Darius the great decided that the necropolis of the Achamenid king had to lie a few miles from Persepolis, and he chose the cliff site of Naqsh-e Rostam (also Naqsh-i Rustam) where some old Elamite works already stood as the home of the large tombs hewn out of the vertical rock face. Instead of creating a mausoleum in the form of a house like that of Cyrus II at the ancient site of Pasargadae, here the architectural formula was totally changed with the realization of colossal tombs cut directly out of the mountain face and visible from a great distance.
History of Naqsh-e Rostam
At Naqsh-e Rostam there is a tall natural rock wall, a barrier that delimits the landscape for hundreds of feet. In this grandiose site, in re-establishing a link with the tradition of rock-cut tombs — such as the Median sepulcher at Kiz Kapan with its embedded columns and capitals with ‘Ionic’ volutes, imitating a palace and decorated with a bas-relief representing the Zoroastrian fire ritual — the Achaemenid kings ordered the creation of amazing sculpted façades whose cross shape stands out in the recesses of the rock. There are three registers. The center is occupied by a transverse rectangular element that reproduces the façade of a palace: four embedded columns, whose capitals consist of double headed bulls, crown a single entrance way. The lintel of this latter is surmounted by an Egyptian cyma, while the upper part is topped by a stone “rolling shutter” that is half lowered. Separated by denticulate frieze, the upper part has a large square bas-relief, the lower section of which has 28 bearers — the symbol of the nations under Persian dominion — lined up on two levels like atlases to support the king’s official litter. Above, the king, in an erect position, holds the emblematic arch and makes a ritual sacrifice in front of a fire altar below the image of Faravahar, which emerges in the middle of the sun disk supported by vulture or eagle wings. As regards the lower part, the base of the sculpted motif, the Persian sculptors who executed the hollow and smoothed the wall left it bare, like a silent beach, opposite the tomb.
Such is the appearance of the exterior of these rock-hewn tombs, which are no less than 72.1 ft (22 m) in height and are situated well above ground level in order to prevent violation. In the interior, once past the door, which is set at a high level, without any other possible access except for removable ladders, visitors will note a straight inside corridor that runs parallel to the façade and leads to three chambers large enough to house several sarcophaguses intended for the king and his family.
The first tomb of this kind, made for Darius the great (522-468 BC), is situated in the middle of the rock face. To the left, with the same shape and size, are the tombs of Xerxes (486-465 BC) and Artaxerxes I (465-424 BC), while to the right is the tomb of Darius II (423-404 BC)
Kaaba-i Zartusht at Neqsh-e Rostam
At the left-hand end of the Naqsh-e Rostam cliff there is a square tower 22.9 ft (7 m) per side and 36 ft (11 m) high, which Muslims call Ka’aba-i Zartusht, or Ka’aba of Zoroaster. This construction has elegant limestone masonry that makes use of the subtle alternation of pits and hollows that lend rhythm to the walls, on which the false stone windows create strong contrasts.
The opinions of specialists concerning the function of this edifice, which is entered by a jutting stairway that leads to a door halfway up the structure, are not unanimous. Some consider it a fire altar, others a “library that housed the texts of the Avesta” (the sacred scripture of the Zoroastrians), and yet others a temporary tomb which holds the body until the proper tomb gets ready. It should be said that in Pasargadae an analogous edifice already existed, built with identical construction techniques but in this latter case the role of the structure is still wrapped in mystery.
To conclude this discussion of royal tombs, it must be pointed out that the last Achaemenid kings Artaxerxcs II (404-358 BC) and Artaxcrxcs III (358-338 BC) decided to build their tombs directly above the palaces of Persepolis, in the rock face of the mountain known as Kuh-i Rahmat, while the tomb of Darius III (335-330), who Alexander the Great defeated, was never finished.
Sassanian Bas-reliefs of Naqsh-e Rostam
The Sassaninans who considered themselves to be worthy successors to the Achaemenids, revived the art of rock carvings to immortalize the most important events in their history.
Almost eight centuries later than Naqsh-e Rostam was founded, Sassanian monarchs Ardeshir I and his son Shapur I, commissioned rock panels consecrated to their glory; they revived the Achaemenid principle and had their works executed in prestigious localities. Thus, on the cliff face of Naqsh-e Rustam, at the foot of the grand Achaemenid tomb of Darius, Xerxes, Artazerxes I, and Darius II, Sassanians created Bas-reliefs showing their investiture or triumphal scenes.
Investiture of Ardashir I
Ardeshir I who initiated the principle of the political continuity between the Achaemenids and Sassanians, had already glorified his victory over the Arsacid (Parthian) king Artabanus V with huge rock-cut ‘Fresco’ at Firuz Abad that depicts an animated battle scene.
Again, on the bas-relief of Naqsh-e Rustam we find Ardeshir I, this time in an investiture scene on horseback. Ahoura Mazda (Zoroastrian God) also mounted and shown the same size as the king, is giving him the ring of power “Deihim” . The two figures on horseback are trampling the corpses of their respective enemies: on one side is Artabanus V, the vanquished Parthian king, and on the other side is Ahriman, the spirit of Evil.
The scene of Valerian’s capture
Also to be found at Naqsh-e Rustam here Shapur I (241-272 AD) is also subduing the Roman emperor Philip the Arab, who is kneeling, while Valerian, who is standing, holds out his arms as a sign of surrender. These two major victories of the Sassanians epitomize the bitter war between the Persians and Roman-Byzantines, which lasted for several centuries.
The investiture scene of Narseh (c. 293-303)
In this relief, the king is shown as receiving the ring of royal power (Diadem) from a female figure that is supposed to be a divinity – Goddess of water Anahita.
However, the king is not shown in a way that would be expected at the presence of a divinity, and this led scholars to doubt the original theory and a new research suggested that the female figure can be a Queen, perhaps Queen Shapurdokhtak.
Darius Inscription at Naqsh-e Rostam
An inscription related to Darius the great, referred to as the “DNa inscription” (Darius Naqsh-e Rostam inscription a) appears on the top corner of his rocky tomb. In this inscription Darius mentions his victories and his several great achievements of his lifetime. Its exact date is still unknown, but it is supposed to be from the last decade of his reign. Like several other inscriptions by Darius, the territories dominated by the Achaemenid Empire are clearly named and listed, in particular the areas of the Indus and Gandhara in India, referring to the Achaemenid occupation of the Indus Valley.
Lycian Tombs & Naqsh-e Rostam
Possible links: The rock-cut tombs at the site of Kaunos, in Caria, Turkey are hewn out of the cliff that borders the estuary of the Calbis River. The sepulchers were built during the Achaemenid epoch after the destruction of the city, which took place in 546 BC, at the time of the Persian conquest.
It is no easy task to determine whether there is any relationship between the Persian rock-cut tombs of Naqsh-e Rostam and those in the provinces of Lycia and Caria, in southwest Anatolia. And should we be tempted to state there was such a relationship, would we be able to say how this influence came about? The territory of Lycia, situated among steep hills and rugged coastlines, was a wild country for a long period, hostile to Greek penetration. Like its neighbor Caria, it became part of the Persian Empire in the mid-6th century BC. Characterized by wooden residential areas, this region bears few traces of urbanization. Among these are some of the large rock-cut tombs in the cliff at Myra (Demre) or at Telmessos (Fethiye), for example, which date back to the beginning of the Persian epoch, especially the 5th century BC. However, the lack of precise data makes the archaeologists’ dating estimations rather vague in this regard.
Later on, around the 4th century BC, the forms of the sculpted façades in the rock face at Antiphellos or Kaunos, which were modeled after the Ionic Greek temple, introduced easily recognizable similarities. At Myra, a bas-relief carved in the live rock depicts a banquet scene: the servants are taking libations to the bier where the deceased lies. In a style that might be dated to the 4th Century, the reference to the banquet underscores the ubiquity of this motif.
These Lycian rock-cut tombs in the cliff of Telmessos were either modeled on the facades of the local wooden houses or imitated classical Greek temples.
The cliff that dominates the site of Myra (Demre) is literally perforated by tombs that look like 5th-century BC houses with a wooden framework. Could this rock art be related to the Persian tombs?
Nations under control of Achaemenids
The nationalities mentioned in the DNa inscription are also depicted on the upper registers of all the tombs at Naqsh-e Rustam, starting with the tomb of Darius I. The ethnicities on the tomb of Darius further have tri-lingual labels over them for identification, collectively known as the DNa inscription. One of the best preserved friezes is that of Xerxes I.
The nationalities of the Satrapies depicted on the top panels of the tombs and also mentioned in Darius inscription , from left to right: Makan, Persian, Median, Elamite, Parthian, Arian Bactrian, Sogdian, Choresmian, Zarangian, Arachosian, Sattagydian, Gandharan, Hindush (Indian), Saka (haumavarga), Saka(tigraxauda), Babylonian, Assyrian, Arab, Egyptian, Armenian, Cappadocian, Lydian, Ionian, Saka beyond the sea, Skudrian (Thracian), Macedonian, Libyan, Nubian, Carian.