‘Persian Architectural Styles through the Ages: 1. Persepolis and the Achaemenids’

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‘Persian Architectural Styles through the Ages: 1. Persepolis and the Achaemenids’

Persian Architectural Styles through the Ages: 1. Persepolis and the Achaemenids

In this blog series we will be taking you on a whistle-stop tour of various Persian architectural styles, from the Achaemenids to the present day:

We’ll begin at Persepolis by exploring the lavish imperial architecture of the Achaemenids. Then we will venture to northwest Iran (Tabriz, Marāghe, and Soltāniye) to look at the old capital cities of the Ilkhanids. Turning to the east, the third blog post in our series will describe the beautiful Timurid architecture of Samarqand. For our fourth and fifth blogs we will explore the exquisite Safavid and Qajar architecture of Isfahan and Shiraz. Finally, we will finish by discussing contemporary Persian architectural styles, using Tehran as a focal point.

Let’s go back in time a couple of millenia and begin with the first Persian empire…

View of the Persepolis complex, image by Diego Delso on Wikimedia Commons, 2016

Who were the Achaemenids?

The Achaemenid empire was unfathomably vast in size. They ruled a territory stretching from Greece in the west, all the way to India in the east. It was by far the largest empire the world had ever seen at that time, and lasted for over 200 years (550 BC – 330 BC).

The name for this dynasty in Persian is a bit of a mouthful: شاهنشاهی هخامنشی shāhanshāhi-ye Hakhāmaneshi ‘the Achaemenid dynasty/empire’. The Achaemenids’ namesake comes from a man named هَخامَنِش Hakhāmanesh ‘Achaemenes’, who is thought to have founded the dynasty, although practically nothing is known about his life or conquests. Because of this, it’s not 100% clear when the dynasty was founded or by whom. We can say with some certainty that their homeland was in ایلام Ilām ‘Elam’, but it is not clear whether Achaemenes was a real figure who started this dynasty, or some mythical figure who was used by later rulers to legitimise their claim to power.

During the 200+ years of Achaemenid rule, there were nine kings who succeeded in reigning for significant lengths of time. So this doesn’t turn into too much of a history lesson, we will only mention the two most prominent rulers: کوروش دوم Kurush-e Dovom ‘Cyrus II’ (or ‘Cyrus the Great’) and داریوش یکم Dāriush-e Yekom ‘Darius I’ (or ‘Darius the Great’). Cyrus II is known as a great conqueror, while Darius I is known for his grand construction projects, organising the Achaemenid empire into its various ساتراپ sātrāp ‘satraps’ (provinces), and building an extensive road network across the empire.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, thanks to the many lands that they conquered, the Achaemenids ruled over an incredibly diverse empire. There were many different people and languages present throughout the empire, including: the Persians (speaking Old Persian), the Babylonians (speaking Akkadian), the Medes (speaking Median, an old Iranian language), the Greeks, the Armenians, the Assyrians (speaking Old Aramaic), the Indians, the Bactrians and Sogdians of Central Asia and the Lydians and Lycians of Western Anatolia.

Map of the total territory of the Achaemenid empire, from Wikimedia Commons, 2021

So with all of these different people groups and cultures, what united the Achaemenid empire? In short, the success of the Achaemenids lay in their tolerance of diversity. One could even go so far as to say they celebrated diversity. They permitted local beliefs and religions to be practiced, and continued to use an array of different languages in official documents, to facilitate understanding across the empire. Official inscriptions were usually written in three languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. However the lingua franca of the empire appeared to be Aramaic, and it is highly likely that satrap officials would have been able to read Aramaic. There is even a trilingual inscription at Persepolis, commissioned by Darius I, affirming that his empire is a land of diverse peoples and languages, divinely given:

The great Ahuramazda […]
Who made Darius king and gave king Darius the kingship
On this wide earth, where he owns numerous nations:
Persia, Media, and other countries,
With other languages, mountains and plains,
From the shore of one sea to the shore of another sea,
From one desert to another desert.

Section of the large trilingual inscription from the southern wall of Persepolis (written in Persian, Elamite and Akkadian). Image from www.livius.org

Achaemenid Cities of Importance

Our evidence for Achaemenid architecture comes from three main sites: 1) Pasargadae or پاسارگاد Pāsārgād, the new capital city built by Cyrus the Great after his victory over the the Medes; 2) Susa or شوش Shush, an important and ancient city of the Elamites and then later of the Achaemenids; and 3) Persepolis, پارسه Pārsa, or تختِ جمشید Takht-e Jamshid ‘Jamshid’s Throne’, the mighty ceremonial capital built by Darius the Great and completed during the reigns of his son and grandson (Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I). The remains of the ancient city of هگمتانه Hagmatāna (Hamedān) ‘Ecbatana’ and the necropolis of نقشِ رستم Naqsh-e Rostam ‘the Mural of Rostam’ are also archaeological sites worthy of mention from this time period.

The tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae, by Morteza F. Shojaei on Unsplash, 2019

Persepolis, literally meaning ‘City of the Persians’ in Greek, is one of the best preserved sites from antiquity, and the best site for understanding the architectural style of the Achaemenids because it was a fully planned city. Although the city was destroyed by Alexander of Macedon in 330 BC, and large parts of the city have never been excavated or uncovered, the royal complex at Persepolis is remarkably well-preserved, and allows us to have a fascinating glimpse into the workings of an empire which is more than 2500 years old.

Persepolis: Imperial Style

Map of the Persepolis complex from ‘Persepolis’, by A. Shapur Shahbazi, Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, 2020

The royal complex at Persepolis is situated on a large man-made stone terrace, 60km from the modern city of Shirāz in Fārs Province, Iran. Areas of particular interest at this site are: ‘the Gate of All Nations’, ‘the Apadana Hall’ and ‘the Hall of a Hundred Columns’.

Arriving at the Persepolis royal complex, you enter through the کاخِ دروازۀ کشورها Kākh-e Darvāze-ye Keshvar-hā ‘Gate of All Nations’, a grandiose entrance way flanked with two large Assyrian-style لاماسو lāmāsu ‘lamassu’. A lamassu is a mythical creature possessing the body of a bull, the head of a human and the wings of an eagle. They were often carved into royal entrance ways to remind the visitor of the king’s power, and the two lamassu at the entrance to Persepolis are both wearing large crowns upon their heads to highlight this further. The lamassu appears to be an aspect of Assyrian or Mesopotamian culture that was later adopted by the Achaemenids.

Picture of the Gate of All Nations with the lamassu visible on the right hand side. Image by Alborzagros on Wikimedia Commons, 2011

Continuing on from the Gate of All Nations, there are two doorways leading to different sections of the Persepolis complex. The first doorway takes you down a long processional corridor to the ‘Hall of a Hundred Columns’, also known as the ‘Throne Hall’. The کاخِ صدستون Kākh-e Sad-Sotun ‘Hall of a Hundred Columns’ was built by Darius the Great’s son and grandson and is believed to have been a throne room. At some point the room started to be used as a place to showcase the treasures and hoard of the Achaemenid empire after the existing treasury became too small, sort of like an overflow treasury.

This seems like a good opportunity to talk about the columns themselves. The Achaemenid columns found at Persepolis are a great example of the hybrid imperial style popularised by Darius I and Cyrus II at Susa, Pasargadae and Persepolis.

The first columns built by the Assyrians and ancient Persians were made of whole tree trunks. Obviously the size of the columns was limited by the height and size of the trees that they were able to find. For the large columned halls at Persepolis, even the largest cedars imported from Lebanon would not have been big enough to create the scale they desired. Therefore, the Achaemenids began using limestone for their columns, taking inspiration from existing Egyptian and Assyrian styles. For example, the Achaemenid columns found at Persepolis show a clear resemblance to the ‘papyriform’ column design found throughout Ancient Egypt, such as at Karnak or Luxor temples (‘papyriform’ meaning ‘in the shape and style of a lotus stem’).

Achaemenid column reconstruction at the Louvre in Paris, image by Rmashhadi on Wikimedia Commons, 2007

Where the Achaemenid columns really developed a unique and distinctive style is in their capitals (‘capital’ meaning ‘the head of the column; the weight-bearing support at the top’). As can be seen from the Louvre reconstruction, the capitals of Persian columns were ornately decorated, with two bulls’ heads forming the weight-bearing support for the wooden beams above. Similar to the lamassu, these bulls’ heads are thought to be an Assyrian influence, although it’s fair to say that this style was definitely refined and perfected by the Achaemenids.

If we return to our tour of the Persepolis complex, the second doorway leading away from the Gate of All Nations takes you to the آپادانا Āpādānā ‘Apadana’, a vast hypostyle audience hall in the centre of the complex (‘hypostyle’ meaning ‘supported by many columns’). The columns in the Apadana are also topped with many intricate capital designs of palm leaves, florals, شیردال shirdāl ‘griffins’, lamassu and lions.

The north and east sides of the Apadana have well-preserved wall reliefs depicting hundreds of tribune bearers, guards, and visitors from across the empire waiting in line to see the king. The relief on the north side shows a king sitting upon his throne, waiting for the procession to arrive at his feet. The king is likely Darius I or Xerxes, but what is interesting about Achaemenid art is that many wall reliefs, such as the ones in the Apadana, seem to emphasise the timelessness of the empire rather than highlighting or showcasing a specific ruler.

Zainab Bahrani, in her book Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture, states that ‘Achaemenid art is therefore not so much an art of kingship, focusing on the person of the king as a specific individual; instead, the new visual language was one of empire as an integral whole, an order created from diversity.’ (p. 313)

In these processional reliefs all of the people of the empire are represented, a few examples of which are shown below:

Clockwise from top left: 1) detail of an Indian tribute bearer carrying perfume bottles; 2) the Armenian delegation; 3) detail of an Ethiopian tribute bearer; 4) the Median delegation. Images from the Photographic Archives: The Apadana, courtesy of the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures of the University of Chicago.

The Function of Persepolis

The question of exactly why Persepolis was built has plagued historians and archaeologists for decades and to this day there is no clear cut answer. The main difference in opinion stems from whether Persepolis’ function was predominantely ceremonial, or whether it was a permanently inhabited palace/city with a practical use. It is likely that both of these arguments are true to some extent, especially if we consider that the function of Persepolis probably changed with each new Achaemenid ruler who was using the space.

There’s not a lot of reliable historical evidence regarding Persepolis’ exact purpose, as most of our sources were written by Greek historians after Alexander of Macedon had already stormed the city and set it alight in 330 BC, so they shouldn’t be viewed as little more than hearsay. What we can do instead is analyse the art and architecture of the site itself to try and draw our own conclusions:

Some scholars suggest that Persepolis’ ceremonial purpose was primarily as the staging ground for Nowruz (Persian New Year) celebrations, although this is very hard to prove. Evidence put forward to support this claim are the wall reliefs in the Apadana depicting gift-giving and tributes, as well as carvings of several lion-bull motifs. The motifs of a lion devouring a bull are suggested to represent the cycle of night and day, and symbolise the end of winter and the beginning of spring. For this reason, the lion-bull motifs have been used as proof that the Apadana hall was used for staging Nowruz festivities.

Evidence that Persepolis had a more practical purpose, at least for some of its history, comes from the خزانۀ شاهی khazāne-ye shāhi ‘royal treasury’. Archaeologists have found treasury weights for administration purposes and records of payments to ‘treasury workmen’. Compared to other parts of the palace, the treasury was also the most inaccessible room, being reached through a narrow entranceway in the far corner of the complex. This all suggests that Persepolis had some role to play in the day-to-day administration of the empire, because, at the very least, the treasury had a practical use.

Picture of treasury weight by Jona Lendering from www.livius.org.

Persepolis Today: Rediscovering Persepolis and its Impact

The 17th century Spanish traveller Don García de Silva Figueroa appears to be the first person to realise that the site Iranians knew/know as چهل مناره Chehel Menāre ‘The Forty Minarets’ or تختِ جمشید takht-e Jamshid ‘Jamshid’s throne’ is actually Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenids mentioned in many Ancient Greek sources. The most common contemporary Persian name for the site (‘Jamshid’s throne’) is a bit of a misnomer, as there is no evidence that Jamshid, the mythical Persian king mentioned in the Shāhmnāme, had anything to do with Persepolis.

The German archaeologist Ernst Emil Herzfeld is perhaps the first name that comes to mind when discussing Persepolis’ excavation. Herzfeld was a German archaeologist who carried out the first scientific investigation of the site in 1931. He spent six weeks living amongst the ruins of Persepolis, and produced extensive plans of the site and laid the groundwork for the many archaeologists to come after him. Herzfeld managed to build solid relationships with important Iranian political leaders, and Reza Shah Pahlavi even gave Herzfeld formal permission to excavate at the Persepolis site. Unfortunately, Herzfeld was forced to leave Iran in 1934 and flee to America, due to his Jewish heritage and rising anti-Semitism in Germany with the rise of the Nazi party.

Erich F. Schmidt is another important archaeologist worthy of mention who followed in Herzfeld’s footsteps and continued to excavate the site. Alireza Shapur Shahbazi (1942-2006) is considered the world expert on Achaemenid archaeology and founded the Archaeological Institute at Persepolis, as well as publishing The Authoritative Guide to Persepolis. We must also mention the French architect Charles Chipiez (1835-1901), who created exquisite architectural drawings and recreations of Persepolis, which effortlessly transport the viewer back in time to the Archaemenid era and allow the viewer to witness Persepolis in all its former glory.

Reconstructed architectural drawing of the Apadana Hall by Charles Chipiez, from Wikimedia Commons

Persepolis has had a profound impact on the Persian language itself, as the trilingual inscriptions found at the site led to the decipherment of the cuneiform script and the Old Persian language, and later paved the way for deciphering Akkadian and Elamite. Similar to how Egyptian Hieroglyphics were deciphered, the key to understanding cuneiform was realising that the most frequently repeated sections of text must be referring to the names of specific Achaemenid kings in Old Persian cuneiform. Without the discovery of the Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions at Persepolis it would have been near impossible to decipher the other languages written in cuneiform script.

So to review, in this blog we’ve briefly explored the style, function and legacy of Persepolis, as well as introduced our Persian learners to the first Persian empire: the Achaemenids. We hope this first blog post in our new series is interesting and informative! Feel free to leave us a comment with any feedback or suggestions!

– Sam

Select references

Zeynep Bahrani, Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture, Chapter 13

World of Achaemenid Persia (ed. Curtis), Chapter 20 by Razmjou and Chapter 21 by Roaf

Iran: 5 Millennia of Art and Culture (ed. Hirmer)

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