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The Art of Ancient Iran; Pre-Islamic Culture

The Art of Achaemenids


By: Edith Porada

Columbia University

With the collaboration of R. H. Dyson and contributions by C.K. Wilkinson


Iran Under the Achaemenid Dynasty (550-330 BCE)



Under the dynasty of the Achaemenid rulers the Persian empire comprised Iran, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor with its Greek towns and some islands, Central Asia, Caucasus, Thrace--and parts of India. [1] The founder of this, the largest empire of the ancient world, was Cyrus, often called the Great [559-530 B.C.], whose Persian father, Cambyses, king of Anshan, [2] had married the daughter of Astyages, king of the Medes. Cyrus defeated his grandfather about 550 B.C. and succeeded in welding Persians and Medes into an effective army with which he could undertake conquests beyond the frontiers of Iran.

In world history Cyrus is known as much for his victory over Croesus of Lydia [547 B.C.] as for his generosity toward the Jews, to whom he reputedly granted permission to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and bring back to it the gold and silver utensils which Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon.

Similar restoration of local cults proceeded under his auspices throughout Mesopotamia. This political acumen in dealing with conquered peoples helped Cyrus in his political and military conquests of the wealthy Greek towns that were formerly under Croesus' suzerainty. Only Miletus submitted voluntarily. The others were conquered one after the other, some by military force, others by treachery, for Persian gold was as powerful as Persian arms. Syria and Phoenicia fell to Cyrus by his easy conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C.

In north-eastern Iran Cyrus had to secure the frontiers against the ever-present pressure of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes from Central Asia. In battles against these peoples the great king died in 530 B .C.

His son Cambyses conquered Egypt in 525 B.C. Only Darius I [522-486 B.C.], however, who also deserved the epithet Great, consolidated the empire by an efficient administrative organization. Within little more than a year after the death of Cambyses he had succeeded in establishing his rule over the rebellious leaders of the Medes, Babylonians and other peoples whom Cyrus had conquered. The pictorial and written memorial of his victory was carved upon the steep cliff at Bisutun which looks down upon the road that leads even today from the Iranian plateau to the Mesopotamian plain. The actual height of the relief is eighteen feet, about as large as any ancient Western Asiatic stone-carver--used to relatively small reliefs--could possibly conceive. But as seen from the road, the relief seems quite small.

The inscription was rendered in Old Persian, Akkadian [the language of the Babylonians] and Elamite. Above the inscription Darius is portrayed in the traditional posture of the victor, his foot placed on his fallen enemy, Gaumata the Magian. Here the posture may have been copied from the ancient relief of [p. 142] Anubanini at Sar-i- Pul, not too far distant from Bisutun. In the relief of Bisutun eight of the rebels stand behind Gaumata with their necks joined by a rope and their hands tied behind their backs. A ninth rebel was added after Darius' victory over the pointed-capped Scythians. Darius could truly call himself 'Great King', 'King of Kings', titles subsequently associated with the Achaemenids and assumed only by the most powerful rulers of later times.

The armies of Darius sustained reverses only in Scythia and, in Greece, at Marathon [490 B.C.]. The epic resistance of small, disunited Greece against the most powerful empire of its day had begun. In the time of Alexander resistance became aggression, finally ending in victory over the last Achaemenid king, Darius III. [p. 143]

Greek writers who reported on Persia knew of the first residence of Cyrus at Pasargadae, of Susa as the principal seat of subsequent Achaemenid rulers, and also of royal residences at Ecbatana and Babylon. None, however, spoke of Persepolis, founded by Darius near Pasargadae, deep inside the empire. This may have been due to the character of the site, which appears to have been not an administrative centre but rather a religious one, where the Achaemenid kings went for ceremonies of inauguration at nearby Pasargadae, where their bodies were brought for burial in the rock-chambers of the valley of Naqsh-i Rustem near Persepolis or later in the cliffs around the Persepolis Terrace--and where the New Year's festival, the greatest religious event of Iran, was probably celebrated every year. [3]

We may assume that the delegations of all the countries of the empire came to this festival bringing to the King of Kings their 'gifts', which were probably stored in the local treasuries. The geographical position of Persepolis in the centre of the country would have added to the safety of these treasuries and of the armouries connected with them. The stress on quarters for the military at Persepolis, which became obvious from GodardÕs excavations, indicates extensive preoccupation with the security of the buildings on the terrace. [4]

Pasargadae, the residence of Cyrus the Great, some 43 kilometres by air from Persepolis, probably also had as one of its principal functions the safeguarding of the king's treasures. There was a well-defined citadel there, covering a huge area of about two hundred metres in length and up to one hundred and thirty metres in width. In addition, a small enclosed valley immediately to the north of the citadel platform was 'guarded by a continuous mud-brick fortification wall with square towers at regular intervals'. Schmidt suggested many years ago that the treasury should be shut in this fortified area. Excavations at present under way in Pasargadae may eventually provide information on that point. [5]

From the citadel a road led toward the south to the walled palace area. The first important building encountered in this area--and enclosed within its own precinct--was a stone tower which will be discussed below in connection with a similar tower at Nagsh-i Rustem. The principal remains of the palace area belonged to three buildings interpreted by Herzfeld as a gate structure, a palace called the audience hall of Cyrus, and another called the residential palace. [6] These buildings, which lie quite far apart, may have been separated by the shady trees and the clear watercourses of a park.

The gate structure was assumed to have been similar to the well-preserved gate of Xerxes at Persepolis. A pair of colossal winged bulls facing outside was thought to have guarded the opening of the gate and a pair of human-headed bulls to have faced toward the palaces. A columnar hall is said to have formed the middle room of the structure, which seems to have had a side room in the north-east. One jamb of the doorway of this room had the figure of a four-winged genius carved upon it. An inscription above the figure read in three languages: 'I, Cyrus the king, the Achaemenid [built this].' It was still there to be copied by visitors to the site in 1840-41, but today it has disappeared.

The audience hall was reconstructed with a rectangular columnar hall in the centre, surrounded on all four sides by porticoes, enclosed at the ends by a wall or a tower. The so -called residential palace had two similar porticoes but also small rooms built with mud brick, presumably living quarters.

A comparison of these halls and their porticoes with the massive brick architecture of Elam as exemplified at Tchoga Zanbil shows the strikingly different [p. 144] architectural concepts which guided the builders of Pasargadae. The façade is not a solid wall; it is opened up. Literally speaking, the visitor is no longer kept out but invited into the cool shade of noble porticoes. Probably there were several reasons for this difference in architectural ideas: climate, building materials and social structure.

The form of the porticoes however, was not developed in Iran but may be due to Urartian tradition, whereas the interior hall with a ceiling supported on columns is reminiscent of the columnar halls of Hasanlu.

The combination of different influences assumed for the plan of the buildings is also evident in the columns. They show considerable influence from the Ionic columns of Asia Minor, although proportions were never correctly observed at Pasargadae. But the idea of a stone column with some standard relations between base and shaft as well as the general form of the base--square plinth and horizontally fluted torus--is surely due to Ionic prototypes. The colour contrast produced by the use of black limestone together with white limestone for the two blocks of the base, and black limestone for niches and door-frames in buildings otherwise made of white limestone, can also be paralleled by a few Ionic examples. [7] Derivation of the alternating colour effects from Urartian architecture, however, has also been suggested, and it is not impossible that this desire for strong colour contrasts owes its ultimate origin to Near Eastern tradition, even in the Ionic examples.

Original Iranian elements can be found also on the top of the Persian column, which had the form of a gigantic clamp and held a ceiling beam such as one can still see in modern Iranian peasant houses, where simple forked branches hold the rafters of the roof. At Pasargadae--perhaps even earlier--this simple device was transformed into a capital consisting of a double protome of leonine [p. 145] monsters or bulls; a fragmentary head of a horse belonging to a column protome was also found. In Persepolis most of the capitals had protomes of bulls or human-headed bulls. Forms of other creatures such as griffins were tried out and then discarded, obviously because they were unsuitable. [8]

Still further to the south than the palace area stands the tomb of Cyrus, a far more impressive structure than one would expect from the photographs and drawings of the gabled house-shape on the stepped platform. The total height of the structure is 11 metres and the well-dressed building blocks are a most as tall as a man. In typically Achaemenid manner the blocks were held together by swallow-tail clamps of lead and iron, of which only those in the hollow roof have remained in place. Trees of different kinds are said by classical authors to have surrounded the tomb of Cyrus. We may assume them to have been planted at some distance from the tomb and to have been shorter than the total height of the structure, thus making it seem even more imposing. . . . [p. 146]

Elevation above the plane of ordinary human beings, for which Darius obviously strove in his rock relief at Bisutun and in his tomb faade, is also manifested in his choice of the high terrace of Persepolis for his treasury and his palace--an effective setting for the New Year's ceremonies. In the selection of the site he may have also been influenced by the existing terraces of the early Achaemenid period [9] which have been found at various sites, including Pasargadae, and which may have added some religious significance to the increased security that they afforded the citadel at Pasargadae and the palaces at Persepolis.

At Persepolis, where Darius may have begun to build in 520 B.C., the fortifications and military quarters were erected first and, almost at the same time, the [p. 147] storehouses for treasure, weapons and supplies, the building complex called the Treasury by the American excavators. In its main features the entire layout of the great halls on the terrace seems to have been planned from the beginning, although it took about sixty years to complete. The functions of these different halls in the ceremonies of the New Year's festival were reconstructed vividly and for the most part convincingly by Chrishman, who used not only the remaining ruins of the building and the contents of their reliefs but also his knowledge of Iranian tribal meetings, in which many ancient customs are preserved. [10]

Probably delegations from all parts of the empire streamed to Persepolis long before the great festival. Around the town, which lay at the foot of the terrace, tents with gay pennants would have spread far into the plain. On the day of the festival the king's guests, the greatest dignitaries of the empire, Persians and Medes, ascended the broad stairs to the terrace. The stairs were designed as for a stage. Made of beautiful white limestone--the same material that was used for the walls--but carefully smoothed to resemble marble, two gently rising flights of steps led in opposite directions to intermediate landings where the direction was reversed and the stairs turned and converged toward the top landing [1]. [11] After the completion of the Gate of Xerxes [2] [described above on p. 144] in connection with the supposed gate structure at Pasargadae], visitors passed through the Gate before entering the square in front of the great audience hall or Apadana of Darius and Xerxes. In turning toward the hall, the visitor faced one of the noblest structures of the ancient world [5].

The building was over twenty metres high and even further raised by a socle [p. 148] 2.60 metres tall. The square main hall, which was enclosed by thick mud-brick walls, had a side length of 60.50 metres, to which should be added the porticoes on three sides and the store-rooms in the back. At all four corners of the building stood towers enclosing stair-wells leading to the roof. At the entrance to each tower were guardian figures of great dogs or other animals.

From the square before the Apadana two monumental stairways led up to the porticoes, one in the east [4], the other on the north [6]. The parapets of these stairways were crowned by four-stepped battlements, used in the same way throughout the terrace. Battlements are presumed to have been used also for decoration of the roofs, but this cannot be proved. To judge by the use of battlements in the crown of Darius at Bisutun and in the blue head of a prince, discussed on page 160, they had a symbolic protective meaning in addition to their decorative value.

The façades and parapets of the stairways were covered with reliefs. 'Each of the two stairways shows essentially the same scenes: a procession of twenty-three tribute-bearing delegations of the empire and lines of guards, dignitaries, horses, chariots and attendants, in addition to other motifs.' [12] These reliefs are thought to show in an abbreviated manner the sequence of the first phase of the new Year's festival, which will be described here as it can be read from the reliefs.

Before the stairs stood the king's guards, called the Immortalsbecause their number of ten thousand was immediately re-established after every loss. On the sides of the stairs were the Persian guards, attired in a flowing robe, candys, and fluted cap, or tiara. Everyone was turned toward the entrance of the audience hall in which the king was present.

Guests and dignitaries who were admitted to the audience in the Apadana probably went in through the two northern entrances, while the king himself doubtless came through an entrance on the east side [4]. After the audience the king and his entourage would take their places on the western portico and its narrow forecourt, which extended to the edge of the terrace and permitted an excellent view of the happenings below.

The order of groups in the procession pictured at the back of the stairs on the socle of the audience hall indicated that the Susian guards in their brilliantly [p. 151] coloured robes came first. We know the beautiful colours and the patterning of these robes from the reliefs of glazed brick discovered at Susa. At Persepolis none of the original colour has been preserved. The garments from Susa show scatter patterns of rosettes, stars, squares, each inscribed with a city gate, and borders of lotus flowers, all in different colour combinations. The guards carry bows and great quivers with arrows and set the globular end of their spears on the forward foot, a gesture which corresponds to that of setting the bow on the foot, seen on the façades of the royal tombs.

The Susians were followed by three groups of royal grooms, horses of the royal stable, and chariots, all led by ushers. After them came interminable rows of Susian guards, followed by a group of Persian and Median nobles or dignitaries in which the Persians seem to have had precedence over the Medes. The Medes wore a tall, rounded felt cap with a ribbon hanging down in the back, a long tight coat which reached to slightly above the knees and was tied by a belt, and long trousers probably made of leather, as well as laced shoes. Most of them have a coat with empty sleeves hanging over their shoulders, as at Qyzqapan. Persians and Medes wear the same type of jewelry, a twisted or plain torque, ear-rings and bracelets. On the reliefs most of the persons in this group carry a blossom. It may have been one of those sweet-smelling flowers which are often used instead of perfume in the Near East and which preserve their fragrance for days.

To judge by the reliefs, the March of the Nations must have begun after these groups of Susians, Persians and Medes had passed. First came the Medes with their fine horses, then the Susians, who brought with them a lioness and her cubs, as well as bows and daggers, the later surely of precious metal. After a few more delegations, all led by ushers, followed the Lydians. They wore short-sleeved long gowns with a wavy pattern, perhaps suggesting wool. Over the left shoulder was draped a scarf with tasseled corners, and on the head they wore a tall turban-like head-dress below which hung a very stylized braid, perhaps no longer made of hair but of ribbon. They had low boots with slightly upturned toes, the age-old characteristic footwear of Asia Minor. Their tribute consisted of two metal vessels with handles ending in winged bulls, two low metal bowls, and two oblong rings each ornamented with two griffins. Finally there was a chariot with a plain body drawn by two stallions led by turbanless grooms.

Other delegations which presumably created much interest were the Sogdians with their broad-tailed Karakul sheep and lamb-skins, probably valuable furs, then the Indians, bare-chested, which was most unusual, though their leader wore a flowing Indian dress which was surely of gay colours and must have been striking. One of the Indians carried a pair of baskets containing pots presumably full of gold dust. [13] The Arabs with their dromedary and the crinkly-haired Ethiopians with an okapi would have delighted the onlookers. [14] After the conclusion of this long procession the king probably left the Apadana and may have passed through the so-called Tripylon on this way to the banquet, the second phase of the festivities. The Tripylon has also been called the 'Central' building or Council Hall. It is a beautiful little building with three monumental doorways which probably indicate its function as 'the main link of communication between the northern area of open courts and spacious public buildings and that portion of the site which was occupied by the residential palaces of the kings.' [15]

The reliefs on the jambs of the northern and southern doorways show the king [p. 152] followed by two attendants, one of whom carries the royal parasol, while the other holds a fly-whisk over the king's head and carries a towel. The banquet probably took place in the principal hall of the palace of Xerxes [24], once that structure was completed. Whether or not it could have been held earlier in the much smaller palace of Darius [18] is difficult to say.

The third and perhaps most important symbolic phase of the festival appears to have been the carrying of the king on his throne by the representatives of the nations from the Tripylon to the Hall of a Hundred Columns. [16] There, perhaps on the large square before the hall, one may reconstruct as a fourth phase an impressive military parade of the Immortals before their king.

This interpretation has been deduced in large part from the reliefs, some of which admittedly come from the time of Darius' grandson, Artaxerxes [465-423 B.C.]. Yet it seems likely that changes occurred only in details and that the ceremonies portrayed corresponded to those instituted in the time of Darius and continued until his last successor.

An exceptional representation is found only in the reliefs on the jambs of the eastern doorway of the Tripylon. These show King Darius and the Crown Prince Xerxes in the same relief, protected by a canopy over which floats the god Ahura Mazda in the winged disk. Nowhere else is there such an expression of a close relationship between father and son.

The plate on page 157 renders the relief on the left jamb of the eastern doorway of the Tripylon; our drawing [Fig. 84] gives a sketch of the opposite right jamb. For reasons that are difficult to explain, every motif at Persepolis had a counterpart.

The colours of the Ahura Mazda symbol on the Tripylon can be reconstructed after those of a similar symbol discovered by Herzfeld in the Hundred Column Hall and sketched by him before they disappeared. [17] They showed turquoise blue, light scarlet red, golden or orange yellow, deep purple, lapis-lazuli blue and a few touches of emerald green, all on a black background. Additional colour in these reliefs would have been provided by the gold or heavily gilded material with which the royal insignia were covered. Traces of such covering can be seen in the damaged Tripylon reliefs, which show slits on the side of the crowns in which metal fittings had been fastened.

To this description of the colours originally used in the decoration of Persepolis may be added that of the glazed reliefs of Susa--given on page 152. This evidence gives us some idea of the blaze of colours presented by the Achaemenid court, especially at the time of the New Year's festival.

To the buildings described in the course of the hypothetical reconstruction of the New Year's festival may be added the unfinished gate opposite the Hundred Column Hall; this gate may have been intended to assure an impressive entrance to the military groups thought to have paraded on the square north of [p. 154] the hall, which measure four thousand s quare metres in area. Furthermore, there was the so-called harem, now identified more convincingly as additional storage facilities. [18]

In its loose grouping of single halls, Persepolis resembles Pasargadae, whereas at Susa, where another Achaemenid palace was excavated, the ancient Near Eastern palace plan seems to have influenced the arrangement of rooms around courts so that the palace was reconstructed--albeit not very reliably--as a coherent complex. [19][p. 156]

[ Continue ]

1. For the history of the period Olmstead's History of the Persian Empire [Chicago, 1948] still provides the most extensive documentation from cuneiform sources. H. Bengston, Griechische Geschichte von den Anfágen bis in die rómische Kaiserzeit [Handbuch der Altertumswissen-schaft. Dritte Abteilung, vierter Teil. Munich, 2nd ed., 1960], has been used for the relation between Persians and Greeks.

2. Anshan may be assumed to have been located in the Bakhtiari mountains of western Persia; see Hinz, Persia, p. 6.

3. This interpretation of the significance of Persepolis ws summarized by Erdmann in 'Persepolis: Daten und Deutungen,' Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Geselschaft 92 [1960], p. 47.

4. See Godard, 'Les Travaux de Persepolis,' Archaeologica Orientalia in Memoriam Ernst Herzfeld [Locust Valley, N.Y., 1952], especially pp. 122-126, and Godard, L'art de l'Iran, pp. 123-125.

5. For the first preliminary report on the excavations at Pasargadae, see D. Stronach, Iran I [1963], pp. 19-42. On p. 27 Stronach describes the Citadel Area and mentions [Ibid., note 20] Schmidt's speculations about the purpose of the fortifications in Persepolis I, p. 21.

6. A sketch plan of Pasargadae, Stronach, op. cit. in note XII/5, p. 25, Fig. 2, gives a good idea of the layout of these buildings in relation to the other structures of Persepolis. Herzfeld described the remains of these buildings in Archaeologishe Mitteilungen aus Iran I [1928], pp. 4-16.

7. Boardman, 'Chian and Early Ionic Architecture,' The Antiquaries Journal XXXIX [1959], p. 217, points to the difference between colour contrasts in individual structural members and in alternating slabs in a frieze or in courses of a wall. For the colour contrast in individual structural members, he cites examples from Old Smyrna, 'and more than once on Chian buildings': for the simple alternation of slabs, he gives North Syrian and Urartian examples [ibid., note 4]. He does not believe that the latter influenced the achitecture of Pasargadae. Urartian architecture, however, also seems to have sought a colour contrast in structural elements, as is shown by the parapet of dark stone on walls of different colour seen at Karmir Blur; cf. K.L. Oganesian,Karmir Blur IV [Akademia Nauk Armianskoi SSR, 1955], reconstrution on p. 103, Fig. 61. Admitttedly the entire parapet is constructed there in a different colour, not only parts of it.

8. The derivation of the uppermost part of the Achaemenid capital from predecessors in wood was demonstrated by Herzfeld, Iran, pp. 210-211. On Pl. XXXIX [above, right] of the same book he reproduced part of a horse protome from Pasargadae. The griffin protome was published by Godard in ILN [Jan. 2, 1954], p. 18, Figs. 5-8. A protome with lion dragons was also discarded, this one because it had a flaw in the stone, due to which the capital was not only ungainly but also unsafe, though the workmen tried in vain to improve on this condition by applying iron clamps, the traces of which can still be seen in the stone [Ibid., p. 1 9, Figs. 9, 11]. See also Godard, L'art de l'Iran, Fig. 61. These protomes are also reproduced in Ali Sami, Persepolis [3rd ed., Shiraz, 1958], unnumbered plates following p. F.

9. Terraces of the early Achaemenid period were discussed by Ghirshman in 'Masjid-i-Solaiman: résidence des premiers Achéménides,' Syria XXVII [1950], pp. 205-220, and also by Erdmann, Bibliotheca Orientalis XIII [1956], pp. 58, 59.

10. R. Ghirshman, 'Notes iraniennes: VII, A propos de Persépolis,' Artibus Asiae XX/4 [1957], pp. 265-278. The present description, however, also relies on the occasionally varying reconstruction by Erdmann, 'Persepolis: Daten un Deutungen,' cited in note XIII 3 above.

11. This and the following descriptions of architectural features and of the reliefs are taken, often verbally, from E. F. Schmidt in Persepolis I, although quotation marks are occasionally omitted for easier reading. Numbers in parentheses refer to the numbers of the rooms in the plan, Fig. 78, reproduced from Ghirshman's article cited in note XII 14.

12. Quoted from Persepolis I, p. 82.

13. For the description of the Indians, Lydians, and Sogdians, see Barnett, 'Persepolis,' Iraq XIX [1957], pp. 68-70.

14. For the Arabian delegation with its dromedary, see Persepolis I, Pl. 46; for the Ethiopian delegation, see Persepolis I, Pl. 49.

15. Quoted from Persepolis I, p. 107. Schmidt called the building Council Hall; Erdmann refers to it as 'ZentralgebŠude' [see the article cited in note XII/3]; I retain Herzfeld's term, Tripylon.

16. Here we begin to substitute Erdmann's reconstruction for Ghirshman's.

17. The description of the colours of the Ahura Mazda symbol was given by Herzfeld in Iran, p. 255, where he referred to his water-colour sketch reproduced, ibid., in Pl. LXIV, above. Herzfeld also stated: 'The excavations of the covered parts of the sculptures of the Tripylon also revealed their original colours unchanged: purple red and turquoise blue, with application of metal, possibly gold.' Today no trace of the colours remains.

18. Godard, L'art de l'Iran, pp. 123, 124.

19. For the questionable authenticity of the plans and reconstructions of the palace complex at Susa, see the remarks by Franfort, Art and Architecture, p. 218 and note 54.






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