August 29, 2015

The mountain tombs of Naghsh-e Rostam

The ancient Royal tombs carved into the mountain side at Naghsh-e Rostam are not as well known as the abandoned city of Persepolis, a little over ten kilometres away, but they are very much as impressive, if not more so, because of their state of preservation.

If Nagsh-e Rostam was located almost anywhere else in the world, except Iran, it would be world famous and crowded with visitors. Here it is added on as a small addendum, by some tours, to a day trip to Persepolis, with the few tourists visiting whisked around before being pushed back on their tour bus to Shiraz. Yet it is worth lingering and taking in the enormity of the carved mountain tombs, and detailed carvings in the rocks of significant events from the lives of the Kings.

The sheer size of the tombs, cut out of the cliff face, helps you to understand the power and wealth of the Archaemenid empire  (also known as the 'First Persian Empire'), which ruled almost half the worlds population at its height, around 450 BC, and stretched from Greece to China.

The tombs are positioned high above the ground and are inaccessible. The stone sarcophagus is in a chamber behind a passageway hidden by the large stone door. The whole complex is positioned on one of the main routes of the Silk Road, to ensure that every traveller passing by would be reminded of the God like status of the Kings. The necropolis contains the tombs of Darius I, Darius II, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I, with a fifth unfinished tomb probably intended for Darius III.

Alexander the Great spared the tombs when he burnt down nearby Persepolis, although the four tombs were ransacked either by his troops or by grave-robbers in the following years. And then the tombs were forgotten, the Silk Road took a new route bypassing this part of Iran, and Naghsh-e Rostam only really became known about again in the last century.

As with Persepolis, the incredible engravings are exposed to the elements, although the strength of the rock has helped to preserve them well. My favourite was the depiction of the victory of Shapur I over the Emperor Valerian in the defeat of the Roman Empire at the Battle of Edessa in Greece in AD260. The Emperor can be seen in the background as a Roman soldier kneels in subjugation before the King. His fate was interesting to say the least. As the only Roman Emperor ever to be captured by an opposing army, he was an important trophy to the Persian King. According to various sources he was kept in a cage and then used as a stepping stool by the King to mount his horse. After his death his body was stuffed with straw, or others say manure, and kept in a temple to remind the populace of the immense power of the King. Whoever said history was boring?

Far Flung Tips

* The entrance fee to the site is a very cheap US$3 per person.

* Get to Naghsh-e Rostam on a tour from Shiraz (usually added at the end of trip to Persepolis) or hire a taxi for the day from Shiraz for approximately US$50.

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