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.
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.
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.
The spectacular rock tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam are situated about 6 km northwest of Persepolis in the southern part of Iran. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in Iran and contains monuments of the Elamite, Achaemenid and Sasanian dynasties carved into the rock. The site features four burial tombs of Achaemenid kings believed to be those of Darius I, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II (Ochus), as well as eight Sasanian reliefs depicting vivid scenes of imperial conquests and royal ceremonies. It also features an Achaemenid stone structure whose original purpose has been discussed for several decades. The Persian name Naqsh-e Rostam, meaning “Pictures of Rostam”, refers to the Sasanian reliefs on the cliff which were thought to represent the mythical Iranian hero Rostam.
Naqsh-e Rostam was the necropolis of the Achaemenid dynasty where monumental royal tombs were cut out of the native rock at a considerable height above the ground. Similar to those at Persepolis, the tombs are characterized by their rock-cut façades and simple sepulchral chambers where the king was buried together with his relatives. The oldest tomb has an inscription (known as DNa) that explicitly assigns it to Darius the Great (c. 522-486 BC). The other three tombs are attributed to Xerxes (c. 486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (c. 465-424 BC) and Darius II (c. 423-404 BC). A fifth unfinished tomb might belong to Artaxerxes III or Darius III (c. 336-330 BC), the last king of the Achaemenid Dynasts. The tombs were looted following the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great.
I am Darius the great king, king of kings, king of countries containing all kinds of men, king in this great earth far and wide, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid, a Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, having Aryan lineage.
All Achaemenid tombs have similar features. They were carved in the shape of a cross with an access to a small chamber in their center. The upper register of the façade is showing the king standing on a three-stepped platform in front of a blazing fire altar, praying to the supreme god Ahuramazda whose winged symbol floats above. He is being carried on the shoulders of twenty-eight representatives of different subject nations.
The middle register, which gives access to the burial chamber, is adorned with four engaged columns with bull protome capitals, an imitation of the façade of a palace (perhaps the residential palace of Darius at Persepolis). The lower register remained undecorated.
The other important Achaemenid monument at Naqsh-e Rostam is the enigmatic tower called Kaʿba-ye Zardošt (‘Cube of Zoroaster’) situated opposite Darius II’s tomb. It is a rectangular-shaped stone structure, built of white limestone blocks. It stands 12.60 metre-high on a three-tiered platform with a thirty-stair stairway leading to a single chamber. Controversy over the function of the building still exists. Some archaeologists consider the tower a religious edifice, perhaps a fire temple used for igniting and worshipping the holy fire, while others reject this view and think that it may have served as a provisional royal tomb until the permanent tombs were finished or else a treasure house and a place for keeping sacred texts. The monument was later used by the Sasanian king Shapur I (AD 240-270) to record the accounts of his victories over the Romans (transcription of full text with English translation here).
The Sasanian rock reliefs, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, depict the investiture of Ardashir I, the victories of Shapur I, three scenes of Wahram II, the investiture of Naresh and a relief of Hormizd II. The Sasanians also built a large mud-brick fortification wall that runs around the major part of the sculptured cliff, with seven semicircular towers strengthening the structure. It is not clear whether the Sassanids had exact information about Achaemenians, but the fact that they carved reliefs next to the royal tombs of their Achaemenian peers showed a cultural and political strategy for imitating the past.
The only surviving monument from the Elamite period is a relief that was mostly obliterated when the Sasanian rock relief of Bahram II was carved over it. The remnants of the scene show an attendant standing behind two seated deities, faced presumably by a standing worshiper, and a head with a mural crown. Only the attendant at the right is preserved in its major features. The Elamite carving is believed to have been carved in two periods, the first one in the early first millennium BC, the other in about 700 BC.