Persepolis is the Greek name (from perses polis for 'Persian City') for the ancient city of Parsa, located seventy miles northeast of Shiraz in present-day Iran. The name Parsa meant 'City of The Persians' and it is also called Takht-e Jamshid. It was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. It exemplifies the Achaemenid style of architecture. The construction began at the site in 518 BCE under the rule of King Darius the Great. Darius made Parsa the new capital of the Persian Empire, instead of Pasargadae, the old capital and burial place of King Cyrus the Great. André Godard, the French archaeologist who excavated Persepolis in the early 1930s, believed that it was Cyrus the Great who chose the site of Persepolis, but that it was Darius I who built the terrace and the great palaces.
The great city of Persepolis was built in terraces up from the river Pulwar to rise on a larger terrace of over 125,000 square feet, partly cut out of the Mountain Kuh-e Rahmet ("the Mountain of Mercy"). To create the level terrace, large depressions were filled with soil and heavy rocks which were then fastened together with metal clips; upon this ground the first palace at Persepolis slowly grew. 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 Great), 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).
Around 515 BCE, construction of a broad stairway was begun up to the palace doors. This grand, dual entrance to the palace, known as the Persepolitan stairway, was a masterpiece of symmetry on the western side of the building and the steps were so wide that Persian royalty and those of noble birth could ascend or descend the stairs by horseback, thereby not having to touch the ground with their feet. The top of the stairways led to a small yard in the north-eastern side of the terrace, opposite the Gate of all Nations. The stairs were carved from massive blocks of stone, but each step was shallow so that Persians in long elegant robes could walk gracefully up into the palace.
Whenever important foreign delegations arrived, their presence was heralded by trumpeters at the top of the staircase; fragments of one of these bronze trumpets are on display in the museum. Acolytes then led the dignitaries through Xerxes’ Gateway (also known as the Gate of All Nations), which is still a wonderfully impressive monument. There is also a pair of bulls with the heads of bearded men, stand by the western threshold. Another pair, with wings and a Persian head, stands by the eastern entrance, to reflect the Empire’s power. Xerxes's name was written in three languages and carved on the entrances, informing everyone that he ordered it to be built.
The Gate of all Nations, referring to subjects of the empire, consisted of a grand hall that was a square of approximately 82 ft in length, 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. Built during the time of Xerxes I, the gateway is guarded by bull-like figures that have a strong Assyrian character. Above these, look for a cuneiform inscription in Old Persian, Neo-Babylonian and Elamite languages. It declares, among other things, that ‘King Xerxes says: by the favour of Ahuramazda this Gate of All Nations I built. Much else that is beautiful was built in this Parsa, which I built and my father built.’ Centuries of graffitists have also left their mark, including explorer Henry Morton Stanley.
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. Grey limestone was the main building material used in Persepolis. After natural rock had been leveled 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.
Darius the Great built the greatest palace at Persepolis on the western side. This palace was called the Apadana. 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 200 ft long with seventy-two columns, thirteen of which still stand on the enormous platform. Each column is 62 ft 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 were three rectangular porticos each of 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 carvings of the Immortals, the Kings' elite guards. The northern stairway was completed during Darius's reign, but the other stairway was completed much later.
Most impressive of all, however, and among the most impressive historical sites in all of Iran, are the bas-reliefs of the Apadana Staircase on the eastern wall, which can also be reached from the Palace of 100 Columns. The northern panels recount the reception of the Persians in formal dress and the Medes in tied dress. The three tiers of figures are amazingly well preserved. Each tier contains representations of the most elite of the Persian nobles, the Imperial Guard and the Immortals. On the upper tier, they are followed by the royal procession, the royal valets and the horses of the king of chariots; while on the lower two tiers they precede the Persians with their feather headdresses and the Medes in their round caps. The stairs themselves are guarded by Persian soldiers. The central panel of the staircase depicts a ring with wings, flanked by two winged lions with human heads and guarded by four Persian and Median soldiers; the Persians are the ones carrying the indented shields. The panels at the southern end are the most interesting, showing 23 delegations bringing their gifts to the Achaemenid king. This rich record of the nations of the time ranges from the Ethiopians in the bottom left corner, through a climbing pantheon of, among various other peoples, Arabs, Thracians, Kasmiris, Parthians and Cappadocians, up to the Elamites, Egyptians and Medians at the top right. Today, the staircase is covered by a permanent shelter and the only direct sunlight is early in the morning, so it’s worth heading straight here when the site opens. The Tripylon ahead stands at the heart of the city but no one knows what its exact function was.
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 honor (also called the "Hundred-Columns Palace). This 70×70 square metre 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. The head of one of the bulls now resides in the Oriental Institute in Chicago. 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. 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 Xerxe 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 are located near the south-east corner of the Terrace, at the foot of the mountain.
The uneven plan of the terrace, including the foundation, acted like a castle, whose angled walls enabled its defenders to target any section of the external front. Persepolis had three walls with ramparts, which all had towers to provide a protected space for the defense personnel. The first wall was 23 feet tall, the second, 46 feet and the third wall, which covered all four sides, was 89 feet 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 AD. Several of the buildings were never finished.
At that time, Alexander burned "the palaces" or "the palace," universally believed now to be the ruins at Takht-e 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 Takht-e Jamshid, for example, in being supported by the mountain on the east. It is believed that the fire that destroyed Persepolis started from Hadish Palace and spread to the rest of the city. It is not clear if it was an accident or a deliberate act of revenge for the burning of the Acropolis of Athens during the Second Persian invasion of Greece. He (Alexander) burned the whole Persepolis as revenge to the Persians because it seems around 150 years ago the Persian King Xerxes had burnt the Greek City of Athens.
The fire, which consumed Persepolis so completely that only the columns, stairways and doorways remained of the great palace, also destroyed the great religious works of the Persians written on “prepared cow-skins in gold ink” as well as their works of art. The palace of Xerxes, who had planned and executed the invasion of Greece in 480, received especially brutal treatment in the destruction of the complex. The city lay crushed under the weight of its own ruin and was lost to time. It became known to residents of the area only as 'the place of the forty columns (for the still-remaining columns standing among the wreckage) until, in 1618 CE, the site was identified as Persepolis. In 1931 excavations were begun which revealed the glory which had once been Persepolis.
Magnificent Persepolis embodies the greatest successes of the ancient Achaemenid Empire and also its final demise. The monumental staircases, exquisite reliefs and imposing gateways leave you in no doubt how grand this empire was, just as the broken and fallen columns attest that its end was both emphatic and merciless. The ruins you see today are a mere shadow of Persepolis’ former glory. But their very existence is due in part to the fact that the ancient city was lost for centuries, totally covered by dust and sand. It wasn’t until the 1930s that extensive excavations revealed its glories once again.