Over 3000 years ago, the Middle East was experiencing a time of change. The Elamite and Assyrian empires were on the decline, and several Aryan tribes ventured down from what is now Russia, drawn by the prospect of new territory. These groups were the Medes, the Parthians, and the Persians. After a period of subjegation to the Assyrians, the Medes rose up and established their own empire, only to be overthrown by the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great 62 years later. It was under the empire of Cyrus and his heirs, the Achaemenid Empire, that the necropolis of Naqsh-e Rostam was constructed.
Near the famous site of Persepolis (don’t worry, that’s coming up in the next post!), Naqsh-e Rostam is the final resting place of four of the greatest Achaemenid rulers: Darius I, Xerxes (ever seen 300?), Artaxerxes, and Darius II. Hewn directly into the face of the cliff, the tombs have weathered the passing of centuries and stand today as silent reminders of Persia’s illustrious past.
Named for an ancient Elamite stone relief overlapped by the Persian carvings, the site has a number of other reliefs depicting scenes from Persian lore–usually with the heavenly appointed rulers commanding the respect of defeated enemies.
One such relief depicts the King surrounded by his advisors and attendants. The men have their index fingers curled at him, a Persian sign of respect. This gesture became an inside joke for our tour group; whenever our tour leader Yasna instructed us to do something, someone would inevitably give her ‘the finger’. Good times.
Each tomb featured another relief showing the king receiving a blessing from Azura Mazda, the Persian deity. The little man on the bird-like hovercraft is God; a symbol which pops up all over ancient Persian art and is known as the Faravahar. It comes from Zoroastrianism, the Persian state religion, and represents the ‘divine royal glory’ of the king.
Embedded in the face of the cliff and well off the valley floor, the tombs were carved using scaffolding. The bodies of the king were then interred and the tombs were sealed with large stone doors. Each has since been raided by looters, and the empty rooms were used as shelters before being sealed off again and preserved by the government.
In front of the cliff and in an excavated pit is another structure: a tower built with huge stones without using any form of cement. No one’s quite sure just what its purpose was, but it’s there and it’s old. Some common theories about its function are that it was an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple (unlikely), used for astronomy, or some sort of storage vault.
Awed simply by the age of what I’d just seen, I got into the van and we set out for Persepolis, the ancient jewel of the Achaemenid Empire. I could barely sit still I was so excited for what lay ahead. It didn’t disappoint!