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The Persians achieved unity under the leadership of Achaemenes, whose descendant Cyrus brought the Achaemenian Empire onto the center stage of world history. Cyrus was the descendant of a long line of Persian kings and should be referred to as Cyrus II, having been named after his grandfather.


According to the writings of Herodotus, the last ruler of the Medes, Astyages (585 - 550 B.C.) was defeated and captured by Cyrus in 549 B.C.. In all probability Cyrus had the support of the Babylonian sovereign Nabonidus. The Persian king overthrew the Median empire and seized Ecbatana (Place of Assembly), which became his capital. He spared the defeated ruler, preferring not to indulge in the mass killings, which until then had been a feature of Assyrian victories. On the contrary he brought nobles and civilian officials, both Median and Persian, into the government of his kingdom.


"The Old Persian script" (Cuneiform Type)


From 546 B.C., Cyrus II applied himself to the task of attacking the powerful kingdom of Lydia, where the famous Croesus ruled. There were two battles, then Cyrus besieged and captured Sardis before going on to subdue the rich Greek cities. From this point onwards Cyrus was master of all Asia Minor. He now turned his attention towards his eastern frontiers and conquered a string of provinces one after the other, even crossing the Oxus in order to reach another river, the Jaxartes, which flows into the Aral Sea. A number of fortresses were then built for the purpose of keeping out the nomads of Central Asia.


In 539 B.C., the Persian sovereign assembled the bulk of his army and left his capital, Ecbatana, to follow the course of the Tigris down to Babylon, where he attacked Nabonidus. The city which had been capital of Mesopotamia for a thousand years offered little resistance, and welcomed Cyrus as a liberator.


As usual, Cyrus showed magnanimity in victory. The respect he showed for the religions of others earned him the homage of all Babylonians; Syria and Phoenicia thus came under Achaemenian law. Cyrus the Great now held sway over all the kingdoms of the Near and Middle East. In the space of less than twenty years he had assembled the greatest empire the world had ever seen. All he needed now was Egypt! However, soon after his son Cambyses had been entrusted with making the preparations for such a campaign, Cyrus himself was killed in battle on the eastern frontier of his empire.


When Cyrus died in 530 B. C., the Achaemenian Empire was well established. The sovereign had founded a new capital city at Pasargad in Fars. Similarly, he had worked out the administration of the empire, appointing a governor, or satrap, to represent him in each province. He imposed an annual tax in the form of a tribute on all the races he conquered, to which the Achaemenian power owed much of its wealth and magnificence.


Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses II (530-522 B.C.), After a victorious campaign against Egypt, he annexed the country to his father's empire, but during his absence the throne was seized by the Magus Gaumata, and the King died mysteriously. However, Darius I (522-486 B.C.) ended this reign, when he proclaimed himself the legitimate king. He then continued the work of Cyrus, creating 23 provinces, or satrapies, and building the administrative and religious cities of Susa and Persepolis.


"Fluted Golden drinking horn (Rhyton)"


The magnificent palace complex of Persepolis was founded around 518 B.C., although more than a century passed before it was completed.


Through his military campaigns, Darius extended the frontiers of the empire; in the east, around 512 B.C., he conquered Gandhara and the Indus Valley, while in the west, he attacked the Scythians, whom he never managed to subdue, and then turned against Greece.


While attempting to put down a rebellion in Egypt in 490 B.C., Darius suffered a humiliating defeat at Marathon, near Athens. He died in 486 B.C. without renewing his attack on Greece.


After the death of Darius, the immense empire established under the first Achaemenian rulers was threatened, as Persian authority could no longer contain the rebellions of the satrapies.


Xerxes (486-465 B.C.), the son of Darius, put down revolts in Egypt and Babylonia with great severity and renewed the struggle against Greece. He quickly subdued Thessaly and Macedonia, then captured Attica and Athens, which he burned down; however, in 480 B.C. the Persian fleet was destroyed at Salamis.


Discouraged, Xerxes returned to Persia, and never left again. Gradually, the immense empire disintegrated; the Greek cities in Ionia, Egypt, then Pheonicia and Syria broke away, followed by the regions to the west of the Euphrates. Artaxerxes III (358-338) made one last attempt to reunite the empire, brutally taking back Egypt and quelling the revolt of the satraps, but a new power was already emerging in West-Macedonia.


The last Achaemenian ruler, Darius III (336 - 330 B.C.) was weak, and his cowardice at two major campaigns, the first at Issus (333 B.C.) and the other at Gaugamela two years later surrendered the empire to Alexander.


The Achaemenian period may be said to begin in 549 BC when Cyrus the Great deposed the Median king Astyages. Cyrus (559-530 BC), the first great Persian king, created an empire extending from Anatolia to the Persian Gulf incorporating the former realms of both Assyria and Babylonia; and Darius the Great (522-486 BC), who succeeded him after various disturbances, extended the boundaries of the empire further still.

Fragmentary remains of Cyrus' Palace at Pasargad in Fars indicate that Cyrus favored a monumental style of building. He incorporated decoration based partly on Urartian, partly on the older Assyrian and Babylonian art, as he wished his empire to seem to be the rightful heir of Urartu, Assur, and Babylon.

Pasargad covered an area almost 1.5 miles in length and included palaces, a temple and the tomb of the king of kings. Enormous winged bulls, which no longer survive flanked the entrance to the gate-house, but a stone relief on one of the door jams is still preserved. It is adorned with a bas-relief representing a four-winged guardian spirit in a long garment of Elamite type, whose head is surmounted by a complicated headdress of Egyptian origin. In the early 19th century an inscription over the figure could still be seen and deciphered: "I, Cyrus, king, the Achaemenian [have done this]."



The central hall in one of the palaces had bas-reliefs showing the king followed by a pastoral bearer. Here for the first time on an Iranian sculpture appear garments with folds, in contrast to the straight-falling robe of the four winged guardian spirit, executed according to the traditions of ancient oriental art, which did not allow the slightest movement or life. Achaemenian art here marks the first step in the exploration of a means of expression that was to be developed by the artists of Persepolis.

The rock cut tombs in Pasargad, Naqsh-e Rustam, and elsewhere are a valuable source of information about the architectural forms used in the Achaemenian period. The presence of Ionic capitols in one of the earliest of these tombs suggests the serious possibility that this important architectural form was introduced into Ionian Greece from Persia, contrary to what is commonly supposed.

Under Darius, the Achaemenian Empire embraced Egypt and Libya in the west and extended to the river Indus in the east. During his rule, Pasargad was relegated to a secondary role and the new ruler quickly began to build other palaces, first at Susa and then at Persepolis.

Susa was the most important administrative center in Darius' Empire, its geographical location halfway between Babylon and Pasargad was very favorable. The palace structure built at Susa was based on a Babylonian principle, with three large interior courts, around which were reception and living rooms. In the palace courtyard panels of polychrome glazed bricks decorated the walls. These included a pair of winged human-headed lions beneath a winged disk, and the so-called "Immortals". The craftsmen who made and arranged these bricks came from Babylon, where there was a tradition for this sort of architectural decoration.

Although Darius constructed a number of buildings at Susa, he is better known for his work at Persepolis (the palace at Persepolis built by Darius and completed by Xerxes), 30-km south-west of Pasargad.

The decoration includes the use of carved wall slabs representing the endless processions of courtiers, guards, and tributary nations from all parts of the Persian Empire. Sculptors working in teams carved these relieves, and each team signed its work with a distinctive mason's mark.

These relieves are executed in a dry and almost coldly formal, though neat and elegant, style which was henceforth characteristic of Achaemenian art and contrasts with the movement and zest of Assyrian and neo-Babylonian art. This art was supposed to capture the spectator by its symbolism, and convey a sense of grandeur; artistic values were therefore relegated to second place.

"Persian King and Queen"


The king is the dominant figure in the sculpture at Persepolis, and it seems that the whole purpose of the decorative scheme was to glorify the king, his majesty and his power.

Here, also we can see that the Persepolis sculptures differ from the Assyrian reliefs, which are essentially narrative and aim to illustrate the achievements of the king. The similarities are such, though, that it is obvious much of the inspiration for this sort of relief must have come from Assyria. Greek, Egyptian, Urartian, Babylonian, Elamite and Scythian influences can also been seen in Achaemenian art. This is perhaps not surprising, in view of the wide range of people employed in the construction of Persepolis.
Achaemenian art, however, was also capable of influencing that of others and its impress is most noticeable in the early art of India, with which it probably came into contact through Bactria.

The realism of Achaemenian art manifests its power in the representation of animals, as can be seen in the many relieves at Persepolis. Carved in stone or cast in bronze, the animals served as guardians to the entrances or, more often as supports for vases, in which they were grouped by threes, their union a revival of the old traditions of tripods with legs ending in a hoof or a lion's paw. The Achaemenian artists were worthy descendants of the animal sculptors of Luristan.

Silver-work, glazing, goldsmiths' work, bronze casting, and inlay work are all well represented in Achaemenian art. The Oxus treasure, a collection of 170 items of gold and silver found by the Oxus river date from the 5th to the 4th century BC. Among the best-known piece is a pair of gold armlets with terminals in the shape of horned griffins, originally inlaid with glass and coloured stones.

Achaemenian art is a logical continuation of what preceded it, culminating in the superb technical skill and unprecedented splendour so evident at Persepolis. The art of the Achaemenians is deeply rooted in the era when the first Iranians arrived on the plateau, and its wealth has accumulated throughout the centuries to constitute at last, the splendid realisation of Iranian art today.








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