Achaemenid parasol: Symbol of authority

Tehran, Karafarinane Eghtesad – The earliest appearance of the parasol in the ancient Near East is on a fragmentary stele of the Akkadian Period (2334-2154 BCE) that had been brought to Susa as booty in the 12th century BCE. On it, Sargon of Akkad leads his army; behind him an attendant holds a parasol upright but not directly above the king’s head; like the modern parasol or umbrella, the profile of the canopy or shade resembles the inverted hemisphere of a modern parasol or umbrella.

A Middle Assyrian seal of the second millennium BCE depicts an enthroned king beneath a flat-shade parasol; the attendant standing behind him grasps the handle of the parasol in one hand while with the other seems to be a thin arched structure that seems in some way also to support the parasol. This type of parasol is thus unlike Sargon and is a more stable shade provider, reminiscent of the modern garden or beach shade whose shaft or support is secured to the ground and is at least two and a half meters in height, wrote Iran Daily on Sunday. 

In the following millennium, Assyrian kings appear beneath a parasol on parade, in battle, and performing sacrifices and palace duties. These parasols are held in one hand by an attendant or are attached to the royal chariot.

Continuing the Near Eastern (and perhaps also the Egyptian) royal prerogative of appearing beneath the parasol, Achaemenid kings show themselves in the doorways of some of the buildings at Persepolis, usually walking out of the main hall and into the portico, accompanied by two attendants, one of whom holds the parasol above the royal person.

The upwardly curved stretchers are clearly visible below the shade; like the Assyrian examples, they are joined together at the shaft by a knob or runner that slides along the shaft to allow the stretchers to be raised and lowered. A collapsible parasol was more desirable as it made it easier to carry and to store when it was not used to shade the monarch.

Achaemenid parasol: Symbol of authority
A relief with a representation of Persian King Xerxes I. 5th century BCE, Persepolis. by Jona Lendering (CC BY-SA)

The handle or shaft is bronze as are ‘two of the prongs that come from beneath the protrusion,’ but the third ‘prong,’ which was “discovered separate from the main body but next to it is made of iron.
At the end of the prongs a notch has been made for passing a wire or a cord. The length of the handle is appropriate for the shaft of a hand-held parasol.

Regardless of its ability to furl, these remains prompt speculation about other details of the Achaemenid parasol as it appears in the reliefs.

No doubt, it was made of metal; and it was most likely gilded: Among the gifts that Artaxerxes II is said to have given his Cretan ally Entimus was a gilt parasol or sunshade. The shade or covering material that stretched over the ribs was undoubtedly a rich fabric. In some of the reliefs that portray the king beneath a parasol, the king’s garment is engraved with elaborate designs.

The baldachin of the enthronement scenes in the audience hall and central building is embellished with rows of bulls and lions marching towards a central winged sun disk.

The parasol may be considered a portable baldachin, a symbol of authority that moves with the king, distinguishing him from all around him and delineating the space in which he moves, separating it from that inhabited by his subjects.

Certainly, the parasol served to shield the royal body from the sun’s rays, but its use, although practical, was also symbolic of the royal presence.

The above is a lightly edited version of the a chapter of ‘Archaeology of Iran in the Historical Period’, coedited by Kamal-Aldin Niknami Ali Hozhabri, and published by Springer in 2020. The photos originally appeared in the book.


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