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  • Matthew Hermane

Ernst Herzfeld’s Excavation of Pasargad

Mausoleum of Cyrus Photo Courtesy of the Freer Sackler Archives

Mausoleum of Cyrus

Photo Courtesy of the Freer Sackler Archives

In 530 B.C.E., Cyrus II - responsible for the downfall of the Medes, conqueror of Lydia, and subjugator of the Neo-Babylonian Empire - met an untimely death in a battle Herodotus described as “the fiercest battle between non-Greeks there has ever been.” The Shahanshah, who proclaimed himself the “king of the four corners of the world”, and whose empire stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River, was entombed in his homeland of Anshan, in his capital city of Pasargad (more recognizable by the Greek Pasargadae), and then largely forgotten about. It was not until the work of German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld in the 1920’s that his tomb, which had become known as Mashhad-i Madar-i Sulayman (tomb of the mother of Solomon), was accepted as the burial site of Cyrus the Great. Herzfeld’s findings unequivocally proved that Pasargad was the first capital of the Achaemenid Empire - the first unified Persian empire. Today, the majority of Herzfeld’s work is maintained in the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, and through July 31st, Herzfeld’s notes and drawings, along with photographs from his expeditions, can be viewed at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Pasargad is located on a plain in southwestern Iran known as dasht-i murghab (Plain of the Water Bird) near the modern city of Shiraz. At the peak of the Achaemenid Empire, it would have had stunning palaces and lush gardens. Despite this, it fell to ruin after the fall of the Achaemenids in 330 B.C.E.; Darius I’s Persepolis became the symbolic city of Achaemenid rule. The Greek historian Aristobulus describes Alexander the Great finding Cyrus’s tomb broken into, robbed, and the body of the king desecrated. Alexander, in rage, had the tomb’s supposed guards arrested and tortured before ordering repair of the tomb and Cyrus’s return to his resting place. The admiration Alexander held for his predecessor as the greatest conqueror of the ancient world should not be lost upon students of history.

In addition to Cyrus’s tomb, Herzfeld’s excavation of Pasargad uncovered two palaces, a city gate, two pavilions, a prison, a platform, and two stone plinths from which it is thought the king could have worshipped. Pasargad itself was a city of architectural innovation. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern capital cities, Pasargad strayed from the tradition of palaces with linear hallways in favor of large, open spaces. It is thought to be the city that introduced the chahar bagh - the traditional four-part Persian garden design that would be used throughout South and Central Asia for centuries. Whereas palaces of previous cities were erected with a fixed focal point, Cyrus’s palaces sought to draw attention to the surrounding paradisiacal gardens. Much like Cyrus’s empire, his capital city was composed of a mosaic of architectural traditions; Lydo-Ionian influence can be seen in the palace stonework, and the stone bulls that guarded doorways resemble those found in Neo-Assyrian palaces. Even these statues have hints of Neo-Babylonian and Egyptian influence in their details.

Ernst Hezfeld Posing in Front of Pasargad

Ernst Herzfeld first travelled to Pasargad in 1905 while working on his doctoral dissertation at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Berlin. He felt it was vital to identify the remains in the Mashhad-i Madar-i Solayman. Although it was contrary to thought of the time, he believed they belonged to Cyrus. In 1920, after being named Professor of Oriental Archaeology at the University of Berlin, Iran became much more accessible to Herzfeld and his academic pursuits. He made a quick one week trip in 1923 before returning in 1928 with a team of just two other individuals. Over the course of four weeks they were able to piece together archaeological evidence acceptable to the academic community as proof of Pasargad as Cyrus’s capital. In 2004, Pasargad was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ernst Hezfeld Posing in Front of Pasargad

Photo Courtsey of the Freer Sackler Archives

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