Sasanid Architecture

By: Professor Dietrich Huff

1. Building materials

Sasanian architecture is characterized by the widespread use of mortar masonry and the associated vaulting techniques. Although mud brick had been developed long before, and mortar constructions were known in Parthian dynastic eras, both became pre-eminent in the high-standard architecture of the Sasanians. Mud brick remained a most important building material (e.g. Dāmghān, Istakhr/Estakkr, Haĵiābād, Kīš, Ctesiphon, Kūh-ī Khwāja), and only its impermanence shifts our attention to the better preserved stone and brick ruins of Sasanian architecture. Among these, rubble stone masonry with gypsum mortar is predominant. Brickwork was frequently used for vaults and domes, although there are a number of buildings made entirely of brick (e.g. Dastegerd, Ayvan-a Karka, Ctesiphon, Takt-a Solayman). Dressed ashlar appears sporadically, mainly in the early (e.g. B1’sapur, Firūzābād, Nurābād, Pāykūli) and late (e.g. Tāq-a Gerrā, Darband, Takt-a Solaymān, Kangāvar) phases of the empire, and seems to be due to western influence (H. Wulff, Traditional Crafts of Persia, Cambridge, Mass., 1966, p. 102).


2. Construction and structural types

(a) Vaulted constructions

Sasanian vaulting techniques depend largely on the special qualities of gypsum mortar, which allows vaulting without centering because of its short setting time. Barrel vaults with “pitched courses,” the most frequent system, owe their elliptical shape and their significant step out above the impost to this technical procedure, which requires only a back wall or a narrow strip of centering for the first courses, with the following ones successively glued in front (K. A. C. Creswell, Early Muslim Architecture 1/2, Oxford, 1969, p. 544; O. Reuther, “Sasanian Architecture,” in Survey of Persian Art I, p.498). Notwithstanding its practical advantages, vaulting without centering prevented the development of geometrically advanced constructions. Semicircular barrel vaults appear only when built on centering as a voussoir arch with “lying courses.” The cross vault, resulting from the intersection of two barrel vaults at right angles, was not developed. There are no examples of pointed arches built by formal intention, although they occur as a result of building practice in lesser monuments (e.g. Qasr-a Shīrīn) (G. L. Bell, Palace and Mosque at Ukhaidir, London, 1914, p. 5 1). The standard unit of the rectangular barrel-vaulted room was frequently enlarged by vaulted bays. Adjoining semi-domes occur rarely (e.g. Kīš, Bozpār, Negār, Sarvestān), although in vernacular architecture the use of the squinch vault, probably an ancient technique and one widely regarded as the origin of the Iranian dome, results in a hybridization of semi-dome or dome and cloister vault (A. Godard, “Voutes iraniennes,” Athar-e Iran 4, 1949, p.221). With the barrel-vaulted ayvān, a rectangular room with the front side open, the visible shape of the vault became the dominant feature of the facade. Already present in Parthian time, the ayvān became the most conspicuous element of Sasanian and later Iranian architecture.



(b) Domed constructions

The propagation of the dome on squinches above a square hall may be regarded as the most significant Sasanian contribution to the World architecture. This most uncomplicated and solid of all constructive systems already appears fully developed in the buildings of Ardašīr I in Firūzābād (Fig. 1). Its tectonic disposition remained basically unchanged throughout the Sasanian period and had a decisive impact on Islamic architecture; its empirical form clearly distinguished Eastern dome construction from the abstract geometrical concept of Western domes with pendentives (J. Rosinthal, Pendentifs, trompes et stalactites dans l’architecture orientale, Paris, 1928, p.43). The variety of squinch forms demonstrates an increasing effort to find satisfying forms for what was originally a purely constructive element. In its early stage (e.g. Fīrūzābād) the cupola proper does not yet have a perfectly circular base, but rises on a fairly well rounded octagon. Later examples (e.g. Qasr-e Shīrīn) draw nearer to geometric perfection, which is finally achieved in Islamic architecture.


  1. The elevation of the domed hall consists of three horizontal zones:
  2. plain walls, generally with doors or arches at the four axial intercepts;
  3. a zone of transition including the corner squinches and generally windows or decorative niches at the main axes;
  4. the cupola proper. The addition of barrel-vaulted bays to all four sides of the square produced the mature scheme that was to become a standard type for representative architecture in Iran until the present. This cruciform plan, based on the Chahār-tāq, the square with four arches, appears in the earliest examples of Sasanian architecture, (e.g. Takt-a Nešin in Fīrūzābād); it may have been inspired by Parthian architecture, although the central square was generally covered by cross or barrel vaults in those monuments.



(c) Columns and other supporting constructions

With the introduction of far-spanning vaults, the use of columns as constructive elements was widely discarded. There are examples of archaizing slender columns with bases, capitals, and sometimes fluted shafts that maintain Achaemenid traditions (e.g. Bišāpūr, Nurābād, Kīš), while those of later monuments (e.g. Bisotūn, Tāq-a Bostān) reflect a fresh Byzantine influence. But most often the column was transformed into a massive, round or rectangular pillar suitable for vaulted masonry constructions according to Iranian traditional architecture.


Apart from their use in colonnades (e.g. Kangāvar), pillars distinguish a characteristic group of generally three aisled halls covered by longitudinal or transversal barrel vaults (e.g. Čāl Tarkhān, Dāmghān, Ctesiphon, Takt-a Solaymān, Tepe Mil). Nonetheless the typical supporting elements remained the massive wall, and pillars more often appear as relics of a wall pierced by arches than as individual tectonic members.



(d) Constructive and decorative details

Clay remained the chief coating material for flat and vaulted roofs as well as for floors which were frequently covered with gypsum plaster, stone, or in rare cases, with foreign influenced mosaics (e.g. Bišāpūr). Plaster of Paris, frequently painted (Bišāpūr, Ayvān-a Karkha, Kīš), was widely used for building facings and for the dominant mode of architectural ornamentation, the stucco relief (Čāl Tarkhān, Dāmghān, Hajiābād, Kīš, Ctesiphon) (D. Thompson, Stucco from Chal Tarkhan, London, 1976; J. Kroger, Sasanidischer Stuckdekor, Mainz, 1982; M. Azarnoush, “Excavations at Hajidbad, 1977,” Iranica Antiqua 18, 1983, pp. 159ff.). The traditional stepped revetment remained a favorite decorative element, normally with four rectangular stages, which were already becoming dovetail-like at the late Sasanian Tāq-a Gerra.



3. Functional types of buildings

(a) Religious architecture

Frequent reference to sacred fires in Pahlavi texts indicate the important role that sanctuaries of the Zoroastrian state religion played in Sasanian architecture, but their architectural type remains disputed (F. Oehlmann “Persische Tempel,” Archäologischer Anzeiger, 1921, pp. 273ff.; U. Monneret de Villard, “The Fire Temples,” Bulletin of the American Institute for Persian Art and Archaeology 4,1936, pp. 175ff.; K. Schippmann, Die iranischen Feuerheiligtümer, Berlin, 1971; M. Boyce, “On the Zoroastrian Temple Cult of Fire,” JAGS 95, 1975, pp. 454ff.; Y. Yamamoto, “The Zoroastrian Temple Cult of Fire in Archaeology and Literature,” Orient 15, 1979, pp. 19ff.; 17, 1981, pp. 67ff.). The prevailing theory suggests that the main sanctuary structures were a freestanding Čahār-tāq, under which the sacred fire, shining through the four lateral arches, was exposed to worshipers during the religious services, and a small Āteāgāh some distance away, where the fire was kept at other times (A. Godard, “Les monuments du feu,” Athār-a Iran 3, 1938, pp. 7ff.; K. Erdmann, Das iranische Feuerheiligtüm, Leipzig, 1941, pp.46ff.). Apart from religious prescriptions that raise doubts about this kind of cult practice (Dārāb Hormazyār’s Rivāyat, ed. M. R. Unvala, 1, Bombay, 1906, pp. 60, 65ff.), archeological field work suggests another type of sanctuary: a closed chamber, where the fire was permanently maintained and served by priests, with adjoining ambulatories or rooms for worship (E. Herzfeld, Iran in the Ancient East, London, 1941, pp. 301ff.; E. Keall, “Archaeology and the Fire Temple,” in C. J. Adams, Iranian Civilization and Culture, Montreal, 1972, pp. 15ff.; D. Huff, “Das Imamzadeh Sayyid Husain and E. Herzfelds Theorie fiber den sasanidischen Feuertempel,” Stud. Ir. 11, 1982, pp. 197ff.). If the suggested identification of the Takht-e Nešīn in Fīrūzābād with a fire temple of Ardasīr I proves right, the early type was a square, domed room with four interior bays and with ayvans or rooms added to the four facades (Huff in Archäologischer Anzeiger, 1972, pp. 517ff.). A unique, semi-subterranean structure at Bīšāpūīr, convincingly attributed to Shāpūr I, is believed to be an ambulatory type fire temple because of its corridors; these surround a courtyard-like square of uncertain roofing, apparently associated with Anahita, as it was connected with an underground water canal (Ghirshman, RAA 12, 1938, p. 14; see, for a different interpretation, R. N. Frye, “The So-called Fire Temple of Bishapur,” in The Memorial Volume of the Vlth International Congress of Iranian Art and Archaeology, Oxford, September 11-16th, 1972, Tehran, 1976, p.93). The Sasanian phase of the mud brick structure at Kūh-e Khwāja, identified as a fire temple by an altar in its principal building, had a square, domed sanctuary surrounded by corridors and halls, with a vast complex of subsidiary rooms and ayvāns around a central court (Herzfeld, op. cit., pp. 291ff.; G. Gullini, Architettura iranica, Torino, 1964, pp. 87ff.). A similar layout was found at Takht-a Solaymān, tentatively dated to the 6th century, which has been identified, on the basis of historical tradition and the excavation of clay bullae bearing priests’ names and titles, as the shrine of Adhur Gūšnasp (Fig. 2), one of the three most important Adhur Wahrāms; the others, Adhur Farnbag and Adhur Burzēnmihr, have not yet been precisely localized. A second shrine excavated here, beside a dome-ambulatory temple, revealed an altar socle in a small sanctuary, preceded by two successive pillar halls rather than ambulatories (H. H. Von der Osten and R. Naumann, Takht-i Suleiman, Berlin, 1961; R. Nauman, “Takht-i Suleiman,” Archäeologischer Anzeiger, 1975, pp. 109ff.; idem, Die Rumen von Tacht-a Suleiman and Zendan-a Suleiman, Berlin, 1977, pp. 57ff.; D. Huff, “Takht-i Suleiman,” AMI 10, 1977, pp. 211ff.). The Čahār Qāpū at Qasr-e Šīrīn, attributed to Khosrow II, seems to have been another dome-ambulatory type temple within a large architectural compound (Bell, op. cit., pp. 51ff.; Reuther, op. cit., pp. 552ff.; differently J. Schmidt, ” Qasr-e Šīrīn,” Baghdader Mitteilungen 9, 1978, pp. 39ff.).


A great number of Čahār-tāq ruins, surveyed all over Iran and most frequent in Fars and Kerman, are regarded as fire temples. Nearly all of them were closed to the outside by blocking walls in their bays or the surrounding vaulted corridors (L. Vanden Berghe, “Récentes découvertes de monuments sassanides duns le Fars,” Iranica Antigua 1, 1961, pp. 163ff.; idem, “Nouvelle découverte de monuments du feu d’époque sassanide,” ibid., 5, 1965, pp. 128ff.; idem, “Les Chahar Taqs du Pusht-i Kuh, Luristan,” ibid., 12, 1977, pp. 175ff.). See further D. Huff, “Sasanian Čahar Taqs in Fars,” in Proceedings of the 3rd Annual Symposium on Archaeological Research in Iran, Tehran, 1975, pp. 243ff.). The two types are represented by the excavated examples at Tūrang Tepe identified as a sanctuary by an altar socle, and at Qal’a-ye Yazdegerd, respectively (J. Deshayes, “Un temple du feu d’époque islamique a Tureng Tepe,” in Gê feu dans le Proche Orient antique, Leiden, 1973, pp. 31ff.; E. Keall, “Qal`eh-i Yazdigird, an Overview of the Monumental Architecture,” Iran 20, 1982, pp. 51 ff.). Several open air altars including those at Naqš-a Rostam and Tang-a Karam most likely served for some Zoroastrian religious practice (A. Stein, “An Archaeological Tour in the Ancient Persis,” Iraq 3, 1936, pp. 175ff.; K. Erdmann, “Die Altare von Naqsh-i Rustam,” MDOG 81, 1949, pp. 6ff.; D. Stronach, “The Kuh-i Shahrak Fire Altar,” JNES 25, 1966, pp. 217ff.). Christian churches discovered at Hīra, Ctesiphon, and Rahalīya have long prayer halls, mostly with two rows of pillars and tripartite choirs (Reuther, Die Au.sgrabungen der Deutschen Ktesiphon-Expedition, Berlin, 1930, pp. llff.; D. Talbot Rice, “The Oxford Excavations at Hira, 193 1,” Antiquity 6, 1932, pp. 276ff.; B. Finster and J. Schmidt, “Sasanidische and frühislamische Ruinen im Iraq,” Baghdader Mitteilungen 8, 1976, pp. 27, 40ff.).



(b) Palaces

Although palaces provide the best known examples of Sasanian architecture, the number of well defined monuments is smaller than generally assumed. They are characterized by a regular layout along an axis of symmetry and an obligatory ayvān. The two palaces of Ardašīr I at Fīrūzābād, Qal’a-ye Doktar (Fig. 3) and Āteškada, both have as public reception areas a deep ayvān with lateral rooms, followed by a central dome and domed or barrel-vaulted subsidiary halls. A courtyard with ayvāns and large, uniform halls behind or in front of the reception area is generally regarded as the royal living quarters, although it gives the impression of belonging to the official area. Therefore the private lodgings may be assumed in small rooms on the upper floor that are otherwise unexplained (D. Huff, “Qal’a-ye Dukhtar bei Firuzabad,” AMI, N. F. 4, 1971, pp. 127ff.; idem, “Ausgrabungen auf Qal’a-ye Dukhtar bei Firuzabad, 1976,” AMI 11, 1978, pp. 117ff.).


There are few palaces remaining from the middle Sasanian period, during which the characteristic combination of ayvān and domed hall seems to have been abandoned. At the Taq-e Kesrā, now generally attributed to Khosrow I (Reuther, op. cit., pp. 15ff.; O. Kurz, “The Date of the Taq-e Kisrā,” JRAS, 1941, pp. 37ff.; differently Herzfeld, “Damascus: Studies in Architecture II,” Ars Islamica 10,1943, pp. 59ff.), and at the probably contemporary ayvān building at Takt-e Solaymān (Nauman, Die Ruinen von Tacht-a Suleiman, pp. 44), the ayvān appears to be the only dominating element. The inadequately documented `Emārat-e Khosrow in Qasr-a Šīrīin and the nearby ruin of Hawš Kūrī, both attributed to the time of Khosrow II, also seem to lack a dome behind the ayvān, where a transverse structure of uncertain elevation and a square courtyard were located instead (J. de Morgan, Mission scientifique en Perse IV, Paris, 1896, pp. 341ff.; Bell, op. cit., pp. 44ff.; Reuther in Survey of Persian Art I, pp. 533ff.). Regular house-like units added to the rear seem to have been living areas. Both palaces stand on artificial terraces with double ramps like the ruin at Kangāvar, now thought to be a late Sasanian palace (V. Lukonin, “The Temple of Anahita in Kangavar” [in Russian], VDI 2/140, 1977, pp. 105ff., cf. G. Herrmann, The Iranian Revival, Oxford, 1977, p. 107; M. Azarnoush, “Excavations at Kangavar,” AMI 14, 1981, pp. 69ff.). Other terraces such as Tall Dhahab and Haram-a Kesrā at Ctesiphon (Reuther, Ktesiphon-Expedition, pp. 23ff.; E. Kiihnel etal., Die Ausgrabungen der zweiten Ktesiphon-Expedition, Berlin, 1933, pp. Iff.) or Sarmaj (L. Trümpelmann, “Die Terrasse des Hosrow,” Archäologischer Anzeiger, 1968, pp. l lff.) may have carried palace-like super structures as well.


The residential function of a number of monuments generally regarded as palaces has been questioned. The ground plan of the well-preserved building of Sarvestān suggests other than palatial use. Its dating in the mid-Sasanian period has also come into question because of its highly developed vaulting system, closely paralleled by early Islamic constructions such as Qasr al-Kharāna in Jordan (O. Grabar, “Sarvistan. A Note on Sassanian Palaces,” in Forschungen zur Kunst Asiens. Festschrift K. Erdmann, Istanbul, 1968, pp. lff.; M. Siroux, “Le palms de Sarvistan et ses voutes,” Stud. Ir. 2, 1973, pp. 49ff.; L. Bier, The `Sasanian’ Palace near Sarvistan, New York, 1979.). The highly complex layout of the socalled palace of Shāpūr I in Bišāpūr raises similar questions of function (Ghirshman, “Les fouilles de Chapour (Iran),” RAA 12, 1938, pp. l5ff.; idem, Bichapour II, Paris, 1956, pp. llff.; Huff, Archäologischer Anzeiger, 1972, pp. 517ff.). The three-naved buildings of Dāmghān (F. Kimball, apud E. F. Schmidt, Excavations at Tepe Hissar, Philadelphia, 1937, pp. 327ff.), Čāl Tarkhān (Thompson, op. cit., pp. 3ff.), Tepe Mil (Kroger, op. cit., pp. 202ff.), and Kīš (P. R. S. Moorey, Kish Excavations 1923-33, Oxford, 1978, pp. 134ff.) can be reasonably regarded as forerunners of similar, early Islamic palaces such as Kūfa and Tall al-Okhayder but are formally connected with the second fire temple at Takht-a Solaymān and other cult buildings as well. There is little decisive evidence for the purpose of the hall on the city wall of ayvān-e Karkha (M. Dieulafoy, L’art antique de la Perse V, 1889, pp. 79ff.; Ghirshman, MDAFI, Paris, 1952, pp. lOff.) or the buildings at Bozpar (L. Vanden Berghe, “Le tombeau achéménide de Buzpar,” in Vorderasiatische Archäologie. Festschrift A. Moortgat, Berlin, 1964, pp.243ff.), Behešto Dozakh (L. Vanden Berghe, “Les ruines de Bihisht-a Duzakh a Sultanabad,” Iranica Antiqua 8, 1968, pp. 94ff.), and elsewhere.



(c) Cities and houses

The political importance of city foundations in Sasanian Iran is indicated by the almost obligatory component of the sponsor-king’s name in the name of the city. Although many attributions may concern some kind of re-founding or shifting of existing places, a number of original foundations are known, the standard pattern of which is a rectangular system of streets. The exceptional concentric and radiating plan of the circular city of Ardašīr-khorra may reflect an individual decision by Ardašīr I, demonstrating the cosmological and sociopolitical ideas of his emerging empire (D. Huff, “Zur Rekonstruktion des Turmes von Firuzabad,” Istanbuler Mitteilungen 19/20, 1969/70, pp. 319ff.; idem, “Der Takht-i Nishin in Firuzabad,” Archäologischer Anzeiger, 1972, pp. 517ff.; idem, AMI 11, 1978, pp. 117ff.). Archeological evidence for other circular geometric city plans is scanty, although they appear at different periods in the ancient Orient and with different stages of refinement. The round layout of Hatra, the best known Parthian example, lacks a genuine geometrical concept. It is unlikely that the round perimeter of Dārābgerd is a prototype for Ardašīr-khorra, as it probably dates from the 8th century (Creswell, Early Islamic Architecture I/2, 1969, p.21). The circular plan of Ctesiphon and the general topography of the site of al-Madā’en are still under discussion (Reuther, in Survey of Persian Art I, pp. 2ff.; J. M. Fiey, “Topography of al-Madā’in,” Sumer 23, 1967, pp. X.), and the reportedly round city of Sasanian Esfahān is not yet uncovered. Ardašīir-khorra may have influenced the layout of later circular cities such as al-Mansur’s Baghdad and its successors.


Few details are known about the architectural and sociological structure of orthogonal cities such as Jondīšāpūr (R. McC. Adams and D. Hansen, “Archaeological Reconnaissance and Soundings in Jundi Shapur,” Ars Orientalis 7, 1968, pp. 53ff.), Ayvān-e Karkha, and Bišāpūr, the last featuring a commemorative monument at the intersection of its two orthogonal main axes (Ghirshman, Bichdpour I, pp. 21 ff.; II, plan I). The majority of cities certainly continued older settlements with regular or organically grown patterns, as at Estakr (D. Whitcomb, “The City of Istakhr and the Marvdasht Plain,” In Akten des VII. internationalen Kongresses fur iranische Kunst and Archkologie, Munchen, 7.-10. September 1976, Berlin, 1979, pp.363ff.). Some residential areas have been surveyed or excavated in Kīš (S. Langdon, “Excavations at Kish and Barghutiat 1933,” Iraq 1, 1934, p. 113), Ctesiphon (Kuhnel, 2. Ktesiphon-Expedition, pp. lff.; R. Venco Ricciardi, “The Excavations at Choche,” Mesopotamia 3-4, 1968/69, p.57; idem, “Trial Trench at Tell Baruda,” Mesopotamia 12, 1977, pp. Ilff.), Lorestan (Morgan, op. cit., pp. 36111.), Roqbat al-Madā’en (Finster Schmidt, op. cit., pp. 151ff.) and Qasr-a Abū Nasr (W. Hauser and J. M. Upton, “The Persian Expedition 1933-34,” Bulletin of The Metropolitan Museum of Art 29, December 1934/11, pp. 3ff.), but the daily life of the middle and lower classes remains incompletely known.



(d) Fortifications

The main elements include ditches, walls with stepped niches, blind windows and arrow slots with horizontal or triangular covering, stepped battlements, corridors or narrow rooms within the walls, and far-protruding bastions, generally with semicircular headings. Unsophisticated gates were placed between pronounced bastions, and gate chambers were connected with the defence platform above by vertical shafts, probably for acoustic communication.


Few city ramparts have survived later changes. Ardašīr-khorra clearly had an earth wall with bastions, a ditch, and a small fore-wall. The ramparts of Bišāpūr were originally lined with semicircular bastions about 40 cm apart (`A. A. Sarfaraz, “Bišāpūr, the Great City of the Sasanians” [in Persian], Bāstān Chenāssi va Honar-e Iran 2, 1969, pp. 27ff.). The presumed palace section of the ramparts of Ayvān-a Karkha shows an elaborate arrangement of brick constructions (Ghirshman, MDAFI, 1952, pp. IOff.). The brick wall of Dastegerd, an unusual 16.6 m thick, harbored narrow corridors with radiating arrow slots and connecting semicircular tower chambers (F. Sarre and E. Herzfeld, Archkologische Reise im Euphrat-and Tigris-Gebiet II, Berlin, 1920, pp. 76; IV, pl. 127). The exceptional cut stone facing of the wall at Takt-a Solaymān (Osten Naumann, op. cit., p. 39) seems to be identical with that of the Darband walls (S. Han-Magomedov, Derbent, Moscow, 1979.). The standard Sasanian fortification type is represented by the mud brick ramparts of Ctesiphon and Estakhr (M. M. Negroponzi and M. C. Cavallero, “The Excavations at Choche,” Mesopotamia 2, 1967, pp.41ff.; Herzfeld, Iran in the Ancient East, pp.276ff.) and by the rubble stone walls of Qal’a-ye Dokhtar at Firūzābād (Huff, AMI 11, 1976, pp. 138ff.).


Most surviving fortresses served as isolated strongholds or protection for cities; this abundant but scarcely explored military architecture gives some insight into the Sasanian social hierarchy. Examples of the regular, generally square, Roman-type fort with rounded bastions are found in Harsin, Qasr-a Šīrīn (Morgan, op. cit., pp. 354ff.), Sirāf (D. Whitehouse, “Excavations at Siraf,” Iran 10, 1972, pp. 63ff.), and at several Mesopotamian sites (Finster-Schmidt, op. cit., pp. 49ff.). More frequent are irregular fortresses on strategically important heights; these usually have straight curtains between rounded bastions, as at Firūzābād, Bišāpūr, Tūrang Tepe (R. Boucharlat, “La forteresse sassanide de Tureng-Tepe,” in Collogues internationaux du C. N. R. S., No. 567: Le plateau iranien et I’Asie Centrale des origines a la conquête islamique, Paris, 1977, pp. 32911f), and the “Ātašgāh” at Esfahān (fig. 4 ), (M. Siroux, “`Atesh-gāh pres d’ Ispahan,” Iranica Antigua 5, 1965, pp. 39ff.). Territorial defence lines are known from literary tradition and archeological evidence (R. N. Frye, “The Sasanian System of Walls for Defence,” in M. Rosen-Ayalon, ed., Studies in Memory of Gaston Wiet, Jerusalem, 1977, pp. 7ff.), such as the ditch of Šāpūr II west of the Euphrates, the limes of Sistan (A. Stein Innermost Asia II, Oxford, 1928, pp. 972ff.), the walls of Darband from the Caspian into the Caucasus (A. A. Kudryavtsev, “O datirovke pervykh sasanidskikh ukreplenii v Derbente,” Sovetskaya Arkheologiya 3, 1978, pp. 243ff.), the wall of Tammisha (Tamīša) from the bay of Gorgān/Astarābād to the Elburz (A.D. H. Bivar and G. Féhervári, “The Walls of Temisha,” Iran 4, 1966, pp. 3511f), and the wall of Alexander north of the Gorgān river, although the last may date back to Parthian times (D. Huff, “Zur Datierung des Alexanderwalls,” Iranica Antigua 16, 1981, pp. 125fl.; M. Y. Kiani, Parthian Sites in Hyrkania, AMI, Erganzungsband 9, Berlin, 1982, pp. I Iff.).



(e) Funerary, commemorative, and rock architecture

The remarkable lack of monumental funeral architecture “maybe” explained by Zoroastrian religious prescriptions (Vd. 6.44ff.) [by the Western-Iranian-Zoroastrians] restricting burial rites to exposure of the dead and a possible but not necessary preservation of the bones in bone receptacles, or astodans (q.v.). Rock-cut exposure platforms and small cavities for preserving the bones are known mainly from southern Iran, notably around Estakhr and Bīšāpūr, where the huge grotto with the statue of Šāpūr I (fig. 5) is interpreted as his tomb (Vanden Berghe, Archéologie de l’Iran ancien, p.45; A. Stein, Old Routes of Western Iran, London, 1940, pp.311ff.; Ghirshman, Bichapour I, pp. 180ff.). Ritual texts describe astodāns as freestanding buildings, a type possibly represented by a bone burial in a fortification tower in Shahr-a Qūmes (J. Hausman and D. Stronach, “A Sasanian Repository at Shahr-i Qumis,” JRAS, 1970, pp. 142ff.) and by the tower of Nurābād (D. Huff, “Nurabad, Dum-i Mill,” AMI, N.F. 8, 1975, pp. 167ff.). Rock-cut tombs on the island of Khārg seem to belong at least partly to non-Zoroastrian communities (E. Haerinck, “Quelques monuments funéraires de file de Kharg dans le Golfe Persique,” Iranica Antiqua 11, 1975, pp. 134ff.) [or followers of the Eastern Iranian tradition of Zoroastrianism, which they were against the exposing their deaths to revered elements]


Some commemorative or triumphal monuments are identified by inscriptions. The twin-column monument in Bīšāpūr was dedicated to Shāpūr I (G. Salles and R. Ghirshman, “Chapour,” RAA 10, 1936, pp. 117ff.). The tower-like monument of Pākūi celebrates the victory of Narseh over his rivals (E. Herzfeld, Paikuli. Monument and Inscriptions of the Early History of the Sasanian Empire I-Il, Berlin, 1924). There is as yet no definitive explanation for [possibly] the late Sasanian Tāq-e Gerrā a small ayvān building with archivolt (H. V. Gall and W. Kleiss, “Entwicklung and Gestalt des Thrones im vorislamischen Iran,” AMI, N.F. 4, 1971, pp. 2ff.; S. Kambakhsh-Fard, “L’arc de Guirra, monument en pierre,” Traditions architecturales en Iran 4, 1976, pp. 2ff.), or for a freestanding gateway building outside the wall of Bīšāpūr (Sarfaraz, op. cit., pp. 27, 73). The tower in the center of Ardašīr-khorra (fig. ), which possibly carried a hall with the king’s seat or his fire, may symbolize God-given royalty (Huff, Istanbuler Mitteilungen 19-20, 1969/70, pp. 319ff.). The late Sasanian Tāq-a Bostān, an ayvān-like artificial grotto, is linked by its monumentality with official Sasanian architecture, and by its decoration with the tradition of Sasanian rock reliefs (E. Herzfeld, Am Tor von Asien, Berlin, 1920, pp. 57ff.; M. C. Mackintosh, “Taq-i Bustan and Byzantine Art,” Iranica Antigua 13, 1978, pp. 149ff.; S. Fukai et al., Taq-i Bustan I-IV, Tokyo, 1968-84). It may be related to other, partly unfinished rock monuments, such as those at Bisotūn (H. Luschey, “Bisotun, Geschichte and Forschungsgeschichte,” Archäologischer Anzeiger, 1974, pp. 114ff.; W. Salzmann, “Die Felsabarbeitung and Terrasse des Farhad in Bisotun,” ibid., 1976, pp. I l Off.) and Harsin (Godard, Athar-a Iran 3, 1938, pp. 67ff.).



(f) Civil engineering architecture

The centralized Sasanian government enabled the realization of large scale community projects such as road communications, bridges, irrigation, and drainage systems, most of which utilized the technical skill and manpower of prisoners of war. Many bridges (e.g. Kūzestān and Lorestān, Fīrūzābād, Bīšāpūr, and Bisotūn) dressed masonry with iron clamps at their preserved piers, which are generally rectangular with a triangular prism upstream; the arched superstructures are mostly destroyed (Stein, op. cit., pp. 15, 48, 71). Bridges were frequently constructed as weirs for irrigation and constituted the starting point of far reaching canal systems, as at Šūštar and Dezfūl (Dieulafoy, V, pp. lOSff.; G. Van Roggen, “Notices sur les anciens travaux hydrauliques en Susiane,” MDAF 17, 1905, pp. 167ff.; R. J. Wenke, “Imperial Investments and Agricultural Developments in Parthian and Sasanian Khuzistan: 150 B.C. to CE 640,” Mesopotamia 10/I1, 1975/76, pp.31ff). Aqueducts were carried on walls or bridges, and the use of syphon tunnels seems to have been known (Adams-Hansen, op. cit., pp. 59ff.).

Bibliography: Given in the text.

Sasanian Dynasty

224 — Ardeshir I founded the Sasanian dynasty. The Sasanians revived Persian culture and Zoroastrianism and made a conscious effort to return to the Achaemenian norms. They sponsored trade both with their arch-enemy, the Romans/Byzantines, and the Chinese. Excavations in China have unearthed gold and silver Sasanian coins covering a span of many centuries.

260 — Shahpur I invaded the Roman Empire and took Emperor Valerian prisoner. He also established Jondi Shahpur, a major center of higher learning.

274 — Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, tried to introduce a new universal world religion, shapurII_Sasanian Dynastycombining elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Buddhism.

528 — Mazdak advocated abolition of private property, the division of wealth, as well as nonviolence and vegetarianism. His ideas brought about a major class struggle between the peasants and the nobility. He could be considered the world’s first “communist/socialist.”

531-579 — The reign of Khosrow I (Anushiravan) marked the height of the Sasanian dynasty. He promoted scholarship and sponsored the translation of Indian and Greek scientific and medical texts into Middle Persian or Pahlavi, Persia’s native language. By the time of Khosrow I, Jondi Shahpur’s library had amassed one of the largest collections of books in the world. He also gave refuge and financial assistance to philosophers fleeing oppression in the Byzantine Empire. Khosrow I was also a populist king, possibly a reflection of Mazdak’s ideology and the civil conflicts that subsequently ensued. He made himself available to all his subjects; anyone could rattle his chain of justice and have an audience with the king. His famous prime minister, Bozorgmehr, reportedly invented the game of backgammon.

570 — The Prophet Mohammad was born.

608-622 — The long war between the Sasanians and the Byzantines significantly weakened both sides.

622 — Fearing persecution for his beliefs, the Prophet Mohammad migrated from Mecca to Medina. His migration or Hijra marked the birth of Islamic civilization and the starting point of all Islamic calendars. God conveyed the beliefs of Islam to the Prophet Mohammad through the angel Gabriel in a series of visions and revelations. Muslims consider the Prophet Mohammad as the last prophet in a line of prophets that includes the prophets Moses and Jesus.

629-632 — Two consecutive female monarchs ruled over the Sasanian Empire, Purandokht and her sister Azarmidokht. Purandokht signed a peace treaty with the Byzantines.

632 — The Prophet Mohammad died. Subsequently, his revelations were gathered and compiled into the holy book of Islam – The Koran.

More Persecutions during Sassanid Rule

The high-priest of Zoroastrianism, Kartir Hangirpe, believed that he represented the one true religion. He was an absolutist, believing that there was good and evil, with nothing in between. Into the later half of the 200s CE, he continued with his persecution of competing religions: the Manichaeans, Christians, Jews and Buddhists. Then, sometime during the reign of Bahram II (276-293), Kartir died, and religious tolerance began to reassert itself. Continue reading More Persecutions during Sassanid Rule

The Zoroastrian Priesthood Elevated by Sassanid State

The Zoroastrian priesthood had endured rule by Parthians, and they had suffered from a prevalence of religions that were not Persian in origin. The founder of the Sassanid dynasty, Ardashir, took power in 224 CE, and his rule pleased the Zoroastrian priesthood. Ardashir allied himself with Zorastrianism. He announced that religion and kingship were brothers and said his rule was the will of God. The Zoroastrian priesthood felt empowered, and they looked forward to converting non-Zoroastrians who lived within Ardashir’s empire. Continue reading The Zoroastrian Priesthood Elevated by Sassanid State

Nowruz Persian New Year

Persepolis all nations staircase.

People from across Persia bring Nowruz gifts for the king.

Nowruz is the traditional Iranian festival of spring which starts at the exact moment of the vernal equinox, commencing the start of the spring. It is considered as the start of the New Year among Iranians. The name comes from Avestan meaning “new day/daylight”. Noruz is celebrated March 20/21 each year, at the time the sun enters Aries.

Noruz has been celebrated for at least 3,000 years and is deeply rooted in the rituals and traditions of the Zoroastrian religion. Today the festival of Noruz is celebrated in Iran, Iraq, India, Afghanistan, Tajikestan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

The Zoroastrian Parsis of India celebrate Noruz twice, firstly in common with their Iranian brethren on the vernal equinox as Jamshedi Navroz (also referred to as the Fasli New Year) and secondly on a day in July or August, depending upon whether they follow the Kadmi or the Shahenshahi calendar. This is because the practice of intercalation in the Zoroastrian calendar was lost on their arrival in India. The Kadmi New Year always precedes the Shahenshahi New Year by 30 days. In 2005, Noruz is celebrated on August 20 (Shahenshahi).

The Baha’i Faith, a religion with its origin in Iran, celebrates this day (spelling it “Naw Ruz”) as a religious holiday marking not only the new year according to the Baha’i calendar, but the end of their Nineteen Day Fast. Persian Baha’is still observe many Iranian customs associated with it, but Bahai’s all over the world celebrate it as a festive day, according to local custom. American Baha’i communities, for example, may have a potluck dinner, along with prayers and readings from Baha’i scripture. While Naw Ruz, according to scripture, begins on the vernal equinox, Baha’is currently celebrate it on March 21, regardless of what day the equinox falls. Baha’is are required to suspend work and school in observance.

Although the Persian Calendar is very precise about the very moment of turn of the new year, Noruz itself is by definition the very first calendar day of the year, regardless of when the natural turn of the year happens. For instance, in some years, the actual natural moment of turn of the year could happen before the midnight of the first calendar day, but the calendar still starts at 00:00 hours for 24 hours, and those 24 hours constitue the Noruz. Iranians typically observe the exact moment of the turn of the year.

History of Noruz

The name of Noruz does not occur until the second century AD in any Persian records. We have reasons to believe that the celebration is much older than that date and was surely celebrated by the people and royalty during the Achaemenid times (555-330 BC). It has often been suggested that the famous Persepolis Complex, or at least the palace of Apadana and Hundred Columns Hall, were built for the specific purpose of celebrating Noruz. However, no mention of the name of Noruz exists in any Achaemenid inscription.

Our oldest records of Noruz go back to the Arsacid/Parthian times (247 BC-224 AD). There are specific references to the celebration of Noruz during the reign of Arsacid Emperor Vologases I (51-78 AD). Unfortunately, the lack of any substantial records about the reign of the Arsacids leaves us with little to explore about the details of Noruz during their times.

After the accession of Ardashir I Pabakan, the founder of the Sasanian Dynasty (224 AD), consistent data for the celebration of Noruz were recorded.

Throughout the Sasanian era (224-650 AD), Noruz was celebrated as the most prominent ritual during the year. Most royal traditions of Noruz such as yearly common audiences, cash gifts, and pardon of prisoners, were established during the Sasanian era and they persisted unchanged until the modern times.

Noruz, along with Sadeh that is celebrated in mid-winter, were the two pre-Islamic celebrations that survived in the Islamic society after 650 AD.

Other celebrations such Gahanbar and Mehragan were eventually side-lined or were only followed by the Zoroastrians who carried them as far as India. Noruz, however, was most honoured even by the early founders of Islam.

There are records of the Four Great Caliphs presiding over Noruz celebrations, and during the Abbasid era, it was adopted as the main royal holiday.

Following the demise of the Caliphate and re-emergence of Persian dynasties such as the Samanids and Buyids, Noruz was elevated into an even more important event. The Buyids revived the ancient traditions of Sasanian times and restored many smaller celebrations that had been eliminated by the Caliphate. Even the Turkish and Mongol invaders of Iran did not attempt to abolish Noruz in favor of any other celebration. Thus, Noruz remained as the main celebration in the Persian lands by both the officials and the people.


During the Noruz holidays people are expected to pay house visits to one another (mostly limited to families, friends and neighbours) in the form of short house visits and the other side will also pay you a visit during the holidays before the 13th day of the spring.

Typically, on the first day of Noruz, family members gather around the table, with the Haft Seen on the table or set next to it, and await the exact moment of the arrival of the spring. At that time gifts are exchanged. Later in the day, on the very first day, the first house visits are paid to the most senior family members.

Typically, the youngers visit the elders first, and the elders return their visit later. The visits naturally have to be relatively short, otherwise one will not be able to visit everybody on their list. Every family announces in advance to their relatives and friends which days of the holidays are their reception days.

A visit generally lasts around 30 minutes, where you often run into other visiting relatives and friends who happen to be paying a visit to the same house at that time. Because of the house visits, you make sure you have a sufficient supply of pastry, cookies, fresh and dried fruits and special nuts on hand, as you typically serve your visitors with these items plus tea or syrup.

Many Iranians will throw large Noruz parties in a central location as a way of dealing with the long distances between groups of friends and family.

Some Noruz celebrants believe that whatever a person does on Noruz will affect the rest of the year. So, if a person is warm and kind to their relatives, friends and neighbors on Noruz, then the new year will be a good one. On the other hand, if there are fights and disagreements, the year will be a bad one. Also, many people do a significant amount of “Spring Cleaning” prior to Noruz to rid the house of last year’s dirt and germs in preparation for a good new year.

One tradition that may not be very widespread (that is, it may belong to only a few families) is to place something sweet, such as honey or candy, in a safe place outside overnight. On the first morning of the new year, the first person up brings the sweet stuff into the house as another means of attaining a good new year.

The traditional herald of the Noruz season is called Haji Pirooz, or Hadji Firuz. He symbolizes the rebirth of the Sumerian god of sacrifice, Domuzi, who was killed at the end of each year and reborn at the beginning of the New Year. Wearing black make up and a red costume, Haji Pirooz sings and dances through the streets with tambourines and trumpets spreading good cheer and the news of the coming New Year.

The thirteenth day of the New Year festival is called Sizdah Bedar (meaning “thirteen outdoors”). It often falls on or very close to April Fool’s Day, as it is celebrated in some countries. People go out in the nature in groups and spend all day outdoors in the nature in form of family picnics. It is a day of festivity in the nature, where children play and music and dancing is abundant. On this day, people throw their sabzeh away in the nature as a symbolic act of making the nature greener, and to dispose of the bad luck that the sprouts are said to have been collecting from the household.

The thirteenth day celebrations, Seezdah Bedar, stem from the belief of the ancient Persians that the twelve constellations in the Zodiac controlled the months of the year, and each ruled the earth for a thousand years. At the end of which, the sky and the earth collapsed in chaos.

Hence, Noe-Rooz lasts twelve days and the thirteenth day represents the time of chaos when families put order aside and avoid the bad luck associated with the number thirteen by going outdoors and having picnics and parties.

At the end of the celebrations on this day, the sabzeh grown for the Haft Seen spread (which has symbolically collected all the sickness and bad luck) is thrown away into running water to exorcise the demons (divs) and evil eyes from the house hold. It is also customary for young single women to tie the leaves of the sabzeh, prior to discarding it, symbolizing their wish to be married before the next year’s Seezdah Bedar. When tying the leaves, they whisper.