Observing Cyrus: Symbolism and the Significance of an Ancient Architectural Style

Cyrus the Great was the founding father of what is known in the West as the Achaemenian Empire. This empire had an immense capacity for governance, large-scale planning and practical abilities, with humane sympathies that have been marked in history, inspiring racial, religious and cultural tolerance, in which a highly developed sense of justice played a very important role. Tolerance, respect, and encouragement of other cultures and religions, that few great powers have ever matched since is the worlds first example of international religious, and cultural freedom. This offered great security to all delegate countries, and strengthened the support given to this noble Monarch. But it is not the life and monumental achievements of this Monarch, who wrote the First Declaration of Human Rights, that will be explored per-se, but in fact the unprecedented architectural style formed during his reign and its subsequent influence on styles that followed, the synthetic representation of different cultures, as well as the designs imbued poetic symbolism always in harmony with nature.

This story begins with the Palace of Pasargadae, the first capital city of the Achaemenian Empire under Cyrus the Great. Here a style formed which might be considered a complete manifestation of what is Iranian architectural style, acting as a model for the designs that have followed since from both East to West. Pasargadae consisted of three separate palace buildings, situated on immense stone platforms – a technique developed in the north of Iran some 4,500 years before. Materials for construction of the palace were chosen on the basis of a deep sense of the nature of materials and their consistence with nature itself is key. Here we would have seen limestone used for most of the masonry and columns of both limestone and wood, probably cedar with its sweet intoxicating scent. Amongst the decorative features, it documents the first known use of the indigenous emblem of Achaemenid architecture: a stone column capital in the form of a double headed bull, which later features in the royal court of Persepolis. The main building was a square shaped central hall with entrances on either side, enclosed by two smaller buildings. The main building acted as the space where various stately and religious functions were intermingled, being both an audience hall and a temple. The use of colour and precious silver and gold metal plating emphasized the fact that this city was the focus of royal and sacred power, establishing a communication between nature and humans. Columns lining the halls were painted in vibrant blue, green, red, yellow, and starkly contrasting black and white, softened and harmonized under the strong light of the sun. Some of these columns may have been found painted in rich polychromy, a style where many colours are used together – a technique used in art and architecture today.

With the rapid growth of the Empire, Pasargadae gradually became inadequate in it’s size as the capital city and in it’s expression of the Monarchs values. So somewhere bigger was needed, and aware of these factors Cyrus may have selected the site of Persepolis himself to become the new capital. Though it was constructed after his demise, it embodies key elements taken from the Palace of Pasargadae, clearly displaying, in all of its sobering grandeur, the influence of its predecessor. This city would proclaim the political and religious unity of the state, and appeal to the powers of nature for fertility and abundance, especially at the beginning of spring during the No Rooz festival (the Iranian New Year that falls on the Spring Equinox). ‘Beauty’ becomes recognised as a sovereign value, and the humane sentiments of Cyrus and his descendants found their expression in the beauty of buildings with a close relationship to nature.

In the palace we see symbols everywhere confirming the invocational nature of the palace. Represented through the 550 columns, we see a sacred grove, with bases of columns being inverted lotus flowers – a symbol of perfection and life giving power. The capitals of the columns are flowering palms, as if growing out from the stone platform. All other capitals are found to be in the form of the double bull head, as we see in Pasargadae. The bull was much worshipped as a symbol of primal forces. Here they impregnate the supporting trees of the sacred grove of columns touching the ground. Around the palace we will find thousands of traditional sun symbols, acknowledging the sun as a necessary life sustaining force. Open sunflowers have been found on the underside of doors, placed faced down in direct contact with the soil, transferring their power back to the earth.

Persepolis slowly became the embodiment of a national consciousness, which represented different races and nations in the States art. Contributions were made from many of the confederated states in labour, materials and structural form with input from countries such as Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Urartu, Elam, Egypt, and Ionia. Surviving cuneiform tablets inform us that women were even involved in the construction of the palace. Different races are represented on the facades, unifying them all under their well-defined sculptural form. All cultural contributions to construction were completely fused, but the execution was essentially Iranian, referring back once again to Pasargadae which is basically the same in plan, conception, and construction though differing greatly in scale. The immense scale of Persepolis diminishes the notion of the individual, and stands as a monument to unity. Large terraces on different levels created a wonderful stepped landscape created by human intervention, upon which the complete set of buildings making up the palace were sat. It is readable as its own entity from a great distance, relating it in its entirity back to the earth from which it came. All the parts of the palace were made to cohere with one another. The wonderfully decorated columns are widely spread apart giving a sensational ratio of voids to solids, creating a great feeling of spatial freedom and the denial of materiality – where the spirit is free, rational, and enlarged. Spatial form has immense power to invoke certain emotional responses. It stands as an embodiment of national consciousness, and as such Alexander of Macedonia understood that it must be destroyed.

But if Persepolis itself ceased to exist in its entirety after its destruction, the vitality of the architectural concepts and techniques used did not. To the East, India received the creative impulses that came from the Iranian plateau. Columns known in Hindu as ‘mandapas’ and ‘prakaras’ of the Temples in the South are the very image of Persepolis on a smaller scale. Through the Indians, Achaemenid Architecture transplanted itself onto new roots. To the West, echoes of the Apadanas have also been found in Syria. Iran, and its Architecture, were essentially a bridge between the East and the West. It formed the embryonic stages of what is known in Western Architecture as the Classical style, which supplanted itself onto the Greeks who were able to further develope what was started. This style is still very much alive, and evidence of it can be found over a large portion of Europe.

It is valuable to note an alarming point with regards to what is left of these ancient cultural sites within Iran. Most of these sites were constructed from limestone – a sensitive material prone to damage that is only speeded up by rainfall and changes in the climate. With the construction of the Sivand Dam, and its flooding, we will only find that this process of decomposition will become more rapid due to a greater degree of rainfall in a predominantly arid area. We must also take into consideration that rain is no longer pure water – it is greatly toxified by our modern day pollution. Essentially, it is acid rain. One would imagine that acid rain could only amount to an increased level of damage that will occur much faster if a stop is not put to the flooding of the dam. We should strive to salvage and maintain these homages to the past, and great influences in themselves on the progression of Architecture.

 

[Written for and presented at a celebration for Cyrus the Great, Saturday 27th October, 2007, London]

 

 

 

 

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