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Ruins of ancient Persepolis, Iran, with the columns of the Apadana Hall on the right. Source: pawopa3336 / Adobe Stock.

Apadana – The Everlasting Hall of the Achaemenids

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Throughout countless centuries, across all kinds of different epochs, the great hypostyle hall of Apadana has been an impressive source of wonder and inspiration for all manner of folk. This once magnificent structure, and even its meager remains, has stood as a testament to the grandiose construction capabilities of ancient peoples. It is a heritage of the ancient Persian kings of the Achaemenid Empire, a powerful proof of the supremacy and wealth they once possessed.

And what remains of it today is sufficient inspiration for us to give you a thorough retelling of its long and troubled history. We shall dust off the ancient pillars and the faded carvings, revealing the slumbering intricacy beneath. History sleeps in the Apadana – and it is time to rouse it!

The Culmination of Power: How the Apadana Came to Be

The old Persian word Apadāna was for a long time used to denote any audience hall of the time. But when Darius the Great, king of kings, began constructing his marvelous design of the great audience hall of Persepolis, and when Xerxes the First finally finished it, the word apadāna gradually shifted its meaning.

This new magnificent building that arose in Persepolis, south of the Gate of All Lands, was the great audience hall of the Achaemenid king. And it was so stunningly elaborate, so intricate and advanced, that the word apadāna was used only for this single hall – all others did not deserve the title.

In fact, it was Darius the Great that first introduced this particular, grandiose style of hall design, with lofty roofs and ceilings supported by robust and tall columns. Today it is known as a hypostyle hall.

The size of the Apadana was truly ground breaking for the time of its conception and construction, around 6th century BC. It was constructed on a platform that is raised and is 8.2 feet (2.5 meters) high.

The Apadana has one huge central hall, which is square and measures 196 feet (60 meters) on each side. From it rises six rows with six columns each – these are 59 feet (18 meters) tall. There are also the remains of three porticos.

This style of lofty ceilings and the support of tall, magnificent columns, is one of the earliest architectural designs that was shared among many ancient civilizations. By itself, this design displayed power and wealth, grandeur and magnificence – and was the usual sight in ancient capitals. We can see hypostyle halls in Ancient Greece, particularly at the Parthenon, as well as in Ancient Egypt at the famous Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak.

The magnificent columns of the Apadana. (Sebastià Giralt / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The magnificent columns of the Apadana. (Sebastià Giralt / CC BY-SA 2.0)

But each one of these civilizations, including the Persians, constructed the hypostyle halls in their own, distinct style. They employed what was characteristic of their architecture. The Greeks had their Doric columns, the Egyptians the chiseled and colorful pillars, but the Persians went a step further. The art style of the Apadana reflects the great passion for detail, the mind numbing intricacy of the carvings and the elaborate art.

The pillars were decorated with complex floral designs and distinguished by approximately 48 flutes on each pillar. Flutes are shallow grooves that wrap the entire column. The capitals of these pillars extended the total length to 65 feet (20 meters) and were finished with designs of palm leaves and protruding double headed bulls and lions.

Of all the pillars, only thirteen remain standing today. But in the 1600’s around 40 pillars were reported to be standing. This means that the passage of time was not kind to the remains of the Apadana.

In 1704, when the renowned artist Cornelis de Bruijn came to these remains in hope of making his drawings, he witnessed the nests of storks high atop the pillars. This serves as a striking and important reminder that no civilization, no empire, no matter how great, can survive forever – and nature will eventually take over.

Besides the great square hall and its pillars, there were also the porticos. There were three of them, situated on the north, west, and east sides. Each one was a sort of miniature hypostyle hall in its own right – each supported with around twelve columns 62 feet (19 meters) high.

These columns had different capitals (endings) than the ones in the audience hall proper. They were bell shaped. This was a characteristic aspect of architectural designs in Persepolis – the grandeur of the capitals distinguished the main and ‘subordinate’ areas – i.e. the main hall and the porticos.

At the entrance to the Apadana stands two great stairways – one on the north and one on the east side. These monumental blocks were decorated in a very crafty way. Since they were the entrance, they were elaborately adorned by reliefs, displaying Darius the Great and the delegates of the 23 nations that were his subjects, each one paying tribute.

Some of the displayed subjects were the Gandarians, the Ethiopians, the Lidyians, the Ionians, Cappadocians, and Arachosians, with many more. We can discern that this was a way to send a clear message to any foreign ambassador that might have entered the Apadana – the Achaemenid kings were powerful. And the building that arose before them was the ample proof of that.

Relief decoration of displayed subjects on the ruins of the Apadana. (Aleksandar Todorovic / Adobe Stock)

Relief decoration of displayed subjects on the ruins of the Apadana. (Aleksandar Todorovic / Adobe Stock)

In the end, along with the missing roof, the Apadana would have stood some 121 feet (37 meters) high, creating a truly imposing and awe inspiring sight for both friend and foe.

The Heritage of the King of Kings

As we mentioned, the Apadana was designed and its construction was begun by Darius the Great. This was confirmed with the discovery of two plates – gold and silver – which were inscribed with a single text in three different languages. The text was:

“Darius the Great king, king of kings, king of countries, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenian, says Darius the king: This is the kingdom which I hold, from the Scythians who are beyond Sogdiana, thence unto Ethiopia; from Sind, thence unto Sardis – which Ahuramazda the greatest of the gods bestowed upon me. Me may Ahuramazda protect and my royal house.”

One of the two gold deposition plates with inscription about the Apadana. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

One of the two gold deposition plates with inscription about the Apadana. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

The Apadana was excavated by a German archaeology team, consisting of Ernst Herzfeld, Erich Schmidt, and Friedrich Krefter. Herzfeld was one of the chief German archaeologists who excavated many Old Assyrian and Achaemenid cities, including Persepolis, Aššur, and Pasargadae . He was one of the chief Iranologists of the time.

This team carried out the excavations from 1931 to 1939, under the sponsoring of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, which made it all possible. For many centuries, these remains were buried in rubble and sand, hearkening back to the ancient times of its destruction, when Persepolis was destroyed by Alexander the Great.

The Apadana, alongside the rest of Persepolis, perished in flames and destruction at the hands of Alexander, in the year 330 BC. Plutarch writes that this great conqueror razed and looted Persepolis, carrying away all the treasures on 5,000 camels and 20,000 mules.

Afterwards, this magnificent and short lived ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, which lasted only around two centuries, fell into decline and abandonment, when it was trampled by the merciless passing of time and forgotten. Its remains were first described and identified in 1620 AD.

But no work was done until 1931, when Ernst Herzfeld was commissioned by James H. Breasted, who was at the time the Director of the Chicago University’s Oriental Institute. Their work on the excavation of Persepolis was brought to an end in 1939, with the onset of the Second World War.

General view of the ruins of Persepolis with the Apadana in the foreground. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

General view of the ruins of Persepolis with the Apadana in the foreground. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

The Apadana’s function seems to be the place where the kings would receive the royal delegations, from all over the empire. The sheer size of this building would make it the ultimate royal audience hall – since it could house, by all accounts, some 10,000 people at a time.

It would also serve to instill the sense of inferiority on all subjects and delegates that were present, since the seat of the king was elevated at the far end – rising far above the crowd in a magnanimous manner. Also, the reliefs of winged bulls and lions, all double-headed, and the carvings of the subjects bearing gifts and the conquering soldiers of Darius the Great – all were there with a single purpose: to instill fear and display the Achaemenid might.

The Apadana had another integral part of its design – the view. As the whole building rose some 131 feet (40 meters) high, and the ground floor itself rose indomitably above the surrounding plains, it offered a commanding view of the surroundings of the city. It is stated that this was in fact a way for the king to observe the assembled troops below – whether they were in battle formations or parades and ceremonies.

While no portions of the once great roof remain, there is ample evidence that it was made of wood, in a fashion that was characteristic of the Persian style. When the excavations were carried out, the archaeologists stumbled upon a very dense layer with the remains of burnt wood.

It was some 24 inches (60 centimeters) thick, and showed traces of ebony, teak, and cedar. Moreover, the lion and bull capitals on top of the pillars contain special ‘slots’ for great wooden beams. It can be easily imagined how this roof would once have looked.

Reconstruction of the Apadana's roof. (Pentocelo~commonswiki / Public Domain)

Reconstruction of the Apadana's roof. (Pentocelo~commonswiki / Public Domain)

By the Favor of Ahuramazda

One important discovery in the Apadana tells us some of its history. While we know that Darius the Great begun the construction, it was probable that it was not finished in his lifetime. This belief was confirmed with the discovery of an elaborate inscription, written in cuneiform on glazed bricks. It was written by his son, Xerxes the Great (Xerxes I), and it goes as follows:

“Xerxes the Great King says: By the favor of Ahuramazda, King Darius my father built and ordered to be built much good construction. By the favor also of Ahuramazda, I added to that construction and built further buildings.”

This inscription tells us that the Apadana, although designed by Darius the Great, was in fact completed by his son and successor Xerxes. When we take that into consideration, we can perhaps speculate that there were two slightly disparaging architectural styles employed in the overall construction, and as such the Apadana could have been a unique, one of a kind building.

Ruins of the Apadana, cuneiform on glazed bricks. (Matyas Rehak / Adobe Stock)

Ruins of the Apadana, cuneiform on glazed bricks. (Matyas Rehak / Adobe Stock)

It is said that the style of the Apadana, and Persepolis overall, has influenced the architecture of those who came after, chiefly the Umayyad Caliphate. Some of their earliest mosques, such as the Great Mosque of Banu Umayya, have been heavily influenced by the design elements of the Apadana, noticed in the pillared design. It also contains the so-called “ Qubbat al-Khazna”, the Dome of Treasury, which rests on pillars that have a clear resemblance to the ancient Achaemenid hypostyle hall, the Apadana.

At its highest extent, the Achaemenid Empire grew into one of the largest on earth. It first grew under Cyrus II, then expanded more under Cambyses II, and finally reached its final size under the rule of Darius I the Great. At that point, the Achaemenid Empire ruled over 44% of the human population on earth and was one of the most powerful forces at the time.

But it was a short lived glory, as Alexander the Great saw to their demise in 330 BC. The once sprawling empire was no more, and the ruins of its glorious cities of Persepolis and Pasargadae stood as mute reminders of a faded glory. But it was the Apadana that spoke of their wealth and power, when it was still basking in the glory of the Achaemenids.

It was the sole proof of the untold powers and the subjugation of countless nations of the Middle East and the Balkans, by the powerful Achaemenid kings. And today, its meager and weathered remnants stand as a final shield facing the ruthlessness of the passing time.

The Lasting Impression of the Hypostyle Hall of the Apadana

There is no doubt that the Achaemenids and the early Persian civilization left a lasting impression on the world around them. With their empire sprawling over immense regions, subjugating nations at whim, it naturally picked up many different influences, in both art and architecture.

The Hellenistic influences are clear, as are the Armenian. But they are all immersed in the unique native style of the Persians.

And the result? A magnificent capital, the jewel of the Achaemenid Empire – Persepolis. And in its heart lay the crown jewel – the hypostyle hall of the Apadana.

Top image: Ruins of ancient Persepolis, Iran, with the columns of the Apadana Hall on the right. Source: pawopa3336 / Adobe Stock.

By Aleksa Vučković


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Aleksa Vučković's picture


I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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