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Rise of the Persian Princes

In their grand capital Persepolis, Achaemenid rulers expressed their vision of a prosperous, multicultural empire

July/August 2023

Persepolis Iran Achaemenid ApadanaAs visitors to Persepolis, capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, entered the city, they would approach a stone terrace on which a palatial precinct rose 40 feet above the fertile flatlands at the foot of Kuh-i-Rahmat, the Mountain of Mercy. Bearing gifts from their homelands—perhaps a metal chalice or a braying donkey—they would ascend 63 limestone steps, pivot on a landing, then climb another 48 steps to an imposing threshold known since antiquity as the Gate of All Nations. Flanking the four-story-tall gate were statues of lamassu, winged bulls with human heads and curly beards.


The great city was founded by the Persian king Darius I around 518 B.C. in present-day Iran and construction continued for nearly 200 years. For the duration of its existence, the ever-expanding metropolis was a royal estate, a bustling construction site, and an urban center that housed as many as 45,000 residents nourished by surrounding orchards and farmlands.


Persepolis Iran Achaemenid Empire MapGlazed bricks adorned the entryway’s interior, and two identical trilingual texts, inscribed in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian, read: “I, Xerxes, the great king, king of kings, king of the countries possessing many kinds of people, king of this great earth far and wide, the son of Darius the king, the Achaemenid.” Travelers would have continued through the gate onto the royal terrace, a massive 30-acre platform filled with spacious meeting halls and palaces where reliefs depicted kings receiving attendants and taming fierce creatures. The walls would have glowed from the hues of glazed tiles, murals, and inlaid gold, silver, and precious minerals. Painted with especially vibrant blues, Persepolis was an oasis that stood out from the hazy plains, says archaeologist Alexander Nagel of the Fashion Institute of Technology.


The terrace’s largest building, called the Apadana, or Audience Palace, featured 72 columns and a central court that hosted up to 10,000 people during royal festivities. Along the building’s staircases, reliefs portrayed Achaemenid guards and nobles ushering 23 delegations of different foreign peoples. Based on distinctive costumes and presents that are depicted in the procession, scholars have identified Bactrians with a two-humped camel, Ionians bearing cloth, Elamites offering daggers, and more. “Each of these parts of the empire was thought to contribute something,” says Nagel, “but the heart of the empire was Persepolis.”


The Achaemenid kings saw their realm as a cultural coalescence, and they showcased its diversity by creating a capital that integrated people, resources, and styles from their many conquered lands. To sustain such a place, they brought laborers skilled in their own traditions to the city. Building Persepolis required stonemasons, painters, lumberjacks, and gardeners. Organizing and boarding the workers necessitated managers, scribes, farmers, and cooks.



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