Ancient Near East

Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae

Mausoleum of Cyrus: view from the south; Ernst Herzfeld; Iran, 1905–28; cyanotype from glass plate negative; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.GN.1543p

Mausoleum of Cyrus: view from the south; Ernst Herzfeld; Iran, 1905–28; cyanotype from glass plate negative; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.GN.1543p

“I am Cyrus, son of Cambyses, who founded the Persian Empire and was King of Asia. Grudge me not this monument.”

According to the Greek historian Strabo (circa 64 BCE–21 CE), these words were inscribed on the tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire of Iran (reigned 550–530 BCE). Before his untimely death, Cyrus laid the foundation of the ancient world’s first empire in his birthplace, Anshan (Parsa), in southwestern Iran. He had overthrown the Medes, a kingdom in northwestern Iran, and had captured Sardis, the capital of the Lydian kingdom in Anatolia. In 539 BCE, Cyrus conquered Babylon and allowed the Jewish community to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the second temple. At the same time, he chose Pasargadae as the heart of his multilingual, multifaith empire and transformed it into a magnificent symbol of Achaemenid power. The site also became Cyrus’s final resting-place.

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 structures with not-yet-identified functions. Although several classical Greek authors mention Pasargadae, the site gradually fell into neglect after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire in 330 CE and was largely forgotten in favor of nearby Persepolis, built by Darius I (522–486 BCE). In the early thirteenth century, materials from the palace grounds were used to transform Cyrus’s mausoleum into a mosque. Western travelers to the site after the fifteenth century referred to the structure as a woman’s burial place using its local designation, “Tomb of the Mother of Solomon.” Although some scholars suggested the tomb might be Cyrus’s, it was not until 1908 that the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) devoted his dissertation to Pasargadae and proved conclusively that it was the royal capital of the Achaemenid Empire.

Heart of an Empire focuses on Herzfeld’s discovery of Pasargadae and explores his meticulous work to restore the site’s historical and archaeological importance. See it tomorrow when it debuts in the Freer|Sackler.

Joelle Seligson

Joelle Seligson

Joelle Seligson is digital editor at the Freer|Sackler.

3 thoughts on “Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae

  1. camfika
    #

    Before his untimely death, Cyrus laid the foundation of the ancient world’s first empire in his birthplace, Anshan (Parsa), in southwestern Iran. Where did you get this information?

    1. Joelle Seligson Post author
      #

      Hi, Camfika – This text is from our “Heart of an Empire” exhibition and written by our chief curator and curator of Islamic art.

  2. Mary Ann Irvine
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    I was just there at the tomb and at persepolis area. Any information I can add to my experience is welcome.

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