I arrived at the ruins of Persepolis, near Shiraz, with great anticipation. The skies were clear and the sun burned hot even in September. It was immediately evident that the former palaces had been erected on an enormous raised platform of earth and rock, making what could be described as a giant stage. Today it looks like the show is over, the cast and crew have left, but the props scattered over a wide area had not been removed. Fortunately for mankind, those props are too large and heavy to be looted. After the palace city was burned to the ground either by accident or intentionally by Alexander’s army, the movable was moved, but columns and facades and stairs and artifacts tell many stories that have yet to be fully deciphered by archeologists and scholars.
Battle of beasts on the eastern stairway of the Apadana (audience hall)
eagle head griffins
It was named Parsa and known to the ancient world as “The wealthiest city under the sun”. The Greeks later called it Persepolis, “The city of the Persians”. Excavations here only began in the 1930s although drawings and published accounts of the ruins were extant in the 19th century.
The still towering “Gateway to all Nations” offers visitors a path to hours of contemplation of ancient vibes, surrounded by strangers encased in stone, including traders bringing gifts to the royal residences, warriors and nobility fighting strong beasts, and beasts (mostly lions and horned bulls) fighting amongst themselves. The battle with lions (perhaps symbolizing destiny, or the complexities of the “power of nature," especially the sun/fire) is a motif that is repeated time and again throughout the palaces. The bull presented on the Persepolitan stairways and on some column capitals perhaps is the Zoroastrian “earth.” A 12-petaled flower, a lotus, frames much of the action portrayed on the remaining walls and facades, while dynamic sculptures of prized animals like the horse and of other-worldly beings like the eagle-headed griffin are scattered over a wide area bordered to the east by a high cliff and kingly mausoleum and westward by a fertile plain stretching to the horizon where mountains peer out of a desert-like haze.
Perhaps Armenians bringing a renowned wine
bearers of gifts from all over the empire's realm
From the tomb platform high on the cliffs, I gazed down on the Throne Hall, or imperial army’s hall of honor, also called the “Hundred Columns Palace.”
Hall of a Hundred Columns
Books are required to decipher the construction and destruction of this place. The city and great palace were built in 518 BCE by Darius the Great, replacing the old Persian capital, Pasargadae. There is no resemblance between the empty place where Cyrus’s lonely tomb remains and this mega-stone cemetery of sorts.
King Xerxes, son of Cyrus, invaded and destroyed much of Greece in 480 BCE, burning villages, cities and temples (including the Parthenon of Athens) until defeated at the naval Battle of Salamis. When Alexander the Great arrived and then left this “jewel” of Persia, only plundered ruins were left with “forty columns” standing in the sand. Many theories continue as to why Alexander, an admirer of the arts and culture, had a hand in its demise. Some speculate that a high-placed prostitute in Athens conspired to avenge Xerxes’ destruction of the acropolis in Athens years before.
Plutarch (46-120 CE) and other historians blamed the courtesan Thais, who while offering a drunken speech in praise of Alexander within the Persian palace, shouted that it would be sweet pleasure “to end the party by going out and setting fire to the palace of Xerxes, who had laid Athens to ashes. She wanted to put a torch to the building herself in full view of Alexander, so that posterity should know that the women who followed Alexander had taken more terrible revenge for the wrongs of Greece than all the famous commanders of earlier times by land or sea.”
According to Plutarch, Alexander was prompted by loud applause to the courtesan’s speech to leap to his feet “with a garland on his head and a torch in his hand.” More books would be appropriate to examine the implications of this and similar accounts with respect to the impulsive dance and psychology of the sexes, both ancient and modern.
I have alluded to the fact several times that considerable effort is necessary still to mine the legacy of Persepolis. In the gallery below, I resort simply to making some specific observations based on a selection of objects and relics that a person will encounter while casually tramping about the platform city of the Persians.
Finally, I note that the "tree", a cypress, is another image that appears repeatedly in the Persepolis complex. There is particular reverence paid to this natural power, as is evident in many of the the reliefs on the palace walls. Perhaps it is no coincidence that not far away from the sites of both Persepolis and Pasargadae is an old cypress tree, cultivated to this day, that is presumed to be more than 4,000 years old - one of the world's oldest trees. Sarv-e Abarkuh, a cypress, is 25 meters high and with a perimeter of 11.5 meters at its trunk and 18 meters higher up around its branches. (Until 2013, the oldest individual tree in the world was Methuselah, a 4,845-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California. Researchers then announced the age of another pine there — this one 5,062 years old.)
Some legends indicate that Noah's son, Japheth, planted the Sarve-e Abarkuh, although Zoroaster is also suspected of planting it.
Cypresses are typically prominent in the famous Persian Gardens, such as Fin Garden and Dowlat Abad.
Gallery of History
Wall map at the National Gallery in Tehran
National Gallery, Tehran: depiction on a wall from sister city of Persepolis in Susa, Iraq
Artifact, seeming to bear a Christian cross
Historical photograph of Persepolis undergoing restoration and discovery
Persepolis under a September sun, 2017
One must use the imagination to realize that the bronze, plaster and stone of 2.5 thousand years ago was painted in gold and silver and multitude hues and covered with tapestry and carpets and gems, reflecting the riches of central Asia.
Warrior skills tested on the Lion of Heaven, the Sun
A lion but more likely a dog (National Gallery, Tehran)
Persepolis stone reliefs
Gateway of All Nations, Persepolis
A royal armoured horse
Wall of fame
Persian cuneiform script is in many places
A Median and a Persian
Persia: Cyrus' and Darius' concept of a nation of the people
A royal meeting
The Zoroastrian-inspired winged faravahar (Ahura Mazda) is upper left on this wall
The great staircase to the Apadana, the audience hall
Tachara Chateau (Palace of King Darius the Great)
Shade for a King of Kings
Royalty and graffiti
Camels of Ancient Persia, with the 12-petaled flowers (lotus)
Procession of tribute bearers
“Indeed every remains of these noble ruins indicate their former grandeur and magnificence, truly worthy of being the residence of a great and powerful monarch; and whilst viewing them, the mind becomes impressed with an awful solemnity!" — William Francklin, British Officer of the East India Company, 18th century.
Mausoleum at Persepolis: Who is Buried There
As is customary, the relief on the upper part of the tomb shows the king sacrificing to the eternal, sacred fire and the supreme god Ahura Mazda. The ruler is standing on a platform that is carried by people that represent the subject nations. As mentioned before, this cliff dwelling of the dead is a virtual copy of the upper tier of the tomb of Darius the Great at Naqš-e Rustam. Ths supposed occupant of the sarcophagus in the dark interior is the subject of speculation, even today. However, two completed graves behind Persepolis on the Mount of Mercy could belong to Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III.