Persepolis (Old Persian: Parsa, New Persian: Takht-e Jamshid or Parseh), literally meaning "city of Persians", was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BC). Persepolis is situated 70 km northeast of city of Shiraz in Fars Province in Iran. The earliest remains of Persepolis date back to 515 BC. It exemplifies the Achaemenid style of architecture. UNESCO declared the ruins of Persepolis a World Heritage Site in 1979.
Persepolis is undoubtedly the most impressive of all the archaeological sites in Iran, not only because of its sheer size but by the nature of the ruins themselves which display some of the finest examples of Achaemenian carving to be seen anywhere. Unlike Susa and Pasargadae, where a considerable mental effort on the part of the visitor is required to grasp the original layout of the palaces, it is possible here to picture a part of the Achaemenian world. The monumental staircases, exquisite reliefs and imposing gateways leave you in no doubt how grand this empire was, just as the broken and fallen columns attest that its end was both emphatic and merciless. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Some historians believe the site of Persepolis was chosen by Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, but work did not begin until after Darius I (the Great) took the throne in 520 BC. It was added to by a host of subsequent kings, including Xerxes I and II, and Artaxerxes I, II and III, over a period of more than 150 years. Darius ordered the construction of the Apadana Palace and the Council Hall (the Tripylon or three-gated hall), the main imperial Treasury and its surroundings. These were completed during the reign of his son, King Xerxes the Great (New-Persian Khashayar, (the greatest/king of the gallant youth/young men'). Further construction of the buildings on the terrace continued until the downfall of the Achaemenid dynasty.
Persepolis is near the small river Pulvar, which flows into the river Kur (derived from Persian word Cyrus / Kuroush). The site includes a 125,000 square metre terrace, partly artificially constructed and partly cut out of a mountain, with its east side leaning on Kuh-e Rahmet ("the Mountain of Mercy"). The other three sides are formed by retaining walls, which vary in height with the slope of the ground. From 5 to 13 metres on the west side a double stair. From there it gently slopes to the top. To create the level terrace, depressions were filled with soil and heavy rocks, which were joined together with metal clips.
Around 519 BC, construction of a broad stairway was begun. The stairway was planned to be the main entrance to the terrace 20 metres above the ground. The dual stairway, known as the Persepolitan stairway, was built in symmetrically on the western side of the Great Wall. The 111 steps were 6.9 metres wide with treads of 31 centimetres and rises of 10 centimetres. Originally, the steps were believed to have been constructed to allow for nobles and royalty to ascend by horseback. New theories suggest that the shallow risers allowed visiting dignitaries to maintain a regal appearance while ascending. The top of the stairways led to a small yard in the north-eastern side of the terrace, opposite the Gate of Nations.
Grey limestone was the main building material used in Persepolis. After natural rock had been levelled and the depressions filled in, the terrace was prepared. Major tunnels for sewage were dug underground through the rock. A large elevated water storage tank was carved at the eastern foot of the mountain. Professor Olmstead suggested the cistern was constructed at the same time that construction of the towers began.
The uneven plan of the terrace, including the foundation, acted like a castle, whose angled walls enabled its defenders to target any section of the external front. Diodorus writes that Persepolis had three walls with ramparts, which all had towers to provide a protected space for the defense personnel. The first wall was 7 metres tall, the second, 14 metres and the third wall, which covered all four sides, was 27 metres in height, though no presence of the wall exists in modern times.
The ruins you see today are a mere shadow of Persepolis' former glory. But their very existence is due in part to the fact that the ancient city was lost for centuries, totally covered by dust and sand. It wasn't until the 1930s that extensive excavations revealed its glories once again.
Note that there is little shade at Persepolis and from May until early October it can be sweltering; so bring a hat and water. If you have a backpack or a tripod with you, these will have to be left at the ticket office. The site of Persepolis is extensive and a good two to four hours minimum are needed for the visit. Allow at least a half-day's excursion from Shiraz (120 kilometres [75 miles] there and back) and more if you want to visit the other sites nearby.