Naqsh-e Rustam is an ancient necropolis located about 12 km northwest of Persepolis, in Fars Province, Iran. It lies a few hundred meters from Naqsh-e Rajab. The oldest relief at Naqsh-e Rustam is a monument called the Ka’beyeah Zardosht -meaning the “Cube of Zoroaster”- which dates back to 1000 BC. The name, Naqsh-e Rustam (meaning “Rustam Inscription”) was locally believed to be a depiction of the mythical hero Rustam in Shahnemeh.
Four tombs belonging to Achaemenid kings (Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I, Xerxes I) are carved out of the rock face at a considerable height above the ground. The tombs are known locally as the “Persian crosses”, because of the shape of the facades of the tombs.
The entrance to each tomb is at the center of each cross, which opens onto a small chamber, where the king lay in a sarcophagus. The horizontal beam of each of the tomb’s facades is believed to be a replica of the entrance of the palace at Persepolis. One of the tombs is explicitly identified by an accompanying inscription as the tomb of Darius I the Great (c. 522-486 BC). The other three tombs are believed to be those of Xerxes I (c. 486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (c. 465-424 BC), and Darius II (c. 423-404 BC) respectively.
A fifth unfinished one might be that of Artaxerxes III, who reigned at the longest two years, but is more likely that of Darius III (c. 336-330 BC), last of the Achaemenid dynasts. The tombs were looted following the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great.
Seven over-life-sized rock reliefs at Naqsh-e Rustam depict monarchs of the Sassanid period.
- The investiture relief of Ardashir I (c. 226-242): The founder of the Sassanid Empire is seen being handed the ring of kingship by Ahura Mazda. In the inscription, which also bears the oldest attested use of the term Iran, Ardashir admits to betraying his pledge to Artabanus IV (the Persians having been a vassal state of the Arsacid Parthians), but legitimizes his action on the grounds that Ahura Mazda had wanted him to do so.
- The triumph of Shapur I (c. 241-272): This is the most famous of the Sassanid rock reliefs, and depicts Shapur’s victory over three Roman emperors, Gordian III, Valerian and Philip the Arab. A more elaborate version of this rock relief is at Bishapur.
- The “grandee” relief of Bahram II (c. 276-293): On each side of the king, who is depicted with an oversized sword, figures face the king. On the left stand five figures, perhaps members of the king’s family (three having diadems, suggesting they were royalty). On the right stand three courtiers, one of which may be Kartir. This relief is to the immediate right of the investiture inscription of Ardashir and partially replaces the much older relief that gives Naqsh-e Rustam its name.
- The two equestrian reliefs of Bahram II (c. 276-293): The first equestrian relief, located immediately below the fourth tomb (perhaps that of Darius II), depicts the king battling a mounted Roman soldier. The second equestrian relief, located immediately below the tomb of Darius I, is divided into two registers, an upper and a lower one. In the upper register, the king appears to be forcing a Roman enemy from his horse. In the lower register, the king is again battling a mounted Roman soldier. Both reliefs depict a dead enemy under the hooves of the king’s horse.
- The investiture of Narseh (c. 293-303): In this relief, the king is depicted as receiving the ring of kingship from a female figure that is frequently assumed to be the divinity Aredvi Sura Anahita. However, the king is not depicted in a pose that would be expected in the presence of a divinity, and it is hence likely that the woman is a relative, perhaps Queen Shapurdokhtak.
- The equestrian relief of Hormizd II (c. 303-309): This relief is below tomb 3 (perhaps that of Artaxerxes I) and depicts Hormizd forcing an enemy (perhaps Papak of Armenia) from his horse. Immediately above the relief and below the tomb is a badly damaged relief of what appears to be Shapur II (c. 309-379) accompanied by courtiers.
Ka’beyeah Zardosht -meaning the “Cube of Zoroaster”- is a 5th century BC tower-like construction at Naqsh-e Rustam. This enigmatic structure is one of many surviving examples of the Achaemenid architectural design. The name Ka’beyeah Zardosht probably dates to the 14th century, when many pre-Islamic sites were identified with figures and events of the Quran or the Shahnameh.
The structure is not actually a Zoroastrian shrine, nor are there reports of it ever having been a pilgrimage site. The structure is a copy of a sister building at Pasargadae, while the building at Pasargadae is a few decades older.
Each side of the building is 7.25 m wide. The 12.5 m high structure has a slightly pyramidal roof and stands on a 1.5 m high three-stepped plinth. Mortar was not used in its construction. Each face of the building is decorated with slightly recessed false windows of black limestone. The structure has one square inner chamber, 5.70 m high and 3.70 m wide, access to which is through a doorway with a decorated lintel in the upper half of the tower.
The chamber once was accessible by a flight of steps, only the lower half of which has survived. The 1.70 m wide and 1.90 m high door was of solid stone that was originally firmly closed but has disappeared.