Persepolis (Iran) - Capital City of the Persian Empire

Darius the Great's Capital Parsa, and a Target of Alexander the Great

Bas reliefs of Persian guards, Winter Palace of Darius (Tashara)
Chris Bradley / Design Pics / Getty Images

 Persepolis is the Greek name (meaning roughly "City of the Persians") for the Persian Empire capital of Pârsa, sometimes spelled Parseh or Parse. Persepolis was the capital of the Achaemenid dynasty king Darius the Great, ruler of the Persian Empire between 522–486 B.C.E. The city was the most important of the Achaemenid Persian Empire cities, and its ruins are among the best known and most visited archaeological sites in the world.

The Palace Complex

Persepolis was built in a region of irregular terrain, on top of a large (455x300 meters, 900x1500 feet) man-made terrace. That terrace is located on the Marvdasht Plain at the foot of the Kuh-e Rahmat mountain, 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of the modern city of Shiraz and 80 km (50 mi) south of Cyrus the Great's capital, Pasargadae.

Atop the terrace is the palace or citadel complex known as Takht-e Jamshid (The Throne of Jamshid), which was built by Darius the Great, and embellished by his son Xerxes and grandson Artaxerxes. The complex features 6.7 m (22 ft) wide double stairways, the pavilion called the Gate of All Nations, a columned porch, an imposing audience hall called Talar-e Apadana, and the Hall of a Hundred Columns.

The Hall of a Hundred Columns (or Throne Hall) likely had bull-headed capitals and still has doorways decorated with stone reliefs. Construction projects at Persepolis continued throughout the Achaemenid period, with major projects from Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes I and III.

The Treasury

The Treasury, a relatively unassuming mud-brick structure on the southeastern corner of the main terrace at Persepolis, has received much of the recent focus of archaeological and historical investigation: it was almost certainly the building which held the Persian Empire's vast wealth, stolen by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.E.

Alexander used the reported 3,000 metric tons of gold, silver and other valuables to fund his conquering march towards Egypt.

The Treasury, first built in 511–507 B.C.E., was surrounded on all four sides by streets and alleys. The main entrance was to the west, although Xerxes rebuilt the entrance on the north side. Its final form was a one-story rectangular building measuring 130X78 m (425x250 ft) with 100 rooms, halls, courtyards, and corridors. The doors were likely built of wood; the tiled floor received enough foot traffic to require several repairs. The roof was supported by more than 300 columns, some covered with mud plaster painted with a red, white and blue interlocking pattern.

Archaeologists have found some remnants of the vast stores left behind by Alexander, including fragments of artifacts much older than the Achaemenid period. Objects left behind included clay labels, cylinder seals, stamp seals and signet rings. One of the seals dates to the Jemdet Nasr period of Mesopotamia, some 2,700 years before the Treasury was built. Coins, glass, stone and metal vessels, metal weapons, and tools of different periods were also found. Sculpture left behind by Alexander included Greek and Egyptian objects, and votive objects with inscriptions dated from the Mesopotamian reigns of Sargon II, Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal and Nebuchadnezzar II.

Textual Sources

Historical sources on the city begin with cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets found within the city itself. In the foundation of the fortification wall at the northeastern corner of the Persepolis terrace, a collection of cuneiform tablets were found where they had been used as fill. Called the "fortification tablets", they record the disbursement from royal storehouses of food and other supplies. Dated between 509-494 BC, almost all of them are written in Elamite cuneiform although some have Aramaic glosses. A small subset that refers to "dispensed in behalf of the king" is known as the J Texts.

Another, later set of tablets were found in the ruins of the Treasury. Dated from the late years of the reign of Darius through the early years of Artaxerxes (492–458 B.C.E.), the Treasury Tablets record payments to workers, in lieu of a part of or all of the total food ration of sheep, wine, or grain.

The documents include both letters to the Treasurer demanding payment, and memoranda saying the person had been paid. Record payments were made to wage-earners of various occupations, up to 311 workers and 13 different occupations.

The great Greek writers did not, perhaps surprisingly, write about Persepolis in its heyday, during which time it would have been a formidable opponent and the capital of the vast Persian Empire. Although scholars are not in agreement, it is possible that the aggressive power described by Plato as Atlantis is a reference to Persepolis. But, after Alexander had conquered the city, a wide array of Greek and Latin authors like Strabo, Plutarch, Diodorus Siculus, and Quintus Curtius left us many details about the sacking of the Treasury.

Persepolis and Archaeology

Persepolis remained occupied even after Alexander burned it to the ground; the Sasanids (224–651 C.E.) used it as an important city. After that, it fell into obscurity until the 15th century, when it was explored by persistent Europeans. The Dutch artist Cornelis de Bruijn, published the first detailed description of the site in 1705. The first scientific excavations were conducted at Persepolis by the Oriental Institute in the 1930s; excavations were thereafter conducted by the Iranian Archaeological Service initially led by Andre Godard and Ali Sami. Persepolis was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.

To the Iranians, Persepolis is still a ritual space, a sacred national shrine, and a potent setting for the spring festival of Nou-rouz (or No ruz). Many of the recent investigations at Persepolis and other Mesopotamian sites in Iran are focused on preservation of the ruins from ongoing natural weathering and looting.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Persepolis (Iran) - Capital City of the Persian Empire." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2017, thoughtco.com/persepolis-iran-capital-city-of-darius-172083. Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, August 27). Persepolis (Iran) - Capital City of the Persian Empire. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/persepolis-iran-capital-city-of-darius-172083 Hirst, K. Kris. "Persepolis (Iran) - Capital City of the Persian Empire." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/persepolis-iran-capital-city-of-darius-172083 (accessed October 23, 2017).