The magnificent palace complex at Persepolis was founded by Darius the Great around 518 B.C., although more than a century passed before it was finally completed. Conceived to be the seat of government for the Achaemenian kings and a center for receptions and ceremonial festivities, the wealth of the Persian empire was evident in all aspects of its construction. The splendor of Persepolis, however, was short-lived; the palaces were looted and burned by Alexander the Great in 331-330 B.C. The ruins were not excavated until the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago sponsored an archaeological expedition to Persepolis and its environs under the supervision of Professor Ernst Herzfeld from 1931 to 1934, and Erich F. Schmidt from 1934 to 1939.
The magnificent ruins of Persepolis lie at the foot of Kouh-e Rahmat, or "Mountain of Mercy," in the plain of Marv Dasht about 850 kilometers south of the present capital city of Tehran and about 50 kilometers north of Shiraz.
The exact date of the founding of Persepolis is not known. It is assumed that Darius I began work on the platform and its structures between 518 and 516 B.C., visualizing Persepolis as a show place and the seat of his vast Achaemenian Empire. He proudly proclaimed his achievement; there is an excavated foundation inscription that reads, "And Ahuramazda was of such a mind, together with all the other gods, that this fortress (should) be built. And (so) I built it. And I built it secure and beautiful and adequate, just as I was intending to." But the security and splendor of Persepolis lasted only two centuries. Its majestic audience halls and residential palaces perished in flames when Alexander the Great conquered and looted Persepolis in 330 B.C. and, according to Plutarch, carried away its treasures on 20,000 mules and 5,000 camels.
From the time of its barbaric destruction until A.D. 1620, when its site was first identified, Persepolis lay buried under its own ruins. During the following centuries many people traveled to and described Persepolis and the ruins of its Achaemenid palaces. Many of their observations were later condensed and published by George N. Curzon in Persia and the Persian Question (London and New York, 1892). But scholarly and scientifically planned work was not undertaken until 1931. Then Ernst Herzfeld, at that time Professor of Oriental Archaeology in Berlin, was commissioned by James H. Breasted, Director of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, to undertake a thorough exploration, excavation and, if possible, restoration of the remains of Persepolis. Thus, Herzfeld, in 1931 became the first field director of the Oriental Institute's Persepolis Expeditions. In 1931-34, assisted by his architect, Fritz Krefter, he uncovered on the Persepolis Terrace the beautiful Eastern Stairway of the Apadana and the small stairs of the Council Hall. He also excavated the Harem of Xerxes. When Herzfeld left in 1934, Erich F. Schmidt took charge. He continued the large-scale excavations of the Persepolis complex and its environs until the end of 1939, when the onset of the war in Europe put an end to his archaeological work in Iran. During the last years of excavating, the University Museum in Philadelphia and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston had joined the Oriental Institute in order to cope with the tremendous work at hand.
Schmidt's expedition staff, though varying from year to year, consisted mainly of his assistant Donald E. McCown, architect John S. Bolles and assistant Elliot F. Noyes (both later replaced in 1937 by Richard C. Haines), photographer Boris Dubensky, and various draftsmen, recorders, mechanics, and the like. The digging crew, recruited from villagers, fluctuated from 200 to 500 men. Elaborating on this, Schmidt wrote that at the beginning of each season about 20 to 30 laborers arrived from Damghan, old-time workers, honest peasants and trusted hands, who were trained for the delicate job of excavating. They, in turn, recruited the bulk of the digging crew.
Palace Complex: Structures, Reliefs, and Inscriptions
This section deals mainly with the architecture of the palace complex, and its buildings and embellishing reliefs. These date entirely from the Achaemenian period (518-331/30 B.C.) except for a few remnants of post-Achaemenid structures.
An inscription carved on the southern face of the Terrace proves that Darius the Great was the founder of Persepolis. Work was started about 518 B.C., although the tremendous task was not completed until about 100 years later by Artaxerxes I. Before any of the buildings could be erected, considerable work had to be done. This mainly involved cutting into an irregular and rocky mountainside in order to shape and raise the large platform and to fill the gaps and depressions with rubble.
According to tablets inscribed in Old Persian and Elamite found at Persepolis, it seems that Darius planned this impressive complex of palaces not only as the seat of government but also, and primarily, as a show place and a spectacular center for the receptions and festivals of the Achaemenian kings and their empire. Darius lived long enough to see only a small part of his plans executed. His brilliant and grandiose ideas were taken up and followed by his son and successor Xerxes, who, according to an excavated foundation inscription, said: "When my father Darius went (away from) the throne, I by the grace of Ahuramazda became king on my father's throne. After I became king . . . what had been done by my father, that I also (did), and other works I added." Actually, the Persepolis we know is mostly the work of Xerxes.
In dealing with the Persepolis platform, we have to understand that the northern part of the Terrace, consisting mainly of the Audience Hall of the Apadana, the Throne Hall, and the Gate of Xerxes, represented the official section of the Persepolis complex, accessible to a restricted public. The other part held the Palaces of Darius and Xerxes, the Harem, the Council Hall, and such. Following is a brief enumeration of the buildings, and their most outstanding features, that constitute the Terrace complex.
By far the largest and most magnificent building is the Apadana, begun by Darius and finished by Xerxes, that was used mainly for great receptions by the kings. Thirteen of its seventy-two columns still stand on the enormous platform to which two monumental stairways, on the north and on the east, give access. They are adorned with rows of beautifully executed reliefs showing scenes from the New Year's festival and processions of representatives of twenty-three subject nations of the Achaemenid Empire, with court notables and Persians and Medes, followed by soldiers and guards, their horses, and royal chariots. Delegates in their native attire, some completely Persian in style, carry gifts as token of their loyalty and as tribute to the king. These gifts include silver and gold vessels and vases, weapons, woven fabrics, jewelry, and animals from the delegates' own countries. Although the overall arrangement of scenes seems repetitive, there are marked differences in the designs of garments, headdresses, hair styles, and beards that give each delegation its own distinctive character and make its origin unmistakable. Another means by which the design achieves diversity is by separating various groups or activities with stylized trees or by using these trees alone to form ornamental bands. There is also an intentional usage of patterns and rhythms that, by repeating figures and groups, conveys a grandiose ornamental impression.
The Throne Hall
Next to the Apadana, the second largest building of the Persepolis Terrace is the Throne Hall (also called the "Hundred-Column Hall"), which was started by Xerxes and completed by his son Artaxerxes I (end of the fifth century B.C.). Its eight stone doorways are decorated on the south and north with reliefs of throne scenes and on the east and west with scenes depicting the king in combat with monsters. In addition, the northern portico of the building is flanked by two colossal stone bulls. In the beginning of Xerxes' reign the Throne Hall was used mainly for receptions for representatives of all the subject nations of the empire. Later, when the Treasury proved to be too small, the Throne Hall also served as a storehouse and, above all, as a place to display more adequately objects, both tribute and booty, from the royal treasury. Concerning this, Schmidt wrote of the striking parallel in a modern example of a combined throne hall and palace museum where the Shah of Iran stores and exhibits the royal treasures in rooms and galleries adjoining his throne hall in the Gulistan Palace at Teheran.
Adjacent to the Throne Hall is the Treasury, part of which served as an armory and especially as a royal storehouse of the Achaemenian kings. The tremendous wealth stored here came from the booty of conquered nations and from the annual tribute sent by the peoples of the empire to the king on the occasion of the New Year's feast. Before the Throne Hall was finished, the most spacious room of the Treasury was used as a Court of Reception. Two large stone relieves were discovered here that attested to its function. These depict Darius I, seated on his throne, being approached by a high dignitary whose hand is raised to his mouth in a gesture of respectful greeting. Behind the king stands Crown Prince Xerxes, followed by court officials.
The Palace of Darius
Twelve columns supported the roof of the central hall from which three small stairways descend. Relieves on these stairways depict servants coming up the steps carrying animals and food in covered dishes to be served at the king's tables. On the eastern and western doorjambs are relieves showing the king in formal dress leaving the palace, followed by two attendants; relieves on the northern and southern doorways depict the king in combat with monsters.
The Palace of Xerxes
Xerxes' Palace, almost twice as large as that of Darius, shows very similar decorative features on its stone doorframes and windows, except for two large Xerxes inscriptions on the eastern and western doorways. Instead of showing the king's combat with monsters, these doorways depict servants with ibexes. Unfortunately, all the relieves in this palace are far less well preserved than those of the Palace of Darius.
The Council Hall
Access to the royal apartments was by means of a beautiful stairway which led to three entrances. Two were for official purposes; the third was a secret doorway which led into the Harem.