Pass through the Gate of All Lands in Persepolis and immerse yourself in millennia of history and the passage of time.

More than any other ancient site in Iran, Persepolis (Takht-e Jamshid in Persian) embodies all the glory – and the demise – of the Persian Empire. It was here that the Achaemenid kings received their subjects, celebrated the new year and ran their empire before Alexander the Great burnt the whole thing to the ground as he conquered the world.

ruins persepolis iran by steba shutterstock
The ruins at Persepolis © steba, Shutterstock

It was Darius the Great who began construction around 515BCE, with his successors adding buildings, but it was still unfinished when, in early 330BCE, Alexander the Great burnt it to the ground after looting the city, seven years before his death. It took him, according to Plutarch, 10,000 mules and 5,000 camels to carry away the booty from this revenge attack for the Achaemenid firing of Athens.

The stone came from nearby quarries but the labourers came from all over the Achaemenid Empire including Greece, as the marks of the Greek toothed chisel testifies. Gold and silver foundation tablets (now in Tehran’s National Museum) were found on the site but more fascinating, for their wealth of detailed information, were the 30,000-odd clay tablets that were uncovered.

The complex consisted of military quarters, treasury stores, small private rooms and huge reception areas, but the exact function of the complex remains an intriguing mystery. Susa was the Achaemenid winter capital and Hamadan the summer residence, while Pasagarda was perhaps built to commemorate Cyrus the Great’s victory over the Medians. But Persepolis?

Ruins of the Tachara (Palace of Darius) © Carole Raddato, Wikimedia Commons

On the evidence of low reliefs showing visitors bearing gifts, and lions attacking bulls (Leo ascendant over Taurus suggesting spring pushing winter away), many assume Persepolis was used once a year to celebrate Nou Rouz, the spring equinox.

Frequent use of the lotus flower motif with its 12 leaves possibly symbolises the 12 months of the year and the always-green cypress tree could also be interpreted to refer to Nou Rouz, but such festivities are not mentioned in Achaemenid and later sources.

There seem to have been only two occasions when the Achaemenid ruler received gifts: on the official imperial birthday, and the annual sacrifice to Mithra.

The bull may also be depicted to represent a cow, a symbol of fertility and a guardian of nomad people.