Persepolis

31 August 2015

Ancient terraced palace of pillars and winged-bulls

Persepolis is from the ancient Greek for “Persian City”, but Parsa, as it was known to the Persians at the time of the Achaemenid Empire, was in fact not a city at all, but a ceremonial palace. Rather oddly placed in the Fars desert, but within a stone’s throw of his father’s palace at Pasargadae, King Darius commenced building the palace from the mid-5th century BC. It was razed by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, a decision thought by some scholars to have been precocious, unwarranted and very much out of character.

The palace is a grand testament to the extravagance, audacity and taste of a sprightly empire. This can be seen in the reliefs of the Great Hall that show identifiable peoples from all over the conquered world proffering local tributes to the king, and the oversized royal tombs cut into the mountains behind the complex. This was a noticeable departure from the robust, masculine and vigorous architecture of Pasargadae towards a more refined and flourishing style.

Iconography to explore and admire at Persepolis includes an oversized king being followed by an umbrella-holding entourage, stone reliefs of the royal tombs that show the physical king sitting opposite his tiny soul on a stool, and the monumental human-headed winged bull, the mythological “lamassu”. No one can enter Persepolis without passing through the Gate of All Nations and the watchful eyes of these gargantuan mythological creatures.

The lion and gazelle – symbols and metaphors

But the key to understanding Persepolis lies in the prominently displayed image of the lion tackling a gazelle – the lion has just pounced and is about to dig deeply into its victim’s soft flesh: but this was not a warrior image. Or, rather, it was a warrior’s metaphor for something far less heroic. The gazelle represented winter and the lion represented spring. The principal religious role of Persepolis was to pay tribute to the changing seasons and to sustain the harvests that has made this agrarian society so powerful.

The lost city of Persepolis?

Adjacent to the palace compound is a large forest, planted in the 1970s when the Shah of Iran used Persepolis as a backdrop for a national jamboree. Surely all palaces need an accompanying city to support the stonemasons, cooks and craftsmen needed to sustain the royal court? It is tempting to wonder if there might just be a city of ruins under those dusty and hastily-planted trees.

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