01 February 2011

Speak, Sasanian Memory (Part II)

Part I click here.

The Sculptured Cliff

A snapshot of the cliff face at Naqsh-e Rostam.*  

And I quote:

This was the ritual and symbolic heart of the Achaemenid Empire with a wealth of sculptural, architectural, and inscriptions unparalleled elsewhere in the empire.

And I quote:

This was the ritual and symbolic heart of the Sasanian Empire with a wealth of sculptural, architectural, and inscriptions unparalleled elsewhere in the empire.

No, do not adjust your computer.  Both statements are correct. 


Located ca. 8 km [5 miles] from the palaces of Persepolis, four royal Achaemenid tombs are cut into the rock face just where the flat-topped mountains begin their slide down into the plains.  It may be that the Achaemenids were inspired to convert these precipitous cliffs into their royal necropolis and cult centre after hearing the beautiful natural echo in the surrounded valley.**

Four tombs belonging to Achaemenid kings are cut into the cliff walls, all at least 15 metres (50') above the ground.  The tomb on the right (above) belongs to Darius the Great (ruled 522-486 BCE), who was the first to order a monumental tomb to be carved on the site.  

The tombs are known locally as the 'Persian crosses', named after the shape of the façades of the tombs.  The entrance to each tomb is at the centre of the cross, which opens onto a small chamber where the king lay in a sarcophagus (long empty, the tombs were smashed open and looted when Alexander the Great conquered Persia).  The horizontal arm of each cross is believed to show the image of the entrance to the main palace at Persepolis. 

On the façade of the tomb, in the upper register, Darius sacrifices on a blazing fire altar to his Zoroastrian god, 
A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius king, one king of many, one lord of many. 
King of kings and lord of many, this was truly a world empire.  We see Darius on his throne, carried on a platform by the 30 nations who were his subject peoples -- each dressed in their distinctive costumes and headgears.  Cuneiform inscriptions identify the nations: Persia, Media, Parthia, Bactria, and so on for the central realms, then to the east all the way to the Indian states of Sind and Gandara, westwards to Syria, Arabia, and Egypt, and in the north the Armenians, Cappadocians, Lydians, and Ionians.  The cruciform design of his tomb was copied on the cliff wall by his successors: Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE), Artaxerxes I (r. 465-424 BCE; above left), and Darius II (r. 423-404 BCE) -- although the exact attributions are not certain since these tombs lack inscriptions. 

In addition to the royal tombs, there is one mysterious tower of stone masonry known as 'the Ka'ba of Zoroaster' (Ka'ba = 'cube', 'sanctuary') which stands opposite the sculptured cliff.  Instead of the dusty scrub land you see  between them today, there were perhaps once trees and the green of an artificial garden (paradeisos).  This massive square tower (12.5 high x 7.3 wide [41'x 24']) gives the impression of three stories, but the lower half is solid while the upper half houses just a single square room with no provision for lighting: the windows are false windows.  An exterior staircase of 30 steps (now partly destroyed) led up to a doorway opening into the one square room.  The lack of any ventilation excludes the tower's use as a fire temple.  The best explanation, I think, is that the Ka'ba was a kind of 'coronation tower' -- with the new king ascending the staircase to be crowned -- with the royal paraphernalia stored in the square room.  If true, the tower, like the tombs, would have served a dynastic rather than purely religious function.

Gap Years

After the Achaemenids, no king of either the Seleucid (330-139 BCE) or Parthian (ca. 238 BCE-224 CE) dynasty left any monument in or on the hillsides of Naqsh-e Rostam. Thus, when Ardashir I overthrew the last Parthian king, Ardawan IV, in 224 CE, more than 550 years had passed since Naqsh-e Rustam had been touched by royalty. 


Although so far away in time, the Sasanian capital of Istakhr was still only a hop, skip, and a jump (2 km) from the site, so its funerary reliefs and strange tower could never really have been forgotten.  It is impossible to believe that the pre-imperial Sasanians had not felt the impact of the monumental rock reliefs.  And so it proved: once in power, the Achaemenid reliefs offered the new dynasty visually stunning -- and ideologically useful -- prototypes:
What is remarkable about the Sasanian dynasty's additions to the site is not their monumentality but the extent to which they sensitively, seamlessly, and unrelentingly incorporated the Achaemenid material into their larger vision.  

Sasanian King # 1

Soon after the Sassanians came to power, Ardashir I began the permanent visual fusion of the two dynasties by carving the first rock relief on the western end of Naqsh-e Rostam.  It pictures both his investiture as king and his triumph over his enemies.  Ardashir is the horseman on the left, shown receiving the royal diadem, the xvarnah -- the visual symbol of the king's divine election -- from the god Hormuzd (the Middle Persian name for Ahuramazda).  The god hands the divine glory to the new king, who takes the diadem with his right hand, while saluting Hormuzd with his left fist and pointed index finger in the sign of respect.  Both king and god are calmly crushing their defeated enemies under their horse's hooves.  This is a fresh interpretation of the millennia-old  act of trampling a defeated enemy: Ardashir finishes off Ardawan IV in an exact mirror image of Hormuzd trampling the Zoroastrian evil demon, Ahriman. 

It seems certain that the site and this triumphant image were chosen by Ardashir to unite the divine beneficial radiance, the xvarnah of the Achaemenids, with his own person and with his family.  Quite appropriately, then, Ardashir adopted the Achaemenid concept of the 'kingdom of Iran' (Ērānšāhr) and took on their ancient title of the 'king of kings of Ērānšāhr', as if this were the birthright of the new Sasanian dynasty. 

Sasanian King # 2

His son and successor, Shapur I, inherited the concept of Ērānšāhr from his father  but, inspired by his military successes and ambitions, expanded his father's claim to one of dominion over Ērān ud Anēran ('Iran and non-Iran'),  which is to say that he claimed a kind of universal sovereignty.  Non-Iran literally referred to Shapur's new conquests in Central and South Asia and the eastern Roman Empire.  But it also contained the latent claim of his rightful dominion outside the Iranian sphere -- which included, most notably, the Emperor of Rome whom he regarded as his tributary.

Near the beginning of Shapur's reign, a Roman army led by the Emperor Gordian III invaded Persia (243/244 CE).  Despite initial successes, the Romans were defeated and their army all but obliterated.  According to Shapur, Gordian died in battle.  Whether true or not, Shapur forced his successor (and possible assassin) Philip the Arab to pay a huge ransom in order to withdraw alive along with his remaining forces.  Shapur boasted of this victory in a trilingual inscription (Middle Persian/Parthian/Greek) inscribed on the walls of the Ka'ba of Zoroaster -- thereby simultaneously laying claim to this Achaemenid structure and further implying a link between the two dynasties.  This text makes clear that he believed that he reduced the Roman Empire and its Emperor to tributary status. 

One might say that he confirmed this claim (at least in his own mind) when, in 258/259 CE, he destroyed another mighty Roman army, led this time by the Emperor Valerian, capturing the emperor and his court, and deporting them along with the remnants of their army deep into Persia.  Valerian died in ignominious captivity.  Victorious Shapur made two great rock reliefs to mark his victories.  One (at Bishapur) shows him on horseback trampling the body of the hapless Gordian III.  It is otherwise identical with the scene of triumph carved at Naqsh-e Rustan (above left) and boldly placed right in the centre of the site: it stands below and between the tombs of Darius I and the tomb attributed to Artaxerxes I (as seen at the top of this post), and right across from the Ka'ba.  This relief shows Shapur on horseback grasping the wrist of Valerian -- which indicates he has been taken prisoner -- while Philip the Arab is kneeling in submission before the King.
... and just as we, with the help of the gods sought out and conquered these lands, and did things of fame and daring, so let him too who shall be ruler after us be conscientious in the concerns and cult of the gods, so that the gods may make him their creature too.

 Sasanian King# 3

The third king to leave his mark at Naqsh-e Rustam was probably Bahram II (276-293 CE) [despite not being inscribed,the reliefs attributed to this king are based on the shape of his crown].

The reliefs, inscriptions, and appropriations of Ardashir I and Shapur I changed people's  experience of the ancient site -- and would greatly influence the monumental legacy of  Sasanian (Recovered) Memory.  Their successors inherited visual traditions of Achaemenid and Sasanian monuments that became ever more thoroughly fused.  Future reliefs responded to earlier reliefs by moving back and forth in time.  Later kings became increasingly sensitive to the placement and shape of the earlier reliefs, forging constant visual interactions across the centuries.

Just so, Bahram II lined up his double 'jousting scenes' -- more accurately, scenes of equestrian combat --  directly under the tomb of Darius the Great, extending the long vertical arm of its cruciform shape.  It seems evident that he saw himself as a true descendant of the tomb's original occupant and his victory reliefs (for he is the clear winner on both) as adding honour to his ancient Persian ancestors.

By this time, in a sense, Sasanian kings had blurred the two dynasties' visual culture completely.  What now drew people to the site -- the Achaemenid remains or the Sasanians' reinterpretation of it?  

Who knew anymore?

* The modern name for the valley, meaning 'Pictures of Rustam': Rustam/Rostam is the legendary Persian hero later thought to be depicted in the jousting scenes.

**  A suggestion made by Jona Lendering (Livius.org).

My main source for this post (as for Part I) is Matthew P. Canepa, 'Technologies of Memory in Early Sasanian Iran: Achaemenid Sites and Sasanian Identity',American Journal of Archaeology, 114 (October 2010) 563-596; and when I am directly quoting, I am quoting from him.  Other sources include M.P. Canepa, 'Shapur I, King of Kings of Iran and Non-Iran', Ch. 4, in  The Two Eyes of the Earth: Art and Ritual of Kingship between Rome and Sasanian Iran (Univ. of California, 2010) 53-78; Livius.org pages on Naqš-i Rustam, and Sasanian Rock Reliefs; Encyclopaedia Iranica; and the Naqsh-i Rostam page by Ursula Seidl at CAIS.

Illustrations (in descending order)

Top centre: Achaemenid tombs of Darius I (right) and Artaxerxes I (?). Photo credit Travelpod

Ka'ba Zoroaster: Photo credit: Wikipedia (Fabienkahn) 

Investiture and triumphal rock relief of Ardashir from Livius

'Roman Victory' rock relief of Shapur from Livius

Detail of tomb of Darius I (above) with victory scenes of Bahram II (below).  Photo credit:  Iran Politics Club 

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