Middle East

Royal ruins

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The ancient city of Persepolis once served as the capital of the Persian Empire. Today it is regarded among the world’s finest archaeological treasures.

It was the grandiose symbol of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Since the reign started in 550 B.C., initiated by Cyrus the Great, the Persians came to rule large parts of the Middle East, and territories as far as western Pakistan. Between 518 and 516 B.C., the empire’s third king, Darius, decided to build Persepolis: a city worthy of governing and entertaining the royalties of the member nations. It was a magnificent temple: stairways, gates and ceremonial halls. But as the empire fell, Persepolis went with it: in 330 B.C., less than two centuries after its construction, Alexander the Great, conquered and looted the city. The capital burnt to the ground.

The relics visible today are only on show thanks to an archaeological expedition some 80 years ago. After the invasion of the Greeks, the ancient city, located near the city of Marv Dasht in the south-west of modern-day Iran, was buried under its own ruins. Only a few pillars stood tall among the crushed buildings. In fact, it was only identified as Persepolis in 1618. Nothing more happened until the winter of 1930-31, when the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago funded a project to excavate the city. The mammoth task demanded nine years; only in 1939 was the site fully uncovered.

Since then, much of its history has been revealed. The city – its name Greek for ‘Persian City’ (‘Perse-polis’) – was first built by Darius, who ruled the empire from 522 to 486 B.C. But he never lived to see it finished. The project was passed onto his son, and coming king, Xerxes (who reigned from 486 to 465 B.C.). After him, it was completed by Artaxerxes (465 to 424 B.C.). The evidence of this is clear: the names of the three kings are engraved in tablets, doorways and hallways on the site. In total, the city took around a century to build.

Envisaging his kingdom’s home, Darius intended to build something more than a traditional stronghold. He wanted an arena for festivals, receptions and ceremonies to welcome the kings of the nations under his empire. The plans were grandiose. On the site, an inscription from Darius reads: “And Ahura Mazda [a supreme god in ancient Iranian religion] was of such a mind, together with all the other gods, that this fortress be built. And I built it. And I built it secure and beautiful and adequate, just as I was intending to.”

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But before construction could commence, some basic work was required. First they needed to build the giant platform, which elevated the buildings. They cut into a rocky mountainside and levelled the surface with natural rocks. Then they filled the depressions with rubble. When finished, the terrace measured 530 metres long and 330 metres wide. Below, they dug tunnels into the rock to channel sewage.

Later, they constructed the city’s characteristic stairways along the sides. Their size made them look more like giant ramps. One was designed wide enough for the Persian royalty to ascend and descent it without getting off their horses.

On the platform, a series of majestic buildings slowly took shape. The largest was called the Apadana: an audience hall for Darius, and a place to host receptions when kings visited. It had 72 columns, each 19 metres tall. Today 13 remain. Next to the Apadana was the second largest building: the Throne Hall, also called the Hundred-Column Hall. It had giant doorways decorated with reliefs that portrayed kings fighting monsters, and memorable scenes from the hall.

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In front of the Apadana was the famous Gate of Xerxes. Others called it ‘The Gate of all Nations’, as it was the only entrance for visiting kings. It still stands today. Two giant bulls guard its two sides. Other notable buildings in the city were the treasury, the council hall and the palaces of Darius and Xerxes. Surrounding the city, according to the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus, were three walls with ramparts and fortified towers. Guards manned them. One of the walls was 10 metres tall, Siculus claimed.

Yet Persepolis, for all its greatness, fell spectacularly as the empire went under. In 330 B.C., Alexander the Great conquered the city, setting it ablaze. So great was the city’s treasures that, according to the historian Plutarch, Alexander’s army carried the lootings on 20,000 mules and 5,000 camels. They left behind a fortress of burnt ruins: the symbol of a fallen civilisation.

Photos: Styve Reineck, Ko Yo [both via Shutterstock.com].

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