Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran – unearthly cliff tombs of the Achaemenid emperors 2


The first time I passed Naqsh-e Rustam I missed it entirely; my eyes drawn instead to two enormous flat-topped mesas on the horizon. The mesas appeared identical in profile; their not-quite-flat tops seeming to line up perfectly, uncannily, like the teeth on a pair of matching keys.

My hand darted into my daypack, but by the time I had the camera in place the bus had rolled on a few hundred metres, the angles had shifted, and the outlines of the mesas were no longer alike. The moment was gone. As was – I later found out – Naqsh-e Rustam

Identical mesas, Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran

Not-quite-identical mesas. Photo credit: Benjamin White

I couldn’t believe it when I returned to Naqsh-e Rustam. How could I possibly have been looking elsewhere when this extraordinary monument was in sight?

I couldn’t believe it, but then… I could.

Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran

Dramatic desert landscape. Photo credit: Benjamin White

For where else would you set the tomb of Darius the Great, ruler of West Asia, the Caucasus, the Black Sea, North Africa (parts of), Central Asia (parts of), the Balkans (parts of), and northern Pakistan?

Where would you place such a tomb?

In the most dramatic landscape you can find, of course.

Naqsh-e Rustam

Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

The Achaemenids selected a stark cliff, one that rears up from the desert at an almost vertical angle, and embedded in it, at an impractical height, a tomb worthy of the mightiest kings.

The tomb, cruciform in shape, has such clean-cut edges it appears to have been stamped out of the cliff by a giant hole punch.

It’s unearthly.

The tomb’s height off the ground, and it’s beguiling shape, give it the appearance of a spaceship dock, or a portal to an alien civilisation’s underground lair.

Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Darius I (who ruled from 522 – 486 BCE) was the first Persian emperor to be entombed at Naqsh-e Rustam. The other three tombs are thought to belong to emperors Xerxes I, Ataxerxes I, and Darius II (I say thought to be as, strangely, there are no names on the last three tombs).

All of the tombs were looted by Alexander the Great’s army when he put the Achaemenid Empire to the sword in 331 BCE.

Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Below the tombs, inscribed into the cliff wall itself, are a number of detailed reliefs that date to the Sasanian rule of Persia (which lasted from 224 to 651 CE; i.e. 700 odd years after the death of Darius I).

The Triumph of Shapur I, Naqsh-e Rustam

Triumph of Shapur I, Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran

Triumph of Shapur I. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

The largest relief, known as the Triumph of Shapur I, depicts Shapur’s victory over two Roman emperors (that of Valerian and Philip the Arab), who are shown here kneeling before and swearing fealty to their conqueror.

Relief of Ardashir I, Naqsh-e Rustam

Carving of Ardashir I, Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran

Relief of Ardashir I. Photo credit: Benjamin White

A few hundred metres past the tombs is a cliff inscription of Ardashir I (Ardashir I brought about the downfall of the Parthians and went on to found the Sasanian Empire). The Sasanian ruler is being given the key of kingship by Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god.

The text below the relief includes the earliest known use of the word Iran.

Ka’ab-e Zartosht, Naqsh-e Rustam

Ka'ab-e Zartosht, Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran

Ka’ab-e Zartosht. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Set a football-field’s-width back from the cliff tombs is a strange stone cube known as Ka’ab-e Zartosht (Cube of Zoroaster). It’s been suggested that this structure was once a fire temple, a mausoleum, a library, a prison, and any number of other things.

The reality is that no one knows what it was used for.

Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran

Photo credit: Benjamin White

I made the mistake of overlooking Naqsh-e Rustam once. When I returned, I found it hard to look away.


Practical information:

Naqsh-e Rustam is located 70 kilometres from the tourist hub of Shiraz, on the Shiraz-to-Yazd Highway. It’s possible to reach the site using public transport, but the easiest and quickest way to get there is to hire a taxi in Shiraz (full day taxi hire in March 2017 costs US$40-50).

Most tourists will visit Naqsh-e Rustam and Persepolis as a half-day trip. Throw in Pasargadae and it becomes a full-day excursion.

Like rock-cut architecture (I do 🙂 ) Check out my favourite rock-cut architecture page.


More on Iran:

Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pasargadae


Posts on northern Iran:

Rainbow Mountains – are there rainbows? or is it all a sham?

Takht-e Soleyman – royal Zoroastrian sanctuary and fire temple

Kandovan – it’s Cappadocia minus the tourists

Babak Castle – windswept mountaintop stronghold of Azeri rebel leader


Posts on western Iran:

The Historic Hydraulic System of Shushtar

Bisotun – cliff inscription of Darius the Great

Chogha Zanbil – the original ziggurat

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