Tag Archives: pasargadae

Prints Fit for a Dig

Herzfeld identified the figure standing at the foot of the mausoleum as Sayyid Jawad. Probably a local, his inclusion in the image lends the structure a sense of scale.

Herzfeld identified the figure standing at the foot of Cyrus the Great’s mausoleum as Sayyid Jawad. Probably a local, his inclusion in the image lends the structure a sense of scale.

Why so blue? This “blue print” is an example of the cyanotype process, used throughout the twentieth century to make inexpensive copies of photographs and engineering drawings. Made from a glass plate negative that archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld took during his excavation at Pasargadae, the capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, between 1905 and 1928, it shows the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great, who established the site.

Below, another of Herzfeld’s shots captured a rare view inside Cyrus’s tomb, which includes a small wall niche for a lamp. Reportedly, while Cyrus lay mummified in his golden coffin, his clothing was displayed around the chamber and local priests were paid a monthly allowance to stand guard. When the Greeks conquered Achaemenid Iran in 330 BCE, Cyrus’s mausoleum was looted, but the Macedonian conqueror Alexander ordered it to be refurbished in honor of the legendary king.

View through entrance from interior

View through entrance from interior

Making a cyanotype involves coating a piece of paper with chemicals, superimposing the negative on it, and exposing it to sunlight. Fine arts photographers avoided cyanotypes for their intense blue pigments and lack of fine detail. Produced on regular notebook paper, however, cyanotypes proved far more resilient in the rough conditions of an archaeological dig than delicate darkroom prints. Herzfeld’s cyanotypes survived the excavation and are now part of his archives here at the museum. See them in Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae, now on view.

Remembering A Memorial

Left: the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC (Joe Ravi, CC-BY-SA 3.0). Right: Mausoleum of Cyrus, Ernst Herzfeld, Iran, 1905–28.

Left: the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC (Joe Ravi, CC-BY-SA 3.0). Right: Mausoleum of Cyrus, Ernst Herzfeld, Iran, 1905–28.

Imagine Washington, DC, abandoned and half-submerged into the Atlantic. The rounded dome of the Jefferson Memorial is visible like a little white island, but no one remembers the structure or its origins. Imagine New York covered with layers and layers of sands, the Chrysler Building in ruins, and the identity of the Statue of Liberty forgotten.

A doomsday scenario? The plot for a science fiction movie? A little far fetched? Maybe, but not when compared to the fate of Pasargadae, the magnificent capital of the Achaemenids (550–330 BCE), the first empire of the ancient world. It was built by the empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great (reigned 550–530 BCE), who conquered much of the Near East within a twenty-year period. He was known for his military skills as well as his tolerance: in 539, when he conquered Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jews and other prisoners to return to their homeland.

Pasargadae was located in southwestern Iran, in the so-called “plain of the water bird.” Introducing a new architectural plan that would be widely emulated, the palace complex was centered on a large garden and included striking columnar palaces and pavilions, as well as Cyrus’s tomb. It was a pivotal site of the ancient world. Even when the Greeks conquered the Achaemenids in 330 BCE, Alexander the Great visited Pasargadae and paid his respects to Cyrus.

View of dasht-i murghab, or "plain of the water bird"

Over the years, however, Pasargadae gradually fell into neglect and was largely forgotten in favor of nearby Persepolis, built by Darius I (522–486 BCE). In the thirteenth century, a local ruler transformed Cyrus’s tomb into a mosque using stones and columns from the nearby palace. According to fifteenth-century Western travelers to the area, very little of the capital and the palace grounds remained, and the tomb was believed to be a woman’s resting-place. Although some scholars had speculated that the site was that of ancient Pasargadae, it was only in 1908 that the celebrated German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld identified it beyond any reasonable doubt as the royal capital of the Achaemenid Empire.

Even if not much of the once-magnificent capital still stands, thanks to Herzfeld’s efforts, Pasargadae and the tomb are once again linked to Cyrus the Great. The story is a poignant reminder of the passage of time and the power of our collective memory. Experience it in person in Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae, on view through July 31.

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.