Discovering the art of Persia
For today’s visitor, this is the Iran’s most important visual evidence of Elamite civilisation. A stepped-pyramid temple dominate the landscape here, and visitors are immediately struck by the huge brick-stepped construction nearly 3,500 years old, surrounded by remains of a vast walled precinct. This ziggurat, originally with four, now three, terraces connected by external staircases, was surmounted by a temple dedicated to the god Inshushinak, ‘Lord of Shush’; its total height was probably 53m.
All around the lower terrace there are, in every 11th row or so, bricks inscribed in Elamite cuneiform giving the name of Untash Napirisha (r1359–1333BCE), the king who ordered its building. The numerous remains of glazed brick, glass and ivory suggest that the exterior of the temple was richly decorated about two centuries later, and at least one wall had moulded glazed tiles forming the figure of a huge winged bull, the symbol of Inshushinak, guarding the main staircase at ground level. Here and there, especially on the eastern wall, the odd glazed brick is still visible.
At ground level there are still signs of the original sacrificial tables and a pit, presumably to catch the blood of the slain animals. Just next to the brick construction, identified as a sacrificial altar plinth of Gal and Inshushinak, there is a footprint in the clay pavement, presumably that of an Elamite worker.
Founded in around 546bce by Cyrus II as his own and entirely Persian capital, Pasargadae (possibly meaning ‘the camp of the Persians’) was not finished before his death in 530 or 529bce and had remained the capital of the empire until the construction of Persepolis.
Here the Tomb of Cyrus the Great can be found, standing on its three-stepped platforms. The tomb chamber has a simple almost square form with a gabled roof. A few of the lead and iron swallow-tail clamps remain in situ, but the small entry doors have long gone, as have all the precious treasures they protected. From here, the road to the right leads eventually to ruins of a gatehouse, a small chamber whose huge stone corner blocks once supported mud-brick walls.
Other remains include those of an audience hall with some 30 central column bases and two porticoes, one originally stretching the length of the building. Its flooring is worth looking at, a veritable jigsaw of limestone slabs with small repairs to imperfections. Polished, it would have served Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers splendidly. Facing into the building from this portico, the corner block to the left carries one of the 24 trilingual inscriptions found on the site, which records ‘Cyrus the Great King the Achaemenid’; the omission of the personal pronoun leads some scholars to suggest that a successor, perhaps Darius, ordered the carving.
At the far end a doorway relief, to the height of 1.5m, showing a standing figure in a pleated robe inscribed with cuneiform characters, again reads ‘Cyrus, the Great King’. There are small drilled holes, perhaps to carry jewels or gold plaques as at Persepolis. Next to the palaces are the remains of the earliest known example of the Persian fourfold garden design – chahar bagh.
More than any other ancient site in Iran, Persepolis embodies all the glory – and the demise – of the Persian Empire. According to the archaeological evidence, the earliest remains of Persepolis date to around 518BCE, four years after Darius the Great’s accession to the Achaemenid throne. His successors added further buildings, but the site was still unfinished when, in early 330BCE, Alexander the Great burned it to the ground after looting the city, seven years before his death.
The greatest palace on the site is the square-shaped apadana whose construction started in 515BCE and took 30 years to complete. The original 72 columns, of which only 13 remain, were styled as animal sculptures of two-headed bulls, lions and eagles, and were joined by oak and cedar beams. Two symmetrical staircases were built on the northern and eastern sides of the palace, and if the light is good you may wish to go immediately towards the right to photograph the northern apadana staircase.