Ancient Near East, Exhibitions, Talks and Lectures

Gardens of Pasargadae

Gate R: panoramic view prior to excavation; Ernst Herzfeld; Iran, 1905–28; digitally assembled from three glass plate negatives; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.GN.2199, 2201, 2202

Gate R: panoramic view prior to excavation; Ernst Herzfeld; Iran, 1905–28; digitally assembled from three glass plate negatives; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.GN.2199, 2201, 2202

As we gear up for Garden Fest this Friday, let’s take a look back at the ancient Achaemenid Empire, which is known, among many other things, for its appreciation and innovation of gardens.

In 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great chose Pasargadae, located in present-day Iran, as the heart of his multilingual, multifaith empire and transformed it into a magnificent symbol of Achaemenid power. After the empire fell, the site was neglected, and its purpose was forgotten for centuries. It wasn’t until 1908 that the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) devoted his dissertation to Pasargadae and proved that it had been the royal capital of the Achaemenid Empire.

View of dasht-i murghab toward Mausoleum of Cyrus; Sketchbook 10: Pasargadae; Friedrich Krefter; Iran, May 5, 1928; graphite on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 02.0210

View of dasht-i murghab toward Mausoleum of Cyrus; Sketchbook 10: Pasargadae; Friedrich Krefter; Iran, May 5, 1928; graphite on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 02.0210

Located in the fertile plain known as the dasht-i murghab, or “plain of the water bird,” Pasargadae comprised palaces, gardens, pavilions, and a number of other structures. Herzfeld’s survey produced the first map of the site, drawn up by his assistant, Friedrich Krefter. Along with recording the topography of the palace grounds, the map illustrates how the Achaemenids carefully calculated their buildings’ locations to take full advantage of available water for the gardens.

Excavation of Pasargadae: general plan of the ruins; Friedrich Krefter; Iran, 1928; ink on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 05.0825

Excavation of Pasargadae: general plan of the ruins; Friedrich Krefter; Iran, 1928; ink on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 05.0825

One of Herzfeld’s critical discoveries was that Pasargadae was the first ancient Near Eastern capital to abandon the standard architectural plan of strictly linear royal hallways. Instead, the Achaemenids adopted an ingenious open design defined by extensive, lush garden spaces surrounded by palaces and audience halls. This particular layout continued well into the Islamic period, and designers used it for palace compounds in Iran, Central Asia, and Islamic India for centuries.

Palace P: Herzfeld’s reconstructed ground plan and elevation of the ruins; Friedrich Krefter, Iran, 1928; ink on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA.A.6.05.0807

Palace P: Herzfeld’s reconstructed ground plan and elevation of the ruins; Friedrich Krefter, Iran, 1928; ink on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA.A.6.05.0807

Learn more by visiting the exhibition Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae during Garden Fest this Friday! Or, stop by during lunchtime next Tuesday to hear the exhibition’s curators discuss the site’s historical and architectural significance.

Joelle Seligson

Joelle Seligson

Joelle Seligson is digital editor at the Freer|Sackler.