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by Murray L. Eiland III

This article originally appeared in Oriental Rug Review, Vol. 13/3

Persepolis as seen from the air

As part of the Grand Persian Carpet Exhibition and Conference in June 1992, the delegates were treated to a tour of Persepolis, perhaps the most awesome ruin of the ancient world. It is located in the modern province of Fars; ancient Elam ruled from Anshan (modern Tepe Malyan), where settlement extends back long before the first use of writing ("Proto-Elamite script") about 3000 B.C. Today Shiraz is the major city of the province, which still has the the country's largest population of nomads. Our visit made for a memorable day.
Much has been said about the site by recent American and European travelers, but perhaps the greatest compliment came from Alexander the Great, who almost certainly had it deliberately destroyed, probably because, if left intact, it would have lingered as a dangerous reminder of Persian power in a region only just subdued (about 330 B.C.). As a result of this deliberate destruction, the ruins are very well preserved.

A view across the frozen river looking to the west from the Hermitage.

It is important to realize that the bulk of the structures was made of mud brick, traces of which have largely perished. As the structures collapsed, the mud brick protected much of the sculpture, set along the lower part of the walls, from destruction. What remains is only the monumental skeleton in stone of great palaces. Sculpture that ordinarily would have been carried off or destroyed by time was left at the site. Stone structures that would have been used in subsequent structures if the palace had been rebuilt remained in place -- although many odd bits were removed for use elsewhere. Ancient Parsa was left "fossilized" in a great mound of burned debris which was not systematically excavated until the 1930s. It was long known to travelers for what remained visible.

Sculpture that ordinarily would have been carried off or destroyed by time was left at the site.

The site itself is magnificently appropriate and, with a sense of wonder, we began to look carefully at what survives. In every respect, the location is simply stunning, almost demanding monumental buildings. The palaces are located on a huge, imposing terrace at the base of a hill, the top of which offers a commanding view of the plain below. The structures are set upon a platform up to 50 feet above the plain, 1400 feet from north to south, and about 1000 feet in depth (Wilber, 1969, p. 42). The fine building stone used for construction of the structures was available from adjacent quarries. On the hillside above the palaces lies a legacy of the powerful ruling dynasty, the tombs ascribed to the last Achaemenid kings (Artaxerxes II, III and Darius III). A site only about six miles away, Naqsh-i-Rustam, also boasts Achaemenid royal tombs (only Darius I is identified by inscriptions), and the enigmatic free standing stone tower known as the Ka'bah-i-Zardusht.

At Persepolis, greeting the visitor at the east gate, are two giant figures, muscular bull bodies with human faces and wings, seemingly emerging from two monolithic slabs of stone. These are based on earlier Assyrian prototypes and resemble the guardian figures (or lamassu) of King Sargon (722-705 B.C.) from ancient Khorsabad (Wilber, 1969, p. 51). It is interesting to note that the Persians used only four legs on their lamassu, while the Assyrians used five, viewed from front and side. Inscriptions above the wings identify the ruler who erected them: "I (am) Xerxes, the Great King, King of Kings" (Wilber, 1969, p. 11).

The Lamassu guardian figures at the gate

On progressing farther onto the terrace, one notices that the palaces are set into the natural idiosyncrasies of the rock platform. The height gradients of the terrace divide Persepolis into three distinct areas of occupation: the palace itself, buildings to the south and west of the terrace, and the tombs on the hill to the east of the terrace. The Apadana precinct is the most interesting area, while the other structures, besides the tombs, are often described as having little of artistic merit -- as they are ruined and have no reliefs. Although one would assume that scholarly opinion would by now have reached something of a consensus about the function of the site, such is not the case. The generalities and the particulars of Persepolis are still hotly debated, and moving from the bare facts soon leads to a "historical discussion" with varying opinions.

To the north of the apadana, the Gate of All Nations (also known as Xerxes' gate) was built, which was guarded by a pair of large bulls in the west and lamassu's in the east (a lamassu is a bull with the head of a bearded man).

Even the simple question as to where the court lived is still debated, with no conclusive answer. There is still speculation about the existence of "royal" palaces in the plain. Exactly why the fortress complex was built is still a question. Perhaps like many other monarchs of past and present, who travel to regional houses for visits, the palace may only have been a temporary residence for kings who had their major seat of power elsewhere. The places at Susa/Babylon were used in the winter, while cooler Hamadan was used in the summer. In general, it is felt that Pasargadae, founded by Cyrus, remained the coronation site. Persepolis is the burial place and "dynastic center." As Darius was a usurper, the foundation of Persepolis may have been an attempt at legitimizing his reign. That may also explain why the complex was never restored as it was an "obsolete" Achaemenid dynastic shrine.

High relief of the famous Sasanian sculpture at Naqsh-i-Rustam

From the "Treasury," tablets were recovered confirming suggestions that Persepolis was constructed in roughly two periods. Building seems to have begun under Darius I (522-486 B.C.), who commissioned palaces at Persepolis and his tomb at Naqsh-i Rustam. His son Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.) and his grandson Artaxerxes II (465-425 B.C.) continued some construction work. Some alterations and rebuildings were carried out by Artaxerxes III (359-338 B.C.). Some rulers built their tombs behind the Terrace, while not building anything more substantial there (Roaf, 1983, p. 1). It is a general historical saying that "Kings were crowned at Pasargadae and buried at Persepolis." The site, however, is much more than a graveyard.

Mythical beast being attacked by a 'big cat'

Sculptures still adorn some sections of the palaces. Stylistically they are hard to assess, as no comparable sculptures from earlier Persian history survive. The Palace at Susa was constructed -- we are told from foundation tablets of Darius found at Susa -- by craftsmen from many countries. Egyptians, Syrians and Ionians are mentioned by name as contributors. Babylonians, we are told, were even involved in making the sun-dried mud brick. Apart from royal hyberbole, one can easily see many influences in the Persian art of Persepolis. It is likely that Persepolis, like Susa, had contributions from many quarters. It is by taking all the factors together that a distinct "Persepolis Style" begins to emerge.

Kings of Persepolis

Like so much art in the ancient Near East, the sculptures were executed to glorify the power of the king. Thus, as a "document," each is easy to read. In every scene the king is ruling his empire. The Apadana staircase is a perfect illustration. Originally, it showed the king enthroned, receiving 23 delegations of gift-bearing subjects. Barter may have been the preferred method of trade within the eastern part of the empire, despite the use of precious metals. The workers at Persepolis were paid largely in kind, and even the King's courtiers and soldiers received food (Cook, 1983, 0. 70). The Apadana's delegations each show a leader, for a group of between two to seven gift bearers. Each leader is escorted by an usher, who is dressed in trousers (Median) or robes (Persian). It is often assumed that the differences in dress represent distinct tribal affiliations, but as Herodotus I: 35 observes, Persians may have borrowed Median (or traditional Iranian riding) costume. The "flowing robes" of the "Persians" had earlier precident in Elamite dress. Arrayed behind the king is his empire, with nobles, soliders, and horses lending weight to royal decrees. Lining the stairs are even more soldiers, so that one does not miss the point. To any visitor, and certainly to any visitor in ancient times, the purpose is clear.

Another scene, popular on carpets, depicts the King enthroned, supported by his subjects or at times rows of soldiers. The iconography is fairly easy to interpret. The winged figure, above the King, is Ahurz Mazdz. In the Zoroastrian religion -- and it seems likely the Achaemenids were early Zoroastrians -- the supreme deity is presented as ruling the heavens. The King is actively supported, both from above and obviously from below. The world is so ordered that he placidly sits, held up by his minions. Persepolitan art attests frankly about how the rulers of Persepolis chose to view their world.

Another motif found on carpets, even today, is that of the king actively stabbing a fantastic animal.

Another motif found on carpets, even today, is that of the king actively stabbing a fantastic animal. This presents another role of the king who, as a representative of goodness, must struggle against evil. The earlier part of the Avesta aptly portrays this struggle between good and evil as a sharp duality. In Yasna 31 (Moulton, 1972, p. 354) we find: 16. This I ask, whether the understanding man that strives to advance the dominion over house or district or land by the right, will be one like thee, 0 Mazdah Ahura - when he will be and how he will act. 18. Let none of you listen to the liars words and commands: he brings house as clan and district and land into misery and destruction. Resist them then with weapon!

An inscription of Darius the Great Naqsh-I-Rustam mirrors the sentiments above (Boyre, 1979, p. 55). "Ahuramazda when he saw this earth in commotion, thereafter he bestowed it upon me, he made me king....This which has been done, all that by the will of Ahuramazda I did. Ahuramazda bore me aid, until I did the work."
It seems clear that whether or not the Achaemenids were Zoroastrian in the strict sense is a moot point. Some of the same religious imagery was used to convey ideas that were similar. Righteousness engenders God's favor, which results in order and stability. These powerful concepts are illuminated by both the literature and art of the period.

As art with a purpose, it was executed to a high standard, with highly polished surfaces that may have had color, but the scenes are quite repetitive. Persian soldiers are the same, literally repeated hundreds of times. Facial features are similar for Medes, Persians or foreigners. Heads and legs are shown in profile, while the torso can be shown frontally (Roaf, 1983, p. 1). Taken together, there are more than 3,000 figures at Persepolis. Possibly this standardization of technique was the result of many sculptors working on such a grand task. Perhaps a varied collection of figures would have presented the viewer not with a grand assemblage of order but with the notion that the empire did not have absolute control over its people and projects.
Whatever the case, Persepolis presents us with a grand feast for the eyes. The fears just after the revolution that the site had been damagaed appear unfounded. There was a rumor that, during the revolution, paint had been applied to some sculptures, but no trace of it is now visible. Many of of the sculptures appeared in better condition than one would expect from viewing early photographs. One can only hope that the site will become more open to tourism as Iran emerges from her isolation.

Copyright 1993 by Murray Eiland, III. Original text and photographs appeared in Oriental Rug Review, February/March, 1993
With thanks to
Oriental Rug Review, Ron O'Callaghan and Murray Eiland, III for permission to reproduce this article here.