Darius I succeeded Cambyses II (r. 530-522 BCE), son of Cyrus the Great. Contrary to Darius I’s own claims, the transition from Cambyses II’s reign to his own was neither smooth nor peaceful. Darius I does admit that certain satrapies (provinces) rose in revolt when he came to the throne but minimizes the resistance to his reign while emphasizing loyal satrapies and his popularity and power.
The problem with the transition was that there was already a sitting king in place – Bardiya, brother of Cambyses II – who took control while Cambyses II was campaigning in Egypt. Cambyses II died on his way back from the campaign in 522 BCE, and Bardiya was then assassinated by Darius I. Darius I, however, claimed the man he killed was not Bardiya but a clever usurper named Gaumata who only looked like Bardiya. The actual Bardiya, Darius I claimed, had been killed by Cambyses II years before. Darius I, therefore, as a cousin of Cambyses II, was the legitimate heir to the throne. Very few of the satrapies believed this story, and Darius I had to spend the first few years of his reign putting down revolts.
Perhaps to distance his reign from this initial unpleasantness, as well as break ties with the past, Darius commissioned the new city to be built far from the old capital of Pasargadae and equally remote from established administrative centers such as Ecbatana, Babylon, and Susa. Scholar A.T. Olmstead suggests as much, writing:
Pasargadae spoke too eloquently of the supplanted dynasty, and Darius sought a new site for his capital. Twenty-five miles down the winding gorge of the Median River that watered the Pasargadae Plain, a rock-cut road led into another and broader plain. Through it flowed a yet larger river, the Araxes, to irrigate the fertile soil, until the stream disappeared in the great salt lake of southwestern Persia. (172)
On a cleared plain (known today as the Marv Dasht Plain), Darius raised an enormous platform-terrace 1,345,488 square feet (125,000 square meters) big and 66 feet (20 meters) tall on which he built his council hall, palace, and reception hall, the Apadana, featuring a 200 foot-long (60 meters) hypostyle hall with 72 columns 62 feet (19 meters) high supporting a roof of cedar and cedar beams from Lebanon. The columns were topped by sculptures of various animals symbolizing the king’s authority and power, such as the bull and lion. At the four corners of the palace were four towers and the inner walls of the hall were brightly decorated. Outside, on the walls of the platform beneath the Apadana, bas-reliefs depicted the various people of the twenty-three subject nations of the Achaemenid Empire arriving with gifts to pay respects to the king. These reliefs are so are so precise in their detail that the nationalities represented are easily identified.
This limestone wall relief shows a Mede man holding a gift, which appears to be a lamb, for the king. From Persepolis, the Palace Terrace of Darius I (521-486 BCE) or Xerxes I (485-465 BCE), modern-day Iran. (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)
Limestone and mud-brick were the main building materials used at Persepolis. After natural rock had been leveled on the plain, and the depressions filled in, tunnels for sewage were dug underground through the rock and the platform began to rise. A large elevated cistern was carved at the eastern foot of the mountain behind the platform to catch rainwater for drinking and bathing. The complex was partly cut out of the Mountain Kuh-e Rahmet (“the Mountain of Mercy”). To create the level terrace, large depressions were filled with soil and heavy rocks which were then fastened together with metal clips; upon this ground the first palace at Persepolis slowly grew.
Around 515 BCE, construction of the broad stairways began, leading from the base of the terrace up to the palace doors. This grand, dual entrance to the palace, known as the Persepolitan stairway, was a masterpiece of symmetry and the steps were so wide that Persian royalty and those of noble birth could ascend or descend the stairs on horseback, thereby not having to touch the ground with their feet. The cut of the stairs, wide and broad, also served to slow the ascent of visitors to the king as one would have to step up and walk across one stair before reaching the next; this provided for a slow, stately ascent to the Apadana.