Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae (پاسارگاد) is his burial place following his death in the summer of 530. Located in ancient Persia and in present day’s Fars province, it lies 43 kilometers from Persepolis and is one of Iran 's UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is said to be the oldest base-isolated structure in the world. Despite having ruled over much of the ancient world, Cyrus the Great would design a tomb that depicts extreme simplicity and modesty when compared to those of other ancient kings and rulers.

The Tomb is simple in form, constructed of large, carefully dressed ashlar blocks set with precision and secured by dovetail clamps. It has six broad steps leading to the sepulcher. Whereas each of the three upper steps are 0.57 meters high, each of the lower ones are 1.05 meter high. The lowest step seems a bit taller as part of the foundation is exposed. On the northwest side a narrow doorway, 1.39 m high without the sill and 0.78 m wide, leads through a small passage to a chamber measuring 3.17 meters long, 2.11 meters wide and 2.11 meters high. The gabled stone roof is hollow. Around the Tomb were a series of columns although the original structure which they supported is no longer present.

The design of Cyrus' Tomb is credited to Mesopotamian or Elamite ziggurats, but the inner chamber is usually attributed to Urartu Tombs of an earlier period. The main decoration on the Tomb is a rosette design over the door within the gable. In general, the art and architecture found at Pasargadae exemplified the Persian synthesis of various traditions, drawing on precedents from Elam , Babylon , Assyria, and ancient Egypt , with the addition of some Anatolian influences.

Though there is no firm evidence identifying the Tomb as that of Cyrus, Greek historians tell us that Alexander III of Macedon believed it was. When Alexander looted and destroyed Persepolis , he paid a visit to the Tomb of Cyrus. Arrian, writing in the second century of the common era, recorded that Alexander commanded Aristobulus, one of his warriors, to enter the monument. Inside he found a golden bed, a table set with drinking vessels, a gold coffin, some ornaments studded with precious stones and an inscription on the Tomb. No trace of any such inscription survived and there is considerable disagreement to the exact wording of the text was. It is believed that it originally read “O man! I am Cyrus the Great, who gave the Persians an empire and was the king of Asia. Grudge me not therefore this monument.”

Another proposed, yet unconfirmed, theory is that the body of Cyrus (and his wife) did not lay inside the main chamber, but rather in a narrow crawl space that was discovered in 1959 in between the main chamber and pediment above. While the low ceiling of the structure’s interior can be attributed to the placement of this hollowed space, however, there is little evidence to suggest that the space actually housed any bodies.

During the Islamic conquest of Iran , the Arab armies came upon the Tomb and planned to destroy it, considering it to be in violation of the tenets of Islam. The caretakers of the grave managed to convince the Arab command that the Tomb was not built to honor Cyrus, but instead housed the mother of King Solomon, thus sparing it from destruction. As a result, the inscription in the Tomb was replaced by a verse of the Quran, and the Tomb became known as the Tomb of the mother of Solomon.

Pasargadae was first archaeologically explored by the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld in 1905, and in one excavation season in 1928, together with his assistant Friedrich Krefter. Recent research on Pasargadae ’s structural engineering has shown that Achaemenid engineers built the city to withstand a severe earthquake, what would today be classified as 7.0 on the Richter magnitude scale. The foundations are classified as having a base isolation design, much like what is presently used in countries for the construction of facilities, such as nuclear power plants, that require insulation from the effects of seismic activity.

There has been growing concern regarding the Sivand Dam, named after the nearby town of Sivand . Its placement between both the ruins of Pasargadae and Persepolis has many archaeologists and Iranians worried that the dam will flood these UNESCO World Heritage sites, although scientists involved with the construction say this is not obvious because the sites sit above the planned waterline. Of the two sites, Pasargadae is the one considered the most threatened. Of broadly shared concern to archaeologists is the effect of the increase in humidity caused by the lake. It is generally agreed that humidity created by it will speed up the destruction of Pasargadae.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pigeon Towers

Like many other ancient artistic structures, pigeon towers (برج کبوتر) have for the most part remained neglected and unknown to the average Iranian.  This comes in spite of their utilization for agricultural purposes and widespread distribution throughout the country spanning across the shores of Urumieh Lake in the Northwest, the deserts of Yazd , villages in Kashan and southern parts of Khorasan.  In Isfahan alone there are close to 3,000 pigeon towers while Meybod in Yazd province is home to one of the most exquisite pigeon towers in the country.

The architectural design of such towers in unique in a way that not only do they provide onlookers with an artistically crafted structure to view, but also attract pigeons and provide a safe environment for them to nest and live in.  Considering the many animals that prey on pigeons, such towers act as an impenetrable fortress that shelters the pigeons from predators.  The design of the towers and specifically the size of the entrances is such that birds such as hawks, owls or crows are unable to enter the towers which on average can house up to 25,000 pigeons.  The engineering of the structure has even accordingly taken into account the vibrations created as a result of the simultaneous rise and flight of this many pigeons.  To combat the effects of such vibrations, there is normally a floor towards the center of the tower and also arches connecting the interior and exterior cylindrical perimeters.

The interior consists of endless nesting balconies scattered uniformly along the straw and clay walls.  During the summers light breezes flow through the inside and maintain a cool temperature while during the winter the interior remains relatively warmer than the outside environment.

Aside from providing a sight seeing attraction to tourists and a home to pigeons, the towers also have economic benefits as they are used to produce and collect some of the most desirable natural fertilizer.  Prior to the popularization of chemical fertilizers, pigeon droppings from such towers were almost used exclusively. 

In Yazd the Meybod Pigeon Tower was constructed during the Qajar era.  It stands 3 stories tall and is home to thousands of pigeons.  The Tower is cylindrical with ridged stucco and brick placements decorating the walls not only adding to the beauty of the Tower, but also preventing snakes from sliding up the surface and gaining entry.  The thick adobe crust consists of six interior chambers with a tiny entrance on the west side and two flights of stairs.  The biggest drawback about the Tower is its location as a police station is directly across from it.  Given the limitations of photography at military locations, taking souvenir photos at the Meybod Pigeon Tower can at times be challenging.