How to visit Persepolis, Persia

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How to see Persepolis

Of the greatest wonders of the ancient world, few were as magnificent as the city of Persepolis, and far fewer still stand. Intricate details preserved at the site rival some of the wonders of Egypt. Founded by Darius the Great in 520 BC, Persepolis is a living legacy of the mighty Persian empire. Designed by architects from all over the expansive empire to his palace at Persepolis, the carved walls depict African kings and Asian merchants, all converging upon the empire’s great capital.

Entering the site, you walk beneath the Gate of All Nations. Each traveller in this antique land passed through the same gate, guarded by its towering pillars, from African traders to Greek academics, foreign friends and foreign vanquishers. Xerxes I had his name carved into the walls of this grand entryway in 3 different languages, to make sure visitors know who it was that oversaw the city’s creation, and to ensure that his name and his legacy would live for centuries after his death. After a number of military blunders in Greece, Xerxes I hoped to redefine the power of the Persian empire, focusing on the completion of a number of extensive construction projects. The Gate of All Nations and the Hall of 100 Columns still stand at Persepolis, and were thought to be the largest and grandest structures in the city at their time of construction. Xerxes I was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 465 BC, and is thought to be housed in the carved tombs of Nasqh-e Rustam, next to his father Darius I.

The archaeological complex at Persepolis still houses the relics of halls, palaces and finely adorned staircases, with one of the most impressive remaining structures being that of the Apadana Palace. Constructed on the orders of Darius I, it was where men gathered to meet face to face with the ‘king of kings’. Littered with columns topped with snarling statues of animals symbolising power and pride, the grandiosity mirrors the scale of Persian power under Darius I. Ruling the empire at its peak, the 4th Achaemenid king solidified control over an empire that stretched from the Balkans to the Indus Valley, conquered much of Egypt, began the Persian move into the Indian subcontinent, and began an invasion of Greece that he did not live to complete. On the walls of his palace, an inscription about the life of the emperor is carved into the existing stone:

‘Darius the great king, king of kings, king of countries, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid. King Darius says: This is the kingdom which I hold, from the Sacae who are beyond Sogdia, to Kush, and from Sind to Lydia [this is] what Ahuramazda, the greatest of gods, bestowed upon me. May Ahuramazda protect me and my royal house!’

His declaration of himself as the ‘king of kings’ does give the carving strong Ozymandias vibes, and although the poem is assumed to be about the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, the desert-dusted ruins of the palace are reminiscent of Shelley’s famous verse.

Standing alongside the palace was the throne room, Xerxes’ famed Hall of 100 Columns. Today, a museum containing artefacts can also be found here. From perfectly preserved statues and carvings, to everyday household items that would have belonged to the common people living within the city walls, the museum is filled with treasures that don’t have an obvious place in the complex outside. Much of the best preserved segments of walls and carvings, as well as the Persian treasure that is the Cyrus Cylinder, can be found in the Persian section of London’s British Museum. Unlike many other ancient sites and archaeological museums, there isn’t much fuss made about the British plundering said artefacts. There is so much to see in Persepolis and the surrounding sites that they have treasure to spare.

The destruction of Persepolis came at the hands of Alexander the Great, as with so many other ancient wonders of the Near East. Upon reaching the city, he declared it ‘the most hateful city in Asia’, allowing his armies to plunder all but the palaces. Described as ‘the richest city under the sun’, his soldiers ransacked the homes of the commoners living here, massacring residents and taking furniture, clothing and tools for themselves. Seeking vengeance for temples destroyed in the Persian conquest of Greece, they set fire to the palaces in a drunken furore, for "no city was more mischievous to the Greeks than the seat of the ancient kings of Persia... [and] by its destruction they ought to offer sacrifice to the spirits of their forefathers."

Flames died, festivities ended, and thus saw the death of ‘the capital of the entire orient’.

North of the city complex, a royal necropolis can be found at Nasqh-e Rustam. Enormous tombs are carved into the face of a rocky cliff, poking its head out of the expansive desert sands. These imposing resting spots are thought to be the tombs of Darius I (522-486 BC), Xerxes I (486-465 BC), Ataxerxes I (465-424 BC) and Darius II (423-404 BC). While the identity of the latter 3 has been assumed, Darius I’s resting place is clearly defined. In seemingly typical style, the king couldn’t be buried without a lengthy description defining his accomplishments and his conquests, stating unequivocally:

‘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.’

As well as these great necropolis carvings, the site was added to by the rulers of the Sassanid empire. Another reckoning force of ancient Persia, the Sassanids carved incredible artworks into the same rocks during their reigning period of 225-651 AD, before the era of Islamic conquest in the Middle East. To these ancient people, the builders of Persepolis were ancient heroes in turn. 600 years after the death of the youngest of the kings buried here, the Sassanid kings carved depictions of their own victories in battle into the site.

A relic of Persian power, and a tribute to yet older relics of Persian power.

Iran is one of the oldest countries in the world, Persia being one of the first and most advanced civilisations in the ancient world. Mesopotamian history is the history of the people, with much of the modern world’s people and practices originating from the region. While her history may be marred today by religious extremism, institutionalised xenophobia and violence, none of these should define your image of Persia. If you are interested in history, or in the ancient world, the sites that remain in Iran are some of the greatest in the world. If you’re interested in people, their ability to survive and to preserve their culture through a tumultuous history, then you should meet the people of Persia and hear their stories.

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