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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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).
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.
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 1885–6, 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.
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