Pasargadae: seeking the origins of a garden palace

On the plain of Pasargadae, Cyrus the Great founded a spectacular garden palace. Nothing like it had ever been seen in the region before, raising questions about where the idea came from, how the garden was maintained, and even where the inhabitants lived. Recently, an Iranian-French team under Rémy Boucharlat went in search of the answers, as Andrew Selkirk reveals.


Pasargadae is not as well known as it ought to be. Pasargadae was built by the first great Persian king, Cyrus the Great (c.600-530 BC), as his palace and showpiece. It was a totally new concept of a garden city that established many of the principles of what became Persian architecture. But the trouble was that Cyrus’s successor Darius built an even bigger city 48km to the south, which the Greeks called Persepolis, and this city became the centre of the great Persian Empire. Even though it was spectacularly destroyed by Alexander the Great, 15 pillars still remain standing today, making Persepolis one of the greatest visitor attractions in the world; Pasargadae languishes.

The tomb of Cyrus the Great, the first great Persian king, is a superb piece of architecture at Pasargadae, sitting on the edge of the main palace the king built. The tomb was restored by Alexander the Great and is today approached by a flower-lined avenue (below). IMAGES: A Selkrik

Pasargadae has in fact one really superb piece of architecture: it is the tomb of Cyrus, situated right on the edge of the main palace complex. According to Arrian, it was restored by Alexander the Great and has a quiet simplicity that ensures its place in every book on world architecture. Indeed, today it holds a special place at the heart of modern Iran, and it is splendidly displayed at the end of a flower-lined avenue.

Cyrus deserves his special place in the history of modern Persia. He began as a ruler of a petty kingdom in the south-western corner of the habitable part of modern Iran. He started by conquering the Medes who were then top dogs in that area. He then went west and conquered Croesus, king of the Lydians, and the young Greek city states in what is now the western coast of Turkey. And he then went on to conquer Babylon, thereby establishing the Persians as the main power in the Near East.

IMAGE: courtesy R Boucharlat

What really established his claim to greatness was his administrative genius: he learnt to delegate, and when he found that the Babylonians were keeping many of their enemies in captivity, he thought that this was silly so he sent them all home. Among those sent home were the Jews, so he twice makes an appearance in the Old Testament (in Isaiah and Ezra), and helped in the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. But what really has ensured his apotheosis was the discovery of the Cyrus cylinder – a barrel-shaped cylinder of clay covered with writing, discovered in Babylon in 1879 and now in the British Museum, which proclaims that Cyrus was a nicer king than the Babylon king he had conquered because he sent all the captives home. This was adopted by the last Shah of Persia, who made it the centrepiece of his big celebrations; and was then taken up by the United Nations as the world’s first declaration of human rights. This admittedly involves a somewhat imaginative reading of the actual text, but the modern regime in Iran is happy to go along with it and accept Cyrus the Great as the great founder of the Persian Empire. Herodotus gives him a splendid write up, and is the source of many of the good stories about Cyrus, who certainly seems to be one of the more attractive great rulers in history.

His new palace

Cyrus decided to establish a palace at Pasargadae, a broad flat plain surrounded by mountains, which according to the ancient Greek writer Strabo was the site of his decisive battle over the Medes. Little of the palace has survived above ground, for, following his death, attention was transferred to the new palace at Persepolis, and Pasargadae languished. However, it was most extensively explored in the 1960s by the Scottish archaeologist David Stronach, subsequently Professor of Archaeology in California.

Discovered in Babylon in 1879, the Cyrus cylinder (now in the British Museum) has been called the world’s first declaration of human rights. IMAGE: A Selkirk

He recovered three main features: there was an elaborate gateway labelled Gate R, which was a hall with eight columns and four doors. However, it was not attached to any walls: later excavators did a thorough check with a resistivity survey, but it was clear that it was freestanding. This is very similar to the even grander (and well-preserved) gateway at Persepolis, one of the most impressive features on that site. At Pasargadae, Building R led to Palace S, a great hall where visiting dignitaries could be received. However, just beyond was a great formal garden surrounded by stone channels within which flowed the water that kept the gardens fertile; and then at the far end was Palace P, the so-called residential palace, a central hall surrounded by porticoes, looking out over a fine garden.

Two big problems remain, or rather two and a half remain. Firstly, where was the rest of the palace? Where were all the people living? Secondly, water management: how did the canals really work? And always in the background, where did all the ideas and features come from that made up Persian architecture? To answer all, or at least some, of these problems, an Iranian-French team was established from 1999 to 2009 under the direction of Rémy Boucharlat of Lyon University and in collaboration with the Iranian Center of Archaeological Research, who gave a talk at the Iran Heritage Foundation in October 2018, on which this article is based. Since 2015, the programme has been directed by Sébastien Gondet (CNRS France) and Kourosh Mohammadkhani (Sahiid Beheshti Univerity Tehran).

The great hall of Palace S, located near the gate to the palace complex, was where visiting dignitaries were received. The columned hall was surrounded by four porticoes. Today, only one column still stands. IMAGE: A Selkrik

The main aim of the expedition was to get the palace inscribed as a World Heritage Site, in which they were successful. This involved carrying out extensive geophysical surveys to determine the limits of the monumental area, and to find out where people were actually living. In this they were basically unsuccessful. It really does seem to have been a garden city filled with gardens. The reconstruction by Farzin Rezaeian, an Iranian filmmaker living in Iran but educated in Canada illustrates this well.

A new type of palace

It is very different from all previous Near Eastern palaces, which tended to be extremely overcrowded. The plan of the South Palace at Babylon uncovered by the German excavator Koldowey in the late 19th century brings this out – a mass of small rooms surrounding a series of central courtyards. Gardens, however, are well known in the Near East, from the Garden of Eden to the hanging Gardens of Babylon – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. At first, they were linked with temples. Later, in the 1st millennium BC, gardens were laid out by Assyrian kings primarily for their own pleasure. However, none of the representations of gardens of the Neo-Assyrian reliefs can be compared with the geometrical design of the Pasargadae gardens. Assyrian gardens were typically set on a hill, often topped by a small, open pavilion, where streams and trees are in an irregular position.

The layout of Palace P, the residential palace, consisted of a central hall surrounded by porticoes. While the area is dry today, the palace originally looked out over a fine formal garden, which flourished thanks to the surrounding stone water channels. IMAGE: Iranian-French archaeological project at Pasargadae / B N Chagny

Conversely, the garden of Pasargadae is located in a flat area and shows a geometric design strongly defined by stone channels. The stone buildings are not in the middle of the gardens, but set outside. Therefore, the garden appears to be more important than the relatively modest buildings.

The big surprise of the geophysical survey was the discovery of a huge trapezoidal pond some 250m long and 50-100m wide, but only 1.5m deep. Such a large pond is totally unknown in early gardens in Mesopotamia, and the abundance of water in the semi-arid landscape would certainly have been very impressive. This large pool should surely be seen as a true ancestor of the Persian gardens so well illustrated in later periods at Esfahan, and indeed the Taj Mahal.

Days and days of magnetic tests carried out on dozens of hectares surrounding the gardens have detected a grid of squares measuring between 30m and 60m a side. The grid very likely corresponds to a network of channels and ditches, perhaps lined by rows of trees. This reconstruction clearly recalls the description of ‘Paradise’ by Greek authors such as Xenophon.

Pasargadae’s large pool is a forerunner of the grand water features in later Persian gardens, such as the long pool leading to Chehel Sotoun, the pavilion built by Shah Abbas II in Isfahan. IMAGE: A Selkrik

Where were the workers?

The excavators eventually came to the conclusion that the workers had been accommodated in an area protected by a strong mud-brick wall delimiting a polygon covering some 30ha north-east of the garden. Here, magnetic prospection has revealed a series of long rectangular blocks, more like barracks than houses. This was confirmed in 2017 on a cold December morning. During the night it had snowed; arriving at the site, the archaeologists noticed that the snow was lying unevenly. They launched their drone and were able to obtain photos of the construction plan, seeing rows of squarish units due to the differential melting of the snow. They began to draw the results, but by 11 o’clock the snow had completely melted. The drone photos preserve the results.
This does not appear to be a regular town, for the rectangular plan of the buildings looks more like a military or workers’ barracks than houses for the common people, while surface pottery is very scarce and may come from later, post-Achaemenid, settlement. Locating the town of Pasargadae remains a major question for the future.

One cold morning in December 2017, snow that had fallen the night before lay unevenly on an area protected by a mud brick wall. The varying snow cover revealed the outline of a series of squarish units like a military or workers’ barracks, seen in this photo taken by drone. PHOTO: Iranian-French archaeological project at Pasargadae – Iconem Company

Where did the water come from?

The second problem was to find out where all this water came from. The recent field research has revealed sophisticated hydraulic engineering, with canals in the surrounding plain stretching up to 30km away. Feeding the large basin on the site required digging a diversion channel from the Pulvar River, 3km upstream, which was used to supply the watercourses of the gardens. The problem was how to get a constant flow. Most parts of Iran are in arid areas. There is some rain from November to February, then snowmelt in spring that may cause floods, but then there is drought from July to late autumn. The problem was treated in a sophisticated way: there are the remains of half a dozen dams on the Pulvar River up to 30km north of Pasargadae. Dating the dams is difficult, but it is certain for at least two of them.

Canals at Pasargadae served as water features in the lush gardens. They were fed with water from the Pulvar River via a diversion channel. PHOTO: Iranian-French archaeological project at Pasargadae

Here, the excavations had been done by looters using bulldozers to look for treasure. All they found were enormous stone blocks revealing very sophisticated ashlar masonry set into dams some 50m long. The stone masonry used limestone blocks up to 2.6m long, employing Greek joining techniques, without mortar. The huge polished stone blocks were bonded by means of iron clamps set into a dovetailed hollow filled with liquid lead. This highly distinctive masonry, also present at Pasargadae, is inspired by contemporary Ionian-Greek stone-cutting techniques. Another dam nearby was dated by radiocarbon to the late 6th or early 5th century BC, confirming its early date. On top of one of the dams was a 20m-long stone installation consisting of a big conduit 1.5m high, where the flow was divided up into six small channels. If any engineer can explain this, we will be pleased to hear from them.

The origins of the Persian style

Finally, where did Cyrus get all his ideas? He could not actually have been at Pasargadae very long. He spent his life campaigning, first in Anatolia, conquering the Lydian kingdom of Croesus, and then the Greek cities in Ionia, after which he conquered the Babylonian empire. He then had to reorganise his conquests, setting up the system of satraps – that is, provincial governors – by which it was ordered. So how did he find time to stimulate the Persian architectural renaissance?

Half a dozen dams have been found along the Pulvar River, up to 30km north of Pasargadae. The dams ensured Pasargadae had a constant supply of water. Shahidabad dam, shown here, was about 50m long. PHOTO: Iranian-French archaeological project at Pasargadae

Three influences can perhaps be noted. The most interesting of these is the remarkably strong Greek influence from Lydia and the Ionian cities. We always tend to feel that in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, the Greek styles were still in their infancy, but it is clear from their use of columns and their stone-working techniques that the Greeks were already a potent and dynamic artistic force that strongly influenced their neighbours and conquerors.

And then there were important borrowings from the Assyrians and Babylonians, as well as from Egypt. This combination is particularly marked in the iconography of the bas-relief at the monumental gate known as the Winged Genius, where the two pairs of wings are Assyrian, the dress is Elamite, and the crown is Phoenician/Egyptian. The style is shown at its best in Persepolis in the winged figures of the entrance hall.

The bas-relief of the Winged Genius at the monument shows an interesting mix of influences, with two pairs of wings in Assyrian style, Elamite clothing, and an Egyptian crown. IMAGE: courtesy R Boucharlat

There is also the beginnings of a strong Persian style, which was to blossom later in the style of the Achaemenids, but which began with the ‘positive eclecticism’ shown in the concept of a garden palace, where the dispersed buildings do not resemble anything previously known in the Near East. Note, too, the hypostyle hall seen in Palace P, which does not exist in the Greek world, nor in Assyria, but which would become the ancestor of the Apadana that dominate later Persian architecture. Then there is the free-standing monumental gate and the absence of fortifications, showing that here was a pacific power, mastering nature and strong enough not to need any defences.

This whole concept of a garden palace built on the flat without the clutter that dominated in Assyrian and Babylonian palaces is something new, and must be due to the genius that marked the rise of the Persian Empire, spurred on by Cyrus the Great.

Farzin Rezaeian’s film, Iran: Seven Faces of a Civilisation, is available on YouTube. Cyrus and Pasargadae are the second ‘face’ (starting at 17m 04s): The film uses Farzin’s reconstructions to illustrate seven episodes that make up the history of Iran.
Dr Boucharlat’s lecture to the Iran Heritage Foundation is available at: