While the writings of Ernst Herzfeld bear witness to an exceptionally wide interest in the art and archeology of the Near East, he probably devoted more attention to the study of Achaemenid Iran than to any other single topic during the course of his long career. Above all else, his name will always be associated with Pasargadae, the dynastic seat of Cyrus II (the Great), the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. This was a site that he was already deeply interested in from the time that he was a student, and it was still very much in his thoughts when his last comprehensive treatment of Iranian art and archeology appeared in 1941 (Herzfeld, 1941, pp. 210 ff.).

Surface studies at Pasargadae. At the beginning of his doctoral dissertation on Pasargadae (following an initial visit to the site in 1905) Herzfeld stressed that the principal object of his researches was to address the problem of the identity of the ruins (1908, p. 1). It is true that some years earlier G. N. Curzon had compared Arrian’s description, following Aristobulus, of the tomb of Cyrus (Anabasis 6.29) with the upstanding remains of a stone tomb in the Dašt-e Morḡāb in northern Fārs that was known locally as Taḵt-e Mādar-e Soleymān “Tomb of the Mother of Solomon” and had come to the conclusion that the latter monument could be none other than the tomb of Cyrus (Curzon, 1892, p. 82). But as Herzfeld was well aware, neither this identification, nor Curzon’s further, agreeable supposition that the ruins in the Dašt-e Morḡāb were those of Pasargadae, was uniformly accepted.

In particular, F. H. Weissbach remained unpersuaded. And two years after the publication of Curzon’s study Weissbach used the tenor of the site’s visible inscriptions (bearing the strangely stark legend “I, Cyrus, the king, an Achaemenid”) to argue that “the Morghab inscriptions” could not have been those of Cyrus II. Instead he proposed that they were owed to Cyrus the Younger (d. 401), a far less consequent figure (Weissbach, 1894, p. 665). It was an objection from a scholar of towering repute; and, while it was not difficult for Herzfeld to show that there were indeed no historical grounds to connect Cyrus the Younger with Pasargadae, he appears to have realized that he could only overcome Weissbach’s line of argument by means of an extreme stratagem: namely, by asserting that Cyrus II (559-530 B.C.) had effectively completed the construction of his capital while he was still no more than a “satrap” of his Median suzerain, Astyages.

At present we are aware that Cyrus had no part in erecting the “Cyrus Morghab a” (CMa) inscription. Instead this trilingual inscription, written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian, is broadly acknowledged to post-date Darius’s first use of the Old Persian cuneiform script at Bisitun (Schmitt, 1990, pp. 50-60; Stronach, 1990; and Huyse, 1999); and it is recognized that the generally puzzling tenor of the inscription is owed to Darius’s authorship and to the latter’s initial need to legitimate his seizure of power in multiple ways (Stronach, 1997a). In other words, at some date not long after the completion of the Bisitun monument in 519/518, Darius took full advantage of various of the never-inscribed, finely dressed stone surfaces at Cyrus’s capital in order to erect a first-person message to the effect that Cyrus, whom he chose to define in this instance as no more than “a king,” was, like himself, “an Achaemenid.”

The tragedy for Herzfeld was that the only counterweight he could find to the force of Weissbach’s assertion that the unvarnished term “king” was too humble a title for Cyrus the Great was one which compelled him, from the time that he wrote his thesis onwards, to project a unified view of Pasargadae as a creation of the first ten years of Cyrus’s reign. On chronological grounds, in other words, he could not account for the pervasive Lydo-Ionian influences in Pasargadae’s impressive big stone masonry; nor could he admit, since it was difficult to suppose “that early Greek art could have exercised its influence in far-away Persis before 550” (1941, p. 260), to the Ionian character of various features of the tomb of Cyrus—a monument recently characterized as one “executed in techniques” that were “essentially not eastern, but Lydo-Ionian, and with features of Greek Ionic architecture” (Boardman, 2000, p. 60). Nonetheless Herzfeld occasionally came close to freeing himself from his self-imposed chronological boundary, located some three years before Cyrus’s all-important conquest of Sardis in or soon after 547 B.C. Thus, while he was never certain of the date of the great stone platform of the Taḵt-e Mādar-e Soleymān, which juts out from the western side of the Tall-e Taḵt “Throne Hill,” various factors already suggested to him—some six decades prior to the publication of Carl Nylander’s seminal study Ionians in Pasargadae—that connections with Lydian masonry and comparisons with Lydian masons’ marks would one day suffice to place the monument in a secure chronological context (1908, p. 31).

In his description and analysis of the doorway relief in the monumental gatehouse (Gate R), Herzfeld went out of his way, both in his thesis and in Iranische Felsreliefs (1910), to stress the clear parallel between the fringed dress of the Winged Genius and the robe of Teumann (Tepti-Humban-Inshushinak), the Elamite monarch who suffered defeat and decapitation at the hands of the Assyrians at the battle of the Ulai River in 553 B.C. With characteristic insight, moreover, he recognized that this correspondence could be attributed to Cyrus’s wish to underline his Anshanite/Elamite heritage (1908, p. 64). Herzfeld’s acute eye also detected the pre-Persepolitan style of the relief, and he drew due attention to the full profile pose of the figure (Sarre and Herzfeld, 1910, p. 160). However, with reference to the elaborate Egyptian crown which dominates the composition, Herzfeld’s stand on the date of the carving did not allow him to relate the crown to the extension of Cyrus’s dominions to the Levant (let alone to a distant common border with Egypt) from 539 B.C. onwards. Rather, the crown is somewhat lamely described as a well-known representational element in the Near East at the time that Cyrus elected to employ it (1910, p. 162).

Just as Herzfeld had correctly noted that the Winged Genius was neither a god nor a king but a protective doorway figure in the time-honored Mesopotamian tradition, he was also aware from the beginning that the trilingual inscription that had once stood above the four-winged genius was far from being a reference to it. Instead, since the same inscription reading “I, Cyrus, the king, an Achaemenid” (with the further implicit sense “built this”) was also visible in Palace S (“der Palast mit der Saule”) and Palace P (“der Palast mit der Pfeiller”), he stressed what he saw to be the common occurrence of a “foundation inscription” that again demonstrated, to his own satisfaction, the early date at which Cyrus had managed to complete his building program.

Excavations at Pasargadae. Following his appointment as Professor of Oriental Archeology at the University of Berlin in 1920, Herzfeld soon found himself in a position to spend a good portion of his time in Iran. In particular, this gave him the opportunity to conduct a little-advertised preliminary campaign at Pasargadae in mid-November 1923 (Herzfeld, 1926, p. 241). It was an event that allowed him to make unspecified “minor excavations” as well as to complete various measured plans and drawings. In short, it appears that this brief one-week foray greatly assisted him to work with unusual speed and effectiveness in his more formal, four-week season of excavations in April and May 1928, when Pasargadae became the first site to be excavated on the Iranian plateau following the abrogation of the French monopoly on excavations in Iran.

Because the funds for the 1928 season were obtained from a German source—the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft—there appears to have been no need to apply to any sources in Iran; and, since Herzfeld’s subsequent report (1929, pp. 4-16) makes no reference to the auspices under which the excavations took place, the reader is left to conclude that Herzfeld, as a former archeological adviser to the Iranian government, had the necessary authority to act as he did. At all events it is patent that the timing of the short 1928 season ensured that the work was completed well before André Godard, the future head of Iran’s Archeological Service, reached Iran in August of the same year (Stronach, forthcoming).

The team that set out for Pasargadae in April 1928 consisted, quite remarkably in view of all that was accomplished, of no more than three persons: Herzfeld himself, a twenty-five year old architect from Berlin, Friedrich Krefter, and a cook. The size of the team may have been dictated by the constraints of funding; but, equally, Herzfeld may have been essentially more comfortable with, in effect, only one strictly junior associate to complement his own protean talents as the expedition’s archeologist, epigrapher, photographer, draftsman, registrar, and senior surveyor. Nonetheless Friedrich Krefter was a markedly able addition to the team; and the fact that he went on to join Herzfeld at Persepolis in the early 1930s (Krefter, 1979) is a clear mark of the regard that Herzfeld had for him.

With his ability to decipher the clues of surface topography Herzfeld quickly grasped the general character of the site. He saw that the main buildings all shared a common orientation and he even recognized that the principal structures were complemented by a number of water channels and at least one small pavilion (1929, p. 10 and plan). With reference to Gate R (“der Palast mit dem Relief”) he found that eight “mighty” stone columns had supported the roof of the building’s tall central hall and, while he did not expose the whole ground plan, he established, most importantly, that human-headed colossi had once flanked the inner main doorway and that winged bulls had protected the opposite, outer doorway (1929, p. 11).

Important architectural evidence also came to light in Palace S. Here Herzfeld observed that, in contrast to the norms of construction at Persepolis, the tall principal hall was rectangular rather than square and was flanked by low, as opposed to tall, porticoes. He also drew attention to the distinctive character of the contrasted black stone column bases and smooth column drums of white stone, as well as to the building’s striking double protome stone capitals, which included a horned and crested lion protome as well as a fragmentary horse-head protome (1941, pls. 39a, b). Indeed, he found the capitals from Pasargadae to be “more powerful and more beautiful” than any from Persepolis (1929, p. 11). The reliefs in the four doorways were only preserved in their “lowest parts,” and those flanking the doorways in the opposed short walls of the hall were seen to portray minor deities “striding one behind the other.” But while the latter were acknowledged as threshold “blessing geniuses,” no mention was made—in deference, no doubt, to Herzfeld’s pre-550 dating—of their clear debt to Assyrian prototypes (Kawami, 1972; Stronach, 1997b, pp. 44-45).

Although Herzfeld’s published plan of Palace S (Herzfeld, 1941, pl. 42; Stronach 1978, fig. 27b) suggests that he recovered the entire plan of the building, this appears not to have been the case. In fact, he severely underestimated the number of columns in the different porticoes and he can be seen to have incorrectly proposed—on the basis of a presumed likeness to the Apadana at Persepolis—that Palace S stood on a low platform furnished with shallow, opposed staircases (Herzfeld, 1941, pl. 43).

The discovery of the season consisted of the finely carved reliefs that flanked the two main doorways of the thirty-columned central hall of Palace P. Although found in a fragmentary condition, and only preserved to close to waist height at best, each example unquestionably showed the same scene: a king progressing outwards, followed by an attendant shown at a smaller scale (1929, pl. 3). Herzfeld observed that the figures wore the same pleated costume as that attested at Persepolis, but since the lines of the pleats were less “sweeping,” and since the figures stood within a non-canonical raised frame, he rightly calculated that they belonged to a prior stage of development.

Unfortunately, however, the Palace P figures were not seen to be only marginally earlier than those at Persepolis and by any reckoning later than those in the relief of Darius at Bisitun, which was carved, in its original form, in ca. 520 B.C. (see especially Farkas, 1974, pp. 14-26; Stronach, 1978, pp. 95-97). Instead, in deference to the newly revealed CMc inscriptions on the pleats of the king’s costume, which read “Cyrus, the Great King, an Achaemenid” (Kent, Old Persian, p. 116), Herzfeld felt convinced that his early date for Cyrus’s monuments was validated. Thus, in his reconstruction, Cyrus “the King” (as defined in the CMa texts) took the decision to build at Pasargadae as soon as he came to the Persian throne in 559; he adopted the more prestigious title of “Great King” in the immediate aftermath of his victory over Astyages in 550; and he only adopted the more grandiloquent titles listed in his celebrated Babylonian cylinder after his conquest of Babylon in 539. As I have tried to show elsewhere, however, the replacement of the perhaps deliberately disparaging title “King” by the more acceptable title “Great King” in the third-person CMc inscription—and the very depiction of Cyrus as a regal figure in the appropriate setting of his own monumental capital—deserves to be viewed as a product of Darius’s sudden recognition ca. 515-510 B.C. (i.e., at the time that he was engaged in putting his stamp on the unfinished fabric of Palace P) that the blood of Cyrus, flowing through the veins of the latter’s daughters to those of his own offspring who were born in the purple, was in fact central to the long-lasting legitimacy of his line (Stronach, 1997a, pp. 361-62).

As has already been remarked, the problems posed by Herzfeld’s unyielding view of the date of Cyrus’s buildings at Pasargadae were many and various. The Old Persian cuneiform script would have to have been available to Cyrus from the outset of his rule; and both the whole technical apparatus of sophisticated construction in ashlar masonry and the means to represent the voluminous, multi-folded Persian court dress would have to have been at Cyrus’s command during the first ten years of his reign. Equally, this timetable makes it impossible to relate any of the Lydo-Ionian, Mesopotamian, or Egyptian elements in Cyrus’s individual monuments to his known patterns of conquest. More than this, Herzfeld’s chronology raises the awkward question of why Cyrus, whose reign still had two-thirds of its course to run at the time that he defeated Astyages, would have chosen to complete the upper parts of the columns in Palace P (Herzfeld, 1929, pl. 2) in anything less than his customary rigorous fashion (i.e., with columns completed in wood and covered with painted plaster shells) or, equally, why he left his most ambitious building project of all—that on the Tall-e Taḵt—visibly unfinished (Nylander, 1970, p. 77). Last but not least, with reference to the actual moment at which Pasargadae was founded, presumably very soon after the fall of Sardis (i.e., in or near 546 B.C.), it is appropriate to recall that, in his otherwise thorough examination of classical testimony, Herzfeld found it expedient to overlook Strabo’s unequivocal statement that “Cyrus held Pasargadae in honor, because he there conquered Asyages the Mede in his last battle, conferred to himself the empire of Asia, founded a city, and constructed a palace as a memorial to his victory” (15. 3. 8).

Conclusions. Herzfeld’s unfortunate chronological stance can be seen to have been compensated for by a host of keen observations and rare insights. Accordingly one has to remain uncommonly grateful that a scholar of Herzfeld’s talents was the first to excavate at Pasargadae and that he devoted no small part of his life to examining the unique characteristics of this exceptional site. It is true that his high dating of many features did for a time obscure a number of issues, including, most notably, an accurate perception of the evolution of Achaemenid art during the reigns of Cyrus and Darius. In a truly broad perspective, however, this represents a misjudgement of no more than passing moment. In the long run the fundamental value of Herzfeld’s contribution to the study of Pasargadae is that the site’s diverse remains were critically examined—and published—at the earliest possible date. And this circumstance may be said to have contributed greatly to the preservation of Pasargadae’s exquisite monuments and to the long-term prospects for continued, fruitful research.



J. Boardman, Persia and the West, London, 2000. G. N. Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question II, London, 1892.

A. Farkas, Achaemenid Architecture, Istanbul, 1974.

E. Herzfeld, “Pasargadae. Untersuchungen zur persischen Archäologie,” Klio 8, 1908, pp. 1-68.

Idem, “Reisebericht,” ZDMG, N.F. 5, 1926, pp. 225-84.

Idem, “Bericht über die Ausgrabungen von Pasargadae 1928,” AMI 1, 1929, pp. 4-16.

Idem, Iran in the Ancient East, London and New York, 1941.

P. Huyse, “Some Further Thoughts on the Bisitun Monument and the Genesis of the Old Persian Script,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 13, 1999, pp. 45-66.

T. S. Kawami, “A Possible Source for the Sculptures of the Audience Hall, Pasargadae,” Iran 10, 1972, pp. 146-48.

F. Krefter, “Mit Ernst Herzfeld in Pasargadae und Persepolis 1928 und 1931-1934,” AMI 12, 1979, 13-25.

C. Nylander, Ionians in Pasargadae, Uppsala, 1970.

F. Sarre and E. Herzfeld, Iranische Felsreliefs, Berlin, 1910.

R. Schmitt, Epigraphisch-exegetische Noten zu Dareios’ Bisutun-Inschriften, Vienna, 1990. D. Stronach, Pasargadae, Oxford, 1978.

Idem, “On the Genesis of the Old Persian Cuneiform Script,” in Contribution à l’histoire de l’Iran. Mélanges offerts à Jean Perrot, Paris, 1990, pp, 195-211.

Idem, “Darius at Pasargadae: A Neglected Source for the History of Early Persia,” Topoi, suppl. 1, Recherches récentes sur l’empire achéménide, Lyon, 1997a, pp. 351-63.

Idem, “Anshan and Parsa: Early Achaemenid History, Art and Architecture on the Iranian Plateau,” in Mesopotamia and Iran in the Persian Period: Conquest and Imperialism 539-331 BC, ed. by J. Curtis, London, 1997b, pp. 35-53.

Idem, “Ernst Herzfeld and Pasargadae,” in Ernst Herzfeld and the Development of Near Eastern Studies, ed. by A. Gunter and S. Hauser, Washington, D.C., forthcoming.

F. H. Weissbach, “Des Grab des Cyrus und die Inschriften von Murghab,” ZDMG 48, 1894, pp. 653-65.

(David Stronach)

Originally Published: December 15, 2003

Last Updated: March 22, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XII, Fasc. 3, pp. 293-296