Persepolis – the Sculptures

Persepolis – the Sculptures


In the 1930s, the German/American excavators at Persepolis made a major discovery. At the east end of the Apadana, there was another formal entrance which had been covered over and concealed by a considerable overburden and this had preserved the wonderful carvings that lay underneath.

This had been a grand ceremonial entrance, with a flight of stairs up which the peoples of the great Empire came to render their tribute to the Great King, and bas reliefs showing these tribute bearers were carved on the side of the entrance staircase. Nearly thirty different peoples in all were represented,  each distinguished by their traditional clothing and by the gifts that they were bringing. The carvings were for the most part wonderfully preserved and have become one of the great sources of the art of Achaemenid Persians.

Persepolis general view of scaffolding DSC03270Recently a scaffolding canopy has been erected over the carvings to preserve them. Many feel they are intrusive, but the latest arrangements seem not unreasonable and enable one to take some good photographs. Here they are seen from the side, with carvings of Persian warriors on the side flanking walls.


Dominating over the sculptures and acting as ushers to the different peoples were the Medes and the Persians. Both shared equal status as the descendant of Cyrus, and Darius was keen to show that he was the king of both people.

Persepolis soldeirs DSC05508But their dresses were very different. The most obvious difference was in their headgear, for the Persian wore cylindrical hats, often  themselves differentiated to show their varying status: in the photo above, the second and fourth from the right are Persians. The Medes however wore a felt cap forming a semi-circular dome, as in the first and third figures above. Their dresses too are different. The Persians had a flowing pleated robe reminiscent of the Greek peplos or the Roman toga, but the Medes wore a tight-fitting jacket with trousers on their legs. The Persians wore a box on their backs which was presumably a quiver, whereas the Medes had a case containing their bow, with a bird shaped terminal.

Then there was any variety of different nations.



Persepolis Armenians DSC05529

The Armenians

A typical delegation are these Armenians. To the right is a cypress tree – and cypress trees were used to divide up the different tableaux. Then there is a Persian carrying a staff of office rather than a spear, but with a Persian dagger at his waist, and holding the hand of the leader of the Armenians. He is followed by a horse and at the rear is one of the most admired figures, holding a vase with elaborate handles which can be identified as being typical of the vases found in northern Iran.


Persepolis Assyrians bringing sheep DSC03284









Assyrians with sheep

These sheep are much admired – they apparently form the gifts of the Assyrian delegation

Persepolis Lydians 534-5 levels

The Lydians

This is the Lydian delegation, identified by their Lydian hats. They carry a variety of objects, the first one holds two vases, the second two bowls, the third two metal armlets or wrist bands, while the rear is brought up by two men with a two horse chariot.


Persepolis Scythians 287-6


These are clearly Scythians, marked by their pointed hats. They again bring a horse, while the first man carries a torc or neck ring. The next two carry Scythian clothing while the man in the rear is offering a pair of Scythian trousers.

Persepolis Parthians asnd camel 548+550Parthians

Here are the Parthians, bringing as their special gift a two humped camel


Persepolis Ionians 542-544 redThe Ionians

Finally, these are the Ionians, the Greeks from Asia Minor who had been conquered by  the Persians and had become one of the subject peoples. The first three are bringing bowls containing no doubt food delicacies or rich spices or perhaps ointments. The middle pair bring clothes or blankets while the last two are bringing apparently balls of wool.

Persepolis Bull and Lion DSC05514Lion and Bull

Finally, we show an example of one of the most common motifs of the sculpture at Persepolis, the Lion biting the hindquarters of a bull. This is a very common motif at Persepolis, a scene that is repeated many times, and if we could interpret it, it  might possibly provide a clue as to just what Persepolis was.

The trouble is, there are rather too many palaces in Persia at this time. The chief town, the capital as it were, was Susa, in the low-lying south-west corner of Iran, pleasantly warm in winter but stifling hot in the summer but long established as the leading town in the area.  In the North there was a Town there are original capital of the Medes, this that became the summer Palace, being cool in the summer, frozen in the winter. Then there was the saga de the Palace built by Cyrus the predecessor to derive us 50 miles to the north of Persepolis and clearly replaced by Persepolis and then there was the Palace at so what was the function of Persepolis?

An answer may possibly be given by George Cameron, the American scholar who read and published the tablets found in the Treasury. He pointed out that in the tablets, the Treasury was known as the Treasury of Parsa. Now Parsa means Persian, but it is not used for the Persian Empire as a whole, but rather refers to the Persian homelands, the area around Persepolis from which the Achaemenid family, or rather the tribe to which Cyrus the Great, the  founder of the Persian Empire, belonged. Parsa is a slightly vague term – it did not correspond to any of the satrapies or administrative districts into which the Persian Empire was divided. Susa was not part of Parsa, and one suspects that  Persepolis was to some extent an exercise in trumpet blowing by Darius, a reminder to Susa that Parsa, and Persepolis was the place that the Persian royal dynasty came from. Persepolis was therefore essentially a tribal Palace from which the Parsa trumpet was blown, with an underlying burp to Susa, perhaps only at specific times of the year.

The favourite suggestion is that celebrations took place at the Nawruz  festival, which is the Iranians New Year, which takes place at the spring equinox around March 21st. The Nawruz ceremony – Nawruz is a good Indo-European word, Naw being ‘new’ and ‘ruz’ being ‘lux’ or light is today the major annual holiday in Iran – the equivalent of our Christmas Day – and Iranians would like to see it as being the time being celebrated at Persepolis.

There is no direct inscriptional evidence for this, but It is often suggested that the Lion biting the Bull has an astrological significance and that the Lion could represent the New year seeing off the Old year.  Did the Palace at Persepolis celebrate its major festival at the spring equinox, ushering in the New Year, celebrating the triumphs of the Persians,  at the place that was the origin of their great empire?




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