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Discovering the art of Persia

Inspired by BBC Four’s new series, we take a tour of Iran’s most spectacular cultural sites.

Who else has been enjoying BBC Four’s new three-part series, Art of Persia? For those who haven’t seen it, broadcaster and journalist Samira Ahmed delves into the history of the Persian Empire; examines how Persians are the only Middle Eastern people to have preserved their identity and language despite waves of invasion and revolution; and explores the fabled civilisations seen in Ferdowsi’s epic Shahnameh.

The first two episodes have seen Ahmed venture across Iran, showcasing many of the country’s historical treasures.

Choga Zanbil

For today’s visitor, this is the Iran’s most important visual evidence of Elamite civilisation. A stepped-pyramid temple dominate the landscape here, and visitors are immediately struck by the huge brick-stepped construction nearly 3,500 years old, surrounded by remains of a vast walled precinct. This ziggurat, originally with four, now three, terraces connected by external staircases, was surmounted by a temple dedicated to the god Inshushinak, ‘Lord of Shush’; its total height was probably 53m.

Maria Oleynik

All around the lower terrace there are, in every 11th row or so, bricks inscribed in Elamite cuneiform giving the name of Untash Napirisha (r1359–1333BCE), the king who ordered its building. The numerous remains of glazed brick, glass and ivory suggest that the exterior of the temple was richly decorated about two centuries later, and at least one wall had moulded glazed tiles forming the figure of a huge winged bull, the symbol of Inshushinak, guarding the main staircase at ground level. Here and there, especially on the eastern wall, the odd glazed brick is still visible.

At ground level there are still signs of the original sacrificial tables and a pit, presumably to catch the blood of the slain animals. Just next to the brick construction, identified as a sacrificial altar plinth of Gal and Inshushinak, there is a footprint in the clay pavement, presumably that of an Elamite worker.           

Pasargadae

Founded in around 546bce by Cyrus II as his own and entirely Persian capital, Pasargadae (possibly meaning ‘the camp of the Persians’) was not finished before his death in 530 or 529bce and had remained the capital of the empire until the construction of Persepolis.

Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons

Here the Tomb of Cyrus the Great can be found, standing on its three-stepped platforms. The tomb chamber has a simple almost square form with a gabled roof. A few of the lead and iron swallow-tail clamps remain in situ, but the small entry doors have long gone, as have all the precious treasures they protected. From here, the road to the right leads eventually to ruins of a gatehouse, a small chamber whose huge stone corner blocks once supported mud-brick walls.

Other remains include those of an audience hall with some 30 central column bases and two porticoes, one originally stretching the length of the building. Its flooring is worth looking at, a veritable jigsaw of limestone slabs with small repairs to imperfections. Polished, it would have served Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers splendidly. Facing into the building from this portico, the corner block to the left carries one of the 24 trilingual inscriptions found on the site, which records ‘Cyrus the Great King the Achaemenid’; the omission of the personal pronoun leads some scholars to suggest that a successor, perhaps Darius, ordered the carving.

At the far end a doorway relief, to the height of 1.5m, showing a standing figure in a pleated robe inscribed with cuneiform characters, again reads ‘Cyrus, the Great King’. There are small drilled holes, perhaps to carry jewels or gold plaques as at Persepolis. Next to the palaces are the remains of the earliest known example of the Persian fourfold garden design – chahar bagh.

Persepolis

More than any other ancient site in Iran, Persepolis embodies all the glory – and the demise – of the Persian Empire. According to the archaeological evidence, the earliest remains of Persepolis date to around 518BCE, four years after Darius the Great’s accession to the Achaemenid throne. His successors added further buildings, but the site was still unfinished when, in early 330BCE, Alexander the Great burned it to the ground after looting the city, seven years before his death.

mostafa meraji, Unsplash

The greatest palace on the site is the square-shaped apadana whose construction started in 515BCE and took 30 years to complete. The original 72 columns, of which only 13 remain, were styled as animal sculptures of two-headed bulls, lions and eagles, and were joined by oak and cedar beams. Two symmetrical staircases were built on the northern and eastern sides of the palace, and if the light is good you may wish to go immediately towards the right to photograph the northern apadana staircase.

Most visitors, however, continue past the sound and light seating to the second gate or doorway flanked by unfinished horse figures, once the formal entrance into the Hall of 100 Columns, probably constructed c480–460BCE. These unfinished pieces show how the blocks were brought, set up and then carved in situ.

To the south, on a terrace some 2m higher, is the Winter Palace of Darius. It is entered by a western staircase ordered by Artaxerxes III, decorated with figures of servants (or possibly priests, as some appear to wear a padam – a white mask used to avoid polluting the sacred fire) carrying food, vessels and lambs. The intimate scale of this room, the polished stone, the remains of a red plaster floor and the low reliefs showing royal attendants with parasol, fly whisk, towel and perfume box have led some archaeologists to identify these rooms as royal private apartments with a bath. In the central area Darius I, as the Perfect Hero, is depicted slaying legendary animals trying to enter.

Other notable sites here include the Palace of Artaxerxes III (c359–338BCE), entered from staircases carved with further figures of delegates and attendants and the Palace of Xerxes (‘Ruling over Heroes’) with its 36 columns and five doorways with low reliefs showing Xerxes himself.

Towers of silence, Yazd

Two dakhmeh (Zoroastrian ‘towers of silence’) are situated a little south of Yazd. In accordance with Zoroastrian laws governing the sanctity of earth, fire, air and water, in Achaemenid times the dead were exposed and their bones later gathered to be placed in ossuaries or tombs in rock. But in later centuries large circular stone walls were built on rock and the bodies of Zoroastrian men, women and children were placed on their designated, paved zone on the open stone platform inside. A small central pit, filled with sand, charcoal and phosphorus to prevent pollution of the earth, acted as the drain.

M Khebra, Shutterstock

These towers are no longer in use (Zoroastrians are now interred in the nearby cemetery within a concrete chamber to avoid pollution of the earth), so with time and energy visitors may climb up them – the smaller, lower one on the right entailing a marginally shorter, easier clamber with access high up. Access into the other dakhmeh is best made from the gentle rise on the extreme left rather than the track on the extreme right.

These towers were constructed according to strict observance of prayer and ritual, so please treat them accordingly, even though others clearly have not. Below, there is a collection of buildings, a water cistern with two wind towers and rooms for mourners. There is also a mortuary reception area, where the body would be cleansed and dressed in a clean but old sacred shirt (sudreh), before being tied to a metal bier by the sacred girdle (kusti) for carrying to the platform.

If you come here for sunset, climb up the lower of the two towers as the top platform on the higher dakhmeh has high side walls blocking the view. 

Masjed-e Jame, Esfahan

No visit to Esfahan would be complete without a visit to the UNESCO-listed Masjed-e Jame. From the main entrance, cross over and walk through the arcades in a clockwise direction and you’ll soon realise how beautiful (and subtly coloured) brickwork can be, and how quickly your film is disappearing or your memory card being filled up.

Maria Oleynik

This is the way to the first of two magnificent, 11th-century ‘true’ domes, covering the south chamber. Let your eyes become accustomed to the darkness; what remains of the 10th-century plasterwork was probably once richly painted like the interior of Southwark Cathedral, London.

Back in the courtyard, walk down to the next (north) ivan, known as the sofeh (‘meeting or sitting area’) of the dervishes. A new door to the right takes you to the other dome chamber, built by Taj al-Molk, Nizam al-Molk’s bitter political rival, and perhaps designed by the famous poet-mathematician, Omar Khayyam. Built in 1089 and at that time outside the mosque, it perhaps functioned as a robing, meditation or judicial chamber for the Seljuk ruler. 

More information

Discover more of Iran’s art in our comprehensive guide: