PERSEPOLIS

Heart of the Persian Empire

MARC VAN DE MIEROOP

As Persepolis had exceeded all other cities in prosperity, so in the same measure it now exceeded all others in misery.

DIODORUS OF SICILY, c. 50 BC

Thus did the historian Diodorus sum up the fate of the city of Persepolis after Alexander the Great had conquered it in January 330 BC. Because he considered it ‘the most hateful of the cities of Asia’, Alexander allowed his troops to plunder all save the palaces for a full day; the men were so aroused by greed that fights erupted between them. Despite its spectacular wealth and obvious importance, remarkably few Greek sources mention Persepolis, however, both when it was a royal seat at the heart of the Persian empire and after Alexander had burnt down the palaces in a drunken outburst before resuming his campaigns. Only Diodorus gave a brief description of it, while others just reiterated its mythical wealth – in the 2nd century AD Plutarch wrote that ten thousand pairs of mules and five thousand camels had been needed to carry away the loot. The ancient Persian sources, too, give us limited information. Kings such as Darius I and his son Xerxes recount in trilingual cuneiform inscriptions – written in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian – the buildings they constructed, yet they do not tell us why Persepolis was important to them. We know that the Persians called the city Parsa, the name they also gave to the region in which it was located. It was the Greeks who coined the name Persepolis, ‘city of Persis’, which is how we remember it today.

The textual silence stands in great contrast to the wealth of archaeological and visual remains of Persepolis, which awestruck visitors have recorded from the Middle Ages until today. Early Muslim geographers gave it the name still used in Iran, ‘Throne of Jamshid’, after a legendary king who ruled the world, and from the 14th century onwards European travellers in the region described and drew it. Today, after intermittent excavations since the 1870s and restorations especially since the 1960s, the site speaks to us through its elaborate imagery.

The city as we see it now occupies a large, level terrace of about 450 by 300 m (1,475 by 985 ft), partly carved into the natural rock, partly built up with layers of cyclopean stones, in places reaching 12 m (40 ft) above the plain. Only one entrance existed, a grand double staircase leading up to the ‘gate of all nations’, so identified in an inscription by King Xerxes (r. 485–465 BC), who commissioned it. Whoever passed through it then faced two massive buildings whose soaring roofs were supported by a grid of columns up to 19 m (62 ft) tall with capitals shaped as animals, including lions, bulls and hybrid creatures: the Apadana (reception hall), with 36 columns in its central hall; and the Hall of 100 columns, with ten rows of ten columns each. Behind these two lay a dense cluster of buildings, including palaces for successive kings, Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes, and a gigantic Treasury.

This view of Persepolis from the mountains shows the partly reconstructed remains of the platform with its series of monumental buildings. The Hall of 100 Columns stands in front of the Apadana, with some of its tall columns standing upright.

Cirani/Iberfoto/AISA.

Carved at the sides of the two staircases leading up to the 3-m (10-ft) high platform of the Apadana were reliefs of Persian soldiers in full ceremonial dress, as well as long processions of delegations from the 23 provinces of the Persian empire bearing gifts to the king. Bactrians from Central Asia brought camels, Ionians from the Aegean Sea coast carried cups, bowls and folded fabrics, Nubians from the region south of Egypt came with ivory tusks, and so on. Similar processions appeared on the platforms of other buildings throughout the city. Central to all these scenes were images of the king surrounded by courtiers and soldiers, either seated on a throne or standing beneath a parasol, often receiving emissaries. Sometimes representatives of Persia’s subject peoples held up the platforms beneath the king’s throne. Only faint traces of the original paint on all these reliefs remain; in antiquity they must have made a colourful ensemble.

Since no ancient text describes what went on, it is left to the modern viewer’s imagination to interpret the function of the entire complex. Evidently, it demonstrated the emperor’s ability to collect the wealth of his dominions, which stretched from the Indus Valley to the Mediterranean Sea and from Central Asia to North Africa. Each of the subject peoples sent embassies with gifts characteristic of their homelands. Modern scholars have often suggested that a huge ceremony occurred annually at the New Year’s festival at the spring equinox, when the emperor received these gifts. We now know, however, that he was not in Persepolis at that time of year but in another residence at Susa in western Iran. Yet, it seems certain that Persepolis was a place for the collection of tribute, which according to the 5th-century BC Greek historian Herodotus amounted to the equivalent annually of 376,520 kg (830,000 lb) of silver. It is no surprise, then, that when the conquering Greeks looted the Treasury and released its wealth on to the market, the prices of gold and silver collapsed.

Relief on the platform of the Apadana, with lines of representatives from the various peoples subject to the Persian emperor delivering tribute, including, in the middle register, Gandharans (from modern Afghanistan) leading a humped bull.

J. Bedmar/Iberfoto/AISA.

Administrative records excavated in the Treasury and in the Fortifications – more than 30,000 of them in total and all dated between 509 and 458 BC – do not document these affairs, however. Instead they show how the bureaucracy used its resources to pay the local workforce. Records found in the Treasury authorized payments in silver to workmen in Persepolis itself, who included many foreigners, from Egypt, Babylonia, Bactria, India, Ionia and other subject territories. Documents from the Fortifications record distributions of food for travellers and workers in the area of southwest Iran, and the archive also included many tablets written in regional centres and sent to Persepolis.

King Artaxerxes gives an audience, seated on a throne in front of which stand two fire altars, in the Hall of 100 Columns. The official facing him probably organized the tribute deliveries.

Cirani/Iberfoto/AISA.

When viewing Persepolis today, we see only its stone monuments on the raised platform. But in its heyday, in the later 6th to 5th centuries BC, a bustling city of mud-brick houses, as yet unexcavated, surrounded that platform. The residents knew they were at the centre of a massive empire, not only by looking at the monuments nearby but also at each other: peoples from a vast territory joined in a cosmopolitan whole unseen before in history. The city stood as an icon of Persia’s power and reach. The empire had brought together millions of peoples with highly diverse appearances, languages, habits and cultures under the authority of one man. An ancient visitor to Persepolis must have heard numerous languages, smelled the aromas of many distinct cuisines, and seen men and women who looked and dressed very differently from one another. No wonder that Alexander considered it ‘the most hateful of the cities of Asia’, as its entire nature evoked how great the Persian empire had been.

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