Rising out of the sands of the Marv Dasht in south-west Iran, the citadel of Persepolis is one of the great sites of antiquity, and one of the best-preserved royal palaces of the ancient near east. Darius the Great began the construction of the palace around 515 BC, and it was greatly added to by Xerxes and each of the successive Achaemenid monarchs. It was still in the process of being built when, in 330 BC, Alexander of Macedon (the Great) burned it to the ground.
The buildings were built of locally quarried stone, although the craftsmen and enslaved people who worked on the site were drawn from all over Persia’s vast empire – some 30,000 cuneiform tablets (the so-called Persepolis Fortification and Treasury texts) attest to the presence of different peoples of the empire.
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First excavated by Ernst Herzfeld and the Oriental Institute of Chicago in 1931, Persepolis was found to consist of a vast complex of military quarters, treasuries and storerooms, private living quarters, large reception rooms, cavernous audience halls and hill-cut royal tombs.
The palace complex was divided into public and private spaces. Ambassadors, nobles and courtiers would, by and large, find themselves in the formal spaces, the outer courts, of the palace such as the Apadana, or throne room. It was in this vast 20-metre-high pillared hall that the Great King held audience and received the obeisance of his court.
Courtiers and servants with close connections to the Great King, like his advisers and eunuchs, as well as members of the royal family, made up the inner court, and they occupied the rear of the palace complex, away from the eyes of strangers.
Despite its scale, it is clear that the whole court could not have been accommodated on the Persepolis terrace itself. The number of servants required to attend to the needs of the immediate members of the royal family would have run into huge figures alone, while the Great King himself was said to have had no less than 360 royal concubines. Persia’s royal women played a key role in the politics of the empire and although they could not rule in their own right, they had access to power through their intimate relationships with the Great Kings, as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, or concubines. They were often located close to the king.
It seems certain that the majority of the court was housed in tented accommodation, scattered around Persepolis for several miles. The Persian court was, after all, peripatetic by nature. Administrative documents from Persepolis tell us that the Great King and his court systematically criss-crossed the empire, shifting locations between Susa, Babylon and Ecbatana annually, before coming to rest at Persepolis, it is assumed, for the festivities of Nowrouz (the Persian “New Year” celebrated on the spring equinox in March).
Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones is professor of ancient history at Cardiff University and the director of the ancient Iran programme for the British Institute of Persian Studies (BIPS). His latest book is Persians: The Age of the Great Kings (Wildfire 2022)
This article was first published in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine