Persepolis: Ancient Persia, Modern Lessons

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.
Gate of All Nations - Persepolis, IranThe Gate of All Nations.

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.
Persian Soldier Faces, a Relief - Persepolis, IranPersian soldiers in stone.

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.”
Apadana Palace Reliefs - Persepolis, IranPersepolis eastern staircase, all 23 subject nations represented.

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.
Apadana Palace Reliefs, Armenians with Wine - Persepolis, IranThe Lydian delegation (from today’s western Turkey) bring vase-like phials, likely filled with gold.

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.
Apadana Palace Reliefs of Subject Nations - Persepolis, IranBactrians (from today’s northern Afghanistan) bring gifts of camels — bactrian camels, of course).

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.

Apadana Palace Reliefs, Friendship - Persepolis, IranPersian and Median soldiers holding hands, leading the way to the 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.
Relief of Soldiers at Persepolis, IranPersian soldiers line up for the king.

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.

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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.

Disclosure: Our trip to Iran is in cooperation with G Adventures as Wanderers in Residence. We paid our own transport to and from Iran, some expenses on the ground and for an additional one week private tour. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Comments

  1. says

    I have heard of the Achaemenid Empire before, but to be honest I knew nothing about it. Those reliefs are amazing and the detail of them after 2500 years is quite incredible. I love exploring ancient ruins like this, and I often find myself imagining what the place must have looked like when it was at it’s peak. Great post Audrey.

  2. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    So beautiful! And I agree about the empire being multicultural and having respect for other civilizations.

  3. says

    @Dean: Like you, I had heard of the Achaemenid Empire and remembered reading about it in history class moons ago, but in reality knew nothing about the influence and culture of it. That is what made this visit so fulfilling. And the details were incredible – couldn’t get over the curls of the beards!

    @Roy: Nope, definitely don’t make them like they use to! And, if people had to put in the work to move and carve massive rocks like they did back then without machinery, they’d all go on strike!

    @Sutapa: The multicultural message really is what left the biggest impression on me. I just wish we had made a bit more progress on achieving this…

  4. Sina says

    I want to thank you as an Iranian, for the detailed and professional task you did and add to this article 2 facts which makes this 2500 years old structure more fascinating:
    1- After the unfortunate revolution in 1979 and overthrow of Shah, the mullahs regime tried to destroy this place and the tomb of Cyrus the great a few times and although they didn’t, they never took care of the structure at all, it is just left there and time to time people find some parts of the stone here and there stolen fro it!
    2- At the time of the revolution, ayatollahs filled airplanes and sold the big huge stones and rocks from here to museums in Paris and London, the good part about this is that we know at least they are somewhere that people know the value of it and take care of it… There is also a book coming out which you might be intrested in “I am Cyrus”
    Amazon has it with free shipping: http://www.amazon.com/Am-Cyrus-Story-Prince-Persia/dp/1859642810

  5. says

    @Sina: Thank you so much for your comment and sharing these details regarding how Persepolis and the tomb of Cyrus was under threat after the revolution. I had no idea that the ayatollahs sent stones from Persepolis to London and Paris – let’s hope that at some point they may be returned to Iran and valued and taken care of in the home country. These facts really do add to how incredible it is that Persepolis is still in the fantastic condition it is today. Beautiful and fascinating place.

  6. kourosh says

    re:Ricky,
    you can go there and you should.remember iranian government’s problems are with american government and not its people.regardless of everything, they try to counter american government’s aim of demonising iran and hence they are accomodating towards tourists, even american tourists.like you i hope there would never be a war between u.s and iran.after all throughout history they’ve never been involved in a war with each other,and that’s true regarding israel too.anyway,i can tell you first-hand as i’m iranian, iranians are fascinated by and admire friendly american people.hard to believe but true :)

  7. says

    @Ricky: The architecture and design is rather incredible. We also hope that Iran remains free of war and that people can continue to enjoy this for thousands more years.

    @Kourosh: Thank you for your comment and for sharing Iranian people’s view of American people. During our time in Iran, we were very welcomed by people everywhere we went.

  8. says

    I appreciate your perspective (that only comes from traveling) that things are often very different on the ground than in the media. I too have a fascination with and longing to visit Iran! These images have stirred that desire again. They are just beautiful!

  9. says

    Hi, Audrey, how are you?
    I’ve been thinking of Iran for later this year and UM has immediately sprang to mind. I loved, loved your posts about the country.
    As I’m rereading them, I have some questions: regarding Persepolis, do you think that visiting one day between Yazd and Shiraz is enough or do you recommend to sleep on the site?
    Thank you!

  10. says

    @Beth: Glad to hear that these images and our stories from Iran have stirred the travel bug in you to visit. Yes, the news about these places that we see on TV are often so different or only represent a small minority of what is happening on the ground.

    @Emilia: So great that you are thinking of visiting Iran later this year and that we can help! You can visit Persepolis quite well over a long morning. My suggestion is to arrive as early as you can (think it opens at 8 AM) as it gets really hot quite quickly. We spent the night in Shiraz the night before and spent 4-5 hours at Persepolis and then returned to Shiraz for the night.

    Let us know if you have any other questions for your Iran trip!

  11. Joanne Joseph says

    I am amazed at the size of the entry (Gate of all Nations) and beautiful details. You brought to life an area of the world I know so little about. One question: How do you remember all the details you learn from your guides or tour leaders to be able to present so many interesting facts and stories? Do you record them as they speak, take notes, do a lot of research before/after visiting to refresh your memory, or do you have an amazing gift of total recall? I create photo books from pictures taken on each trip and find that a lot of the information gets forgotten, mixed together or confused by the time I get home. I would love your insights so that I can more accurately share some of my experiences at the end of my journey. Thanks for showing this beautiful side of Iran.

  12. says

    @Natalia: Iran certainly has its share of impressive ancient sites like this, as well as beautiful Persian architecture in its cities and mosques.

    @Joanne: We were also really impressed by the details still left at Persepolis, especially given how old it is. You can find some of the panels from Persepolis at museums in New York and Berlin as well. Iran surprised us a lot, and we’re glad that this piece provided a different view of the place.

    We do take a lot of notes when we’re on trips. It used to be mainly on paper, but now we use our iPhones (notepad) quite often as it’s easier to transfer notes to our laptops afterwords to use for writing stories. We also geotag all of our photos to be sure we remember the exact location where the image was taken – this helps a lot as we will often visit many locations in the course of a trip. We’ll often pick up business cards or brochures as we go to remember addresses, names, details, etc. Recently, we’ve started using our iPhone to take photos of these things so that we’re carrying less paper. Hope this helps in making it easier to remember details and create photo books!

  13. khashayar says

    Great article but there was a minor error. Darius was the Cyrus’s son in law not his son as mentioned in the article.

    Cyrus had 3 children: Cambyses II (male) , Bardiya (male), Atossa (female). Cambyses II inherited the throne after Cyrus, he conquered egypt and died in his way back. Someone who looked like Bardiya, killed Bardiya and called himself king. Then Darius overthrown him and claimed the throne.

    • says

      Thanks, khashayar. We’ve updated the article accordingly and added an editor’s note. Very knotty history back then.

      A note of clarification for the benefit of others. If we understand the history correctly, Darius was also Cyrus’s second cousin once removed, in addition to marrying Cyrus’s daughter Atossa.

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