Now an archaeological site in Iran, the ancient city of Persepolis was founded by Darius the Great in 518 BC as the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire.
On an immense half-artificial, half-natural terrace, the great king created an impressive palace complex inspired by Mesopotamian models. The importance and quality of the ruins at Persepolis led to its recognition by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Founders of Persepolis
Towards the end of the seventh century B.C., the Meds emery as a powertul nation, vanquished the Assyrians, and created a mighty kingdom in western Iran and northern Mesopotamia. In 550 B C they submitted to Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Iranian Empire, who was the son of a Persian prince and a Median princess, and hence, heir to the thrones of both Persia and Media. He built a capital in his homeland and named it Pasargadae, after the name of his own royal clan, the Pasargadae. The remains of this center lie 135km to the northeast of Shiraz (a full description of them is provided by this writer in a separate monograph entitled A Comprehensive Guide to Pasargadae). Having created an empire extending from the Mediterranean to the Oxus, Cyrus died (530 B.C.) fighting his nomadic cousins, the Scythians of Central Asia. His son Cambyses added Egypt, Libya, and part of Ethiopia to the empire. However, the men he had left at home in charge of his household and crown usurped his throne, and their leader, a Mede of the Magian tribe named
Gaumata, assumed the kingship on the pretense that he was Bardiya the younger son of Cyrus whom Cambyses had actually secretly put to death before invading Egypt. Cambyses hurried home to the fake Bardiya (Pseudo-Smerdis) and his Supporters, but died while still in Syria. His cousin, Prince Darius, avenged him rebellions which had devastated the empire, and ref 486 B.C.
Darius was a shrewd politician and a farsighted state builder. He consolidated the system of empire by greatly improving upon its institutions, laws, communications, and economy. He constructed roads linking various capital cities and facilitating trade, dug canals and constructed bridges, minted coins, and instituted the “Satrapy system” whereby each “province” of the empire was governed by three officials: a governor or “satrap”, a military overseer, and a treasurer.
Darius also built a navy, explored the Indus valley, created a standing army (the elite corps of which numbered 10,000 infantrymen and formed the royal guard known as the “Immortals”, and
levied fixed taxes and encouraged cultivation.
All of these greatly benefited his subjects and treasury. He further commissioned his secretaries to create a cuneiform script for his own‚ language (which he called “Aryan” meaning “Iranian” but we now call the Old Persian) and employed it, along with Elamite and Babylonian cuneiform writings, in his royal proclamations. When the Athenians and other Greeks plundered his western territories and burnt the rich city of Sardis, Persia’s western provincial capital, Darius threatened them with a punitive expedition but did not live to carry out his threat.
His son and successor, Xerxes, (48&66 B.C.) was a man of magnanimity, artistic talent, and appreciation of beauty. He was forced by Darius’ generals to invade Greece but his armies and navy were defeated and he abandoned plans for further campaigns, instead, devoted his time to travels and building activities. Xerxes was followed by Artaxerxes I (466-24 B.C.), who continued the tradition of his father and built admirable palaces adorned with magnificent sculptures. He was followed by Darius II (424-04 B.C.), Artaxerxes II (404-358 B.C.), Artaxerxes III (358-38 B.C.), Arses (338-36 B.C.), and Darius III (336-30). Then Alexander of Macedon invaded Persia, and with him came the destruction of the Persian Empire and the disruption of the Iranian life and ascendancy. He destroyed a balanced and splendid foundation to build a shaky and unrealistic one, which when stripped of the excessive praises of Western historians, can be seen to have been feeble unoriginal. Alexander’s creation collapsed as soon as he himself collapsed under the effect of heavy drinking and megalomania.
Now, the Persian Empire founded by the Achaemenids and uprooted by Alexander was the greatest in history. It extended from the Danube to the Aral Sea and from the Indus Valley to Libya. Within this “world-empire” various nations lived prosperously and different cultures flourished. The
Persians based their administration upon magnanimity and liberalism but had a high regard for law and order. As long as the subject nations obeyed the central authority and paid a fair amount of taxation, they were free to follow their own laws and religious traditions, continue their artistic norms, retain their native languages, write in their own script, and maintain their traditional social system. In some cases, even local dynasties were left undisturbed and native kings retained their hereditary rights to kingship. Hence the Persian king was called “the Great King” or “the King of Kings”.
Due to their liberal policies on the one hand, and to their lack of experience in the field of monumental architecture the other hand, the Persians employed artists and artisans from among the subject nations, and paid them fairly generously to design and build palaces in various centers of the empire. In this way, different cultures and artistic styles were brought into contact resulting in a flow of mutual influences. From the intermingling of ideas and fashions, and under the supervision and planning of Persian masters, emerged the so-called Royal Style of art, which was both refreshing in its simplicity and delicacy and stunning in its unparalleled splendor and richness.
The Royal Style flourished under Cyrus the Great, Darius I, and his two successors; and although all subject nations contributed to its development, it must be mentioned here that the influence of the lonians has been exaggerated by many western scholars. It will be remembered that the Persians were but a handful of people in comparison to the vast number of their subject, and that they had to rule and guard a “world Empire” created in the space of only thirty years. This meant that they had neither enough manpower nor sufficient time to develop a distunctly “Persian” style in art. Consequently, it was natural that they should employ artists and artisans from among other nations. Thus, one may be justified in stating that the “Royal Achaemenid Art" was the seasoned art of the ancient Near East under new supervision, and that its crown jewel, Persepolis is the masterpiece of the artistic traditions of the ancient Near Eastern people. Indeed, it would be unfair to regard this monument solely as the heritage of the Persians. It is the heritage of Man …
About 8 miles (13 km) northeast of the main site, on the opposite side of the Pulvar River, rises a perpendicular wall of rock in which four tombs are cut at a considerable height from the bottom of the valley called Naqsh-e Rustam (Picture of Rostam), from the Sasanian carvings below the tombs once thought to represent the mythical hero Rostam. It seems from the sculptures that the occupants of these seven tombs were Achaemenian kings; one of those at Naqsh-e Rustam is expressly declared in its inscriptions to be the tomb of Darius I, son of Hystaspes.
The three other tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam, besides that of Darius I, are probably those of Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II. The two completed graves behind Persepolis probably belong to Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III. The unfinished one might be that of Arses, who reigned at the longest two years, but is more likely that of Darius III, last of the Achaemenian line, who was overthrown by Alexander the Great.