Persepolis, literally "the City of the Persians", was founded by Darius I the Great, the third king of the Achaemenid, or Persian, Empire (539–331 b.c.e.). Work on the city began around 518 b.c.e. but was not completed until about 100 years later by King Artaxerxes I.
It was conceived of as a royal city in Pars, the heartland of Persia, the central-southern province of modern-day Iran, and Darius’s refuge away from the summer heat of the Mesopotamian plain. It is located just 25 miles southwest of Pasargadae, the historical capital of the Achaemenids, where the Persian Empire’s founder, Cyrus II, was buried.
Unlike the other capital cities of the empire — Ecbatana, Susa, and Babylon—Persepolis was never designed to be a populous city, rather a ceremonial city. The Greek writer Herodotus (c. 480–c. 429 b.c.e.) tells us that the city was not much lived in by the kings, who moved between the other capitals. Persepolis had one key purpose and that was as a location for the celebration of the New Year festival.
Even today Iran has a totally different New Year from that observed in the West, a year that begins at the equinox on March 21. In ancient Persia, as in much of the ancient Near East, the New Year was a time when the gods were especially appeased, and therefore its ceremonies were the most important of the year.
At New Year, delegations from all the satrapies (or regions) of the empire would come to Persepolis not only to pay homage to the emperor, bringing tribute, but also entering into the festivities.
The ruins of the city, visible today, are filled with friezes that enact the arrival of the ambassadors from all over the empire, each one wearing national dress, and all overseen by the Immortals, the elite personal guard of the emperor.
Persepolis was partially destroyed by Alexander the Great when he ended the Persian Empire in 331 b.c.e., and according to the Roman author Plutarch, its vast treasures were carried away on 20,000 mules and 5,000 camels. However, the remoteness of the location and its mystique have meant much of the ancient city was preserved.
Unlike Persepolis, Susa and Ecbatana were working cities and capitals in their own right before the advent of the Persian Empire. Susa is situated on the Karun River on the southeastern corner of the Mesopotamian plain, on the Iranian side of the Iran-Iraq border, where Mesopotamia touches the foothills of the Zagros Mountains.
Susa was the capital of the Elamite people at the time of the Persian Empire, but the site has been occupied since at least 4000 b.c.e. Around 2000 b.c.e. the Elamites, undoubtedly setting out from Susa, destroyed the power of the city of Ur, famous in the Bible as the city from which Abraham’s family came.
Possibly the greatest period in the city’s history was in the 13th century b.c.e. when the Elamites successfully sacked Babylon, carrying off many of its treasures to enrich Susa.
However, the fortunes of war meant that Susa itself was sacked a number of times, one of the most famous of which was in 639 b.c.e. when Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, the nation so feared in the ancient world, invaded.
Susa is possibly best known as the residence of the biblical Daniel and Esther, who were there during the Persian era. During this period the city underwent a major building program with the construction of a citadel, moated walled city, and royal palaces.
Early on in his conquests Alexander the Great received the surrender of Susa as soon as he approached the city, and he plundered much of its wealth. After Alexander, Susa became part of the Seleucid Empire and then the Parthian Empire. Its importance gradually waned and from the beginning of the 13th century c.e. little was left but crumbling ruins.
Ecbatana, modern-day Hamadan in the west of Iran, was the ancient capital of the Median people. It was strategically situated on the eastern edge of the Zagros Mountains, guarding one of three ancient passes linking the Mesopotamian plain with the lands to the east. The Greek writer Herodotus of Halicarnassus records that Deioces, the legendary first king of the Medes, founded the city.
It was the capital of Media during the period of Median strength before Cyrus the Great, but it possibly acquired greater fame when Cyrus defeated the Medes in 550 b.c.e. and made Ecbatana his summer palace. Its high altitude made its summers delightfully cool in comparison to the heat of the Mesopotamian plain. Later Ecbatana became one of the capitals of the Seleucid and then Parthian Empires.