|Origins and details
The palace ruins of Ardashir I, founder of the dynasty, south of Shiraz,
Iran. A good example of early Sassanid architecture
In reviving, the glories of the Achaemenian past, the Sassanids were no
mere imitators. The art of this period reveals an astonishing virility.
In certain respects it anticipates features later developed during the
Islamic period. The conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great had
inaugurated the spread of Hellenistic art into Western Asia; but if the
East accepted the outward form of this art, it never really assimilated
its spirit. Already in the Parthian period Hellenistic art was being
interpreted freely by the peoples of the Near East and throughout the
Sassanid period there was a continuing process of reaction against it.
Sassanid art revived forms and traditions native to Persia; and in the
Islamic period these reached the shores of the Mediterranean.
The splendour in which the Sassanid monarchs lived is well illustrated by
their surviving palaces, such as those at Firouzabad and Bishapur in
Fars, and the capital city of Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. In addition to
local traditions, Parthian architecture must have been responsible for a
great many of the Sassanid architectural characteristics. All are
characterised by the barrel-vaulted iwans introduced in the Parthian
period, but now they reached massive proportions, particularly at
Ctesiphon. The arch of the great vaulted hall at Ctesiphon attributed to
the reign of Shapur I (241-272) has a span of more than 80 ft, and
reaches a height of 118 ft. from the ground. This magnificent structure
fascinated architects in the centuries that followed and has always been
considered as one of the most important pieces of Persian architecture.
Many of the palaces contain an inner audience hall which consists, as at
Firuzabad, of a chamber surmounted by a dome. The Persians solved the
problem of constructing a circular dome on a square building by the
squinch. This is an arch built across each corner of the square, thereby
converting it into an octagon on which it is simple to place the dome.
The dome chamber in the palace of Firouzabad is the earliest surviving
example of the use of the squinch and so there is good reason for
regarding Persia as its place of invention.
The early palaces of the Sassanid have ceased to exist. Ardashir I and
Shapur I, and their immediate successors, undoubtedly erected residences
for themselves exceeding in size and richness thebuildings which had
contented the Parthians, as well as those in which their own ancestors,
the tributary kingsof Persia under Parthia, had passed their lives. But
these residences have almost wholly disappeared. The most ancient of the
Sassanid buildings which admit of being measured and described are
assigned to the century between 350 and 450; and we are thus unable to
trace the exact steps by which the Sassanid style was gradually
elaborated. We come upon it when it is beyond the stage of infancy, when
it has acquired a marked and decided character, when it no longer
hesitates or falters, but knows what it wants, and goes straight to its
ends. Its main features are simple, and are uniform from first to last,
the later buildings being merely enlargements of the earlier, by an
addition to the number or to the size of the apartments. The principal
peculiarities of the style are, first, that the plan of the entire
building is an oblong square, without adjuncts or projections; secondly,
that the main entrance is into a lofty vaulted porch or hall by an
archway of the entire width of the apartment; thirdly, that beside these
oblong halls, the building contains square apartments, vaulted with
domes, which are circular at their base, and elliptical in their
section, and which rest on pendentives of an unusual character;
fourthly, that the apartments are numerous and en suite, opening one
into another, without the intervention of passages; and fifthly, that
the palace comprises, as a matter of course, a court, placed towards the
rear of the building, with apartments opening into it.
Falak-ol-Aflak Castle, Khorramabad, Lorestan.
The oblong square is variously proportioned. The depth may be a little
more than the breadth, or it may be nearly twice as much. In either case,
the front occupies one of the shorter sides, or ends of the edifice. The
outer wall is sometimes pierced by one entrance only; but, more commonly,
entrances are multiplied beyondthe limit commonly observed in modern
buildings. The great entrance is in the exact centre of the front. This
entrance, as already noticed, is commonly by a lofty arch which (if we set
aside the domes) is of almost the full height of the building, and
constitutes one of its most striking, and to Europeans most extraordinary,
features. From the outer air, we look; as it were, straight into the heart
of the edifice, in one instance to the depth of 115 feet, a distance equal
to the length of Henry VII.'s Chapel at Westminster. The effect is very
strange when first seen by the inexperienced traveller; but similar
entrances are common in the mosques of Armenia and Persia, and in the
palaces of the latter country. In the mosques "lofty and deeply−recessed
portals," "unrivalled for grandeur and appropriateness," are rather the rule
than the exception; and, in the palaces, "Throne−rooms" are commonly mere
deep recesses of this character, vaulted or supported by pillars, and open
at one end to the full width and height of the apartment. The height of the
arch varies in Sassanid buildings from about fifty to eighty−five feet; it
is generally plain, and without ornament; but in one case we meet with a
foiling of small arches round the great one, which has an effect that is not
unpleasing. The domed apartments are squares of from twenty−five to forty
feet, or a little more. The domes are circular at their base; but a section
of them would exhibit a half ellipse, with its longest and shortest
diameters proportioned as three to two. The height to which they rise from
the ground is not much above seventy feet. A single building will have two
or three domes, either of the same size, or occasionally of different
dimensions. It is a peculiarity of their construction that they rest, not on
drums, but on pendentives of a curious character.
A series of semi−circular arches is thrown across the angles of the
apartment, each projecting further into it than the preceding, and in this
way the corners are got rid of, and the square converted into the circular
shape. A cornice ran round the apartment, either above or below the
pendentives, or sometimes both above and below. The domes were pierced by a
number of small holes, which admitted some light, and the upper part of the
walls between the pendentives was also pierced by windows.
There are no passages or corridors in the Sassanid palaces. The rooms for
the most part open one into the other. Where this is not the case, they give
upon a common meeting−ground, which is either an open court, or a large
vaulted apartment. The openings are in general doorways of moderate size,
but sometimes they are arches of the full width of the subordinate room or
apartment. As many as seventeen or eighteen rooms have been found in a
The exterior ornamentation of the Sassanid from the ground to the cornice,
while between them are a series of tall narrow doubly recessed arches. Far
less satisfactory is the much more elaborate design adopted at Ctesiphon,
where six series of blind arches of different kinds are superimposed the one
on the other, with string−courses between them, and with pilasters, placed
singly or in pairs, separating the arches into groups, and not regularly
superimposed, as pillars, whether real or seeming, ought to be. The interior
ornamentation was probably, in a great measure, by stucco, painting, and
perhaps gilding. All this, however, if it existed, has disappeared; and the
interiors now present a bare and naked appearance, which is only slightly
relieved by the occasional occurrence of windows, of ornamental doorways,
and of niches, which recall well−known features at Persepolis. In some
instances, however, the arrangement of the larger rooms was improved by
means of short pillars, placed at some distance from the walls, and
supporting a sort of transverse rib, which broke the uniformity of the roof.
The pillars were connected with the side walls by low arches.
Such are the main peculiarities of Sassanid palace architecture. The
general effect of the great halls is grand, though scarcely beautiful; and,
in the best specimens, the entire palace has an air of simple severity which
is striking and dignified. The internal arrangements do not appear to be
very convenient. Too much is sacrificed to regularity; and the opening of
each room into its neighbor must, one would think, have been unsatisfactory.
Still, the edifices are regarded as "indicating considerable originality and
power," though they "point to a state of society when attention to security
hardly allowed the architect the free exercise of the more delicate
ornaments of his art".
The unique characteristic of Sassanid architecture, was its distinctive
use of space. The Sassanid architect conceived his building in terms of
masses and surfaces; hence the use of massive walls of brick decorated with
molded or carved stucco. Stucco wall decorations appear at Bishapur, but
better examples are preserved from Chal Tarkhan near Rayy (late Sassanid or
early Islamic in date), and from Ctesiphon and Kish in Mesopotamia. The
panels show animal figures set in roundels, human busts, and geometric and
A Sassanid bridge in Ilam province.
Sassanid art revived forms and traditions native to Persia; and in the
Islamic period these reached the shores of the Mediterranean. The influence
of sassanid architecture reached far beyond their borders, it had a
distinctive influnce on Byzantine architecture and Islamic architecture.
Islamic architecture in fact borrowed heavily from Persian architecture.
Baghdad, for example, was based on Persian precedents such as Firouzabad in
Persia. In fact, it is now known that the two designers who were hired by
al-Mansur to plan the city's design were Naubakht, a former Persian
Zoroastrian, and Mashallah, a former Jew from Khorasan, Iran.
The Great Mosque of Samarra is another example, where the spiral edifice
was based on Persian architecture, such as the spiral tower in the middle of
Firouzabad, a former Sassanid capital.
In Afghanistan at Bamian are ruins that show the great impact of Iranian
art and architecture (specially from Sassanid era) from the 4th to the 8th
century. Frescoes and colossal Buddhas adorn Bamian's monasteries, revealing
a fusion of Sassanid-Iranian and Greco-Buddhist elements.
The conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great had inaugurated the spread
of Hellenistic art into Western Asia; but if the East accepted the outward
form of this art, it never really assimilated its spirit. Already in the
Parthian period Hellenistic art was being interpreted freely by the peoples
of the Near East and throughout the Sassanid period there was a continuing
process of reaction against it, However Sassanid architecture borrowed a
definite influence from Hellenistic architecture and its elements.
Byzantine architecture had its influence on Sassanid architecture too, one
of the good examples is at Bishapur, some of the floors were decorated with
mosaics showing scenes of merrymaking as at a banquet; the Roman influence
here is clear, and the mosaics may have been laid by Roman prisoners.
Buildings were also decorated with wall paintings; particularly fine
examples have been found at Kuh-i Khwaja in Sistan.
Irano-Roman floor mosaic detail from the palace of Shapur I at Bishapur
At the center of the circular city was the spiral fire temple tower, the
architectural precedent of the great spiral of the Samarrah Mosque in Iraq.