The monumental tombs of the Achaemenid kings in Naqsh-e Rostam: Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes…

In the Iranian province of Fars, about five kilometers northwest of Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Persian empire, there is a rocky mountain in which tombs and reliefs from the Achaemenid and Sasanian times are excavated.

Of all of them, four stand out for their size, with a cruciform appearance and with large carved reliefs on their upper and lower parts, excavated following the model of the Egyptian hypogea.

The oldest has inscriptions, from which it can be deduced that it is the tomb of Darius I, the third king of the Achaemenid dynasty, who ruled the empire between 521 and 486 BC and was defeated by the Athenians and their allies in the battle of Marathon in 490 BC

Situation of the tombs and reliefs / photo Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

One of the fragments of the inscription reads:

I am Darius the Great King, King of Kings, King of nations, King over this great land, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid. [traducción del elamita de Enrique Quintana]

The other three major tombs are similar in shape and appearance to that of Darío I, but since none of them have inscriptions, archaeologists can only speculate about who their last inhabitants would have been. The most accepted hypothesis is that they are the tombs of Xerxes I (the son of Darius), Artaxerxes I and Darius II.

Panoramic of the monuments of Naqsh-e Rostam / photo Shutterstock

The entrance to each of the tombs is situated high up right in the center of the cross. Inside, a chamber houses the sarcophagus with the remains of the monarch.

There is a fifth unfinished tomb of the same type, which could correspond to Artaxerxes III or Darius III, the last of the Achaemenids, defeated by Alexander the Great in the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC and assassinated days later by his own satraps.

The reliefs that adorn the exterior of the tombs were made later by the Sassanids during the Second Persian Empire (AD 226–651), and depict prominent war scenes from different rulers such as Narses, Shapur I, Ormuzd II, Bahram II, and Ardashir. YO.

Relief from the tomb of Artaxerxes / photo Shutterstock

The façade of the tombs also presents architectural decoration of columns that form a kind of portico similar to those of Persepolis itself. Archaeologists believe that the entrances must have been closed after each burial, being these destroyed and the interior looted in post-Alexander times.

About 45 meters from the tombs, right in front of the one supposed to be Dario II, is the zoroaster cube (Ka’ba-i Zartosht), a small construction from the 5th century BC in the form of a 14-meter-high tower that could have had a ritual function, keeping the flame of eternal fire alive. Some Iranian experts believe that it served as a storehouse for religious books and royal documents.

Zoroaster’s cube photographed from the top of the mountain by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

On three of its outer sides are trilingual inscriptions in Sassanid Persian, Parthian and Greek, which constitute the most important historical document of the Sassanid period.

Many European travelers have visited the site and made drawings of the tombs and the tower since the 18th century. The first of these was Carsten Niebuhr in 1765. But the first systematic excavations and investigations of the entire complex were by German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld in 1923. Herzfeld spent 11 years in Iran also excavating the ancient capitals of Pasargadae and Persepolis. In 1934, while in London, he was dismissed from his teaching position in Berlin for having Jewish ancestry, and was never able to return.

Subsequently, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, under the direction of archaeologist Erich Schmidt, would be in charge of continuing his work at Naqsh-e Rostam between 1936 and 1939, publishing the first study of the structures.


Livius / Encyclopaedia Iranica / Of Rocks and Water: An Archeology of Place (Ömür Harmansah) / Wikipedia.

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