Tâgh-i Kasrâ in 1915, site of a major WW1 battle.


reconstructed Tâgh-i Kasrâ


Tâgh-i Kasrâ, symbol of Ctesiphon


It is difficult to form any very decided opinion upon the architectural merits of the third and grandest of the Sassanian palaces, the well known "Takht-i-Ehosru," or " Tâgh-i Kasrâ "or palace of Chosroe's Anushirwan, at Ctesiphon, built by Shapur I .What remains of this massive erection is a mere fragment, which, to judge from the other extant Sassanian ruins, cannot have formed so much as one fourth part of the original edifice. The arch was part of the imperial palace complex. The Throne room—presumably under or behind the arch—was more than 110 ft high. The massive barrel vault covered an area 80ft wide by 160 ft long, and was the largest vault ever constructed in Persia. Nothing has come down to our day but a single vaulted hall on the grandest scale, 72 feet wide, 85 high, and 115 deep, together with the mere outer wall of what no doubt constituted the main facade of the building. The apartments, which, according to all analogy, must have existed at the two sides, and in the rear, of the great hall, some of which should have been vaulted, have wholly perished. Imagination may supply them from the Firuzabad, or the Mashita palace; but not a trace, even of their foundations, is extant; and the details, consequently, are uncertain, though the general plan can scarcely be doubted. At each side of the great hall were probably two lateral ones, communicating with each other, and capable of being entered either from the hall or from the outer air. Beyond the great hall was probably a domed chamber, equalling it in width, and opening upon a court, round which were a number of moderate-sized apartments. The entire building was no doubt an oblong square, of which the shorter sides seem to have measured 370 feet. It had at least three, and may not improbably have had a larger number of entrances, since it belongs to tranquil times and a secure locality.


"With the accession of the Sassanians, Persia regained much of that power and stability to which she had been so long a stranger.... The improvement in the fine arts at home indicates returning prosperity, and a degree of security unknown since the fall of the Achaemenidae."—Fergusson, History of Architecture, vol. i. pp. 381-3, 3d edition.


When Persia under the Sassanian princes shook off the barbarous yoke to which she had submitted for the space of almost five centuries, she found architecture and the other fine arts at almost the lowest possible ebb throughout the greater part of Western Asia. The ruins of the Achaemenian edifices, which were still to be seen at Pasargadae, Persopolis, and elsewhere, bore witness to the grandeur of idea, and magnificence of construction, which had once formed part of the heritage of the Persian nation; but the intervening period was one during which the arts had well-nigh wholly disappeared from the Western Asiatic world; and when the early sovereigns of the house of Sassan felt the desire, common with powerful monarchs, to exhibit their greatness in their buildings, they found themselves at the first without artists to design, without artisans to construct, and almost without models to copy. The Parthians, who had ruled over Persia for nearly four hundred years,' had preferred country to city life, tents to buildings, and had not themselves erected a single edifice of any pretension during the entire period of their dominion. Nor had the nations subjected to their sway, for the most part, exhibited any constructive genius, or been successful in supplying the artistic deficiencies of their rulers. In one place alone was there an exception to this general paralysis of the artistic powers. At Hatra, in the middle Mesopotamian region, an Arab dynasty, which held under the Parthian kings, had thought its dignity to require that it should be lodged in a palace, and had resuscitated a native architecture in Mesopotamia, after centuries of complete neglect. When the Sassanians looked about for a foundation on which they might work, and out of which they might form a style suitable to their needs and worthy of their power and opulence, they found what they sought in the Hatra edifice, which was within the limits of their kingdom, and at no great distance from one of the cities where they held their Court.


The early palaces of the Sassanians have ceased to exist. Artaxerxes, the son of Babek, Sapor the first, and their immediate successors, undoubtedly erected residences for themselves exceeding in size and richness the buildings which had contented the Parthians, as well as those in which their own ancestors, the tributary kings of Persia under Parthia, had passed their lives. But these residences have almost wholly disappeared. The most ancient of the Sassanian buildings which admit of being measured and described are assigned to the century between A.D. 350 and 450; and we are thus unable to trace the exact steps by which the Sassanian style was gradually elaborated. We come upon it when it is beyond the stage of infancy, when it has acquired a marked and decided character, when it no longer hesitates or falters, but knows what it wants, and goes straight to its ends. Its main features are simple, and are uniform from first to last, the later buildings being merely enlargements of the earlier, by an addition to the number or to the size of the apartments. The principal peculiarities of the style are, first, that the plan of the entire building is an oblong square, without adjuncts or projections; secondly, that the main entrance is into a lofty vaulted porch or hall by an archway of the entire width of the apartment; thirdly, that beside these oblong halls, the building contains square apartments, vaulted with domes, which are circular at their base, and elliptical in their section, and which rest on pendentives of an unusual character; fourthly, that the apartments are numerous and en suite, opening one into another, without the intervention of passages; and fifthly, that the palace comprises, as a matter of course, a court, placed towards the rear of the building, with apartments opening into it.


The oblong square is variously proportioned. The depth may be a little more than the breadth, or it may be nearly twice as much. In either case, the front occupies one of the shorter sides, or ends of the edifice. The outer wall is sometimes pierced by one entrance only; but, more commonly, entrances are multiplied beyond the limit commonly observed in modern buildings. The great entrance is in the exact centre of the front. This entrance, as already noticed, is commonly by a lofty arch which (if we set aside the domes) is of almost the full height of the building, and constitutes one of its most striking, and to Europeans most extraordinary, features. From the outer air, we look; as it were, straight into the heart of the edifice, in one instance to the depth of 115 feet, a distance equal to the length of Henry VII.'s Chapel at Westminster. The effect is very strange when first seen by the inexperienced traveller; but similar entrances are common in the mosques of Armenia and Persia, and in the palaces of the latter country. In the mosques "lofty and deeply-recessed portals," "unrivalled for grandeur and appropriateness," are rather the rule than the exception; and, in the palaces, "Throne-rooms" are commonly mere deep recesses of this character, vaulted or supported by pillars, and open at one end to the full width and height of the apartment. The height of the arch varies in Sassanian buildings from about fifty to eighty-five feet; it is generally plain, and without ornament; but in one case we meet with a foiling of small arches round the great one, which has an effect that is not unpleasing.


The domed apartments are squares of from twenty-five to forty feet, or a little more. The domes are circular at their base; but a section of them would exhibit a half ellipse, with its longest and shortest diameters proportioned as three to two. The height to which they rise from the ground is not much above seventy feet. A single building will have two or three domes, either of the same size, or occasionally of different dimensions. It is a peculiarity of their construction that they rest, not on drums, but on pendentives of a curious character. A series of semi-circular arches is thrown across the angles of the apartment, each projecting further into it than the preceding, and in this way the corners are got rid of, and the square converted into the circular shape. A cornice ran round the apartment, either above or below the pendentives, or sometimes both above and below. The domes were pierced by a number of small holes, which admitted some light, and the upper part of the walls between the pendentives was also pierced by windows.


There are no passages or corridors in the Sassanian palaces. The rooms for the most part open one into the other. Where this is not the case, they give upon a common meeting-ground, which is either an open court, or a large vaulted apartment. The openings are in general doorways of moderate size, but sometimes they are arches of the full width of the subordinate room or apartment. As many as seventeen or eighteen rooms have been found in a palace.


There is no appearance in any Sassanian edifice of a real second story. The famous Takht-i-Khosru presents externally the semblance of such an arrangement; but this seems to have been a mere feature of the external ornamentation, and to have had nothing to do with the interior.


The exterior ornamentation of the Sassanian buildings was by pilasters, by arched recesses, by cornices, and sometimes by string-courses. An ornamentation at once simple and elegant is that of the lateral faces of the palace at Firuzabad, where long reed-like pilasters are carried from the ground to the cornice, while between them are a series of tall narrow doubly recessed arches. Far less satisfactory is the much more elaborate design adopted at Ctesiphon, where six series of blind arches of different kinds are superimposed the one on the other, with string-courses between them, and with pilasters, placed singly or in pairs, separating the arches into groups, and not regularly superimposed, as pillars, whether real or seeming, ought to be.


The interior ornamentation was probably, in a great measure, by stucco, painting, and perhaps gilding. All this, however, if it existed, has disappeared; and the interiors now present a bare and naked appearance, which is only slightly relieved by the occasional occurrence of windows, of ornamental doorways, and of niches, which recall well-known features at Persepolis. In some instances, however, the arrangement of the larger rooms was improved by means of short pillars, placed at some distance from the walls, and supporting a sort of transverse rib, which broke the uniformity of the roof. The pillars were connected with the side walls by low arches.

Such are the main peculiarities of Sassanian palace architecture. The general effect of the great halls is grand, though scarcely beautiful; and, in the best specimens, the entire palace has an air of simple severity which is striking and dignified. The internal arrangements do not appear to be very convenient. Too much is sacrificed to regularity; and the opening of each room into its neighbor must, one would think, have been unsatisfactory. Still, the edifices are regarded as "indicating considerable originality and power," though they "point to a state of society when attention to security hardly allowed the architect the free exercise of the more delicate ornaments of his art."


From this general account of the main features of the architecture it is proposed now to proceed to a more particular description of the principal extant Sassanian buildings—the palaces at Serbistan, Firuzabad, Ctesiphon, and Mashita.


The palace at Serbistan is the smallest, and probably the earliest of the four. It has been assigned conjecturally to the middle of the fourth century, or the reign of Sapor II. The ground plan is an oblong but little removed from a square, the length being 42 French metres, and the breadth nearly 37 metres. The building faces west, and is entered by three archways, between which are groups of three semi-circular pilasters, while beyond the two outer arches towards the angles of the building is a single similar pilaster. Within the archways are halls or porches of different depths, the central one of the three being the shallowest. This opens by an arched doorway into a square chamber, the largest in the edifice. It is domed, and has a diameter of about 42 feet or, including recesses, of above 57 feet. The interior height of the dome from the floor is 65 feet. Beyond the domed chamber is a court, which measures 45 feet by 40, and has rooms of various sizes opening into it. One of these is domed; and others are for the most part vaulted. The great domed chamber opens towards the north, on a deep porch or hall, which was entered from without by the usual arched portal. On the south it communicates with a pillared hall, above 60 feet long by 30 broad. There is another somewhat similar hall on the north side of the building, in width about equal, but in length not quite 50 feet. In both halls the pillars are short, not exceeding six feet. They support piers, which run up perpendicularly for a considerable height, and then become ribs of the vaulting.






The Firuzabad palace has a length of above 390 and a width of above 180 feet. Its supposed date is A.D. 450, or the reign of Isdigerd I. As usual the ground plan is an oblong square. It is remarkable that the entire building had but a single entrance. This was by a noble arch, above 50 feet in height, which faced north, and gave admission into a vaulted hall, nearly 90 feet long by 43 wide, having at either side two lesser halls of a similar character, opening into it by somewhat low semi-circular arches, of nearly the full width of the apartments. Beyond these rooms, and communicating with them by narrow, but elegant doorways, were three domed chambers precisely similar, occupying together the full width of the building, each about 43 feet square, and crowned by elliptical domes rising to the height of nearly 70 feet. The ornamentation of these chambers was by their doorways, and by false windows, on the Persepolitan model. The domed chambers opened into some small apartments, beyond which was a large court, about 90 feet square, surrounded by vaulted rooms of various sizes, which for the most part communicated directly with it. False windows, or recesses, relieved the interior of these apartments, but were of a less elaborate character than those of the domed chambers. Externally the whole building was chastely and tastefully ornamented by the tall narrow arches and reed-like pilasters already mentioned. Its character, however, was upon the whole "simple and severe;" nor can we quarrel with the judgment which pronounces it "more like a gigantic bastile than the palace of a gay, pavilion-loving people like the Persians."





Statue of Shaupr I,  Bishapur


The glyptic art of the Sassanian is seen chiefly in their bas-reliefs; but one figure "in the round" has come down to us from their times, which seems to deserve particular description. This is a colossal statue of Sapor I., hewn (it would seem) out of the natural rock, which still exists, though overthrown and mutilated, in a natural grotto near the ruined city of Shapur. The original height of the figure, according to M. Texier, was 6 metres 7 centimetres, or between 19 and. 20 feet. It was well proportioned, and carefully wrought, representing the monarch in peaceful attire, but with a long sword at his left side, wearing the mural crown which characterizes him on the bas-reliefs, and dressed in a tunic and trousers of a light and flexible material, apparently either silk or muslin. The hair, beard, and mustachios, were neatly arranged and well rendered. The attitude of the figure was natural and good. One hand, the right, rested upon the hip; the other touched, but without grasping it, the hilt of the long straight sword. If we may trust the representation of M. Texier's artist, the folds of the drapery were represented with much skill and delicacy; but the hands and feet of the figure, especially the latter, were somewhat roughly rendered.


The bas-reliefs of the Sassanians



The bas-reliefs of the Sassanians are extremely numerous, and though generally rude, and sometimes even grotesque, are not without a certain amount of merit. Some of the earlier and coarser specimens have been already given in this volume; and one more of the same class is here appended but we have now to notice some other and better examples, which seem to indicate that the Persians of this period attained a considerable proficiency in this branch of the glyptic art. The reliefs belonging to the time of Sapor I. are generally poor in conception and ill-executed; but in one instance, unless the modern artist has greatly flattered his original, a work of this time is not devoid of some artistic excellence. This is a representation of the triumph of Sapor over Valerian, comprising only four figures—Sapor, an attendant, and two Romans—of which the three principal are boldly drawn, in attitudes natural, yet effective, and in good proportion. The horse on which Sapor rides is of the usual clumsy description, reminding us of those which draw our brewers' wains; and the exaggerated hair, floating ribbons and uncouth head-dress of the monarch give an outre and ridiculous air to the chief figure; but, if we deduct these defects, which are common to almost all the Sassanian artists, the representation becomes pleasing and dignified. Sapor sits his horse well, and thinks not of himself, but of what he is doing. Cyriades, who is somewhat too short, receives the diadem from his benefactor with a calm satisfaction. But the best figure is that of the captive emperor, who kneels on one knee, and, with outstretched arms, implores the mercy of the conqueror. The whole representation is colossal, the figures being at least three times the size of life; the execution seems to have been good; but the work has been considerably injured by the effects of time.


relief of Varahran IV


After the time of Sapor I. there is a manifest decline in Sassanian art. The reliefs of Varahran II. and Varahran III., of Narses and Sapor III., fall considerably below those of Sapor, son of Artaxerxes. It is not till we arrive at the time of Varahran IV. (A.D. 388-399) that we once more have works which possess real artistic merit. Indications have already appeared in an earlier chapter of this monarch's encouragement of artists, and of a kind of art really meriting the name. We saw that his gems were exquisitely cut, and embodied designs of first-rate excellence. It has now to be observed further, that among the bas-reliefs of the greatest merit which belong to Sassanian times, one at least must be ascribed to him; and that, this being so, there is considerable probability that two others of the same class belong also to his reign. The one which must undoubtedly be his, and which tends to fix the date of the other two, exists at Nakhsh-i-Kustam, near Persepolis, and has frequently been copied by travellers. It represents a mounted warrior, with the peculiar head-dress of Varahran IV., charging another at full speed, striking him with his spear, and bearing both horse and rider to the ground. A standard-bearer marches a little behind; and a dead warrior lies underneath Varahran's horse, which is clearing the obstacle in his bound. The spirit of the entire composition is admirable; and though the stone is in a state of advanced decay, travellers never fail to admire the vigor of the design and the life and movement which characterize it.


ranks in the empire



The state observed at the court resembled that of the most formal and stately of the Oriental monarchies. The courtiers were organized in seven ranks. Foremost came the Ministers of the crown; next the Mobeds, or chief Magi; after them, the hirbeds, or judges; then the sipehbeds, or commanders-in chief, of whom there were commonly four; last of all the singers, musicians, and men of science, arranged in three orders. The king sat apart even from the highest nobles, who, unless summoned, might not approach nearer than thirty feet from him.


A low curtain separated him from them, which was under the charge of an officer, who drew it for those only with whom the king had expressed a desire to converse.


An important part of the palace was the seraglio. The polygamy practised by the Sassanian princes was on the largest scale that has ever been heard of, Chosroes II. having maintained, we are told, three thousand concubines. The modest requirements of so many secondary wives necessitated the lodging and sustenance of twelve thousand additional females, chiefly slaves, whose office was to attend on these royal favorites, attire them, and obey their behests. Eunuchs are not mentioned as employed to any large extent; but in the sculptures of the early princes they seem to be represented as holding offices of importance, and the analogy of Oriental courts does not allow us to doubt that the seraglio was, to some extent at any rate, under their superintendence. Each Sassanian monarch had one sultana or principal wife, who was generally a princess by birth, but might legally be of any origin. In one or two instances the monarch sets the effigy of his principal wife upon his coins; but this is unusual, and when, towards the close of the empire, females were allowed to ascend the throne, it is thought that they refrained from parading themselves in this way, and stamped their coins with the head of a male.


In attendance upon the monarch were usually his parasol-bearer, his fan-bearer, who appears to have been a eunuch, the Senelcapan, or "Lord Chamberlain," the Maypet, or "Chief Butler," the Andertzapet, or "Master of the Wardrobe," the Alchorapet, or "Master of the Horse," the Taharhapet or "Chief Cupbearer," the Shahpan, or "Chief Falconer," and the __Krhogpet, or "Master of the Workmen." Except the parasol-bearer and fan-bearer, these officials all presided over departments, and had under them a numerous body of subordinates. If the royal stables contained even 8000 horses, which one monarch is said to have kept for his own riding, the grooms and stable-boys must have been counted by hundreds; and an equal or greater number of attendants must have been required for the camels and elephants, which are estimated m respectively at 1200 and 12,000. The "workmen" were also probably a corps of considerable size, continually engaged in repairs or in temporary or permanent erections.


Other great officials, corresponding more nearly to the "Ministers" of a modern sovereign, were the Vzourkhramanatar, or "Grand Keeper of the Royal Orders," who held the post now known as that of Grand Vizier; the Dprapet Ariats, or "Chief of the Scribes of Iran," a sort of Chancellor; the Hazarapet dran Ariats, or "Chiliarch of the Gate of Iran," a principal Minister; the Hamarakar, a "Chief Cashier" or "Paymaster;" and the Khohrdean dpir, or "Secretary of Council," a sort of Privy Council clerk or registrar. The native names of these officers are known to us chiefly through the Armenian writers of the fifth and seventh centuries.


The Sassanian court, though generally held at Ctesiphon, migrated to other cities, if the king so pleased, and is found established, at one time in the old Persian capital, Persepolis, at another in the comparatively modern city of Dastaghord. The monarchs maintained from first to last numerous palaces, which they visited at their pleasure and made their residence for a longer or a shorter period. Four such palaces have been already described; and there is reason to believe that many others existed in various parts of the empire. There was certainly one of great magnificence at Canzaca; and several are mentioned as occupied by Heraclius in the country between the Lower Zab and Ctesiphon. Chosroes II. undoubtedly built one near Takht-i-Bostan; and Sapor the First must have had one at Shapur, where he set up the greater portion of his monuments. The discovery of the Mashita palace, in a position so little inviting as the land of Moab, seems to imply a very general establishment of royal residences in the remote provinces of the empire.


Costumes of the Sassanids


The costume of the later Persians is known to us chiefly from the representations of the kings, on whose figures alone have the native artists bestowed much attention. In peace, the monarch seems to have worn a sort of pelisse or long coat, partially open in front, and with close-fitting sleeves reaching to the wrist, under which he had a pair of loose trousers descending to the feet and sometimes even covering them. A belt or girdle encircled his waist. His feet were encased in patterned shoes, tied with long flowing ribbons. Over his pelisse he wore occasionally a long cape or short cloak, which was fastened with a brooch or strings across the breast and flowed over the back and shoulders. The material composing the cloak was in general exceedingly light and flimsy. The head-dress commonly worn seems to have been a round cap, which was perhaps ornamented with jewels. The vest and trousers were also in some cases richly jewelled. Every king wore ear-rings, with one, two, or three pendants. A collar or necklace was also commonly worn round the neck; and this had sometimes two or more pendants in front. Occasionally the beard was brought to a point and had a jewel hanging from it. The hair seems always to have been worn long; it was elaborately curled, and hung down on either shoulder in numerous ringlets. When the monarch rode out in state, an attendant held the royal parasol over him.


In war the monarch encased the upper part of his person in a coat of mail, composed of scales or links. Over this he wore three belts; the first, which crossed the breast diagonally, was probably attached to his shield, which might be hung from it; the second supported his sword; and the third his quiver, and perhaps his bow-case. A stiff, embroidered trouser of great fulness protected the leg, while the head was guarded by a helmet, and a vizor of chain mail hid all the face but the eyes. The head and fore-quarters of the royal charger were also covered with armor, which descended below the animal's knees in front, but was not carried back behind the rider. The monarch's shield was round, and carried on the left arm; his main offensive weapon was a heavy spear, which he brandished in his right hand.






One of the favorite pastimes of the kings was hunting. The Sassanian remains show us the royal sportsmen engaged in the pursuit of the stag, the wild boar, the ibex, the antelope, and the buffalo. To this catalogue of their beasts of chase the classical writers add the lion, the tiger, the wild ass, and the bear. Lions, tigers, bears, and wild asses were, it appears, collected for the purpose of sport, and kept in royal parks or paradises until a hunt was determined on. The monarchs then engaged in the sport in person, either singly or in conjunction with a royal ambassador, or perhaps of a favorite minister, or a few friends. The lion was engaged hand to hand with sword or spear; the more dangerous tiger was attacked from a distance with arrows. Stags and wild boars were sufficiently abundant to make the keeping of them in paradises unnecessary. When the king desired to hunt them, it was only requisite to beat a certain extent of country in order to make sure of finding the game. This appears to have been done generally by elephants, which entered the marshes or the woodlands, and, spreading themselves wide, drove the animals before them towards an enclosed space, surrounded by a net or a fence, where the king was stationed with his friends and attendants. If the tract was a marsh, the monarch occupied a boat, from which he quietly took aim at the beasts that came within shot. Otherwise he pursued the game on horseback, and transfixed it while riding at full speed. In either case he seems to have joined to the pleasures of the chase the delights of music. Bands of harpers and other musicians were placed near him within the enclosure, and he could listen to their strains while he took his pastime.

The metalwork reflected the magnificence of the Sassanid court .


Sassanid textiles


Simurgh image in a textile 7th cent A.D.


One of the common motifs of Sassanid textiles were animals, real and imaginary, such as the simurgh ( half peacock and half dragon )

One of the great period in the history of Persian carpets and area rugs came during the Sassanid dynasty, from the third to the seventh century A.D. By the 6th century Persian rugs had won international acclaim and were being exported to distant lands. And in this time was created one great carpet which was a spectacle of overwhelming splendor. The spring or winter carpet of Chosroes was made for the huge audience hall of the palace at Ctesiphon and depicted a formal garden. It held a political significance as an indication of the power and the resources of the king and its beauty signified the divine role of the king. When the Arabs defeated the Persians and took Ctesiphon, they cut up the carpet as part of their booty .


One description of the carpet of Chosroes :


The ground represented a pleasure-garden, with streams and paths, trees and beautiful spring flowers. The wide border all round showed flower-beds of various colouring, the “ flowers” being blue, red, yellow, or white stones. The ground was yellowish, to look like earth, and it was worked in gold. The edges of the streams were worked in stripes, and between them stones bright as crystal gave the illusion of water, the size of the pebbles being what pearls might be. The stalks and branches were gold or silver, the leaves of trees and flowers made of silk, like the rest of the plants; and the fruits were coloured stones.One of the common motifs of Sassanid textiles were animals, real and imaginary, such as the simurgh ( half peacock and half dragon







 Yezdigerd  or Yazdgerd III, the last Sassanid king  632 - 651


 Persian Empire Timeline