Naqsh-e Rostam

The spectacular rock tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam are situated about 6 km northwest of Persepolis in the southern part of Iran. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in Iran and contains monuments of the Elamite, Achaemenid and Sasanian dynasties carved into the rock. The site features four burial tombs of Achaemenid kings believed to be those of Darius I, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II (Ochus), as well as eight Sasanian reliefs depicting vivid scenes of imperial conquests and royal ceremonies. It also features an Achaemenid stone structure whose original purpose has been discussed for several decades. The Persian name Naqsh-e Rostam, meaning “Pictures of Rostam”, refers to the Sasanian reliefs on the cliff which were thought to represent the mythical Iranian hero Rostam.

Coordinates: 29° 59′ 20″ N, 52° 52′ 29″ E

Naqsh-e Rostam was the necropolis of the Achaemenid dynasty where monumental royal tombs were cut out of the native rock at a considerable height above the ground. Similar to those at Persepolis, the tombs are characterized by their rock-cut façades and simple sepulchral chambers where the king was buried together with his relatives. The oldest tomb has an inscription (known as DNa) that explicitly assigns it to Darius the Great (c. 522-486 BC). The other three tombs are attributed to Xerxes (c. 486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (c. 465-424 BC) and Darius II (c. 423-404 BC). A fifth unfinished tomb might belong to Artaxerxes III or Darius III (c. 336-330 BC), the last king of the Achaemenid Dynasts. The tombs were looted following the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great.

I am Darius the great king, king of kings, king of countries containing all kinds of men, king in this great earth far and wide, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid, a Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, having Aryan lineage.

All Achaemenid tombs have similar features. They were carved in the shape of a cross with an access to a small chamber in their center. The upper register of the façade is showing the king standing on a three-stepped platform in front of a blazing fire altar, praying to the supreme god Ahuramazda whose winged symbol floats above. He is being carried on the shoulders of twenty-eight representatives of different subject nations.

The nationalities mentioned in the DNa inscription are also depicted on the upper registers of all the tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam. One of the best preserved is that of Xerxes I.
A.Davey [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The middle register, which gives access to the burial chamber, is adorned with four engaged columns with bull protome capitals, an imitation of the façade of a palace (perhaps the residential palace of Darius at Persepolis). The lower register remained undecorated.

The other important Achaemenid monument at Naqsh-e Rostam is the enigmatic tower called Kaʿba-ye Zardošt (‘Cube of Zoroaster’) situated opposite Darius II’s tomb. It is a rectangular-shaped stone structure, built of white limestone blocks. It stands 12.60 metre-high on a three-tiered platform with a thirty-stair stairway leading to a single chamber. Controversy over the function of the building still exists. Some archaeologists consider the tower a religious edifice, perhaps a fire temple used for igniting and worshipping the holy fire, while others reject this view and think that it may have served as a provisional royal tomb until the permanent tombs were finished or else a treasure house and a place for keeping sacred texts. The monument was later used by the Sasanian king Shapur I (AD 240-270) to record the accounts of his victories over the Romans (transcription of full text with English translation here).

Plan of the site. Achaemenid tomb facades are numbered in Roman numerals.
Sasanian reliefs are numbered r-8. (Courtesy U. Seidl)

The Sasanian rock reliefs, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, depict the investiture of Ardashir I, the victories of Shapur I, three scenes of Wahram II, the investiture of Naresh and a relief of Hormizd II. The Sasanians also built a large mud-brick fortification wall that runs around the major part of the sculptured cliff, with seven semicircular towers strengthening the structure. It is not clear whether the Sassanids had exact information about Achaemenians, but the fact that they carved reliefs next to the royal tombs of their Achaemenian peers showed a cultural and political strategy for imitating the past.

The only surviving monument from the Elamite period is a relief that was mostly obliterated when the Sasanian rock relief of Bahram II was carved over it. The remnants of the scene show an attendant standing behind two seated deities, faced presumably by a standing worshiper, and a head with a mural crown. Only the attendant at the right is preserved in its major features. The Elamite carving is believed to have been carved in two periods, the first one in the early first millennium BC, the other in about 700 BC.

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The Tomb of Darius I (right) and Artaxerxes I (left) and four Sasanian rock reliefs.
Sasanian rock reliefs from right to left:
Equestrian Relief of Bahram II – Relief of Shapur I – Relief of Hormizd II – Relief of Shapur II (damaged)
The Tomb of Darius the Great and the Double Equestrian Relief of Bahram II.
The upper register of the Tomb of Darius the Great showing the king praying to the supreme god Ahuramazda. An inscription in the top-left corner, known as DNa, mentions the conquests of Darius the Great and his various achievements during his life. Like several other inscriptions by Darius, it names the territories controlled by the Achaemenid Empire.
The Double Equestrian Relief of Bahram II (AD 276-293), located immediately below the tomb of Darius I the Great. In the upper register, the king appears to be throwing an enemy from his horse. In the lower register, the king is again battling a mounted enemy. Both reliefs depict a dead enemy under the hooves of the king’s horse.
This is the most famous of the Sassanid rock reliefs from Naqš-e Rustam. It depicts the victory of Shapur I over two Roman emperors, Valerian and Philip the Arab.
Shapur is represented on horseback wearing royal armour and a crown. His rule was marked by military and political accomplishments in the Caucasus, against the Kushan Empire in the east, and two wars with the Roman Empire.
Philip the Arab kneeling in front of the king’s horse., asking for grace.
The Achaemenid tomb III, attributed to Artaxerxes I (r. 465-424 BC). Like the other tombs, Tomb II is almost an exact copy of the final resting place of Darius the Great. The Sasanian relief below Tomb II commemorates an equestrian victory by king Hormizd II (r. AD 303-309). Immediately above the relief and below the tomb is a badly damaged relief of what appears to be Shapur II (c. AD 309–379) accompanied by courtiers.
The equestrian relief of Hormizd II. It depicts Hormizd forcing an enemy (perhaps Papak of Armenia) from his horse.
The Achaemenid tomb IV is attributed to Darius II Nothus (r. 423-404 BC). The Sasanian relief below is commemorating an equestrian victory by king Bahram II (r. AD 276-293).
Sasanian relief depicting king Bahram II battling a mounted Roman enemy. The enemy wears a Roman helmet and may represent the emperor Carus.
View of the Tomb of Darius I (right), Artaxerxes I (middle) and Darius II Nothus (left) and the five Sasanian rock carvings.
The Achaemenid tomb II attibuted to Xerxes, 486-465 BC. The upper register is identical to the relief of Darius’ tomb. As of 2019, conservation and restoration work is being carried out. The tomb has been exposed to wind and particles blowing with the wind, climate change, and other natural erosion.
The Sasanian relief depicting the investiture of Narseh, the seventh king of the Sasanian Empire (c. AD 293–303). Narseh was the youngest son of Shapur I. He had served as ruler of the eastern provinces (Sakastan, Sindh and Turan) and held the title of “Great King of Armenia” before becoming shah.
In this relief, the king is depicted as receiving the ring of kingship from a female figure that is frequently assumed to be the divinity Aredvi Sura Anahita. However, the king is not depicted in a pose that would be expected in the presence of a divinity, and it is hence likely that the woman is a relative, perhaps Queen Shapurdukhtak of Sakastan.
View of the Ka’bah-e Zardusht tower and the Achaemenid tomb I attributed to Darius II Nothus.
The Ka’bah-e Zardusht tower may have been used as a fire temple, a provisional royal tomb or a treasure house for keeping sacred texts.
Sasanian relief depicting the investiture of Ardashir I (r. AD 224-241), the founder of the Sassanid Empire. Ardashir I is seen receiving the ring of power by Ahuramazda, the creator and highest deity of Zoroastrianism. Both men are seated on horses and are crushing defeated enemies: king Artabanus under Ardašir’s horse and the devil Ahriman under Ahuramazda’s one.
Irina Mavritsina / Alamy Stock Photo
The “Grandee” relief of king Bahram II (276-293). On each side of the king, who is depicted with an oversized sword, figures face the king. On the left stand five figures, perhaps members of the king’s family. This relief was cut into the rock over an older, Elamite relief (8th century BC). A small figure with a remarkable cap is still visible on the right side of the relief.
Westend61 GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

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Susa

Susa was among the greatest cities of ancient Persia and its remains bear exceptional testimony to successive ancient civilisations (Elamite, Persian, Parthian and Sasanian). Located in the southwest of Iran, at the foot of the Zagros Mountains between the Karkheh and Dez Rivers, Susa was the chief city of Elam (Susiana) and one of the capitals of the Achaemenid empire. The research carried out on the site has uncovered evidence of continual habitation from the late 5th millennium BC until the 13th century AD and has yielded a wealth of archaeological and epigraphic material. Susa was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2015.

Coordinates: 32° 11′ 26″ N, 48° 15′ 28″ E

Susa began as a farming village in the Neolithic Age c. 7000 BC and developed into an urban centre as early as the late 5th millennium BC. Soon after its foundation, the inhabitants erected a monumental mud-brick platform that rose over the flat surrounding landscape. On top of this platform, a temple was erected of which only some wall fragments had survived. The temple was most likely dedicated to the god Inshushinak, the patron deity of Susa. Susa’s earliest settlement is known as Susa I period (c. 4200–3900 BC) and developed around the Acropolis.

Susa in the 5th millennium BC.
Susa in the 5th millennium BC.

Around 4000 BC, the monumental stepped platform was probably burned, and was then used  as a cemetery. Around two thousand individuals were found in burial pits, cut into the mud brick platform. The cemetery has yielded nearly two thousand finely crafted pottery finds that were used as funerary gifts.

Painted pottery beakers from Susa I period, 4300-4000 BC, from the acropolis mound.
National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

Susa quickly became a commercial, administrative and political hub that enjoyed different cultural influences thanks to its strategic position along ancient trade routes. It came within the Uruk cultural sphere and was integrated into the early Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia. This period, extending from 3500 to about 3100 BC, is known as Susa II. It is marked by an accounting system that preceded the slightly later appearance of writing (proto-writing, cylinder seals).

New developments took place during the Susa III period (also known as the ‘Proto-Elamite’ period), which extended from about 3100 to 2700 BC. This period is marked by high artistic creativity and a system of true writing used to record commodity transactions (Proto-Elamite script). During this time, Susa became the capital of the region of Susiana (which occupied approximately the same territory of modern Khūzestān) and the centre of Elam civilization.

Proto-Elamite kneeling bull holding a spouted vessel,ca. 3100–2900 BC.
Public Domain – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Susa lost its independence sometime between 2400 and 2200 BC, and its control shifted between Elam, Sumer, and Akkad. It was incorporated by Sargon the Great into his Akkadian Empire in approximately 2330 BC and became the capital of an Akkadian province until ca. 2100 BC when Puzur-Inshushinak overthrew the Mesopotamians. Puzur-Inshushinak made himself king of Elam and started to build extensively on the citadel at Susa. However, his attempt at imperial expansion was short-lived for Susa was overrun by the Neo-Sumerian kings of Ur.

Statue of the goddess Narundi with Elamite and Akkadian inscriptions. Dedicated by Puzur-Inshushinak in a temple on the Acropolis of Susa, ca. 2100 BC. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

During the Middle Elamite Period (1500 BC), Susa prospered again and flourished not only as a capital but as a centre of commerce. A new religious complex, including a ziggurat (or stepped temple tower), was built by King Untash-Napirisha at Chogha Zanbil, 30 km south-east of Susa. Under the Shutrukid dynasty in the last centuries of the second millennium BC, the structures on the Acropolis were rebuilt, replacing mud brick with baked inscribed and glazed bricks. A high temple was dedicated to Inshushinak, the great god of the Susian Plain.

Fragments of decoration from the Temple of Inshushinak depicting a bull-man and palm tree, from Susa, around 1150 BC. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Around 1175 BC, the Elamites under Shutruk-Nahhunte invaded Mesopotamia, sacked the cities of Sippar and Babylon, and plundered the original stele bearing the Code of Hammurabi and carried it to Susa. It was found in 1901 by Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier, a member of an expedition headed by Jacques de Morgan. At the end of the 12th century BC, Susa was destroyed by Babylonian armies, and the Elamite civilisation sank into almost total obscurity, a decline that lasted until the 8th century BC (Neo-Elamite period).

In 646 BC, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, seeking retribution against the Elamites for their support of his Babylonian enemy, launched his army against Susa and destroyed the city. This defeat marked the dissolution of the Elamite civilisation.

Ashurbanipal’s campaign against Susa is triumphantly recorded in this relief showing the sack of Susa. Here, flames rise from the city as Assyrian soldiers topple it with pickaxes and crowbars and carry off the spoils. British Museum.

Susa regained prominence in 521 BC when Darius I chose Susa as one of his royal residences. He remodelled the city’s urban centre by constructing a palace complex occupying the northern mound of Susa. The palace, which consisted of the Apadana and the Residence, occupied 5 hectares on a 12-hectare artificial platform. It was accessed from a monumental gate (Gate of Darius), reminiscent of the Gate of All the Nations at Persepolis. The passage through this gate toward the palace was flanked by a statue of Darius dressed in the Persian robe but in an Egyptian posture. The folds of the dress carry an inscription (known as DSab) in the three cuneiform languages of the empire (Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian) and in hieroglyphics: “Here is the stone statue which Darius ordered to be made in Egypt, so that he who sees it in the future will know that the Persian holds Egypt”.

Headless inscribed Egyptian statue of Darius I, discovered in 1972 in Susa, ca. 522-486 BC. Originally made to be set up in Egypt, it was found on the west side of the Gate of Darius. National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

The construction of the palace was carried out at the same time that Darius built Persepolis, as well as the Royal Road running from Susa to Sardis in Anatolia. Construction works at Susa continued under Darius I’s son, Xerxes. A century later, Artaxerxes II (404–358 BC) partially restored the palace which had burned under Artaxerxes I fifty years earlier.

This palace which I built at Susa, from afar its ornamentation was brought. Downward the earth was dug, until I reached rock in the earth. When the excavation had been made, then rubble was packed down, some 40 cubits in depth, another (part) 20 cubits in depth. On that rubble the palace was constructed.  Darius I, DSf inscription

The palace survived the city’s fall to Alexander the Great in 331 BC, and indeed Alexander married the eldest daughter of Darius III at Susa and forced his companions to marry native women. Susa retained its importance under Alexander’ successors. The Seleucids later installed a garrison and Susa became a Greek city called Seleucia on the Eulaios. Susa lost its rank of imperial capital and later became a Parthian provincial capital (247 BC-AD 224).

The weddings at Susa, Alexander to Stateira and Hephaistion to Drypetis (late 19th century engraving).

Devastated by fire during battles between the last of the Sasanians, Susa next developed into a Sasanian royal residence and became a focal point for the Christian community. Susa was then sacked by the Sasanian king Shapur II (r. AD 309-379) who dispersed the population. The city revived, however, and was again prosperous when it was sacked and destroyed by the Arabs in 638 AD. The Arab forces are said to have discovered a coffin during the invasion which was believed to contain the bones of Daniel the Prophet. The tomb of Daniel can still be visited in modern-day Shush. Susa then declined, and from the beginning of the 13th century deteriorated into no more than a series of crumbling ruins.

The site now consists of three gigantic mounds, occupying an area of about one square kilometre, known as the Apadana mound, the Acropolis mound, and the Ville Royale (royal town) mound. There is also a small palace (the “Shahur palace”) outside the walls on the west near the Shahur river. Another building, the so-called Donjon, at the far southern extremity of the city, is of uncertain date. Much of what can be seen today at the site dates back to the time of Darius’ reign.

The mound of Susa during excavation. Jules-Georges Bondoux (1866-1919), Les fouilles de Suse, 1905. Oil on canvas. Paris, Musee du Loure.

Susa was identified by British archaeologist W.K. Loftus, who opened the first trial trenches in 1854 on the Acropole, Apadana, and Ville Royale mounds. The famous French archaeologists, Marcel and Jane Dieulafoy, began systematic excavations in 18856, and in 1897 Jacques de Morgan headed the first of the annual winter excavations, conducted by the French Archaeological Mission. Roman Ghirshman took charge of the Mission Archéologique in 1946, after the end of the war. Together with his wife Tania Ghirshman, he continued there until 1967. During the 1970s, excavations resumed under Jean Perrot. The finds, including a complete series of glazed brick reliefs, were brought back to France and are now filling various halls in the Louvre in Paris.

The small museum set in a garden contains many objects found at Susa and elsewhere in Khuzestan.

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The foundations of the Palace of Darius the Great. It was built on a 12-hectare artificial platform founded on the older remains of part of the Elamite city.
The residential palace occupied 3.8 hectares across a vast esplanade. It was organised around three courtyards and surrounding rooms and was modelled after earlier Assyrian and Babylonian palaces. The eastern courtyard carried on its northern face a lion frieze in enameled brick (now in the Louvre).
The Frieze of Lions, a decorative glazed-brick frieze from the first court of Darius I’s palace. It is one of the rare decorative features of Darius’s palace to have been found more or less in its original place, at the foot of the north wall of the East Court. Musée du Louvre.
The Frieze of Archers, a decorative glazed-brick frieze from the Darius I’s palace. The frieze was probably inspired by the brick friezes of Babylon, although the technique is different. Its exact original location is unknown. Musée du Louvre.
The East Court was the biggest courtyard in Darius’ Palace. It measured 64.50 by 56 m and gave onto long rooms on all four sides. Along the wall to the north, a row of eight stone foundations with a circular cavity have been interpreted as holes for shafts or pylons.
The northern part of the King’s Apartment.
The entire Palace seen from an artist’s perspective
Archives de la Maison Archéologie & Ethnologie, René-Ginouvès, JP_V03_37
© Mission de Suse. Délégation archéologique française en Iran / Daniel Ladiray.
The West Court lying in front of the King’s Apartment, on the south side.
Frieze of Griffins from the west courtyard of the palace. The griffin has a lion’s head, the ears of a bull, a roaring mouth and two curved goat horns, one pointing forward and the other backward. It has the body of a bull, the forelegs of a lion and hindlegs like the legs of an eagle. Musée du Louvre.
The Apadana was also the work of Darius but was rebuilt by Artaxerxes II. It was a large hypostyle room of 36 columns. It is very similar to that of Persepolis in plan and dimensions.

My ancestor Darius [I the Great] made this audience hall [apadana], but during the reign of my grandfather Artaxerxes, it was burnt down; but, by the grace of Ahuramazda, Anahita, and Mithra, I reconstructed this audience hall. Artaxerxes II A²Sa

The apadana was the square building measuring 109 m on each side, the central room was 58 m per side and the porticoes were 20 m deep. The columns (72 in total) stood on square bases in the central hall and on round bases in the porticoes and stood 21 metres in height.
Reconstruction drawing of the Apadana of Susa.
Image from page 327 of “History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia and Assyria” (1903)
Bell-shaped column base from the north portico of the apadana. The base with the large torus is carved from a single block. The first drum of the shaft is fixed onto the base and the listel is joined with the shaft.
Fragment of a capital with a pair of bull protomes on which a ceiling beam rested.
Detail of the neck on a protome of a bull, a register of rosettes surmounts the curly locks.
This colossal capital from one of the thirty-six monumental columns which supported the roof of the apadana was reconstructed from fragments of several columns. Musée du Louvre.
This colossal capital in the Susa Archaeological Museum is one of the 36 monumental columns which supported the roof of the Apadana. It is typical of Achaemenid art in combining elements taken from different civilizations.
The possible location of an Achaemenid throne in the apadana. Such stone platforms is seen in reliefs of Persepolis where the royal throne is located on.
The Archaeological Castle of Susa. It was constructed by French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan in the late 1890s, as a secure base for archaeological exploration and excavation. The structure was built by local craftsmen using bricks taken from the Achaemenian ruins and the Elamite Chogha Zanbil ziggurat. It is now used as a museum.
Mud-brick inscription of the Elamite period applied on the facade of the castle.
The castle exhibits material used by the French archaeologists.
The Archaeological Museum of Susa.
The Achaemenid room of the Archaeological Museum of Susa.
The Parthian room of the Archaeological Museum of Susa.
The Tomb of Daniel in Susa, the traditional burial place of the biblical prophet Daniel.

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