Persepolis is one of the most impressive and well-preserved antiquities in the world. It is mostly because of its “disappearance” from the face of the earth for many centuries. It was practically erased from the historical records of other cultures. And it was literally buried in the sand. Here, you can find the highlights of Persepolis.
If you visit Iran, you will notice right away that Iranians are extremely proud of their poetic heritage and their rich and long history. While you can experience and learn more about the poetry aspect or Iranian culture in the nearby town of Shiraz, where the famous poet Hafez was born and buried, one of the best ways to learn about and experience Persian history is in Persepolis.
Persepolis is located in the small town of modern-day Marvdasht in the Province of Fars, 56km northeast of Shiraz. The name Persepolis came from Greek, meaning “the City of Persia.” The ancient Persians who lived in Persepolis in the first century BC, during the Achaemenian Dynasty, called it Parsa. And finally, the Farsi language and modern-day Iranians call it the “Takht-e Jamshid.” This translates to the Throne of Jamshid – the first ruler of Iran, who some consider to be a mythical figure.
Persepolis stands on top of a huge man-made terrace, which was partly constructed and partially cut out of a mountain, making it an incredible city planning project, especially during the first century B.C.
Persepolis – Facts and Timeline
Traces of Persian civilization date back to ancient times, and this is one of the oldest in the world. Darius the Great started the construction of Persepolis in 515 B.C. and moved the Capital of the Achaemenian dynasty from Pasargaede to Persepolis. You also can find the Tomb of Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler before Darius the Great, in Pasargadae before Persepolis was constructed. The dynasty continued the project for more than 150 years. It spanned six generations from Darius the Great to King Xerxes I, Xerxes II, then Artaxerxes I, II, and III.
Persepolis’s history was cut short in 330 B.C., when Alexander the Great’s army ransacked the city. For some unknown reason, Persepolis was abandoned shortly thereafter and forgotten for centuries.
Throughout history, some form of acknowledgment of Persepolis’s location appeared in expedition travel logs, including Silk Road travelers. Some references are included in the Spanish and Portuguese explorations in the 17th century, and later Dutch and French exploration in the 18th century. Finally, a team of German anthropologists carried out the excavation project in 1931. They were shocked by what they found in the sand. Many details from the reliefs remained intact. Ruins of hundreds of columns and doorjambs, along with terraces with reliefs were still easily identifiable and gave perspective of the grandeur of this place.
UNESCO recognized Persepolis as a World Heritage Site in 1979.
Apadana Staircase or the Grand Stairway
The Apadana Staircase is one the most intact artifacts of Persepolis. These impressive 110 of shallow-threaded steps were designed just like a ramp – nobles with long robes could easily climb these steps without worrying about tripping over their long clothing. These steps are heavily guarded by three levels of well-preserved frieze panels in procession. This is a historian’s dream to interpret, as the panels are very easy to read. It’s just like a preserved history book.
The top level is made up of Persian nobles with their formal robes and ornamental head-dress. They are followed by the Imperial guards and, at the bottom, the Immortals.
The Apadana Staircase on the eastern wall leads to the stone terrace of Apadana Palace, built by Xerxes I. Don’t miss the southern end of the terrace. It’s fantastic and shows delegations from 23 nations at the time bringing tributes to the Achaemenid King.
Gate of All Nations (Xerxes Gateway)
This unfinished gate is guarded on each side by lamassus – mythical figures of winged-bull bodies with bearded human heads. This is also called the Gate of Xerxes, as a tribute to King Xerxes I, who started the construction of Persepolis. You can find a lot of graffiti here from early explorers. Don’t take this to mean you can add your own!
The Throne Hall or Hundred-Column Palace
It is one of the two main reception areas for formal guests and events. It is the second largest structure in Persepolis. You can still see the remaining of many broken columns that defined this space. For some unknown reason, its function as a reception hall ceased to exist and it became a storage room. It is thought that there was so much treasure in Persepolis that the Treasury simply couldn’t hold it all.
Private palaces consisted of several smaller structures in the southwestern area of Persepolis. Don’t skip this area, as it contains some of the most photographed sites in the complex.
One of these palaces is Tachara Palace, easily recognizable by its many remaining monolithic door jambs. Unfortunately, it is sometimes closed to visitors, but you can still see the detailed bas relief on some of the jambs. Tachara Palace opens up to the Royal Courtyard.
Tomb of Artaxerxes II
On top of a hill overlooking the Persepolis Treasury, you can see the two tombs in the form of rock-cut architecture. The bigger and more ornate hewn tomb belongs to King Artaxerxes II, and the other one honors his son, King Artaxerxes III.
Or not. In fact, no one really knows for sure. But it is commonly held that the bigger tomb is that of Artaxerxes II. In front of the tomb is an ancient water fountain. This is the best place to photograph Persepolis from above.
As the name implies, the Treasury was constructed to store the many valuables of the Achaemenian dynasty. In year 303 B.C., Alexander the Great looted Persepolis, and naturally targeted the Treasury the most. The looting was complete. Today, you can only see the footprints and remains of the 300+ columns of the once magnificent building. But the sheer size of the Treasury foundation is indicative of the vast wealth of Persepolis and the Achaemenian dynasty.
This small museum is one spot that is often overlooked – even by me, unfortunately! Many of the important highlights of Persepolis are on the physical site. And those that are not were looted hundreds of years ago. Many of them are now stored in foreign museums, like the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum, and the Oriental Institute in Chicago. Nonetheless, you can still find some artifacts that were discovered here, such as arrow tips and cedar wood used for construction.
The admission fee is not included in the Persepolis main ticket. It is open from 8 AM to 5:30 PM.
Map of the highlights of Persepolis
Evidence of a Multicultural Empire
It is worth noting that Persepolis leaves much evidence to showcase that plurality and diversity were possible even during ancient times. For the construction of Persepolis, materials were shipped from all around the world: cedar wood and timber from Lebanon, precious stones from India, and tiles from Babylon. In several or Persepolis’s intact frieze reliefs, you’ll see a procession of 28 nations, arms linked to each other to symbolize unity. These nations span three continents: Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and Central Asia.
At the Gate of All Nations, honoring King Xerxes I who united the Empire, three languages were used to describe the tributes: old Persian, Neo Babylonian, and Elamite.
Tips for Visiting Persepolis
- Learn about Persepolis: There are many books, documentaries, and blog posts about Persepolis. Your visit is even more rewarding when you know a bit about what you are seeing! Hire a licensed guide who can show you the highlights of Persepolis. They can always point out smaller sites that you might miss.
- Watch the intro video: For an extra small fee, you can watch a good video showing the highlights of Persepolis at the ticket office. Ask an official Persepolis representative how you can do this.
- Get a map: The Persepolis ticket office doesn’t have maps. The complex is huge, and you can easily miss a few things if you don’t know your way around! At the very least, find a map online print it out prior to your visit, along with suggested route indicating the highlights of Persepolis.
- Beware the sun: Persepolis is entirely outside. Even in winter, the sun will be beating down on you. Do yourself a favor – protect your head and body by wearing a hat and sunscreen.
- No backpacks allowed: Leave your backpack at the ticket office lockers and bring a small daypack for essentials. It seems they’re more strict with men on this policy than with women.
- Food and drink: You’ll be here for at least two hours. Take a snack and lots of water. There are a few cafes and restaurant at the southern end of Persepolis, but you want to bring water and snacks. Nothing is available inside the complex.
- Transportation to Persepolis. You can get to Marvdasht, about 14 km away, with a public bus. But there is no public transportation to Persepolis. Join an organized tour or hire a taxi.
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