Persepolis, located in the province of Fars, southwestern Iran, is among the most iconic sites of the ancient world. It was a ceremonial capital of the great Achaemenid empire, which extended from eastern Europe to northern India at its height. The city was founded by Darius I “the Great” (r. 522–486 B.C.) in the late sixth century B.C. and destroyed by Alexander the Great just 200 years later. Disconnected from its illustrious past over time, Persepolis became a part of local folklore, which credited the existence of its ruins to a legendary king named Jamshid. Western travelers started mentioning Persepolis in accounts of their trips to the Middle East as early as the 1300s. In the nineteenth century, Persepolis and its surrounding area began to receive particular attention from scholars and artists, who sought to document the still visible structures. Ernst Emil Herzfeld, a German archaeologist, philologist, geographer, and historian, conducted the first scientific investigation of Persepolis in 1931 after he was appointed excavation director by the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Along with his studies at the Islamic city of Samarra, his research at Persepolis is the best known work of his career.
Herzfeld described the city as “the glory of the Persian world” and found the site to be more impressive than the famed ruins of Palmyra in Syria. He first visited the site in November 1905 to study the various reliefs for publication in the book Iranische Felsreliefs (Berlin, 1910). He then returned in 1923 as part of an expedition across the Middle East. Living among the ruins of Persepolis for six weeks, he was able to produce plans of the various structures and to complete extensive photographic documentation. Herzfeld made connections with important political leaders in Iran who later allowed him to negotiate for the formal right to excavate. Reza Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty granted him permission to work in Persepolis, breaking the French monopoly over archaeology in Iran (France had been the first and only foreign country to excavate there since 1885). The goals of Herzfeld’s archaeological inquiry at Persepolis were threefold—to excavate the main terrace, to reconstruct certain buildings, and to initiate preservation efforts throughout the site.
The architecture at Persepolis reflects what Herzfeld called the grandiose “Empire style” of what he deemed to be the last chapter of ancient Near Eastern history. Today, archaeologists often refer to this as Achaemenid court style. The site consisted of tall columned buildings that were erected atop a natural outcropping of limestone fashioned into a large terrace. There were several palaces, a throne hall, a harem for the women of the court, and an audience hall called the Apadana. The many columns, some up to 19 meters high, supported roofs made of cedar and were often topped by a distinct style of stone capital featuring animals positioned back to back. The bull’s head in the Museum’s collection is representative of this form of capital (47.100.83). The head had been reused at the nearby site of Istakhr, where it was found by Herzfeld, but unquestionably originated in Persepolis. The design of the object is representative of classic Achaemenid art, a true synthesis of artistic traditions drawn from across the empire.
Persepolis is also known for its exceptionally grand staircases and gateways. Each gate was guarded by a pair of supernatural creatures, similar to the lamassu of Assyrian courts in both size and supernatural function as guardian figures (32.143.1; 32.143.2). The Gate of All Nations, a particularly ornate example commissioned by Xerxes I (r. 486–465 B.C.), lies to the north of the Apadana and served as the sole entrance to the terrace. Borrowing from Assyrian traditions, the stairway features a procession scene of foreign delegates from across the known world striding in profile. The figures were generally designed to reflect a natural realism, despite the stylized costumes that were meant to symbolize their place of origin. Herzfeld was the first to identify these individuals as throne bearers in his 1910 publication. A relief fragment in the Museum collection (39.133) was part of an addition to the Apadana by Artaxerxes II (r. 405–359 B.C.) and depicts a Median in the typical style wearing a plain rounded cap below a band of rosettes. Another fragment (34.158), carved in a characteristically low and highly refined relief style, features the recurring image of male servants carrying tribute of food and drink. This object probably dates to the reign of Artaxerxes III (r. 338–338 B.C.), who expanded upon the work of his predecessors without introducing new forms.
Apart from the monumental works of art, Herzfeld was intrigued by the graffiti he found at Persepolis. Many individuals had left various types of inscription at the site since the earliest phases of construction, and Herzfeld pioneered the studies into technique, origin, and function of this graffiti. In a move that has invited controversy, he removed the foot from a statue of Darius near the Tachara Palace that had curious engravings done with a fine needle. The incisions were made directly onto the limestone and fall below the layer of red paint, indicating that this sketch dates to the Achaemenid period. Herzfeld sold the object to the Museum directly in 1945 (45.11.17). The human and animal figures incised on the foot may have been done by Greek artists employed by the Persian court, but Herzfeld felt strongly that the sketches were “entirely free from convention” and heralded the piece as unique.
During their time at Persepolis, Herzfeld’s team also investigated a sophisticated subterranean water canal system, unearthed a previously unknown staircase buried in debris, and discovered an archive of texts known as the Fortification Tablets. The rise of anti-Semitism before World War II disrupted Herzfeld’s project because of his Jewish ancestry. He was forced to leave Persepolis in 1934 and head to America. Erich F. Schmidt, another German archaeologist, was selected by the Oriental Institute to be Herzfeld’s replacement as expedition director. While in exile at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, Herzfeld held a lasting affection for Iran and desperately longed to return. His collection accompanied him to the United States, and his personal papers and art objects were eventually dispersed among American institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Freer Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Oriental Institute in Chicago. Before his death in 1948, Herzfeld was unable to publish his intended report on Persepolis or present a comprehensive study on the major friezes of the Apadana, but his accomplishments at the site contributed significantly to the modern understanding of Achaemenid art and remain an important part of his impressive legacy.
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Boardman, John. Persia and the West: An Archaeological Investigation of the Genesis of Achaemenid Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Gall, Hubertus von. “Herzfeld, Ernst iii. Herzfeld and Persepolis.” In Encyclopedia Iranica, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/herzfeld-ernst-iii.
Gunter, Ann C., and Stefan R. Hauser, eds. Ernst Herzfeld and the Development of Near Eastern Studies, 1900–1950. Boston: Brill, 2005.
Herzfeld, Ernst. “The Past in Persia I.” Illustrated London News, November 19, 1927, p. 926.
Herzfeld, Ernst. “The Past in Persia II.” Illustrated London News, December 24, 1927, p. 1148.
Herzfeld, Ernst. “The Magnificent Discovery at Persepolis.” Illustrated London News, March 25, 1933, pp. 401–6.
Herzfeld, Ernst. Iran in the Ancient East. London: Oxford University Press, 1941.
Herzfeld Resource Gateway, Freer Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C. http://www.asia.si.edu/research/archives/HerzfeldTop.asp
Persepolis and Ancient Iran Exhibition, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago https://oi.uchicago.edu/persepolis-ancient-iran
Schmidt, Erich F. Persepolis I. Structures, Reliefs, Inscriptions. Chicago: Oriental Institute Publications, 1953. http://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/oip68.pdf