by Juliet Highet*
For over 1,000 years, Persia played a central role in the history of the ancient world, alongside and often competing with the Assyrian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine empires. A millennium is a long time and various Persian empires succeeded each other, the most important of which were first the Achaemenid, established 550 BCE, and the last, the Sassanian, which fell in 642 CE, with the Parthian sandwiched in between. Persian empires may have changed, but their visual and material culture persisted after the rise of Islam in the seventh century, as well as a reigning Persian royal family.
Persian rulers affirmed their political power through monumental architecture, such as the Achaemenid city of Persepolis and the towering rock carvings of the Sasanians at Naqsh-I Rustam. Portable luxury goods were also significant symbols of the current successful wielder of control in the ever-shifting political climate. These were made of precious metals decorated with a rich array of royal imagery. They ranged in shape from footed plates, deep bowls, to elaborate drinking vessels often ending in animal forms, many of which were clearly destined for imperial banquets. But they were also used in religious, ritual and court ceremonies. Still others functioned as diplomatic gifts to impress local rulers of far-flung corners of the Persian Empire, as well as foreign trading partners, impressive reminders of Persian royal authority. Imagery for these gifts often depicted the kings themselves, with their regal attributes and pastimes, such as enthronement scenes and hunting.
In celebration of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s twenty-fifth anniversary at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC, Freer and Sackler’s outstanding collection of luxury metalwork from ancient Iran is now on permanent display. It is considered one of the largest and finest holdings of its kind from an area extending across much of Asia and Europe, from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea to present-day Afghanistan—a highly sophisticated world, with an extensive network of military, political and commercial contacts and alliances. The region was favored with an abundance of natural resources and became famous for its splendid metalwork, especially in gold and silver, characterized by artistic and technical excellence.
The dominant empire in the Ancient Near East, prior to the rise of the Persian Achaemenides, was the Assyrian (608-mid 3rd century BCE). The Persians inherited certain imagery from them, particularly fantasy felines. Exhibits include an ivory lion’s head, possibly a finial for a throne; and a gold fragment of a breastplate, with a repeat design of imaginary creatures, some feline, flanking a sacred tree. Images of winged felines appear far later too, in the Sasanian era around the 7th century CE, including a bronze plate depicting an amazing winged creature with the head of a lioness—probably a mythical animal referred to in texts of the Zoroastrian religion, the principle faith of ancient Iran.
Cyrus II, known as Cyrus the Great, who reigned from 557-530 BCE, conquered Babylon and founded the Achaemenid Empire, which at its height extended from the Indus River to Egypt, east to west, and from the Aral Sea to the Indian Ocean, north to south. Tributes from the vast, diverse territory brought more gold and silver, as well as other precious items such as spices and incense, immortalized in the magnificent reliefs carved into the stone walls of Persepolis.
Another highly important Achaemenid ruler, Darius I, (reigned 522-486 BCE), also made Persepolis his capital. In an inscription in stone, Darius prays to the Zoroastrian god Ahuramazda, and then asserts his power and protection over his subjects:
“This country, Persia, which Ahuramazda bestowed upon me, possessed of good horses and men… The countries which felt fear of me and bore me tribute are Elam, Media, Babylonia, Arabia, Assyria, Egypt, Armenia, Cappadocia, Sardis and Ionia”
These are countries of antiquity, several of the names of which are now lost in the mists of time.
Many of these luxury Persian objects seem to be connected with wine, like the silver-gilt horns with spouts of animals’ mouths, such as gazelles. Phiales (shallow drinking vessels in silver and bronze) are inscribed in one of the earliest known writing forms, Old Persian cuneiform (wedge shaped marks on clay tables) with the name of the grandson of Darius I, Artaxerxes. Later, the Parthian dynasty created wine horns, usually of silver-gilt, terminating in a protome, the forepart of an animal like a horse, gazelle, lynx, lion or bull. They were used for ceremonies like New Year.
Metalworking techniques changed little during this millennium of Persian luxury objects. Since silver is too soft for practical use, it was mixed (alloyed) with copper to add strength. Ancient objects were hammered, and then further defined with a combination of raising and repoussé techniques—the act of shaping the metal from the reverse side to create a low-relief design. Decorative elements were also added by casting separate pieces, which were then set into carved outlines, methods known as crimping and fluting. Engraving and hammering the surface with small tools created fine lines and delicate surface textures. To enhance these sumptuous aspects, objects were often gilded, the last step in decoration. Prior to the Sassanian period, gilding was done by applying gold leaf. Later, mercury and gold were mixed into a paste and applied to the surface, which was then heated and burnished. Sassanian artists also worked in bronze—an alloy of copper and tin—and hammered at high temperatures, a technique referred to as ‘hot forging.’
The entire political and military map of the ancient world changed dramatically in 331 BCE, when the Macedonian conqueror Alexander defeated Darius III, making him the last Achaemenid ruler. Alexander set fire to the palatial complex of Persepolis, destroying the most potent symbol of Achaemenid grandeur. Following Alexander’s death only eight years later in 323 BCE, the Seleucids briefly gained dominance, another Macedonian dynasty, introducing Greek culture.
Around 364 BCE, the Persian Parthians took over, wielding considerable power over a section of the Silk Road as trading intermediaries between China and the Roman Empire, effectively controlling the flow of commodities and luxury goods between Asia and Europe.
In marched the Sassanian dynasty, defeating the Parthians in 224 CE, controlling much of West and Central Asia, and striving to restore the Persian Empire’s former glory. Monumental reliefs were chiseled into rock cliffs commemorating their power for all to see. Gold and silver diplomatic gifts were sent as far as China, who naturally sent their own, introducing new artistic forms.
The Sasanians traded and sometimes came into conflict with the Romans. One of the stars of the Sackler collection is the Shapur plate, created in the 4th century CE from nineteen pieces of superbly crafted and intricately detailed silver-gilt, characterizing Sasanian imperial art at its finest. Its inscription is dedicated to the current Roman emperor and reads: “I, Shapur, King of Kings, partner with the stars, brother of the Sun & Moon, to my brother Constantius Caesar I offer most ample greetings…”
The plate depicts Shapur II hunting wild boars, affirming the longest reigning Sasanian monarch’s courage and ability to subdue wild beasts, and by extension, demonstrating his control over turmoil and chaos.
Shapur II is instantly recognizable by his specific crown, the most important emblem of a monarch’s authority, along with his sword. A later Sassanian sword, of the 7th century CE, has a hilt and scabbard entirely covered with finely decorated gold foil. Sassanian coins depict a king on the obverse and a Zoroastrian altar on the reverse. Each king wears a distinctive crown, to identify him. Over time, the ruler’s image was abstracted into almost geometric form, chiming with Islamic style. When the Arabs defeated Iran in the 7th century, Sassanian coins continued to be minted.
The Sassanians produced exceptional wine horns and ewers, two ewers in the collection depicting women in sensuous garments playing castanets. Eating and drinking were integral to formal ceremonies associated with Zoroastrianism. But clearly, from written accounts of the time, meticulously prepared banquets were an important part of the sophisticated Sassanian lifestyle (for the wealthy, of course), in which elaborate etiquette featured. They were one of the first societies to eat in multiple courses, and were renowned for their rich puddings and fine wines produced in Shiraz. The favorite dish of King Khusroum, who reigned from 531-579 CE, was spiced beef rubbed with olive juice and eaten with sugary sweets, sometimes served on faceted glass dishes, a much-coveted Sassanian luxury item.
Society weddings called for extravagant tableware, depicting events that would have accompanied the feasting. On one plate musicians are depicted playing a harp and a drum, on another, men playing backgammon. Mythical winged horses appear frequently on Sasanian luxury products, possibly a Zoroastrian astronomical sign. Other imagery includes cultivated landscapes, also found on stucco decoration from the 6th to 8th centuries, referring to large ‘paradises’ or an enclosed land, with here a hunting dog, there a jackal eating ducks and fruit.
The mighty Sasanian Empire fell to the Arabs in 642 CE, but as we have seen, aspects of ancient Persia survived and even flourished. Its ancient past was memorialized in the Shahnama (Book of Kings) by the poet Firdawsi in 1010. To this day, it is considered an enduring triumph of Persian cultural identity.
*Juliet Highet is a writer, photographer, editor and curator who specializes in Middle Eastern heritage and contemporary culture. She is currently working on her second book, Design Oman, having published her first book, FRANKINCENSE: Oman’s Gift to the World, in 2006.