History of Iran

Ecbatana
By: Jona Lendering


In old Persian Hâgmatâna, 'meeting place': capital of the ancient Median empire, Hamadân in modern Iran.


According to the Histories of the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Ecbatana was founded by Deioces, the legendary first king of the Medes.
He writes:
    Golden rhyton from Ecbatana,
    Tehran National Museum
    Deioces bade them build for him a palace worthy of the royal dignity and strengthen him with a guard of spearmen. And the Medes did so: for they built him a large and strong palace in that part of the land which he told them [...]. He built large and strong walls, those which are now called Ecbatana, standing in circles one within the other. And this wall is so contrived that one circle is higher than the next by the height of the battlements alone. And to some extent, I suppose, the nature of the ground, seeing that it is on a hill, assists towards this end; but much more was it produced by art, since the circles are in all seven in number. And within the last circle are the royal palace and the treasure-houses. The largest of these walls is in size about equal to the circuit of the wall round Athens; and of the first circle the battlements are white, of the second black, of the third crimson, of the fourth blue, of the fifth red: thus are the battlements of all the circles colored with various tints, and the two last have their battlements one of them overlaid with silver and the other with gold. These walls then Deioces built for himself and round his own palace, and the people he commanded to dwell round about the wall.
    [Herodotus, Histories 1.98-99]
This is clearly a fantastic description, but it may contain an element of truth: the seven walls may in fact be a ziggurat, a kind of multi-storied temple tower that was common in the ancient Near East. This explanation, however, is far from certain. Only archaeology will be able to offer a reliable description of ancient Ecbatana, but since the site is currently overbuilt by modern Hamadân, it is not likely that this will happen in the foreseeable future.

The Greek historian Polybius of Megalopolis offers probably the best available description of the city (World history 10.27.5-13). He writes that the city was richer and more beautiful than all other cities in the world; although it had no town wall, the citadel had impressive fortifications. This confirms Herodotus' words that the Medes were 'to dwell round about the wall', but Polybius offers more plausible dimensions: the circumference of the citadel was 1,300 meters. He also states that the builders used cedar and cypress wood, which was covered with silver and gold. The roof tiles, columns and ceilings were plated with silver and gold. This sounds like a credible description of an oriental palace, like Persepolis.

When the Persian king Cyrus the Great, a member of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty, had overthrown the Median empire in 550 BCE, he captured Ecbatana. The text known as the Chronicle of Nabonidus states:
    King Astyages called up his troops and marched against Cyrus, king of Anšan [i.e., Persia], in order to meet him in battle. The army of Astyages revolted against him and in fetters they delivered him to Cyrus. Cyrus marched against the country Ecbatana; the royal residence he seized; silver, gold, other valuables of the country Ecbatana he took as booty and brought to Anšan.
The lion of Ecabtana, Hephaestion's tomb
According to the Greek historian Xenophon of Athens (c.430-c.355), Ecbatana became the summer residence of the Achaemenid kings (Anabasis 3.5.15).

In December 522 BCE, the Median rebel Phraortes reoccupied Ecbatana and made it his capital; he was defeated, however, by the Persian king Darius I the Great (May 521 BCE). He celebrated this event with a large relief and an inscription along the road between Babylon and Ecbatana (the famous Behistun inscription).

Greek sources mention temples dedicated to the goddess Aenę (probably Anahita) and the goddess of healing, which the Greeks called Asclepius. This shrine was destroyed by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, who overthrew the Achaemenid empire, because the god had allowed his friend Hephaestion to die in Ecbatana (324 BCE). Hephaestion's sepulcral monument, a lion, is still visible. Earlier, Alexander had had his general Parmenion killed in the capital of Media (330 BCE).

Later, Ecbatana was one of the capitals of the Seleucid and the Parthian empire, sometimes called Epiphaneia.