Although it has remained for 2,500 years a collection of toppled columns, ornate but broken sculptures of majestic bulls, and eroded carvings of subjects bearing tributes, Persepolis in its ruins is a place of awesome beauty.
The ancient Persian city, about 550 miles south of Iran’s capital of Tehran, was the site of a major Oriental Institute excavation in the 1930s—one of the most important research projects in Middle Eastern archaeology. The institute continued its work in Persepolis at the prehistoric site of Chogha Mish, in particular, until the Islamic revolution in 1979. Today the Oriental Institute remains the nation’s premier center for the study of ancient Iran, and its scholars hope the Persian Empire will play an important role in its future archaeological research.
“No other American university has the depth on Persia and Iranian archaeology that the University of Chicago has,” says Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, who was among the half-dozen institute scholars who spoke last year at an international conference in Tehran. “We have an exceptional museum collection of artifacts, a rich history of pioneering archaeology, and scholars who are engaged in studying the languages of ancient Persia and involved with archaeology there.”
A special exhibition at the Oriental Institute Museum, on display through September, underscores the remarkable role the institute has had in studying the cultures of Iran. “Persepolis: Images of an Empire” shows how airplanes and photography launched a new era for the study of ancient civilization, and document the site’s grand ceremonial audience halls, palaces, great stone portals, and carved scenes of kings and their courtiers.
“[These photographs] are hauntingly beautiful windows to the past,” says exhibit curator Kiersten Neumann. “They present a promise of the opulence and lavishness that was Persepolis, yet they also capture its solitude and melancholy—the resolute ruins of a once equally determined empire.”
Persia defined meaning of empire
The Persian Empire was a power for more than 200 years that ruled many different cultures—from Greece and Egypt to Central Asia and India.
Evidence of the great empire is highlighted in the Oriental Institute’s Persia Gallery, just steps from the Persepolis exhibition, which traces the region’s evolving cultures from prehistoric times to the arrival of the Islamic period. A massive bull’s head, one of the colossal sculptures that glorified the power of the empire, presides over the gallery. But in a nearby glass case lies something less majestic, but nonetheless important: Shattered plates from the banquet tables of the halls that were destroyed when Alexander the Great and his army marched into Persepolis in 330 B.C.