Art of Ancient Iran

In previous essays we have mentioned Iran and some of its regions and ancient cities like Elam and Susa. The Elamite art is one of the oldest artistic cycles of Iran. This Elamite art included constructions and works of art created under the rule of a dynasty of local kings contemporary to the Kassite rule over Babylon between 1600 and 1000 BCE.

Bronze statue of Queen Napir-Asu (Louvre).

Although  there is no ancient buildings in Susa from the Elamite period, sculptures do exist. These sculptures include the large bronze statue of queen Napir-Asu (14th century BCE). This statue of 1800 kilos is dressed with a bell-shaped skirt with fringed ends, carries a close-fitting tunic, and in her crossed hands one of the fingers bears a ring. Among the Elamite bronzes from the second half of the second millennium BCE it is also unique the bronze plaque known as Sit-Shamshi. With dimensions of ​​60 by 40 cm this plaque carefully represents a kind of a scale-model of a religious ceremony where two squatting naked men celebrate during sunrise. In addition to the officiators’ figures this piece includes a jar, two columns, and various ritualistic elements. Another piece from around 1000 BCE is an extraordinary terracotta head representing a man and found in Susa. The polychromy in black covers his eyebrows and the trimmed beard and mustache give him the appearance of someone important.

Bronze plaque known as Sit-Shamshi (Louvre), XII century BCE.
Painted terracotta head found in Susa (Louvre), ca. first millennium BCE.










Winged Ibex (Louvre) in silver inlaid with gold. It used to be the handle of a large jar. The Greek influence is visible, especially in the Greek ornamental mask crowned by a palm leaf that support the hind legs of the animal. Ca. V century BCE.

Among the Iranian works of art produced in bronze, the artifacts from Luristan are worth mentioning: riding brakes, ceremonial axes, pots, banners, female hairpins. The proposed dates for the Luristan bronzes vary between 1500 and 800 BCE. The most characteristic of these bronzes are riding brakes and banners. The first are usually decorated with two figures of Ibex or mountain goats rigged with a cross bar and with rings that served to hold the reins. Arguably, the Ibex was the patronymic animal of Iran, as was the lion to Assyria, the dragon to Babylon, and the bull to Sumer. As for the banners or mast toppings there is usually a central character grasping with his hands the heads of two monsters that sometimes have lion jaws and some other times have a bird of prey beak. All these Luristan bronzes were cast with the technique we call now “lost-wax casting* .

Funerary idol in bronze (Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels), from Luristan. Ca. second or third millennium BCE.

The unexpected fall of Nineveh the year 612 BCE annihilated the power of Assyria focused exclusively on its capital. But the Eastern world could not live without a king. This new master, the Great King, lived in the high mountains of Iran enclosing Mesopotamia and extending south to the Indian Ocean. This new King came from one of the many ethnic groups that formed what we now call the Peoples of Ancient Iran (Persians, Kurds, Medes, Scythians, Bactrians, Parthians, Sarmatians, Alans, Ossetians, Cimerians, etc.).

The formation of the new Persian Achaemenid Empire happened fast and easy because Assyria had accustomed people to live in slavery. By then, Medes tribes had helped Scythians to loot and burn Nineveh and using the prestige gained they formed the first nucleus of a conquering State. Later the main Persian families strongly grouped around their first monarch Cyrus the Founder who subjugated their confederates (the Medes) and hence all Iran obeyed one head. Cyrus, the first Achaemenid, conquered Babylon in 539 BCE and the son of Cyrus, Cambyses, dominated Egypt in 525. The maritime states of Asian Greece also became Persian satrapies. The first two capitals of the new empire were Ecbatana and Pasagard.

Tomb of Cyrus in Pasagard.

Ecbatana was the original residence of the Mede kings and it was natural that Cyrus and his successors had the will to restore and inhabit the very capital of their former allies. Cyrus’ family was from Pasagard and there he and his son Cambyses also lived. The only remains of these early Persian kings’ palace are some half destroyed columns and a relief with the portrait of Cyrus that used to decorate a doorjamb. However, it is understood that its square floor plan must have had a portico* (or porch in a colonnade style) with columns on each side, the rooms were at the corners, and the reception hall was central as we will see later in the large buildings of Susa and Persepolis. In the same plain occupied by Pasagard stands the tomb of Cyrus, who died in 528 BCE, it is almost intact and displays the attempts of an eclectic and imperial Persian art. The mausoleum is a funerary promontory rising over a small stepped base. The burial chamber was only about three square meters and was covered by a flat roof that from the outside appeared as a pitched roof with two slopes giving the building a less oriental aspect and a more Greek look. The door was double and was artfully arranged so that no more than one person could get access to the tomb. The tomb was enclosed within a precinct with a portico from which few traces are left. This type of tomb had no imitations in Persian art, we’ll see later how Darius and his successors carved their royal tombs according to another completely new and original concept. The tomb of Cyrus had more to do with the typical funerary constructions from Lydia  (a satrapy -or province- of the Achaemenid Persian Empire) and shows that even since the times of Cyrus, Persians had looked for artistic elements in the Greek provinces of Asia.

Floor plan of Persepolis.

Pasagard always remained as the holy city where the Persian kings went to be crowned, but its location in the mountains was not appropriate for the capital of the Empire, and Darius who reigned 35 years (from 521 to 485 BCE) moved his residence to the plain in the place the Greeks called Persepolis. Darius built in Persepolis no more than two or three buildings but his descendants were responsible to enrich it with such magnificence that the city was proverbial in ancient times.

The terrace occupied by the palaces of Persepolis is a vast plane that extends at the foot of a rock cliff. At the summit of this mountain are still the altars for the sacred fire, the cult of the Persians. They are the only religious monuments that remain from ancient Persia. The terrace of Persepolis can be reached by a stair with a double ramp decorated with reliefs . After a few steps on the embankment you can find the lavish and monumental Propylaea* or monumental gates adorned with two winged bulls, a traditional element of Assyrian decor that Persia tried to copy though giving them some Aryan character and not Semitic as they were originally for the Assyrians. These propylaea formed an open gate at each side acting as a corridor with four columns.

Gate of Xerxes in the Propylaea of Persepolis. The monumental gate or Propylaea gave access to the great hypostyle hall that still conserves 13 mutilated columns. These winged bulls were traditional elements of the Assyrian decor that Persia adopted, but giving them an unmistakable Aryan character.
Idealized reconstruction of the hypostyle hall of Persepolis.

The other buildings were arranged on the terrace without obeying an overall plan: they were successive constructions built in different times. The first monument at the right of the propylaea is the Great Hypostyle Hall of Xerxes called apadana* which still have in place 13 mutilated columns, the largest remaining columns still standing in Persepolis. The apadana of Xerxes (485-465 BCE) is still today one of the largest halls that man has ever built. The total area it covers, including porticoes and colonnades, is over 1000 square meters and its height reaches 20 meters only counting for the height of the columns and their capitals. Its disposition was also extraordinarily original: the whole building was erected on a second base on the level of the terrace, vast galleries acted as the main front porch for the main facade and for two of the lateral walls, and in the middle there was a room full of columns with the typical Persian capital*.


Detail of the monumental staircase east of the Apadana at Persepolis (VI century BCE). The left side of this relief describes with perfect realism how a bull is surprisingly attacked by a lion.
Columns of the Apadana of Darius and Xerxes in Persepolis. This audience hall or Apadana contained 72 columns with capitals adorned with lions and bulls.

Beside the hypostyle hall, there was another building called the Hall of the Hundred Columns. In its front facade a double gallery flanked by two winged bulls served as a porch for the building which included only a single room. Its flat roof rested on ten rows of columns. From the walls that enclosed its square precinct only the doors remain on place; also a number of niches in the form of false windows decorated its inner walls.

Ruins of the Hall of the Hundred Columns in Persepolis.

On the terrace of Persepolis there are still remains of the royal palaces built by different kings. One of them is the first palace built by Darius in the new capital. The second palace was built by Xerxes in the southern corner of the terrace. Both had about the same floor plan of the palace of Cyrus in Pasagarda: a square precinct with a large hall with columns in the center and the rooms located on either side and the corners. The walls were generally built with brick and covered with ceramic decorations, only the doors and niches distributed inside the chambers were built with stone and decorated with figures and reliefs. The upper parts of the building were built with wood. It is interesting to see the Egyptian gorge over the doors of this palace. The eclecticism of the Persians is revealed in this collection of Assyrian elements like the building terraces, the winged bulls, the ceramic decoration, and also of an element so characteristic of the Egyptian construction as was this inverted molding.

Palace of Darius at Persepolis. The only elements of this palace that survived to present day are the stone doors topped with the inverted Egyptian gorge, a molding typical of the Egyptian art.

The Persian royal room or apadana was also in the ruins of the famous residence built in Susa where the Great King used to moved with his court during the winter season. Dominated by Chaldea and Assyria, Susa was occupied by Persians during their first expansion campaigns.  Later, over the ancient ruins of the occupied Susa, Artaxerxes II (405-358 BCE) built his palace. The floor plan, as we have described, is the established for the Persian palaces although the primarily construction material used in Susa was brick. Just for the columns and capitals the sculptors of the apadana of Susa used limestone, everything else was constructed with glazed brick and from there came the most splendid examples of ancient glazed ceramics: the so-called “archers of Susa” or frieze of the “Immortals”. This building of Susa offers the curious circumstance of being more influenced by the neighboring Assyrian constructions: it was built with bricks, even the winged bulls of the doors were made ​​with glazed pieces. Only columns and capitals were in the Persian style as in Persepolis.

Detail of the Frieze with the Achaemenid royal archers also known as Frieze of the Immortals, from the palace of Artaxerxes in Susa (Louvre), ca. 405-359 BCE. It represents the archers of the Persian guard, with a bow on their left shoulder and a panther skin quiver on their backs, while holding with both hands a long pike with a silver leaf. Each archer is 1.47 meters height.
Above, detail of the Frieze of the Lions from the Royal Palace of Susa (Louvre), in glazed ceramic. Below, detail of the Frieze of the Griffins (Louvre), also from Susa. These animal friezes were inspired by those decorating the Processional Avenue and the Ishtar Gate at Babylon.

The Persian column was much taller and slender than the Egyptian. Its bell-shaped base resembled a huge inverted flower. The shaft had ridges but more numerous than in the Greek column and on its top the capital included a highly original group of volutes combined with two fantastic bulls or unicorns which serve as brackets to hold the ceiling beams. The transverse ceiling beams were ingeniously supported within these two monsters in the space between their necks and their rumps. Persian palaces were characterized by the disposition of their wooden ceiling. Above the Bull-capitals rested a wooden lattice formed by coffers.

Structure of a Persian column.
Persian columns of the Apadana of Darius and Xerxes in Persepolis.
Capital from the columns of the palace of Artaxerxes II at Susa (Louvre). Each capital is 5.80 meters height.

The Persian royal tombs reflected an unprecedented architectural type. Except for the tomb of Cyrus in Pasagard all kings were buried in the royal necropolis of Naqsh-i-Rustam three kilometers away from Persepolis. The rocky surface was leveled in order to carve the facade of each grave with an immense relief in honor of the King who was buried there. The base of this facade was almost smooth, it was followed by a second wider band in which was represented a royal palace with its exterior colonnade and where the door opened for access to the burial chamber, and finally at the top there was a third band where the king was represented devoutly praying in front of the altar for the sacred fire worshiped by Persians. This third band of the relief is the most curious part of the monument because the king is standing on a sort of platform or throne and supported by a group of figures representing their various vassals chosen from among the nations of Asia. In contrast, inside the rock, Persians only excavated a simple camera with some graves in the ground destined to the corpses of all the royal family. The Persians continued to be a patriarchy and the king built one common grave for himself and all his family.

View of a Persian style tomb from the royal necropolis of Naqsh-i-Rustam.

The historical reliefs that decorate the terrace of Persepolis are imprinted with an almost international feeling. The tributaries arrive in orderly procession and seem satisfied, they don’t look like the defeated slaves bowed down by the weight of the pots, bags and metal ingots they are bearing to the Assyrian monarch. Much less, we find in Persepolis scenes of punishment, the terrible execution scenes that were the delight of the kings of Nineveh. Darius was a devotee of Ahura-Mazda and of the Zoroastrian religion. Ahura-Mazda, the active principle of light, goodness, truthfulness and purity, is usually depicted flying in the air above the Great King. His imagined physical form was also a synthesis of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Hellenic elements.  In turn, the Persians were the first peoples that produced a national art by doing an imperial synthesis of the artistic styles of their time.

Xerxes on his throne receiving the homage of the tributary princes, relief from the palace of Xerxes in Persepolis.


*Lost-wax casting: A process by which a metal sculpture in silver, gold, brass or bronze is cast from a preexisting mold.





*Apadana: The Ancient Persian version of a large hypostyle hall.





*Capital: (From the Latin word caput, meaning “head”) The topmost element of a column. It is located between the column’s shaft and the load thrusting of the construction down upon it, thus broadening the area of the column’s supporting surface. The capital is usually the most ornate element of a column. The three principal types are the Doric order, the Corinthian order and the Ionic order. These form the three principal types of capital on which modern capitals are based.



*Propylaea: A monumental gate.