August 20, 2017

Naqsh-e Rustam, the Final Abode of Persia’s Great Kings



A short distance from the Achaemenid capital of Persepolis (Parsa) lies Naqsh-e Rustam, meaning “picture of Rustam.” This name was given to the site because locals thought that some of the Sassanian bas-reliefs (which we’ll get to later) depicted the mythical Persian hero Rustam. In reality, this site contained the remains and depicted the deeds of several very real and powerful Persian monarchs, both of the Achaemenid and Sassanian dynasties.




Though not Achaemenid nor Sassanian, the earliest carvings (though now barely visible) into the side of this mountain actually date back to 1000 BCE and were probably of Elamite origin. However, what is left of these carvings are clearly surpassed by the four tombs of the Great Achaemenid Kings and Sassanian bas-relief billboards depicting their great victories and other deeds.

The Achaemenid Tombs of Naqsh-e Rustam

The four toms of the Achaemenid Kings Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I (the Great) and Xerxes I.

There are four tombs of Achaemenid kings carved into the side of the cliff at Naqsh-e Rustam. The first one starting from the left is believed to be that of Darius II and the second one of Artaxerxes I. The third and grandest of all four is that of Darius I, also known as Darius the Great. The final tomb to right of Darius’ is that of his son, King Xerxes who is also mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible.

The carving of these tombs into this cliff are both fascinating and a bit mysterious. For example, the cross shape of all four of them is not exactly clear. Some scholars believe that this was to represent the four corners of the world in which the Persian empire had expanded into.

Persian Achaemenian King standing in front of a fire altar and Fravahar, standing atop the world.

Each tomb has the respective King of Kings (Shahenshah) standing in front of a fire altar with a Fravahar flying above. Opinions of the exact meaning of this symbol has put many scholars into a tizzy. Some believe that this winged object is a representation of Ahuramazda (also spelled Ahura Mazda), the uncreated God of the Persians and Zoroastrians. Others claim that it represents some sort of guardian spirit. Whoever or whatever the Fravahar represents, each ruler stands below it on a platform that is supported by the ruled, i.e. the subject nations of the empire.

Kaba-e Zartosht

Ka’ba Zathosht

In front of the tombs is a partly submerged cubic building known as Kaba-e Zartosht, meaning “Zarathustra’s” or “Zoroaster’s shrine.” Zarathustra, called Zartosht locally and Zoroaster by the Greeks, was an Iranian Prophet who preached the doctrine that became known in the West as Zoroastrianism. He taught that the universe was created by the One, All-Powerful God, Ahura Mazda, and that it was mankind’s duty to fight against the forces of evil represent by Ahriman, more or less the equivalent of the Devil in the Abrahamic faiths. Zoroastrianism is believed to be the first monotheistic religion and according to a multitude of historians and theologians is the source of many western religious concepts including the belief in Heaven and Hell, a Day of Judgement, the Resurrection at the end of time and the concept of a savior or messiah. Anyway, this 12-meter, single-storied, windowless building has been somewhat of an enigma. At first locals thought that it was some sort of temple but as the ancient Persians worshipped almost always using fire and that the building is without and vents or evidence of ashes, this theory must be ruled out. The other plausible explanation for this lone structure is that it could have been a treasury or some sort of weapons depot. It is also possible that it was where the bodies of the kings were embalmed before burial. My guess would be that perhaps it was used to store supplies for soldiers guarding the tombs. After all, if the Achaemenian Kings had their elite bodyguards, the 10,000 Immortals, protecting them while they were alive, surely they could spare a few of them to guard over them after their death.

At the bottom of the building’s staircase is a Pahlavi-language inscription from the Sassanian era and commissioned by the Zoroastrian high priest Kartir. In the text, Kartir extols the victories of the great Sassanian King Shapur I. He also seems to mention himself rather frequently, claiming to be responsible for consecrating numerous fire temples in what is now Turkey and the Caucasus countries of Georgia and Armenia. 1 You can more or less read Kartir’s full text of his bragging at the incredible Zoroastrian web site avesta.org.

It is quite clear that the monarchs of the Sassanian dynasty held the Achaemenians in high esteem, even claiming to be their direct descendants. Thus, it would only seem natural then that they would create timeless effigies of themselves carved into the very mountainside where some of these great kings were laid to rest. This brings us to…

Sassanian Rock Carvings at Naqsh-e Rustam

It is obvious that the Sassanians wanted to be closely associated with their Achaemenid forbearers and perhaps even wanted to outdo them. There are no less than seven grand Sassanian-era bas-reliefs carved into the side of the mountain at Naqsh-e Rustam. In order from left to right we have:

1.) Ardeshir I
Ardeshir I

Ardeshir I was the founder of the Sassanian dynasty that ruled Iran for over 400 years until the Arab conquest. He is depicted holding barsom rods (used for kindling holy Zoroastrian fires) and seemingly seeking counsel with various attendents. In order to become the King of Iran, Ardeshir had to overthrow his overlord, the Parthian King Artabanus V of Parthia. He actually admits to doing this in this inscription but justifies his actions as being divinely ordained by Ahura Mazda. Go figure.

He is seen in this bas-relief being passed a ring by another figure who some believe is either a high priest, another King (Achaemenid, perhaps?), the Persian god of contracts, Mithra, or even Ahura Mazda, though the later is highly unlikely; Ahura Mazda was (and is) generally represented with fire and not in human form. Perhaps the mystery man is the Prophet Zarathustra, as Ardeshir I and his descendants were known to be devout Zoroastrians. No one really knows for sure. This particular bas-relief has been dated to the year 240.

2.) Bahram II

The next Sassanian bas-relief shows King Bahram II in what appears to be some jousting competition or battle on horseback with a Roman soldier. Bahram II was not the most powerful of Sassanian monarchs as he lost Armenia and parts of Mesopotamia to the Romans. For some reason Bahram decided to have his stone mural carved over an earlier Elamite one that was at that time already at least 1200 years old.

3.) Unidentified King Jousting

The third Sassanian super-relief shows another jousting scene, though just who are the participants remains unclear.

4.) Bahram V

The next scene depicts another battle on horseback, this time with King Bahram V doing some damage to his opponent by knocking him off his horse.

5.) Shapur I and the Roman Emperor Valerian
Depiction of Sassanian Emperor Shapur I with the Roman Emperor Valerian in chains

Of all of the Sassanian bas-reliefs at Naqsh-e Rustam, this one is probably the most famous. Carved under the tomb of Darius the Great, this massive carving depicts the Sassanian King Shapur and a very special prisoner, the Roman emperor Valerian. Kneeling beside Valerian is a minor King said to be Philip the Arab. Valerian is standing in chains while Philip is kneeling before Shapur in a pitiful plea for mercy. The Zoroastrian high priest Kartir is also seen in the background as if to be approving Shapur’s actions.

6.) Hormuzd II / Bahman II

The next bas-relief depicts another king, most likely Hormuzd II or Bahram II fighting on horseback.

7.) Shah Narseh

The final rock relief is a depiction of Shapur’s son and future king, Narseh. He is accompanied by the goddess Anahita and two other attendents. Shah Narseh is an interesting character in Sassanian history as unlike many Sassanian kings, he was relatively tolerant of other religions being practiced throughout his empire (more on him to come) 2

Ah, those megalomanic Sassanians. Actually I’m kidding. I wouldn’t be writing and you wouldn’t be reading about these historical treasures were they not interesting.

Nearby on the top of the hill are two old fire altars from the Achaemenian era.

Achaemenian fire altars; photo courtesy of waa.ox.ac.uk

More Information about Naqsh-e Rustam:

More great information about Naqsh-e Rustam can be found at the following sites:

Heritage Institute article about Naqsh-e Rustam

Livius.org: Naqš-i Rustam

Abandoned Journey: Naqsh-i Rustam

A review of Sassanid Images and Inscriptions


Go to the main page