Xerxes, The Builder of Persepolis: Part II

Xerxes, Great King of the Persian Empire from 486-465 BC, is the focus of a lively new biography – Xerxes: A Persian Life – that reappraises his reign using the latest research in Achaemenid studies and archaeology to present the ruler’s role from a Persian perspective. Author Richard Stoneman reveals a complex figure, who ruled a vast multicultural empire and whose successes have been largely overlooked.

In a three-part blog series for Yale, Richard Stoneman examines Xerxes’ legacy and takes us on a tour of Persepolis, one of the most famous ruins in the world, and perhaps this great Persian king’s most impressive and enduring accomplishment…

Xerxes, the Builder of Persepolis

by Richard Stoneman 

The earliest buildings are the great stairway and the Apadana or throne room; the terrace itself was begun between 490 and 480. Most of the rest belongs to the reign of Xerxes, including the Palace of Xerxes and his so-called Harem, the hall of 100 columns (completed by Artaxerxes I) and the Palace of Artaxerxes I which was begun by Xerxes. What we see when visiting Persepolis is, apart from the monumental staircase, largely the work of Xerxes with some sometimes confusing overlays. When Alexander came here, he was able to distinguish, and to single out for destruction, exclusively the buildings that had been erected by Xerxes.

Monumental staircase at Persepolis

Monumental staircase at Persepolis. Photograph Richard Stoneman

Xerxes’ vision for the site was grandiose, one of the ‘Grand Designs’ that Persian kings were obliged to execute in order to secure their fame. The narrator of Gore Vidal’s novel, Creation, who is a roving ambassador of the king, reckoned that, after his defeat by the Greeks at Salamis in 480 BC, the king ‘had lost all curiosity about the world. He had turned in upon himself. He cared for nothing but the harem and the completion of those buildings that he had begun in his youth.’ The sneer is probably undeserved. To leave a great monument to posterity may be a better thing to do than to conquer a truculent people in an arid land. Xerxes might equally be regarded as the king under which the Persian Empire reached its peak of glory. His building programme would create a city of a truly Persian kind which would increasingly be the nerve-centre of the empire. Here the archives would be kept, the court would have its most extensive quarters. Here the kings would be buried, and here, perhaps, the New Year festival would be annually carried out. Coronations may have taken place at Pasargadae, but that could be regarded as simply an outpost of Persepolis, a Westminster Abbey to Persepolis’ Windsor Castle. (It was the seventeenth century traveller Thomas Herbert who averred, improbably, that Persepolis reminded him of Windsor).

Richard Stoneman at Pasargadae

Richard Stoneman at Pasargadae

Xerxes made his mark on the plan of Persepolis as soon as he took over the works. He may have begun works only after the Greek expedition was over, but it is more likely that work continued uninterrupted immediately after his accession, as Vidal imagined. One scholar supposed that the entire complex was a building site, unusable as a palace, until the reign of Artaxerxes, but this seems most unlikely. Xerxes blocked the south entrance built by Darius, with its 14-metre stair, and created a new north-western stair, with gentle steps, which Herzfeld called ‘perhaps the most perfect flight of stairs ever built’.

Gateway of All Lands

Gateway of All Lands. Photograph Richard Stoneman

At the top, one reaches the Gateway of All Lands, which is still the entrance to the complex. The name is given by Xerxes’ inscriptions; but the Gateway, notably, leads nowhere. In fact Gate is something of a misnomer, since the building has the form of a roofed hall with a bench. It is a ‘gate’ like this in which Mordecai is depicted in the Book of Esther waiting for audience, while eunuchs stand guard on either side. The visitor, then as now, was greeted by the massive guardian bulls that flank the eastern doorway at the top of the stairs. Inside, the cedar beams of the roof were supported on columns 16.5 m high; the wall were tiled with designs of rosettes and palm trees. Each doorway bears the same inscription: ‘By the grace of Ahura Mazda, this Gateway of All Lands I made; much else that is beautiful was done throughout Parsa which I did and which my father did; whatever work seems beautiful, all that we did by the grace of Ahura Mazda’.

Mahmud Hamadani’s Book of Wonders (1194 CE) described this gateway:

“Two great bulls have been carved, with hoofs as a bull, and a beard as a man, twelve cubits long and high, and of what weight God only knows, one on one side, and another on the opposite side, such as in the present age no man could erect. If it be said that a djinn or peri had made it, this would be acceptable to the intellect.”

Xerxes: A Persian Life by Richard Stoneman is available from Yale University Press.


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