Naqsh-e Rostam is a site believed by archaeologists to have been a cemetery for Persepolis, where Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid royalty were laid to rest.
Located about 3-4 kilometers northwest of Persepolis in Iran’s Fars province, the site contains funerary related works belonging to the Elamite (second millennium BCE), Achaemenid (550-330 BCE) and Sassanid (226-651 CE) eras.
The only surviving monument from the pre-Achaemenid period is a relief which was almost completely obliterated when the court scene of Bahram II (276-293 CE) was carved over it.
The remnants of the scene show an attendant standing behind two deities seated on layered thrones resembling coiled snakes.
Hewn out of a cliff high above the ground are four Achaemenid tombs reputed to have belonged to Xerxes, Darius I, Artaxerxes and Darius II.
According to the Greek historian Ctesias, the tomb of Darius I was in a cliff face that could be reached only by means of an apparatus of ropes.
The tombs of the later Artaxerxes above Persepolis were modeled on those at Naqsh-e Rostam. The openings in the massive tombs lead to the funerary chambers, where bones were stored after vultures picked them clean.
The carvings of Artaxerxes’ tomb are considered unique examples of the art of stone carving which was at its peak during the reign of this monarch.
The reliefs above the openings are similar to those at Persepolis with the kings standing at the Zoroastrian fire altars supported by figures representing the subject nations below.
Facing the cliff is the cube of Zoroaster, a square tower with reinforced corners that stands on a three-stepped base. The structure is built of light-colored stone with false windows made of dark stone and the walls are marked with inscriptions cataloguing Sassanid victories.
An identical monument, Zendan-e Sulaiman, was built at Pasargadae. The purpose of these towers is not known, but it has been proposed that they were either royal tombs, depositories for objects of dynastic or religious importance, or Achaemenid fire temples although the possibility of the latter has been ruled out as there are no outlets for smoke or gases.
A 400-year period of internal and foreign conflicts between the Achaemenids and Sassanids left no room for innovation; as a result, Sassanid stone carvings are generally replicas of those found in Bishapur and Firouzabad.
The eight Sassanid stone reliefs cut into the cliff beneath the facades of the Achaemenid tombs depict scenes of imperial conquests and royal ceremonies.
The oldest relief carved near the Elamite relief depicts the appointment of Ardashir I (224-241 CE) by Ahuramazda.
Ardashir’s successor, Shapur I (241-272 CE), was the next to carve his “Victory over the Romans” on a relief standing near Darius’s tomb.
The third relief, carved over the Elamite relief, shows Bahram II (276-293 CE) with members of his family and court.
In the fourth century, and perhaps at the beginning of the fifth century, five other reliefs with jousting scenes were carved below the Achaemenid tombs.
The Naqsh-e Rostam structures have been built from white and grey Limestone without the use of mortar.
It is believed that Persians were the first to use colors to decorate stone carvings. A particularly striking feature of Naqsh-e Rostam stone carvings is the use of color; many of the site’s inscriptions and carvings are covered with Lapis lazuli.
Evidence shows that the carving of Darius had a lazuline beard and mustache, black hair and eyeliner, red eyes, lips and shoes as well as colorful robes, although the passage of time has left the colors at Naqsh-e Rostam unstable.
Currently pending approval by UNESCO for inclusion on its World Heritage list, Naqsh-e Rostam is a unique and beautiful reminder of Persia’s rich artistic history.