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Ideas of Empire: The "Royal Garden" at Pasargadae

Fiona Kidd
July 29, 2013
«I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world.

—The Cyrus Cylinder (Line 20)»

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: Charting a New Empire (on view June 20–August 4, 2013) explores innovations established by the Persians to rule over the largest empire the world had known, that of the Persian Achaemenids. The famous "royal garden" at Pasargadae—the founding capital of this first "world" empire—is another example of the imperial innovations explored in this exhibition.

Fig. 1. The Tomb of Cyrus at Pasargadae (Stronach)

Established by Cyrus the Great (559–530 b.c.), Pasargadae was envisaged as a true imperial "capital" and symbolic heart of the Persian Empire. Lying open in the Murghab plain in southwestern Iran's Fars province (see map), its palaces and other monumental structures—including Cyrus' tomb (fig. 1)—were set in a verdant park partially revealed through archaeological excavation and survey. Yet throughout history it has been the magnificent ceremonial site of Persepolis, with its superb architectural sculpture (see image), that has evoked the passions of travelers, historians, and archaeologists alike. The defeat of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great and the burning of Persepolis in about 330 b.c. are both well documented in the European tradition, and have helped to root this site firmly in European memory. Far less attention has been paid to the comparatively poorly preserved remains of Pasargadae (fig. 2), despite its status since 2004 as a UNESCO World Heritage site; its monumental park is probably the earliest of the Achaemenid period, and the site has been referred to as an unprecedented "garden capital."[1] The "royal garden" at Pasargadae is often cited as a key innovation of the Persian Empire that was to endure for centuries to come; it provides an opportunity to delve deeper into both the realities of the Achaemenid Empire and how history interprets these realities.

Fig. 2. View of the Palace of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae (Stronach)

Traditions stemming from the Neo-Assyrian (ca. 883–612 b.c.) and Neo-Babylonian (626–539 b.c.) empires formed the basis of many innovations highlighted in the exhibition, including new administrative practices, new coinage, and new luxury goods. The conscious incorporation of older, Near Eastern traditions to administer and foster this diverse territory was one of the means employed by the Persians to become so powerful. Politics and legitimacy were pragmatic reasons for doing so: as the political force of the ancient world shifted from Mesopotamia to Iran, it was critical that the new imperial iconography and infrastructure were relevant and familiar to the people of this vast empire stretching from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.

The central "royal garden" at Pasargadae was designed to reflect this new empire. Recent international collaborative archaeological fieldwork incorporating surface, geophysical, and aerial survey has modified earlier ideas about this formally laid out, irrigated area.[2] Excavations in the 1960s uncovered a system of limestone channels, 25 cm wide and punctuated with a deep square basin every 13 or 14 m, thus dividing the area into two rectangles.[3] The channels probably sat flush with the ground surface. At the edges of this garden were three structures: Palace P, and two smaller pavilions (fig. 3). The main portico of Palace P opened directly onto the garden; a stone throne was fixed at its center, giving the ruler an uninterrupted view over the area. Some scholars have assumed that the central placement of the throne implies a second axial division of the garden into four quadrants.[4] Recent work now indicates that this space may have incorporated a much greater area, including both a pool-like construction crossed by a bridge as well as other monumental structures. In this scenario, the pool would have acted as a channel, whose embankments were also lined with stone, drawing water from the nearby Pulvar River (discussed here). The classical historian Arrian, writing in the second century a.d., left a snapshot of the park in his description of Cyrus' tomb: located approximately 1 km from the palaces, it was set in a "royal park at Pasargadae, and around it a grove of all kinds of trees had been planted. It was also watered by a stream, and high grass grew in the meadow" (Anabasis, 6.29). Time, however, is not always kind to gardens, and it is now difficult to identify exactly what these species were.

Fig. 3. Sketch plan of the "royal garden" based on archaeological excavations (Stronach)

The very idea of the garden reflects a Near Eastern imperial tradition—so vividly depicted in the carved stone reliefs of Assyrian rulers such as Sennacherib (704–681 b.c.) (see example) and Ashurbanipal (668–627 b.c.) (see example) at Nineveh, as well as, of course, the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, usually attributed to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604–562 b.c.).[5] These traditions continued well into the modern period and are lavishly captured in various media across the Islamic world (see example). At Pasargadae the formal design of the garden demonstrates a high degree of planning, reinforcing the imperial symbolism of the site. Several features of the Pasargadae garden differentiate it from its Near Eastern predecessors: the incorporation of the palace and garden into a combined central focus area; the unifying role of the dressed-stone water channels across the royal garden; and its geometric layout.

Was there a connection between the proposed four quadrants and the "four quarters" of Cyrus' empire, to which he referred in the Cylinder text quoted above, as has been suggested by some scholars?[6] Is the royal garden with the fourfold design, or chahar bagh, the earliest example of a feature that became a dominant characteristic of Persian garden design in the ensuing centuries?

Consideration of the Pasargadae park demonstrates why it is important to keep a balanced view of the evidence in understanding Persian imperial ideology and its legacy. Two points can be mentioned. First, and perhaps more difficult to explain, is that distinct garden imagery is largely lacking in the visual repertoire of the Achaemenid Empire. The schematic (conifer?) trees on the Persepolis reliefs (see image) are a rare example of a motif that could be associated with a park or horticultural practices. However, as is suggested by the objects on display in the Cyrus exhibition, flora is not necessarily a dominant theme of Achaemenid royal iconography. Nor do textual sources of the Achaemenid period seem to emphasize a specific connection between rulership and agriculture/horticulture in the Assyro-Babylonian tradition of the king-laborer or royal gardener[7]—ideas that are linked with the fertility of the empire and its ruler. Given the significance attributed to the park and garden at Pasargadae, why is the garden motif not recognized more readily in Achaemenid imperial iconography?

Second, the royal garden at Pasargadae has been cited as an early example of the chahar bagh, which became well known in later periods. However, the identification of this design at Pasargadae is not directly supported by archaeological evidence, as stone-lined water channels divide the garden into two rectangular sections, not four. The division into four is speculative, based on the position of the throne in Palace P overlooking the central axis of the garden.

To what extent, then, should we understand the Pasargadae "royal garden" as central to the imperial symbolism of the Achaemenid Persian Empire? In fact, it is possible to see the symbolism of Pasargadae through additional aspects of the site: the degree to which Cyrus' architects planned to modify the natural landscape was remarkable, and the visual impact of thriving parkland—at least partially unobstructed by fortifications—must have been impressive, especially against the backdrop of the barren mountains. Was the absence of a monumental fortification wall protecting most of the site a conscious design decision to promote the idea of Cyrus as an accessible ruler without enemies? The functional and decorative infrastructure necessary to maintain the garden—such as the stone-lined channels running with water—remains a testimony to the creativity and ingenuity of the garden's designers. The presence of the stone conduits is noteworthy for another reason: evidence for a dressed-stone tradition of architecture in Iran prior to this period is minimal; while indigenous architects cannot be excluded, the presence of specialist stonemasons from other regions—in particular the western regions of the Empire—should also be considered. In this case, the power of the ruler is demonstrated by his ability to draw on specialists trained in diverse skills from across his empire.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Benech C., R. Boucharlat and S. Gondet 2012, "Organisation et Aménagement de l'espace à Pasargades: Reconnaissances Archéologiques de surface, 2003-2008," in ARTA: Achaemenid Research on Texts and Archaeology no. 003: 1–37.

Boucharlat, R. 2011, "Gardens and Parks at Pasargadae: Two 'Paradises'?" in Rollinger, R., B. Truschnegg and R. Bichler, eds., Herodot und das Persische Weltreich. Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 557–74.

Boucharlat, R. 2009, "The 'Paradise' of Cyrus at Pasargadae, the Core of the Royal Ostentation" in Ganzert, J. and J. Wolschke-Bulmahn, eds., Bau- und Gartenkulture zwischen "Orient" und "Okzident." München, Martin Meidenbauer, 47–64.

Boucharlat, R. 2002, "Pasargadae" in Iran 40: 279–282.

Dalley, S. 2013, The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Pinder-Wilson, R. 1976, "The Persian Garden: Bagh and Chahar Bagh" in The Islamic Garden. Dumbarton Oaks, 69–85.

Stronach, D. 1990, "The Garden as a Political Statement: Some Case Studies from the Near East in the First Millennium B.C." in Bulletin of the Asia Institute 4: 171–180.

Stronach, D. 1989, "The Royal Garden at Pasargadae: Evolution and Legacy" in de Meyer, L. and E. Haerinck, eds., Archaeologia Iranica et Orientalis: Miscellanea in Honorem Louis Vanden Berghe vol. 1, Ghent: 475–502.

Stronach, D. 1978, Pasargadae: A Report on the Excavations Conducted by the British Institute of Persian Studies from 1961 to 1963. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Tuplin, C. 1996, "The Parks and Gardens of the Achaemenid Empire" in Achaemenid Studies, 80–131.

[1] Stronach 1989, 483.

[2] See most recently Benech et al. 2012.

[3] For a description see Stronach 1978, 107–112.

[4] Stronach 1990, 176.

[5] This attribution is not accepted by all scholars. See most recently, Dalley 2013.

[6] Stronach 1990, 176.

[7] Tuplin 1996, 118–9.

Fiona Kidd

Fiona Kidd is assistant curator in the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art.