Pasargadae

Situated in about 50 km northeast of Persepolis, Pasargadae was the earliest capital of the Achaemenid Empire. The city was founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC in Pars, the heartland of the Persians (today the province of Fars in southwestern Iran). Its palaces, lavish pleasure gardens, as well as the Tomb of Cyrus, constitute an outstanding example of royal Achaemenid art and architecture. Pasargadae remained the capital of the Achaemenid empire until Cyrus’ son Cambyses II moved it to Susa. The site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Coordinates: 29° 56′ 4″ N52° 53′ 29″ E

According to tradition, Cyrus the Great, the first great Persian king who reigned from 559 to 530 BC, decided to build his capital on the exact same spot where he defeated the Median army led by Astyages in 550 BC (Strabo, Geography, 15.3.8). The city was created with contributions from the different people who comprised the first great multicultural empire in Western Asia.

Pasargadae’s most famous monument is the tomb of Cyrus the Great, located approximately 1 km southwest of the palaces of Pasargadae. The monument measures about 13 x 12 metres and consists of a modest rectangular burial chamber perched on six-tiered plinths. The tomb chamber is 2m wide, 2m high, and 3m deep, and once contained a gold sarcophagus. The design inspiration is variously credited to the Elamite ziggurats of Mesopotamia, but the cella is usually attributed to the funeral monuments in Urartu.

Painting of the Tomb of Cyrus by Eugène Flandin, 1840.

The ruins of Pasargadae are much less well preserved than those of Persepolis. The ruins are dispersed over a wide area that covers 160-ha across the plain. They include a structure commonly believed to be the tomb of Cyrus, the fortress of Toll-e Takht sitting on top of a nearby hill, and the remains of two royal palaces; Audience Hall (or Palace S), Residential Palace (or Palace P) and landscaped gardens.

The ‘Residential Palace’ is usually regarded as the residence of king Cyrus the Great. It is composed of a central hall of five rows of six pillars flanked, flanked on two sides by long porticoes. ‘I am Cyrus, the Achaemenid King’ reads the cuneiform inscription on a pillar. About 250m away is the ‘Audience Hall’ which was identified by archaeologists as a reception hall surrounded by porticoes on all four sides. Unlike the palaces of Persepolis which had a square plan, both buildings at Pasargadae were oblong structures. Standing at the eastern edge of the palace vicinity is a large building which was used as an entrance hall (Gate R) that must have looked like the Gate of All Nations in Persepolis. The gate consisted of a rectangular columned hall with two opposite monumental doorways on its long axis and two side doorways on its cross axis. One of the doorways is notable for its decoration; a unique sculpture, 2.7 metres high, representing a four-winged genius wearing an Egyptian crown.

Pasargadae provides the earliest example of the Persian “Chahar Bagh”, a traditional and sophisticated form of Persian Gardens. A sophisticated irrigation system was created to bring water, and thus turn those dry lands into an earthly representation of heaven. Today, the gardens are hard to discern, but the water channels that were fed with water from the Pulvar River still run along the palaces.

About 250m north of the Cyrus’ palace are the remains of a tower, known locally as Zendan-e Soleiman (Prison of Solomon), that closely resembles Ka’ba-ye Zartosht, an Achaemenid era cube-shaped counterpart standing in the necropolis of Naqsh-e Rostam near Persepolis. The structure consists of an almost square tower standing on a plinth of three steps. A flight of twenty-nine stone steps originally led to the single chamber in the upper half of the monument. On the hill beyond is the Tall-e Takht, a monumental 6000-sq-metre citadel used from Cyrus’ time until the late Sasanian period.

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The Tomb of Cyrus.
The Tomb of Cyrus. When Alexander looted and destroyed Persepolis, he paid a visit to the tomb of Cyrus.
The Tomb of Cyrus.
The entrance hall (Gate R). It was such a large building that it must have made a considerable impact upon the visitors at Pasargadae.
Located at the eastern edge of the palace precinct, the entrance hall of Pasargadae is the earliest known example of a freestanding propylaeum.
Audience Hall (Palace S) was built to serve as the principal public venue for Cyrus and his court. It consisted of a central rectangular columned hall laid out with two rows of four columns and flanking portico.
The Audience Hall (Palace S).
“I, Cyrus, the King, an Achaemenid”
The Audience Hall (Palace S).
The stone water channels of the royal garden. The gardens at Pasargadae are the first known occurrence of the fourfold garden, a rectangular garden divided by paths or waterways into four symmetrical sections.
The Residential Palace (Palace P) had a similar plan to Palace S with a central columned hall pierced by doorways in all four walls.
The Residential Palace (Palace P).
The Residential Palace (Palace P).
Zendan-e Soleiman (Prison of Solomon). Its function is still debated among scholars.
Zendan-e Soleiman.

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Oplontis – Villa Poppaea

Located just five kilometres from Pompeii, the so-called Villa Poppaea at Oplontis in the modern city of Torre Annunziata is one of the finest examples of aristocratic Roman residences. Renowned for its magnificent frescoes and its majestic position overlooking the coast of Campagnia, Villa Poppaea was apparently owned by Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina. The villa was badly damaged in the AD 62 earthquake and then destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. It was declared World Heritage by Unesco in 1997 along with Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Coordinates: 40° 45′ 25.2″ N, 14° 27′ 10.8″

The name of Oplontis is found on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a medieval copy of an ancient map of the roads of the Roman Empire. It was part of the suburban area of Pompeii on which it depended administratively. The Villa Poppaea was built in two main phases. The oldest part of the building dates back to about the middle of the 1st century BC and was organised around a Tuscan atrium with magnificent paintings in Second Pompeian Style with illusionistic depictions of architectural elements and views of landscapes. The villa overlooked the sea to the south with a large peristyle and a large garden (viridarium) with porticoes to the north. Around the atrium were sumptuously decorated rooms for resting, dining and sitting.

The complex was later extended to the east. This new wing housed several reception and service rooms set in extensive gardens overlooking a vast swimming pool (61×17 metres). A large portion of the sculptures that decorated the villa were found around the swimming pool. These improvements were ongoing at the time of Vesuvius’s eruption.

Plan of the excavations of Oplontis.

According to an inscription on an amphora that refers to one of Poppea’s slaves or freedmen (“SECUNDO POPPAEAE”), the villa may have belonged to the family of Nero’s second wife (the gens Poppaea).

After the Vesuvius eruption, the villa lay for centuries beneath six metres of layers of lapilli and ashes and then a thick layer of mud. It was first discovered in 1590 during the construction of the Sarno Canal which cut through the central hall of the villa. However, little was done at that time to explore the site further. The excavations of the site restarted between 1839 and 1840 and were undertaken by Bourbon excavators. Due to lack of funds, work was again suspended, and it was not until the mid-1980s that systematic excavations finally started on a full scale uncovering about 60% of the villa. More than one hundred rooms have been excavated so far.

A large number of artefacts from Oplontis are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

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View of the viridarium (ornamental garden) and tablinum (reception space).
The Tuscan style atrium was the main entrance to the villa in ancient times. It is richly decorated in the Second Style with illusionary architecture.
The central impluvium (water tank to collect rainwater) of the atrium with the original floor consisting of white mosaic embellished with a polychrome meander border.
On the north side of the atrium is a viridarium, a small enclosed garden. Its walls are decorated with red and black panels containing garden scenes with images of plants and birds along the lower frieze.
The villa was equipped with private baths. The baths had a tepidarium, a room with mild heating and a calidarium, a hot room. This space was transformed into a sitting room and walls were frescoed in the Fourth Style.
The eastern wall of the great sitting room (5), one of the most elegant and luxurious rooms in the villa. It had frescoes in the Second Style depicting a view of a sanctuary of Apollo and the Delphic tripod. At the sides of the tripod, the decoration is enlivened by peacocks and theatrical masks.
Another sitting room (8) is located between the atrium and the southern peristyle. It is decorated in the Second Style with themes based around perspective views of theatrical backdrops (scaenae frons).
The North wall of the sitting room (8) was also richly decorated with Second Style frescoes.
Fresco detail depicting a basket of fruit covered by a very thin veil.
Two porticoes link the rooms on the southern side of the villa. This portico is decorated with columns covered with red and white scales and with white mosaic floors with bands of black. The walls are decorated in the Fourth Style with red panels above a lower black frieze.
A cubiculum (bedroom) with Third Style frescoes.
Second Style painting in the walls surrounding the viridarium (small garden).
The viridarium, a large open garden enclosed by the portico. This is the traditional space that was dedicated to rest and meditation.
The portico of the large garden has brick columns covered with white stucco. The walls are decorated the Fourth Style.
View of the northern side of the villa complex.
Fourth Style fresco detail depicting a bird pecking fruits.
The peristylium whose open central area was occupied by a fountain. It has four corridors with an Opus Signinum floor with marble inserts.
The rooms of the oldest part of the building and the most recent area with the pool are linked by this imposing corridor. Along the walls decorated with large panels in Fourth Style are resting benches painted in red.
Second Style painting in the walls surrounding the viridarium (small garden).
The 61×17 metre pool is the central element of the northern section of the villa and was added in the Julio-Claudian age. It was used for swimming, but its main purpose was a decorative one.

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