Museum stories
Ancient city travel guide: Persepolis, 500 BC

Location

Persepolis is the Greek name for the city of Parsa. It is situated in the Marv Dasht plain, on the high Iranian plateau, with its back sheltered from the north winds by the great ‘Mountain of Mercy’. The plain is green and fertile, watered by canals and covered in fields. It’s cold in winter and rather hot in summer but gorgeous in the spring, so that’s the best time to visit. The Persian Empire is huge and extends from Libya and the Black Sea to India and Central Asia and makes Greece look tiny by comparison.

Watercolour of the ruins of Persepolis with standing columns, a fallen fragment on the right and a crescent moon above
William Henry Brooke (1772–1860), view of the ruins of Persepolis. Pen and brown ink with watercolour.

Getting there

Persepolis is easily accessible by road as the Persian kings have been modernising the country, and there is even a royal road stretching from Sardis in southwest Turkey. There are resting stations at intervals and the routes are safe. If you are coming by boat, the closest port is at Liyan, on the Persian Gulf, and ships sail regularly to India. King Darius I has also just announced a new ‘big dig’ in Egypt to build a new Suez Canal, so it will only take four days to get from the Nile to the Red Sea, and we expect a new shipping route to Egypt to be announced soon.

Intricately detailed model of the chariot, with a rider and passenger
Gold model of chariot and four horses (part of the Oxus Treasure). Tajikistan, Achaemenid period, 5–4th century BC.

Getting around

Horse or carriage is the preferred way of travelling as the empire is too great to see comfortably by foot, although in parts like Mesopotamia and Egypt there are excellent river boat services. Many of the men now wear trouser suits, which were invented by Scythian nomads, as the Persian gowns are not as practical for riding.

Rectangular gold plaque embossed with male figure facing right, wearing a belted tunic
Gold votive plaque showing man wearing trousers (part of the Oxus Treasure). Tajikistan, Achaemenid period, 5–4th century BC.

Things to see and do

The ornamental gardens are so amazing they have invented a special word for them: paradise. These are formal gardens arranged on a ‘four square’ geometric plan with small stone water channels for the different flower beds, and they use poplar trees for shade. It’s best to check with a local in case there’s an admission policy though.

View of the citadel, with shallow stairs in foreground leading to ruins
Postcard with photograph of the ruins of Persepolis, Iran, 1960s.

Rising above the city is the citadel – if you can get access, it is spectacular, as is the view from the top. It is approached by large staircases with shallow steps suitable for anyone in long robes or with limited mobility, and entered through a gatehouse. There are lots of courtyards inside, with columned halls raised on platforms, and carved reliefs.

Relief showing a seated bearded male sphinx facing right with raised left forepaw, wearing divine horned head-dress with band of rosettes below the feathered top
Limestone relief fragment showing a seated male sphinx. Persepolis (modern-day Iran), Achaemenid period, probably 4th century BC.

If you are lucky enough to be invited to the court, prepare to be overwhelmed with its splendour. The court is huge – one king had 329 concubines who played musical instruments, 46 men to weave garlands, 277 cooks to make fancy titbits, 29 caterers, 70 men who strain wine, and 14 perfumiers. (Alexander the Great later came here and burnt the place to the ground but, when he saw all the gold tablewares, the apartment heady with fragrant smells, remarked ‘This, it seems, is what it means to be a king’.)


Shopping

Make sure you visit the bazaar if you want to take home some beautiful souvenirs. The word ‘bazaar’ is Persian in origin and quite rightly evokes a sense of exotic riches, rich smells and curios piled up in abundance. You can buy anything under the sun at Parsa if you have enough silver: there is frankincense from Southern Arabia, gold from India, carpets from Central Asia, and cut glass from western Turkey, plus plenty of local goods too. Remember that they estimate the value of goods according to their weight and, if you’ve come with Phoenician or other foreign coins, they’ll simply weigh them as pieces of silver as they don’t use coins as such here. Always remember to bargain!


Entertainment

Spring is widely celebrated in Iran as it is a period when the weather improves and the country is bathed in green. It is a time when people bring each other gifts and wear new clothes. Some say that is why the reliefs show people in local dress bringing distinctive products to the king, but it is more likely that they show how keen everyone is to be part of his empire, as they remember what happened when people rebelled at the beginning of the reign of Darius I and it was not very pleasant at all as he cut off the nose and ears of the ringleaders, blinded them in one eye and then impaled them.

A delegation bring gifts of precious metal and a chariot fit for a king, Persepolis, 500 BC.

Where to stay

The city has an attractive position on the plain and most of the city is made up of single-storey houses built of sundried bricks. The best thing is to try lodge with someone, as Persian hospitality is wonderful.

The city is overshadowed by the citadel where royalty live when they are not travelling or staying in their other royal seats at Ecbatana, Susa and Babylon. The citadel is heavily fortified and new palaces are constantly being built or modified. Unless you are a royal guest, or bringing expensive presents or an important letter by hand, it’s unlikely you’ll get the chance to enter.

The upper classes live near the citadel. If you are coming to Iran for the first time, you are unlikely to have seen houses like this before. They have columned halls, and the only light enters through the doorways or roof-lights in the ceilings, so it is a little dark at first, but your eyes soon adjust.


Food and drink

Iranian food is justly famous, and full of sweet and sour combinations, with juicy fruits, nuts and complex recipes. Cumin and cardamom are commonly used. Garlic, onions, pomegranates and pistachios are popular too. They make a strong sauce from capers in brine, which is quite like soy sauce. Flat bread is the most popular bread from bakeries. Salt is imported from mines almost as far as Zanjan in northwest Iran, and there is a novelty Indian food called rice, which is used in sweet puddings.

Vessels of gold, silver and cut glass like these were used at Persepolis, 500 BC.

Fine dining
When the kings dine, all their servants bathe and wear fine clothing, and they spend almost half the day preparing for dinner. Dressing down is definitely frowned upon and men and women really look after their personal appearance. So be sure to dress the part if you are lucky enough to be invited to dinner at the court. Eating and drinking are done together, as the Persians know it’s important to have a substantial meal when you’re drinking!

Drinking
At court, drinks are served in different kinds of golden goblets, and the royal wine is lavish and drunk without restraint. It’s probably no coincidence that you’ve heard of a wine called Shiraz, as it’s named after a city that’s not far away.

Deep bowl hammered from a single, thick piece of silver sheet, flared outwards above 'shoulder' line
Hammered silver bowls, Turkey, Achaemenid period, about 5th century BC.

If you can’t afford gold, silver or even bronze, there are identical drinking bowls made of pottery. Someone cleverly realised that red wine stains, so they cover the pottery with a red slip so it doesn’t show.

Cup-bearers are very careful to pour your wine for you but you have to hold the bowl with your finger-tips, so drinking large amounts takes skill and practice if you don’t want to be mistaken for a silly foreigner!


Local laws and customs

Be careful what you say about the king as the people called his ‘eyes and ears’ are everywhere, looking and listening for people who disagree with him. If you speak out against the king, impaling, flaying and burial alive are well-known forms of punishment.

Fragment shows four guardsmen with spears, advancing right, wearing Persian dress with bracelets and ear-rings
Limestone relief fragment showing armed guards, Persepolis (in modern-day Iran), Achaemenid period, 6–5th century BC.

Religion
The people now follow a religion called Zoroastrianism with a supreme god called Ahura Mazda, and well-defined principles of good and evil. However, when the former king Cyrus the Great captured Babylon, he was so impressed by the city that he started to build a huge imitation of its famous glazed Ishtar Gate at Persepolis, although it was taken down afterwards. Some mutter quietly that Cyrus fell under the spell of the great Babylonian god Marduk as he was rather well-spoken about him in a proclamation he made which was written down on the Cyrus Cylinder.

Three priests around a fire altar, performing a ceremony to a congregation
Hand-coloured 19th-century print titled Persiani, showing Zoroastrian priests at an external fire altar at Persepolis.

Continue your holiday-from-home around Persepolis with a virtual visit to The Rahim Irvani Gallery (Room 52) of Ancient Iran, which covers Iranian history from 3000 BC to AD 651. Discover more on our gallery page.

In the mood for more time travelling? You can read these other blogs in our historical city travel guide series:

London, 16th century BC
Nineveh, 7th century BC
Rome, 1st century AD
Edo (Tokyo), early 19th century
Athens, 5th century BC
Thebes, 13th century BC
Kulubnarti, Sudan, late 12th century

Osaka, early 19th century