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In A.D. 224 Ardeshir, a descendant of Sassan and ruler of Fars and Kerman, rebelled against the Parthian king, Artabanus V, and established the Sassanian dynasty.

Within twenty years, Ardeshir I (224-241) created a vast empire that stretched as far as the Indus.
His son Shapur I (241-272) continued this expansion, conquering Bactria, and Kushan, while leading several campaigns against Rome. In 259, the Persian army defeated the Roman emperor Valerian at the battle of Edessa and more than 70,000 Roman soldiers were captured.

For nearly four centuries, foreign wars and internal struggles gradually exhausted the Sassanian Empire and a new enemy, the Hephtalite Huns, defeated them. It was not until the reign of Khosroe I (531-579), one of the greatest Sassanian rulers, that the Huns were beaten.

Khosroe took Antioch in 540 A.D., while Khosroe II, who had rebuilt the empire until it rivaled that of the Archaemenians, laid siege to Byzantium in 626 A.D.. However, the dynamic emperor Heraclius turned the tables, with the Byzantines invading Iran in 628. Khosroe II was deposed and murdered by his followers. After his death, over a period of 14 years and twelve successive kings, the Sassanian Empire weakened considerably, and the power of the central authority passed into the hands of the generals. This paved the way for the first Arab attacks in 633 A.D.


"Silver Gilt Dish"


In many ways the Sassanian period (AD 224-633) witnessed the highest achievement of Persian civilization, and constituted the last great Iranian Empire before the Moslem conquest.

The Sassanian Dynasty, like the Achaemenian, originated in the province of Fars. They saw themselves as successors to the Achaemenians, after the Hellenistic and Parthian interlude, and perceived it as their role to restore the greatness of Iran.

At its peak, the Sassanian Empire stretched from Syria to north-west India; but its influence was felt far beyond these political boundaries. Sassanian motifs found their way into the art of central Asia and China, the Byzantine Empire, and even Merovingian France.

In reviving, the glories of the Achaemenian past, the Sassanians were no mere imitators. The art of this period reveals an astonishing virility. In certain respects it anticipates features later developed during the Islamic period. The conquest of Persia by Alexander had inaugurated the spread of Hellenistic art into Western Asia; but if the East accepted the outward form of this art, it never really assimilated its spirit. Already in the Parthian period Hellenistic art was being interpreted freely by the peoples of the Near East and throughout the Sassanian period there was a continuing process of reaction against it. Sassanian art revived forms and traditions native to Persia; and in the Islamic period these reached the shores of the Mediterranean.

The splendor in which the Sassanian monarchs lived is well illustrated by their surviving palaces, such as those at Firuzabad and Bishapur in Fars, and the capital city of Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. In addition to local traditions, Parthian architecture must have been responsible for a great many of the Sassanian architectural characteristics. All are characterised by the barrel-vaulted iwans introduced in the Parthian period, but now they reached massive proportions, particularly at Ctesiphon. The arch of the great vaulted hall at Ctesiphon attributed to the reign of Shapur I (AD 241-272) has a span of more than 80 ft, and reaches a height of 118 ft. from the ground. This magnificent structure facinated architects in the centuries that followed and has always been considered as one of the most important pieces of Persian architecture. Many of the palaces contain an inner audience hall which consists, as at Firuzabad, of a chamber surmounted by a dome. The Persians solved the problem of constructing a circular dome on a square building by the squinch. This is an arch built across each corner of the square, thereby converting it into an octagon on which it is simple to place the dome. The dome chamber in the palace of Firuzabad is the earliest surviving example of the use of the squinch and so there is good reason for regarding Persia as its place of invention.

The unique characteristic of Sassanian architecture, was its distinctive use of space. The Sassanian architect conceived his building in terms of masses and surfaces; hence the use of massive walls of brick decorated with molded or carved stucco. Stucco wall decorations appear at Bishapur, but better examples are preserved from Chal Tarkhan near Rayy (late Sassanian or early Islamic in date), and from Ctesiphon and Kish in Mesopotamia. The panels show animal figures set in roundels, human busts, and geometric and floral motifs.

At Bishapur some of the floors were decorated with mosaics showing scenes of merrymaking as at a banquet; the Roman influence here is clear, and the mosaics may have been laid by Roman prisoners. Buildings were also decorated with wall paintings; particularly fine examples have been found at Kuh-i Khwaja in Sistan.

Sassanian sculpture affords an equally striking contrast to that of Greece and Rome. Some thirty rock sculptures survive, most of them located in Fars. Like those of the Achaemenian period they are carved in relief, often on remote and inaccessible rocks. Some are so deeply undercut as to be virtually freestanding; others are hardly more than graffiti. Their purpose is the glorification of the monarch.

The earliest known Sassanian rock carvings are those at Firuzabad, attributed to the beginning of Ardashir I's reign and still bound to the conventions of Parthian art. The relief itself is very low, the details are rendered by means of fine incisions, and the forms are heavy and massive, but not without a certain vigor. One relief, carved on a rock wall at the Tang-i-Ab gorge near the Firuzabad plain, consists of three separate dueling scenes that express vividly the Iranian concept of battle as a series of individual engagements.

Many depict the investiture of the king by the god "Ahuramazda" with the emblems of sovereignty; others the triumph of the king over his enemies. They may have been inspired by Roman triumphal works, but the manner of treatment and presentation is very different. Roman relieves are pictorial records always with an attempt at realism. The Sassanian sculptures commemorate an event by depicting symbolically the culminating incident: for instance in the sculpture at Naksh-i-Rustam (3rd c.) the Roman emperor Valerian hands over his arms to the victor Shapur I. Divine and royal personages are portrayed on a scale larger than that of inferior persons. Compositions are as a rule symmetrical. Human figures tend to be stiff and heavy and there is an awkwardness in the rendering of certain anatomical details such as the shoulders and torso.


"Silver Dish"


Relief sculpture reached its zenith under Bahram I (273-76), the son of Shapur I, who was responsible for a fine ceremonial scene at Bishapur, in which the forms have lost all stiffness and the workmanship is both elaborate and vigorous.

Considering the entire collection of Sassanian rock sculptures, a certain stylistic rise and decline becomes apparent; from the flat forms of the early relieves founded on Parathian tradition, the art turned to the more sophisticated and - owing to Western influence - more rounded forms then appeared during the period of Sapphire I, culminating in the dramatic ceremonial scene of Bahrain I at Bishapur, then retrogressing to uninspired and trite forms under Narsah, and finally returning to the non-classical style evident in the relieves of Khosroe II.

There is no attempt at portraiture in Sassanian art, either in these sculptures or in the royal figures depicted on metal vessels or on their coins. Each emperor is distinguished merely by his own particular form of crown.

In the minor arts, unfortunately no paintings have survived, and the Sassanian period is best represented by its metal-work. A large number of metal vessels have been attributed to this period; many of these have been found in southern Russia. They have a variety of forms and reveal a high standard of technical skill with decoration executed either by hammering, beating, engraving or casting. The subjects most often portrayed on silver dishes included royal hunts, ceremonial scenes, the king enthroned or banqueting, dancers, and scenes of a religious character.

Vessels were decorated with designs executed in several techniques; parcel gilding, chasing or engraving, and cloisonné enameling. Motifs include religious figures, hunting scenes in which the king has the central place, and mythical animals like the winged griffin. These same designs occur in Sassanian textiles. Silk weaving was introduced into Persia by the Sassanian kings and Persian silk weaves even found a market in Europe.

Few Sassanian textiles are known today, apart from small fragments that have come from various European Abbeys and Cathedrals. Of the magnificent, heavily embroidered royal fabrics, studded with pearls and precious stones, nothing has survived; they are known only through various literary references and the ceremonial scene at the Taq-i-Bustan, in which Khosroe II is dressed in an imperial cloak that resembles the one described in legend, woven in gold thread and studded with pearls and rubies.

The same is true for the famous garden carpet, the "Spring time of Khosroe". Made during the reign of Khosroe I (531 - 579) the carpet was 90 ft. square. The Arab historians' description is as follows: "The border was a magnificent flower bed of blue, red, white, yellow and green stones; in the background the colour of the earth was imitated with gold; clear stones like crystals gave the illusion of water; the plants were in silk and the fruits were formed by colour stones" However, the Arabs cut this magnificent carpet into many pieces, which were then sold separately.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Sassanian art is its ornament, which was destined to have a profound influence on Islamic art. Designs tended to be symmetrical and much use was made of enclosing medallions. Animals and 'birds and even floral motifs were frequently presented 'heraldically', that is in pairs, either confronted or back to back. Some motifs, such as the Tree of Life, have an ancient history in the Near East; others, like the dragon and winged horse, reveal the constant love affair of Asiatic art with the mythical.

Sassanian art was carried over an immense territory stretching from the Far East to the shores of the Atlantic and played a foremost role in the formation of both European and Asiatic medieval art. Islamic art however, was the true heir to Sassanian art, whose concepts it was to assimilate while, at the same time instilling fresh life and renewed vigor into it.









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