The Persians, themselves, were not generally known for being expert craftsmen or monument-makers—buying finished goods or contracting skilled tradesmen from different conquered regions in the empire was more their style. Nevertheless, the wide variety of resources that were accessible to the Persian King of Kings, as well as the organization and administrative ability to pool all of these resources together for a single construction project, allowed the Persians sponsor some unique architectural feats constructed from multicultural labor and artists.
Historians know a great deal about the wide variety of resources that Persian kings like Darius I “the Great” (c. 550-486 BCE) were able to obtain for their construction projects. Darius I was known to have funded great building programs in the cities of Pasargadae, Susa and Persepolis. In the latter two cities, Darius the Great built great palaces. Despite the palace complex of Persepolis eventually gaining more grandeur and prestige, especially after additions made by Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE), it was the palace at Susa that was alleged to be Darius the Great’s favorite residence.
From what we know about the palace, the residence at Susa was quite a feat of logistics and labor organization. For the brickwork of the palace, Darius brought in brickmakers from Babylon. The lumber used in constructing the palace was acquired from regions such as Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan. All of this wood was shaped and cut by carpenters from Sardinia and Egypt. Sardinians also served as stonecutters, alongside similar craftsmen from the Greek-settled portion of western Annatolia, known as Ionia.
The Ionian stonecutters brought with them an assortment of ornaments and decorations to be mounted on the palace. Ionia was not alone in this—even more precious metals and gems were brought in from other sections of the empire. From the modern regions of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Darius I gathered luxurious commodities such as gold, lapis-lazuli, carnelian, turquoise and ivory. Further shipments of ivory also came from the regions of Pakistan and Ethiopia. Likewise, Egypt contributed to the beauty of the palace at Susa by supplying ebony and silver. Just like the woodcutters and the stonecutters, the artists that were brought in to decorate the palace were also from regions conquered by the Persian Empire. Egyptians and Medes worked as goldsmiths and jewelers, and provided much of the artwork on the walls of the palace.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Archers frieze from Darius’ palace at Susa (cropped). Glazed siliceous bricks, c. late 6th century, approximately 510 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).