Achaemenid Architecture

From the middle of the seventeenth century, when Europeans first began freely to penetrate the East, the Persian ruins, especially those of Persepolis, drew the marked attention of travelers. Some of the more famous sites are :


Pasargadae, begun in 546 B.C. under Cyrus the Great site of coronations and Cyrus the Great's tomb  130 km north of Shiraz, Iran


Ecbatana, former Median capital, summer retreat. Modern day name Hamadan, Iran .


Persepolis, site of New Year's celebration and tribute . Darius I started constructing this complex as a summer palace in 512 B.C. and finished 150 years laterBurned by Alexander in 331 B.C. Close to Shiraz, Iran


Susa , former Elamite capital, administration center for the empire. Close to Shiraz, Iran




Persepolis, on a massive 33 acre terrace on a colossal platform at the foot of Kuh-i Rahmat ( Mountain of Mercy), is a supreme monument to Darius I. The vast complex formed a ' ritual city ' where representatives from vassal states came to give tribute to the King of Kings on Nowruz  نوروز‎‎,  ( New Year ) To the ancient Persians, the city was known as Parsa, meaning the city of Persians, Persepolis is the Greek interpretation of the name . Modern Iranians know the site as Takht-e Jamshid ( the throne of Jamshid ) The legendary Shah Jamshad of Persian mythology,  was erroneously thought to have ruled from Persepolis by Persians after the fall of the Persian empire . The royal tombs nearby were known locally as the Naqsh-e Rustam, ( Picture of Rostam, a legendary hero ) It is interesting that real identity of the site was unknown to the local people in succeeding generations . This could be because, as some historians claim, the existence of the site was kept secret as the state treasury was kept there .

 Map of Persepolis



 Persepolis Old Persian: Pārśa, New Persian: Takht-e Jamshid or Pārseh, literally meaning "city of Persians", was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE). Persepolis is situated 70 km northeast of city of Shiraz in Fars Province in Iran. The earliest remains of Persepolis date back to 515 BCE. It exemplifies the Achaemenid style of architecture. UNESCO declared the ruins of Persepolis a World Heritage Site in 1979.Archaeological evidence shows that the earliest remains of Persepolis date back to 515 BCE. André Godard, the French archaeologist who excavated Persepolis in the early 1930s, believed that it was Cyrus the Great (Kūrosh) who chose the site of Persepolis, but that it was Darius I (Daryush) who built the terrace and the great palaces.Darius ordered the construction of the Apadana Palace and the Council Hall (the Tripylon or three-gated hall), the main imperial Treasury and its surroundings. These were completed during the reign of his son, King Xerxes the Great (New-Persian Khashayar, more correctly,, 'the greatest/king of the gallant youth/young men'). Further construction of the buildings on the terrace continued until the downfall of the Achaemenid dynasty.


The Great Stairs



The main entrance to Persepolis is the Great Stairs or Stairs of All Nations, built by Xerxes I There are 106 steps about 23 ft wide at a low incline so horses could walk up them . At the top of the stairs the first thing you see is the 12 m high Xerxes Gateway or Gate of All Nations which has three passages .


Xerxes Gateway or Gate of All Nations

The Gate of All Nations were commissioned by Xerxes I around 475 B.C.n the doorway are two 6 m high winged bulls, a protective genie called shedu or lamassu a common Assyrian and Babylonian image.   Above the bulls are cuneiform inscriptions in three languages; Persian, Babylonian and Elamite by Xerxes thanking Ahura Mazda for beneficence and claiming credit for building Persepolis along with his father . there was originally a wall surrounding the terrace


 Apadana  ( audience hall )


Supplicant to Darius I performing Proskynesis ( kissing toward ) to Darius I by touching the lips .The incense burners mark the limit of the approach to the throne .


The Apadana in  Persepolis is decorated by reliefs, showing delegates of the 23 subject nations of the Persian Empire giving tribute to Darius I in twice yearly festivals .According to some scholars, the hall could hold 10,000 people . Only 36 of the 20 m. tapered columns of the Apadana survive today, and most have lost their double bull protomes . The ceiling beams would have been made of cedar, ebony or teak and were gold platted and inlaid with precious jewels . The reigning monarch would have reviewed dignitaries and tribute bearers in the Apadana . The Apadana is show as 'The Hall of Xerxes ' in the map above .


A reconstruction of the Apadana


View of the Apadana from hillside


The east Staircase of the Apadana at Persepolis show a large procession of people from vassal countries in their native clothing bringing tribute to the Darius I in bas-relief. Each group is separated by cypress trees, walking on lotus flowers . The people bearing tribute are guided by a Persian holding his hand .


East staircase


The oft repeated Lion and Bull in Combat motif on the

Great Stairs, a possible symbol for the renewal of the year


The main purpose of Persepolis was the  tribute ceremony  . What would of the tribute procession have been like ? It would have been  more colorful than today, with the columns and bas-reliefs painted .The King of Kings would have been seated on a golden throne in the apadana . Royal guardsmen in colorful robes would have led the procession . After them would come Persians with fluted hats, Median with round hats. Next would come the tribute bearers, the leaders of the vassal nation tribute bearers would have been led by a Persian or Mede by the hand . The groups of tribute bears would have been much larger than depicted on the stone reliefs . Indians bearing gold, Armenians bearing jewels, Bactrians bearing camels, Lydians with gold and silver worked vessels, Babylonians with Bulls, Ethiopians with ivory. Egyptians with cloth , 23 tribute nations in all.


Diagram of East Staircase of the Apadana ( audience hall ) at Persepolis, each letter represents a satrapy tribute group

 The tribute bearers from the satrapies

The bas-reliefs of the tribute bearers on the staircase wall of the Apadana offers a fascinating chance to view these peoples as they were . The ancient Persian satrap names are to the right




Ethiopia   Kushiya



Libyans     Putaya

 chariot , long horn bull


Drangians  Zranka

lance.shield bull


Arabians    Arabaya



Thrace    Skudra

 horses, carrying shields


Sagartians    Asagarta

 clothing, horse


Sogdians    Sugda

swords, axes,horse


Indians   Hindush

 gold dust


Parthians   Parthava

 cups and camel


Gandarians    Gandara


lances,round shield, bull





Egyptians    Mudraya damaged


Scythians   Saka

 bracelets,cloth,horse also armed unlike other tribute bearers, led by Mede


Ionians   Yauna


  beehives, cloth


Arachosians   Harauvatish

 camels, lion skins


Cicilians    Suguda


Cappadocians   Katpatuka



Arians    Haraiva

camels, protective turbans to protect themselves from desert sand


Babylonians  Babirush

  prize bull


Lydians   Sparda

Lydia was on of the richest satraps of the empire, vessel probably made of gold


Elam   Uvja

lion cub sacred in Zoroasterism


Armenians  Armina



Medes  Mada

sword, Medes also lead the other tribute bearers by hand

Other buildings


Nearly midway in the platform between its northern and its southern edges, and not very far from the boundary of rocky mountain on which the platform abuts towards the east, is the vast edifice which has been called with good reason the "Hall of a Hundred Columns," since its roof was in all probability supported by that number of pillars. This building consisted of a single magnificent chamber, with a portico, and probably guard-rooms, in front, of dimensions quite unequaled upon the platform. The portico was 183 feet long by 52 feet deep, and was sustained by sixteen pillars, about 33 feet high, arranged in two rows of eight. The great chamber behind was a square of 227 feet, and had therefore an area of about 51,000 feet. Over this vast space were distributed, at equal distances from one another, one hundred columns, each 35 feet high, arranged in ten rows of ten each, every pillar thus standing at a distance of nearly 20 feet from any other. The four walls which enclosed this great hall had a uniform thickness of 10 1/2 feet, and were each pierced at equal intervals by two doorways, the doorways being thus exactly opposite to one another, and each looking down an avenue of columns. In the spaces of wall on either side of the doorways, eastward, westward, and southward, were three niches, all square-topped, and bearing the ornamentation which is universal in the case of all niches, windows, and doorways in the Persepolitan ruins. Between the Hall of One Hundred Columns and the mountain are some smaller buildings, probably a garrison for about 3,000 soldiers. In the north-east corner the was the royal chancellery where 30,000 Elamite tablets were found .




Hall of 100 Columns today Persepolis


Reconstructed view of Hall of Columns




Detail of Reconstruction of the Palace of Xerxes



Next to the Apadana, second largest building of the Terrace and the final edifices, is the Throne Hall or the Palace of Darius ( on the map above ) This 70x70 square meter hall was started by Xerxes and completed by his son Artaxerxes I by the end of the fifth century BC. This building seemed to be used as an imperial museum .


Palace of Darius today


Reconstructed Palace of Darius




Homa griffins


One of the most original features of Persian architecture are the tall, thin, fluted columns, far higher than anything known by the Greeks surmounted by capitals of twin bulls and griffins ( Homa )  .In Iranian mythology, Homa would fly and then land on the shoulder of a king-elect upon death of a king. The griffin myth may have come from the city of Ur .


 Double bull protomes


The origination of this columnar architecture must be ascribed to the Medes, who, dwelling in or near the more wooden parts of the Zagros range, constructed, during the period of their empire, edifices of considerable magnificence, whereof wooden pillars were the principal feature, the courts being surrounded by colonnades, and the chief buildings having porticos, the pillars in both cases being of wood. A wooden roof rested on these supports, protected externally by plates of metal. We do not know if the pillars had capitals, or if they supported an entablature; but probability is in favor of both these arrangements having existed. When the Persians succeeded the Medes in the sovereignty of Western Asia, they found Arian architecture in this condition. As stone, however, was the natural material of their country, which is but scantily wooded and is particularly barren towards the edge of the great plateau, where their chief towns were situated, and as they had from the first a strong desire of fame and a love for the substantial and the enduring, they almost immediately substituted for the cedar and cypress pillars of the Medes, stone shafts, plain or fluted, which they carried to a surprising height, and fixed with such firmness that many of them have resisted the destructive powers of time, of earthquakes, and of vandalism for more than three-and-twenty centuries, and still stand erect and nearly as perfect as when they received the last touch from the sculptor's hand more than 2000 years ago. It is the glory of the Persians in art to have invented this style, which they certainly did not learn from the Assyrians, and which they can scarcely be supposed to have adopted from Egypt, where the conception of the pillar and its ornamentation were wholly different. We can scarcely doubt that Greece received from this quarter the impulse which led to the substitution of the light and elegant forms which distinguish the architecture of her best period from the rude and clumsy work of the more ancient times.


The Persian royal sepulchers are rock-tombs, excavations in the sides of mountains, generally at a considerable elevation, so placed as to attract the eye of the beholder, while they are extremely difficult of approach. Of this kind of tomb there are four in the face of the mountain which bounds the Pulwar Valley on the north-west, while there are three others in the immediate vicinity of the Persepolitan platform, two in the mountain which overhangs it, and one in the rocks a little further to the south. The general shape of the excavations, as it presents itself to the eye of the spectator, resembles a Greek cross.


 Royal tombs, Naqsh-e Rustam close to Persepolis with the enigmatic ' Cube of Zoroaster ' to the right.

Tombs from L to R Darius II, Artaxerxes I , Darius II and Xerxes I ( behind cube )


Bas-reliefs on the tombs show members of vassal nations holding up the throne, while the king stands in worship to Ahura Mazda .The tombs were looted by the army of Alexander the Great .

Thus far the rock tombs, are, with scarcely an exception, of the same type. The excavations, however, behind their ornamental fronts, present some curious differences. In the simplest case of all, we find, on entering, an arched chamber, thirteen feet five inches long by seven feet two inches wide, from which there opens out, opposite to the door and at the height of about four feet from the ground, a deep horizontal recess, arched, like the chamber. Near the front of this recess is a further perpendicular excavation, in length six feet ten inches, in width three feet three inches, and in depth the same. This was the actual sarcophagus, and was covered, or intended to be covered, by a slab of stone. In the deeper part of the recess there is room for two other such sarcophagi; but in this case they have not been excavated, one burial only having, it would seem, taken place in this tomb. Other sepulchers present the same general features, but provide for a much greater number of interments. In that of Darius Hystaspis the sepulchral chamber contains three distinct recesses, in each of which are three sarcophagi, so that the tomb would hold nine bodies. It has, apparently, been cut originally for a single recess, on the exact plan of the tomb described above, but has afterwards been elongated towards the left .


A curious edifice, belonging probably to the later Achaemenid times, stands immediately in front of the four royal tombs at Nakhsh-i-Eustam. This is a square tower, composed of large blocks of marble, cut with great exactness, and joined together without mortar or cement of any kind. The building is thirty-six feet high; and each side of it measures, as near as possible, twenty-four feet. It is ornamented with pilasters at the corners and with six recessed niches, or false windows, in three ranks, one over the other, on three out of its four faces. On the fourth face are two niches only, one over the other; and below them is a doorway with a cornice. The surface of the walls between the pilasters is also ornamented with a number of rectangular depressions, resembling the sunken ends of beams. The doorway, which looks north, towards the tombs, is not at the bottom of the building, but half-way up its side, and must have been reached either by a ladder or by a flight of steps. It leads into a square chamber, twelve feet wide by nearly eighteen high, extending to the top of the building, and roofed in with four large slabs of stone, which reach entirely across from side to side, being rather more than twenty-four feet long, six feet wide, and from eighteen inches to three feet in thickness.


Persian bas-reliefs


(1) Mythological representations of a man the king apparently engaged in combat with a lion, a bull, or a monster; (2) Processions of guards, courtiers, attendants, or tribute-bearers; (3) Representations of the monarch walking, seated upon his throne, or employed in the act of worship; and (4) Representations of lions and bulls, either singly or engaged in combat.


But by far the most interesting of the processional scenes, are those which represent the conquered nations bringing to the monarch those precious products of their several countries which the Lord of Asia expected to receive annually, as a sort of free gift from his subjects, in addition to the fixed tribute which was exacted from them. Here we have a wonderful variety of costume and equipment, a happy admixture of animal with human forms, horses, asses, chariots, sheep, cattle, camels, interspersed among men, and the whole divided into groups by means of cypress trees, which break the series into portions, and allow the eye to rest in succession upon a number of distinct pictures. Processions of this kind occurred on several of the Persepolitan staircases; but by far the most elaborate and complete is that on the grand steps in front of the Chehl Minar ( Apadana ), or Great Hall of Audience, where we see above twenty such groups of figures, each with it own peculiar features, and all finished with the utmost care and delicacy .


 Achaemenid Art