Situated in about 50 km northeast of Persepolis, Pasargadae was the earliest capital of the Achaemenid Empire. The city was founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC in Pars, the heartland of the Persians (today the province of Fars in southwestern Iran). Its palaces, lavish pleasure gardens, as well as the Tomb of Cyrus, constitute an outstanding example of royal Achaemenid art and architecture. Pasargadae remained the capital of the Achaemenid empire until Cyrus’ son Cambyses II moved it to Susa. The site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Coordinates: 29° 56′ 4″ N52° 53′ 29″ E

According to tradition, Cyrus the Great, the first great Persian king who reigned from 559 to 530 BC, decided to build his capital on the exact same spot where he defeated the Median army led by Astyages in 550 BC (Strabo, Geography, 15.3.8). The city was created with contributions from the different people who comprised the first great multicultural empire in Western Asia.

Pasargadae’s most famous monument is the tomb of Cyrus the Great, located approximately 1 km southwest of the palaces of Pasargadae. The monument measures about 13 x 12 metres and consists of a modest rectangular burial chamber perched on six-tiered plinths. The tomb chamber is 2m wide, 2m high, and 3m deep, and once contained a gold sarcophagus. The design inspiration is variously credited to the Elamite ziggurats of Mesopotamia, but the cella is usually attributed to the funeral monuments in Urartu.

Painting of the Tomb of Cyrus by Eugène Flandin, 1840.

The ruins of Pasargadae are much less well preserved than those of Persepolis. The ruins are dispersed over a wide area that covers 160-ha across the plain. They include a structure commonly believed to be the tomb of Cyrus, the fortress of Toll-e Takht sitting on top of a nearby hill, and the remains of two royal palaces; Audience Hall (or Palace S), Residential Palace (or Palace P) and landscaped gardens.

The ‘Residential Palace’ is usually regarded as the residence of king Cyrus the Great. It is composed of a central hall of five rows of six pillars flanked, flanked on two sides by long porticoes. ‘I am Cyrus, the Achaemenid King’ reads the cuneiform inscription on a pillar. About 250m away is the ‘Audience Hall’ which was identified by archaeologists as a reception hall surrounded by porticoes on all four sides. Unlike the palaces of Persepolis which had a square plan, both buildings at Pasargadae were oblong structures. Standing at the eastern edge of the palace vicinity is a large building which was used as an entrance hall (Gate R) that must have looked like the Gate of All Nations in Persepolis. The gate consisted of a rectangular columned hall with two opposite monumental doorways on its long axis and two side doorways on its cross axis. One of the doorways is notable for its decoration; a unique sculpture, 2.7 metres high, representing a four-winged genius wearing an Egyptian crown.

Pasargadae provides the earliest example of the Persian “Chahar Bagh”, a traditional and sophisticated form of Persian Gardens. A sophisticated irrigation system was created to bring water, and thus turn those dry lands into an earthly representation of heaven. Today, the gardens are hard to discern, but the water channels that were fed with water from the Pulvar River still run along the palaces.

About 250m north of the Cyrus’ palace are the remains of a tower, known locally as Zendan-e Soleiman (Prison of Solomon), that closely resembles Ka’ba-ye Zartosht, an Achaemenid era cube-shaped counterpart standing in the necropolis of Naqsh-e Rostam near Persepolis. The structure consists of an almost square tower standing on a plinth of three steps. A flight of twenty-nine stone steps originally led to the single chamber in the upper half of the monument. On the hill beyond is the Tall-e Takht, a monumental 6000-sq-metre citadel used from Cyrus’ time until the late Sasanian period.


The Tomb of Cyrus.
The Tomb of Cyrus. When Alexander looted and destroyed Persepolis, he paid a visit to the tomb of Cyrus.
The Tomb of Cyrus.
The entrance hall (Gate R). It was such a large building that it must have made a considerable impact upon the visitors at Pasargadae.
Located at the eastern edge of the palace precinct, the entrance hall of Pasargadae is the earliest known example of a freestanding propylaeum.
Audience Hall (Palace S) was built to serve as the principal public venue for Cyrus and his court. It consisted of a central rectangular columned hall laid out with two rows of four columns and flanking portico.
The Audience Hall (Palace S).
“I, Cyrus, the King, an Achaemenid”
The Audience Hall (Palace S).
The stone water channels of the royal garden. The gardens at Pasargadae are the first known occurrence of the fourfold garden, a rectangular garden divided by paths or waterways into four symmetrical sections.
The Residential Palace (Palace P) had a similar plan to Palace S with a central columned hall pierced by doorways in all four walls.
The Residential Palace (Palace P).
The Residential Palace (Palace P).
Zendan-e Soleiman (Prison of Solomon). Its function is still debated among scholars.
Zendan-e Soleiman.


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 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