The Spectacular Monumental Architecture of the Achaemenid Empire

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.

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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 hav.e 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)

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 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.

Persepolis – The New Capital

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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.

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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.

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