Persepolis: What it Once Was, and What it is Now

BAS Intern Idean Marvastian recalls a visit to the Persian ceremonial capital

Babylonian delegates offer tribute to the Persian king in this relief on the eastern staircase at the Apadana palace in Persepolis. Unlike the hunting or military scenes at other Persian palaces, author Idean Marvastian writes that the tribute bearing delegates suggest that “the decorations on the most impressive palace in Persepolis focus on unity and trust.”

My 2010 trip to Iran was a wonderful and educational experience. In addition to spending time with my family in Tehran, I had the chance to visit some of Iran’s historical cities. Many of these ancient cities are still lived in, such as Shiraz and Isfahan, but others are preserved as archaeological sites. I had the chance to visit the famous and mysterious Persepolis. Located one hour outside of Shiraz, Persepolis was the capitol of one of the greatest empires in human history.

When I walked up the narrow stairs of the Stairway of All Nations, the tour guide informed me that the stairs were made low and narrow so that travelers, soldiers and kings could bring their horses and camels to the palace. The stairs are so narrow and low that even chariots could make it up and down the stairway. After walking up the limestone stairs I got to the Gate of All Nations. This fascinating gate was built during Xerxes’ dynasty (486-465 B.C.), and was the entrance to the palace. The gate is protected by two mythical creatures carved in stone, known as lamassu bulls. Similar to Greek centaurs, lamassu bulls have the body of a bull, feet of a lion and the head of a human. The ancient Persians carved these bulls in the gate, believing that the bulls would draw evils from Persepolis.

After I walked through the Gate of All Nations, I continued my journey to the Palace of Xerxes. Xerxes (519-465 B.C.) was the fifth king of the Achaemenid Empire and is best remembered for his campaign in ancient Greece in the early fifth century B.C. A striking carving on a stone table in the palace of Xerxes shows the king on his throne. Behind him is his son, Darius. Artabanus, commander of the royal bodyguard and the most powerful official in the Persian court, is looking up at Xerxes. This limestone table is the only carving showing Xerxes with Artabanus, who went on to assassinate the king. No one knows why Artabanus, a formerly humble servant and bodyguard, killed his master. Historians and archaeologists are still investigating this ancient murder.

BAS Library Members: Read Why Darius Built Persepolis by Ali Mousavi as it appeared in Archaeology Odyssey.

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Author Idean Marvastian in front of the 100 Column Palace during his 2010 visit to Persepolis.

After admiring the stone table in Xerxes’ palace I walked to the Hundred-Column Palace. The ancient structure was built with a full hundred columns, but unfortunately, the stumps are all that remain. This huge palace has eight entrances. Scenes from hunting trips and different Persian battles are carved in the entrance walls. The Persian kings liked to be depicted as great hunters and archers; these respected sports were reserved for skilled male aristocrats and soldiers. The carvings include images of a king killing a lion with a dagger. The brutal carvings were meant to motivate (or intimidate) soldiers and generals visiting or training on the palatial grounds.

Finally, I had reached the sight that I had always dreamt of seeing as a child: the Apadana Palace. Construction on the Apadana Palace was started by Darius in 515 B.C. and was finished by Xerxes 30 years later. The Apadana served as a meeting place for nobles. The things that really fascinated me in the Apadana were the carvings in the stucco walls and stairways. Unlike the brutal depictions in the Hundred Column Palace, the carvings in the Apadana represent peace and unity. It shows all of the subject nations of Persia bringing merchandise, treasure and cattle for Darius I. When I stared at these carvings, I realized that the decorations on the most impressive palace in Persepolis focus on unity and trust. Maybe the Persian kings at Persepolis knew that peace and unity lay at the heart of their capital.

Idean Marvastian is an intern with the Biblical Archaeology Society.

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