Persepolis, Iran, 521-465 BCE

The Persian Empire

The Persian Empire is the largest empire the world has seen yet. It was founded in the 6th century BCE by Cyrus of Persia (“Cyrus the Great”) and the empire covered significant portions of the ancient world. It stretch from the Indus Valley in the east to Thrace and Macedon on the northeastern border of Greece. In the 6th century BCE, Cyrus of Persia captured the Mesopotamian city of Babylon. Cyrus of Persia is believed to have descended from the Elmalite line, and was the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty. The city of Babylon was only one of the Persians’ numerous conquests. The Persians also conquered Egypt in 525 BCE, reaching the pinnacle of the empire at 480 BCE. Some have claimed that only the successful Greek resistance in the 5th century prevented the Persian empire from spreading further. Ultimately, however, the Achaemenid dynasty ended with the death of king Darius III in 330 BCE after he was defeated by Alexander the Great.



Being such a great empire, the Persian Empire significantly contributed to art. One of the most important source of knowledge about Persian art and architecture is the ceremonial and administrative complex on the citadel at Persepolis.

Persepolis is a citadel built by two of Cyrus of Persia’s successors, Darius I (reigned 522-486 BCE) and Xerxes (reigned 486-465 BCE). The citadel as a whole was located on an elevated plateau and the heavily fortified series of royal buildings was located on a large and wide platform overlooking the plain. If you look at the Persepolis citadel today, however, it is in ruins. This is because when the Persian Empire was conquered by Alexander the Great, he destroyed the citadel as a symbolic representation of the destruction of Persian power and the greatness of his empire. Some historians believe that it also may have been an act of revenge, as the Persians sacked the Athenian Acropolis in the early 5th century. But even in ruins, the Persepolis citadel is very impressive.

To enter the citadel, one must pass through the Gate of All Lands. The name of the gate references to the harmony among the peoples of the vast Persian Empire. Although the Persian Empire was a collection of diverse peoples, subjugates generally got along because the Persians created relatively peaceful and effective policies. Flanking the Gate of All Lands are colossal man-headed winged bulls, inspired by Assyrian lamassus. Broad ceremonial stairways lead you to the apadana, a platform and royal audience hall. The apadana was massive— the huge hall is 60 feet high, 217 feet square, and it contained 36 colossal columns. The apadana could have housed thousands of people in its day.

The Persepolis citadel is filled with different “showcases” of Persian art. The walls of the terrace and staircases leading to the apadana are filled with reliefs. According to Gardener’s Art through the Ages, they depict processions of royal guards, Persian nobles and dignitaries, and representatives from 23 subject nations bringing tribute to the king. Every one of the emissaries wears his national costume and carries a typical regional gift for the well-respected king. Here is a detail of the processional frieze…

The carving of the Persepolis reliefs reveal the technical abilities of Persian sculptors. The carvings all have “subtly modeled surfaces” and “crisply chiseled details”. Even today, this is a very difficult feat to accomplish. Traces of color prove that these reliefs were once painted. This would make their effect even more striking than it is today.

Some scholars claim that the Persepolis reliefs are inspired by those in Assyrian palaces, but they are different in style. The forms are more rounded and they project more from the background. According to Gardener’s Art Through the Ages, some of the details, most notably the treatment of drapery folds are similar to forms characteristic of Archaic Greek sculpture and Greece seems to be one the many influences in Achaemenid art.

Art from the Persian Empire was very diverse and it testifies to the exchange of ideas and artists across the vast empire during that time. For instance, a building inscription at Susa names Ionian Greeks, Medes, Egyptians, and Babylonians among those who built and decorated the palace. “Under the single-minded direction of its Persian masters, this diversified workforce, with a widely varied cultural and artistic background, created a new and coherent style that perfectly suited the expression of Persian imperial ambitions”.

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