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Stars above Pasargadae: Ernst Herzfeld and the Legacies of Cyrus

Pasargadae Palace

One of the palaces at Pasargadae, photo by Alex Nagel

Alex Nagel, assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at Freer|Sackler, is the in-house cocurator of the exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, opening at the Sackler on March 9. Check out our calendar for exhibition-related events.

Pasargadae, located in Morghab (“Plain of the Waterbird”) in Iran, was the first capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, and the famed leader’s final resting place. When the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) visited the region in 1905, he was impressed by its ruins. Revisiting Pasargadae in November 1923, Herzfeld gave the following account:

“… The morning was just gorgeous: the plain glittered as if it had been filled with millions of stars; everywhere was a hoar-frost of crystals. After last night’s marvelous sunset, I spent the moonlit night by the Tomb of Cyrus (minus 4 degree Celsius). The whole day just beautiful: the narrow valley of the Pulvar River … By the water there were willows, reeds, oleander …. The colors of the Fall: the trees yellow–orange to carmine-red, the sky in bright turquoise, the mountains violet, blue, red, yellow. Just gorgeous! I only wish I could send something of the beauty of these days back home.” (Ernst Herzfeld’s diary, November 19, 1923, Freer|Sackler Archives; translation by Alex Nagel).

While more recent fieldwork on the site has been conducted by Iranian, British, French, and Italian archaeologists, much valuable documentation can be gained from Herzfeld’s many early visits to the plain. There are more than 250 documents in the Freer|Sackler Archives referring to his fieldwork at Pasargadae, including large-scale maps, drawings, photographs, and squeezes. Pasargadae was the topic of Herzfeld’s dissertation, written for the Friedrich-Wilhelm Universitaet in Berlin (today’s Humboldt Universitaet), and a lifelong interest.

Photograph of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae with remains of a more recent cemetery, probably taken in 1923 © Photograph by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

Photograph of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae with remains of a more recent
cemetery, probably taken in 1923, © Photograph by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

The structure that draws the most attention at Pasargadae is the monumental tomb of Cyrus the Great, which Herzfeld documented in great detail. Inscribed clay tablets that Herzfeld excavated further south at Persepolis exactly eighty years ago, in March 1933, refer to cult activities at Pasargadae. Greek sources mention animal sacrifices at the tomb of Cyrus. According to the Roman author Strabo (64 BCE–24 CE), “Cyrus held Pasargadae in honor, because he there conquered Astyages [the last Median king] … in his last battle, transferred to himself the empire of Asia, founded a city, and constructed a palace as a memorial of his victory” (Strabo 15.3.8).

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae in 1928; Drawing by Herzfeld in the Freer|Sackler Archives

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae in 1928; © Drawing by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

The tomb of Cyrus is empty today, but was full of items when Alexander the Macedon visited it. A later description states that “in the tomb … was placed a golden coffin, a couch, and a table … and in the middle of the couch was placed the coffin which held the body of Cyrus … the magi guarded the tomb of Cyrus.” One of the tablets Herzfeld excavated at Persepolis contains a seal impression of the name of “Cyrus, the Anshanite, son of Teispes.” This Cyrus might well have been a predecessor of our famous Cyrus the Great, whose father is referred to in other inscriptions as Cambyses, king of Anshan.

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Cyrus in Times Square

Cyrus Cylinder announcement in Times Square

Cyrus Cylinder announcement in Times Square

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning opens at the Sackler Gallery on March 9, and the exhibition is already generating buzz on a mega-size scale. One of history’s most iconic objects and one of the British Museum’s most celebrated artifacts, the Cyrus Cylinder has never before been on view in the United States. In cuneiform writing, the object’s inscription proclaims Cyrus’s victory over Babylon in 539 BCE. It also decrees religious freedom for his newly conquered people—a statement that has inspired generations of philosophers, rulers, and statesmen.

While it’s pictured in Times Square, we hope the Cylinder inspires visitors and passersby. It’s interesting to see a 2,600-year-old object depicted on an electronic screen in one of the busiest cities in the modern world. I like how it finds itself situated between contemporary words and signs, caught between “Engage Opportunity” and a Europa Cafe.

To learn more about the Cyrus Cylinder and its historic importance, view the TED talk by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. Then, visit the Freer on Thursday, March 7, to see him discuss “The Many Meanings of the Cyrus Cylinder.”

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