Persepolis and Priorities

16 March 2010

Darius' palace used to be accessible

I just returned from Iran. In Tehran, I met a man who told me that he had recently visited Persepolis, and had been a bit disappointed. There were weeds everywhere, the site looked neglected, and there was no path to the rock tombs, he complained. I was surprised to hear this – and not because the third complaint was a bit unfair. (Persepolis is an archaeological site and the construction of a path, even on a rock, might damage what’s still in the ground.) Yet, before I left Holland, I had already read this news article, so the man’s complaint seemed corroborated. Wondering what to expect, I traveled south.

And indeed, the site appears to be a bit neglected. Many sites are fenced off: the palace of Darius, the palace of Xerxes, the Tripylon – all inaccessible. The small restaurant on the edge of the southern terrace (inaccessible since at least 2004) was closed, which is something of a disaster, considering the fact that Persepolis is a very large complex and even a superficial visit takes several hours. When I take a group around, we stay in a nearby hotel and return next day.

The bookshops and souvenir shops were also closed, but I can live with that, although I would have liked to buy a postcard or two. The site also looked a bit dirty, as if the cleaners were on strike. But as long as the site is not damaged, I can live with that too. It will no doubt be temporarily.

All this will of course be hailed with joy by those people who only like to read articles about sorrow & misery in the Islamic Republic. To be fair and balanced, I add that there are now finally fences at the rock tombs, that closing the palace of Darius is due to restoration works, and that the subsite at Istakhr has been made more accessible. As usual, it’s all about priorities.

Cambyses’ Still Lost Army

13 November 2009
Photo Marco Prins

Persian soldiers, on a glazed relief from Susa, now in the Louvre.

You can leave it to archaeologists to make exaggerated claims and you can leave it to journalists to swallow the nonsense. The readers of this little blog know that I have introduced the Ctesias Scale to measure poor archaeological journalism. A possible example of wilful disinformation was the announcement, earlier this week, that the remains of Cambyses‘ lost army had been found: go here or here for examples.

The story: in 525 BCE, the Persian king Cambyses conquered Egypt. After that, he sent an army to the west, to conquer the Oracle of Ammon. It never reached the place, and the Greek researcher Herodotus says that it was destroyed by a violent desert storm. Now, two Italian archaeologists, the twin brothers Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni, claim to have found remains of the army, partly on a sheltered place where people might have tried to find cover against a sandstorm.

There are two reasons to be suspicious.

In the first place, Herodotus is not a very reliable author. Not because he is not interested in the truth: on the contrary, he is certainly one of the most truthloving writers of the ancient world. But it was hard to get correct information, and Herodotus was standing in a tradition that appreciated an artful presentation. So, in his Histories, Xerxes‘ failed expedition is mirrored by the failures of earlier Persian rulers. So, Herodotus says that Cyrus was defeated by the Massagetes (according to Xenophon, Cyrus died of natural causes); that Darius lost a navy in a storm at the Athos; that Darius also lost an army during a Scythian campaign; and that Cambyses lost an army in the desert. These stories are not necessarily untrue, but the repetition makes one suspicious. I would not be surprised if some of these stories were created by Herodotus because he believed they had to have happened.

But even if we assume that Cambyses sent out an expedition to the Oracle of Ammon, there is still a reason not to believe the claim by our two Italian archaeologists. What they have found, or claim to have found, is a set of Persian weapons (e.g., arrowheads), skulls, and bones. Even if we assume that they are indeed Persian, it is a serious logical fallacy to assume that they belong to soldiers of Cambyses’ campaign. The Persians controled Egypt for more than a century (from 525 to c.401) and there must have been dozens of occasions on which soldiers were sent to the west. All these expeditions may have found itself lost in the western desert. What archaeologists can find, is evidence that a Persian army got into trouble; but stating that the finds belonged to a particular expedition is introducing a secundum quid. I think we must be suspicious.


Perhaps this message at Andie Byrnes’ Egyptology Blog may be relevant too; although it leaves the Cambyses story itself unchallenged, it suggests that the Castiglionis are not completely bona fide. That may be mudslinging, but I think that suspicion about the report is completely justifiable.


It helps to check the facts; David Meadows investigated the case. The journalists who swallowed this nonsense, ought to be under orders to read his article.

Susa: 12 pages, 126 new photos

3 April 2009
Mountain goat on a cup from Susa (Archaeological Museum, Tehran)

Mountain goat on a cup from Susa (Archaeological Museum, Tehran)

I finally finished my pages on Susa, the capital of ancient Elam, well-known from Greek, Jewish (Esther), Persian, and Babylonian sources. The site was in the nineteenth century for a very large part excavated by French archaeologists, which explains why so many objects are in the Louvre. All in all, there are twelve pages, which contain 126 photos made in Susa and the museums in Tehran, London, Paris, and of course Susa itself.

For a general history of the ancient city, go here. Other links of interest: the Acropolis (oldest part of the city) with the remains of the Dynastic Temple of the Šutrukids; the Palace of Darius I the Great with its Apadana and Great Gate, its splendid Soldiers’ Relief and the Statue of Darius, situated on a terrace. Across the river Shaour, you will find the Palace of Artaxerxes, and at the foot of the hill are the Tomb of Daniel, a Muslim shrine, and the lovely museum about which I blogged earlier. Your satellite photo is here.

Also available: all Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions from Susa:DSa, DSb, DSc, DSd, DSe, DSf, DSg, DSi, DSj, DSk, DSl, DSm, DSn, DSo, DSp, DSq, DSs, DSt, DSu, DSv, DSw, DSy, DSz, DSaa, DSab, XSa, XSb, XSc, XSd, XSe, D2Sa, D2Sb, A2Sa, A2Sb, A2ScA2Sd. Enjoy!

An Egyptian Statue of Darius the Great

28 March 2009
Darius belt

Darius' belt

In 1972, archaeologists excavating the Great Gate at Susa, discovered an unusual statue: it represented king Darius I the Great (r. 522-486), and was made in Egyptian style (i.e., free standing) from Egyptian greywacke, and inscribed with hieroglyphic signs. It is not entirely clear why it was moved from the ancient country along the Nile to the capital of Elam, but a probable explanation is that this happened after 486, when the Egyptians revolted against Darius’ son and successor Xerxes. He reconquered the country and it is possible that he carried off the statue of his father from Heliopolis to Susa.

The statue is not just a representation of the king as pharaoh, complete with the traditional symbolism of the god Hapi “binding together” the Two Lands: on the pedestal are small representations of twenty-four nations that were subject to Darius. This interesting statue can be seen here.