Craft, Industry & Technology in Ancient Persia

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you will learn about ancient Persia, and how that great civilization used different materials, styles, and ideas from foreign lands to create uniquely Persian crafts, architecture, and military technologies.

Foreign Workers and Customs

Even though the U.S. prides itself on being a big a great melting pot of people and traditions from all over the world, it's certainly not the first civilization to accomplish that. Ancient Persia had a big empire that included people from many different lands, and the Persians were so proud of their diversity they tried to showcase all the best styles and ideas from all these lands in their arts, crafts, architecture, and even military technologies.

The Greek historian Herodotus said of the Persians 'There is no nation, which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians'. Many individual pieces of art or architecture, even small details, were all foreign, but when they were put together the result became a uniquely Persian style. The Persian kings believed that celebrating and using the best from everywhere was the key to a strong empire.

That doesn't mean they just borrowed ideas from other cultures; they actually brought in foreign artisans and foreign resources. They had timber that came from Lebanon, gold from Sardis, lapis-lazuli from Afghanistan, silver from Egypt, and ivory from Ethiopia. The Persians even brought in artisans like stonecutters and goldsmiths from places like Greece and Babylonia. Of course, that's not to say that the Persians did everything right. They also used foreign workers, especially conquered peoples, as slave labor to build their empire.

Architecture

One of the best examples of how the Persians blended all the best of foreign cultures to make something totally Persian is the palace complex at Persepolis. Started by King Darius around 518 B.C. and further ornamented by his son, Xerxes, Persepolis became the center of power for the Achaemenian rulers of the Persian Empire. Although it was mostly destroyed by Alexander the Great, some of its ruins remain and they give us an idea of its grandeur.

Apadana in Persepolis
Persepolis

Persepolis was constructed with great columned halls like the Apadana, which had 72 columns and two monumental stairways. The walls of Persepolis were decorated with huge reliefs, or massive sculptures carved into the rock walls, chiseled by foreign artisans, and stunning glazed brick friezes were created by Babylonians. Foreign artisans and materials were brought from around the empire to create the complex, but in the end, it was a truly Persian palace.

Another achievement of Persian craft and industry is the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. In the city of Halicarnassus, the widow of Persian governor Mausolus had a massive tomb structure built to honor her late husband. Finished in 350 B.C., this mausoleum was one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World, and, you guessed it, gave us the word 'Mausoleum'. Like Persepolis, it was adorned with massive columns and decoration.

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
Mausoleum at Halicarnassus

Apart from monumental architecture, the Persians also engineered ingenious irrigation and sewage systems for their cities. Underground tunnels, or qanats, were dug to bring groundwater to their fields. Despite a hot, dry climate, they were able to plant beautiful gardens.

Art

Persian art and crafts were once again a combination of different styles. The friezes like the ones that covered the walls of Persepolis were an adaptation of Greek and Babylonian styles. One of the most well known is the Frieze of the Archers, which has beautiful glazed bricks depicting Persian archers. The bricks themselves were made from sand and lime, then baked multiple times, glazed and painted with beautiful colors.

Frieze of the Archers
Frieze of the Archers

Persian relief sculptures were found all over doors, stairways, and even tombs. They were cut right into the limestone cliffs of Persia and often depicted the strength of the Persian Empire. These could show scenes of triumph in battle, or foreign dignitaries coming to pay tribute to the king.

Persians also used imported silver to craft fine plates and tableware. Fine gold and lapis lazuli were used to make beautiful jewelry. In fact, beautiful gold work can be found in Persia from well before they created their massive empire.

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