Naqsh-e Rostam

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The Naqsh-e Rostam (نقش رستم), literally meaning the impression of Rostam, is an ancient Persian archeological site and necropolis located about 12 kilometers northwest of Persepolis, in Fars Province, modern day Iran.


Naqsh-e Rostam is one of the most important archaeological sites in Iran and contains monuments of the Achaemenid and Sassanian dynasties. In the later times when people no longer remembered the origins of the rock-carvings, many of which show triumphant Persian royals and nobles, were attributed to the Persian/Iranian hero Rotam, and the site was named as such.

During antiquity, a water stream and a road ran directly in front of the cliff face where the tombs were carved, giving the ancient site a sense of sanctity. Already by the 700 BCE the Elamites had carved a rock relief there which showed kings and attendants worshiping certains divinities. The Persian Achaemenids built a fortified wall in front of the cliff, and erected a stone tower, which is locally known as the Ka'bah Zartusht(which was most likely built as a tomb originally) and carved elaborate and extensively ornate rock-cut tombs for Darius I (522-486 BCE), Xerxes I (486-464 BCE), Artaxerxes I (464-424 BCE) and Darius II (424-404 BCE). Only the tomb of emperor Darius the Great bears inscriptions. The facade of these tombs are sculpted in the same way; representations of thirty subject nations carry on their hands the monumentalroyal throne on which the king stands in front of a fire altar and under the wings of a bird-man who symbolizes the royal glory and authority (it represents neithere the Faravahar as claimed by some nor the Ahuramazda as is generally imagined in the west).

From 224 CE the Sassanian, who claimed Achaemenid heritage, chose the site as a national shrine, and carved there rock-relief, inscriptions and tombs. One of the rock-relief shows the equestrian investiture of Ardashir I (224-239 CE) by Ahuramazda; another investiture of Narse (294-302 CE) by his wife (or by Anahita as speculated by some) and a third depics Bahram II (2730294 CE) among his courtiers. Several show Bahram II, Hormozd II (302-309 CE) and possibly king Shapur II (309-379 CE) in equestrian combats triumphing over their enemies. The longest of the inscription is carved in three languages of Greek, Parthian and Middle Persian by Shapur I (239-270 CE) on the lower walls of the Achaemenid tower (Cube of Zoroaster). There are also two rock cut miniature chahar taqs with bowl-like cavities. Previously these were regarded as fire altars, but recent studies have shown that these were most likely used as bone-receptacles (ossuaries, in Persian known as astoodan). Nearby there is a cluster of rock-cut ossuaries, some with inscriptions in Middle Persian and all dating from the Sassanian period.

Notable Monuments

circa 525 BCE

Kabaye Zartosht
The structure of Kabaye Zartosht is constructed with marble and limestone. The entrance portal is 1.75 meters in height and 87 centimeters in depth. The door of the building was two panelled and very heavy and the place of the lower and the upper pivots of each door bale was cut in stone. Due to the findings of a part of the rocky building in Pasargadae, known as Zendan-e Soleiman, which was exactly the same as Bon-Khaneh (Kaba ye Zartosht), shows that the door of this one has also been made of stone. This door opened to a square room with dimensions of 3.27 x 3.74 meters. The length of the walls varies.

Inscriptions of Shapur I are carved on three walls of the tower in three different languages, i.e. Middle Persian (in35 lines on the eastern wall), Parthian (in 30 lines on the western wall), and Greek (70 lines on the southern wall). The inscription contains information regarding the royal title of king Shapur I and his genealogy, list of the provinces, Shapur's compaigns, and fire temples founded by the king across his territories, epilogue which includes the prayer to the god, the advice of the king and the colophon of the scribe. The inscription of Shapur I is one of the most important inscriptions from the Sassanian period for various reasons. The inscription not only is an important source of epigraphical and linguistic information but it also contains historical reports on the campaigns of the king. Its text is an important source for the study of administrative system and the elites in Sassanian period. Below the inscription of Shapur I another inscription is carved (in 19 lines) which belong to Kartir, the high priest at the royal court of Shapur I and some later Sassanian kings.

circa 486 BCE

Tomb of Darius the Great
The tomb of Darius I, also known as Darius the Great, located in the is one of the four completed tombs in the Naqsh-e Rostam necropolis. The tomb of Darius the great is explicitly identified by an accompanying inscription to be the tomb of Darius I (reigned circa 522–486 BCE). It is located between the tomb of Artaxerxes I (to the west) and Xerxes I (to the east) in the longer side of the cliff-face.

Darius I, the astute and warrior king of kings, born circa 550 BCE, died in October 486 BCE after a reign of 36 years. His body was transported to Naqsh-e Rostam to be interred in his rock-cut tomb.

The tomb of Darius the Great has three burial chambers with three rock-hewn cists within each. The crucific-shaped facade of the tomb consists of three sections. The upper section depicts the king in Persian robe and holding a bow, standing on a three-stepped platform and hailing a winged human figure believed to either be a manifestation of the great Persian deity Ahura Mazda (the lord of wisdom) or a symbol of the aura of the kingship. Also before the king, below and slightly to the right of the winged figure is the carved relief of a fire altar. Behind the image of Darius on the top left corner of the facade a trilingual inscription can be seen in twosections, the first of which is an autobiography of Darius, while the second section presents Darius' description of an ideal king. The upper section sits on the middle, wider, section of the facade that depicts the representatives of the thiry provinces of the empire listed in the inscription mentioned above, holding symbolic royal throne above their head. The figures while generalized in appearance, are carved with keen attention to their outfits, including headgear and a footwear, as well as their coiffure. The lower section of the facade is left blank except for six grooves on the lower edge, presumably carved to hold the scaffolding erected during the carving of the tomb-facade.

circa 465 BCE

Tomb of Xerxes I
The tomb of Xerxes I(آرامگاه خشایارشا) holds great historical significance as one of the prominent burial sites within the Naqsh-e Rostam complex in Iran. Naqsh-e Rostam, serves as a testament to the rich Achaemenid legacy. It is located in the eastern face, on the shorter side of the cliff. The entrance to the tomb, just like the other three, is strategically positioned at a considerable height above the ground, contributing to its majestic presence and symbolic significance.

Since the tomb does not bear any inscription attributing it king Xerxes I it is speculated that the tomb copying that of Darius I, is usually assumed to be that of Xerxes I.

circa 422 BCE

Tomb of Artaxerxes I

circa 404 BCE

Tomb of Darius II
Based on minor stylistic details, it is likely that the Tomb II belonged to Darius II Nothus (reigned 423-404). The upper section of Tomb II displays a scene similar to the relief found in Darius' tomb: the king stands before an altar, offering prayers to the supreme deity Ahuramazda and making sacrifices to the sacred fire. The king holds his bow, a symbol of royalty, in his right hand. Once again, the platform is supported by figures representing various subject nations. Unlike other Achaemenid royal tombs, the possible tomb of Darius II (آرامگاه داریوش دوم هخامنشی) features an additional figure. A symbol of the moon can be observed in the upper right corner.

Notable Reliefs

circa 239-270 CE

Triumph Relief of Shapur I
The majestic rock-relief carved to the lower left of the tomb of Darius the Great is one of the most celebrated carved relief of ancient Persia and represents Shapur I on horseback grasping the right wrist of a Roman emperor standing before him while receiving the submission of another Roman emperor who is kneeling before his horse. The bust and inscription of Kartir behind the king is a later addition to the relief.

The triumph relief has several analogies; three in Bishapur's Tang e Chowgan and one near Darabgerd. All of them show victories of Shapur I over the Roman empire and all can be explained with the help of the trilingual inscription (Parthian, Middle Persian and Greek) which he carved on the lower walls of the Achaemenid monument known as the Kaba-ye Zartosht (Cube of Zoroaster). In this text Shapur records his genealogy, the extentof his empire, and the victories he won over three Roman emperors. First the young Gordian III attacked Iran and killed on the battlefield. Later Philip the Arab was forced to pay tribute to Shapur and ransom his army. Finally, Valerian came against the Persian empire with an army of seventy thousand men gathered from twenty nine provinces of the Roman empire.

As Shapur records:
And on the far side of Carrhea and Edessa a great battle took place between us (and the Romans). And we with our own hands took Valerian Caesar prisoner, and the rest who were the comanders of his army, the praetorian prefect, and the senators and the officers, all these we captured, and we led them away into Pars and settled in Persian territories.

Shapur wears a crenellated crown surmounted by a large globe (korymos) and adorned by a diadem the long wavy ends of which fall behind, a necklace decorated with large roundels, armlets, a long flowing garment and pleated trousers. His horse is beautifully equipped, and conical tassel fall from the saddle. His left hand grasps the hilt of his straight sword while the right tightly holds the wrist of a Roman emperor standing (still in his imperial regalia) before the king. The holding of the weist was a traditional gesture of capture on the battlefield and the standing Roman emperor represent Valerian who was taken prisoner "with our own hand" (the popular idea that this is different person and the kneeling figure is Valerian is mistaken). The emperor kneeling before the king and stretching his hand in supplication is Philip the Arab who begged for peace and "became tributary to us". The figures of this monument are carved in high relief, and their gestures and costumes make them lively and impressive.

circa 274-294 CE

Victory Relief of Bahram II
The relief is located right below the tomb of Darius the Great and depicts the two victories of Bahram II in a double register carving. The king wears a crown adorned by an eagle's wing (the eagle was the insignia of Bahram, god of warriors), and in the upper panel gallops towards a mounted enemy and unhorse him with a long spear. His standard bearer (not well preserved) follows, carrying a flag (perhaps the red war banner described by Ammianus Marcellinus) consisting ofa foe surmounted by a horizontal bar adorned with three globes and two hanging tassel. A second foe (possibly a Roman) is fallen under Bahram's horse. The king's horse is magnificiently equipped, and large conical tassel falls from the saddle and the harness is elaborate. The king himself carries a long quiver on his left thigh. The lower register depicts a similar equestrian combat; Bahram II charges a mounted foe with a long lance while trampling another enemy under his horse.

circa 294-302 CE

Investiture of Narse
The relief is carved to the lower right of King Darius' tomb and shows the investiture of Narse by a demale crowned figure while a noble and a prince look on. Narse, the youngest son of Shapur I, was "the great king of Armenia" during the reign of his nephew Bahram II (274-294 CE), but deposed Bahram's son and remained in rulership until his death in 302 CE. The king wears a majestic crown consisting of the old Persian fluted hat surmounted by a huge globe and tied with a diadem the ends of which fall in long wavy curls on his shoulders. His garment and trousers are also pleated and his shoes have biribbon laces. The female figure wears a crenellated crown, long braided hair, earrings anda necklace (originally pearl-studded).

Her dress is belted at the waist and magnificiently pleated, falling over her feet. With her stretched right hand she offers a diadem ring to Narse while keeping her left hidden inside her sleeve, a gesture which traditionally indicated obedience. Normally, she is identified as Anahita, the goddess of fertility, family and waters. But the facts that she is shown subordinate to the king and the Narse receives the ring with the left hand while having his right on the hilt of his sword instead of making a gesture of salutation expected in front of deity has led to the belief that she may infact be Shapurdokhtak, the wife of Narse. The dignitary behind king makes the gesture of reverence with a raised hand and bent forefinger. The prince in front of the scene is shown on a small scale and although badly defaced, he seems to represent Hormozd, who succeeded his father as Hormozd II.

circa 305 CE

Equestrian Victory Relief of Hormizd II
Right below the tomb attributed to Artaxerxes I, a double register relief is carved, depicting the triumph of Hormizd II (نقش سوارکاری هرمز دوم). The upper register of the relief is almost completely destroyed, but lower register shows Hormizd II, recognizable by his crown which was shaped as an eagle carrying a pearl in its beak, stading over a mounted enemy. The upper register seems to have represented a bearded king seated on a throne and flanked by attendants. He is identified as Adur Narse (who ruled for a few months in 309 CE), son of Hormizd II who is shown in the lower register. Hormozd was the son and successor of Narse. Here he is represented on horseback, charging with the family insignia of Papak, the governor (bidakhsh) of Georgia. Behind the king his standard bearer carries a banner consisting of a lance topped by a horizontal bar adorned with two highly decorated tassel-like globes and three strips of fabric waving in the wind.

Connection with the Biblical Narrative

circa 550-400 CE

All four Persian kings thought to have been buried at the Naqsh Rostam necropolis are believed to have been mentioned in the biblical text.

First mention of a king named Darius (Darius the Mede) is found in Ezra 4, usually identified with Darius I, Darius the Great. The passage describes the opposition and hardship faced by the Jews when they tried to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The opposition worked to “frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia (Ezra 4:4-5). A number of other passages mention the name Darius as well without any other identification; and as such king Darius II has also been linked with some of the events in the Bible.

Artaxerxes I is supposedly described in the Bible (Ezra 7) as having commissioned Ezra, a kohen and scribe, by means of a letter of decree to take charge of the ecclesiastical and civil affairs of the Jewish nation.

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