For more than 800 years, Ctesiphon flourished as a royal capital of the last two ancient Near Eastern dynasties, the Parthians and the Sasanians, until Muslim armies conquered the city in 637 A.D. Located on the east bank of the Tigris River, approximately 20 miles (30 km) southeast of modern Baghdad in Iraq, Ctesiphon’s strategic location as well as its political importance made the city an international trading and market center with a diverse population. During later periods, several travelers and scholars studied and described Ctesiphon’s remains. Claudius James Rich attempted to reconstruct its topography in the early nineteenth century. Ernst Herzfeld conducted systematic topographical research between 1903 and 1911, and archaeological excavations were first undertaken by an expedition in 1928–29 sponsored by the German Oriental Society (Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft). In 1931–32, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Staatliche Museen Berlin undertook a joint expedition for one season under the direction of Ernst Kühnel, with Walter Hauser and Joseph M. Upton representing the Metropolitan. Numerous objects entered the Metropolitan’s collection at that time through a division of finds known as partage.
Several Greek and Roman historians, including Strabo, Pliny, and Ammianus Marcellinus, are the major sources of information about Ctesiphon during the Parthian period (247 B.C.–224 A.D.). In 140 B.C., the Parthians conquered the city of Seleucia, the capital of the Seleucids, located on the west bank of the Tigris about 37 miles (60 km) north of Babylon; across the river on the east bank, they constructed a garrison in the village of Ctesiphon. Under Parthian control, Seleucia maintained its role as a prominent commercial hub and a center for long-distance trade through the Persian Gulf. (The course of the Tigris has since changed; it now divides Ctesiphon rather than flowing between the two cities.) Ctesiphon became the Parthian capital most likely in the first century B.C., and served as the Arsacid rulers’ winter residence until the fall of the dynasty in 224 A.D. Key events during the Parthian period include three major Roman invasions: the emperor Trajan conquered Ctesiphon in 116 A.D., the Roman general Avidius Cassius destroyed the royal palace in 165 A.D., and the emperor Septimius Severus sacked Ctesiphon after intense fighting and moved part of its population by force in 198 A.D.
The defeat of Artabanus V in 224 A.D. marked the end of Parthian rule at Ctesiphon, and the Sasanian king Ardashir I was crowned in the city in 226 A.D. Ctesiphon became the Sasanian capital and coronation city and expanded into a metropolis with urban settlements and suburbs on both sides of the Tigris. Evidence for a fire temple, a rabbinical academy, and two churches indicate that Ctesiphon’s inhabitants included Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians. Romans invaded successfully only once during the Sasanian period, in 283 A.D., under the emperor Marcus Aurelius Carus.
One of the wonders of the ancient world was Taq-i Kisra (“Throne of Khusrau”), the royal palace built at Ctesiphon by the Sasanian king Khusrau I (r. 531–79). Its brick throne hall, 115 feet (35 m) high, is an iwan, a space typically vaulted and walled on three sides, with one end entirely open. The hall is famous for its great arch, the world’s largest parabolic barrel vault (84 feet [26 m]) built without centering and spanning. There was most likely a corresponding building on the east side of a large courtyard. The interior, which was more than 144 feet (44 m) deep, was decorated with marble and glass mosaics, as well as silk carpets adorned with precious stones. The choice of mosaic as a medium is particularly significant because of its association with Byzantine imperial architecture: written sources state that Khusrau I commissioned mosaics for Taq-i Kisra that commemorated the Sasanian army’s siege of the Byzantine city of Antioch. Mosaic fragments with vibrant colors and gilding were discovered in the palace precinct. Several became part of the Museum’s collection in the 1930s (32.150.198; 32.150.213), along with stucco panels with floral or geometric motifs also attributable to the palace area (32.150.24; 32.150.1; 32.150.4).
The Metropolitan Museum’s excavations also included work at a mound east of Taq-i Kisra called Umm ez-Za‘tir in Arabic (Mother of Thyme) and the discovery of a large private house built of mud brick, centered around a rectangular courtyard, with two iwans on the east and west sides. Among the finds from the site are a collection of elaborate stucco reliefs with floral, geometric, and figural designs that offer insight into the iconography and style of Sasanian architectural decoration (32.150.16; 32.150.23; 32.150.22; 32.150.13; 32.150.48). The use of molds to produce multiple panels with identical decoration was a new technique. Some traces of red and blue color remain. Other examples are in the collections of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and the Staatliche Museen in Berlin.
In March 637 A.D., the Sasanian royal family, the army, and many other residents fled Ctesiphon, when Sa‘d bin Abi Waqqas and his troops invaded and conquered the city. The newly established city of Baghdad resulted in Ctesiphon’s decline by 763 A.D., and its ruins were used as a quarry for building materials. An Italian archaeological mission began working at Ctesiphon in 1964.
Fowlkes-Childs, Blair. “Ctesiphon.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ctes/hd_ctes.htm (July 2016)
Breck, Joseph. "The Ctesiphon Expedition." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 26, no. 10 (1931), pp. 229–30.
Fino, Elisabetta Valtz. "Ctesiphon." In Discovering the Art of the Ancient Near East: Archaeological Excavations Supported by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1931–2010, edited by Yelena Rakic, pp. 12–15. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.
Upton, Joseph M. "The Expedition to Ctesiphon, 1931–1932." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 27, no. 8 (1932), pp. 188–97.
Fowlkes-Childs, Blair, expanded original text by Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “The Parthian Empire (247 B.C.–224 A.D.).” (originally published October 2000, last updated November 2016)
Fowlkes-Childs, Blair, expanded original text by Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “The Sasanian Empire (224–651 A.D.).” (originally published October 2003, last updated April 2016)