Iran: Persian Splendour

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Three opulent palaces sit within a stone’s throw of each other, built when Persian kings ruled the greatest empire in the world, and destroyed when Alexander the Great swept through Persia. Who made them, and why? Hassan Karimian examines the evidence.

The great Persian Empire of the Achaemenids was founded by Cyrus the Great in around 550 BC when he conquered the Medes. Fifty years later, the Empire challenged the rising democracies of Greece, and the ensuing conflict was recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus, our source for much of the history of the Persian Empire.

The Persian Empire was one of the most extensive empires the ancient world had known, and some of its great palaces have survived – notably at Persepolis, the Achaemenid capital that was founded by Darius the Great (c.521-486 BC) and eventually destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. However, in addition to Persia’s great central palaces there were further palaces built by the satraps – 20 vassal-kings, each of whom was put in charge of their own local kingdom or region as a result of the administrative reforms undertaken by Darius.

Greek historians record that the Achaemenid court moved from location to location with the king, and the satraps each made regular tours of their own territory. Their palaces were built to provide ceremonial, governmental, and domestic functions. Despite being practical in design, they were also stunning, designed to impress and to intimidate: the Achaemenid kings may have been tolerant rulers, but they wanted it known they were very much in charge, and these palaces were conspicuous displays of their splendour and might.

In the 1970s, three of these lesser palaces were excavated in the province of Bushehr, near the modern town of Borazjan. Exploration stopped following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and it is only in recent years the work has resumed. Over the following pages, Hassan Karimian shares the knowledge he and his colleagues have now gained. As well as examining the role of these hidden palaces within the Persian Empire, he brings some key remaining mysteries to light.

As well as use for administrative purposes, ritual and ceremony, a palace is usually a place of domestic occupation; yet none of the three buildings near Borazjan show any sign of habitation. Why is this? Why were three such similar – high profile and expensive – establishments built so close together, and by whom? And what caused them to be abandoned?

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 49. Click here to subscribe

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