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Persepolis

Persepolis (Old-Persian: Pārśapura[1]) was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BC). Persepolis is situated 70 km northeast of the modern city of Shiraz in the Fars Province of modern Iran. The earliest remains of Persepolis date from around 515 BCE. UNESCO declared the citadel of Persepolis a World Heritage Site in 1979.

Name

To the ancient Persians, the city was known as Pārsa.* The English word Persepolis is derived from the Greek Πέρσης πόλις Pérsēs pólis, meaning "Persian city". In contemporary Persian, the site is known as تخت جمشید Takht-e Jamshid ("The Throne of Jamshid"), and چهل منار Chehel minar ("The Forty Columns/Minarets").

Construction

Archaeological evidence shows that the earliest remains of Persepolis date from around 515 BC. André Godard, the French archaeologist who excavated Persepolis in the early 1930s, believed that it was Cyrus the Great (Kūrosh) who chose the site of Persepolis, but that it was Darius I (Daryush) who built the terrace and the great palaces.

Darius ordered the construction of the Apadana Palace and the Council Hall (the Tripylon or three-gated hall), the main imperial Treasury and its surroundings. These were completed during the reign of his son, King Xerxes the Great (Khashayar). Further construction of the buildings on the terrace continued until the downfall of the Achaemenid dynasty.

Archaeological research

Plan of Persepolis

 

Odoric of Pordenone passed through Persepolis c.1320 on his way to China. In 1474, Giosafat Barbaro visited the ruins of Persepolis, which he incorrectly thought were of Jewish origin. Antonio de Gouveia from Portugal wrote about cuneiform inscriptions following his visit in 1602. His first written report on Persia, the Jornada, was published in 1606.

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, a variety of amateur digging occurred at the site, in some cases on a large scale. The first scientific excavations at Persepolis were carried out by Ernst Herzfeld and Erich Schmidt representing the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. They conducted excavations for eight seasons beginning in 1930 and included other nearby sites.

Herzfeld believed the reasons behind the construction of Persepolis were the need for a majestic atmosphere, a symbol for their empire, and to celebrate special events, especially the "Nowruz". For historical reasons, Persepolis was built where the Achaemenid Dynasty was founded, although it was not the center of the empire at that time.

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 fulfil the required sizes. Column bases and capitals were made of stone, even on wooden shafts, but the existence of wooden capitals is probable.

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 Stables, and the Chariot House.

Site

Persepolis
 
 

A 19th century reconstruction of Persepolis, by Flandin and Pascal Coste.

 

Sunset in Perspolis

 

Persepolis is near the small river Pulwar, which flows into the river Kur (Cyrus / Kuroush). The site includes a 125,000 square metre terrace, partly artificially constructed and partly cut out of a mountain, with its east side leaning on Kuh-e Rahmet ("the Mountain of Mercy"). The other three sides are formed by retaining walls, which vary in height with the slope of the ground. From 5 to 13 metres on the west side a double stair. From there it gently slopes to the top. To create the level terrace, depressions were filled with soil and heavy rocks, which were joined together with metal clips.

Around 519 BC, construction of a broad stairway was begun. The stairway was planned to be the main entrance to the terrace 20 metres above the ground. The dual stairway, known as the Persepolitan stairway, was built in symmetrically on the western side of the Great Wall. The 111 steps were 6.9 metres wide with treads of 31 centimetres and rises of 10 centimetres. Originally, the steps were believed to have been constructed to allow for nobles and royalty to ascend by horseback. New theories suggest that the shallow risers allowed visiting dignitaries to maintain a regal appearance while ascending. The top of the stairways led to a small yard in the north-eastern side of the terrace, opposite the Gate of Nations.

Grey limestone was the main building material used in Persepolis. After natural rock had been levelled 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. Professor Olmstead suggested the cistern was constructed at the same time that construction of the towers began.

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. Diodorus writes that Persepolis had three walls with ramparts, which all had towers to provide a protected space for the defense personnel. The first wall was 7 metres tall, the second, 14 metres and the third wall, which covered all four sides, was 27 metres in height, though no presence of the wall exists in modern times.

 

Ruins

Bas-relief in Persepolis—a symbol Zoroastrian Nowruz—in day of a spring equinox power of eternally fighting bull (personifying the moon), and a lion (personifying the Sun, the bulls crescent horn resembling the moon, the lions mane, representing the sun.

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. F. Stolze has shown that some of the mason's rubbish remains. These ruins, for which the name چهل منار Chehel minar ("the forty columns or minarets") can be traced back to the 13th century. They are now known as تخت جمشید Takht-e Jamshid ("the throne of Jamshid"). Since the time of Pietro della Valle, it has been beyond dispute that they represent the Persepolis captured and partly destroyed by Alexander the Great.

Behind Takht-e Jamshid are three sepulchres hewn out of the rock in the hillside. The façades, one of which is incomplete, are richly decorated with reliefs. About 13 km NNE, on the opposite side of the Pulwar, rises a perpendicular wall of rock, in which four similar tombs are cut at a considerable height from the bottom of the valley. The modern Persians call this place نقش رستم Naqsh-e Rustam, from the Sassanian reliefs beneath the opening, which they take to be a representation of the mythical hero Rostam. It may be inferred from the sculptures that the occupants of these seven tombs were kings. An inscription on one of the tombs declares it to be that of Darius Hystaspis, concerning whom Ctesias relates that his grave was in the face of a rock, and could only be reached by the use of ropes. Ctesias mentions further, with regard to a number of Persian kings, either that their remains were brought "to the Persians," or that they died there.

Gate of All Nations

 

Gate of All Nations.

  Two Persian Soldiers in Persepolis

The Gate of all Nations, referring to subjects of the empire, consisted of a grand hall that was a square of approximately 25 metres (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.

A pair of Lamassus, bulls with the heads of bearded men, stand by the western threshold. Another pair, with wings and a Persian head (Gopät-Shäh), 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.

Apadana Palace

 

Detail of a relief of the eastern stairs of the Apadana

 

The Apadana Palace, northern stairway (detail) - showing a Persian followed by a Mede soldier in traditional custume

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