolis. After Alexander’s death, this same Thais was married to Ptolemy, the first king of Egypt.
There is, however, one formidable difficulty. Diodorus says that the rock at the back of the palace containing the royal sepulchres is so steep that the bodies could be raised to their last resting-place only by mechanical appliances. This is not true of the graves behind Takhti Jamshid, to which, as F. Stolze expressly observes, one can easily ride up. On the other hand, it is strictly true of the graves at Nakshi Rustam. Stolze accordingly started the theory that the royal castle of Persepolis stood close by Nakshi Rustam, and has sunk in course of time to shapeless heaps of earth, under which the remains may be concealed. The vast ruins, however, of Takhti Jamshid, and the terrace constructed with so much labour, can hardly be anything else than the ruins of palaces; as for temples, the Persians had no such thing, at least in the time of Darius and Xerxes. Moreover, Persian tradition at a very remote period knew of only three architectural wonders in that region, which it attributed to the fabulous queen Humgi (Khumái)the grave of Cyrus at Pasargadae, the building at HäjjIãbãd, and those on the great terrace.
It is safest therefore to identify these last with the royal palaces destroyed by Alexander. Cleitarchus, who can scarcely have visited the place himself, with his usual recklessness of statement, confounded the tombs behind the palaces with those of Nakshi Rustam; indeed he appears to imagine that all the royal sepulchres were at the same place.
After invading Persia, Alexander the Great sent the main force of his army to Persepolis in the year 330 BC. By the Royal Road, Alexander stormed the Persian Gates (in the modern Zagros Mountains), then quickly captured Persepolis before its treasury could be looted. After several months Alexander allowed his troops to loot Persepolis. A fire broke out in the eastern palace of Xerxes and spread to the rest of the city. It is not clear if it had been a drunken accident, or a deliberate act of revenge for the burning of the Acropolis of Athens during the Second Hellenic-Persian War. Many historians argue that while Alexander’s army celebrated with a symposium they decided to take revenge against Persians. In that case it would be a combination of the two. The Book of Arda Wiraz, a Zoroastrian work composed in the 3rd or 4th century CE, also describes archives containing “all the Avesta and Zand, written upon prepared cow-skins, and with gold ink” that were destroyed.
After the fall of the Achaemenid Empire
In 316 BC Persepolis was still the capital of Persia as a province of the great Macedonian Empire (see Diod. xix, 21 seq., 46 ; probably after Hieronymus of Cardia, who was living about 316). The city must have gradually declined in the course of time; but the ruins of the Achaemenidae remained as a witness to its ancient glory. It is probable that the principal town of the country, or at least of the district, was always in this neighborhood.
About 200 BC we find the city Istakhr (properly Stakhr), five kilometers north of Persepolis, as the seat of the local governors. There the foundations of the second great Persian Empire were laid, and there Istakhr acquired special importance as the center of priestly wisdom and orthodoxy. The Sassanian kings have covered the face of the rocks in this neighborhood, and in part even the Achaemenian ruins, with their sculptures and inscriptions. They must themselves have built largely here, although never on the same scale of magnificence as their ancient predecessors. The Romans knew as little about Istakhr as the Greeks had known about Persepolis–and this despite the fact that for four hundred years the Sassanians maintained relations, friendly or hostile, with the empire.
At the time of the Arabian conquest Istakhr offered a desperate resistance. The city was still a place of considerable importance in the first century of Islam, although its greatness was speedily eclipsed by the new metropolis Shiraz. In the 10th century Istakhr dwindled to insignificance, as may be seen from the descriptions of Istakhri, a native (c. 950), and of Mukaddasi (c. 985). During the following centuries Istakhr gradually declines, until, as a city, it ceased to exist. This fruitful region, however, was covered with villages till the frightful devastations of the 18th century; and even now it is, comparatively speaking, well cultivated. The “castle of Istakhr” played a conspicuous part several times during the Muslim period as a strong fortress. It was the middlemost and the highest of the three steep crags which rise from the valley of the Kur, at some distance to the west or north-west of Nakshi Rustam.
We learn from Asian writers that one of the Buyid (Buwaihid) sultans in the 10th century of the Flight constructed the great cisterns, which may yet be seen. Amongst others, James Morier and E. Flandin have visited them. W. Ouseley points out that this castle was still used in the 16th century, at least as a state prison. But when Pietro della Valle was there in 1621, it was already in ruins.