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The Imperial Iranian Architecture

From Achaemenids to Sasanians


By: By G. R. H. Wright

 Extracted from article: “Materials and Techniques of the Persian through Roman Periods


persepolis_aerial.jpg (66809 bytes)Achaemenid Building. Unlike, for example, the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Persians got an empire before they had a monumental architecture to dignify it. Thus, they had to crash develop their monumental imperial architecture within two generations or so-and the achievement was marvellous and since there was nothing vulgar or banal about the mode, it was both graceful and dignified.


The imperial (aulic) Achaemenid mode of building is best manifested in two palace-city complexes: that of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae (c. 550 BCE) and that of Darius the Great and Xerxes at Persepolis. With this instant achievement, the style remained frozen and there were no further developments (nor it seems much central building activity) for the ensuing two centuries, until Persepolis was ceremonially put to flames by Alexander of Macedon in 331 BCE to mark the end of an old order. This it certainly did, in the architectural sense, since that was the end of the Achaemenid grand manner. Although later Iranian dynasties (Parthians and Sasanians) regained an empire for the Persian people, their building, however explained, was in no way a revival of the Achaemenid style.


The materials of Achaemenid construction were mixed. Extremely fine ashlar masonry characterizes the building. Very large blocks were used to face the great podia on which the complexes are elevated, while fine stone framing (e.g., door and window frames) articulates the walls of individual buildings. The bulk of the wall was, however, mud brick and the great flat terrace roofs were of mud brick on enormous timber beams. The structural system was an entirely trabeated one, and the arch and vault were not used. Perhaps the most notable structural feature is the columnar development and the forests of immensely tall stone columns, some with animal capitals or impost blocks, remain a world wonder. Although a broadroom tradition was evident at Pasargadae, at Persepolis a highly idiosyncratic design principle became dominant-that of centralized (concentric) square planning: square units set concentrically within square units. Perhaps it might be said that the great masonry podium was the individuation of the system.


The question of the sources for this harmonious composition of elements has always evoked discussion. The palace building inscriptions state that whereas the various operations of construction were carried out by subject peoples, the overall design was exactly as the "Great King" had intended it to be, which has been understood to indicate that the planning of the palace complex was entirely determined by Persian taste. This, however, is not a full explanation of the style; between the client who determines the planning and the craftsman who effects the details of construction is the architect who determines the overall composition of details in elevation. Thus, it remains unclear whether the architect of the complex was a Persian (of whatever background) or the master mason (the office which traditionally gives on to that of architect) who, according to the building inscriptions, should have been a Lydian (from Sardis). Certainly the general overall appearance in elevation of the Achaemenid palaces was quite unlike anything known in the contemporary development of Greek monumental building.


The impact of Achaemenid monumental architecture on the building scene of the contemporary Near East is obscure. The archaeological evidence is obviously defective. Some smaller Apadana-type "government house" buildings have been discovered in important regional centres (e.g., in Babylon and on the Phoenician coast). However, little can be adduced regarding the significant question of influence and hybridization. What appears clear is that Achaemenid building had a negligible impact on the great monumental traditions of Egypt and Mesopotamia. It is in the Levanto-Anatolian region where there are indications (or possibilities) of interaction with an older tradition, here the most cognate. However, in the light of existing information, traces and effects of Achaemenid building appear most recognizable after the end of the regime-a strange matter which will be mentioned in its historical context.



Mesopotamia and Mainland-Iran.

The heartland of the Achaemenid Empire was formed by Mesopotamia and Iran, and in turn the house of Seleucus immediately established its principal capital in (and near) Babylon. However, in 129 BCE the Seleucids definitely lost all control over the eastern part of their vast kingdom when those lands passed into Parthian possession. This does not mean that thereafter Hellenised building came to an end in this great tract of land. It did not, and indeed there were Greek communities which survived on the far eastern fringes (i.e., on the confines of central Asia and India). What it does mean is that Rome never established any real footing in the region, and thus building development continued there without any renewed direction from the West via Roman rule, as in other parts of the Near East.


It was Seleucus (the "royalest" of mind among Alexander's successors) who alone carried on Alexander's program for the brotherhood of man, and over recent years astonishing evidence has been found of a symbiosis of Greek architectural forms with others native to the region. This is the architectural expression of what may be called Greco-Oriental art (cf. Greco-Roman art) and it has been considered that it was this style which was adopted and continued by the Parthian successors of the Seleucids and thus has been termed Parthian art (without in fact, having any significant ethnically Parthian component). Much of the evidence occurs in extraordinarily remote areas (e.g., Central Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, the Syrian Desert). The evidence is fragmentary, and it is impossible to reassess it in short compass. Only the main strands are indicated here.


The Seleucids did not in any way discountenance local styles. They maintained intact the old Mesopotamian massive brick building tradition, providing for the restoration of famous old buildings and the erection of new ones (e.g., at Babylon and Uruk). This tradition survived throughout their regime and only came to an end in Parthian times early in the Christian era. Indeed, the old Mesopotamian broadroom temple plan, atypically and unexpectedly, was made use of far away (e.g., at Ai Khanum). However, Greek forms both of design and construction appeared immediately (by 300 BCE): towns were planned on Hippodamian lines (e.g., at Dura-Europos on the Middle Euphrates), and there were Greek theaters (e.g., at Babylon and Ai Khanum) and recognizable Greek temples (e.g., at Failaka, by modern Kuwait, at the head of the Persian Gulf). While plentiful Greek roofing tiles have been found (e.g., at Babylon). Nonetheless, overall development was such that Greek forms were merged with oriental ones-and increasingly so with time, culminating in the high tide of an "oriental reaction" during the latter part of the first century BCE, when Parthian political power was at its strongest.


The principal fact here was the prevalence in planning of two local forms: the centralized square cells and an open-fronted hall chamber, the iwan. The former is, of course, the typical "Iranian" design noted at Persepolis (whatever be its ultimate origins), while the origins of the latter are difficult to account for. In any event, it was to have a great future, extending on into medieval East Islamic architecture. It was these forms, generally brick built with arched portals and barrel-vaulted rooms, which were dressed with architectural ornament derived from the Greek order. Although in earlier times there were stone columns and entablatures (e.g., in western Iran at Kurrha and Kangavar), the tendency was for this architectural detail to become expressed as engaged facade decoration in stuccoed brickwork; this development thus paralleled the Roman development of transforming the Greek orders from structure to ornament. There were also reminiscences of Achaemenid style in the details: the columns slender and lofty, sometimes with campaniform bases.


This composite style was geographically widespread from Ai Khanum and Surkh Kotal on the eastern margins to the Nabatean temples of Syria (see below). It is perhaps possible to see a reflex classical influence from Romanised Syria in the second century CE in northern Mesopotamia, where, for example, the stone-built Parthian monuments of Hatra have affinities with those of contemporary Palmyra but still show the iwan and the centralized square cells pattern. However, the overall line of subsequent development is clear.


hatra1.jpg (34460 bytes)In the middle of the third century CE, the collapsing Parthian dynasty was replaced by the Sasanians from the province of Fars, centred on the ancient capital of Persepolis. Sasanian building clearly proceeded from Parthian building in a direction away from its Greek component. The oriental planning elements, the square cells and the iwan, remained dominant, but the expression evolved markedly. The dome was added to the vault as the focus of design in elevation, thus affording grounds for one of architecture's most persistent debates: Rom oder Orient (did medieval domical building develop out of Roman or Eastern prototypes?). Alongside brick, mortared rubble came into use as a staple building material, with the strong (gypsum) mortar a basic load-bearing element. However, the aspect remained the stucco rendering, and here virtually all reference to Greek forms disappeared and the stucco decoration assumed an entirely oriental all-over style. As a logical conclusion to this line of development, it is not always easy to differentiate between later Sasanian building and Early Islamic building.




Herzfeld, Ernst. Iran in the Ancient East. London, 194 1. Assessment by a man (both architect and philologist) of great genius and experience in the field.

Nylander, Carl. Ionians in 1'asargadae: Studies in Old Persian Architecture. Uppsala, 1970. Detailed study of masonry tools and techniques, serving to establish the interconnection between Achaemenid and Classical Greek masonry.






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