Persepolis, the Sacred City

Robert Payne

AT SOME time quite early in the reign of Darius a decision of incalculable importance was made. It was a decision which could be made by the King alone, for it concerned the capital of his empire. Cyrus had established his capital at Pasargadae, and there he was buried in an enormous tomb shaped like the wooden huts of his ancestors. Suddenly, for reasons that no one knows, Darius abandoned Pasargadae and made his capital thirty miles away at a place which came to be called Persepolis, "the city of the Persians." It was more than a complex of palaces; it was the cult city, the sacred heart of the empire.

We know that the change was deliberate and that until the end of the Achaemenian empire part of the royal treasury remained at Pasargadae, in the shadow of the tomb of Cyrus. We may speculate on the reasons for the change. It is Lust possible that the water supply at Pasargadae was not suflicient for the immense court which grew up around the Persian King: we know of at least one other royal city which was abandoned almost immediately after it was constructed for this reason. It is also possible that Darius simply desired to make a break with the past to signify that he came from another branch of the Achaemenids. All we know for certain is that quite suddenly Pasargadae sinks into obscurity, and on the spurs of the limestone hills which are now called Kuh-i-Rahmet ("the Mountain of Mercy"), beside a small river which flows across the Mervdasht Plain, there arose Persepolis. By general consent this complex of palaces and temples has been accounted the most beautiful the world has ever seen.

So much of the palace remains that we can reconstruct its most minute details. We know exactly where the King- lived, and where he amused himself, and where he gave audiences; we even know where the drains were. We can walk up the great stairway, wide enough for five horses to ride abreast, and we can see the hundreds of figures carved in low relief beside the stairway exactly as Darius and Xerxes saw them, for time has dealt kindly with them and they look so fresh that they might have been carved yesterday. Massive winged bulls, derived from Assyria but given a characteristic Persian stateliness, still greet the traveller at the head of the stairway. The harem remains, so do many of the columns which supported the roofs of painted cedar wood, and so does the great stone platform built on the spur of the hills. Beside the doorways of the palaces there are carved figures of Darius striking down a mythological beast: though the palaces themselves have long since perished, these delicately carved figures are still on guard. At night, wandering among the ruins, it is possible to believe that Darius and Xerxes are actually present.

 The splendor of Persepolis remains. It is even possible that it is more splendid today than it ever was when inhabited by Persian Kings for the same reason that the Acropolis is more splendid now than it ever was. Once Persepolis was a blaze of color. Embroidered curtains swayed between the pillars, which were decorated with gold and ivory. The curtains have gone: so has the gold and the ivory: and we are left with the bare and delicate framework, which is more pleasing to modern eyes than the overornamented palaces which once stood here. We know that the innumerable figures carved in low relief were painted in gorgeous colors because some coloring still clings to them, but as we see them today, the dark grey marble gleaming in the sunlight, the great processions moving imperceptibly towards the throne of the King of Kings, we are aware of a chaste outline and a delicacy of movement which is to be found nowhere else. Here is the first modern sculpture, the first brilliant awakening of the sculptor's art. The monolithic sculptures of Egypt were designed to express the majesty of the King and of the gods: they overpower us with their excessive weight and godlike dignity. Assyrian sculpture suffered from distorted perspectives and a curious distortion of the human frame, the muscles strained, the human figures seeming oppressed by destiny. But at Persepolis for the first time we see men going quietly about their affairs, conscious of their human pride. Here the human dignity of ordinary men was first expressed. From Persepolis it is but a step to the great frieze celebrating the Panatheneia which adorns the Parthenon, but this Greek frieze was carved a hundred years later.

The Panatheneia was a celebration in honor of the goddess who ruled over Athens. The carvings at Persepolis celebrated the god who ruled over the Persian Empire. These tribute-bearers and soldiers from the Imperial Guard are clearly attending a religious rite. They come in Spring, at the time of the Persian New Year, when the trees are putting on their leaves, bringing offerings which they will lay before the King, who in turn will lay them before the god Ahuramazda.

We shall never know exactly why the Achaemenian Empire fell into a decline. When Alexander the Great led a handful of men across the Hellespont and prepared to attack the most powerful Emperor on earth, the decay had already set in. There is no evidence to suggest that the rulers of Persia were unworthy of their inheritance. It is more likely that the empire simply died of old age and that the central authority grew weary of defending the immense frontiers. Bureaucracy ruled. Slowly and imperceptibly, after long periods of relative peace, the Persians were losing their cunning.


THE YOUNG Alexander was confronted with a young King, Darius III Codomannus, whose yoke fell so lightly on the Greeks of Asia Minor that they took service in the Persian army and chose to be Persian wbjects. The Greek provinces in Asia Minor were governed by Persian satraps, who took care to show themselves on their coins wearing Greek helmets and Greek accoutrements, and on the reverse of the coins there were usually typical Greek symbols. The empire was at peace. The young Darius III --he was almost the same age as Alexander-- appears to have been popular. He was a tall, heavy-set man, dark-eyed and dark-bearded, and when he heard that Alexander had crossed the Dardanelles by boat and had captured Troy, he seems not to have been unduly perturbed. He simply gave orders that Alexander should be seized and brought to the capital, and a small army was accordingly sent to apprehend him. This army consisted of Persian cavalry and Greek mercenaries, numbering about 40,000 men and comprising only a small part of the available forces under Persian command in Asia Minor. The two armies met at the river Granicus. It was spring. The river was in spate, with steep and slippery banks. Only an exceedingly reckless general would have ordered his troops across the river to face the Persian archers massed on the other side, but this is exactly what Alexander did. With a rain of arrows falling on his men, he forced the passage. There followed a long, confused battle. At one point Alexander nearly lost his life to the Persian general in command of the punitive expedition sent to arrest him. The Persian engaged in a hand to hand encounter with Alexander, and brought his sword down on Alexander's steel helmet, slicing off the horse-hair crest and grazing the skull. The Persian general however was killed before he could repeat the blow, and in the fighting that followed, the armored infantry of the Greeks punched a wide hole through the enemy lines. It was the beginning of the end. The enemy was forced to withdraw, the Greek mercenaries under Persian command taking to some hills behind the river, while the Persian cavalry fled. No attempt was made to purwe the cavalry. The mercenaries asked for quarter, which Alexander refused. He was determined to teach the Greeks in Asia Minor a lesson they would not forget, and he was angered by their resistance. He gave orders to his own troops to CUt down the mercenaries to the last man. In the long, bloody, desperate, and fearful campaign which followed, Alexander showed little mercy to anyone. He ravaged Asia Minor, slew the entire population of fortress cities in Palestine, left a trail of blood wherever he passed. Bemused, the Persians watched the rise of a powerful force of nature, who obeyed none of the rules of war, despised diplomacy, and openly demanded that the whole Persian empire should surrender to his own small army, which numbered perhaps one hundredth of the forces under the command of the Persian King.

When Alexander set out for Asia, he claimed to represent the awakened fury of the Greeks descending in vengeance upon the Persians who had laid waste Athens nearly two hundred years before. When he reached Damascus, he found Spartan; Theban, and Athenian ambassadors who had come to treat with the Persian King, thus demonstrating how little real support he could expect to receive from the Greek mainland. The Spartans in particular, who were allied with Persia, regarded the invasion with distrust. And when after Granicus Alexander sent some of the spoils of victory to Athens, he ordered that they should be accompanied by the message: "Alexander, the son of Philip, and the Greeks except the Spartans, have won these from the barbarians who inhabit Asia."

The Asiatic barbarians however were in no mood to tolerate Alexander's claims. At Granicus Alexander had had his horse killed under him and missed death by a hair-breadth, and from that day onward he seems to have believed he was invulnerable. Egypt was rebelling against Persian rule: consequently Egypt fell quickly into his hands. Even the loss of Egypt seems not to have disturbed Darius III so much as the loss of many members of his immediate family, who were trapped in Damascus. He offered vast ransoms, which Alexander nonchalantly refused. Darius III even offered to surrender to Alexander all Asia west of the Euphrates. This offer too Alexander rejected forthwith. It was written in the stars that the two armies would meet and decide the issue. The meeting took place at Gaugamela ("the place of the camel"), in the foothills of the Assyrian mountains. There had been a preliminary encounter at Issus near Tarsus in Cilicia before Alexander's advance upon Egypt, but though this had shown the supremacy of the Greek fighting power, it was not decisive and the Persians, caught in a trap, succeeded in disengaging their forces. The battle of Gaugamela decided the future of Asia.

The army under Darius III numbered more than a million men of all nations (This might be an exaggeration, however). The cavalry alone outnumbered Alexander's entire force. There were brigades of elephants and detachments of scythed chariots. The commander-in-chief was Darius himself, determined to lead his armies into battle like the great Achaemenian Kings who had gone before him, and in this, differing from his immediate predecessors on the throne. The Persian army with its back to the hills stretched out along the plain for perhaps four miles, outflanking the small, tightly knit forces of Alexander.

 In everything that pertained to battle Alexander seemed to possess a sixth sense. A handsome stripling, curly-haired, his face remarkable for its beauty and the richness of its coloring, his head bending a little to the left, so that he always gave the appearance of someone who watches and listens attentively, Alexander entered battles as nonchalantly as he entertained his favorites. Told that the only hope of conquering the Persians lay in a sudden surprise attack by night, he answered: "I do not steal my victories." He slept well on the night before the battle. Then at dawn he went about the task of maneuvering his army with superb selfconfidence. A sudden Persian attack on his baggage-trains threw the chief-of-staff, Parmenio, into a panic. Parmenio asked for hurried reinforcements, which Alexander refused, saying that it was altogether too late to worry about baggage-trains: if they won the battle, the vast treasure of Persia would fall into their hands, and if they lost their own baggage-trains would be useless to them. Alexander went into battle wearing a gorget sparkling with jewels, a steel helmet polished to resemble silver, a tightly fitting Sicilian coat, and a kind of padded quilt which protected his chest. He carried a light sword and rode on Bucephalus, his favorite black horse, then growing old, so old indeed that at first he decided to ride on a much younger mount until the memory of Bucephalus's prowess came back to him. Then he ordered that his old warhorse should be saddled. His army numbered some 7,000 cavalry and 40,000 foot soldiers. It was a bright, sunny October day in 331 B.C.

From the beginning Alexander took the initiative. To avoid the damage which could be inflicted by the scythed chariots, he arranged that his infantry should march forward in columns separated by the width of the chariots, with the result that the charioteers passed through the Greek ranks without inflicting any punishment on them and were later cut down at leisure. He attacked where Darius least expected to be attacked, in the centre, and having broken a path through the Persian and Scythian defenders, he attacked in the rear. From this penetration by shock the Persians never recovered. Darius took to flight, surrendering to Alexander all the treasure which had been concentrated some miles away at Arbela. The battle was won, and Alexander, at twenty-five, was Lord of the East.

When Alexander entered Babylon in triumph, flowers were thrown in his path and the satrap Mazaeus, who had fought bravely at Gaugamela, was reinstated as governor. Here Alexander rested his troops and consulted the oracles. Already it was observed that he was beginning to behave lice an oriental emperor. His gestures, his expression, his way of addressing his troops were subtly changed. In time he was to take over all the panoply and all the grace and vindictiveness of an oriental monarch.

But first it was necessary to destroy all vestiges of resistance within the Persian empire. The enemy had regrouped, and was still powerful. Alexander marched on to Susa, the summer capital: it was undefended. But to reach Persepolis he would need to cross many mountain passes, where Persian armies were stationed in strategic positions, determined to save Persepolis which they regarded as a national shrine. Persepolis was one of the capitals of the empire, but it was also the place where the sacred Zoroastrian texts were kept. The tombs of the Achaemenian Kings were there: not far from Persepolis lay the tomb of Cyrus. Alexander knew the danger of getting lost in the mountains: there had been a time when he had led his armies backwards and forwards among the Taurus mountains, never certain whether the next valley would contain an army of Persian archers. Traitors indicated the passes which lay undefended. By a succession of surprise marches he forced the passes and attacked Persepolis when the defenders were expecting an attack from another direction altogether. He massacred the defenders, stripped the palace of the gold plates which decorated the columns, ordered the destruction of the sacred texts, sacked the treasury which contained 120,000 silver bars and 5,000 bars of gold, and held court sitting on the golden throne under a canopy of gold. Seeing him sitting there, Demaratus the Corinthian, an old campaigner who had been his father's close friend, wept, thinking of all the dead Macedonians and Greeks who were deprived of the joy of gazing upon his triumph.


Historical Site of Mirhadi Hoseini