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Seeking the origins of a garden palace

The tomb of Cyrus the great, the first great Persian king, is a superb piece of architecture at Pasargadae, sitting on the edge of the main palace the king built. (Image: A Selkirk)

On the plain of Pasargadae, Cyrus the Great founded a spectacular garden palace. Nothing like it had ever been seen in the region before, raising questions about where the idea came from, how the garden was maintained, and even where the inhabitants lived. Recently, an Iranian-French team under Rémy Boucharlat went in search of the answers, as Andrew Selkirk reveals.

Pasargadae is not as well known as it ought to be. Pasargadae was built by the first great Persian king, Cyrus the Great (c.600-530 BC), as his palace and showpiece. It was a totally new concept of a garden city that established many of the principles of what became Persian architecture. But the trouble was that Cyrus’s successor Darius built an even bigger city 48km to the south, which the Greeks called Persepolis, and this city became the centre of the great Persian Empire. Even though it was spectacularly destroyed by Alexander the Great, 15 pillars still remain standing today, making Persepolis one of the greatest visitor attractions in the world; Pasargadae languishes.

Pasargadae has in fact one really superb piece of architecture: it is the tomb of Cyrus, situated right on the edge of the main palace complex. According to Arrian, it was restored by Alexander the Great and has a quiet simplicity that ensures its place in every book on world architecture. Indeed, today it holds a special place at the heart of modern Iran, and it is splendidly displayed at the end of a flower-lined avenue.

The layout of Palace P, the residential palace, consisted of a central hall surrounded by porticoes. While the area is dry today, the palace originally looked out over a fine formal garden, which flourished thanks to the surrounding stone water channels. (Image: Iranian-French archaeological project at Pasargadae / B N Chagny)

Cyrus deserves his special place in the history of modern Persia. He began as a ruler of a petty kingdom in the southwestern corner of the habitable part of modern Iran. He started by conquering the Medes who were then top dogs in that area. He then went west and conquered Croesus, king of the Lydians, and the young Greek city states in what is now the western coast of Turkey. And he then went on to conquer Babylon, thereby establishing the Persians as the main power in the Near East.

The great hall of Palace S, located near the gate to the palace complex, was where visiting dignitaries were received. The columned hall was surrounded by four porticoes. Today, only one column still stands. (Image: A Selkirk)

What really established his claim to greatness was his administrative genius: he learnt to delegate, and when he found that the Babylonians were keeping many of their enemies in captivity, he thought that this was silly so he sent them all home. Among those sent home were the Jews, so he twice makes an appearance in the Old Testament (in Isaiah and Ezra), and helped in the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. But what really has ensured his apotheosis was the discovery of the Cyrus cylinder – a barrel-shaped cylinder of clay covered with writing, discovered in Babylon in 1879 and now in the British Museum, which proclaims that Cyrus was a nicer king than the Babylon king he had conquered because he sent all the captives home. This was adopted by the last Shah of Persia, who made it the centrepiece of his big celebrations; and was then taken up by the United Nations as the world’s first declaration of human rights. This admittedly involves a somewhat imaginative reading of the actual text, but the modern regime in Iran is happy to go along with it and accept Cyrus the Great as the great founder of the Persian Empire. Herodotus gives him a splendid write up, and is the source of many of the good stories about Cyrus, who certainly seems to be one of the more attractive great rulers in history.

His new palace

Cyrus decided to establish a palace at Pasargadae, a broad flat plain surrounded by mountains, which according to the ancient Greek writer Strabo was the site of his decisive battle over the Medes. Little of the palace has survived above ground, for, following his death, attention was transferred to the new palace at Persepolis, and Pasargadae languished. However, it was most extensively explored in the 1960s by the Scottish archaeologist David Stronach, subsequently Professor of Archaeology in California.

He recovered three main features: there was an elaborate gateway labelled Gate R, which was a hall with eight columns and four doors. However, it was not attached to any walls: later excavators did a thorough check with a resistivity survey, but it was clear that it was freestanding. This is very similar to the even grander (and well-preserved) gateway at Persepolis, one of the most impressive features on that site. At Pasargadae, Building R led to Palace S, a great hall where visiting dignitaries could be received. However, just beyond was a great formal garden surrounded by stone channels within which flowed the water that kept the gardens fertile; and then at the far end was Palace P, the so-called residential palace, a central hall surrounded by porticoes, looking out over a fine garden.

Canals served as water features in the lush gardens. They were fed with water from the Pulvar River via a diversion channel. (Image: Iranian-French archaeological project at Pasargadae)

Two big problems remain, or rather two and a half remain. Firstly, where was the rest of the palace? Where were all the people living? Secondly, water management: how did the canals really work? And always in the background, where did all the ideas and features come from that made up Persian architecture? To answer all, or at least some, of these problems, an Iranian-French team was established from 1999 to 2009 under the direction of Rémy Boucharlat of Lyon University and in collaboration with the Iranian Center of Archaeological Research, who gave a talk at the Iran Heritage Foundation in October 2018, on which this article is based. Since 2015, the programme has been directed by Sébastien Gondet (CNRS France) and Kourosh Mohammadkhani (Shahid Beheshti University Tehran).

Half a dozen dams have been found along the Pulvar River, up to 30km north of Pasargadae. The dams ensured Pasargadae had a constant supply of water. (Image: Iranian-French archaeological project at Pasargadae)

The main aim of the expedition was to get the palace inscribed as a World Heritage Site, in which they were successful. This involved carrying out extensive geophysical surveys to determine the limits of the monumental area, and to find out where people were actually living. In this they were basically unsuccessful. It really does seem to have been a garden city filled with gardens. The reconstruction by Farzin Rezaeian, an Iranian filmmaker living in Iran but educated in Canada illustrates this well.

A new type of palace

It is very different from all previous Near Eastern palaces, which tended to be extremely overcrowded. The plan of the South Palace at Babylon uncovered by the German excavator Koldowey in the late 19th century brings this out – a mass of small rooms surrounding a series of central courtyards. Gardens, however, are well known in the Near East, from the Garden of Eden to the hanging Gardens of Babylon – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. At first, they were linked with temples. Later, in the 1st millennium BC, gardens were laid out by Assyrian kings primarily for their own pleasure. However, none of the representations of gardens of the Neo-Assyrian reliefs can be compared with the geometrical design of the Pasargadae gardens. Assyrian gardens were typically set on a hill, often topped by a small, open pavilion, where streams and trees are in an irregular position.

Conversely, the garden of Pasargadae is located in a flat area and shows a geometric design strongly defined by stone channels. The stone buildings are not in the middle of the gardens, but set outside. Therefore, the garden appears to be more important than the relatively modest buildings.

Pasargadae’s large pool is a forerunner of the grand water features in later Persian gardens, such as the long pool leading to Chehel Sotoun, the pavilion built by Shah Abbas II in Isfahan. (Image: A Selkirk)

The big surprise of the geophysical survey was the discovery of a huge trapezoidal pond some 250m long and 50-100m wide, but only 1.5m deep. Such a large pond is totally unknown in early gardens in Mesopotamia, and the abundance of water in the semi-arid landscape would certainly have been very impressive. This large pool should surely be seen as a true ancestor of the Persian gardens so well illustrated in later periods at Esfahan, and indeed the Taj Mahal.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 100 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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