persepolis

When Persepolis was one of the world’s wonders.

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By Natalia Borys

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Persepolis, the archaeological treasure,[1] Western orientalist vision.  I have never imagined that one day I would wander down the streets of Persepolis, that it would be possible.  This majestic site still makes you feel as in a dream, transfers you in the glorious past, to the magnificent history of mankind, especially for history lovers like me.

From the very beginning of  my arrival in Iran, I can’t wait seeing this wonder of the world: to touch ancient stones, full of history, and to wander through this labyrinth city, symbol of Achaemenid Persia, founded in 550 BC by Darius the Great, “King of Kings, King of the World.”[2]

Why Persepolis? Because it is a symbol of a great civilization that has bequeathed so much to mankind. Moreover, Persepolis is one of the most powerful urban constructions in history, a testimony of its incomparable glory.  The emergence of these majestic ruins in the silence of the dawn is unforgettable, the site still fancies a lot.  At the entry, you are welcome by stone lamassu in the Assyrian style, winged human-headed bulls with curly beards,[3] in astonishing splendour, hit the mind and imagination. These ruins are still impressive, and seeing it makes you travel in time and touch the ancient history, the history of the Achaemenid empire of “King of kings”.

On the way to Persepolis

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The figure of the Royal Glory hovered the kings in many scenes at Persepolis. Western scholars consider it as the representation of the supreme God Ahuramazda, while Iranians think it is a symbolic picture of royal glory.

Arriving in Shiraz, from my budget hotel, I took a taxi to Persepolis. The only way to get to the site is by taxi.  Generally, taxis wait on the spot while tourists roam the site. My taxi driver is joyful, as most of Iranians are, want to chat and discuss politics, greets me with a traditional welcome to Iran,” and drops me off at the entrance telling me that an hour or two is more than enough to visit the site. An hour or two? Me, who dreamt of spending a lot of time there. I let him know that I am going to stay longer. My driver must have cursed me and my love for old ruins. The whole day is more appropriate for this meeting with history.

At the foot of Mountain of Mercy, the ruins of Persepolis , the heart of the Achaemenid Empire, stretch as far as the eye can see. The Persian king’s summer residence, which was burned down by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.[4] and exhumed by archaeologists in 1931, has revealed invaluable details about the first empire of humanity.

An entrance.

12729168_10153926586153770_2428488603171104707_nIt is hot, very hot. I have to wear jeans, a shawl to cover my head and a gold embroidered tunic (Chanel, as it was noted on it) which I had to buy at the bazaar to comply with the Islamic rules of the country.  The sun is blinding and not a single tree at sight. It is February and it is already hot. I can only imagine how hot is in summer. It must be as hot as Hades.  But my enthusiasm is still high. Persepolis!

Near the entrance, in a small museum, I bought myself an expensive little book about Persepolis. Here is the entrance. Today, twenty-six centuries later, Persepolis is still a breathtaking majesty. Ruins of luminous palaces, ancient cross-shaped tombs carved halfway up the cliff, slender columns exposed to the wind and the sun, lavish low-reliefs, everything here permanently captures your imagination. The visitors in the past, like me today, were speechless facing such splendour, which was built to glorify the Great King and the greatest of the Gods, Ahura Mazda.

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Tachara, or The Palace of Darius.

The rise and the fall of the capital.

Persepolis’ palaces and buildings were built mainly during the reign of Darius I the Great (522-486 BC) who emerged, for some, as the true founder of the Achaemenid Empire and, perhaps, its most remarkable ruler. The embellishments of the vast palatial complex were continued by the successors of Darius I, Xerxes and Artaxerxes, during almost sixty years, without being completely finished. A demonstration of the supreme power the large palatial complex was not intended to be the permanent residence of the king. But everything is so big and majestic! The new city of Persepolis was built with the intention to impress visitors, and to be seen by far with its royal palaces, courtrooms, treasure room, majestic doors and stairways, fortifications and harem. Mission accomplished! If even only few ruins of this past splendour remain, they give you an idea how big and majestic it was.

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An enthroned king, two incense burners, a “Median” chiliarch reporting to the king, a towel-bearer, a weapon-bearer, and two pairs of “Persian guards flanking the scene. Who is the king? as Iranian scholars claim, Artaxerxes was still young and had no grown up crown prince. This was evidently the crown of Artaxerxes I, while the former was worn by Xerxes. The audience is held under a royal baldachin with tasselled edges falling in front. Above, five superimposed rows of soldiers.

Persepolis emerged from oblivion in the Middle Ages, when monks, European travellers and notables, in addition to other visitors, reussisited the memory and the past glory of the city. The city was so famous that in 1971, the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, chose the site to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire. If the shah Pahlavi was impressed by the site and dreamt of reviving it, the ayatollahs demanded to destroy the site, as well as other pre-Islamic ruins. To destroy the site would have been a crime against humanity, it was hopefully avoided by a tireless campaign by the governor of Fars Province, lawyer Nosratollah Amini, and the strong protest of Shiraz residents. From 1979, the majestic ruins of Persepolis were classified a UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

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The double griffin protome capital. Since the best opinions to date are that the griffin capital may have been intended for the Unfinished Gate at Persepolis. They became famous by being the symbol of “Homa”, Iranian national airline.

Scholars still try to figure out, what was the main purpose of Persepolis. For some of them, Persepolis was a religious city, a national sanctuary, used to celebrate the Zoroastrian Iranian New Year, called the Nowruz, during the vernal equinox. Some of them think, it was set up as an astronomical city, while others still believe that it was built to impress and to show off the Achaemenid imperial power.  Nevertheless, we now know that over and above its sacred and religious character, Persepolis was also conceived as an administrative and political capital. Archaeological excavations, as well as the cuneiform tablets prove it.

The Hall of hundred columns and its stairways. The Immortals.

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Gate of all Lands, human-headed winged bulls serving as “guardians”.

Today, the visitor ascends the Persepolis platform by climbing up a grand double-flighted staircase, called the Great Double Staircase, was most likely built under Xerxes I. It is composed of two flights of stairs each contains111 steps. These large grey limestone steps measure 7m wide and only 10cm high (which enabled horses to access the other side of the walls) offer visitors a glimpse of what awaits him. The entrance, the Gate of All Lands, was used to welcome visitors and delegations that came from all the satrapies or provinces of the Persian Empire to give allegiance to the Great King.

These monumental staircases are one of the masterpieces of Achaemenid art. They are decorated with low-reliefs representing different people of the Empire bringing offerings to the Great King.  This staircase was lucky to avoid the destruction! It was buried under Apadana roof’s fall when Persepolis was burned down, it is perfectly preserved.

The entrance was flanked by two colossal bulls of 5.5m high and carved on a 1.5m pedestal. They observe and guard the entrance in order to protect the city from any threat from the outside. [5] On the underside and the head of the bulls, one could read an inscription in old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, proclaiming the greatness of Xerxes, the I am Xerxes the Great King, King of Kings, King of lands and King of many peoples, who by the grace of Ahura Mazda, constructed this Gateway of All Lands”.

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Xerxes’ inscription “A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness, of man, who made Xerxes king, one king of many, one lord, of many lords. I am Xerxes the king, Great king of Kings, king of countries containing many kinds of people…”

Undoubtedly, their creators were inspired by the Assyrian tradition, given their resemblance to the bulls of Sargon Palace in Khorsabad.  Like their counterparts, these half-human, half-bulls were considered a mythical symbol of royalty, a reflection of royal power and a kind of guardian angel of the Great King and the Achaemenid Empire as a whole.[6]

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A lamassu is an Assyrian protective deity, often depicted as having a human’s head, a body of a bull or a lion, and bird’s wings. In art, lamassu were depicted as hybrids, with bodies of either winged bulls or lions and heads of human males. The motif of a winged animal with a human head is common to the Near East. Assyrian sculpture typically placed prominent pairs of lamassu at entrances in palaces, facing the street and also internal courtyards. They were represented as “double-aspect” figures on corners, in high relief. From the front they appear to stand, and from the side, walk, and in earlier versions have five legs, as is apparent when viewed obliquely. Lumasi do not generally appear as large figures in the low-relief schemes running round palace rooms, where winged genie figures are common, but they sometimes appear within narrative reliefs, apparently protecting the Assyrians

In the north end, we could see the royal guard, known as the Immortals,[7] as well as the parade in procession with horses and chariots while carrying the royal throne. The procession of gift-bearing delegations is one of the most spectacular elements of the staircase.  During this ceremony, 23 delegations from all satrapies bring offerings and gifts.

Beyond the emotion, grandeur and decadence of the site.

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A royal tomb.

I regrettably have to leave the ruins under a burning sun. Persepolis is undoubtedly breathtaking. It is a wonder of the ancient world. I think of all the other sites of Antiquity and Mesopotamia which weren’t as lucky as Persepolis, and suffered the ravages and damages of recent wars in Iraq and Syria. The Iranian government, however quite reluctantly, has protected its ancient and pre-Islamic history, other regimes and governments did not protect their sites. When I asked Iranians about Achaemenid treasures, stored in Louvre and other world museums, they told me that probably this Iranian past is better guarded there. It is hard to argue about it. Luckily, the great Persepolis adventure lasts, the site continues to reveal its secrets and to make its visitors travel in the glorious past of the Achaemenid Empire of ” the King of Kings …”.

[1]  Founded by Darius I in 518 B.C., Persepolis was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. It was built on an immense half-artificial, half-natural terrace, where the king of kings created an impressive palace complex inspired by Mesopotamian models.  The importance and quality of the monumental ruins make it a unique archaeological site. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/114/

[2]  Darius the Great was engraved “I am Darius the Great King, King of Kings, King of countries containing all kinds of men, King in this great earth far and wide, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid, a Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, having Aryan lineage”in Naqsh-e Rostam.

[3] A lamassu is an Assyrian protective deity, often depicted as having a human’s head, a body of a bull or a lion, and bird’s wings. In art, lamassu were depicted as hybrids, with bodies of either winged bulls or lions and heads of human males. The motif of a winged animal with a human head is common to the Near East. Assyrian sculpture typically placed prominent pairs of lamassu at entrances in palaces, facing the street and also internal courtyards. They were represented as “double-aspect” figures on corners, in high relief. From the front they appear to stand, and from the side, walk, and in earlier versions have five legs, as is apparent when viewed obliquely. Lumasi do not generally appear as large figures in the low-relief schemes running round palace rooms, where winged genie figures are common, but they sometimes appear within narrative reliefs, apparently protecting the Assyrians

[4]  After having conquered the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great ordered the destruction of Persepolis in 330 B.C.  According to sources, the fire in the city was ignited to satisfy the whim of his concubine, Thais, while some, like Diodorus Siculus and Strabo considered it revenge for the abuses committed by Xerxes in Athens and in the Greek temples in 480 B.C. In any case, this fire put an end to a city, thereafter said to be frozen in time, with its ruins and its cuneiform tablets waiting two millennia to share their secrets.

[5] Borrowed from Assyrian iconography, the bulls were associated with the monstrous creatures of Chaos allied with Tiamat (the Goddess of salt water) in the Babylonian poem Enuma Elish, and represented a new allegory of the king’s dominance over the forces of evil.

[6] Each guardian of the door has a curly, geometric beard and curly hair – traits of the Great King himself – a crown or a cylindrical tiara decorated with two rosettes and sepals. These two imposing lamassi stood guard in the direction of the Path of Processions to ensure the palace was protected.

[7] The elite corps of which numbered 10’000 infantrymen and formed the royal guard

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