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Volume 27, Number 2March/April 1976

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Persepolis, City of the Persians

Written by John Sabini
Photographed by William Tracy

Hair. Hair and feathers, but especially hair. They were obsessed by it. Hair in ringlets, waves, tufts, coils, buns, tendrils, or straight with deep grooves of the comb. Beards shaped like spades, aprons, or logs, pointed, square, or round, curled or straight or a mixture of the two, the most magnificent—that of the Great King—in horizontal wavy tiers divided by rows of tight curls. The hairdressers and barbers must have worked overtime to prepare them for the procession, for every man—they are all men—looks as if he had come straight from the barber's chair, from under the drier. You can almost smell the hair oil and pomades that set each head so stiffly.

Even the animals are elaborately tufted and plumed. The lions' manes, like an armor of overlapping scales, extend over their shoulders and along their ribs. The bulls have patches of tight curls on their brows and jaws, along their necks and spines, and even on their haunches. The winged bulls with men's heads have the longest beards of all, flowing in regal tiers to mingle with the hair between their front legs. Their wings curve upwards in radiating ranks of spatulate feathers, and wavelets of fur lap their flanks. The fabulous beasts locked in mortal combat with a muscular king or hero are half sheathed in manes or feathers or scales as heavy and regular as bronze plates. Decidedly the makers were fascinated by the hirsute and the plumate.

Most of these creatures—human, animal or fabulous—are chiseled in bas-relief, marching single file in endless procession along the walls and up the stairs of a complex of platforms jutting on to a broad plain from the foot of a rocky mountain. As you drive across the plain from Shiraz in modern Iran—ancient Persia—Persepolis at a distance looks like some huge and complicated game-board, three dimensional checkers or chess, with the squares laid out on different levels. The entire site is one enormous platform on which other platforms, all square or rectangular, fit into one another like the parts of a precision instrument. On the cliff face above, the facades of tombs repeat the rectangular shapes vertically. All is straight lines, right angles, clarity, logic. The candid air of the Iranian plateau lays it all bare to the eye. It looks like what it is, not the helter-skelter accretion of ages, but the planned and purposeful product of what was almost a single mind and will, the mind and will of Darius I and his son Xerxes. For 200 years it performed its function—a machine for homage—and then was snuffed out in one moment of havoc by the conquering Alexander of Greece.

In the vast stretches of Middle Eastern history it is important to place the Achaemenids—as the Persian emperors were called—in time as well as space. To most of us ancient history is likely to appear as a simultaneous pageant wherein Cleopatra hob-nobs with Nebuchadnazzar, Alexander with Ramses I, Hammurabi with Solomon. We ask ourselves: was Babylon before Thebes, Crete contemporary with Assyria, Phoenicia after the Hyksos? From the founding of the Old Kingdom in Egypt to, let us say, the Battle of Marathon was a period of 3,000 years. Where does Persepolis fit into this perspective?

Cyrus founded the empire of the Medes and Persians in 555 B.C. This was a long time ago but a lot had happened before that. It was some 3,000 years since the civilization of Sumeria, 2,500 years since the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The first Babylonian dynasty was already 1,500 years in the past, the correspondence of Tell-al-Amarna almost a millennium. Tutankhamen reigned in Egypt eight centuries before Darius, Queen Semiramis of Assyria had been in her grave three centuries. The time that stretches forward from the building of Persepolis to the present day is almost exactly equal to the time that stretched back from Persepolis to the golden age of Ur.

In other words the Achaemenian empire was no primitive upstart, but came into a world that was already very old and very civilized. When Darius I began building Persepolis about 520 B.C. his ancestors the Aryans—who gave their name to the Iranian plateau—had been settled there for more than 1,000 years. They came originally from the steppes of central Asia along with their cousins the Medes and their more distant cousins the Bactrians, who settled in India. Semi-nomadic tribes at first, they owed allegiance to the older empires of Assyria and Babylon. In 612 B.C. the Medes revolted and established their own kingdom. A century later the Persian Cyrus, who was half Median through his mother, overthrew his grandfather the Median king and founded the Achaemenian line, named for a Persian ancestor, which was to rule for two centuries the largest empire yet known to man.

The history of ancient conquests is tedious. The interesting thing about Cyrus was that, having conquered Iran, Asia Minor and Babylon, he did not destroy the captured cities and massacre or enslave their inhabitants as was the custom of the day. He even spared captive kings and did not disdain to worship local gods. His son Cambyses continued this humane policy and, on adding Egypt to the empire, was instructed in the religion of Isis there. Unfortunately he went mad and committed suicide shortly thereafter, and the captured provinces broke free. A younger Achaemenid, Darius I, rewelded the fragmented empire and added to it Thrace and Macedonia in the west, parts of southern Russia and Transoxiana in the east. The Persian empire now extended from southern Europe to the borders of India.

Darius was also a brilliant administrator. Although he continued the policy of toleration toward other nationalities, he organized the empire under strong central control. The provinces were linked by a network of roads well guarded and furnished with hostelries, and the royal messenger service brought information to the capital with incredible speed. Taxation was highly systematized and money—that swift annihilator of distance—circulated for the first time. The law of the Medes and the Persians, though proverbially unchanging, was fair and evenly applied. The combination of tolerance and efficiency was admired even by those arch-enemies of Persia, the Greeks.

Although Darius had several older capitals at his disposal, he decided to build a new city in Fars (or Pars), the home of the Persians for 10 centuries. But the concept of Persepolis was different from that of other capitals. It was primarily a ceremonial city, the center and symbol of the empire. Here, from the farthest ends of the realm, representatives of all the subject peoples came once a year in the spring to make obeisance to the Great King and to present tribute, the choicest produce and manufacture of each region. The long procession of coiffured and bearded men in bas-relief represents such a ceremony. The staircases, gateways and audience halls were designed to receive them, to ritualize their coming and to impress them with the might and majesty of the king. The vast treasury was built to store their tribute, and the administrative buildings, palaces, harems, barracks, rock cisterns, and water passages supported the great ceremonial structure. Darius died during the construction, and his son Xerxes completed it without altering the style.

This style was unique and modern in its day, as all true styles are, but it was the heir of many lands and centuries. In it art historians have discerned elements from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and native Iranian architecture. Artisans from Ionia, Syria and the Punjab probably worked on it, and precious materials from all over the world—lapis lazuli, onyx, cedar, gold, colored brick, copper, bronze—embellished the grey marble. Today, with the chromatic harmonies gone, the visitor can appreciate the melodic purity of the structures and decoration. For the art of Persepolis is akin to music, it is rhythmical, abstract, and decorative, in short oriental. It is in fact the culmination of ancient oriental art, which was to be engulfed in the Hellenism of the Greeks and the Romans for almost a thousand years.

For centuries after its destruction Persepolis lay hidden by its debris and by the disguise of a new name, Takht-i-Jamshid—the Throne of Jamshid—after a legendary Aryan hero. The Italian traveler Pietro della Valle in 1616 and the Spanish ambassador to Iran, Don Garcia Silva Figuera, in 1617, suspected that Takht-i-Jamshid was in fact the Achaemenian capital. In the 18th and 19th centuries European travelers became more numerous, and most of them seemed to have carved their names and the date on one of the stones. Two Frenchmen, Flandrin and Coste, cleared part of the site in 1841 and later published the ground plan. Others—English, French, Dutch—came and copied the inscriptions in three languages, old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, and took them to Europe to be deciphered. Modern archaeological investigations began in the 1930s with expeditions from the Oriental Institute of Chicago, first under Hertzfield and then Schmidt. Since 1939 the Iranian Archaeological Department has taken over, and excavation, deciphering and restoration are still going on. Hitherto the history of ancient Persia was known chiefly through outsiders, the Bible and the Greeks. Now the Achaemenids are telling their own story.

Today we enter and proceed through Persepolis much as the Persian courtiers and tributaries did. The retaining walls of the great terrace rise above us some 14 to 41 feet, dark grey like the hills behind them, constructed of those huge blocks of stone the ancients tossed about with such ease. The single entrance is a staircase near the northwest corner, a double flight, each half the mirror image of the other, the lower steps divergent, the upper convergent. The treads are broad, the grade gentle enough for horses and animal tribute to take them in stride. At the top an enormous gate rises straight ahead, its four piers manned by winged human-headed bulls. These anomalous but somehow convincing creatures already had a long history when Persepolis was built, and today it is probably impossible to recapture the ideas and emotions they inspired. They have none of the brutal ferocity of their Assyrian ancestors, who were meant to inspire one thing—terror. These Persian man-beasts, with their elaborate beards, draped headdresses, upturned wings and fringed shanks, have a jaunty air, but their aloof stare leaves no doubt of their regality. Even today without the reality they symbolize, it is possible to feel a preparatory twinge of awe before them. In the middle of the gate stands a pair of fluted pillars based on an Egyptian palm motif. The entire structure must have been roofed, a stately overture to the grandeur to follow. No doubt units of the royal guard were posted here to reinforce authority and direct the delegates on their way.

Turning to the center of the platform we look across a vast space, an esplanade terrace. On the other side stand the platforms of the principal monuments. On the left is the Hall of a Hundred Columns, on the right, slightly higher and jutting forward, is the Apadana, or audience hall. A broad alley runs between them, closed by the Tripylon, another great gate. These ceremonial buildings bisect the entire terrace from east to west. Behind them, on a series of descending terraces to the south, are the banqueting halls, the residential palaces, the harems and the treasuries.

In their heyday the facades of these great public buildings must have presented an awesome sight, their rows of columns fronting on the porches and receding into the dim light of the halls. Today not one of the Hundred Columns is standing, but their bases, 10 rows of 10 each, give some idea of their ordered splendor. Thirteen columns of the Apadana still stand, the highest reaching 60 feet, taller than anything the classical world produced except the Roman Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek in present-day Lebanon. But the Persian columns are slimmer and more delicately fluted, thus accenting their height. They rest on inverted, bell-shaped calyxes and near the top they break into a series of complicated protuberances, like the coda of a romantic 19th-century symphony. At the very top they burst out in that most fantastic of impost blocks consisting of the head and foreparts of two matched animals—lions, bulls, or griffons— crouched back to back, the hollow between their shoulders formed to support the cross beams of the roof.

Thronging the stairways and walls, the door jambs and window frames of these buildings are the men and animals, the servants, guards, tributaries, nobles and ministers of the Great King, always in profile, carved so flat as to be almost two-dimensional, yet having a quick inner life of their own—the stone replica of the throngs that pressed forward here in the flesh on the Persian New Year 2,500 years ago. Ranks of Median soldiers stand at guard, their lances at port arms, their bows slung over their shoulders, their quivers down their backs. Courtiers step forward, one foot before the other or raised to the stair above, carrying a lotus flower in one hand; occasionally one turns to look at the man behind him, but without breaking step. The great majority in the procession bear tribute: vessels of various shapes, a pair of heavy bracelets, skins, embroidered shawls, stacks of folded cloth. Some balance heavily laden yokes on their shoulders; others carry full sacks, beehives, whips and odd-shaped bundles. And many lead animals—saddle horses and horses hitched to chariots, bullocks with lyre-shaped horns, a pair of fleecy rams, two-humped camels, a giraffe, a lioness on a leash and, cradled in the bearers' arms, lambs, young stags and lion cubs. One or two lead a man—perhaps a slave ? But there is no hint of coercion as in the bloody triumphs of the Egyptian Pharaohs or Assyrian kings. The pervading emotion is solemnity, as if each man were conscious of his part in a vital ceremony.

The individuals are not characterized, but each group is distinguished by its features and dress—armless cloaks or coats with dangling sleeves, long skirts or short tunics over breeches, a variety of shoes and boots and that badge of membership and extension of personality, the headdress—pointed, domed, tiered, some like a crown of feathers, others with tailpieces down their backs, still others veiled like a Bedouin from the desert. From such details, and from the trilingual inscriptions, archeologists and epigraphers can spot the races and tribes that made up the empire: Arabs, Armenians, Babylonians, Bactrians, Cicilians, Cappadocians, Carians, Egyptians, Gandarans, Ionians, Indians, Libyans, Lydians, Parthians, Phoenicians, Scythians, men of Shush and men of Sind, Thracians—"those who dwell by the sea and those who dwell across the sea" as one inscription puts it. They brought their art and their livestock, their precious metals and gemstones, cedarwood from the Lebanon and papyrus from the Nile. They must have brought ideas as well, their skills and languages and religions. What a great mingling of men, from Africa, Europe and Asia, a mixture of congress, pilgrimage and world's fair.

The procession is sometimes broken and an awkward angle filled in with stylized vegetation, a row of spear-shaped cypresses or unfolding palmettes, a border of flat rosettes, all elegantly unnatural. At key points a large panel depicts a lion savaging a bull—but for all the fangs of the lion and the startled fear of the bull, "savaged" is too strong a word: it is fixed and hieratic, curled, coiffed and bloodless. On other panels a hero-king plunges a dagger into the belly of an upright lion or griffon, but their pose, too, has the stateliness of a formal dance. These are religious icons: the bull perhaps represents the old year, the lion the new; the stabbed beast may be the powers of darkness overcome by the powers of light. For all the apparent violence, no real blood is shed.

The Great King himself appears several times. He is seen strolling under an umbrella borne by an attendant, while another attendant manipulates a fly-whisk over his head. Elsewhere he is seated on a lion-footed throne under a tasselled canopy, with guards and ministers displaying their symbols of office. Sometimes he appears before a fire altar, and Ahuramazda, the god of light and goodness, hovers overhead seated on an orb with outstretched wings and as carefully bearded and curled as king or courtier. For the awe and solemnity of the procession are due not only to the earthly power but to divine as well.

Wings, claws, fur, scales, horns, beards, hair. Thrones, altars, fly-whisks, umbrellas. An endless procession of men marching in fixed ceremony. All is ordered, rhythmic, symbolic, iconic, abstract. There are no women or children, no lovers, no nudes, no scenes of domestic pleasures, no grief, no anger, no joy. No birth, marriage, or death. No pathos, no humor, no passion. Enormous areas of human experience are excluded. It is like a raga—an endless repetition of quarter tones and barely evolving themes that never reach a climax.

No wonder Alexander destroyed it. It is the antithesis of Hellenism, with its strong throb of the pulse-beat of life. Legend has it that after conquering Persepolis Alexander set fire to the palaces and audience halls during a drunken brawl, incited by a Greek courtesan named Thais, in revenge for the Persian sack of Athens 125 years before. Historians, seeking more apposite reasons, ascribe the destruction of Persepolis to policy or greed. It is known that the treasuries of the Achaemenids yielded great wealth to Alexander's war chest and the looting of the city helped satisfy his grumbling soldiers. Whatever the political or emotional motives were, the style of Persepolis would not have stopped Alexander from lighting the brand.

And burned Persepolis certainly was. One can see the ashes of the wood and curtains and other combustible material today. Ironically this is what preserved Persepolis for our eyes. The fire brought the edifice down upon itself, buried the carved men and animals under the debris, baked the clay tablets telling the accounts of the builders, and thus preserved something of the splendor of the city of the Persians. Nowhere else, except perhaps at Pompei or Herculaneum, does the ancient world look so new, so stylishly accoutred, so brushed and combed, not a whisker or a hair out of place.

John Sabini lived in the Middle East and North Africa for more than 20 years, and is author of About Tunisia. He is now finishing a book on Western travelers in the Arabian Peninsula.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the March/April 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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