Splendor of Persian City Seen in Drawings, Photos

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

Splendor of Persian City Seen in Drawings, Photos


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The Freer Gallery of Art and adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery appear to hold almost endless treasures. The latest riches to be displayed from this trove are the 25 photographs, drawings, sketchbooks and paper casts of inscriptions in "Persepolis: Documenting an Ancient Iranian Capital, 1923-1935."

Exhibit curator Ann C. Gunter chose the objects from the Ernst Herzfeld Papers housed in the galleries' archives. Herzfeld (1879-1948), a German explorer of the Near East and a specialist in the archaeology, history and languages of Iran, was the chief archaeologist of the Persepolis project.

Herzfeld fled Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s to work at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J. There he met Richard Ettinghausen of the Freer, who persuaded him to leave many of his records to the gallery.

Herzfeld donated the materials to the Freer in 1946. "They totaled 30,000 documents, of which 1,000 were drawings and plans. I had to choose one place, and I selected Persepolis for the exhibition," Miss Gunter says.

Persepolis, one of the fabled capitals of ancient Persia, about 35 miles north of the modern city of Shiraz, received scant scientific attention until 1923. At the height of its power, the Persian Achaemenid empire (circa 550-331 B.C.) stretched from the Aegean Sea east to India's Indus Valley and as far north as the Danube.

The Persians favored a terraced platform with many painted and sculpted buildings to project Persian military and political might. Although possibly derived from Mesopotamian platforms, these complexes ideally expressed Persia's imperial ambitions.

Dynastic troubles and revolts of subject nations such as Egypt finally destroyed the empire. Persepolis fell to Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. He set it on fire, and the ruins of the capital were not identified until 1620.

The Iranian government engaged Herzfeld in 1924 to examine the ruins scientifically. Officials instructed him to make a detailed plan of the huge complex. The Iranians also requested a plan for excavating and preserving the site.

Herzfeld was the first to implement a scientific investigation using modern excavation methods and recording techniques. He initially visited the site in 1923 and 1924.

The archaeologist returned in 1931 under the sponsorship of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. He invited architects Friedrich Krefter and Karl Bergner to work on the project as well. The architects' pencil and watercolor drawings proved crucial to the reconstruction process.

There were no "English Patient" romances as the three men focused their energies, skills and knowledge on the work. One of the few amusements at Persepolis was the pet boar Herzfeld adopted. A photo shows him feeding his boar, Bulbul, a Persian word meaning "nightingale."

The Persians built Persepolis (a Greek name meaning "city of Persis") on a high plateau east of Mesopotamia. Its heavily fortified buildings stood on a wide platform looking over the plain and sunsets.

Herzfeld and his assistants found the remains of sculpture-decorated palatial buildings spread over the terrace. The Persians constructed a series of buildings on a nearby plain as well and located the royal burial grounds to the north.

A digital print in the exhibit made from original "panoramic" photos illustrates the terrace and its buildings before excavation. …

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