One of the most dazzling pre-Islamic attractions of Iran with a history dating back to the Elamite (2700-539 BCE), Achaemenid (550-330 BCE), and Sassanid (224-654 CE) dynasties refers to an ancient necropolis site entitled Naqsh-e Rostam. It is located six kilometers away from Takht-e Jamshid (Persepolis). It should be argued that although Rostam is a mythological character in Shah Nameh, an epic masterpiece of poet Ferdowsi, the rock-reliefs of this ancient site is not of any relation to him.
In fact, the rock reliefs in this site narrate some of the most significant events that happened during the kings of Iran and importantly, Naqsh-e Rostam is a royal necropolis of Achaemenid kings including Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I, and Xerxes I. Their tombs are carved out of the rock in large size at a significant height above the ground. Below the rock tombs of these Achaemenid kings, there are seven rock reliefs depicting large figures of Sassanian monarchs in battles or investitures.
The first rock relief depicts the coronation ceremony of Narsieh (294-304 CE), Shapur’s son, who is taking a diadem (the ring of kingship) from Anahita, the goddess of water. Narsieh was the ruler of Armenia who revolted against Bahram the Third and took sovereignty over Iran.
The second rock relief is placed below Darius the Great’s tomb. It is made of two scenes that are separated from each other with a small line but in general, they show Bahram II’s victory against his enemy. More precisely, it shows Bahram is attacking a mounted Roman enemy while forcing this enemy’s spear. There is a soldier behind Bahram in a formal dressing, who carries a flag that is assumed to be the famous Sassanid flag, about which the Roman Historian Ammianus Marcellinus articulates it is the Red Fire of the Sassanid army. The highlights of the inscription include an armor on horseback and his the quiver that both are artistically carved on the stone. In other parts of the relief, there is a Roman soldier who is trampled underfoot of Bahram’s horse.
The third rock relief of Naqsh-e Rostam narrates the victory of the Sassanian king Shapur I against three Roman emperors including Gordian (who died in the battle), Philip the Arab (who after his defeat had to give a huge booty to Shapur), and Valerian (who organized an attack but was captured with his army). In particular, in this rock relief, Gordian is trampled underfoot of Shapur’s horse while Shapur is on horseback. Besides, Valerian is kneeling down with tied hands in submission in front of the king, while Philip the Arab is holding Shapur’s horse.
This rock relief also shows Kartir as a famous high Zoroastrian priest behind the king, who is paying his respect to the king. The story of this victory is also inscribed in a stone tower structure called Ka’beh Zartosht (on its lower exterior walls) in front of the rock reliefs. Interestingly, the story of this victory is also carved out of the rock in ancient Bishapur City, Fars Province that is, to some extent, a more elaborate version than that of Naqsh-e Rostam.
The fourth rock relief is located under Artaxerxes’ tomb, which belongs to Adur Narseh or his brother Shapur II among his courtiers (not much has been left from this relief). There is also another scene in this relief that belongs to Hurmuz (Hormizd) II, the grandson of Shapur I. It depicts the battle of mounted Hurmuz against a Roman enemy.
The fifth rock relief is below Darius II’s tomb that is around seven meters long and three meters wide. In this scene, a crowned horseback rider has put his spear on the neck of his enemy. The date and the name of the victorious king is not known but archeologists believe it may belong to Shapur II because the crown in this scene is the same as the one in his coins.
The sixth rock-relief belongs to Bahram II and his family that was carved over an Elamite relief. The original Elamite relief made in the first millennium BCE shows the king, queen, and a goddess, introducing as one of the few ancient reliefs that shows the picture of a woman who is not a goddess. Bahram destroyed part of the previous relief to replace it with a scene where he is standing in the middle surrounded by his five family members and courtiers, three of whom are wearing a crown with an eagle sign as a symbol of victory. The king wears a very formal and adorned attire and holds the hilt of a long spear with both hands that represents power.
The seventh rock relief belongs to the investiture of the first king and the founder of the Sassanid Dynasty, Ardeshir I. In this scene, he is taking a diadem (the ring of kingship) from Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd) while both of them are on horseback. The horses are trampling two bodies: Ahriman or devil as the enemy of goodness and Artabanus V, the last Parthian emperor.
Another important construct in Naqsh-e Rostam is referred to as Ka’beh Zartosht since it was assumed to be linked with Zoroastrianism but in reality, the function of this Achaemenid square tower is not known. The carefully carved stones of the construct with their smooth surface bears witness to the advancement and mastery of the Achaemenian architects and craftsmen. Although the attackers have destroyed it, it is still an important ancient remnant in history. Notably, there is a long inscription in the lower part of the Ka’beh in three languages including Sassanid Pahlavi, Parthian Pahlavi, and Greek. The 2.5×2.5 room of the construct is placed over a square-shaped basis of stone.
The decisive function of this room has yet to be discovered but archeologists believe it may have been a fire temple, a document archive, or a temporary tomb. On the other hand, some believe these hypotheses could not be true because of the large size of the structure and its difficult large stairs. Based on a hypothesis, this structure was meant to be a royal tomb but when Darius the Great decided to use the mountain tombs this place was left for another function. Although this hypothesis has not been proven yet, it has not been rejected either.