Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sarvestan Palace - Bahram V's hunting lodge, or a local governor's residence?

The building known as Sarvestan Palace is thought to have been constructed during the reign of the Sasanian King Bahram V, who ruled from 420 – 438 CE.

Nowadays this stone and mortar building stands in splendid isolation, dominating the vast plain some 80km to the southeast of Shiraz, but on closer inspection it is clear from some of the mounds visible in the plain – for example one just to the north of the Palace - that this was not the only substantial building in the area.

The building is usually termed a ‘Palace’ but in fact its function is not clear. Certainly it is a substantial construction that would have been richly decorated. Some scholars have suggested that it may have been a hunting lodge for King Bahram, since many of the legends that grew up around the king relate him indulging in this princely pursuit. André Godard believed that it might have been a small palace for receiving guests built by Mehr Narseh, the Bahram’s Grand Vizier, who is known to have been responsible for a considerable number of building works, including fire temples, formal gardens and bridges while Oleg Grabar suggested that Sarvestan may have been some kind of sanctuary, an example of royal architecture converted into a fire temple. A residence of the local governor is another theory that has been put forward, however on the available evidence, the precise function of the structure remains unknown.

Originally the structure was approached from the south, via a façade with three iwans (today the path from the parking area takes you to near the north-east corner). The central, larger iwan of the south façade led onto a large square room with a large baked brick dome. The two smaller iwans on each side of lead into a series of interconnecting rooms.

The large square room had four windows between the corner squinches to support the dome which rested on corbelling, ensuring a perfectly circle. Instead of a central oculus, additional lighting was provided by hollow terracotta cylinders set into the dome at intervals.

This square domed room leads onto a rectangular courtyard with a single iwan on the central axis in the blind western wall. Rooms or suites of rooms surround the square domed room and courtyard and lead back to the two smaller entrance façade arches. Each room is architecturally different from the others, and there are individual features that make the building different from the earlier ‘palaces’ of Qalah-e Dokhtar and Ardašir, near Firuzabad, including that the building has entrances on all sides, and the use of piers to support the vaults of the façade.

Another interesting feature is that the rectangular side rooms feature columns as supports for the vaulting, with semi-domes above. There is a pleasing variety to the rooms, and a lack of symmetry within the building.

The palace is well preserved, but has also undergone considerable restoration. From the remaining decorative elements, including traces of stucco, we can imagine that the building must have been very fine indeed. Look for the dogtooth moulding in the zone of transition under the dome, and in the niches in the side rooms. Also note the quantity of pottery sherds, including glazed wares, littering the ground around the site.

So, an enigmatic building. It remains to be seen whether we will ever know its purpose. 

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