Have you ever had that feeling of disbelief after discovering something magnificent that was hiding in plain sight? Well that happened to me recently. Whenever I think of ancient archeological sites, my mind automatically jumps to Macchu Picchu, Chichen Itza, Babylon, the Pyramids of Giza, Palmyra, Angkor Wat, Greek temples, or Roman ruins. I had never even heard of Persepolis until I began my research on Iran. My inner history geek was dismayed, how had I not been aware that the spectacular capital of one of the greatest empires of the ancient world was waiting for me to explore! Had I read about it before and couldn’t remember? Did the other ruins around the world eclipse it in my mind? Was this because Iran wasn’t on my travel radar until recently?
Now that I have seen Persepolis in person, I can confirm that it is second to none. If you’re going only take pictures… then I’m sorry to announce that Persepolis may not look as impressive on photos as some other sights. The main reason to visit Persepolis is because of its fascinating history. If you’re ready to make the excursion from Shiraz, you will need to look into the history behind Persepolis beforehand (there aren’t many signs there, or get a guide!), as your imagination may be required to picture the glittering jewel of the Persian empire in all its splendor. There are also other sites you can visit nearby Persepolis such as Nashq e Rustam and Pasargadae.
How to get there
The driving time from Shiraz to Persepolis is an hour, or about 50km away. The best way to get there is by car or hiring a taxi for a day, as this will allow you to be more flexible with your schedule and visit the other sites nearby. Minibuses are available from the Ali Ibn Hamze Bus Station near the river in Shiraz, but apparently it can be difficult to find a way back to the city from Persepolis afterwards.
Here’s a rundown of what I learnt on my fieldtrip to Persepolis to tempt you to go too!
The ruins of Persepolis are the only remaining monuments of the largest and first Persian empire (559 -330 BC), the Archaemenids, extending all the way from India to Greece at its largest territorial extent. FYI there will be 2 other Persian Empires after the Archaemenids, but neither will leave behind as great of a legacy.
Much to my surprise, my tour guide informed me that there are a couple of well known characters throughout history that can be linked to Persepolis. Its founder may be Darius the Great, but it is Cyrus the Great who is considered to be the most respected king and forward thinker of the Archaemenid empire. The inscriptions on his Cyrus Cylinder have been credited as the earliest form of a charter of human rights, and a replica is permanently on display at the UN headquarters in New York. Standing over Persepolis and knowing that a ruler over 2500 years ago promoted similar values to ours, such as peace, tolerance of other races or religions, paid maternity leave and antislavery is incredible.
The other Great who played a role in Persepolis’ history is Alexander the Great. On his quest to conquer Eurasia, he came across Persepolis, which was now the capital of an empire on a slow decline after 200 years of glory. Alexander was able to easily defeat the capital, and burnt most of it to the ground in 330 B.C… where the ruins lay forgotten under ashes for almost 2000 years. Personally, I think this background information should be enough to tempt anyone to visit… but now back to the actual description of the site.
Persepolis was founded in 518 B.C. during the reign of Darius the Great, when the empire was at the height of its power. It was meant to be the seat of his government, the main purpose being to impress foreign dignitaries of conquered countries who come to pay their respects to the King of Kings during spectacular receptions and festivals.
Darius I originally built the palace on several terraces, with the main palace facing west and the Rahmet mountains right behind on the east. Several notable sections of the compound are the Gate of all Nations where all subjects would pass through, the Apadana which was for grand receptions, and the Hundreds Column Hall which was used as a throne room for meeting foreign subjects. The striking pièce de résistance of the complex, however, are the carved reliefs on the two stairways leading up to the Apadana. They depict the 23 subject nations’ showing respect and giving offerings to their Archaemenid conqueror during New Years festivities. I had to fight through the sweaty crowd to get up close to the carvings, which are still intricately detailed. Our guide also pointed out that certain areas of the stone are polished to a shiny black, which is how the entire palace should have looked 2500 years ago.
Visiting the whole complex will cost 150 000 rials for the entrance fee and took me about 2 hours in the morning (don’t forget the sunscreen). This left me with some time to climb the small hill behind the ruins for a remarkable panoramic view of the surroundings. Asides from the carvings in the palace, this was my favourite part as you could see the full scale of the compound. Plus you know how I feel about pretty vu’s, birds eye views are always the best! At the top of the hill you can also find the tombs of two Archaemenid kings : Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III. After heading back down, I ran in search for some pomegranate juice and lunch at one of the many restaurants and took a look at the giftshops, which made for the perfect escape from the sun.
Nashq e Rustam
Not having had my fill of awe-inspiring ancient sites, I continued on to the burial grounds of the other Archaemenid kings 12km away. This royal necropolis (entrance fee 100 000 rials) contains 4 colossal tombs carved high up into the cliffs, one tomb identified as that of Darius I, and 3 unidentified tombs. You can only stand below and look up at the tombs, although the inscriptions underneath the tombs (added later on by the Third Persian Empire) and the panels describing them were a fascinating read.
Pasargadae and Tomb of Cyrus the Great
Alright I’m cheating by adding this here seeing as I didn’t visit Pasargadae on the same day as Persepolis. It would be manageable if you were to rush through, which is the last thing I would recommend. Pasargadae is 1h drive north of Persepolis, and therefore 2h from Shiraz. I actually stopped here on my way from Shiraz to Esfahan, otherwise I don’t think it’s worth the journey here or the 150 000 rial entrance fee for the sights alone. Pasargadae was the capital of the Archaemenid empire during the time of Cyrus the Great, before Persepolis was built. Not much of it remains today, mainly rubble on the ground and the rectangular tomb of Cyrus the Great on a terrace.