In 1931 while on commission for the University of Chicago, professor Ernst Herzfeld led an archaeological expedition about 525 miles south of Iran’s present-day capital, Teheran. There he would uncover a glorious palace complex lying at the foot of Kouh-e Rahmat, the “Mountain of Mercy.”
The ancient Persian capital of Parsa—better known by its Greek name, Persepolis—was shown little mercy by Alexander the Great, who conquered and looted the complex in 330 BC. Plutarch wrote of great treasures being carried away on the backs of 20,000 mules and 5,000 camels.
Persepolis hardly got a chance to flaunt its immense wealth—Darius the Great (550-486 BC) had only begun work on his great city in 518 BC. Conceived as the seat of government, as well as a showcase, for his vast Achaemenid Empire, the capital was built on an immense, 125,000-square-foot terrace (half-natural, half-manmade) that rose up from the Pulvār River. There the king raised his grand palace; leading up to it, the dual Persepolitan stairway had steps wide enough for Persian royalty to climb them on horseback so as not to set regal foot on the ground.
Rightfully proud of his accomplishment—built with paid workers, as slaves were forbidden—Darius I had inscribed on the site’s foundations: “And Ahuramazda* was of such a mind, together with all the other gods, that this fortress (should) be built. And (so) I built it. And I built it secure and beautiful and adequate, just as I was intending to.”
Subsequent kings continued to add their own palaces, halls, and elaborately embellished structures for the next two centuries until Alexander sacked Persepolis. The ancient capital would lay buried in ruins for nearly 2,000 years, when it was finally identified in 1620. Yet it would take another 300 years before any scholarly work was undertaken to excavate the site.
Professor Herzfeld and his team uncovered the main terrace, as well as Persepolis’ largest structure, the Apadana. Used for grand receptions and celebrations, the magnificent building was begun by Darius and completed by Xerxes I (519-466 BC); 13 of its 72 columns still stand, revealing beautifully carved reliefs of nobles, royal chariots and gift-barring delegates from the Empire’s many subject nations.
In 1934, archaeologist Erich F. Schmidt took over the excavation, and spent another five years digging at the site until the onset of World War II halted his efforts. His work revealed such monumental structures as the Throne Hall or “Hundred-Column Hall”; the Treasury, where the Empire’s fortunes were stored; and the Palace of Xerxes, twice the size of Darius’s palace. Citing the “importance and quality of the monumental ruins,” UNESCO granted Persepolis World Heritage status in 1979.
*Ahuramazda or Ahura Mazda was the supreme god in ancient Persian mythology.