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History of Persepolis
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History of Persepolis

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Persepolis was one of the ancient capitals of Persia, established in the late 6th century BC by Darius I. Darius transferred the capital of the Achaemenian dynasty to Persepolis from Pasargadae, where Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, had ruled. Construction of Persepolis began between 518 and 516 BC and continued under Darius's successors Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I in the 5th century BC. Although known as Parsa by the ancient Persians, the Greeks called it Persepolis. Its ruins lie 56km (35 miles) north-east of the city of Shiraz, in the mountainous region of south-western Iran, where the dry climate has helped to preserve much of the architecture.

At its height, the Persian Empire stretched from Greece and Libya in the west to the Indus River in present-day Pakistan in the east. The many nations under the empire's rule enjoyed considerable autonomy in return for supplying the empire's wealth. Each year, at Noe-Rooz (or "Nowruz," the national festival of the New Year held at the vernal equinox) representatives from these nations brought tribute to the king. The Persian kings used Persepolis primarily as a residence and for ceremonies such as the New Year's celebration. The actual business of government was carried out mainly at Susa and Ecbatana.

Construction

André Godard, the French archaeologist who excavated Persepolis in the early 1930s, believed that Cyrus the Great chose the site of Persepolis, but that Darius the Great built the terrace and the great palaces, which were completed during the reign of his son, King Xerxes the Great. Further construction of the buildings on the terrace continued until the downfall of the Achaemenid dynasty. Persepolis ruins

Archaeological Research

The first westerner to visit the ruins of Persepolis was Antonio de Gouveia, from Portugal, who wrote about cuneiform inscriptions following his visit in 1602. His first written report on Persia, the "Jornada", was published in 1606.

The first scientific excavations at Persepolis were carried out by Ernst Herzfeld and Erich F Schmidt representing the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Herzfeld believed the reasons behind the construction of Persepolis were the need for a majestic atmosphere, a symbol for their empire, and to celebrate special events, especially the “Nowruz”. For historical reasons, Persepolis was built where the Achaemenid Dynasty was founded, although it was not the center of the empire at that time. Plan of Persepolis

Persepolitan architecture is noted for its use of wooden columns. Architects resorted to stone only when the largest cedars of Lebanon or teak trees of India did not fulfill the required sizes. Column bases and capitals were made of stone, even on wooden shafts, but the existence of wooden capitals is probable.

The buildings at Persepolis include three general groupings: military quarters, the treasury, and the reception halls and occasional houses for the King. Noted structures include the Great Stairway, the Gate of Nations (Xerxes the Great), the Apadana Palace of Darius, the Hall of a Hundred Columns, the Tripylon Hall and Tachara Palace of Darius, the Hadish Palace of Xerxes, the palace of Artaxerxes III, the Imperial Treasury, the Royal Stables and the Chariot House.

Air view of Persepolis Site

Persepolis is near the small river Pulwar, which flows into the river Kur (Kyrus). The site includes a 125,000 square meter terrace, partly artificially constructed and partly cut out of a mountain, with its east side leaning on Kuh-e Rahmet ("the Mountain of Mercy"). The other three sides are formed by retaining walls, which vary in height with the slope of the ground. From 5 to 13 meters on the west side a double stair, gently slopes to the top. To create the level terrace, depressions were filled with soil and heavy rocks, which were joined together with metal clips. Around 518 BC, construction of a broad stairway was begun. The stairway was planned to be the main entrance to the terrace 20 meters above the ground. The dual stairway, known as the Persepolitan stairway, was built in symmetrically on the western side of the Great Wall. The 111 steps were 6.9 meters wide with treads of 31 centimetres and rises of 10 centimetres. Originally, the steps were believed to have been constructed to allow for nobles and royalty to ascend by horseback. New theories suggest that the shallow risers allowed visiting dignitaries to maintain a regal appearance while ascending. The top of the stairways led to a small yard in the north-eastern side of the terrace, opposite the Gate of Nations. Palace of Darius

Gray limestone was the main building material used in Persepolis. After natural rock had been levelled and the depressions filled in, the terrace was prepared. Major tunnels for sewage were dug underground through the rock. A large elevated water storage tank was carved at the eastern foot of the mountain. Professor Olmstead suggested the cistern was constructed at the same time that construction of the towers began.

The uneven plan of the foundation of the terrace acted like a castle whose angled walls enabled its defenders to target any section of the external front. Diodorus writes that Persepolis had three walls with ramparts, which all had towers to provide protection space for the defense personnel. The first wall was 7 meters tall, the second, 14 meters and the third wall, which covered all four sides, was 27 meters in height, though no presence of the wall exists in modern times. Zoroastrian Bas Relief

Ruins

Ruins of a number of colossal buildings exist on the terrace. All are constructed of dark-grey marble. Fifteen of their pillars stand intact. Three more pillars have been re-erected since 1970. Several of the buildings were never finished. F. Stolze has shown that some of the mason's rubbish remains. These ruins, for which the name Chehel minar ("the forty columns or minarets") can be traced back to the 13th century, are now known as Takht-e Jamshid ("the throne of Jamshid"). It is believed that they represent the Persepolis captured and partly destroyed by Alexander the Great. Persian soldiers

Behind Takht-e Jamshid are three sepulchres hewn out of the rock in the hillside. The façades, one of which is incomplete, are richly decorated with reliefs. About 13 km NNE, on the opposite side of the Pulwar, rises a perpendicular wall of rock, in which four similar tombs are cut at a considerable height from the bottom of the valley. Modern Persians call this place Nakshi Rostam ("the picture of Rostam"), from the Sassanian reliefs beneath the opening, believed to be a representation of the mythical hero Rostam. The sculptures indicate that the occupants of these seven tombs were kings, and an inscription on one of them declares it to be that of Darius Hystaspis.

The Gate of All Nations

The Gate of all Nations, referring to subjects of the empire, consisted of a grand hall that was a square of approximately 25 meters (82 feet) in length, with four columns and its entrance on the Western Wall. There were two more doors, one to the south which opened to the Apadana yard and the other opened onto a long road to the east. Pivoting devices found on the inner corners of all the doors indicate that they were two-leafed doors, probably made of wood and covered with sheets of ornate metal. Gate at western threshold

A pair of Lamassus- bulls with the head of a bearded man - stands by the western threshold. Another pair, with wings and a Persian head, stands by the eastern entrance, to reflect the Empire’s power.

Xerxes' name was written in three languages and carved on the entrances, informing everyone that he ordered it to be built.

Apadana Palace

Apadana hall Darius the Great built the greatest and most glorious palace at Persepolis in the western side. This palace was named Apadana (the root name for modern "ayvan"). The King of Kings used it for official audiences. The work began in 515 BC. His son Xerxes I completed it 30 years later. The palace had a grand hall in the shape of a square, each side 60 m long with seventy-two columns, thirteen of which still stand on the enormous platform. Each column is 19 m high with a square Taurus and plinth. The columns carried the weight of the vast and heavy ceiling. The tops of the columns were made from animal sculptures such as two headed bulls, lions and eagles. The columns were joined to each other with the help of oak and cedar beams, which were brought from Lebanon. The walls were covered with a layer of mud and stucco to a depth of 5 cm, which was used for bonding, and then covered with the greenish stucco which is found throughout the palaces. At the western, northern and eastern sides of the Detail at northern stairway of Apadana Palace palace there was a rectangular veranda which had twelve columns in two rows of six. At the south of the grand hall a series of rooms were built for storage. To protect the roof from erosion, vertical drains were built through the brick walls. In the four corners of Apadana, facing outwards, four towers were built.

The walls were tiled and decorated with pictures of lions, bulls, and flowers. Darius ordered his name and the details of his empire to be written in gold and silver on plates, which were placed in covered stone boxes in the foundations under the Four Corners of the palace. Two Persepolitan style symmetrical stairways were built on the northern and eastern sides of Apadana to compensate for a difference in level. Two other stairways stood in the middle of the building. The external front views of the palace were embossed with pictures of the Immortals, the Kings' elite guards. The northern stairway was completed during Darius' reign, but the other stairway was completed much later.

The Throne Hall

Ruins of Throne Hall Next to the Apadana, second largest building of the Terrace and the final edifices, is the Throne Hall or the Imperial Army's hall of honour (also called the "Hundred-Columns Palace). This 70x70 square meter hall was started by Xerxes and completed by his son Artaxerxes I by the end of the fifth century BC. Its eight stone doorways are decorated on the south and north with reliefs of throne scenes and on the east and west with scenes depicting the king in combat with monsters. Two colossal stone bulls flank the northern portico.

In the beginning of Xerxes's reign the Throne Hall was used mainly for receptions for military commanders and representatives of all the subject nations of the empire. Later the Throne Hall served as an imperial museum.

Destruction

After invading Persia, Alexander the Macedonian sent the main force of his army to Persepolis in the year 330 BC by the Royal Road. Alexander stormed the Persian Gates (in the modern Zagros Mountains), then quickly captured Persepolis before its treasury could be looted. After several months Alexander allowed his troops to loot Persepolis. A fire broke out in the eastern palace of Xerxes and spread to the rest of the city. It is not clear if it had been a drunken accident, or a deliberate act of revenge for the burning of the Acropolis of Athens during the Second Hellenic-Persian War. Many historians argue that while Alexander's army celebrated with a symposium they decided to take revenge against Persians. In that case it would be a combination of the two. The Book of Arda Wiraz, a Zoroastrian work composed in the 3rd or 4th century CE, also describes archives containing "all the Avesta and Zand, written upon prepared cow-skins, and with gold ink" that were destroyed.

Persepolis ruins after 2,500 years After the fall of the Achaemenid Empire

In 316 BC Persepolis was still the capital of Persia as a province of the great Macedonian Empire. The city must have gradually declined in the course of time; but the ruins of the Achaemenidae remained as a witness to its ancient glory. It is probable that the principal town of the country, or at least of the district, was always in this neighborhood.

About 200 BC we find the city Istakhr (properly Stakhr), five kilometers north of Persepolis, as the seat of the local governors. There the foundations of the second great Persian Empire were laid, and there Istakhr acquired special importance as the center of priestly wisdom and orthodoxy. The Sassanian kings have covered the face of the rocks in this neighborhood, and in part even the Achaemenian ruins, with their sculptures and inscriptions. They must themselves have built largely here, although never on the same scale of magnificence as their ancient predecessors. The Romans knew as little about Istakhr as the Greeks had known about Persepolis--and this despite the fact that for four hundred years the Sassanians maintained relations, friendly or hostile, with the empire.

At the time of the Arabian conquest Istakhr offered a desperate resistance. The city was still a place of considerable importance in the first century of Islam, although its greatness was speedily eclipsed by the new metropolis Shiraz. In the 10th century Istakhr dwindled to insignificance, as may be seen from the descriptions of Istakhri, a native (c. 950), and of Mukaddasi (c. 985). During the following centuries Istakhr gradually declines, until, as a city, it ceased to exist. This fruitful region, however, was covered with villages till the frightful devastations of the 18th century; and even now it is, comparatively speaking, well cultivated. The "castle of Istakhr" played a conspicuous part several times during the Muslim period as a strong fortress. It was the middlemost and the highest of the three steep crags which rise from the valley of the Kur, at some distance to the west or north-west of Nakshi Rostam. This castle was still used in the 16th century, at least as a state prison. But when Pietro della Valle was there in 1621, it was already in ruins.

Modern events

In 1971, Persepolis was the main staging ground for the 2,500 year celebration of Iran's monarchy.