Persepolis (Iran) - Capital City of Darius the Great's Persian Empire

Persepolis, Capital City of the Persian Empire and Target of Alexander

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

Persepolis is the Greek name ("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 BC. 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 Farvardin 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/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 100 Columns 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 (see Achaemenid King List).

The Treasury

The Treasury, a relatively unassuming mud-brick structure on the southeastern corner of the Persepolis main terrace, has received considerable 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 BC.

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 BC, was bounded 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 Achaemenids. 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 refer to "dispensed in behalf of the king" are 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 BC), 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 requesting to be paid, and memoranda saying the person had been paid. Record payents 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. 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 much about the sack.

Persepolis and Archaeology

Persepolis remained occupied even after Alexander burned it to the ground; the Sasanids [224-651 AD] used it as an important city. It was forgotten then 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).

Sources

A great source of information about the archaeology of Persepolis are the Oriental Institute's Persepolis and Ancient Iran. The Circle for Iranian Studies has numerous photos of the site.

Aminzadeh B, and Samani F. 2006. Identifying the boundaries of the historical site of Persepolis using remote sensing. Remote Sensing of Environment 102(1-2):52-62.

Askari Chaverdi A, Callieri P, Laurenzi Tabasso M, and Lazzarini L. 2016. The Archaeological Site of Persepolis (Iran): Study of the Finishing Technique of the Bas-Reliefs and Architectural Surfaces. Archaeometry 58(1):17-34.

Cahill N. 1985. The Treasury at Persepolis: Gift-Giving at the City of the Persians.

American Journal of Archaeology 89(3):373-389.

Cool Root M. 1985. The Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana Reliefs at Persepolis: Reassessing a Programmatic Relationship. American Journal of Archaeology 89(1):103-120.

Garrison MB. 1991. Seals and the Elite at Persepolis: Some Observations on Early Achaemenid Persian Art. Ars Orientalis 21:1-29.

Hallock RT. 1973. The Persepolis Fortification Archive. Orientalia 42:320-323.

Klotz D. 2015. Darius I and the Sabaeans: Ancient Partners in Red Sea Navigation. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 74(2):267-280.

Mousavi A. 2002. Persepolis in Retrospect: Histories of Discovery and Archaeological Exploration at the Ruins of Ancient Parseh. Ars Orientalis 32:209-251.

Peck EH. 2005. Achaemenid Relief Fragments from Persepolis. Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 79(1/2):20-33.

Vollmers GL. 2009. Accounting and control in the Persepolis fortification tablets. The Accounting Historians Journal 36(2):93-111.