top of page
  • Shelley Dark

#8 Persepolis

We were to be at the bus this morning at 5am with our tripods so that we could be at Persepolis, an hour away, at dawn. We were excited at the thought of taking the famous ruins in the early morning light. Those few golden moments just before the sun comes up. But poor old Habib the bus driver slept in by half and hour. That didn't matter anyway because when we arrived an hour after that, we found that we couldn't get in until 8am when the ticket office opened. I may have heard a few swear words. Not me of course. -:) I was just so happy to be there finally, at Persepolis. A place I first heard about and wanted to visit over 50 years ago, when I was at school studying Ancient History with Miss Kennedy who used to bounce into class so full of enthusiasm.

Persepolis is a Greek name meaning Persian city, and the name stuck because it was a Greek, Alexander the Great, who destroyed it. It's name was actually Parsa, and it's situated in the desert north-east of Shiraz. It was one of the magnificent capital cities of the Achaemenid dynasty, an architectural masterpiece decorated to amaze all who saw it. It was a showcase.

The platform walls are very high, making it easy to defend. Before building began, sewage pipes were put in, and a huge cistern was built higher up the hill to catch rainwater. The ceilings were enormously high on top of those 25-metre-tall columns, there were great halls where guests and officials were received, double doors covered with beaten metal, the stone walls and lintels were all especially and meticulously carved, glazed bricks baked with colourful decorations, magnificent artworks, books made of cow skin written on in gold. Wonderful art. The descriptions of what it must have been like are quite specific and sound totally amazing. For example, in 467BC we know that 1348 people were employed just in the treasury building alone. How grand it must have been!

Cyrus began the tolerant Achaemenid policy of allowing all religions to practise under his rule, provided that his subjects gave him loyalty. But the line of succession was full of intrigue. The beginning of the construction of Persepolis is attributed to Darius the Great but his successors extended it and made it even grander. These Achaemenid rulers self-styled themselves as 'great', but history also sees them that way.

Cyrus established his capital first at Pasargardae, ruled for 30 years, invaded and destroyed much of Greece, and was killed in battle. Darius the Great was the son of a powerful court figure and was with one of Cyrus' son's when he died. He was also complicit in the murder of another. He took over in 522 BC and ruled for 38 years starting construction on a new summer palace at Parsa. He tried and failed to put down an Athenian rebellion so there was no love lost between him and the Greeks.

Building work at Persepolis was continued under the rule of Xerxes I and Artaxerxes III. Both their names are carved into stone doorways.

The Greeks weren't really aware of Parsa or Persepolis with all its treasures, literary works and art until Alexander the Great invaded Persia. They hated the Achaemenid rulers with a passion but admired the Persian culture. Alexander looted it and then burned it down, supposedly after a drunken victory party as retribution for what the Persians had done to his country. He was said to have always regretted doing it. The historian Plutarch wrote that Alexander carried away the treasures of Parsa, many tons of silver and gold, on the backs of 20,000 mules and 5,000 camels. That's a lot of loot.

used under Wikimedia Creative Commons licence

In this aerial view, you can see how Darius ordered a huge terrace to be created on the side of mountain next to a river. Ridges were flattened and gullies were filled with soil and heavy rocks fastened together with metal clips. These metal cleats remain very modern in concept.

When we were unable to get in, we all scattered to do our own thing until 8am. I climbed the slope next to the river and scrambled under the wire fence to see if I could get a shot overlooking the ruins. I didn't go through this second fence in case there were guard dogs. See the long central road leading to the palace? You'd have been able to see people coming along the road for miles. How fabulous.

It was a very pretty dawn anyway.

Seeing the building platform from the side made me aware of what huge maintenance is needed to upkeep sites like these, and how easy they made it to defend.

Only the toughest plants survive in this desert.

Such a tough plant, yet such a pretty flower and seed pod.

When I came back down, there wasn't much movement happening within the entry enclosure where the two guards weren't stirring. That's really called sleeping on the job!

After the destruction of the palaces the city continued to be the capital but over the centuries it was abandoned and locals forgot what it had been. It was rediscovered in the 1600's and excavations began in 1931. A metre of ash from Alexander's fire was dug out in places.

used under Wikimedia Creative Commons licence

The grand symmetrical double stairway up to the palace doors is wide and shallow so that Darius and his men could easily mount the stairs by horseback. Roy Rogers eat your heart out.

This is Darius supposedly killing an evil monster with head and body of a lion, a bull's horn, neck, wings and legs of an eagle and the tail of a scorpion.

Other bas-reliefs depict slaves or citizens bringing in gifts to the king.

So many lovely details. After I'd crawled over the site and climbed to another high point on the hill where the rock had been hewn out by hand a good 20 metres into the cliff face, I decided to wait in the shade at the top of the stairs for John and rest of the group to reassemble.

There was an 11 year old boy sitting near me in the shade. I asked him if he had enjoyed Persepolis. Oh yes he said, I come here often. I was here last Thursday. Why so soon back again? I’m a guide. I was very surprised. I’ve heard it’s very hard to become a guide, I said. Yes it is. I read lots of books, then I sat for an exam, and I passed. Look. He showed me his card. I am very impressed I said. That is a wonderful achievement. So do you have a group here today? No, he said, I am learning Chinese and I am waiting for a Chinese tourist. He is on his way and will be here soon. Darius would have been proud of him!

It wasn't far to Naqsh-e Rustam which is the astonishing Achaemenid necropolis carved into a cliff face, the tombs from left to right of Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I, and Xerxes I. The tombs were looted after the invasion of Alexander the Great.

The carvings are really quite exquisite. Most of them date from the beginning of the Sasanian period. In the third century AD, the Sasanians were a new power that rose in the East. In order to legitimise their rule, the Sasanians sought to associate themselves with the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire, and regarded themselves as its direct successors. One of the things they did to achieve this goal was to carve reliefs at Naqsh-e Rustam.