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By David Stronach



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Aerial view of Pasargadae Acropolis and Fortification


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Plan of Pasargadae


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Tomb of Cyrus the Great


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  Apotropaic four-winged figure. The figure is carved in low relief on the one well-preserved door jamb of Gate R. Before the topmost portion of the imposing hmhm crown was broken off some 130 years ago, the intact figure measured about 2.85 m in height. (Click to enlarge)


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Zendan-i Suleiman (Click to enlarge)


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Tall-i Takht


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These two images are courtesy of Olivier Vuigner.

The northern wall on a winter day. One gets a sense of the enormous dimensions by comparing the wall to the visitors walking by who is trying to climb down. (Click to enlarge)


Pasargad, Pasargadae, site located in the mountain-ringed Morghab Plain of southwestern Iran at an elevation of 1, 900 m above sea level (3o° 15' N, 53° 14' E). Pasargadae was founded by Cyrus the Great (559-530 BCE) soon after his conquest of Lydia (c. 547 BCE). According to Strabo (Geog. t 5.3.8), the site marked the scene of Cyrus's prior victory (c. 547 BCE) over his grandfather and erstwhile suzerain Astyages of Media. Early Achaemenid art and architecture took shape at Pasargadae and Cyrus, founder of the Persian Empire, was buried there. While the name of the site is rendered as Batrakataš in the Elamite cuneiform of the Persepolis fortification tablets, the name in current usage derives from a Greek transliteration of an Old Persian toponym of still-uncertain meaning.


From the fifteenth century onward, the distinctive, well preserved Tomb of the Mother of Solomon (the name then ascribed to Cyrus's long-forgotten resting place) was noted by European travellers traversing the main caravan route between Isfahan and Shiraz. Beginning in 1812, a number of such observers raised the possibility that the Morghab monuments might indeed constitute the lost remains of Cyrus's capital, but it took the detailed arguments first of George N. Curzon (1892) and then of Ernst Herzfeld (r 9o8) to affirm the correlation. Herzfeld conducted the first excavations at Pasargadae in 1928. Six years later Aurel Stein examined several of the prehistoric mounds standing on the fringes of the Morghab Plain, and in 1935 E. F. Schmidt took the first aerial photographs of the site. Subsequent excavations were carried out by Ali Sami from 1949 to 1955 under the auspices of the Iranian Antiquities Service and by David Stronach from 1961 to 1963 on behalf of the British Institute of Persian Studies.


The principle remains of Achaemenid Pasargadae are distributed over an area some 3 km (2 mi.) long and 2 km (1 mi.) wide. Individual monuments within this parklike stretch of ground adjacent to the Pulvar River include the tomb of Cyrus, a monumental gatehouse (R), two palaces, a royal garden, an enigmatic stone tower (the Zendan-i Suleiman), two hollow limestone plinths, and an impressive stone platform jutting from the western side of a low hill now known as the Tall-i Takht, or "throne hill."


Tomb of Cyrus the Great

Arguably an intentional synthesis of many separate Near Eastern architectural elements, the tomb of Cyrus stands at the southern limit of the site, approximately one kilometre south of the palace area. With its massive ashlar masonry and plain surfaces balanced by only a minimal number of decorative moldings, the structure creates an indelible impression of dignity, simplicity, and strength. With an estimated original height of 11.10 m, the tomb consists of two parts: a high plinth with six receding tiers and a rectangular cells with a steep-pitched, gabled roof. The stepped plinth measures 13.35 X 12.30 m at the base, and the compact tomb chamber, reached through a low doorway, is 3.17 m long, 2. 11 m wide, and 2. 11 m high. Until just after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire in 330 BCE, the body of Cyrus is said to have lain here in a golden coffin, on a golden couch beside a table (Geog. r5.3.7). Much later, in the thirteenth century CE, a shallow mihrab, or prayer niche, was cut into the southwest wall of the tomb chamber. For an unknown period of time, the tomb served as the focal point of a medieval mosque.


Gate R

Placed on the eastern approach to the palace area, Gate R (also known as the Palace with the Relief) appears to have provided the chief ceremonial means of entrance to the site as a whole. Now greatly denuded, this freestanding rectangular structure originally housed a markedly tall, stone-floored hypostyle hall with two rows of four stone columns and four axial doorways. While the broad, main doorways on the opposed short walls were at one time flanked by paired colossi of Assyrian inspiration, the worn relief of a four-winged apotropaic genius still stands guard over the northeastern side door (see pictures below). Based on yet another kind of Assyrian protective image, the latter figure is distinguished by a short-bearded face with a distinctly Persian physiognomy, a traditional Elamite robe, and an Egyptian hmhm crown (an impressive headdress that rested on the long twisted horns of the Abyssinian ram). This last attribute, which was at home in the egyptianizing art of Syria and Phoenicia, may only have been introduced in order to underscore the submission of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard in 539 BCE; equally, however, it may have been intended to advertise what was (at the time) a still-unfulfilled Achaemenid claim to Egypt.


Palace S

In reference to this structure's one surviving 13-meter-high stone column, Herzfeld (1908) opted for the label palace S, an abbreviation from der palast mit der saule ("the palace with the column"). The architects of palace S succeeded in combining, in one harmonious design, certain longstanding Iranian traditions (e.g., a lofty audience hall with two rows of four columns) with particular imported Ionian concepts (such as, most notably, that of placing an open and inviting columned portico on each side of a freestanding building). In terms of innovation, palace S also documents the first known use of one of the more distinctive (and indigenous) emblems of Achaemenid architecture: a stone capital in the form of a double animal protome. At the same time, however, certain of the now severely truncated doorway reliefs of palace S (including one in which the relief shows the legs of a bull man and those of a fish-cloaked genius) show a clear debt to the rich, exotic imagery of Assyria. Seventy years after the fall of Nineveh, Cyrus appears to have realized, in short, that various of the more distinctive elements in the art of Assyria could be borrowed with advantage to proclaim the return of a degree of dominion not seen since the days of Ashurbanipal.


Palace P

Herzfeld (1908) named palace P (palast mit der pfleiler, or "palace with the anta") for its once single visible feature: a protruding stone anta. In contrast to Cyrus's other palatial constructions, this innermost palace appears to have been intended to supply a relatively private, if still representational, setting for royal audiences. This circumstance probably accounts, for example, for the small scale of the thirty columns that once graced the central hall; for the narrow width of even the two main doorways that led into the hall; and for the importance given to the exceptionally long, well-appointed "garden portico" on the southeast side of the building. In many ways, in fact, palace P stands out not so much as a formal palace as a garden pavilion of exceptional size and status. More that this, the building was far from complete when Cyrus died in battle; and, as the latest patterns of research now indicate, neither palace P's Persepolitan-style doorway sculptures (each of which once included a figure of Cyrus followed by an attendant) nor any of the building's three separate inscriptions (including a single example of the standard trilingual building inscription that can be understood to have carried the meaning "I, Cyrus, the king, the Achaemenid [built this]") are to be attributed to Cyrus. Instead, each of these features has to be attributed to Darius: a monarch who apparently found it advisable not least at the emotive site of Pasargadae-to project his own carefully nuanced image of the memorable ruler whose line he had supplanted.  


Palace Garden

Although Cyrus did not live long enough to enjoy the prospect, it is clear that he had an external throne seat placed at the midpoint of the southwest portico of palace P in order to contemplate a well-ordered, luxuriant inner garden. Long, white limestone water channels, studded at intervals by square basins, still define the rectilinear lines of this early Achaemenid garden. It appears to have been divided into four quadrants a division that may, at the time, have been understood to symbolize the "four quarters" of universal rule.


The possibility that the palace garden was scrupulously maintained for two hundred years (perhaps as one expression of the homage that continued to be paid to Cyrus in his capital and burial place), is not at all improbable. Such a claim not only derives credibility from the long-term, clearly detectable impact of Cyrus's fourfold garden plan (Stronach, 1994, but could also be said to be substantiated by the discovery, within the confines of the garden, of the elegant Pasargadae treasure, a rich hoard of Achaemenid gold and silver objects that, based on the objects themselves, is not likely to have been 

hidden before 350 BCE.


Zendan-i Suleiman

One of Cyrus's most carefully constructed and enigmatic stone monuments, the Zendan-i Suleiman ("prison of Solomon") originally consisted of an almost square, i4-meter-high tower in which a solitary, raised room was approached by a projecting monumental stone staircase. Copied by Darius at Naqsh-i Rustam, and variously regarded as either a tomb, a fire temple, or a depository, this now-fragmentary construction continues to defy secure interpretation.


Stone Plinths

The extreme northern limit of Pasargadae is marked by two isolated limestone plinths, each of which is square in plan and more than 2 m high, and each of which can be ascribed to the reign of Cyrus on the basis of datable stone working techniques. While numerous interpretations of the function of these features have been put forward, it is most likely (on the basis of comparable evidence contained in the funerary relief of Darius) that Cyrus ascended the step-topped southern plinth (by means on an eight-stepped staircase block) in order to worship opposite an elevated altar that stood on the adjacent, northern plinth.


Tall-i Takht

The towering stone platform that protrudes from the west side of this hump-backed hill offers one further proof of the scale and quality of Cyrus's building activities. Left unfinished upon Cyrus's death in 530 BCE, this rigorously constructed palace platform provides a manifest link between the earlier ashlar terraces at Lydian Sardis and the huge, later terrace Darius chose to erect at Persepolis. In the case of the Tall-i Takht, however, Cyrus's suddenly obsolete platform/terrace came to be incorporated-most probably during Darius's reign-in a sprawling citadel with substantial mud-brick defences. This fortified complex may in fact represent a notable storehouse, mentioned by Arrian, said to have been surrendered intact to Alexander II of Macedonia (Anabasis 3.18.10). With reference to the Tall-i Takht's later history, the excavations of the early 1960s served to document a burning of part of the citadel in or near 300 BCE (an event likely to have marked the end of direct Seleucid control in Fars), the subsequent introduction of a more independent local occupation that may have extended down to 180 BCE; and the establishment of a short-lived fortified settlement tentatively dated to the beginning of the Islamic era (seventh and eighth centuries CE).





Curzon, George N. Persia and the Persian Question. z vols. London, 1892.

Flandin, Eugene, and Pascal Coste. Voyage en Perse de MM. E. Flandin, peintre, et P. Coste, architecte, pendant les annees 1840 et 1841.. 5 vols. Paris, 1843-1854.

Herzfeld, Ernst. "Pasargadae: Untersuchungen zur persischen Archaologie." Klio 8 (I908): I-68.

Herzfeld, Ernst. "Bericht fiber die Ausgrabungen von Pasargadae, 1928." Archkologische Mitteilungen aus Iran r (1929-1930): 4-16.

Herzfeld, Ernst. Iran in the Ancient East. London, 1941.

Nagel, Wolfram. "Pasargadae: Ein Lagebericht zum Problem des Beginns achamenidischer Kunst and altpersischer Schrift." Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft zu Berlin III (1979): 75-88.

Nylander, Carl. "Who Wrote the Inscriptions at Pasargadae?" Orientalia Suecana 16 (I967): 135-180.

Nylander, Carl. Ionians in Pasargadae: Studies in Old Persian Architecture. Uppsala,1970.

Sami, Ali. Pasargadae: The Oldest Imperial Capital of Iran. Shiraz, 1956. Stronach, David. Pasargadae: A Report on the Excavations Conducted by the British Institute of Persian Studies from 1961 to 1963. Oxford, 1978.

Stronach, David. "Pasargadae." In The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2, The Median and Achaemenian Periods, edited by Ilya Gershevitch, PP 838-855. Cambridge, 1985.

Stronach, David. "On the Genesis of the Old Persian Cuneiform Script." In Contributions d l'histoire de l'Iran: Melanges Wean Perrot, PP 195-203. Paris, 1990.

Stronach, David. "Parterres and Stone Watercourses at Pasargadae: Notes on the Achaemenid Contribution to the Evolution of Garden Design." ,journal of Garden History 14 (I994): 3-12.

Trumpelmann, Leo. "Metrologische Untersuchungen am Kyrosgrab in Pasargadae." In Memorial Volume of the Sixth International Congress of Iranian Art and Archaeology, Oxford, rr-r6 September 1972, pp. 319-326. Tehran, 1976.



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