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Persepolis

From Academic Kids


Persepolis was an ancient capital of the Persian Empire, situated some 70 km northeast of Shiraz, not far from where the small river Pulwar flows into the Kur (Kyrus).

After 2500 years, the ruins of Persepolis still inspire visitors from far and near.
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After 2500 years, the ruins of Persepolis still inspire visitors from far and near.
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The site is marked by a large terrace with its east side leaning on Kuhi Rahmet ("the Mount of Grace"). The other three sides are formed by a retaining wall, varying in height with the slope of the ground from 5 to 13 meters on the west side a magnificent double stair, of very easy steps, leads to the top. On this terrace are the ruins of a number of colossal buildings, all constructed of dark-grey marble from the adjacent mountain. The stones were laid without mortar, and many of them are still in situ. Especially striking are the huge pillars, of which a number still stand erect. Several of the buildings were never finished. F. Stolze has shown that in some cases even the mason's rubbish has not been removed. These ruins, for which the name Kizil minare or Chihil menare ("the forty columns or minarets"), can be traced back to the 13th century, are now known as Takhti Jamshid ("the throne of Jamshid"). That they represent the Persepolis captured and partly destroyed by Alexander of Macedon has been beyond dispute at least since the time of Pietro della Valle.

Behind Takhti Jamshid are three sepulchres hewn out of the rock in the hillside, the facades, one of which is incomplete, being richly ornamented with reliefs. About 13 km NNE, on the opposite side of the Pulwar, rises a perpendicular wall of rock, in which four similar tombs are cut, at a considerable height from the bottom of the valley. The modern Persians call this place Naksh-i Rustam ("the picture of Rustam") from the Sassanian reliefs beneath the opening, which they take to be a representation of the mythical hero Rustam. That the occupants of these seven tombs were kings might be inferred from the sculptures, and one of those at Nakshi Rustam is expressly declared in its inscription to be the tomb of Darius Hystaspis, concerning whom Ctesias relates that his grave was in the face of a rock, and could only be reached by means of an apparatus of ropes. Ctesias mentions further, with regard to a number of Persian kings, either that their remains were brought "to the Persians," or that they died there.

Persepolis (L)
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Persepolis (L)
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Persepolis (R)
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Tombs of kings

Now we know that Cyrus was buried at Pasargadae and if there is any truth in the statement that the body of Cambyses II was brought home "to the Persians" his burying-place must be sought somewhere beside that of his father. In order to identify the graves of Persepolis we must bear in mind that Ctesias assumes that it was the custom for a king to prepare his own tomb during his lifetime. Hence the kings buried at Nakshi Rustam are probably, besides Darius, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I and Darius II. Xerxes II, who reigned for a very short time, could scarcely have obtained so splendid a monument, and still less could the usurper Sogdianus (Secydianus). The two completed graves behind Takhti Jamshid would then belong to Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III. The unfinished one is perhaps that of Arses of Persia, who reigned at the longest two years, or, if not his, then that of Darius III (Codomannus), who is one of those whose bodies are said to have been brought "to the Persians."

Another small group of ruins in the same style is found at the village of Hajjiäbäd, on the Pulwar, a good hour's walk above Takhti Jamshid. These formed a single building, which was still intact 900 years ago, and was used as the mosque of the then existing city of Istakhr.

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Darius the Great

Since Cyrus was buried in Pasargadae, which moreover is mentioned in Ctesias as his own city, and since, to judge from the inscriptions, the buildings of Persepolis commenced with Darius I, it was probably under this king, with whom the sceptre passed to a new branch of the royal house, that Persepolis became the capital of Persia proper. As a residence, however, for the rulers of the empire, a remote place in a difficult alpine region was far from convenient, and the real capitals were Susa, Babylon and Ecbatana. This accounts for the fact that the Greeks were not acquainted with the city until it was taken and plundered by Alexander the Great.

It has been universally admitted that "the palaces" or "the palace" burned down by Alexander are those now in ruins at Takhti Jamshid. From Stolze's investigations it appears that at least one of these, the castle built by Xerxes, bears evident traces of having been destroyed by fire. The locality described by Diodorus after Cleitarchus corresponds in important particulars with Takhti Jamshid, for example, in being supported by the mountain on the east.

Ancient texts

The relevant passages from ancient scholars on the subject are set out below:

(Diod. 17.70.1-73.2) 17.70 (1) Persepolis was the capital of the Persian kingdom. Alexander described it to the Macedonians as the most hateful of the cities of Asia, and gave it over to his soldiers to plunder, all but the palaces. (2) +It was the richest city under the sun and the private houses had been furnished with every sort of wealth over the years. The Macedonians raced into it slaughtering all the men whom they met and plundering the residences; many of the houses belonged to the common people and were abundantly supplied with furniture and wearing apparel of every kind….
72 (1) Alexander held games in honour of his victories. He performed costly sacrifices to the gods and entertained his friends bountifully. While they were feasting and the drinking was far advanced, as they began to be drunken a madness took possession of the minds of the intoxicated guests. (2) At this point one of the women present, Thais by name and Attic by origin, said that for Alexander it would be the finest of all his feats in Asia if he joined them in a triumphal procession, set fire to the palaces, and permitted women's hands in a minute to extinguish the famed accomplishments of the Persians. (3) This was said to men who were still young and giddy with wine, and so, as would be expected, someone shouted out to form up and to light torches, and urged all to take vengeance for the destruction of the Greek temples. (4) Others took up the cry and said that this was a deed worthy of Alexander alone. When the king had caught fire at their words, all leaped up from their couches and passed the word along to form a victory procession [epinikion komon] in honour of Dionysius.
(5) Promptly many torches were gathered. Female musicians were present at the banquet, so the king led them all out for the komos to the sound of voices and flutes and pipes, Thais the courtesan leading the whole performance. (6) She was the first, after the king, to hurl her blazing torch into the palace. As the others all did the same, immediately the entire palace area was consumed, so great was the conflagration. It was most remarkable that the impious act of Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the acropolis at Athens should have been repaid in kind after many years by one woman, a citizen of the land which had suffered it, and in sport.
(Curt. 5.6.1-7.12) 5.6 (1) On the following day the king called together the leaders of his forces and informed them that "no city was more mischievous to the Greeks than the seat of the ancient kings of Persia . . . by its destruction they ought to offer sacrifice to the spirits of their forefathers."…
7 (1) But Alexander's great mental endowments, that noble disposition, in which he surpassed all kings, that intrepidity in encountering dangers, his promptness in forming and carrying out plans, his good faith towards those who submitted to him, merciful treatment of his prisoners, temperance even in lawful and usual pleasures, were sullied by an excessive love of wine. (2) At the very time when his enemy and his rival for a throne was preparing to renew the war, when those whom he had conquered were but lately subdued and were hostile to the new rule, he took part in prolonged banquets at which women were present, not indeed those whom it would be a crime to violate, but, to be sure, harlots who were accustomed to live with armed men with more licence than was fitting.
(3) One of these, Thais by name, herself also drunken, declared that the king would win most favour among all the Greeks, if he should order the palace of the Persians to be set on fire; that this was expected by those whose cities the barbarians had destroyed. (4) When a drunken strumpet had given her opinion on a matter of such moment, one or two, themselves also loaded with wine, agreed. The king, too, more greedy for wine than able to carry it, cried: "Why do we not, then, avenge Greece and apply torches to the city?" 5) All had become heated with wine, and so thy arose when drunk to fire the city which they had spared when armed. The king was the first to throw a firebrand upon the palace, then the guests and the servants and courtesans. The palace had been built largely of ceder, which quickly took fire and spread the conflagration widely. (6) When the army, which was encamped not far from the city, saw the fire, thinking it accidental, they rushed to bear aid. (7) But when they came to the vestibule of the palace, they saw the king himself piling on firebrands. Therefore, they left the water which they had brought, and they too began to throw dry wood upon the burning building.
(8) Such was the end of the capital of the entire Orient. . . .
(10) The Macedonians were ashamed that so renowned a city had been destroyed by their king in a drunken revel; therefore the act was taken as earnest, and they forced themselves to believe that it was right that it should be wiped out in exactly that manner.
(Cleitarchus, FGrHist. 137, F. 11 (= Athenaeus 13. 576d-e))
And did not Alexander the Great have with him Thais, the Athenian hetaira? Cleitarchus speaks of her as having been the cause for the burning of the palace at Persepolis. After Alexander's death, this same Thais was married to Ptolemy, the first king of Egypt.

There is, however, one formidable difficulty. Diodorus says that the rock at the back of the palace containing the royal sepulchres is so steep that the bodies could be raised to their last resting-place only by mechanical appliances. This is not true of the graves behind Takhti Jamshid, to which, as F. Stolze expressly observes, one can easily ride up; on the other hand, it is strictly true of the graves at Nakshi Rustam. Stolze accordingly started the theory that the royal castle of Persepolis stood close by Nakshi Rustam, and has sunk in course of time to shapeless heaps of earth, under which the remains may be concealed. The vast ruins, however, of Takhti Jamshid, and the terrace constructed with so much labour, can hardly be anything else than the ruins of palaces; as for temples, the Persians had no such thing, at least in the time of Darius and Xerxes. Moreover, Persian tradition at a very remote period knew of only three architectural wonders in that region, which it attributed to the fabulous queen Humgi (Khumái)--the. grave of Cyrus at Murgab, the building at HäjjIãbãd, and those on the great terrace.

It is safest therefore to identify these last with the royal palaces destroyed by Alexander. Cleitarchus, who can scarcely have visited the place himself, with his usual recklessness of statement, confounded the tombs behind the palaces with those of Nakshi Rustam; indeed he appears to imagine that all the royal sepulchres were at the same place.

After the fall of Ancient Persia

In 316 BC Persepolis was still the capital of Persia as a province of the great Macedonian Empire (see Diod. xix, 21 seq., 46 ; probably after Hieronymus of Cardia, who was living about 316). The city must have gradually declined in the course of time; but the ruins of the Achaemenidae remained as a witness to its ancient glory. It is probable that the principal town of the country, or at least of the district, was always in this neighbourhood. About AD 200 we find there the city Istakhr (properly Stakhr) as the seat of the local governors. There the foundations of the second great Persian Empire were laid, and Istakhr acquired special importance as the centre of priestly wisdom and orthodoxy. The Sassanian kings have covered the face of the rocks in this neighbourhood, and in part even the Achaemenian ruins, with their sculptures and inscriptions, and must themselves have built largely here, although never on the same scale of magnificence as their ancient predecessors. The Romans knew as little about Istakhr as the Greeks had done about Persepolis--and this in spite of the fact that for four hundred years the Sassanians maintained relations, friendly or hostile, with the empire.

At the time of the Arabian conquest Istakhr offered a desperate resistance, but the city was still a place of considerable importance in the 1st century of Islam, although its greatness was speedily eclipsed by the new metropolis Shiraz. In the 10th century Istakhr had become an utterly insignificant place, as may be seen from the descriptions of Istakhr, a native (c. 950), and of Mukaddasi (c. 985). During the following centuries Istakhr gradually declines, until, as a city, it ceased to exist. This fruitful region, however, was covered with villages till the frightful devastations of the 18th century; and even now it is, comparatively speaking, well cultivated. The "castle of Istakhr" played a conspicuous part several times during the Mahommedan period as a strong fortress. It was the middlemost and the highest of the three steep crags which rise from the valley of the Kur, at some distance to the west or north-west of Nakshi Rustam.

We learn from Asian writers that one of the Buyid (Buwaihid) sultans in the 10th century of the Flight constructed the great cisterns, which may yet be seen, and have been visited, amongst others, by James Morier and E. Flandin. W. Ouseley points out that this castle was still used in the 16th century, at least as a state prison. But when Pietro della Valle was there in 1621 it was already in ruins.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, modified with quotations from sources.

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