Persepolis: The Glory That Was Persia

By Neil Earle

Persepolis steps uncovered 1930s.

Professor Ernest Herzfeld from Celle in Hanover province was chosen to lead the excavations at Persepolis in 1931. Almost 400 miles from Teheran in the south of Iran towards the Persian Gulf lie the ancient ruins of this once mighty center of the Persian Empire. The Persians had built the greatest empire the world had yet seen – 2500 miles from India to Ethiopia and up to the borders of modern Russia.

As a young man Herzfeld (1879-1948) had assisted the great Walter Andrae at the ruins of Asshur in modern-day Iraq. After World War I he was appointed the world’s first full professor of Near/Middle Eastern Archaeology. Considered one of the leading Persian scholars, he was a natural to head up the excavation sponsored by the Oriental Institute Museum of Chicago. The uncovering of the ancient Persian center of Persepolis (thought buried for good until AD 1620) took eight years. Finished by Erich Schmidt, the dig featured the first use of aerial photography and the payoff was enormous.

“The Great Audience hall”

We are still reaping the benefits. In the summer of 2016, the Oriental Institute of Chicago featured a major exhibit titled Persepolis: Images of an Empire where Herzfeld’s work was given its due. Forced to leave Germany because of his Jewish background in the 1930s, Herzfeld was considered a “towering figure” in Near Eastern and Iranian studies. He eventually left his cache of 30,000 field notebooks, photographs and maps to the Smithsonian in Washington.

Darius greets Xerxes, would-be conqueror of Greece.

He never quite finished writing up a report on what he considered his archaeological triumph, uncovering the massive 1000 square meter “Apadana” or “audience hall” at Persepolis. There Biblically-mentioned kings such as Darius and Xerxes (Esther 1:1) received tribute and obeisance from their many realms. Seventy two columns, each 24 meters high, composed the hypostyle of this main portico. Only 13 remained by the year 1900 but they attest to the grandeur of this once-mighty royal nerve center. The reliefs carved into the lengthy stair-case depicted emissaries from the far-flung corners of the empire doing obeisance. British historians remarked how the steps were made shallow to slow the walker down and impress upon the worshipper that he was about to meet “the great King, the King of the World.”

The open veranda feature on the three sides was unique in the ancient world creating an airy, spacious atmosphere that fit well with the more humane Persian approach to empire. The columns supporting the roof were 1.5 meters higher than the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, then one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. From it hung banners and streamers of opulent colors hinted at in Esther’s first chapter.

But why all this fascination with ancient cities and crumbling ruins?

Lessons for Today

For one thing, anything that can foster a better understanding between Iran and the Western world is worth our attention. Ancient monuments and remains are part of the rich powerful legacy of today’s Middle Eastern nations – valuable assets handed down from their past still serving as magnets for their all-important tourist and culture industries.

Secondly, our Western civilization stems from the triple apex of Iraq, Iran and Egypt passed on through Greece and Rome. The world community would be greatly impoverished without the stupendous remains that have often been endangered by modern-day savages.

Thirdly, many Bible book such as Esther, Daniel, Chronicles, and Zechariah are rooted in an era almost lost to today’s Christians – the Persian period. The history substantiated by the science of archaeology adds depth, riches and realism to the Bible narrative. The great A.T. Olmstead asserts that the Persian period provides background for understanding a good half of our Bible (History of the Persian Empire, p. ix).

Persian Empire – 2500 miles across. Click map to enlarge.

Kingdoms in Conflict

The spectacular remains of places such as royal Persepolis – like the Temple of Karnak in Egypt and reconstructed Babylon on the Euphrates – also offer man-made testimony to one of the Bible’s profound teachings: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Sprit, says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6). For Christians these spectacular ancient civilizations dug out of the desert point to stark differences between the kingdoms of this world and the heavenly-based Kingdom of God. After all, massive public buildings such as the Schoenbrunn, the Hofburg, the Hall of Mirrors or the Freedom Tower in New York – impressive as they are – are architectural tributes to state power, often underscoring the colossal power sometimes brandished by the governments of this world.

In his Persepolis, die glauzene Haupstad des Pererreichs, Professor Heidemarie Koch explained how “overpowering” the visual impact of Persepolis was from a distance. Hundreds of miles away another impressive statement in stone pointed human thoughts upwards, towards the heavenly kingdom. Solomon’s temple was designed to celebrate the grandeur of God. Solomon’s father, King David of ancient Israel, was the real founder of the temple. He prepared wealth and resources for the marvelous structure his son Solomon would build, now lost to history.

It was King David, the man after God’s own heart, and ancestor of the true King of Kings, Jesus Christ, who showed himself at times keenly aware of the difference between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God (1 Chronicles 29:10-15).

The kingdoms of this world run on power, might, prestige and propaganda. The kingdom of God runs on meekness and humble service. King David expresses these thoughts often, not in stone, but in writing. The book of Psalms in the Old Testament are his most lasting legacy. In Psalm 15 David showed the inner traits of the ruler who would reflect the values and qualities of the Kingdom of God. These words make a stark contrast to the propaganda motivates behind many colossal remains of antiquity.

Cyrus the Builder c. 550 BCE.

Who is worthy?

Psalm 15 begins with a reference familiar to worshippers in the ancient world – hills and high places where the devout brought their offerings before God. Persepolis was different. It was created in the shadow of mountains on the flat Iranian plateau country hence the need to construct the grand terrace that Herzfeld uncovered. Hence David raises the correct question: “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?”

In the ancient world religion and politics were often joined together. The Pharaoh was worshipped as god, for example. Mesopotamians were a little more restrained but the kings of Assyria and Babylon were never bashful to claim divine honors. Darius I who began building Persepolis around 518-516 BC claimed he was doing all at the command of the chief Persian god, Ahura-mazda. This is on an inscription Herzfeld’s team found: “I am Darius, great king, king of kings, king of lands, son of Hystaspes…who constructed this palace.”

Exactly the opposite spirit is conveyed in David’s opening line. The tone is humble and questioning, even probing, self-analyzing – “Who may live on your holy hill?” Here is a major divergence from the values of the godly kingdom. “Blessed are the meek,” taught Jesus, “for they shall inherit the earth.”

Though the Persian kings were considerably more humane than those who had gone before them, rebels were put down mercilessly. Darius and his son Xerxes I both sought to crush the Greeks and add them to their empire, as the Bible records (Daniel 11:2).

Verse 2 of Palm 15 drives home the contrast of the two kingdoms. It praises the human worshipper who is “blameless” which means someone who is whole, sound – a term which is allied to “righteousness” implying right dealings between men and God. In a word, justice. This is a word which governments ancient and modern often talk about but find it hard to practice. But some such as David and even Cyrus of Persia caught at least a glimpse of it (2 Samuel 23:3; Isaiah 41:2).

The True Worshipper

Verse 3 of Psalm 15 esteems the worshipper who “has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman.” These are great traits in a ruler. They are key to the ultimate smooth running of any society or empire. Heathen kings and emperors liked to pretend that all justice and right dealing flowed from them but in ancient Israel there was the belief that even the king is subject to the laws of God. Some ancient monarchs practiced this principle as well but it was by no means universal, as we surely see today.

Israel’s kings could bend the law to suit their own whims. King Ahab defrauded his neighbor Naboth but earned a fatal rebuke from the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 21). Few Persian peasants dared rebel but in the end there was a higher Power working out his purposes. The writer of the Psalms knew that well.

Psalm 15:4 ascribes praise to someone who is not morally neutral but knows when to spot a fraud, he “despises a vile man” (v. 4). This is crucial. Corrupt and evil schemers must be weeded from the king’s presence else their advice will be hurtful indeed. The Persian-based book of Esther is dramatic on this matter. It shows how Persian King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) – who finished the work at Persepolis – snapped into action when he heard about the plot his counselor Haman was hatching against the Jews. Haman was hung on his own gallows – rough justice but avoiding a massacre of an innocent nation (Esther 7). Life and death were in the power of the king so how inspiring when he was a man of justice and fair play.

Psalm 15:5 highlights generosity vs. bribery. We are reminded of King Ahasuerus’ words to Queen Esther, “Name what you want and you can have it” (Esther 5:3). Extravagance was indeed a kingly virtue in ancient times. The king in Psalm 15 is encouraged not to “accept a bribe against the innocent.” Today we hear of “lobbyists” and interest groups. There are few greater curses.

Promises that Last

“He who does these things will never be shaken.”

This strong conclusion sums up the hope and the timeless moral agenda undergirding Psalm 15. The powerful prescription for wise rulership under God speaks to would-be despots today. Indeed, the Psalmist’s call to moral behavior can seem intimidating. But the New Testament shows how God can implant these qualities within us by the right kind of “heart transfusion” available to us through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).

Psalm 15’s teaching outlasted the stone perfection of mighty Persepolis. These ancient stone wonders pointed to the power and grandeur of human rulers. Psalm 15 is the moral prescription for the eternal kingdom of God. Christians believe that ultimately it is the only kingdom that will last.

[Pix from A.T. Olsmtead, History of the Persian Empire and The Course of Civilization (Strayer, Gatxke, Harbison)]