Persepolis – City of Persians
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Around 60 km northeast of Shiraz, at the foot of the Koh e Rahmat or Mountain of Mercy in Iran lie the remains of one of the greatest cities of the Achaemenid Empire: Persepolis.
Known as Parsa, which means city of Persians in Old Persian and Takht-e-Jamshed in modern Persian, Persepolis is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, designated as such in 1979.
Evidence of prehistoric settlement from the site upon which Persepolis is built shows that the area had been occupied long before Darius I, or Darius the Great if you prefer, made it his capital during his reign from 522 to 486 BC. Darius was the third king of the Achaemenid Empire that lasted for over 2 centuries, and which Persian King, Cyrus the Great had established in 6th century BC.
Darius wanted to move the capital that Cyrus had established in Pasargadae to give the Persian administration a fresh start. But he located Persepolis in a remote region, making travel there difficult, so the administration of the Empire was overseen from other major cities such as Babylon, Susa and Ecbatana. The new city therefore became the ceremonial capital.
There are nine structures in the entire complex and Darius built three of these while his son Xerxes I (he of the movie 300 fame) and grandson Artaxerxes I completed the rest. Excavations have also revealed a marketplace, residential buildings and most probably a palace for Artaxerxes.
Darius the Great raised an enormous platform terrace on the Marv Dasht plain, upon which he ordered his capital city to be built and this is the first site you see as you approach it. The initial structures included his council hall, palace, and reception hall (or the Apadana).
The main building material were limestone and mud bricks but the reception hall featured a 200 foot-long (60 meters) brightly decorated hall with 72 columns 62 feet (19 meters) high supporting a roof of cedar and cedar beams from Lebanon. Sculptures of animals symbolizing the king’s authority, such as the bull and lion sat atop the columns. The outside walls of the platform depicted people from the 23 subject nations of the Achaemenid Empire, arriving with gifts for the king. These bas-relief depictions are extremely precise and you can actually identify the nationalities represented. A large elevated cistern was carved at the eastern foot of the mountain behind the platform to catch rainwater for drinking and bathing. An irrigation system called the Qanat supplied water to villages and farms via wells and ducts. It is still in use all over Iran today.
The grandeur of the site is due to Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I however, and later Achaemenid kings added their own embellishments. The great palace complex built by Xerxes I was entered through the Gate of All Nations, flanked by two monumental statues of lamassu (bull-men) who were thought to ward off evil.
Xerxes built his harem with 22 apartments behind which he also built the Treasury to house government archives, religious works and other writing, art, loot from conquests, and tributes brought by subject nations.
Around 4 km northeast of Persepolis is Naqsh-e-Rustom, a necropolis housing the rock cut cliff tombs of Darius the Great, and his successors (probably Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I). Later Persian emperors, most notably the Sassanians, added rock reliefs to the necropolis. The most famous one is of the Sassanian king Shapur I on horseback, with the Roman Emperor Valerian bowing to him in submission, and Philip the Arab (an earlier emperor who paid Shapur tribute) holding Shapur’s horse, while the dead Emperor Gordian III, killed in battle, lies beneath it. This commemorates the Battle of Edessa in 260 AD, when Valerian became the only Roman Emperor captured as a prisoner of war, something that the Sassanians never tired of reminding the Romans.
However, the oldest relief at Naqsh-e Rostam dates back to around1000 BC and thought to be pre Persian Elamite in origin. The man in the relief gives the site its name, Naqsh-e Rostam (“Rustam Relief” or “Relief of Rustam”), because it was locally believed to be a depiction of the mythical hero Rustam.
The function of a mysterious cube like structure called kaba-e-zartosht or cube of Zoroaster situated exactly opposite the tomb of Darius II has puzzled archaeologists; some say it was a fire temple, others call it a mausoleum and or even a treasury for important documents. It probably acquired the name during the Muslim period and later on Europeans started associating it with fire-worship because the inside walls of the structure were blackened with soot. Side note: cube-like structures were built all over the Middle East for religious purposes, long before Muslims adopted the Kaaba.
So, what happened to Persepolis? Well, Alexander the Great happened. In 330 BC, during the reign of Darius III, Alexander plundered the city and burned the whole place down including the palace of Xerxes, apparently while partying with his troops.
Persepolis remained the capital of Persis as a province of the Macedonian empire until 316 BC but eventually declined under the Seleucid kingdom.
However, it remained a place of considerable importance in the first century of Islam, but the new city of Shiraz nearby soon made it insignificant. In the mid-11th century, the Seljuq emir Qutulmish razed it and transferred its population to Shiraz.
Persepolis remained hidden and forgotten under its own ruins till 1618 when it was re-discovered as the ancient capital. Excavations of the site started in 1931, providing ample evidence for a great fire.
It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth a visit if you find yourself in Iran.
Title music: Hovering Thoughts by Spence (Youtube Music Archive)
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