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The Achaemenian Art

Achaemenian art, like the other features of this civilization, was unique in the ancient world, both, from the socio-political as well as the artistic and cultural viewpoints. Contrary to the Greek civilization that never went beyond the city-states (polis), the Achaemenid civilization was a great kingdom of diverse nations and ethnic communities, forming a great empire that was unique in solidarity and human relations not only in the ancient world, but matchless in the modern world as well. The same feature can clearly be observed in the Achaemenian art.

Some scholars consider Achaemenian art as the mixture of the arts of the various nations that formed the Achaemenid cosmopolitan government. It is true that the Achaemenian art drew upon the arts of its subject territories such as Orārtu, Babylonia, Assyria, Medes, and even such far away territories as Egypt, but it intermingled them with the delicate national spirit of Iranian art in such a manner that it gave birth to a novel phenomenon that was worthy of a great empire that extended from North Africa to Siberia and from the Danube to Sind. The outstanding feature of this art was that it preserved the freedom and creativity of the artists of the subject territories. Another feature of Achaemenian art, contrary to that of many other great nations like Egypt and Greece, was that it was not only an art of the realms of the legendary gods or the world of the dead, but it was rather the art of the living people who constituted the Achaemenian Empire. These features acted as a bridge and connected the arts of east and the west of the civilized world.

The erection of buildings on stone platforms was a prominent feature of the Achaemenian architecture, which is manifest in all the structures from Takht-e Soleymān to the Takht-e Jamshid (Persepolis). In the Pāsargad which represents the first Achaemenid capital city built during the reign of Cyrus the Great, besides a few pillared halls, some great and small palaces and the remains of certain other structures, such religious buildings as fire temples and the tomb of Cyrus can also be found. Constructed with cut stones and decorated with stonework and stone engravings, this complex was encircled by stone fences with large and small gates. Moreover, the remains of water pools can also be seen in the spaces between the palaces and buildings. Although today only the remains of King Cyrus’s tomb on a six-storey platform in the form of a single room with a ridged ceiling constructed with marble-like slabs has survived, the same building which is eleven meters high overall, pinpoints to the bright past of the Achaemenian architecture.

During the peak of the Achaemenid kingdom, Darius transferred his capital to Susā, launching the construction of palaces in this ancient city. According to the surviving inscriptions and epigraphs, his famous Apadana Palace was constructed by artists hailing from the various parts of his empire like Ionia, Egypt, Sind, and Babylonia. Moreover, Median, Ionian and Sardinian bricklayers and architects using such materials as the wood of the lotus tree from Lebanon, ivory from Abyssinia (Ethiopia today), and turquoise and agate (carnelian) from Khwārazm and Indus had been employed for these magnificent works. Such inscriptions demonstrate the ability of the Iranians in employing the arts and resources of all their subject territories. The remains of Susā’s Āpādānā demonstrate a new architectural style which is not similar to that of the subject territories of the empire ruled by Darius the Great but which rather reveals an entirely fresh and innovative style of art possessing an Iranian spirit, form, and structure.

The ceilings of the pillared halls of this palace rest on a row of 20-meter high grooved pillars of cut stones resting on stone pedestals curved in the image of cow. Such high aspiration and craftsmanship had not been seen in the architecture of any previous nation. The glazed enameled tiles decorating the walls of the palace are among the most beautiful decorations of all the renowned building of the ancient world. Some other palaces were built after Āpādānā in Susā, that were as gigantic and beautifully decorated as Āpādānā itself. The Persepolis complex constructed on a vast platform near Shirāz, too, demonstrates the splendor of the Achaemenian architecture. This complex – the construction of which had continued up to the end of the Achaemenid period – is constituted of eighteen known great and small buildings. The stairs connecting the ground to the stone platform of the complex on the two sides have been curved out of stone in a manner that could enable the Achaemenid kings to climb the stairs mounted on their horses. Magnificent buildings such as the 100-pillar palace, the 100-gate palace with the throne hall, the Artaxerxes Palace, and the 99-pillar hall on the side of the smaller palaces such as Apadana have been arranged within the complex in a very skillful manner.

The vast ceilings of the buildings of Persepolis rest on the grooved stone columns which are taller than those of the Greek monuments and have been carved in the shapes of vases with capitals decorated in lion, cow or eagle images and sometimes in the forms of two human heads. Stone engravings constitute the major part of the decorations in the Persepolis architecture, ornamenting the walls on the sides of the staircases of the Āpādānā Palace, the Gate of Xerxes, the Gate of All Nations, and the walls of all the other buildings of the Persepolis. Besides their decorative and symbolic natures, the stone engravings demonstrate the celebrations of the New Year (Noruz) Festivals. The engravings on the walls of the staircases of the Āpādānā Palace show the representatives of the twenty-three member-countries of the Achaemenid Empire bringing some gifts from their countries to present to the Emperor.

Decorative arts enjoy a special place in the Achaemenian art. The global commerce which flourished in the light of the efficiency of the Achaemenid rulers in their vast territories as well as the minting of Achaemenid gold and silver coins facilitated the transaction of the goods manufactured out of valuable metals in the farthest western and southern flanks of the empire. These very transactions paved the way for interaction between the arts of various nations. An inclination towards nature, and in some cases, complete representations of pure nature permeated the Achaemenian art from sculpture to jewelry. Embossed decoration prevailed just like in the past. A number of the surviving golden and silver beakers and spouted-wares belonging to this period are in the shapes of lions, cows, ibexes, and other animals. The skillful jewelers of the Achaemenid Era demonstrated their skills by manufacturing a range of artifacts for various applications, including hairpins, garment ornamentation, and motifs for swords shields and knives.

The hand-woven cloths, carpets, and short-napped carpets (kilims) of the Achaemenid era were known worldwide. The unearthing of the oldest hand-woven knotted, napped carpet in the archeological excavations in the frozen graves of Pajerik in the Altai region is a historical proof to this fact. The central design of the carpet with its four-faceted stars had earlier appeared in the bronze artifacts of Lorestān. Designs of Median riders with horses decorated exactly like the images of the horses in the engravings of the Persepolis as well as images of the spotted deer that used to live around Khuzestān to the northernmost part of the eastern Achaemenid Empire are also seen on the margins of the carpet. The 183x200 centimeter rug which has 1,250,000 symmetrical knots is currently preserved in the Armitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. During the same excavations, some pieces of a hand-woven short-napped carpet (kilims) were found, depicting the Achaemenid queens performing rituals in front of the fireplace. Similar depictions are seen on the engravings of the Persepolis, showing the “King of the Kings” performing rituals in front of the fireplace.

*source: Semsar , Mohammad Hasan " Iran Entry " The Great Islamic Encyclopedia . Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.10 , pp.628- 630

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