The term “Persia” can be used as a synonym for Iran. It can also be used more specifically, however, to denote pre-Islamic Iran (see History of the Ancient Middle East). This latter definition is used throughout Essential Humanities.
The two great ages of Persian civilization were the First Persian Empire (aka Achaemenid Empire), which spanned ca. 550-330 BC, and the Second Persian Empire (aka Sassanid Empire), which spanned ca. 200-650. Prior to the Achaemenid Empire, Persian culture experienced its formative stage; between the two empires, Persian culture was temporarily suppressed (in favour of Greek culture). With the fall of the Sassanid Empire, Persia became part of the Islamic world; ever since, Persia has flourished as a branch of Islamic civilization (see Islamic Art).
Stylistically, Persian art can be described as a blend of native Persian traditions with Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Greco-Roman art.3 This is only to be expected, given the relative youth of Persian civilization. (Historically, whenever a new culture has emerged, it has borrowed heavily from the culture of elder neighbours.)
Prior to the rise of the First Persian Empire, the dominant power of Southwest Asia was Mesopotamia. The cultural influence of the Mesopotamians radiated across the younger powers of Southwest Asia, including the Persians. Thus did Mesopotamian culture become the foundation of Persian culture.
Persian culture was further enriched by two additional major influences: Egypt and the classical West (Greece and Rome). Naturally, all foreign influences were interpreted in a uniquely Persian way, and fused with indigenous Persian traditions.
Relatively little Persian art has weathered the millennia. Surviving architecture consists mainly of ruined palaces and rock-cut tombs. Persian sculpture survives mainly in the form of column capitals, wall reliefs, and metalwork; Persian painting, however, has not weathered the centuries.
The richest collection of Achaemenid ruins is found at Persepolis, Iran (a capital of the First Persian Empire). The greatest structure is the Apadana, an audience hall.H59 (The Apadana, built in the same style as a Persian palace, is sometimes called a palace even though it did not serve as a royal residence; in this broad sense, “palace” denotes any great official building.)
The most distinctive feature of Persian architecture is the column. Though modelled after Greek columns, Persian columns are thinner, heightening their sense of verticality. The Persians also developed a unique style of column capital, in which the forward portion of an animal emerges from either side; this design may be termed the Persian animal capital.D34
While architecture of the Achaemenid Empire features post-and-beam (column-supported) construction, the Sassanid Empire preferred arched (arch-supported) construction, which was adopted from the Romans. The most famous Sassanid ruin is the palace at Ctesiphon, Iraq (capital of the Second Persian Empire). Roman influence is evident in wall compositions of engaged columns and blind arches.5
Along with animal capitals, large-scale Persian sculpture has survived mainly in the form of reliefs, upon the walls of palaces and the faces of cliffs. Some are quite stylized with a strong Mesopotamian flavour, while others feature the striking realism of classical Europe.H60 Indeed, these two contrasting aestheticsare found in all forms of Persian sculpture.
In addition to monumental sculpture (of which relatively little survives), the Persians are also responsible for a magnificent body of metalwork. Common forms include statuettes, rhytons, and jewellery. (A rhyton is a vessel which could serve as either a goblet or a pitcher.)