Persepolis and other palaces

Most rulers might be content with two capital cities, with a splendid palace in each. Darius had inherited three capitals. Ecbatana (now Hamadan) was in the north west, high up in the Zagros mountains: cold in winter but wonderfully cool in summer. It had been the capital of Media.

Ecbatana - Hamadan

Ecbatana (Hamadan). View towards the Zagros mountains from the ancient citadel.

Susa was in the south west: very hot in summer, but delightfully warm in winter. It had been the capital city of Elam.

Susa palace of Darius

Susa: massive column bases from the so-called Apadana in the Palce of Darius

And, thirdly, there was Babylon in Iraq, which in time was to become the most important city in the Persian empire. Also important was the western royal residence in Sardis, Croesus' former capital.

But this was not enough. Cyrus had begun building himself a fine palace in his home territory of Persis, at Pasargadae. But even this didn't suit Darius. He planned an even more splendid palace and capital.

It came to be called Parsa or, by the Greeks, Persepolis. He could afford to spend whatever he liked, because each satrapy of the empire paid taxes to the king. Herodotus:

He set up 20 provinces, which they call satrapies. He appointed governors (satraps) and set the tribute they should pay. Herodotus, Histories 3.89
He then goes on to list all the satrapies, and what they had to pay. For example, in the newly conquered satrapy of India:
The number of Indians is greater than any other peoples we know of and they brought in more tribute than the others 360 talents of gold dust; this being the twentieth satrapy. Herodotus Histories 3.94 Adding it all up, the yearly total comes to 14,560 talents; the king stores the tribute like this: he pours the molten metal into earthenware jars; when they are full he breaks the outside layer.id 3.96

Some nations brought gifts rather than tribute (and the people of Persis paid nothing) - for example the Nubians (from Sudan) brought ebony and elephant tusks as well as gold; the Arabs brought 1,000 tons of frankincense every year.


The desert near Shabwa, Yemen - once an important staging post on the Frankincense route. There's one camel in the picture. (Photo AMW)

Darius could also conscript labour from anywhere in his territory, and the satrapies could also be obliged to provide animals, either for food or transport. The Greek writer Strabo:

Cappadocia [in central Turkey] provides the Persians annually, in addition to the silver tax, with 1500 horses, 2000 mules and 50,000 sheep, while Media pays almost twice as much.

This is a selection of precious objects found at Persepolis and other Achaemenid palaces (British Museum)


So to Persepolis! What makes it so impressive even today, after it's been in ruins for well over 2000 years?

CLICK HERE to see PERSEPOLIS REIMAGINED - a supeb interactive resource by getty.edu. Takes a while to load, but worth it!

Click here or on the creature below to see pictures to give yourself an impression of what survives of Persepolis today:

Persepolis fantastic creature

We can still take in:

The site. It was chosen to impress. An artificially constructed terrace 15 metres high dominates the surrounding plain for miles to the east, west and south. To the north it's backed by hills. Today it is particularly stunning in the early morning or in the late evening. The approach, up a gently sloping ramp decorated with sculptured reliefs, is awe-inspiring still.

The size. Built on a rectangle 450 metres across and 300 metres deep.

The massive scale of the gateway, and the height of the surviving columns.

The engineering. Channels for drainage and water supply were cut into the rock foundations before building began. The whole complex was planned carefully from the start.

The staircases with their sculptured decorations. One staircase shows delegates from 23 different peoples ruled by Persia, all in appropriate local dress, bringing offerings to the king of their regional produce - camels, bulls, horses, rams, weapons, bracelets, bowls, textiles, ivory. You can recognise Indians, Libyans, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Scythians. All are assembling from throughout Darius' territory to honour their king, possibly for the New Year Festival. Darius himself would have had to make the difficult 500 mile journey from Susa. It's been said that for Persepolis "the sculpture is the architecture".

The administration. How did they build Persepolis? How did they run it? How many people worked there? How were they paid and fed? We can answer at least one of these questions, surprisingly.

In 331 BC a tower at the north east corner of Persepolis had collapsed. On March 5th, 1933 AD, archaeologists began uncovering a room in this tower. They were completely amazed at what they found: thousands upon thousands of baked clay tablets written in cuneiform script. Was it the written records of the administration of Persepolis? Most were in the old Elamite language, not Persian. Many had holes so they could be strung together, and most were signed by individuals with their personal seals: 3000 different seals shows that 3000 different people were involved. Here was a complete archive, revealing minute details of just one aspect of palace administration - the supply of provisions for Persepolis.

The tablets are records of what was supplied for those connected with the palace: where it came from and when and who was responsible. These are just a minute fraction of what must have existed. They only cover 13 years during the reign of Darius, and they only deal with one thing.

If this one department was so well run, it's not hard to see how the whole great empire could have been equally well organised. You might like to see what you can work out by looking at a few of the tablets:

261 BAR of grain, supplied by Irtuppiya, Paša, (woman) workers of Liduma (a place), assigned by Iršena … received as rations for 1 month. Fifth month, 21st year. 16 men 3. 7 boys 2, 5 boys 1, 6 boys 1. 1 woman 5, 34 women 4, 9 women 3, 1 woman 2. 2 girls 2, 2 girls 1, 9 girls 1. Total 92 workers.

A BAR is measure, which equals 10 quarts of barley [1 quart = 2 pints]. 21st year refers to the years of Darius' reign. Workers were paid in grain, not cash.

What is interesting (and perhaps unexpected) in the amounts received by men, boys, women and girls?

Total 17 cattle (11 adult males, 6 adult females), were slaughtered. The cowhides were delivered to the treasury. Rauzazza and Irdurtiya received them in the 18th year in the seventh month.

Can you think of a reason why the hides were sent to the treasury?

1,783 BAR of flour, supplied by Irmada, was dispensed in behalf of the king. At Anzamannakka. In the 21st year. Karakka and Midasa received it, total 2 grain handlers.

What is special about this tablet?

16 quarts of wine, supplied by Ušaya, Aššašturrana the battle-axe bearer received as ration. He went to the king. He carried a sealed document of Parnaka.

Why has this person received a ration?

13 marriš of beer, supplied by Paradada. Tiridada and his companions received, and 12 women who bore males received each 1  marriš; 3 women who bore females received each ½  marriš.

Compare the beer ration with the information in the first one. Are you surprised? [1 marriš = 20 pints; in the tablets equivalent values seem to be 1 marris (wine or beer) = 3 BAR (barley). 10 BAR = 1 sheep. 3 BAR were worth the same as a silver shekel ]

Siver half shekel

Silver half-shekel coin from Sidon. The "king stabbing a lion" motif is also found at Persepolis.

Because the archive is so complete, we assume it was packed away in the room in the tower. It's tantalising to think of all the other archives that must have existed and that maybe these actual records were copied on to the leather which went to the treasury.

We can only imagine:

To help your imagination as much as possible, click here or on this image below. You'll see a series of 3D reconstructions of the great buildings in the palace.

Persepolis reconstructed

The Apadana 75 metres square with its gold-covered columns 20 metres high with capitals in the shape of bulls, lions and monsters back to back, where the great king received delegations from his subject peoples. What was the apadana?

The Hall of 100 columns. Its walls were covered with painted plaster studded with jewels. Its vast gold-plated doors swung on stone hinges. There were gold lace curtains and rich tapestries, and in all probability, richly embroidered carpets. It could hold 10,000 people. Perhaps this is where they left their offerings at the No Ruz festival.

The treasury holding 120,000 talents of gold. A large number of tablets survive documenting transactions in the royal treasury. Their accountants were efficient and their records were meticulous.

Darius' royal residence.

The women's apartments formerly known as the Harem. The Greeks loved their stories of bloodthirsty Persian queens and promiscuous princesses, who, curiously, were also kept in complete seclusion and guarded by troops of eunuchs. However, evidence from Persepolis shows that royal women went on long trips, owned large estates and controlled large workforces. They may even have been trained in horse-riding and weapon skills like the men.

The Festival. The sculptural reliefs help us to imagine what this festival may have been like. It symbolised the racial harmony and religious tolerance of the empire. All were equal under the Darius, the great king, and through the favour of Ahura Mazda. They celebrated their unity - and their diversity.

The International workforce. We know from an inscription how proud Darius was of the variety of nationalities who worked on his palace at Susa, and the exotic materials they used:

The cedarwoood was brought from a mountain called Lebanon ... the gold was brought from Lydia and Bactria, the lapis lazuli and carnelian which was worked here was brought from Sogdiana; the turquoise was brought from Chorasmia. The silver and ebony were brought from Egypt, the decoration for the walls came from Ionia, the ivory came from Nubia, India and Arachosia.

The stone columns came from a village in Elam: the masons who worked worked the stone were Ionians and Sardians. The goldsmiths were Medes and Egyptians; the woodworkers were Egyptians and Sardians. The men who made the bricks were Babylonians, and the men who decorated the walls were Medes and Egyptians.

Darius himself did not live long enough to see his project finished. His successors Xerxes and Artaxerxes I both added to it. But within 200 years Persepolis lay in ruins. The site was abandoned, to "the lion and the lizard", and the storytellers. What happened?