From the Achaemenid Empire, established by Cyrus the Great, to the Parthian and the Sasanian Empires before Islam took over modern-day Iran, the Persian Empire flourished far and wide.
By: Priya Narayan
The Persian Empire was centred in modern-day Iran. Over the centuries, a series of imperial dynasties ruled the region. It all started when Cyrus the Great united two Iranian tribes – the Medes and the Persians – to establish his rule in 550 BC, marking the birth of the Achaemenid Empire. The empire expanded far and wide. He took over Media, Lydia and Babylon and conquered regions right up to Egypt in the west and India in the East.
The art and architecture of Ancient Persia were influenced by the works of neighbouring empires of Rome, Greece and Egypt to name a few. Magnificent palaces, columned halls, striking towers and high terraces characterised the architecture. Unfortunately, these structures faced destruction especially with Alexander the Great’s decision to burn Persepolis.
The Achaemenid Empire that was established by Cyrus the Great, focused mainly on constructing larger and more exquisite structures than their predecessors. The grand palaces consisted of sculptures and reliefs that depicted royalty and supernatural creatures. Bas-reliefs and sculptures glorifying the king have also been found in the streets within the empire. Elegant columns inspired by Greek architecture are also significant features of this era.
The city of Pasargadae is important when it comes to the Achaemenid Empire since it was the capital. Not just that. Some of the more important structures were built on this site. These include Cyrus the Great’s tomb, the Citadel, an extensive audience hall and parks with bridges and open-columned pavilions. What is unique about this site is that it was built in such a way that it could withstand massive earthquakes – up to a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale.
The empire was followed by the Parthian invasion. They took over Persia and conquered Mesopotamia, extending their reign as far as Turkey. The empire was located on the Silk Road which enabled trade between central Asia and Europe.
The architecture of the Parthian Empire was influenced by the Achaemenid and Greek architecture, yet it had its distinct features. The Round Hall of Nisa serves as an example of the same. While it is similar to Hellenistic palaces in terms of the incorporation of marble statues and carved ivory, it differs in form and structure.
The iwan is another interesting Parthian contribution. Although they were built even during the Achaemenid Empire, it was the Parthians who built these structures on a large scale. Iwans were audience halls with arches, barrel walls, columns and support roofs. One of the oldest is located at Seleucia.
The Sasanian Empire followed afterward and it was the last Iranian Empire before the rise of Islam. The empire spread up to Syria and north-west India. However, their artworks have been discovered even in Central Asia, China and France.
Much of Sasanian architecture influenced Islamic structures later on. Innumerable iwans were built during this period, especially in the capital city of Ctesiphon. The Palace of Sarvestan was also considered a grand and unique structure in terms of the techniques employed in its construction.
The architecture of this period was characterised by distinctive use of spaces, unique panels and motifs, mosaic decorations and paintings that decorated the walls, ceilings and floors of buildings.
The Iranians were the ones who revolutionised the construction of domes. While it was difficult to set semi-circular domes on top of square buildings, the Iranians designed octagonal buildings which would make it easier to rest the domes on. These domes were distinguished for their height, form and proportion. While the inner halls were large and spacious, the outer surface was decorated with mosaic art work.
The Persian Empire was unique when compared to other civilisations. It was vast and its structures were beautifully designed with great importance given to architecture, art and poetry. Moreover, the presence of many emperors over such a short span led to development and also a mix of many cultures which is evident in their structures.
Persian Art had a very close relationship with poetry, religious and philosophical thinking which is evident in their style and themes. It was unique and dealt with themes such as the meaning of life and man’s struggle for survival. They depicted his desires and aspirations and his need to see life with security, self-confidence and great inner strength.
Arab Conquest of Iran
The Arab conquest of Persia happened in stages. They first attacked Mesopotamia, the political and economic capital, in 633 AD when the region was still under the Sasanian rule, but eventually lost control to Persian counter-attacks. The second invasion in 636 AD marked the end of the Sasanian Empire in west Iran. What was left of the empire was wiped out in 651 AD with a third invasion. The Persians were forced to flee with Islam becoming increasingly prevalent in Iran and the neighbouring regions.
The major religion that was followed in Persia was Zoroastrianism. The founder of the religion, Zoroaster divided early gods based on his religious philosophy. Zoroastrianism was as spiritual as it was religious. It influenced many religious systems that followed it. However, today, the population of Zoroastrians has diminished to about 2.6 million most of who live in India and Iran.