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.
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 and 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.
Persepolis, a Greek toponym meaning “city of the Persians”, was known to the Persians as Parsa. It was a monument complex of structures built to the commands of the great Achaemenid kings between about 518 and about 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 that he made it secure and adequate.
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.
The function of Persepolis remains somewhat unclear. Most archaeologists suggest that the site had a sacred connection to the god Mithra (Mehr) and that it was mainly used for celebrating 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 great 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.