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The Achaemenians

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The Medes first appeared on the historical scene around the 9th century BC, when they were mentioned in contemporary Assyrian texts. They were an Indo-European tribe who, like the Persians had entered western Iran at some earlier and as yet undetermined date. Very little of their artistry has survived, apart from a few rock tombs, some funerary reliefs and some pottery.

The frustrating absence of remains attributable to the Medes is in marked contrast to the succeeding Achaemenians.


The Achaemenian period may be said to begin in 549 BC when Cyrus the Great deposed the Median king Astyages. Cyrus (559-530 BC), the first great Persian king, created an empire extending from Anatolia to the Persian Gulf incorporating the former realms of both Assyria and Babylonia; and Darius the Great (522-486 BC), who succeeded him after various disturbances, extended the boundaries of the empire further still.

Fragmentary remains of Cyrus' Palace at Pasargadae in Fars indicate that Cyrus favoured a monumental style of building. He incorporated decoration based partly on Urartian, partly on the older Assyrian and Babylonian art, as he wished his empire to seem to be the rightful heir of Urartu, Assur, and Babylon.

Stone relief of gate at Pasagadae, showing a four-winged guardian figure

Stone relief of gate at Pasagadae, showing a four-winged guardian figure
Watercolour painted by Sir Robert Ker Porter, 1818.

Pasargadae covered an area almost 1.5 miles in length and included palaces, a temple and the tomb of the king of kings. Enormous winged bulls, which no longer survive flanked the entrance to the gate-house, but a stone relief on one of the door jams is still preserved. It is adorned with a bas-relief representing a four-winged guardian spirit in a long garment of Elamite type, whose head is surmounted by a complicated headdress of Egyptian origin. In the early 19th century an inscription over the figure could still be seen and deciphered: "I, Cyrus, king, the Achaemenian [have done this]."

The central hall in one of the palaces had bas-reliefs showing the king followed by a pastoral bearer. Here for the first time on an Iranian sculpture appear garments with folds, in contrast to the straight-falling robe of the four winged guardian spirit, executed according to the traditions of ancient oriental art, which did not allow the slightest movement or life. Achaemenian art here marks the first step in the exploration of a means of expression that was to be developed by the artists of Persepolis.

The rock cut tombs in Pasargadae, Naqsh-e Rustam, and elsewhere are a valuable source of information about the architectural forms used in the Achaemenian period. The presence of Ionic capitols in one of the earliest of these tombs suggests the serious possibility that this important architectural form was introduced into Ionian Greece from Persia, contrary to what is commonly supposed.

A view of the cliff
 at Naqsh-e Rustam, showing the tombs of Artaxerxes I and Darius

A view of the cliff at Naqsh-e Rustam, showing the tombs of
Artaxerxes I (464 - 424 BC) on the left, and Darius (522 - 486 BC).
In the centre at the base of the cliff is
a Sassanian relief showing Shapur I (AD 240 - 72)
triumphing over the Roman Emperor Valerian.

Under Darius, the Achaemenian Empire embraced Egypt and Libya in the west and extended to the river Indus in the east. During his rule, Pasargadae was relegated to a secondary role and the new ruler quickly began to build other palaces, first at Susa and then at Persepolis.

Susa was the most important administrative centre in Darius' Empire, its geographical location halfway between Babylon and Pasargadae was very favourable. The palace structure built at Susa was based on a Babylonian principle, with three large interior courts, around which were reception and living rooms. In the palace courtyard panels of polychrome glazed bricks decorated the walls. These included a pair of winged human-headed lions beneath a winged disk, and the so-called "Immortals". The craftsmen who made and arranged these bricks came from Babylon, where there was a tradition for this sort of architectural decoration.

A Pair of winged human-headed lions beneath a winged disk, from the Palace of Darius at Susa.

A Pair of winged human-headed lions beneath a
winged disk, from the Palace of Darius at Susa.
Now held at The Louvre, Paris.

Procession of the Persian guards, the 'Immortals', from the Palace of Darius at Susa.

Part of a polychrome glazed brick frieze showing the
procession of Persian guards, the 'Immortals'.
Now held at The Louvre, Paris.


Persian Art Through The Centuries

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The Achaemenians

Copyright© 1999 K. Kianush, Art Arena