Sunday, May 5, 2019

Persian Achaemenid Architecture

Bird eye view of Persepolis
The Achaemenid Persians established the greatest land Empire in the ancient world commanding vast wealth and power. This brought about the development of Persian architecture that blended the architectural ideas from its diverse population and merged it to its own unique style that inspires awe from then and now.

History of Achaemenid Persia

The Persians displayed their interest in architecture already during the time of the Empire’s founder – Cyrus the Great. With his governing hand, he advanced his people from a tributary and into a superpower. His armies and policy of toleration advanced his borders to Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Central Asia. The wealth of these lands funded Cyrus’ palace complex in Pasargardae.
Cyrus the Great
Persian architecture began to develop further with Cyrus’ successors. As the Empire expanded, craftsmen from the newly conquered lands contributed to the designs of Persian buildings. Egyptian, Greek, and Mesopotamian styles became evident in later Persian structures.

Darius the Great led the Empire to its zenith. The enormous resources that the Empire generated allowed Darius to pursue his project of constructing Persepolis – a new imperial palace and capital. The displayed Persian architecture exhibiting sophistication, diversity, and opulence. The sheer scale of the construction testified to the power of the Persians to command such feat.
Darius the Great
Xerxes continued his father’s building spree and ordered megalomaniac palaces and halls to be built and added to already existing complexes. Some of Xerxes addition to Persepolis included the huge Apadana or Audience Hall and an equally magnificent throne hall. The sheer scale left diplomats and officials breathless. Even today, it makes the same impression to scholars and tourists.

Influences and Elements

Early Persian buildings left traces of their nomadic roots. Their expansion and toleration allowed easier assimilation of other styles to the Persian’s. Eventually, these styles merged to form the Persian architecture.

Influences to Persian Architecture

The nomadic lifestyle of the Persians changed with the discovery of the qannats or water tunnels carved out of mountains and rocks. This turned them into farmers and communities, but Ideas of simplicity and importance of water, traces of their past, remained in the early Imperial Achaemenid architecture.

Simple designs and layout appeared in Cyrus’ Pasagardae palace complex. Though its palaces and halls had simple designs, it had an atmosphere of elegance. The Tomb of Cyrus the Great, which laid south of the palace complex, also exhibited the principle.

Persians had high regards with water, brought by its scarcity viewing it as a priced commodity during their previous nomadic culture. Hence its use for luxury became a sign of abundance, wealth, and stature. Their value for water emerged in the gardens they built.

The Persians pioneered the Chaharbagh (Chahar Bagh) or four-fold garden design. Its elements included an area being divided into 4 or divisible by 4 segements. Either canals or pathways divided each segment meeting in an intersection in the center with each segment planted with different plants or trees. It aimed to mirror paradise in heaven.

Various styles contributed to the development of Persian architecture. Mesopotamian, may it be Babylonian and Assyrian, provided some elements to Persian designs. Greeks and Egyptians followed.
Tomb of Cyrus the Great by John Ussher (1865)
From Mesopotamia, Ziggurat designs influenced the design of the tomb of Cyrus the Great. The stair-like or simple triangle parapets from Mesopotamian building appeared in Persian buildings. Persians also adopted the Mesopotamians use of enameled bricks. Even the mythical creatures in Mespotamian lore adored Persian columns and gates, which included the Lamassu (a human head in a lion’s or bull’s body with wings) considered a protective deity or an Anzu or griffin.
100 Columns Palace Persepolis
Ideas form the Greeks also appeared in Persian palaces. Colonnaded porticoes known in Greek buildings welcomed visitors in Persian palaces. Persians also copied the decorative capitals of the Greeks – the famous Ionic, Dorian, and Corinthian. They used this concept and made it their own.

Finally, the Egyptians also offered some ideas to the Persians. The Persians took the idea of pylons in the gates with 2 standing creatures welcoming visitors. Bas reliefs in the walls also became a familiar sight in Persian palaces depicting the power and strength of the Persian kings.

Elements of Persian Architecture
Palace of Darius in Susa

Palaces carved into the landscapes of many major cities of the Empire – Pasagardae, Susa, and Persepolis – displayed the development of Persian architecture. They used terraces and huge spaces to further the magnificence of their palaces. Unique staircases and columns decorated palaces. These elements made Persepolis the palace that testified to the cultural sophistication, power, and wealth of the Persian Empire.

Persepolis served as the capital of the Persian Empire right after the Persian Empire reached its heights. King Darius the Great ordered its construction in 518 BCE, but it only saw completion during the reign of King Xerxes and further improvements followed under their successors.

The Palace exude key elements of Persian architecture. Persepolis and many other Persian palaces sat on top of terraces. It sat in a huge platform with the size of 1,600 by 1,000 feet with the height of 43 feet. Persian builders leveled mountains and hills and use the earth to fill the platforms.
Drawing of Persepolis by Gerard Jean-Baptiste (1713)
Plan of Persepolis
The palace also utilized space for different reasons. The large space that the halls and palaces covered aimed to intimidate visitors with its sheer scale and grandiosity. It also allows the entry and circulation of air in the buildings.

Persian palaces also had an Apadana or Audience hall. It served as the center of palace complexes and thus received enormous attention to design and decoration. Apadana of the Persians displayed similar elements of corner towers, columned halls, and colonnaded porticoes.
reconstruction of the Apadana
The remarkable Apadana of Persepolis rose up during the reign of King Xerxes. It also had 4 corner towers and colonnaded porticoes. It had a size of 272 square feet and had the capacity of accommodating 10,000 individuals.

Staircases of the Persepolis Apadana and other buildings and halls in other palaces became a site to see. Persian staircases had double flight of stairs meeting in the center. The front of the double staircase had decorations of bas-reliefs dazzling visitors with its design and craftsmanship. Bas-reliefs such as the Tribute Procession, Frieze of Archers, and Lion attacking a Bull decorated the major buildings in Persepolis.

Persian columns also served as culmination of different influences. It had a slender shape and a base resembling a bell. Most notably, they also had decorative capitals that competed the Greeks in beauty. Persians used bulls set back to back or Lamassus or griffins to decorate the top of columns.
Columns in the Great Apadana in
Achaemenid Persian Architecture Onwards

The Persian Empire prospered during the Darius the Great, but it changed right after his successor’s reign. Under Xerxes, the Persian Empire embarked in a campaign to subjugate the Greeks and a spree of construction. His projects drained the Empire’s resources exacerbated by political infighting and growing unrest in the Empire’s satraps.

The Empire’s decline culminated in 330 BCE, when the Alexander the Great marched into Persepolis. King Darius III failed to cease the advance of the Greek conqueror’s army. His failure led ultimately to the fall of Persepolis which the Greeks burned in retribution to the burning of Athens in 480 BCE. Persepolis laid in ashes along with the Persian Achaemenid Empire.

Though in ashes in history, Persian Achaemenid architecture impressions in history remained. Succeeding Persian Empires aimed to match and surpass the glory of the Achaemenids. Many of them copied the style of the Achaemenids and from it developed their own.

Moreover, designs of Persian gardens persisted through ages. Many civilizations attracted to the design emulated it for their own palaces. Its design travelled west being integrated to many European palaces, such as France’s Versailles.  Even the word of Paradise came from the Old Persian word Paridaida meaning walled-around that described Persian gardens.

Summing Up

The architecture of the Persian Achaemenids mirrored the spirit of the Empire. Their history of nomadic culture and diversity of its populations, as well as its policy of toleration, led to the blending of different styles. The Persian Achaemenid architecture that emerged created magnificent structures that dazzled visitors like in Susa and Persepolis. The beauty and the magnificence of the Achaemenid palaces became the standard to which succeeding Empire followed and developed. Hence, Achaemenid architecture exhibited that looking in one’s past and openness to other culture could result to a unique style that exude sophistication creating an remarkable impression to its onlookers.

See also:

General References
“Achaemenid.” In Encyclopedia of the People of Africa and the Middle East. Edited by Jamie Stokes. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2009.

“A Brief History of Persian Architecture and Art.” In Dideh. Accessed on November 2, 2018. URL:  

"Persian art and architecture." In The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. (October 17, 2018). URL:

“The Persian Garden.” In United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Accessed on November 3, 2018. URL:

David Stronach and Hilary Gopnik, “PASARGADAE,” Encyclop√¶dia Iranica, online edition, 2009, available at (accessed on 30 April 2017).

Lloyd, Selon H.F. “Iranian Art and Architecture.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on November 2, 2018. URL:

Mehrdad Fakour, “GARDEN i. ACHAEMENID PERIOD,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, X/3, pp. 297-298, available online at (accessed on 30 December 2012).

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