In the middle of the sixth century BCE, the Achaemanid clan of the Persians was headed by Cyrus, who ruled, under Median domination, as sub-king of Parsa, or Persis. In 553 BCE Cyrus led a revolt that resulted in the overthrow of the Median ruler and the rise to the power of the Achaemenids. A close union of Persians and Medes soon followed, and an army drawn from these tribal groups embarked on a series of successful campaigns that resulted in the establishment of the first world Empire.
The Medo-Persian army reached the Aegean Sea opposite Greece in 546 BCE, captured Babylon in 539, and sized Egypt a decade later. Cyrus proved to be a wise ruler and a generous victor. The Jews called him the Messiah, and later Greek writers praised his sagacity. His son, Cambyses II, died violently in 522 BCE, leaving the kingdom rent by civil war, during which a false pretender, Smerdis or Gaumata, temporarily mounted the throne. In a brilliant two-year campaign, 520-518 BCE, Darius I, claimed kingship to Achaements, reunited the country, recording his feats on the famous Behistuen rock carving. His rule was long and noteworthy. Herodotus gives detailed figures on the organization of the immense realm called "the land of the Aryans" or Eranshahar, the largest world has seen up to that time. The new capital, called by the Greeks Persepolis, was adorned with exquisitely beautiful rock carvings depicting the glories and wealth of his realm. It is also fairly well established that at his court there lived Zoroaster, one of the greatest of the Aryan-speaking prophets, whose teachings were eventually codified in the sacred books know as the Zend-Avesta. Because some Greeks encouraged the Ionians to revolt in Asia Minor (499-494 BCE), Darius sent two punitive forces to punish them. The first army was only partly successful, but the second was overwhelmed at Marathon in 490 BCE. A more ambitious to subjugate the Greeks was attempted by Xerxes, but after a navel disaster at Salamis in 480 BCE and a decimation of the land forces at Plataea the next year, the invading forces were withdrawn to the shores of Asia Minor. Vastness of the kingdom, degeneration of royal line, and the ambitions of powerful satraps combined, brought about a decentralization of authority in spite of good post roads and an originally enlightened provincial policy. The effort of Cyrus the Younger, satrap of Asia Minor, to size the throne in 401 BCE resulted in the retreat of the ten thousand Greek mercenaries described by Xenophon. This incident also revealed the weakness and wealth of the empire, temporarily held together by Artaxerxes III.
The Achaemenid Empire cam to an end when Alexander the Great defeated the forces of the last ruler in pitched battles and moved on to Susa and Persepolis, where the vast royal treasures were plundered and taken. At Persepolis the structures of the platform were burned to the ground. Fire destroyed the wooden roofs and brick walls of the buildings, and in the course of the following centuries a considerable depth of debris accumulated over the site. Only a few of the lofty stone columns and a number of the stone doorways made a landmark of the site.
Darius, who became king of the Achaemenid Empire in 521 BCE, ordered construction work at Persepolis in southwestern Iran just two years later. Work was carried on intermittently at the site until 337 BCE. Susa, Babylon, and Ecbatana were the political and commercial centers of the Empire. Persepolis, however, situated in the homeland of the Achaemenids was its spiritual center. It was the site of the royal treasury, and every spring the kings came in state to celebrate the festival of the New Year.
The site of Persepolis is a low rocky spur jutting out from a line of low hills; it faces west and overlooks a broad, fertile plane. This spur was first cut down to create a level platform area. From the plain below a great double reversing staircase leads up to the platform, and once ended at an entrance gate with very high walls which enclosed the entire platform. Beyond the gate which, along with the enclosing walls, now has disappeared, was the portico of "all lands." This structure was built by Xerxes, the son and successor of Darius, and still stands today. The portico building is square in plan with four interior columns and with portals guarded by huge human-headed, winged bulls of stone.
To the south of the portico of Xerxes are the remains of the great apadana, or audience hall, built under Darius and Xerxes. The retaining wall of the hall and its double stair are of stone decorated with incised reliefs. These reliefs depict both the Persian Guards in their distinctive Persian and Median dress and long lines of the subject peoples of the Empire bringing offerings of the most typical products of their provinces for the New Year festival. The hall once contained six rows of six columns supporting a flat roof, but only a few of these lofty stone columns still stand, and the entrance porticoes of the hall have long since vanished.
To the east of the apadana are the ruins of the "hall of one hundred columns," an audience hall constructed during the reign of Xerxes. Only column bases and stone door-jambs decorated with incised reliefs remain. Behind and to the south of the hall of Xerxes are the excavated lower walls of the royal treasury constructed by Darius. Adjacent to the treasury is the harem, or women's quarters, of Darious and Xerxes. The foundation walls of this structure was excavated and then rebuilt according to its original plan. Now it is a museum to house the precious objects found at the site. At the southwestern corner of the platform are the remains of a number of small royal palaces: the tachara of Darius; the hadish of Xerxes; the palace of Artaxerxes III; and an unidentified palace.
The structures at Persepolis indicate that Achaemenid architecture was a cosmopolitan, eclectic style in which elements and details from many lands had been absorbed and joined. Assyria supplied the concept of the royal structure on a raised platform, certain of the plan forms, the use of colossal bulls, and the composition and style of the incised reliefs. Egyptian architecture furnished specific decorative elements and the profiles of certain of the moldings. Achaemenid inscriptions record that workmen were drawn from every part of the vast empire, as were the materials used, including cedars carried a great distance overland from the famous groves of Lebanon.
Cut into the hill behind the platform on which Persepolis was built are the tombs of Artaxerxes II, Artaxerxes III, and Darius III, at Naksh-i-Rustam, only three miles from Persepolis. High up carved into the cliff are the rock-cut tombs of Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II. These rock-cut facades, descendants of the Median type, display four engaged columns bearing an elaborate entablature. Naksh-I-Rustam is also the site of the so-called Ka'aba-I-Zardusht, a tower-like structure similar to the one at Pasargadae but in a much better state of preservation.
The excavations at Susa brought to light the plan of an extensive palace built during the reign of Darius. This in all probability is the structure described in the Book of Esther, i:2-6.