- IRAN BEFORE IRANIANS
- THE ARIANS
- THE MEDES
- THE ACHAEMENIANS
- CYRUS THE GREAT
- THE GREEKS
- THE PARTHIAN EMPIRE
- THE SASSANIANS
- ARAB CONQUEST
- THE ABBASSID CALIPHATES
- THE SAMANIDS
- THE TURKISH DYNASTIES
- MONGOL INVASIONS
- THE SAFAVIDS
- AFSHAR DYNASTY
- ZAND DYNASTY
- QAJAR DYNASTY
- PAHLAVI DYNASTY
- ISLAMIC REVOLUTION
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
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
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.
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
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
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.