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Definition: Persepolis from Philip's Encyclopedia

City of ancient Persia (Iran), c.60km (37mi) NE of Shiraz. As the capital (539-330 BC) of the Achaemenid Empire, it was renowned for its splendour. It was destroyed by the forces of Alexander the Great in 330 bc.


Summary Article: Persepolis (map 16) from The Routledge Handbook of the Peoples and Places of Ancient Western Asia: The Near East from the Early Bronze Age to the fall of the Persian Empire

Persian royal capital, located in southwestern Iran in the province of Fars, on the eastern edge of the Marv Dasht plain, 47 km northeast of mod. Shiraz. ‘Persepolis’ is the name by which the city was known to the anc. Greeks (meaning ‘city of Persis’). The Persians themselves called it Parsa (also the name of the Persian homeland). Founded by the Persian king Darius I (522–486) as a new royal seat to replace the former capital, Pasargadae (which lay 40 km to the north), Persepolis became the new administrative centre of the empire, and the place where coronations, royal burials, and other major ceremonies and festivals were held. It was to maintain its pre-eminent status for the remainder of the Persian empire (C6–4). The site was excavated by teams from the University of Chicago between 1931 and 1939. Later excavations carried out under the auspices of the Iranian Archaeological Service brought to light the layout of the remaining unexcavated portions of the site. An Italian restoration team working between 1964 and 1978, with the collaboration of other scholars, contributed important new information on the building techniques used at Persepolis and the various stages of its construction.

Figure 84

Pergamum, Hellenistic theatre.

Directly west of a hill defended by a circuit wall lies the city’s great stone terrace (the Takht, or ‘throne’ in Persian), some 455 m × 300 m in extent. On it were a series of monumental royal buildings constructed by Darius and his successors, particularly Xerxes, Artaxerxes I, and Artaxerxes III. Entry to these buildings was through the so-called All Nations Gate. This gate structure, which was built or completed by Darius’ son and successor Xerxes (*XPa), featured a pair of colossal stone bulls, and a second pair of winged, human-headed bulls, the two pairs guarding the outer and inner doorways respectively. The gatehouse was reached by ascending a double staircase, 14 m high. This provided the only formal access to the royal complex. Columned halls and porticoes were prominent architectural features of the complex, whose most notable buildings include the so-called Hall of 100 Columns (the throne-room?), the palaces of Darius and Xerxes, the so-called harem of Xerxes, and the Apadana, a great square Audience Hall covering an area of 60.5 sq. m (apadana is an old Persian term used for columned buildings, its use in Persian perhaps largely restricted to the most important of these buildings). The Apadana is one of several buildings that appear on raised platforms, providing scope for sculptural decoration on the retaining walls, such as the representations of files of palace guards and lion-and-bull-fighting scenes on the south side of Darius’ palace. Also depicted are human figures climbing the double-reversed staircases which provide access to the palace, on its north and east sides. Both the staircases and the reliefs date to the reign of Artaxerxes III (359–338). Reliefs in other parts of the complex depict the king accompanied by the crown prince or other attendants, bulls, lions, griffins, sphinxes, and most notably, on the north and east sides of the Apadana, files of Median and Persian nobles, and tribute brought to the king by representatives from twenty-three regions throughout his realm. A number of freestanding stone statues, of bulls, ibexes, lions, and large dogs, have also survived. Columns throughout the complex are surmounted by the sculptured protomes of bulls, some human-headed, lions, hybrid lion monsters, and griffins. These served as capitals for supporting the ceiling beams, which were made of cedar. Much of the building and sculptural embellishment of the complex may have been carried out by craftsmen pressed into service from numerous parts of the kingdom, from as far afield as Lydia in western Anatolia. Smaller, private palaces were constructed in the southeast sector of the terrace complex. No trace has yet been discovered of the city’s residential quarter. Buildings in this quarter were no doubt constructed largely of mudbrick and timber.

Figure 85

Perge, colonnaded street, Roman period, with acropolis in background.

Figure 86

Persepolis, All Nations gate.

A number of small finds came to light in the city during excavation. These include military equipment, seals, ceramic ware, gold jewellery, silver vessels, and bronze and lapis lazuli statuettes. Many of the finds were unearthed in the so-called Treasury, which once housed a vast array of works of art and other precious items, including booty and tributary gifts. A small tablet archive recording payments made by Treasury officials to workers (139 documents; see Cameron, 1948) came to light in this building. However, the most important tablets unearthed on the site are the 15,000–20,000 Fortification Tablets, so called because they were found in two rooms of the city’s fortification system (*Hallock, 1969; for later refs, see PE 12). Dating from the thirteenth to the twenty-eighth year of Darius’ reign (509–494), they are the earliest administrative documents we have of the Persian empire. (See most recently PE 763–70, *770–814.) They record food distributions made by Treasury officials from the imperial stores located around the capital to a large number of recipients (including members of the king’s own family, priests, and workers in the employ of the royal court), supplies to travellers, and donations to the gods.

Figure 87

Persepolis, palace of Darius I.

Figure 88

Persepolis, Treasury.

All these finds must represent only a tiny fraction of the city’s contents at the time of its destruction. Persepolis was looted and put to the torch by Alexander the Great in 330. Diodorus (17.70), referring to Alexander’s description of it as ‘the most hateful of the cities of Asia’, provides a graphic account of its destruction. He reports (17.71) that 120,000 talents of gold and silver were taken from the royal Treasury by Alexander; 3,000 camels and a vast number of mules were used to transport the bulk of this treasure to Susa.

Schmidt (1953, 1957, 1970), Root (1995: 2624–32), Stronach and Codella (OEANE 4: 273–7), Roaf (RlA 10: 393–412).

© 2009 Trevor Bryce

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