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The Art of the Medes

Edith Porada



Medes and Persians appear in history in the latter part of the ninth century B.C. That is, their names are mentioned from that time onward in the military and administrative records of the Assyrian kings who campaigned in western Iran in order to safeguard the eastern frontiers of their empire and to keep open the roads on which trade and tribute brought horses, timber and metal from Iran to Assyria.

The penetration of western Iran by the Medes probably began much earlier, but the archaeological evidence on which the history of the region before written sources becomes available must be based is still incomplete. [1]

Coming from the east, the Medes probably moved along the ancient high road which passed from Tepe Damghan through Saveh to Hamadan and Kermanshah. In view of the later location of the capital of the Medes at Hamadan-Ecbatana, we may conclude that they soon settled in the wide and fertile plain of Hamadan. From there they seem to have extended to the north and west. In the time of Sargon II [721-705 B.C.] the Medes could be described as being located between the Manneans in the north and the Elamites in the south. [2]

The Persians, whom we must surely associate with the land Parsua referred to in Assyrian texts, present quite a problem because at different times Parsua is encountered in different localities. It was a loyal Assyrian province, probably located in what is today the Solduz region of Hasanlu, in the time of Sargon II. From the time of Sennacherib [704-681 B.C.] onward, a Parsua is mentioned in south-western Iran, north of Elam. Finally, in Achaemenid times, there was Parsa in the province which we call Fars today. The different locations of Parsua-Parsa have been thought to mark the progress of the Persians from north-western Iran to the south and further to the east. It has also been argued, however, that the three countries named Parsua may have been established at the same time by different groups of the same people. [3] Many facets of the problem of how and when Iran was transformed from a country dominated by so-called Asianic peoples--Hurrians, Manneans, perhaps also Elamites--into one ruled by Indo-Europeans, namely, Medes and Persians, thus still remains to be elucidated. In areas which were nolonger effectively defended by Urartians, Manneans, Elamites or Assyrians, the Indo-Europeans probably established themselves by force and fairly rapidly. In regions in which the old ruling group still maintained its power, the newcomers probably sought employment ranging from agricultural work to military service. In the time of the Assyrian king Esharhaddon [680-669 B.C.] treaties concluded with the vassals of Iran, to assure the succession of Esharhaddon's son Asurbanipal, give some information concerning Median tribes and their leaders. [4]

The treaties that bound the Iranian princes to the Assyrian throne by oaths and curses were written on clay tablets and deposited at Nimrud, the ancient Calah. In the destruction of the palace of Calah by the Medes in 612 B .C. these tablets were hauled into the throne-room, where they were smashed and burned. This was surely a symbolic act, destroying the bonds which had tied the Medes to Assyria. The Victorious Median king was Cyaxares, who also took Nineveh together with Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and possibly with the help of Scythian hordes. The twenty-eight-year rule of terror of the Scythians which Herodotus reported, during which the Urartian empire was eliminated, may [p. 137] have occurred only after the fall of Nineveh and may not have lasted the full length of the time reported by Herodotus. [5]

Only when the Medes were free of Scythian interference could they take over the Assyrian and Urartian heritage. At its greatest extension, of the Median empire dominated western Iran and reached from the former Urartian and Mannean areas in north-western Iran and northern Mesopotamia to Asia Minor, where the river Halys formed the frontier between Medes and Lydians. This great empire, however, was of short duration: Cyaxares' son Astyages was vanquished in 550 B.C. by his own grandson Cyrus, king of the Persians, in a battle as a result of which Media and Persia were united and the foreign possessions of Media came under Persian suzerainty.

As yet it is impossible to give a survey of median art because no unquestionably Median site has been excavated and no inscribed work of Median art has been found. Claims to the contrary about works of art of the seventh century, like those of Ziwiye, [6] are very stimulating but remain to be proved. Nevertheless, Median art must be mentioned here because it surely played an important role as an intermediary between the different art styles of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. and the Persian style which prevailed during the dynasty of the Achaemenids in the late sixth and fifth centuries B.C.

A few rock-cut tombs situated in north-western Iran, in present-day Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, were considered Median by Herzfeld. None of these tombs, however, are dated with any certainty, and they may actually be of the Achaemenid period or even later. The most interesting of these tombs, called Qyzqapan, [7] located beyond the Iranian frontier in Iraqi Kurdistan, has a relief carved above the door which shows two men in Median costume. They stand on either side of a fire altar on which a flame seems to be rendered schematically by a semicircle.

The two men wear garments like those pictured as the apparel of Medes in the reliefs of the Achaemenid palaces at Persepolis: jacket, tight-fitting trousers, probably of leather, and a cap with shawl-like knotted ends. In addition, the figure at the left wears a coat, probably made of fur worn on the inside except for the revers; narrow empty sleeves hang down at the sides. Each man holds his bow with the left hand and sets it down on the tip of the forward foot. One is reminded here of the similar position of one of the figures on the gold bowl of Hasanlu. The position therefore suggests a tradition of what may have been ceremonial military poses from late second millennium Hasanlu to the Median tomb of the middle of the first millennium B.C. [p. 138]

The approximate date of the tomb just mentioned is suggested by its architectural decoration. Deeply hewn into the rock is a portico which has columns with capitals resembling the Ionic in the volutes at the sides. The shape of these capitals and their palmette decoration suggest a date after the sixth century B.C. rather than an earlier date. While the tomb was probably made for a Mede, its date would thus fall in the time of the Achaemenid dynasty. Similarly, the rock-cut tomb of Da-u-Dukhtar has large close-set volutes reminiscent of Greek fifth-century capitals [8] and thereby also suggests an Achaemenid rather than an earlier date. Perhaps the fashion of having a rockcut tomb, so common in Asia Minor toward the middle of the first millennium B.C., was introduced into Iran by King Darius I [522-486 B.C.], whom we may regard as a conscious innovator in matters pertaining to ritual and iconography [see below, p. 159]. The use of columns as such is already documented in Iran in the ninth century B.C. by finds of stone base-slabs for columns in Hasanlu. The wooden shafts and capitals of these columns, however, are not preserved. Syrian, Assyrian and Babylonian renderings of the ninth and eighth centuries B .C. show columns with volute capitals [9] according to which one may reconstruct those of the early Iranian columns also. Such a use of volute capitals would have prepared the way for the later acceptance in Iran of the Ionic capital. The latter would have seemed a refined and enriched development of earlier simpler types.

At what point in time and where the Achaemenid capitals of Pasargadae and Persepolis began to develop is unknown. Perhaps they had Median prototypes, but these remain to be discovered.

A very interesting feature in the decoration of column shafts at Persepolis leads us in another direction in our search for possible evidence of a Median style or Median styles which preceded the Achaemenid period. A type of column with a wooden core had a plaster covering upon which scroll and lozenge patterns were painted in red, blue and white. These patterns seem to run in a direction determined by oblique lines and are therefore basically different from the common patterns of the ancient Near East, which are axially symmetrical and therefore seem static. Even in the case of the twist or guilloche, well exemplified by the fragment from a vessel found in Hasanlu, the single scrolls have been adjusted to the circle so that again a static impression is conveyed by the pattern. Furthermore, the rhythm of ancient Near Eastern patterns is usually just a simple, regularly proportional alignment of forms, such as the pattern of linked cones on the gold pectoral from Ziwiye, not a relatively complicated rhythm, such as that on the column shafts, where scrolls are paired and then separated by bars of a length which would have seemed impossible to a traditional Near Eastern artist. Such a 'free' treatment of patterns points outside the frontiers of Western Asiatic conventions and perhaps to the more dynamic and freer ornamentation of Central Asia. Relations between the decoration of the column [p. 139] shafts from Persepolis and of shafts of arrows found in the third kurgan at Pazyryk, in southern Siberia, have indeed been pointed out and ascribed to Scythian influence. [10] It is not inconceivable, however, that the Medes also had some connection with the art forms of Central Asia, and that they had a taste for dynamic patterns and little concern about the preservation of conventional Western Asiatic forms.

The richly decorated weapons carried by Median dignitaries in the reliefs of Persepolis point in the same direction. The example illustrated [Fig. 76] is the scabbard of the Median armour-bearer of Darius I [522-486 B.C.] in the reliefs of the Treasury. In turn this scabbard corresponds in its shape to one in the Oxus Treasure for which Median origin seems quite likely and to other which have been associated with it. [11]

In the scabbard of Darius' attendant monsters, animals and palmettes are grouped antithetically or are aligned in rows to form different ornaments. Two lion-griffins back to back, their heads turned backwards in a heraldic pose, called regardant, fill the escutcheon-shaped field which covers the quillons of the short sword in the scabbard. At right angles to the griffins a row of slender rampant goats, regardant, runs down the length of the scabbard, diminishing slightly in size toward the bottom, a feature unparalleled in truly Western Asiatic designs. The trefoil of the chape at the end of the scabbard is decorated with a linear ornament formed by a dog-like animal in a folded pose with naturalistically rendered head and palmette-shaped ear. Chapes with closely related designs but made of bone have been found in Syria. [12] Such animals in folded poses are characteristic of Scythian gold work from southern Russia. Another Scythian element in the scabbard is the spiral border which runs around most of the edge and which may be derived from the heads of birds of prey with prominent hooked beaks, the so-called beak-heads of the Scythian repertory. [13]

Just as the Medes probably handed down to the Persians the elements of Scythian art which they had absorbed or obtained independently through eastern connections, so they must also have been the middlemen for the continuation in Achaemenid art of other stylistic traditions which prevailed in Iran in Median times. A fine gold bowl in the Cincinnati Art Museum, for example, which Helene Kantor convincingly interpreted as showing Median workmanship, [14] is reminiscent both of features found in the Ziwiye Treasure and of later Achaemenid gold and silver vessels. Thus the pointed leaves of the palmettes on the gold bowl in Cincinnati resemble the palmettes of Ziwiye, while the double-headed ibexes of the Cincinnati bowl resemble in their posture those of ibexes on an Achaemenid silver vase reproduced below. For the severe stylization in the rendering of the animals of the Cincinnati bowl, whose hair on the neck and back is indicated by regular rounded ridges, no parallel has been found as yet in objects excavated at known sites. Doubts have therefore been voiced concerning the genuineness of this and related pieces. It seems quite possible, [p. 140] however, to see in such sharply delineated designs an expression of a Median style descended from the more rounded lines of Urartian designs. It would merely be one of several Median styles, since there were probably at least as many styles represented in the Median capital of Ecbatana-Hamadan as there had been at Ziwiye. Such styles would have corresponded to the varying traditions and craftsmanship of the goldsmiths and ivory-workers, and to the different tastes of their patrons. [p. 141]

1. In Proto-Historic Western Iran Cuyler Young has examined the ceramic evidence concerning the Medes, but weapons, tools and burial patterns, and perhaps architecture, remain to be sought out and studied in an equally methodical way.

2. These remarks about the location of Medes and Persians are summarized from Cuyler Young's relevant sections in Proto-Historic Western Iran, where he gives an interpretation of Assyrian topographical indications based on his thorough knowledge of the Geography of western Iran.

3. This last point is made by Cuyler Young, Proto-Historic Western Iran, pp. 203-204, whereas other historians of Iran have assumed a migration of the Persians [see most recently D. Stronach, Iran I [1963], p. 22].

4. The treaties of Esharhaddon, in which the names of Median, Persian and other Iranian vassals are mentioned, were published by D. J . Wiseman in Irag XX [1958], pp. 1-99.

5. This is the assumption of Cuyler Young, supported by Jettmar's suggestion that the twenty-eight years of Scythian terror merely referred to a period of activity as a warrior, an age group rather than a historical period; see the references given above in note X/5.

6. See Barnett, 'Median Art,' Iranica Antiqua III [1962], pp. 77-95.

7. The façade of Qyzqapan is reproduced in a drawing in Irag I [1934], p. 186, Fig. 2.

8. See J. Boardman, 'Chian and Early Ionic Architecture,' The Antiquaries Journal XXXIX [1959], p. 215 and note 2.

9. Examples of representation of columns with volute capitals in ancient Western Asiatic art were cited by Boardman, op. cit. in note XI/8, p. 214, and note 4.

10. The ornaments of the shafts of arrows from the third kurgan at Pazyrk are reproduced in S.I. Rudenko, Kul'tura naselenia gornogo Altaia v Sifskoe vremia [Adademia Nauk SSSR, Moscow, 1953], Pls. CXIX, CXX. K. Jettmar first drew attention to the relation between designs of the painted columns of Persepolis and the shafts of arrows from Pazyrk in 'Die Fürstengräber der Skythen im Altai,' Die Umschau in Wissenschaft und Technik, 61, Jabrgang, Heft 12 [1961], pp. 368-371.

11. For these 'Median' scabbards, see Barnett, 'Median Art,' Iranica Antiqua III, [1962], Pls. III, V.

12. The chapes were discussed by B. Goldman, 'Achaemenian Chapes,' Ars Orientalis II [1957], pp. 43-54; see also E. Porada in Artibus Asiae XVIII [1955], p. 218. Herzfeld, in Iran pp. 265-267, not only discussed the chapes but also the patterns running along the edges of the scabbards.

13. G. Borovka, Scythian Art [reprinted in 1960 by Paragon, New York, after the edition of 1928], pp. 40-43, gave what is stil the best characterization of the Scythiain stylization of birds of prey.

14. H. J. Kantor, 'Goldwork and Ornaments from Iran,' Cincinnati Art Museum Bulletin V/2 [1957], pp. 16-19, Figs. 10, 11.

[Porada, Edith [With the collaboration of R. H. Dyson and contributions by C.K. Wilkinson]. The Art of Ancient Iran, Pre-Islamic Cultures. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. Art of the World. 1962.]