Although Persepolis is one of Iran’s top archeological and tourist sites, I was careful to keep my expectations in check before visiting. After all, what would remain of the 2,500 year-old capital of the Achaemenid Empire? Amidst crumbled columns, I found great detail that blew me away and a surprising connection to the present.
When I first entered Persepolis through the Gate of All Nations, I was struck by the scale of it all – the statues, the columns, the great stone. I tried to imagine the process of transporting the raw materials to this place, constructing the city and palace, and fashioning it all without the mechanical means we have today.
But more than this, I was struck by Persepolis' detailed carvings and the stories they told. In them, I felt like I really began to understand the greatness of ancient Persia.
And I also got the sense that ancient Persians were onto something in pursuit of an ideal that still eludes us today.
Reliefs: Persepolis, A Multicultural Empire
We turned a corner to face the grand staircase that led to Apadana Palace. My eyes first took in a large wall of reliefs depicting rows of people lined up. Our guide’s voice trailed in the background, “This relief shows members from the 23 subject states of the Achaemenid Empire bringing gifts from home to the King of Kings.”
Like a camera lens, my eyes began to focus on stone-carved details — hair, faces, beards, hats, and clothes, gifts carried in hands. That you could still make out every curl in a beard, eyelash on a camel and softened skin of soldiers holding hands — 2,500 years later – struck me as truly spectacular.
“These men are Armenians. They bring wine,” explained our guide, Javad, as he pulled up to where I decided to focus my attention.
My mind wandered to our own visit to Armenia four years prior, conversations with Armenian friends about the country’s long tradition of winemaking coming back to me.
I smiled at the story, this ancient proof.
Javad moved on, “These are the Ethiopians. You can tell by their hair and their faces. Ethiopia was the most distant subject nation. Notice how the Median and Persian soldiers lead them by their hands, showing friendship.”
And it went on like this, through the citizens of each member nation — Egyptians, Assyrians, Indians, Tajiks, and so on. Each was easily identifiable, their physical appearance and cultural trappings preserved in stone from 500 B.C.
These carvings were over 2500 years old, yet I could still find similarities between the nations represented and today’s modern relatives.
It was the whole of these details that to me seemed to define the character of the Achaemenid Empire: a multi-ethnic ancient empire built on respecting – if not maintaining — the diversity of many cultures amidst a unifying loyalty to one king.
A wall of all nations had captured this ideal in stone for the rest of us to consider. As I walked the length of it, I remembered conversations with Iranians we’d met on the streets. A common conversation theme reflected the influence of the promise of ancient Persia on the Iranian psyche of today: “We used to have a great culture, a great civilization.”
Cyrus the Great's Human Rights Charter
While it was Darius the Great who built this palace at Persepolis, it was his father-in-law – Cyrus the Great – who attempted to set the foundation of mutual respect within the Achaemenid Empire. In his Babylon Cylinder (539 B.C.), Cyrus put forth some of the first recorded mentions of human rights, an expression of tolerance, and of religious, linguistic and racial equality across the empire.
History tells us that great civilizations have come and gone, risen and fallen, ascended and crumbled. The pity of the great Persian empire — 23 nations under one roof and the nascent echoes of human rights — was that a great man came and went well before his time.
Today we have the machinery and tools to build even larger capitals and palaces than Persepolis. However, on the count of great nations our world still has a ways to go to reach the ideals of tolerance and equality that Cyrus laid out more than 2,500 years ago.
There’s a great wall in Iran that tells us so.
Photo Slideshow: Persepolis
If you don’t have a high-speed connection or want to read the captions, you can view the Persepolis photo essay.
Correction/Editor’s Note: The article was updated to reflect that Darius was the son-in-law of Cyrus the Great, not his son as previously indicated.
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