Persepolis: History etched in stone (2004, 2007)

Persepolis: History etched in stone (2004, 2007)

The taxi glides smoothly on the gently curving six-lane highway leading north from Shiraz in southern Iran. The barren Zagros mountain range is to my left while fruit-laden orchards dot the right flank. Even at this early hour, there is heavy traffic on the road; cars swish past in both directions. This is the highway connecting Tehran to Isfahan and Shiraz and thence to Bander Abbas in the Persian Gulf. I am on my way to my dream destination – Persepolis, a city built 2,600 years ago by Darius, the great Persian king of the Achaemenid dynasty. It is a splendid specimen of Persian architecture and tradition of a remote period – one that is still somewhat intact and is among the three architectural wonders of this region, the others being the grave of Cyrus the Great at Murgab and the ruins in Hajjilabad. Persepolis is situated 60 kilometres northeast of Shiraz, the cultural capital of Persia.

Crash Course in History

Iskandar, my guide, is well-versed in history as well as folklore and regales me with facts and fables. To those uninitiated in history, the hour-long drive is truly a crash course in ancient Persian history and culture. I learn of the glories of the Achaemenid empire established by Cyrus the Great in 559 B.C. It was truly the Golden Age of Persia, when the Persian empire extended all the way from Mesopotamia, Greece and Libya to as far in the east as the Indus. Cyrus himself ruled from Pasargad, near Shiraz. Darius I, also called Darius the Great, had expansive ideas and tastes. He ruled from 522 B.C. to 488 B.C. It was he who founded a second capital further south at the foot of the mauve-tinged mountain range in the Marv Dasht basin. He envisaged this city primarily as a ceremonial seat of celebration, pomp and royal splendour, while administration was carried out from Susa. It was to be used for royal receptions where the myriad vassals of the Persian kingdom converged during festivities. We do not know what it was called then, but subsequently when the Greeks arrived in this city in the fourth century, they called it Persepolis, literally meaning Persian city. While tourists still refer to it as Persepolis, the Iranians themselves prefer to call it Takht-e-Jamshid, Throne of Jamshid, after a legendary Zarathustrian king.

En route from Shiraz to Persepolis is the Koran Gate. Originally it was called the Shiraz Gate, but the installation of a giant-sized Koran atop the Gate has not only changed its name, but has even made it a compulsory stop for pious Islamic wayfarers. We drive past to stop at a petrol pump. The pump attendant chatters away in Farsi even as the tank starts to overflow, much to my discomfiture. But then, in Iran, petrol costs a mere 10 cents a litre. The South Pars (pronounced Fars) province in which Persepolis and Shiraz are located is home to a humungous gas field – yet to be developed – and we are probably driving over an oilfield as well.

Old Persian and Elamite inscriptions on a tablet found in Persepolis give vivid details of how the city was built to celebrate Navroz, the Persian New Year. It describes the festivities, which lasted several days and were attended by the subjects and vassals of the sprawling kingdom. Even though Darius I commenced the construction of Persepolis, the building was continued by successive rulers of the Achaemenid dynasty, particularly Xerxes and Artaxerxes. In fact, most of what we see in Persepolis today was built by Xerxes. But then, Persepolis as a living and flourishing city lasted less than two centuries. It fell to the plundering hordes of another great king – Alexander of Macedonia – even before its construction was complete. Alexander’s army vandalised the structures, sacked the city and plundered and looted its citizens. The splendid royal palace was burnt down. Still, enough survives to afford us a glimpse of a glorious and gracious past.

Iskandar assures me that this was the same road through which the Greeks marched their army as recently as 2,300 years ago and that this highway then stretched for 2,400 km all the way from Susa and Ecbatana to Persepolis. His description is so vivid that I can almost hear the cymbals and clarion and the clip-clop of the cavalry. When we reach our destination, I find that the surroundings are so deserted and desolate that it is hard to visualise frenetic royal activity with which this place is associated. There is no settlement for miles around and even in the ruins, there is just one bus-load of French-speaking tourists. Fleecy white clouds converge on the horizon, setting off its ozone blue tinge. It is only around 9 a.m., but feels like midday. Desert country, this.

Stairway for Horses

Persepolis has been built on a vast stone terrace against the backdrop of a mountain. It is reached by a dramatic double stairway that is wide enough to accommodate a dozen horsemen at once. In fact, the stairs give you a foretaste of the grandeur of the construction. The steps are very shallow to enable horses to climb easily. As you reach the top step you get a panoramic view of the city of Persepolis. There are standing pillars and columns, gates and capitals, all strewn around a vast area. They are of exquisite grey and brown marble. The roofs that these pillars and columns once supported were made of wood and hence did not survive the ravages of time whereas the marble has not only weathered the elements but has even improved with age to acquire a luminous sheen. As I run my fingers along the slabs, I am told that the ancient Persians did not use mortar to bind these stones. The slabs have just been piled one on top of the other but have not toppled over in all these years.

The terrace sprawls over an area of 450 metres by 300 m and is accessed through a gateway grandiloquently named `Gate of All Nations’ – a reference to the 48 nations over which the Persian monarchs held sway. Historians refer to it as the Gate of Xerxes, after its builder. This is guarded by two assyrianised winged animals. Engraved above each of these is a trilingual inscription attesting to Xerxes having built and completed the gate. All visitors to the palace had to pass through this gateway to pay homage to the Emperor. There are about 15 major buildings in this complex, including the Apadana, the Hall of Hundred Columns, the Gate House of Xerxes, the Treasury, the `Harem’, the so-called central building and the majestic palaces of Darius the Great, Xerxes, Artaxerxes I and Artaxerxes III. The stairs, steps and walls are adorned with reliefs and friezes, which give an intimate glimpse of the life and times of the Persian monarchs. Neither microfilm nor digital photography could have accomplished such a feat – of preserving vignettes of royal life as it played out two and a half millennia ago, despite being exposed to the elements.


Apadana, the Audience Hall of Darius I, is the jewel of Persepolis. Of the 72 columns that supported this massive hall, 13 still survive. These and the doors and jambs hark back to an era when aesthetics and grace dominated architecture.

The columns are 20 m high and the hall itself could have supported 10,000 persons. They were crowned by tendrils, scrolls and Janus-faced animals. On the steps are exquisite scenes etched in relief depicting ceremonial processions. Iskandar points out the various nationalities bringing offerings as tribute to the emperor. As many as 23 different nationalities can be identified from the facial features, apparel, ornaments, footwear and the weapons carried. The Elamites bring lions, the Babylonians the Brahma bull, the Lydians bolts of cloth. The procession includes Persians, Medes, Assyrians, Armenians, Babylonians and Indians. Indians are identified by their cows and turbans. The folds in the drapes, the texture of the hair, the musical instruments and the ornaments are so elaborately and painstakingly carved that one can easily term this digital stenography!

It is somewhat surprising though, that there is not a single depiction of women in these reliefs, nor are there any warlike scenes or conflict. There are a few wildlife cameos – of a lion pouncing upon an unsuspecting prey. There are also scenes from the daily life of the royal family – of food being brought to the king, of attendants carrying towels and ointments, some wielding flywhisks, umbrellas and so on. Several doorways are adorned with carvings of kings in combat with mythical animals that signified evil.

The harem quarters is at the back of the palace, but nothing survives except the foundation. Perhaps there were female figures carved on the walls of the harem, but there is no evidence of it now. The site resembles the ruins in Nalanda. The Persepolis complex houses two palaces as well – the elegant winter residence of Darius I and the Hadish Palace of Xerxes, the latter twice as large as the former. Clearly, Persians loved the square shape. The halls, rooms, porticoes, porches and garrisons are all square and huge. The only exception is the treasury which is oblong and was believed to have been overflowing with riches of all kind. Some of the walls were once embedded with precious stones, which have since been gouged out.

Darius I was an enlightened king. During his reign, he had secured the borders of the Persian empire, reformed its administration, built highways, encouraged commerce and even organised a postal system. However, he could not complete the construction during his lifetime and his son Xerxes continued the task. According to an inscription found on the site, Xerxes says: “When my father Darius went (away from) the throne, I, by the grace of Ahurmazada, became the king on my father’s throne. After I became king, … what had been done by my father, I also (did) and other works I added.”

Avenging Xerxes

Historians have an interesting account of how Persepolis came to be sacked by the Macedonians. Since the administration of the Persian empire was being conducted from Susa and Ecbatana, the Macedonians had no idea of the splendour of Persepolis upon which they stumbled when they marched south from Ecbatana in 331 B.C. While the army ransacked and looted private residences, Alexander himself is believed to have taken possession of the treasury in the citadel. Greek biographer Plutarch wrote that 5,000 camels and 20,000 mules were required to carry home the riches seized from Persepolis. Alexander is believed to have organised great games to commemorate his victory over Persia. There was feasting and merry-making for weeks on end. On one particularly drunken night, Thais, the lover of Macedonian Commander Ptolemy, exhorted the inebriated Alexander to avenge the desecration of Acropolis by Xerxes. She led a procession of torch-bearing vandals and cast the first torch on the royal palace at Persepolis, engulfing it in flames. The magnificent palace was thus burnt down to ashes and what survives today are only the stone pillars and capitals.

However, for over five centuries after the royal palace was razed to the ground, Persepolis continued to reign as the capital of Persia, but as a province of the great Macedonian empire. It was only around A.D. 200 that its importance declined as Istakhr, another city in the same province, usurped its place to emerge as the capital of the second Persian empire. The Sassanid dynasty ruled from Istakhr where it built over the Achaemenid ruins.

Greys and browns dominate not only the Persepolis terrace, but the surrounding landscape as well. The only concession to colour comes from a modern-day addition to the complex, the maroon doorframe of an unobtrusive structure that serves as a museum displaying exquisite pottery and coins unearthed from the site. Around the museum there are more friezes – many depicting the Persian god Ahura Mazda and symbols signifying the four elements: lion for fire, bull for earth, lotus for water and eagle for air. A lion attacking a bull is the symbol of Navroz, celebrated on March 21. In the outer yard are many capitals, noteworthy among them being one with the image of the twin-headed griffin (a mythical animal with the head of an eagle and body of a lion). For some reason, this was considered inauspicious after it was cast and hence was not used to adorn the structure. It is now the logo of Iran Air, the country’s national airline.

There are three sepulchres hewn out of the hillside and these are richly ornamented with reliefs. One of them houses the remains of Artaxerxes II. It is believed that the other two tombs contain the remains of Artaxerxes III and Darius III. In Naksh-e-Rustam, 13 km northwest of Persepolis, are the tombs of Darius I and Xerxes. Cyrus the Great was buried in Pasargad, his capital city.

Persepolis has been accorded the status of a United Nations World Heritage monument. Its splendour came to light only as late as 1931 when excavations began. Historians have pieced together bit by precious bit the history of Persepolis from various sources, comparing contemporary Greek documents with the inscriptions found at the site and the reliefs themselves. Many grey areas still remain. Nevertheless, it is now universally acknowledged that this indeed was the fabled capital of Xerxes, which fell to the wrath of Alexander of Macedonia.
As I wrap up my tour of Persepolis, I am indeed grateful that neither Alexander the Great nor the ravages of time could obliterate the splendour of this truly magnificent and historic city of Persia.

(Published in Frontline dated July 31, 2004)




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