Palace of Shapur I, Ctesiphon, Iraq, 250 CE

Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 330 BCE. This was the beginning of long period of time when Greeks and later Romans ruled large parts of the ancient Near East. Generally the empire was quite peaceful as all the subjugate nations would submit to the empire. However, dissidents did speak up. In the 3rd century CE, a new power rose up in Persia and sought to challenge the Romans and sought to force them out of Asia. The new rulers called themselves Sasanians and traced their lineage to a heroic figure named Sasan (who is said to be in the same lineage of the great Achaemenid kings).

In 224 BCE, the Sasanians led by Astaxerxes, defeated the Parthians, one of Rome’s enemies. The king also erected an impressive palace at Ctesiphon.

The central feature of the work of architecture is the iwan, a brick audience hall covered by an enormous pointed vault (in this case, it is a deep oblong space). The highest point of the vault is almost 100 feet! The facades to the left and to the right of the iwan are covered with blind arcades (which are a series of arches without actual openings, applied simply as wall decoration).

I am so impressed by the grandeur of this work of architecture. I imagine it would have been extremely difficult to build that enormous vault. I would really want to visit this palace and stand under the vault. I wonder if I would hear the echo of my voice if I said something under there. Not surprisingly, nearly a thousand years later, Islamic architects looked at Shapur’s palace and especially its soaring iwan and established it as the standard for judging their own engineering feats.

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