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Work Mosaic of a woman playing the harp

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: The Middle East after Alexander's Conquest

Panneau de recouvrement de sol : harpiste

© 2005 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
The Middle East after Alexander's Conquest

Author(s):
Caubet Annie, Prévotat Arnaud

This mosaic panel, made of stone tesserae, shows a harpist. It was part of the decoration of the iwan of the "palace" of Shapur I at Bishapur, the new capital of the Sassanid Empire, built after the king's victories over Rome. Iranian heritage and Greco-Roman influences are combined in both the technique and the imagery (musician, interlacing, cubes).

Shapur I: a warrior king and a builder

Shapur I (241-272), the second Sassanid king, restored the borders of the empire to where they had been in the Achaemenid Persian period, inflicting a triple defeat on the Romans. In his native province of Fars, he built a new capital that would measure up to his ambitions: Bishapur, "Shapur's City." The city was not laid out in the circular design inherited from the Parthians, but followed the grid (Hippodamian) plan used by the Greeks. Outside the city, Shapur decorated the sides of the Bishapur River gorge with huge historical reliefs commemorating his triple triumph over Rome. One of these reliefs, in a semicircular shape, has rows of registers with files of soldiers and horses, in a deliberate imitation of the narrative scenes on the Trajan column in Rome. At Bishapur the king also inaugurated the Sassanid imagery of the king's investiture, which would be copied by his successors: the king and the god are face to face, often on horseback, and the god - usually Ahura Mazda - is holding the royal diadem out to the sovereign.

Sumptuous decoration

The main part of the excavations took place in the royal sector, in the east of the city. A fire altar, sometimes interpreted as a shrine to Anahita, was erected near the palace. In the center there is a cross-shaped space with eight large square exedrae decorated with 64 alcoves and covered with a dome roof. To the west lies a courtyard decorated with mosaics; to the east, a square iwan used as a reception room. Its walls must have been covered with small stucco ornaments: rows of medallions, bands of foliage, and topped with merlons inherited from Achaemenid architecture. All these decorative techniques were still used after the Islamic conquest. The floor was paved with black marble slabs, with a mosaic border. Along the walls runs a narrow band featuring a series of heads and masks, in a frontal or profile view, on a white background. At the top of each alcove there was a picture of women naked under their transparent veils: courtesans, musicians, dancers, women twisting garlands, together with a few richly attired noble ladies.

Between East and West

When Shapur I captured Antioch, he deported skilled artists to Persia to work on his buildings. The Bishapur mosaics are clearly influenced by Roman art in Syria, and in Antioch in particular: all the geometrical motifs, like the interlacing and cubes shown in perspective, are derived from this tradition. We see Dionysian themes in the masks, the musicians, and the dancers. Yet, while the Dionysian tradition is of Greco-Roman inspiration, some details - such as the women sitting on the ground rather than on a stool or cushion - are plainly Iranian or Eastern. Lastly, the overall scheme of the decoration is less a matter of importing classical iconography than of adapting motifs celebrating a delight in wine, women, and song to the needs of the Sassanid palace. This room was used for celebrations and royal festivities, as well as banquets given for feast days such as the New Year celebration of the rebirth of nature. This harmonious combination of classical traditions and Iranian heritage marks the dawning of the Sassanid culture.

Technical description

  • Panneau de recouvrement de sol : harpiste

    Vers 260 après J.-C.

    Iran, Bishapur, "palais" de Shapur Ier, sol de l'"iwan"

  • Mosaïque de marbre

    H. 6.4 cm; W. 8.5 cm

  • Fouilles R. Ghirshman, vers 1939 - 1941

    AO 26169

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Mesopotamia, Iran, eastern Mediterranean
    Room 16, temporarily closed to the public

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