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Naqsh-e Rustam: a lasting memory of a once powerful empire

Scott Antony

Located approximately 5 kilometers to the northwest of Persepolis, the capital of the ancient Persian Empire, Naqsh-e Rustam (meaning Throne of Rustam) is an ancient necropolis for four Achaemenid rulers and their families from the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. In addition to being a royal necropolis, Naqsh-e Rustam became a major center of sacrifice and celebration for the Sasanians between the third and seventh century CE.

The tombs belong to Achaemenid kings and are known locally as the ‘Persian crosses’, due to the façade of the tombs, which resembles a cross. The entrance to each tomb is at the center of each cross, which opens onto to a small chamber, where the king lay in a sarcophagus. The horizontal beam of each of the tomb’s facades is believed to be a replica of the entrance of the palace at Persepolis.

The tombs are burial chambers carved into the side of the hill rock. Photo Credit

The tombs are burial chambers carved into the side of the hill rock. Photo Credit

 

It was considered a sacred mountain range in the Elamite periods. Photo Credit

It was considered a sacred mountain range in the Elamite periods. Photo Credit

 

The tombs are locally known as the ‘Persian crosses’, after the shape of the facades of the tombs. Photo Credit

The tombs are locally known as the ‘Persian crosses’, after the shape of the facades of the tombs. Photo Credit

 

They are all at a considerable height above the ground. Photo Credit

They are all at a considerable height above the ground. Photo Credit

 

The oldest of the tombs is attributed to Darius I, and the other three to his successors on the basis of indirect stylistic evidence. Photo Credit

The oldest of the tombs is attributed to Darius I, and the other three to his successors on the basis of indirect stylistic evidence. Photo Credit

Carved side-by-side into the hill rock, the facades of the cruciform tombs resemble the living quarters of the palaces at Persepolis.

Although there are four tombs, only one of them, the oldest, can be positively identified as the tomb of Darius I the Great (c. 522-486 BC), the third ruler of the Achaemenid Empire. The facade contains inscribed text and the engraved panel that forms the top arm of the cross shaped façade contains an image of Darius standing in prayer before a fire altar.

Tomb of Darius I. Photo Credit

Tomb of Darius I. Photo Credit

 

Tomb of Darius I the Great, close view Photo Credit

Tomb of Darius I the Great, close view Photo Credit

 

From left to right, the tombs of Artaxerxes I and Darius the Great, with Sassanid-era bas-reliefs below. Photo Credit

From left to right, the tombs of Artaxerxes I and Darius the Great, with Sassanid-era bas-reliefs below. Photo Credit

 

 

Tomb of Xerxes I‎. Photo Credit

Tomb of Xerxes I‎. Photo Credit

 

Tomb of Xerxes I, detail. Photo Credit

Tomb of Xerxes I, detail. Photo Credit

 

Tomb of Xerxes I detail. Photo Credit

Tomb of Xerxes I detail. Photo Credit

 

The tombs of Darius I (left) and Artaxerxes I (middle). Photo Credit

The tombs of Darius I (left) and Artaxerxes I (middle). Photo Credit

Later, three similar royal rock tombs were added and they are believed to belong to Darius’ successors, Xerxes I (c. 486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I Makrocheir (c. 465-424 BC) and Darius II (c. 423-404 BC).

It is believed that all the tombs were looted and desecrated following the invasion of the Achaemenid empire by Alexander the Great during the 4th century BC.

Tomb of Artaxerxes I‎. Photo Credit

Tomb of Artaxerxes I‎. Photo Credit

 

Sassanid Era Bas Relief. Photo Credit

Sassanid Era Bas Relief. Photo Credit

 

Cube of Zoroaster, a cube-shaped construction in the foreground, against the backdrop of Naqsh-e Rustam. Photo Credit

Cube of Zoroaster, a cube-shaped construction in the foreground, against the backdrop of Naqsh-e Rustam. Photo Credit

 

It is square at its base, each side measuring 7.25 m. Photo Credit

It is square at its base, each side measuring 7.25 m. Photo Credit

One of the mysteries of the site is the purpose of the Kabah-i Zardusht (translated as the Cube or Enclosure of Zarathustra). It is a rectangular stone tower, mostly solid except for a small room at the top that faces the cliffside, set roughly in front of tomb number four (the westernmost Achaemenid-era tomb). Various interpretations have been proposed for its purpose – a royal treasury, a tomb, a fire temple, or even an astronomical observatory and calendar.

Read another story from us: Ibn Sina, the great Persian polymath and physician, never demanded money from his patients

Today, Naqsh-e Rustam stands as a lasting memory of a once powerful empire that ruled over a significant portion of the ancient world.