Last month, the ancient city of Yazd became the 22nd site in Iran to be inscribed by UNESCO on its World Heritage List, which distinguishes places deemed “of outstanding value to humanity.” To mark the event, Kayhan Life presents the third instalment of its coverage of prominent Iranian sites on the list.
Persepolis, or Takht-e Jamshid – meaning ‘Throne of Jamshid’ in Persian – is defined by UNESCO as one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites, and was one of the first three in Iran to be included on UNESCO’s coveted World Heritage Sites ranking. The listing took place in 1979.
“The royal city of Persepolis ranks among the archaeological sites which have no equivalent, and which bear unique witness to a most ancient civilization,” wrote UNESCO in its citation, describing Persepolis as “the gem of Achaemenid (Persian) ensembles in the fields of architecture, urban planning, construction technology, and art.”
Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, and is located in the plain of Marvdasht, 35.4 miles (57 kilometers) northeast of the city of Shiraz. Persepolis, or ‘City of the Persians,’ was the name given to the ancient city of Parsa by the Greeks. The city was founded by Persian settlers in the 6th century B.C., and was named after the province of Parsa and the people inhabiting it.
The first scientific excavation carried out at Persepolis was conducted by Ernst Herzfeld in 1931, who was commissioned by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Between 1931 and 1939, the University of Chicago team went on to uncover most of the Persepolis site.
Persepolis traces its origins back to around 518 B.C., when Darius the Great chose a promontory on the so-called ‘Royal Hill’ – where monumental constructions had been started by Persian kings – as the site for a new palace complex forming the citadel of the city of Parsa. Four groups of constructions were built on a 1,345,489 square feet (125,000 square meter) terrace platform: ceremonial palaces, residential quarters, a treasury and a chain of fortification. Though it was declared the new capital of Persia by Darius, Persepolis had a more ceremonial role: Susa and Babylon were the real centers of governance.
The Apadana, or the Audience Palace of Darius, was the largest and most imposing palace within Persepolis. It had a height of nearly 72 feet (22 meters), and stood on a podium almost 10 feet (three meters) higher than the spacious open court it looked out on. The palace consisted of a main, square hall with 36 columns – each 64 feet (19.5 meters) high – and three porticos. Each portico, in turn, had 12 columns, and four four-story corner towers. Of the 72 columns once supporting the roof of the palace, only 13 were still standing in 1977.
The most splendid parts of Persepolis are the two double-reversed staircases, which gave access to the Apadana, whose facades are exquisitely ornamented with nearly identical friezes. For Ernst Herzfeld, the German Iranologist who conducted the first Persepolis excavations, “such a reduplication of a subject of that size was unparalleled in the whole history of art.”
The Hundred Column Hall, or Throne Hall, was the second largest palace at Persepolis. It consisted of a square hall with 10 rows of 10 columns each measuring 46 feet (14 meters) in height. According to a Babylonian inscription recovered in the hall, it is believed that the structure’s foundations were laid down by Xerxes, the son of Darius the Great, and built and completed by Artaxerxes, his grandson.
The oldest palace at Persepolis was the Tachara, or Palace of Darius, which served as the model for the façade of his tomb at Naqsh-e Rostam. Other monumental constructions include the Palace of Xerxes or Hadish, the Harem of Xerxes, the Tripylon or Central Palace, and the Imperial Treasury.
Here is how Diodorus, the 1st century B.C. Greek historian, described the city of Parsa and its acropolis as they appeared to Alexander the Great: “Persepolis was the metropolis of the Persian kingdom. It was the richest city under the sun, and the private houses had been furnished with every sort of wealth over the years.”
“Scattered about the royal terrace were residences of the kings and members of the royal family as well as quarters for great nobles, all luxuriously furnished, and building suitably made for guarding the treasure,” Diodorus added.
Although Persians planned and directed the works at Persepolis based on their traditional architecture of columned halls surrounded by porches and side chambers, artisans from Persia’s subject nations executed the designs.
Persepolis was “in essence Iranian, but in details and workmanship Urartian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Elamite, Assyrian, Scythian, Lydian and Ionian,” according to Encyclopedia Iranica. “Under Iranian guidance, the artists of the ancient world gave us a masterpiece, which has parallels in details but is unique in its perfection of plan, coherence of elements, splendor of forms and gracefulness of execution.”
Alexander approached Persepolis in 330 B.C., plundered Parsa, slaughtered its people, pillaged the citadel housing the treasury, and deliberately burned the palaces. “Alexander’s true reason for the barbarism must have been the conviction that as long as the ‘mother-city’ of the dynasty he was determined to uproot remained intact, the Persians would not accept him and would continue to fight for the recovery of ‘the Persian city,'” wrote Encylopedia Iranica.
After the site was uncovered by the University of Chicago team, it was entrusted to the Iranian Archeological Services, which made further excavations under the direction of André Godard, a French architect, archeologist and art historian. Godard was the official in charge of formulating policies for archeological excavation and historical preservation for the Iranian Ministry of Education and Waqfs (endowments) from 1928 to 1953 and again from 1956 to 1960. He also designed the Iran Bastan Museum, the country’s first archeological museum, and was appointed its first director by Reza Shah.
Persepolis on video