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.


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 Sasanian rock reliefs from Naqsh-e Rostam. 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 attributed to Artaxerxes I (r. 465-424 BC). Like the other tombs, the tomb of Artaxerxes I is almost an exact copy of the final resting place of Darius the Great. The Sasanian relief below the tomb 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 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 attributed 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



The magnificent ruins of Persepolis, or Parsa, lie at the foot of the Kuh-i-Rahmat mountain, roughly 650 kilometres south of the capital city of Tehran and 70 kilometres northeast of Shiraz in the Fars region of southwestern Iran. Founded around 518 BC by Darius I (the Great), the site served as the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. It was intended and designed to display the splendour and majesty of an empire that stretched from Greece to India. Sacked by Alexander the Great in 333 BC, the site lay hidden, covered in sand until rediscovered in 1620. Persepolis was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979.

Coordinates: 29° 56′ 4″ N, 52° 53′ 29″ E

Persepolis, a Greek toponym meaning “city of the Persians”, was known to the Persians as Parsa. It was a monumental complex of structures built by the great Achaemenid kings between 518 and 450 BC. An inscription carved on the southern façade of the Terrace wall of Persepolis and written in the three official languages of the Persian Empire – Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian – proves that Darius the Great was the founder of Persepolis. Darius states that he built this fortress upon a place where no fortress had been before and made it secure and adequate.

A general view of Persepolis.

Construction began about 518 BC, as soon as work on Susa was finished. However, according to inscribed tablets found in the Treasury of Persepolis, the tremendous task was not completed until about 100 years later by Artaxerxes I (r. 465–424 BC). Darius started to erect a massive terraced platform, covering an area of 125,000 square metres of the promontory. This platform supported four groups of structures: ceremonial palaces, residential quarters, a treasury, and fortifications. All these buildings were built of locally quarried stone, and architects and craftsmen from all over Persia’s Empire contributed to their construction.

Darius planned Persepolis as a showcase of the Empire, for it was here that ambassadors from all over the Persian world, from Ethiopia to Elam, would congregate each year to offer tribute to the king. The northern part of the Terrace represented the official section of the Persepolis complex, accessible to a restricted public with the Apadana, the Throne Hall, and the Gate of Xerxes (also known as the Gate of All Nations). The southern part held the Palaces of Darius and Xerxes, the Treasury, the Council Hall and the Harem. Darius constructed the platform, the monumental stairway, the Tripylon (or Council Hall), and his private Palace. He also carried out the first two building periods of the Treasury and began the Apadana. Xerxes completed the Apadana, built the Gate of All Nations, his Palace and his so-called Harem, and started the Throne Hall (also known as the Hall of 100 Columns). Artaxerxes I completed the Throne Hall and began work on an unfinished porch that precedes it.

Plan of Persepolis.
Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, Vol. 2, Page 376

The function of Persepolis remains somewhat unclear. Most archaeologists suggest that the site had a sacred connection to the god Mithra (Mehr) and was mainly used to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year’s festival held at the spring equinox. More general readings see Persepolis as an important administrative and economic centre of the Persian Empire.

Persepolis remained the centre of Persian power until the fall of the Persian Empire to Alexander the Great. The Macedonian conqueror captured Persepolis in 330 BC, and some months later, his troops destroyed much of the city. The lavish Palace of Xerxes was set alight with the subsequent fire burning vast swathes of the city.

The ruins were not excavated until the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago sponsored an archaeological expedition to Persepolis and its environs under the supervision of Professor Ernst Herzfeld from 1931 to 1934 and Erich F. Schmidt from 1934 to 1939.


Part of the monumental double staircase leading up to the Terrace. Each flight has 111 steps, each 40 cm deep, 10 cm high, and nearly 7 m wide. The stairs were carved from massive blocks of stone, but each step was shallow, so Persians in long elegant robes could ascend the 111 steps gracefully. The stairway was executed during the reign of Xerxes.
The east side of the Gate of All Nations, also known as the Gate of Xerxes, was protected by two massive winged bulls with human heads called lamasssus.
The Gate of All Nations was a structure which consisted of one spacious room whose roof was supported by four stone columns with bell-shaped bases. It had two large doors, probably made of wood, on the south and east of the spacious room, indicating that the gateway was designed to give access to both the Apadana and the Throne Hall.
The features of the four colossal figures were deliberately damaged by iconoclasts of the Islamic period.
The stone columns of the Gate of All Nations were 16 metres high and were topped with capitals in the form of a double bull.
Double-griffin capital, locally known as “homa birds”, is probably from the Unfinished Gate.
The Unfinished Gateway was begun by Artaxerxes I and possibly never completed. One entered a large court in front of the Throne Hall from its southern doorway. It had a central chamber with four columns and long, narrow rooms on its eastern and western sides.
The northern entrance to the Throne Hall. It had a portico with two rows of eight columns flanked by end walls with figures of colossal bulls.
The interior of the Throne Hall. The hall was 68m², and its foot was supported by ten rows of ten columns, each of which rose at 8 metres (less than half the height of the Apadana columns).
The Throne Hall had eight stone doorways decorated on the south and north with reliefs of throne scenes and on the east and west with scenes depicting the king in combat with monsters.
Throne scene relief on the southern doorway of the Hall of Hundred Columns (Throne Hall) depicting an enthroned king and attendant.
Adjacent to the Throne Hall is the Treasury, part of which served as an armoury, especially as a royal storehouse of the Achaemenian kings.
The tremendous wealth stored in the Treasury came from the booty of conquered nations and from the annual tribute sent by the peoples of the Empire to the king on the occasion of the New Year’s feast.
Two large stone reliefs were discovered in the Treasury that depicts Darius I, seated on his throne, being approached by a high dignitary whose hand is raised to his mouth in a gesture of respectful greeting. One of the reliefs is now in the National Museum of Iran.
The Apadana was the largest and most magnificent building of Persepolis, located on the western side of the platform. It was begun by Darius, finished by Xerxes, and used mainly for great receptions by the kings.
Thirteen of the Apadana seventy-two columns which supported the roof still stand. On top of the columns were capitals, consisting of two heads of strong animals like bulls or lions. Between the two heads was the place where the wooden beams could rest.
The monumental eastern stairway of the Apadana was adorned with registers of relief sculpture that depicted representatives of the twenty-three subject nations of the Persian Empire bringing valuable gifts as tribute to the king.
Relief on the northern wall of the east stairway of the Apadana depicting a procession of dignitaries.
Relief on the southern wall of the east stairway of the Apadana depicting Lydians who offer vases, cups and bracelets and a chariot drawn by horses.
Relief on the southern wall of the east stairway of the Apadana depicting Syrians who offer two beautiful rams.
Relief on the southern wall of the east stairway of the Apadana depicting an Armenian tribute bearer carrying a metal vessel with Homa (griffin) handles.
Relief on the southern wall of the east stairway of the Apadana depicting Scythians, all armed and wearing the appropriate headgear, who offer a bracelet and folded coats and trousers.
Relief on the southern wall of the east stairway of the Apadana depicting Arabians offering textiles and accompanied by a dromedary.
Relief on the southern wall of the east stairway of the Apadana depicting Ionian Greeks carrying what may be beehives and skeins of coloured wool.
A general view of Persepolis with the Hall of 100 Columns in the foreground and Apadana in the background.
The ruins of the Tripylon (or Council Hall) connected the Apadana and the Hall of Hundred Columns. The building consists of a central room and three gates decorated with reliefs.
Doorjamb of the Tripylon depicting the king with attendants.
Relief with the symbol of Ahuramazda on the southern end of the Tripylon (or Council Hall).
The Main staircase of the Tripylon (or Council Hall) in the National Museum of Iran in Tehran with reliefs depicting Persian soldiers and Persian and Median clergy bringing sacrifices and offerings.
Persian soldiers are depicted on the main staircase of the Tripylon (or Council Hall). National Museum of Iran.
The Palace of Xerxes (called Hadiš in Persian) was twice as large as the Palace of Darius and shows similar decorative features on its stone doorframes and windows. A terrace connected the two royal mansions.
The badly ruined Palace of Xerxes (the Hadish) has traces of the Alexandrian fire, which devastated the palace.
The eastern staircase of the Palace of Xerxes.
Relief of a Persian soldier.
The western staircase of the Palace of Xerxes.
Stone-carved Faravahar on the western staircase of the Palace of Xerxes.
The Palace of Darius (also known as Tachara). Twelve columns supported the roof of the central hall from which three small stairways descended. His son and successor, Xerxes, completed the Palace after his death in 486 BC.
The Palace of Darius has remained well-preserved. This strongly suggests that it was one of the few structures that escaped destruction in the burning of the complex by Alexander the Great’s army.
The southern staircase of the Palace of Darius with reliefs depicting servants coming up the steps carrying animals and food in covered dishes to be served at the king’s tables.
Relief on the southern staircase of the Palace of Darius depicting Persian soldiers.
Relief on the southern staircase of the Palace of Darius depicting a line of servants bearing food and drinks.
Lion and bull relief on the southern staircase of the Palace of Darius.
The west entrance of the Palace of Darius. Measuring 1,160 square meters (12,500 square feet), it is the smallest of the palace buildings on the Terrace at Persepolis.
View of the Palace of Darius from the Apadana.
A general view of Persepolis with the Treasury and the Harem in the foreground and the palaces of Xerxes and Darius in the background.
The Tomb of Artaxerxes II (r. 404-358) cut into the rock face of the Kuh-i Rahmat overlooking the Terrace.