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Persepolis: Apadana, North Stairs Relief


Pharnaces paying honor ('proskynesis') to king Darius the Great. Relief from Persepolis. Archaeological museum of Tehran (Iran). Photo Marco Prins. Persepolis (Old Persian Pārsa, modern Takht-e Jamshid): Greek name of one of the capitals of the ancient Achaemenid empire, founded by the great king Darius (522-486 BCE). There were several satellite sites, like Naqš-i Rustam and Takht-e Rostam.
  
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The relief that once graced the northern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis is one of the most important examples of Achaemenid art. It shows a king receiving an important official, who performs the ritual greeting that is known as proskynesis. Several figures are standing to the left and right.

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The relief has a remarkable history. It was originally part of the northern stairs of the Apadana, but was later removed and set up in the Treasury. Here, it was discovered by the archaeologists that excavated Persepolis. They also found a similar relief, which once was part of the eastern stairs. It is not known why these reliefs were removed. The northern relief is now in the National Archaeological Museum of Tehran; the eastern relief is still in the Treasury.
The relief shows a king sitting on a throne. He is often called Darius the Great (522-486), but in fact, we are not entirely certain about the identification. The people of the ancient Near East were not really interested in lifelike portraits, and perhaps it is better to interpret the man on the throne as a more abstract, not individual great king - the embodiment of monarchy. On the other hand, the original relief was probably commissioned by Darius, so we may as well call the man Darius. Behind him is another important person, the crown prince, Xerxes. The man saluting the king is probably the major of the palace, Pharnaces. He announces the arrival of the tribute carriers, who are represented on the wall near the stairs.
Darius the Great on a relief from Persepolis, now at the National archaeological museum of Tehran (Iran). Photo Marco Prins.. Several scholars don't think that the man on the throne is an abstract king or Darius the Great, but represents Xerxes. Their argument is that the northern stairs were built by this king. In view of the fact that the relief on the eastern stairs is almost identical, this seems a bit far-fetched, but the theory does explain why the reliefs were taken away and brought to the Treasury. Xerxes was assassinated by his courtiers, and some of them were represented on the relief. His son and successor Artaxerxes I Makrocheir could not destroy the portrait of his father, but "punished" the murders by removing them to the Treasury.
However this may be, the man on the throne -we shall call him Darius- is shown as the great king, and everything suggests his majesty. For example, he has a pleasant smelling flower in his hand. The crown prince was the only one who had the same prerogative. If this flower is a lotus, it may symbolize eternity: the flower has twelve petals, the number of months in a year.
The king's feet don't touch the earth. From literary sources like Plutarch's biography of Alexander the Great, we know that this was an important attribute. The king is the only one who is sitting; he is also larger than the others. His shoes are finer than those of his courtiers.
Incense burners. Photo Marco Prins. In front of the king are these two standards, which can be identified with incense burners. Again, a pleasant smell accompagnied the king.
The identification of the incense burners was possible because these objects have actually been found. This one, about 30 cm high, was made by Lydians and was found near Usak in Turkey, and can now be seen in the splendid Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.
Xerxes on a relief of Darius I the Great. Originally at the north stairs of the apadana of Persepolis, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran (Iran). Photo Marco Prins. The ultimate tribute: the great king is the only one who is shown with his successor. The succession of all the others depended on the king's will - only the ruler himself knew who would succeed him. The crown prince, with a flower, points at his father. Of all standing figures, he is the largest, which may or may not have something to do with the crown prince's official title mathišta, "the largest" (after the king, of course). If the man on the throne is Darius, this should be Xerxes - but their faces are identical.

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© Jona Lendering for
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Revision: 13 June 2010
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