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Sassanid Architecture references.


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Sasanian architecture refers to the Persian architectural style that reached a peak in its development during the Sasanian era. In many ways the Sasanian Empire period (224-651 CE) witnessed the highest achievement of Iranian civilization, and constituted the last great pre-Islamic Persian Empire before the Muslim conquest. In fact part of Sasanian architecture was adopted by Muslims and became part of Islamic architecture.

The Sasanian dynasty, like the Achaemenid Empire, originated in the province of Persis (Fars). They saw themselves as successors to the Achaemenians, after the Hellenistic and Parthian dynasty interlude, and perceived it as their role to restore the greatness of Persia.






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 times, both became preeminent in the high-standard architecture of the Sasanians. Mud brick remained a most important building material (e.g. Dāmḡān, Istakhr/Eṣṭaḵr, Ḥāǰīābād, Kīš, Ctesiphon, Kuh-i Khwaja/Kūh-e Ḵᵛāǰa), 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, Ayvān-e Karḵa, Ctesiphon, Taḵt-e Solaymān). Dressed ashlar appears sporadically, mainly in the early (e.g. Bīšāpūr, Fīrūzābād, Nūrābād, Pāykūlī) and late (e.g. Ṭāq-e Gerra, Darband, Taḵt-e 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. Qaṣr-e Šīrīn) (G. L. Bell, Palace and Mosque at Ukhaidir, London, 1914, p. 51). The standard unit of the rectangular barrel-vaulted room was frequently enlarged by vaulted bays. Adjoining semidomes occur rarely (e.g. Kīš, Bozpar, 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 semidome or dome and cloister vault (A. Godard, “Voûtes iraniennes,” Athar-é 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 Middle-Eastern architecture. This most uncomplicated and solid of all constructive systems already appears fully developed in the buildings of Ardašīr I in Fīrūzābād (Plate V). 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. Qaṣr-e Šīrīn) draw nearer to geometric perfection, which is finally achieved in Islamic architecture.

The elevation of the domed hall consists of three horizontal zones: (1) plain walls, generally with doors or arches at the four axial intercepts; (2) a zone of transition including the corner squinches and generally windows or decorative niches at the main axes; (3) 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 čahār-ṭāq, the square with four arches, appears in the earliest examples of Sasanian architecture, (e.g. Taḵt-e Nešīn in Fīrūzābād); it may have been inspired by Roman and 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 or Hellenistic traditions (e.g. Bīšāpūr, Nūrābād, Kīš), while those of later monuments (e.g. Bīsotūn, Ṭāq-e Bostān) reflect a fresh Western, Byzantine influence. But most often the column was transformed into a massive, round or rectangular pillar suitable for vaulted masonry constructions.

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 Ṭarḵān, Dāmḡān, Ctesiphon, Taḵt-e Solaymān, Tepe Mīl). 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 Roman influenced mosaics (e.g. Bīšāpūr, Ctesiphon). Plaster of Paris, frequently painted (Bīšāpūr, Ayvān-e Karḵa, Kīš), was widely used for building facings and for the dominant mode of architectural ornamentation, the stucco relief (Čāl Ṭarḵān, Dāmḡān, Ḥāǰīābād, Kīš, Ctesiphon) (D. Thompson, Stucco from Chal Tarkhan, London, 1976; J. Kröger, Sasanidischer Stuckdekor, Mainz, 1982; M. Azarnoush, “Excavations at Hâjîâbâd, 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 Ṭāq-e 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


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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, Qaṣr-e Šīrīn (Morgan, op. cit., pp. 354ff.), Sīrāf (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 Fīrūzābād, Bīšāpūr, Tūrang Tepe (R. Boucharlat, “La forteresse sassanide de Tureng-Tepe,” in Colloques internationaux du C. N. R. S., No. 567: Le plateau iranien et l’Asie Centrale des origines à la conquête islamique, Paris, 1977, pp. 329ff.), and the “Ātašgāh” at Isfahan (M. Siroux, “ " Atesh-gâh" près d’ Ispahân,” Iranica Antiqua 5, 1965, pp. 39ff.). Territorial defense lines are known from literary tradition and archeological evidence (R. N. Frye, “The Sasanian System of Walls for Defense,” 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 Sīstān (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 ukrepleniĭ 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. Fehérvári, “The Walls of Temisha,” Iran 4, 1966, pp. 35ff.), 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 Antiqua 16, 1981, pp. 125ff.; M. Y. Kiani, Parthian Sites in Hyrkania, AMI, Ergänzungsband 9, Berlin, 1982, pp. 11ff.).

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