The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Persepolis!

I doubt if any Iranian could just walk into Persepolis and think “this is freakin’ amazing!”. I mean I get that we all feel extremely overwhelmed by the proportions and get goosebumps over the fact that all this was built over 2500 years ago! But from a Persian point of view things are a bit more than that. I used to think it was only me who was being overly sensitive and feeling all patriotic, even though patriotism is not really something I generally admire. So I started asking other people if they were on the same boat and I wasn’t some freak! Turns out I wasn’t and we Persians all get a bit emotional when it comes to our beloved Persepolis. Even the word “Persepolis” gives me the chills!

It’s a little difficult to put all my feelings into words, but basically it’s a potion of pride, joy, excitement and patriotism mingled with some kind of sadness and pity. Yes! Sadness and pity! In fact it sometimes involves into exasperation. I just can’t stand people who try so hard to cross their children over the bars and put them on a statue for a photo!! The bars are obviously there for a reason! And I feel desperate when I hear that pumping too much water is causing land subsidence and damaging the most majestic landmark of this country. But I don’t want to bore with all that. You get the point. I am just irrevocably in love with Persepolis!

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I mean how could I not?! They are few places in the world that can beguile visitors like Persepolis does. The very air that pervades the once richest city under the sun, now breathes history and despite Alexander’s merciless revenge, it’s still easy to realize how grand this empire was. Just as grand as its founder, Cyrus the Great, whose tomb in Pasargadae, some 76 kilometers from Persepolis, displays his nobility and humbleness.

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Tomb of Cyrus the great in Pasargadae.

We left our stuff in the lockers and handed in our tickets to march the shallow steps of the grand stairway and find our way to the once ceremonial capital of Persia. It is believed that it was Cyrus himself who chose the location, but Darius the Great brought it to glory by building the most opulent palaces the world had seen. The work was later completed by his successors Xerxes I, II and Artaxerxes I, II and III over a period of 150 years.

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The tomb of Artaxerxes II carved into the mountain and overlooking the enchanting city of Persepolis.

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Climb up to the tomb and you’ll be rewarded with such breathtaking views! 🙂

What’s so striking about Persepolis’ architecture is not about how grand or detailed it is but how delicately it was influenced by arts of construction from around the world. Tiles were brought from Babylon, precious stones from India, Cedrus wood from Lebanon and Lydians and Greeks worked alongside Persians to raise hundreds of columns to the sky.

Just as we had climbed the main stairway we were staggered by the view of the Nation’s gate built by Xerxes the first. With huge bull-like figures with Assyrian looks staring at us, it was now easier to understand how multicultural this empire was. An inscriptions in 3 languages (old Persian, Neo-Babylonian and Elamite) gave us the second proof.

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There’s very little restored here and some parts seem like they’ve been just carved out of the stone. Don’t be surprised by all the details, this is all rather because Persepolis was lost and covered by sand for centuries before it was excavated. Almost everything you see is at its original state, something that’s not very easily found in the world nowadays.

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The Apadana staircase is probably the most compelling part of the complex. Rows and rows of Persian nobles in formal clothing with feather headdresses that distinguishes them from the Medes in round caps are carved into the walls. Following them is the immortal army which was given its name due the fact that its number of soldiers was never decreased. If any soldier was to die, another would quickly replace him.

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The immortal army!

And then come the dignitaries from all across the empire to pay their respect to the king by gifts they’ve brought from home.

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I’ve been here a couple of times in my life. The first time I was just dumbfounded and grasping for words and trying to understand how all this could have been shaped 2500 years ago and under those circumstances. The next time it was more enjoyable and after that it was all about finding little secrets here and there that I had totally passed by on my first time. Visiting with Elaheh, a local guide who visits here at least once a week really helped. Even though I’ve always done my research, she showed me things that I would have never seen on my own.

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Paying attention to small signitures of foreigners in Persepolis under the nation’s gate.

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Elaheh showed me how early restorations were done by Persians at the time.

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The Tachara is the most well maintained palace of the complex. Unfortunately you can not go inside but look a little closer and you’ll find exquisite bas-reliefs and inscriptions on the doorjambs.

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The treasury that was completely looted!

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The palace of hundred columns, the second largest palace of Persepolis and built during the reign of Xerxes and Artaxerxes I.

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I’ve probably made it clear how much this place lives up to the hype. Many people come to Iran for this and that sounds like a reasonable excuse to me. Traveling to Iran and skipping on this gem is a crime I would not commit. you’ll be missing on an enormous feast for the senses and if you visit, the memory will be etched in your memory for a lifetime.

My Tips:
#1 Read before you arrive

I’d say doing further reading before you go is crucial. It makes such a huge difference and enriches the experience in so many ways. Even if you’ve booked a guided tour, which you should, don’t just go there out of the dark. Visiting Persepolis easily takes more than two hours, combine that with the summer heat and it could get overwhelming. If you’re not big on reading, search for documentaries.

Here are a few of my recommendations:

Books: 

A virtual guide of Persepolis by Alireza Shapour Shahbazi. This is the best book if you’d like a very detailed description of everything in Persepolis. It’s also available in several languages: German, French, English and Italian. I couldn’t find an online link, but I got mine in a book shop in Tehran. The souvenir shop in Persepolis also has all of the versions but for a much higher price. I’d suggest buying it in Shiraz for almost half the price!

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Travel guide to Fars province by Rowzaneh publications. This is an incredible book that covers all of Fars province. I’m still to find a guide book in Iran that is as professional and as well presented as this one. The Persepolis section is quite decent and it goes through details but the latter option is obviously more significant. This book is pretty hard to find since they’ve stopped printing. I went to the publishers myself to buy my Farsi version and the English ones were all out. But if you can read Farsi, get your hands on this book before they are gone!

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Documentaries: 

Persepolis in 3D. This would give you an idea of how things looked before they were burnt down by the flames of Alexander.

Persepolis. This is a more general view of Iran’s history.

Persepolis, a new perspective

The Persian Empire

#2 Get a map

Many areas of the complex are closed to public. So it’s very likely that you’ll end up with bars here and there. Persepolis is big and you don’t want to be running around in circles. Unfortunately there is no map given at the ticket office, but if you’re on your own make sure you’ve either printed something from the internet or have a book that comes with a route.

#3 Eat well before

You’re going to be on foot for hours here. There’s a cafe all the way south of the complex but if you think you’re going to get hungry, I suggest grabbing something at one of the shops before you enter.

#4 Bring a small bag

Backpacks are not allowed inside, so if you’ve got some snacks with you make sure you’ve got a small shoulder bag that can carry them.

#5 Hats and water are a must!

If you’re visiting in warmer seasons, be aware that there’s hardly any shade to be found here and the sun hits really hard over the hill. Bring a decent hat and make sure you have a bottle of water. You can refill it inside. It would be wise to either visit really early in the morning or in the afternoon.

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