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A panoramic view of the gardens and outside of the Palace of Darius I of Persia in Persepolis.

The Spectacular Monumental Architecture of the Achaemenid Empire

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The Achaemenid Empire is traditionally believed to have been founded by Cyrus the Great during the middle of the 6 th century B.C. In 559 B.C., Cyrus became the king of Persis, and 9 years later, defeated his overlord, the Medians. Over the next few centuries, the Achaemenids expanded their empire to the east and to the west. As their empire grew, the Achaemenid rulers intended to express this new-found authority through the use of monumental architecture. This form of architecture, known today as Achaemenid architecture, was developed from the time of Cyrus, and is said to have been finalized within two generations or so. This article seeks to discuss two specific forms of Achaemenid architecture – royal tombs (specifically the tomb of Cyrus the Great, and those at Naqsh-e-Rustam), and palace-cities (specifically Pasargadae and Persepolis).

Panorama of Persepolis ruins

Panorama of Persepolis ruins (public domain)

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great

The Tomb (or Mausoleum) of Cyrus the Great can be found in the archaeological site of Pasargadae, which is located in Fars region of modern day Iran. It has been said that Cyrus’ gilded sarcophagus was once held in this compact limestone tomb. In later times, the monument was venerated as the tomb of King Solomon’s mother, and even functioned as a mosque. Although Cyrus was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, his tomb can be said to be extremely simple and modest, especially when compared to those of his successors. This monument is believed to have originally been around 11m in height, and included a gable-roofed cellar. This tomb has no inscriptions on it, and its only decoration is a single carved rosette situated at the top of the gable on the entrance façade.

The tomb of Cyrus the Great

The tomb of Cyrus the Great (public domain)

The Royal Tombs of Naqsh-e-Rustam

As a comparison, the royal tombs of four Achaemenid kings are located at the site of Naqsh-e-Rustam. This site is perhaps best known for its Sassanian reliefs, though it was the tombs of these Achaemenid rulers that attracted the Sassanians to this location in the first place. The tombs of the Achaemenids, which were carved out of the rock face, contained reliefs, and one of the tombs even contains an inscription identifying its owner as Darius the Great. The amount of effort put into the construction of these tombs was perhaps intended to showcase the wealth and greatness of the Achaemenid Empire.

Naqsh-e Rostam, Fars province, Iran.

Naqsh-e Rostam, Fars province, Iran. (Wikimedia Commons)

Pasargadae, First Dynastic Capital of the Achaemenid Empire

Returning to Pasargadae, this city is not only the final resting place of Cyrus the Great, but was also the first dynastic capital of the Achaemenid Empire. It has been said that the Acahemenids founded the “first great multicultural empire in Western Asia”, and was the first empire that “respected the cultural diversity of its different peoples”. This outlook is believed to have been held by the Achaemenids from the start, and is reflected in the architecture of their first capital. For example, the big stone constructions in the first Achaemenid capital are said to have been built using Lydo-Ionian masonry techniques. In other words, these building techniques, and perhaps the craftsmen as well, were brought to Pasargadae after Lydia (located in western Anatolia) was conquered by Cyrus, possibly in 547 B.C. Buildings with colonnaded halls have also been found in Pasargadae, and it has been said that the ground plans of these are similar to those at the Median site of Godin Tepe. Nevertheless, the Achaemenids innovated on this design, and added “long, low stoa­-like columned porticos” to their halls.

Remnants of columns at Pasargadae

Remnants of columns at Pasargadae (public domain)

Persepolis – The New Capital

The integration of conquered nations by the Achaemenids is even more evident in the architecture of Cyrus’ successors. This is clearly seen in the building of the new capital of Persepolis, which was started by Darius the Great, but completed by his successor, Xerxes the Great. One of the most striking objects in this city is the so-called ‘apadana reliefs’, which are found on the eastern and northern stairs of the Apadana (audience hall) of Persepolis. These reliefs famously depict the procession of peoples of all nations under Achaemenid rule bringing tribute to the Great King. Whilst the design of the Apadana of Persepolis was probably based on Cyrus’ colonnaded hall in Pasargadae, the former is square, whilst the latter is rectangular in floor plan. Moreover, the Apadana of Persepolis was much more immense in size, perhaps to reflect and display the grandeur and power of the Achaemenid Empire. Foreign tribute bearers visiting the city would have almost certainly be awed by this monumental construction.

Objects in the "Apadana" reliefs at Persepolis: armlets, bowls, and amphorae with griffin handles are given as tribute.

Objects in the "Apadana" reliefs at Persepolis: armlets, bowls, and amphorae with griffin handles are given as tribute. (public domain)

Persepolis, stairs of the Apadana, relief

Persepolis, stairs of the Apadana, relief (public domain)

Persepolis is regarded as the pinnacle of the Achaemenid architectural style. This style would remain frozen for the following two centuries until the fall of the Achaemenid Empire to the forces of Alexander the Great.

Featured image: A panoramic view of the gardens and outside of the Palace of Darius I of Persia in Persepolis. Virtual recreation by Charles Chipiez (1835-1901). (public domain)

By Ḏḥwty


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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