You may wish to read an introduction to this section first.
The Persae have always inhabited the shores of the Red Sea, for which reason it has received the name of the Persian Gulf. In this maritime region (..) there is a place known by the name of Climax Megale, where the mountains are ascended by a steep flight of stairs, and so afford a narrow passage which leads to Persepolis, the former capital of the kingdom, destroyed by Alexander. (..) To the east of this place is the fortress of Passagarda, held by the Magi, at which spot is the tomb of Cyrus.
Pliny the Elder - The Natural History: 6.29 - Transl. John Bostock, H.T. Riley
Citadel of Pasargadae
The method that I propose to adopt will be first to describe the
nature of the the remains still surviving, and, secondly, to state the arguments that have been, or
can be advanced for or against their identification with the
The first of these that are encountered by a traveller coming from
the north are the remains of a great terrace or platform, built out from the summit of a hill on the left-hand side of the road, at about 500 yards of distance. This is known as the Takht-i-Suleiman or Throne of
Solomon (see that in Persian Azerbaijan) that potentate being the Persian's synonym for any great unknown monarch of the past.
George N. Curzon (Lord Curzon) - Persia and the Persian Question - 1892
Pasargadae was founded by Cyrus the Great in the VIth century BC in the heart of Central Iran, the region from which he had started his conquests. The site chosen was the plain where he had defeated Astyages, his grandfather. The new town was therefore located in a difficult to defend position. The Citadel, a terrace built on a low hill, was perhaps more a high point from which the king attended ceremonies such as parades, than a fortification. Most likely Cyrus did not fear that an enemy army could reach Pasargadae, because the Zagros Mountains separating Central Iran from Mesopotamia had only a very few passes which could be easily blocked.
Pasargadae means "camp of Persia" and its buildings were spread over a vast area, similar to the tents of an actual military camp. Archaeological reconstructions of the likely aspect of the royal quarter show pavilions within an elaborate garden with small ponds and bridges. In 2011 UNESCO added the remaining archaeological evidence of the garden and eight other Persian gardens to their list of World Heritage Sites. You may wish to see the garden of Chehel Sotun at Ispahan, Bagh-e Dolatabad at Yazd, Bagh-e Eram at Shiraz and Bagh-e Fin at Kashan. The construction of the town was completed by Darius the Great, who however was not happy with its design as it did not suit the holding of large ceremonies. He therefore decided to build Persepolis, a new capital thirty miles south of Pasargadae.
The Achaemenid kings made wide use of inscriptions to illustrate their achievements. Strangely enough they were written in small characters which could hardly be read from the ground and even placed in hidden positions (unlike those of the Romans). At that time the Persians used a cuneiform writing derived from the Babylonian one, but unlike the latter where entire words were represented by a symbol, each character meant a letter and words were separated by a slant sign. For this reason an old Persian inscription was longer than an identical one in Elamite or Babylonian.
In 1838 old Persian was deciphered by Sir Henry Rawlinson by comparing a passage of a long inscription by Darius with a list of Persian kings by Herodotus. Eventually this discovery led to deciphering also Babylonian and Elamite texts.
Reliefs: (left) man with bull's legs and man with a tail of fish leg; (right) apotropaic genius/angel on a gate leading to a palace. It was believed to represent Cyrus, but today this opinion is dismissed as erroneous
Reliefs played a major role in the decoration of Achaemenid monuments, but only a few of them have been found at Pasargadae. They were probably erased after Persia became a Muslim country, especially those representing human beings.
The small gates of the palaces/pavilions were decorated with reliefs having an apotropaic purpose, i.e. to turn away harm or evil influences. Archaeologists have found many links between these reliefs and those typical of the Assyrians, whose empire in Upper Mesopotamia lasted (with ups and downs) from the XXIst century BC to 602 BC.
Tomb of Cyrus the Great
Not much distant (..) is a brave Antient Monument, by some Hebrew characters
supposed the buryall place of Bathsheba, Mother of King Salomon: tis cald
Musqued Zulzimen, i.e. Solomons Chappell; a place if truly so worthy the
Sir Thomas Herbert - Some Yeares Travels Into Divers Parts of Asia and ... - 1638 (in Persia in 1626-1629)
A newly planted avenue led to Cyrus's tomb, a sarcophagus of white marble on a high, stepped plinth, standing by itself among the ploughed fields, It looks its age: every stone has been separately kissed and every joint stroked hollow, as though by the action of the sea. No ornament or cry for notice disturbs its lonely serenity.
Robert Byron - The Road to Oxiana - 1937 - Macmillan & Co.
Byron visited Pasargadae in March 1934. At that time the monument was surrounded by Muslim graves (removed in the 1970s) and the mausoleum chamber had been turned into a small mosque. It was known as the Tomb of Solomon's Mother and this explains why it was spared from being used as a quarry as it had occurred to the other buildings.
The mausoleum was probably built by workmen from Lycia, a region in today's south-western Turkey, which was conquered by Cyrus and where similar tombs can be found, e.g. at Xanthos.
(left) Tower similar to another one at Naqsh-e Rostam, near Persepolis, the site of four Achaemenid kings' tombs; (right) pillar bearing the inscription of Cyrus
Descending towards the south on to the level of the plain, till next
ruin, the single wall of a four sided building that has been commomly called the fire-temple. (..) There is, however, every reason to suppose that it never was or could have been, a fire-temple. (..) There can be little doubt that this tower was sepulchral in character. Lord Curzon
In the XIXth century the plain around Pasargadae had the rather poetic name of Dasht-i Morghab (the plain of the water bird). It was not until 1892 that Lord Curzon reached the conclusion that the ruins belonged to ancient Pasargadae. This was confirmed by the investigations of Ernst Herzfeld, a German archaeologist who conducted major excavations at Pasargadae and Persepolis in 1925-1934.
Let us now (go) to Persepolis not much out of the
road: but were it a thousand times further it merits our pains to view it;
being indeed the only brave Antique Monument (not in Persia alone) but
through all the Orient. (..) A Citie so excellent, that Quintus Curtius and Diodorus Siculus intitle it the richest and most lovely Citie under the Sonne. (..) The ribs or ruines of Persepolis are at this day called Chehel Manor (i.e. forty Towers) in the idiom of Persia and might more properly have said Eighty Towers, for so many are easily
told two yards out of the ground. The Pillars which are at this day standing, (but seeme to groane under the tyrannie of Time) are twixt fifteene and twenty cubits
high, and rise beautifully to forty squares or concave parallels. Herbert
Having past the River, you cross over several fertil Plains water'd with great Fore of Rivers. Then you ascend a Mountain, from whence you have but a league and a half to Tche-elminar (Chehel Manor). At the point of the Mountain, upon the right-hand of the great Road, are to be seen twelve Pillars still standing, that form a kind of a square. (..) Thence you come to Tche-elminar; where are to be seen a great many old Columns, some standing and some lying upon the ground, and some ill-shap'd Statues, with little four-square dark rooms. (..) Leaving Tche-elminar you come to a Village where is very good Wine. From thence to Schiras is a hard days journey; especially when the Snow begins to melt: for then the Road looks like a little Sea.
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier - Travels through Turkey and Persia (1630s-1660s)
Persepolis and Pasargadae were "ceremonial" capitals, as their purpose was to impress delegations coming from the provinces of the empire or from vassal states with their magnificence. Darius in particular felt he had two reasons to build a new capital. One related to his obscure accession to the throne, as he was not the legitimate heir to Cambyses II, son of Cyrus and conqueror of Egypt. The second one related to the fact that the Achaemenid Empire included countries of very ancient civilization; their inhabitants regarded their new rulers as parvenus or barbarians.
By replacing Pasargadae with Persepolis Darius lessened the link with Cyrus; by giving Persepolis a gigantic aspect Pasargadae did not have, he provided his empire with a monument which could withstand comparison with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Pyramids of Egypt.
The whole Basis is cut by incredible toyle out of the solid marble rock, (..) ascended by fourescore and
fifteene easie staires, dissected from the durable black Marble, so broad,
that a dozen horse may go abreast. Herbert
The complex of buildings where ceremonies were held stood on an impressive terrace in part cut into a hill and in part supported by walls. This made the monuments of Persepolis visible from a great distance. A double staircase with very low steps was designed to facilitate the access to the terrace by processions such as those accompanying the king upon his return from a successful campaign. The low steps made the ascension necessarily slow, thus increasing its solemnity.
Gate of All Nations: (left) western entrance; (centre) a series of graffiti inscriptions, including those by Cornelis de Bruijn, a Dutch painter who visited Persepolis in 1704 and by Pierre-Victorien Lottin de Laval, a French painter who visited it in 1844; (right) eastern entrance (see some details of it in the introductory page)
The construction of Persepolis was completed by Xerxes, son of Darius and of Atossa, a daughter of Cyrus, whom Darius married after his accession to the throne, to strengthen its legitimacy. Xerxes followed the same approach as his father on an even larger scale. He built a grand gate where processions entered after having ascended the Great Staircase. It was meant as a monument to the many nations which were part of the empire.
The lamassu (winged bulls with human face) placed at the sides of the two entrances were a tribute to the Assyrians and to Mesopotamia, the most fertile province of the empire. The capitals of the columns between the two entrances have a very complex design. Their lower parts have the shape of a reversed lotus flower, a symbol of Egypt. The upper parts have spiral scrolls, typical of Ionic capitals (see a capital at Priene, a town of Ionia). Darius and Xerxes were very proud of having conquered this region on the eastern shores of the Aegean Seas. Their attempts to conquer the western shores of that sea (i.e. Classic Greece) failed at Marathon (First Persian Invasion 490 BC) and Salamis (Second Persian Invasion 480 BC).
The double-protome (frontal view of an animal head or bust of a human) capital is typical of Achaemenid architecture and in particular of the monuments of Persepolis and Susa. Its design might have influenced that of the double-headed eagle of the Byzantine Empire.
Xerxes completed the construction of Persepolis, including a palace for himself. During his kingdom however the importance of the city declined in favour of Susa which was located in Mesopotamia, in a more central position when considering the whole Persian Empire. His successors did not add much to the monuments of Persepolis, but the city continued to be seen as the cradle of the Achaemenid dynasty and many kings chose to be buried next to Darius in tombs cut into a rock near Persepolis. Artaxerxes II and his son Artaxerxes III (IVth century BC) chose to have their tombs right above the terrace of Persepolis.
The image used as background for this page shows a statue portraying a lamassu (National Museum of Tehran).
Go to page two: The Palaces of Persepolis or move to:
Achaemenid Tombs and Sassanid Reliefs near Persepolis
Seljuk small towns (Ardestan, Zavareh and Abarquh)
XIVth century Yazd
XVIIIth century Shiraz
On the Road
An excursion to Abyaneh
People of Iran
and in another section on Iranian Azerbaijan:
Tabriz: The Blue Mosque
Tabriz: Azerbaijan Museum