For analyzing the art forms developed in the Achaemenid Empire, one of the world empires of antiquity, we should describe at least one architectural complex, such as Persepolis.
Persepolis, Parsa in Old Persian, is situated some 30 miles from Shiraz in the south of Iran. Its construction began 520 BCE and continued until 450 BCE. The city was erected on a high artificial platform reached by a wide stairway with 111 steps made of limestone blocks.
On the platform there is a unified architectural complex made up of two types of palace – the Tachara (an inhabited palace) and the Apadana (an audience hall). The best known of them is the Apadana of Darius and Xerxes — a square audience hall, its ceiling supported by 72 stone columns.
The Apadana was raised 13 foot above the terrace and was reached by a wide stairway decorated with reliefs. On the left side are three tiers of identical soldiers of Elamite regiments with spears, bows and quivers, Persian guards with spears and shields, and Medes with swords, bows and spears. There are also warriors carrying the king’s throne, leading the royal horses and driving the royal chariots. On the right side the reliefs depict a procession of the nations which formed part of the Achaemenid Empire.
At the head of each group is a courtier, possibly a satrap — the governor of a province who was always chosen from one of the leading aristocratic families — in ceremonial Persian dress with a high tiara. The different nations are depicted in approximately the same order as that of the kingdoms composing the empire on official inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings.
Lastly, even though the Near-Eastern “text” is ideographic, images that are already indisputably Iranian are introduced into it as “phonetic indices”. If such a system were to be found in written records, we would conclude that the text, despite the fact that all, or nearly all, of it was composed of foreign words, would have to be read in Iranian owing to the presence of phonetic indices. Here is the situation in the written Iranian language: In the Achaemenid Period standard correspondences were beginning to be developed between Aramaic words and expressions and their Iranian equivalents (all the business of the chancellery in Achaemenid Iran was conducted in Aramaic, a Semitic language).
Senior civil servants had the (Aramaic) text read to them in Iranian. Gradually, scribes developed the habit of reading the entire text, even to themselves, in their native (Iranian) language. Aramaic spellings turned into a type of conditional sign system for the Iranian words – ideograms or, more precisely, heterograms.
The actual use of heterograms was subject to specific rules: Thus, for example, one or two of the numerous Aramaic verb forms were arbitrarily selected all the time to serve any purpose… An Iranian verb ending was often joined to the Aramaic form which had been selected once and for all, as a phonetic complement in order to reveal the real Iranian verb form concealed beneath the heterogram.
When they arrived on the Iranian plateau, the Iranians did not have their own written language.
They used the cuneiform script of the Near East in order to set down the official manifestos of the Achaemenid rulers, and Aramaic writing and language in order to conduct their state and business affairs. Neither did these Iranians have their own representational art. Therefore an analogous process can be traced in art – quotations and a limited choice of images can be explained by the fact that the resulting works were also to be understood in Iranian.
It is only in late Zoroastrian works that we find faint hints of anthropomorphic representation. In fact only a single Iranian goddess – the goddess Anahita — is depicted anthropomorphically. All the other deities of the ancient Iranian religion are represented abstractly, only through their “hypostases” or incarnations (chiefly as certain birds or beasts).
An inscription by the Achaemenid ruler Darius I, concerning the construction of his palace at Susa more than a century after the creation of the Ziwiyeh complex, states (lines 49-50): “The Medes and the Egyptians were skilled in the use of gold, they crafted works of gold”.
When he comes to list other craftsmen – stonemasons, specialists in glazed tiles, sculptors and builders (Ionians, Lydians, Babylonians and Egyptians) – Darius’s information is accurate. In all probability he was equally correct in speaking of the Medians as noted metalworkers.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter entitled, ‘Persian Art: From Antiquity to the 19th Century’, from a book entitled, ‘The Lost Treasures, Persian Art’ , written by Vladimir Lukonin and Anatoli Ivanov, published by Parkstone International.