Thursday, August 14, 2008
The ruins of Persepolis (in Persian, Parsa) lie at the foot of Kuh-i-Rahmat (Mountain of Mercy) beside a small river on the Marv Dasht plain of southwestern Iran, about 400 miles (640 kilometers) south of Tehran. Widely held to be one of the greatest architectural complexes of the ancient world, and even claimed to be the most beautiful the world has ever seen, it was probably commissioned by Darius I between 518 and 516 b.c. as the ceremonial center and temporary royal residence of the First Persian (Achaemenian) Empire. Persepolis flourished under later kings. Xerxes I (reigned 486–465 b.c.) built the Throne Hall and the ceremonial gateway. His son Artaxerxes I (464–425) finished the hall, Artaxerxes II (ca. 350) built the so-called Unfinished Palace, and more buildings were added as late as the reign of Artaxerxes III, who died only eight years before the city was looted and burned by Alexander the Great’s armies in 330 b.c. Helped by traitors, the Macedonians took Persepolis by surprise, massacred the defenders, and stripped the palaces and the treasury of gold and silver.
The earliest Achaemenian capital was established by Cyrus I at Pasargadae, 48 miles (77 kilometers) to the north of the Persepolis site. Soon the administrative center was moved to Susa, a further 230 miles (370 kilometers) north, which was better placed strategically for dealings with Mesopotamia. Darius I then decided, for his own reasons, to create Persepolis; perhaps he wanted to build a dynastic shrine in the Achaemenian homeland. Or there may have been a political motive. But Persepolis was never a capital, or even a city in any sense of that word. It was established as a venue where the subject nations would pay homage to the Persian kings. There were no temples, and its palaces were for temporary occupation only.
Persepolis stood on a half-constructed, half-natural limestone terrace that measured about 1,475 feet north to south and about 985 feet east to west (450 by 300 meters), rose up to 60 feet (18 meters) above the plain, and was surrounded by a fortified triple wall. Its northern part, with the Gate of Xerxes, the Audience Hall of the Apadana, and the Throne Hall, was the ceremonial precinct, to which access was restricted. The southern part housed the Palaces of Darius (Tachara), Xerxes (Hadish), and Artaxerxes III, the Harem, the Council Hall (Tripylon), treasuries, barracks, and other ancillary buildings such as the royal stables and chariot house.
The main ceremonial approach to the platform was at the northwest corner by a 23-foot-wide (7-meter) monumental stairway of over 100 shallow steps; it was richly carved in low relief with symbols of the god Ahura Mazda and sculptures of people bringing annual tribute to the Achaemenid kings. The stair led to the only entrance to the terrace, the Gate of Xerxes (called the Gate of All Nations), a square hall built of decorated sun-dried brick, its roof supported by four columns. It had three huge doorways, 36 feet high, with double doors of timber sheathed in decorated metal. The southern door opened into a courtyard before the Apadana, the audience hall of Darius and Xerxes. This vast 198-foot-square space—the largest building of the complex—was a forest of thirty-six stone columns, rising more than 60 feet (19 meters) from bell-shaped bases and crowned by capitals decorated with double bulls’, lions’, human, or mythical horned lions’ heads, supporting a roof frame, built, of cedar imported from Lebanon.
The processional way through the eastern door of the Gate of Xerxes led visitors to the east before then turning south toward the Throne Hall (also known as the Hall of a Hundred Columns), a 230-foot-square (70-meter) room containing literally 100 columns. Its principal portico, facing north, was flanked by two huge stone bulls, and its eight stone portals were decorated with low reliefs of the spring festival and scenes of the king fighting monsters. On the Persian New Year, Now Ruz (21 March), delegates from the twenty-eight subject nations would pass to the Throne Hall to pay homage and present their gifts and offerings—silver, gold, weapons, textiles, jewelry, and even animals. Later, when the treasury at the southeast corner of the terrace could no longer hold the tributes, the Throne Hall also served to store and display the riches of the Persian Empire.
All these buildings glowed with color: green stucco predominated, and the figures in the relief carvings were brightly painted. In much Achaemenian architecture, mud-brick walls were faced with blue, white, yellow, and green glazed bricks with animal and floral ornaments. The forests of pillars, many of them sheathed in gold and embellished with ivory, were hung with embroidered curtains. Precious stones were used in mosaics.
The long-forgotten site of Persepolis was rediscovered in 1620, and although many subsequent visitors wrote of it, serious investigation did not commence until 1931. James Breasted of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago commissioned Professor Ernst Herzfeld of Berlin to excavate and (where possible) restore the remains of the city. Herzfeld (working 1931–1934) and Erich Schmidt (1934–1939) thoroughly documented the extensive ruins. UNESCO declared Persepolis a World Heritage Site in 1979.