This guest post is published in conjunction with this week’s annual meetings of the Archaeological Institute of America in San Diego and the American Historical Association in Chicago. Share using #AIASCS2019#AHA19

By Matthew P. Canepa, author of The Iranian Expanse: Transforming Royal Identity through Architecture, Landscape, and the Built Environment, 550 BCE–642 CE


The Iranian Expanse presents a new approach to understanding Iranian kingship, cosmology and identity from the rise of the first Persian empire (550 BCE) to the fall of the Sasanian dynasty and the coming of Islam (ca. 642 CE). Its chapters explore the role of highly significant spaces and places in constructing, maintaining and transforming the identity of their patrons and viewers. In this book I focus on royal efforts to shape, change and even fabricate “newly ancient” sacred sites associated with primordial events, mythical toponyms, and ancient heroes as well as sites that were deeply implicated in future events at the end of the world. In the course of doing so the book investigates the development of landscapes of power and memory, including cities, sanctuaries, palaces, and paradise estates in Persia and across the wider ancient Iranian world.

Among such transmillenial problems dealt with in The Iranian Expanse is that of time. Iranian religiosity displays a distinctive sensitivity to time, which is detectible in all stages of the Zoroastrian religion. Ancient Iranian kings ruled with the knowledge that time was progressing linearly toward a spectacular apocalyptic end. Moreover, in Zoroastrian understanding of the beginnings and end of the world, time was a weapon. The great god, Ahura Mazda, created finite time, which we humans experience as our existential present, as a strategic weapon. This was part of a divine plan to prevent the Evil Spirit from infecting existence permanently after his primordial attack on Ahura Mazda’s good creations. As long as the Evil Spirit was trapped in finite time, his existence was finite. After the final battles between good and evil and the Renovation of the earth, the foreclosure of finite time would mark the ultimate annihilation of the Evil Spirit and all his works. This sensitivity to time subtly inflects the political discourse not only of such overtly Mazda-worshipping dynasties as the Achaemenids and Sasanians, but even those who engaged the contemporary Iranian religion as practiced in Persia or the eastern Iranian world only lightly as half-remembered family customs. These include the Seleucid dynasty, the Macedonian dynasty that ruled Iran after Alexander, as well as succeeding Perso-Macedonian dynasts, such as Mithradates VI of Pontus and Antiochus of Commagene, who boasted of descent from both the Achaemenids and Alexander.

The kings of dynasties such as the Achaemenids and Sasanians, who foregrounded the worship of Iranian gods and implicitly or explicitly engaged concepts present in the Avesta (Zoroastrianism’s sacred texts and the oldest attested Iranian language), incorporated this movement toward the eschaton and ultimate defeat of evil into their contemporary political discourse. The monumental royal inscriptions of the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, Darius I, in the sixth century BCE, and the rock reliefs and inscriptions of the Sasanian kings Ardaxshir I, Shabuhr I and Narseh in the third century CE share similar themes and concerns. The Seleucids never overtly ascribed to the worship of Ahura Mazda, yet without question they integrated ritual activities and engaged sites that were significant to Iranian religion. Not surprisingly, such a characteristically Iranian sensitivity to time inflects the Seleucids’ political temporality too and their introduction of a new continuous royal era counted from the foundation of the empire. The later tradition of Iranian royal eras and dynastic sanctuaries grew from the Seleucids’ precedents, including those of the Arsacids, Sakas, Kushans and Sasanians.

The present flow of time was a play of imperfect, corrupted, and decaying forms; however, Iranian kings sought to bring something of permanent, post-apocalyptic perfection into the present finite state of existence.

In words, images, and curation of natural or architectonic spaces such as tomb complexes or palaces and paradise estates, they presented their efforts on earth as both prefigurations of, and catalysts for, the coming defeat of evil and the final renewal of the earth.

While they could take diverse forms, Iranian funerary monuments and collocated dynastic cults were one such environmental focal point of Iranian political temporality. Through its presence alone, a royal tomb transformed the landscape, augmenting its horizons, altering the profiles and textures of its natural features and its inhabitants’ movement through or experience of natural or architectonic space. Resistant (though not impervious) to natural and human depredations, the “material rhetoric” of rock-hewn architecture, colossal earthworks, and their associated cults, transformed ephemeral political discourse into a permanent immutable reality in the present. Much like their superhuman size, which dwarfs any human observer, their superhuman temporal scale made the viewer feel similarly small and ephemeral in comparison to their monument and patron.

Persian palaces too played an important role in articulating Iranian political temporality. They were where the world’s past, present and future were exhibited in perfected microcosm. Palaces created a theater of the hyperreal that emplaced and enacted the king’s place at the center of the world and within the unfolding cosmic battle between divine and demonic forces in the universe. Achaemenid and Sasanian palaces in particular provided a panoptic view of the empire and, in the case of the Sasanian throne room, this view extended throughout the sevenfold world and into cosmic spheres. Like palaces, Iranian paradise gardens and estates showcased the earth’s fecundity and variety as tangible evidence of the king’s ability to make the earth grow and flourish and ability to unite the diversity of the earth’s plants, animals and peoples in prefiguration of the Renovation of the earth. The dynasts of the Iranian world thus approached the present cosmological order of things, as well as the distant past and coming future, as tangible, powerful forces that could be actively shaped and controlled.

Matthew Canepa will be speaking at AIA on Friday, January 4 during SESSION 1A: Colloquium Other Pasts: Comparing Landscapes, Monuments, and Memories across the Mediterranean 8:00–10:30 a.m. in Marina Ballroom.

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