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Darius the Great: 7. Building Projects

Darius I (Old Persian Dârayavauš): king of ancient Persia, whose reign lasted from 522 to 486. He seized power after killing king Gaumâta, fought a civil war (described in the Behistun inscription), and was finally able to refound the Achaemenid empire, which had been very loosely organized until then. Darius fought several foreign wars, which brought him to India and Thrace. When he died, the Persian empire had reached its largest extent. He was succeeded by his son Xerxes.

Darius, relief from the Central Relief of the Northern Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis
Darius, relief from the Central Relief of the Northern Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis
A king had to show that he ruled his kingdom. There were many ways to impress people. The Behistun inscription, highly visible along one of the empire's main roads, is one example. An impressive court ritual, performed in several capitals, is another, and we can also think of the vastness of the Persian armed forces: when Darius' son Xerxes marched to Greece, every subject country was present in his army. In this way, everybody knew how powerful the king was.

Another way to impress people was architecture. Darius built at least two large palace cities: Persepolis and Susa, which replaced Pasargadae as capital of the Persian empire. There may have been other palaces in cities like Babylon and Ecbatana, but archaeologists have not found them. The capitals of the satraps were also marked by splendid architecture, but they have not attracted much attention yet. (Sardes is a case in point. Although Persian terraces have been discovered, excavation has focused on Greek and Roman buildings.)

Darius' best-known building project is Persepolis, or, to use its Persian name, Pârsa. It was to be the splendid seat of the government of the Achaemenid empire, where the king received guests at the New Year festival (Now Ruz). Starting c.515, Darius' men leveled the ground and created a terrace of 450x300 meters, on which stood the Treasury and the Audience hall (Apadana). In the Treasury were stored the booty of the conquered tribes and the annual tribute, now fixed, from the king's subjects. The Apadana could accomodate hundreds of people at the same time. The seventy-two columns which supported the roof were twenty-five meters high. The building inscription reads:

Darius the great king, king of kings, king of countries, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenian, built this palace.

Darius' palace
Darius' palace
These buildings were finished in 490. At the end of Darius' reign, a small palace was added. The remarkable cavetto elements that crown the doors are an Egyptian influence. It was called Taçara, 'winter palace', but Darius probably did not live to see the building finished.

Although there have been extensive excavations at Susa, the site is less well-known than Persepolis. In Antiquity, its was the other way round. The authors of the Bible and the Greeks simply ignored Persepolis but knew everything about Susa, which was clearly Darius' favorite residence and the place where he received guests from outside the empire. Unfortunately, a big fire during the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-424) destroyed much of the buildings from his age. The building inscription of Susa is one of the most fascinating texts in its genre, because it describes the building of the palace in great detail.

Susa, Apadana. The king's throne stood on the large square stone to the left, below.
Susa, Apadana. The king's throne stood on the large square stone to the left, below.
This palace which I built at Susa, from afar its ornamentation was brought. Downward the earth was dug, until I reached rock in the earth. When the excavation had been made, then rubble was packed down, some 40 cubits in depth, another part 20 cubits in depth. On that rubble the palace was constructed.

And that the earth was dug downward, and that the rubble was packed down, and that the sun-dried brick was molded, the Babylonian people performed these tasks.

The cedar timber, this was brought from a mountain named Lebanon. The Assyrian people brought it to Babylon; from Babylon the Carians and the Greeks brought it to Susa. The yakâ-timber was brought from Gandara and from Carmania.

The gold was brought from Lydia and from Bactria, which here was wrought. The precious stone lapis lazuli and carnelian which was wrought here, this was brought from Sogdia. The precious stone turquoise, this was brought from Chorasmia, which was wrought here.

The silver and the ebony were brought from Egypt. The ornamentation with which the wall was adorned, that from Greece was brought. The ivory which was wrought here, was brought from Nubia and from India and from Arachosia.

The stone columns which were here wrought, a village named Abiradu, in Elam - from there were brought. The stone-cutters who wrought the stone, those were Greeks and Lydians.

The goldsmiths who wrought the gold, those were Medes and Egyptians. The men who wrought the wood, those were Lydians and Egyptians. The men who wrought the baked brick, those were Babylonians. The men who adorned the wall, those were Medes and Egyptians.

Map of Lower Egypt (fifth-fourth centuries BCE)
Map of Lower Egypt (fifth-fourth centuries BCE)
Darius also ordered the construction of large-scale public works. Roads have already been mentioned (above). Another famous construction was the canal between the easternmost branch of the Egyptian river Nile and the Red Sea. It is mentioned by Herodotus, but several inscriptions found in Egypt also indicate its existence and course. As we will see below, it was finished in 498. Because ancient sailors were able to navigate on the Ocean, it was now possible to circumnavigate the Arabian peninsula and sail from Babylonia to Memphis. It must have been one of the most important incentives to boost interregional trade.