Essential Architecture-  Iraq

The fourth-century arch at Ctesiphon




35 km south of the city of Baghdad.


Construction began during the reign of Khosrau I after a campaign against the Byzantines in 540 AD. In 1888 floods destroyed a third of the ruins.




The arched iwan hall, open on the facade side, was about 37 meters high 26 meters across and 50 meters long, the largest vault ever constructed at the time. The arches of the vault were constructed, in fact, over empty space without the use of temporary wooden centering—a technique not uncommon in Mesopotamia, but amazing on such a scale.


The arch was part of the imperial palace complex.
  The Tāq-e Kisrā (Persian: طاق كسرى), also called Iwān-e Kisrā (Persian: إيوان كسرى meaning Iwan of Khosrau), is a Sassanid-era Persian monument in Al-Mada'in which is the only visible remaining structure of the ancient city of Ctesiphon. It is near the modern town of Salman Pak, Iraq.
The Dusty Shell- On the plains of Iraq, the great arch of Ctesiphon...

Written by William Tracy

Since antiquity the two mighty rivers of the Mesopotamian valley have given, and they have taken away. One year's flood deposited precious topsoil; the second swept it away. Kings built great towers and cities of baked bricks; time, conquerors and the Tigris and Euphrates littered the plains with their sun-bleached ruins.

One such city was Ctesiphon: once a sumptuous capital near the shifting banks of the meandering Tigris River about 20 miles south of modern Baghdad, now no more than the dusty shell of a palace with, miraculously, one great vault still arching across the dull monotony of the arid plain.

In 144 B.C., as part of an Asiatic reaction against Hellenism, a race of people called the Parthians swept out of the region east of the Caspian, invaded Babylonia and established a camp on the east bank of the Tigris opposite the Greek city of Seleucia. The camp was called Ctesiphon and grew to be, first, the winter residence of the Part'hian kings, a "royal suburb," and then a great city in itself—a city that, according to one historian, "first rivalled and then eclipsed" Seleucia as the capital of the Empire. An interesting difference in the cities is that Ctesiphon's plan—typically Parthian—was circular, in contrast to the rectangular Greek layout of its sister across the river. Some coins of fhe first century show the goddesses of the twin cities joining hands across an altar.

But during the next few centuries the cities were often a battle ground as Roman legions under Trajan, Avidius Cassius and Septimius Severus in turn, struggled to capture and hold them.

Finally, about A.D. 224, the Sassanians, rebuilding the Persian Empire after five centuries of subjugation—first to Alexander and the Seleucids, then to the Parthians—made Ctesiphon their capital, it flourished from the wealth flowing in from a lucrative silk trade with China and became a center of Nestorian Christianity and learning.

It was during the rule of the Sassanians that the great palace called by the Arabs Taq-e Kisra was built at Ctesiphon. Some archeologists believe it dates back as early as the fourth century but local Arab tradition holds that it was constructed during the time of King Khusrau I who reigned from 590 until 628 when the city was devastated by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. Tradition also says that the facade of the mud palace was covered with gold and silver and that beneath the great vault lay a vast carpet woven to resemble a garden, with silver paths, streams of pearls, and flowers of emeralds. Some splendid murals, at least, are known to have remained intact as late as the 9th century.

The empty vault of mud brick that stands today is a far cry from the splendor envisioned in the legends but what remains of Ctesiphon is enough to stir the imagination still. One eminent world traveler and writer has called it "... one of the most impressive architectural constructions that I know." Of the great elliptical barrel vault he adds, "... its curve hangs over empty nothingness in an uncanny way."

The arches of the vault were constructed, in fact, over empty space without the use of temporary wooden centering—a technique not uncommon in Mesopotamia, but amazing on such a scale. The lower portion of the vault was built according to the corbel principle. Thin mud bricks were stepped inward in successive horizontal courses, each projecting a bit further over the hall. in Khusrau's palace the bricks had a slight backward slant against the end walls, although the corbel arch, unlike the true arch, exerts no outward thrust but is held up by the sheer weight of these massive walls on each side. At approximately half height the construction changed to the normal arch principle. The successive brick arches which form the vault had staggered joints to provide sufficient bond which, together with the steep parabolic shape of the arch, allowed its construction without complete centering from the ground. The Sassanians were masters of the art and constructed other huge vaults such as the one—now collapsed—at Firuzabad in Iran. The span of the vault at Ctesiphon is 82 feet and at the crown it is 120 feet above the ground.

The vault is open to the east, to make a kind of open porch or iwan common in later Muslim architecture, and the Sassanid builders may have inspired the vaulted entrances of later Persian mosques.

Attached to the vault at Ctesiphon, one wall of the south wing of the palace also remains. On the interior side of this wall can be seen the toothings of smaller vaults for the original two upper floors which have collapsed.

The neo-Persian Empire ended with the fall of the Sassanid dynasty in the 7th century. One of the final blows came in 637 A.D. when Arabs occupied Ctesiphon and Seleucia which they called al-Madam, the "capitals". They used the decaying buildings as quarries for building materials but the great palace still stood and was used for a while as an improvised mosque.

When the Abbasids decided in the 8th century to build their capital at Madinet as-Salam, "the city of peace" (present-day Baghdad), they abandoned what was left of the two cities. Caliph al-Mansur even wanted to destroy the palace of Khusrau but happily, his Persian adviser was able to dissuade him by arguing that demolition costs would be too high.

The river was not subject to such reason, however, and over the centuries it continued to lick at the mud bricks of the palace and add their silt to its delta.

An aerial survey has shown, in fact, that the course of the Tigris has shifted markedly in modem times, no longer flowing between the ancient twin cities but now cutting through the site of Sassanid Ctesiphon. As recently as 1909 a flood swept away the north wing of the palace.

Today, as Iraq strives to protect this relic of the past, great flocks of wintering storks nest safely out of reach on the thin egg-shell vault high above the heads of village children playing in the shade of the cavernous interior, and camera-laden tourists drive out from Baghdad before breakfast to catch the morning sun on the eastern facade. But the Tigris, like a great full-bellied cat, flows on nearby—waiting.

William Tracy is Assistant Editor of Aramco World Magazine.

This article appeared on page 10 of the January/February 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Ctesiphon (Parthian: Tyspwn), ancient city on the Tigris, founded by the Parthians. The city was the capital of the Parthian and the Sassanid empires.

Ctesiphon was built on the site of an older town, Opis, not far from the confluence of Tigris and Diyala. This city was situated on the so-called Royal Road, which connected Elam's capital Susa with the Assyrian heartland and -later- the Lydian capital Sardes.

At the end of the fourth century, king Seleucus, the successor of Alexander the Great and founder of the Seleucids empire, built Seleucia on the opposite bank of Opis. From now on, Opis was a mere suburb. The Roman historian Tacitus informs us that in the first century, Greek and native inhabitants were still recognizable and had institutions of their own. The Parthians, who took over the country in the second century BCE, had hardly any cultural influence.

However, the Parthians needed a western capital, and therefore, they moved the goverment center from Seleucia to the eastern bank, and renamed ancient Opis Tyspwn or Ctesiphon. The city served as winter residence of the kings after 129 BCE. It is not clear when Ctesiphon became the most important city in the Parthian empire, but what is reasonably clear is that the spoils of a large campaign against the Roman empire in 41 BCE were invested in the new capital, which became one of the greatest cities in the ancient world.

The city became even more important after a rebellion of Seleucia against king Vardanes, which ended in 43 CE. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus calls Vardanes the founder of Ctesiphon, which suggests that he did something to improve the status of this city. A generation later, king Pacorus is said to have increased its inhabitants and built its walls. Ctesiphon measured 30 square kilometers (cf. the 13,7 square kilometers of imperial Rome).

In the second century CE, the large city became the natural target for Roman aggression, because the Romans thought that the capture of the Parthian capital would inevitably result in the fall of the eastern empire. In 116, 165, and 198, the emperors Trajan, Lucius Verus, and Septimius Severus took Seleucia and Ctesiphon. But the Parthian state was organized in a very loose fashion, which gave it a certain resilience.

However, in the long run, the capture by Septimius Severus had a disastrous result. According to a modern estimate, the Romans took away so much gold and silver that they were able to postpone a European economic crisis for three or four decades, and we can imagine the consequences for the Parthians. Their empire was seriously weakened and in 224 CE, the Persian vassal king Ardašir revolted. Two years later, he took Ctesiphon, and this time, it meant the end of Parthia. It also marked the beginning of the second Persian empire, ruled by the Sassanid kings.

Although Ctesiphon was the capital of the Sassanid empire, Seleucia was not forgotten; it was renamed Veh-Ardašir ("the good city of Ardašir"). The cities remained a military target. In 238, he Roman emperor Gordian III wanted to capture Ctesiphon in order to prevent the new Sassanid empire from becoming too powerful, but was murdered before he reached his goal. Odenaethus of Palmyra was more successful in 262 CE, and so was the emperor Carus, who took the city in 283 CE. But when Julian wanted to do the same thing, he was defeated and killed in action (363 CE).

In the fifth century, Ctesiphon became a very important center of Nestorianism, a Christian church that accepts a larger distance between the two natures of Christ than the churches of the West. Missionaries from Ctesiphon christianized many people along the Silk road, e.g., at Rhagae and Maracanda, and in Margiana and Aria. In 635 CE, the first Christians reached China.

In 540 CE, the Sassanid king Khusrau I conquered the capital of Roman Syria, Antioch. The inhabitants were deported and settled in a new city near Ctesiphon and Veh-Ardašir, which was called Khusrau's Antioch. There were perhaps four comparable settlements. As a consequence, the Arabs started to call the place Al-Madain, "the cities".

In 637 CE, the Muslims took and looted Ctesiphon and the other cities. This was the beginning of their conquest of Mesopotamia. In 762 CE, they built a new government center, 35 kilometers upstream: Baghdad.
Preserving the Kasra Arch, Protecting the National Identity

Participants of the 3rd conference of Iran’s History of Architectural Style called on international organizations to inscribe the Kasra Arch in World’s endangered heritage list.

Tehran, 17 April 2006 (CHN) -- Preserving the historic Kasra Arch as a Persian heritage in danger and inscribing its name in UNESCO’s list of endangered heritage were discussed during the third conference of Iran’s History of Architectural Style and City Planning currently held in the city of Bam in Kerman province. The participants of this conference also called on immediate action to save the historical cities of Jondi Shapour, Ivan Karkheh, and Tisfoon.

In an interview with CHN, Faramarz Tathir Moqadam, member of managing board of Institute for Tehran University Graduate Engineers said, “In an official statement, our institute has requested the coordinators and participants of the third conference of Iran’s History of Architectural Style and City Planning to call on all related world organizations to put their maximum efforts into renovating the Kasra Arch which is not only considered a national treasure, but is also a world heritage currently in real jeopardy.”

According to Tathir Moqadam, inscribing this architectural masterpiece in UNESCO’s List of Endangered Heritage will draw the attention of the world and would result in both financial and moral support from world organizations to preserve this ancient monument.

The Institute for Tehran University Graduate Engineers which is partly engaged with the condition of endangered historic monuments both inside Iran and abroad is one of the institutions that have taken part in this year’s architectural style conference of Iran.

For more than 12 centuries the city of Tisfoon with its huge castles and magnificent buildings was the capital city of Persian Emperors until 642 AD when Arabs seized and destroyed all its castles and buildings except for one which is named Taq-e Kasra or Kasra Arch.

The Kasra Arch was located within the Persian Empire in the present-day Iraq when Baghdad and its suburbs used to be part of the Persian Sassanid capital city of Tisfoon. The remains of this castle can still be seen 38 km from Baghdad. It is still alive and speaks of the great and magnificent Persian civilization and culture. This magnificent example of Persian architectural style has seen a lot of harm during the past few centuries, especially during the Iran-Iraq war. Also, the ancient city of Tisfoon was completely abandoned during Saddam’s regime in Iraq. “This world heritage does not at all deserve such a destiny,” said Tathir Moqadam with regret.

Tathir Moqadam also talked about Iraq’s National Museum which was once host of the most valuable historic artifacts from the Mesopotamian region which were considered part of the people’s identity but unfortunately were stolen from this museum after the recent US military attack to Iraq. “It is quite odd to see huge historic artifacts being taken out from this museum so easily during the day and while the American troops were present at the scene. It is rather unfortunate that none of those who once claimed to be the sole protectors of culture, freedom, and democracy ever bothered to stop this open plundering of our cultural heritage. I must remind you that nearly two years earlier we were faced with almost the same situation in Afghanistan,” he commented on the endangered condition of world heritage in the Middle East.

Part of the official statement sent to this year’s conference of Iran’s History of Architectural Style and City Planning by the said institute reads: “We must pay attention that cities such as Tisfoon with monuments like the Kasra Arch are examples of Persian culture, art, and architectural style in this region which must receive a continuous attention should they need to be renovated and preserved so that we may not only introduce them to the world this way but also let the world experts conduct their studies on these sites and bring them under protection of world organizations devoted to preservation of culture.”

Regarding the pictures, slides, and short movies which were displayed during this conference about the present condition of the Kasra Arch, Tathir Moqadam said, “These pictures very well show the critical condition of this giant monument which is not so far from complete devastation. Iran must at least pay as much attention it does to the existing religious cultural heritage in Iraq to preserve such valuable historic remains through which it can establish more cultural bonds with its neighboring countries.”

The Third International Conference of Iran’s History of Architectural Style and City Planning is currently held in the city of Bam in Kerman province and will run to 19 of April 2006.