When Alexander the Great invaded Persian territory in 331bc, he was captivated by the grand scale of the Achaemenid palaces and their decoration. In the southwest region of the Persian plateau, the Elamite civilization, with its capital of Susa, had flourished since the fourth millennium bc, when its handmade ceramics were decorated with geometrical patterns (triangles, lozenges, crosses, concentric circles, and swastikas) and animal and plant motifs. Human figures were rarer and, although stylized, displayed a lively naturalism. In the second half of the third millennium bc, the kings of Elam went to war against Sumer and Akkad, and the influence of Meso-potamian culture is clearly visible in the statue of the goddess Innin (analogous to the Babylonian Ishtar) and in the production of stelae. A new phase of cultural autonomy marked the rise of the Elamite state (13th—12th century bc). The gracefully monumental bronze statue of Napir-Asu, wife of King Untash-Khuban of Susa, the ziggurat of Choga Zanbil, and the reliefs of Kurangan, which herald the figurations of the Achaemenid palace, are all significant manifestations of art from this period.
During the first millennium bc, the expansion of Iranian-speaking Mede and Persian peoples altered the political aspect of the region. The ephemeral Median Kingdom, with its capital of Ectabana founded in 722bc, was overthrown by Cyrus II the Great and came under Persian rule in 539bc. Cyrus, having overthrown Astyages, king of the Medes, laid the foundations of his future empire, the bounds of which would extend from the Nile to the Indus. Persian art continued in the great Mesopotamian tradition, inheriting its fundamental characteristics. Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and other Persian kings vied with the magnificence of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the embellishment of their main cities, Pasargadae, Susa, and Persepolis. The gates of the palaces were protected by statues of animals like those found in Mesopotamia, while Persian sculptors derived the bas-relief from Assyrian art. In 518bc. Darius I initiated the building of Persepolis, which was to become the hub of the Persian empire. Conceived as the symbol of universality, the focal point where heaven and earth met. the palace of Persepolis was decorated with reliefs and monuments proclaiming the power of the dynasty. The spacious throne room and reception rooms boasted parallel rows of fluted columns more than 20 metres (64 feet) high. The axial plan was continued throughout the palace, the pivot of which was the columned apadana, or audience chamber. Processions of dignitaries and nobles decorated the staircase that led to the great hall. The Persians had succeeded in transforming the dramatic force of their Mesopotamian models into a serene magnificence that was to be the hallmark of their art. In 331BC, Alexander the Great, following his victory over the last of the Achaemenid kings, Darius III, decreed the end of the empire and opened a new chapter in history: for the first time East and West were united under the rule of a single overlord.
Persian Archers at Darius' palace at Susa. Exhibited in Pergamon Museum / Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin.