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The Parthian or Ashkanid Era

With the collapse of the Achaemenian Dynasty and the victory of Alexander, the Iranian national art faced a disruption and, finally, this led to the emergence of a new genre of art called the Greco-Iranian. However, compared to the Achaemenian art this style could be considered as backward. This situation continued until the times of the Parthian ruler, Mehrdād II (123 BC), who came to establish the Parthian rule as a great global empire. During this period we come across three Iranian artistic styles: Greek-imitated art; Greco-Iranian art; and Iranian art. Moreover, an inclination towards the revival of the national spirit in all cultural and political arenas, including art, led to a deep urge for the revival of Iranian art during the rule of Mehrdād II - the flames of which had never subsided during all this while - and through which the grounds for the emergence of a new style of Iranian art came to be paved. Although through this new style, Iranian art reverted to more primitive styles, it was accompanied with efforts which led to the revival of pure Iranian art without any intermingling of alien elements. A return to bust sculpture - which found an all-out application in the Parthian art - is an example of this art movement, having its roots in prehistoric Iran and under no circumstances to be attributed to Greek art. All branches of Parthian art can be studied from this perspective. In the area of urban design and planning, the construction of cities with circular designs became the official Parthian trend. Defense considerations were the main focus in this trend of planning that came to be widely imitated in the West during the Middle Ages.

The early manifestations of the Parthian architecture are seen in Nesā (or Ashkābad, few kilometers from the new city of Ashkhābad, the capital city of Turkmenistan) – the first capital of the Parthians – excavated by the Russian archeologists. Although the Nesā royal palace, from the viewpoint of its decorations, is to some extent under the influence of Greek art (for instance the bust of the statue of the ancestors of the Parthian kings are made of clay and are assigned a Divine status in the traditional Greek manner), the main building itself has a structure consisting of four halls around a yard. This style began with the Parthian Nesā - and is still known as the formal traditional designing style of Iran -and even extended beyond Iran to Mesopotamia.

It is for two reasons that our information about the 500-year long Parthian rule remains incomplete; firstly, owing to the widespread dispersion of the Parthian architectural remains that extend from Āi Khānum, Sorkh Kotal and Nesa in the east and includes the remains of the City of a Hundred Gates (in Dāmghān), Kuh-e Khājeh (in Sistan), Bardeh Neshāndeh (in Khuzestān) and the Anāhita Temple (in Kangāvar) in today’s Iran and stretch to the Assyrian Palace (in Iraq) and Palmyra (in Syria); and secondly, due to a limited number of archaeological excavations conducted in the Parthian cities. However, the construction materials of this period mainly included mud bricks, bricks, cut and uncut stones, and plaster concrete, while the prevailing designs included crescent arches and porticos, and particularly trio-porticos in which the central hall’s arch was greater than those of the adjacent halls. Other completely Iranian elements of the architecture of this period are the decorations of the outer façade of structures, and particularly the decorations of buildings, that came to be adorned with stone-carvings of human faces up to the chin like the Al-Hazr.

Regarding the arts associated with architecture, the art of plasterwork was introduced for the first time in the first century AD in the Parthian palaces of Mesopotamia, reaching the peak of its elegance in the buildings of Kuh Khājeh. Another trend of decoration of Parthian architecture was wall-engraving. The engravings on the walls of the Kuh Khājeh Palace near the Hāmun Lake of Sistān and the ones depicting the ritual ceremonies in the Palmyra Temple in Dorā (in present-day Syria) as well as those of the Assyrian Palace prove the spread of this art during the Parthian era. The Parthians followed the Achaemenids in the fields of sculpture and inscription. A study of the inscriptions of Mehrdad II in Behistun and the engravings of Tang Sarvak and Susā demonstrate the effects of the Parthian school on the statues and engravings of Palmyra, Nimrud-Dāgh, and Dorā.

Interestingly, the Parthian arts of wall engraving and relief managed to survive in the western part of the Parthian Empire, including Haran and Palmyra, even as Roman art was spreading rapidly in the Mediterranean region. More interestingly, during the 1st Century AD, Roman and Greek Art even opened up to the Eastern Parthian themes – a trend that continued until the Sassanid Era.

In fact, the Seleucids who had inherited a great chunk of the Achaemenid Empire, tried to replace the Iranian civilization and culture with the Greek civilization and culture in the conquered territories, but the resistance of the Iranians neutralized their efforts even in the territories they controlled. The victory of the Parthians and the return to the Iranian national art sheds more light on this issue. Besides spreading a new art – which was rooted in the Achaemenid art – from Transoxiania to the Mediterranean coasts, the Parthians laid the foundations for the Sassanid art as well.

* 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.631- 632

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