Virtual recreation by Charles Chipiez. A panoramic view of the gardens and outside of the Palace of Darius I of Persia in Persepolis.

An Empire in Death: The Extensive Remains of Persepolis

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Once the stunning capital of the Persian Empire (also known as the Achaemenid Empire), Persepolis was lost to the world for almost nineteen hundred years, buried in the dirt of southwestern Iran until the 17th century. Founded in 518 BC by Darius I of the Persian Empire, Persepolis (called Parsa by the native Persians) lasted only a mere two hundred years despite the grandeur Darius and his followers abundantly heaped on its construction. Notwithstanding Persepolis’ tragic end, what remains of the Persian citadel is astounding.

The ruins of Persepolis.

The ruins of Persepolis. (F. Couin/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

An Elaborate Palace Equals More Power?

First, what is Persepolis? Besides the former leading city of one of the greatest pre-Roman empires in history, Persepolis was built at the foot of the “Mountain of Mercy” in modern day Iran. The city itself was modeled off of previous Mesopotamian complexes, the power and strength of the former Babylonian, Akkadian, and Assyrian empires resonating to the leaders of Persia in 6th century BC. Yet while Persepolis served the function of capital city, scholars believe it was used just as much to visually impress as it was to deal with court and military matters. After all, the more elaborate the palace the more power the empire must have… At least, to the minds of the ancients. Thus, the extensive terrace of Persepolis' audience hall was intentionally decorated to express the epitome of Persian leadership.

Persepolis, reconstruction of the Apadana by Chipiez.

Persepolis, reconstruction of the Apadana by Chipiez. ( Public Domain )

Today, the terrace and the bones of the audience hall (the Apadana) remain. The steps leading up to the Apadana (begun under Darius I in the 6th-5th centuries and finished under Xerxes I in the 5th century BC) was once made up of “grandiose architectural creation, with its double flight of access stairs, walls covered by sculpture friezes…gigantic sculpted winged bulls…” The focus of these friezes is the depiction of various members of the Achaemenid monarchy, processing along toward the entryway of the complex. Fascinatingly, many of these features still remain in varying degrees of survival. The shallowly carved friezes have withstood time, nature, and warfare, making their continuance even more intriguing.

Artwork on the eastern stairway of the Apadana.

Artwork on the eastern stairway of the Apadana. ( Public Domain )

The most prominent reliefs that have survived the centuries are those located on the east, north and central stairs of the Apadana.  The eastern section alone is home to a variety of depictions. The first is thought to depict the Persian king receiving gifts or tributes from his subjects. Whether this depicts an actual event, or an imagined visualization of Persian power, is debated. On the northern side is the aforementioned representation of the Persian monarchy—though, to be more specific, this image depicts the elite members of Persian culture processing with the king, likely arranged by importance.

The central images of the eastern stairs are believed to be depictions of eight Persian warriors. Keeping with the iconography of the Persian capital, these soldiers stand under a winged sun with a sphinx (a mythological creature with the body of a lion and a head of a man) on either side of the group. Art historians believe this carving depicts the Persian Immortals, an elite class of warriors constantly prepared for battle.

Modern reenactors of the Immortals in their ceremonial dress at the 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire.

Modern reenactors of the Immortals in their ceremonial dress at the 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire. ( Public Domain )

The northern stairs of the Apadana (as well as the southern) house similar regal images. There is an idealized depiction of an enthroned Persian king—likely Darius I—receiving more tribute bearers is most prominently displayed. Numerous Persians have been identified by name here as well—such as Pharnaces and Akinakes—which allow researchers to theorize the particular value of those permanently carved in the great audience hall.

Aside from the survival of the extensively carved relief sculptures, the bones of other formerly exceptional structures prominently remain as well. Pillars of the dark-grey marble that once belonged to King Darius' palace (called the Tachara) are still standing, some have even been re-erected in conservation efforts. Further, there are also numerous freestanding columns topped with griffins, winged bulls, or lions scattered around the area that was once a kingdom. These pillars stood as markers of the powerful empire, the lions and bulls glaring down at both citizens and foreigners alike. What makes their survival intriguing is that many remain upright despite standing completely alone. In a way, they are the epitome of the shadow cast by the capital's power, despite the site's short existence.

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