simply can’t miss these many reliefs. The Sassanid kings definitely were not
modest and took pride in advertising their investiture and their conquests on several
cliff-walls, generally located close to a water source. Yet, you’ll ask, what
is their connection to Alexander the
Well, it may be far fetched but whatever you think, Hellenism and today’s way of living are all a consequence of Alexander’s conquests anyway; so why not include the Sassanids to start with? Another reason is that the Sassanid kings tried to recreate the Achaemenid Empire and repossess the territories that fell under their rule some five hundred years before.
As we know, the Achaemenid Empire ended when Alexander the Great conquered
his first step being his victory at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC and his final move being the execution of Bessus, the self-appointed successor of King Darius III in 329 BC. After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his
empire was eventually cut up among his leading generals. Seleucos I ruled over the eastern part of Alexander’s Empire from 312 BC onwards and his realm included Persia . But
soon the Parthians from northern Persia Iran
would revolt against the Seleucids and by 171 BC their King Mithridates the Great
really put his new empire on the map to include beside modern Iran, Iraq
and Armenia, parts of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan,
Azerbaijan and as well.
The Parthian empire collapsed when the Persians of the Sassanid dynasty took
over in 224 AD. That’s it in a nutshell, of course. Turkey
The Sassanid kings in turn ruled for more than four hundred years and it is not surprising that they left a heritage of their own. Overall they wanted to emulate the Achaemenids in their art and the figures in the reliefs are still rather stiff and emotionless, although the flow of their dresses hints to a slight Greek influence. A noticeable difference also is that some of the personages are shown facing the onlooker or at least in a three-quarter’s position and not in profile as the Achaemenids did.
It does come as a surprise to find the far-reaching impression Hellenism has left in
Bactria or while
here in Sassanid Persia it hardly shows. Looking at their silver tableware or
at their coinage, it is even very hard to tell them apart from similar
Achaemenid artifacts. India
The first Sassanid reliefs I came to see were those of Taq-i Bostan, an idyllic place set along a reflecting pool fed by several sacred springs not too far from the city of
in western .
The main features are two arches. The largest one and most lavishly decorated
is showing the investiture of King
Khosrow II who ruled from 591 to 628 AD. On the upper level he is standing
between Ahuramazda and the goddess Anahita (see: The powerful goddess Anahita in Iran ) and on the lower
register the king is on horseback. Both side-walls are richly decorated with hunting
scenes of wild boars on the left and deer on the right side. The carved angels floating
above the iwan stand for victory. Persia
The smaller arch or iwan contains a relief of King Shapur III (reigned from 383 till 388 AD) facing his father Shapur II (the Great) who ruled from 309 to 379 AD. Next to each king is an explanatory inscription in Pahlavi giving the names of their respective father and grandfather, specifying that each king worshipped Ahuramazda and ruled over
and “non-Iran”. Iran
Past these two arches is another relief, this time cut into the very cliff-wall itself. This is the oldest relief and represents the investiture of King Ardashir II (379-383 AD) on foot. He is receiving his crown from Ahuramazda standing next to him while on his other side we recognize the god Mithra who is carrying the sacred barsom (bundle of small rods) symbolizing power. This investiture includes Ardashir’s triumph over the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate in 363 AD who is lying at his feet.
The next reliefs I’m encountering are those of Tang-i Tchogan at Bishapur, located between Kazarun and
Shiraz, along the
glorifying King Shapur I, who founded Bishapur in 266 AD. From this new
capital with its unique and awkward Temple
of Anahita (see: The powerful goddess Anahita in Persia),
we have to cross the river for a closer look at the six Sassanid rock reliefs
in the cliffs facing us. Shapur River
It is at Bishapur, that Shapur I (reigned from 241 to 272 AD) inaugurated the Sassanid imagery of the king's investiture, which would be copied by his successors: the king and the god are face to face, often on horseback, and the god - usually Ahuramazda - is handing the royal diadem over to the sovereign. Shapur I is represented on three separate reliefs, commemorating his triple triumph over Rome, having killed Gordian III (in 244 AD), forced Philip the Arab to surrender ( also in 244 AD), and captured Valerian (in 260 AD) – no small matter, of course.
The largest relief is nearly
long and 4.50 high and is divided into several distinctive parts. At its center
we see the investiture of Shapur I riding
his horse whose left hoof is resting on the head of the defeated Emperor Gordian III lying at his feet.
At the same time, the king is grasping the wrist of Emperor Philip the Arab standing next to him. Facing him we
recognize the kneeling Emperor Valerian
begging for mercy while two Persian dignitaries are standing behind him. Above King Shapur’s head we notice a winged
Nike (a Greek influence after all!) holding the crown of victory. The left
panel is split in two registers one above the other in which five Persian
horsemen are depicted in profile. The right panel, also split in two rows,
shows five smaller scenes that cannot be identified properly but where we
recognize the Persian army and possibly mercenaries from different parts of the
The next relief is set in a concave part of the cliff and is
6.80 meters high and 9.20 meters wide. Surprisingly,
it has been inspired by the Column of
Trajan in . In the centre we find King
Shapur I in the same traditional composition as seen in the previous relief
with Emperor Gordian stretched
underneath his horse and the king holding the wrist of Philip the Arab. The panels on either side are very elaborate and detailed.
Unfortunately during my visit the view was impaired by a heavy scaffold and it wasn’t
easy to make out the crowded scenes. To the left, the Persian cavalry is
approaching in two rows, one above the other, with only the top body of the
riders and the front of the horses visible. On the right hand side much more is
happening in the five small panels depicting Persian soldiers and Roman
prisoners bringing in the booty, as well as mercenaries from all over the
To the right of this concave relief, there is a flat one
7.5 meters long showing King Bahram II (276-293 AD) receiving a delegation of Bedouins. Bahram II is on horseback holding the
reins with his right hand and his bow and arrows in his left. A Persian officer
on foot leads the Bedouins in their typical dress; in the back of the picture
there are three more men with horses and camels.
This brings us to the relief with the investiture on horseback of Bahram I facing Ahuramazda on an identical horse handing over the crown with ribbons. The figure on the floor underneath the king could be Bahram III and was added later by King Narseh (reigned 293-302 AD) who also wrote the Pahlavi inscription.
This relief is followed by a large one (11 meters-long and
4.5 meters high) divided by cross-shaped beams
representing the victory of King Shapur
II (reigned from 309 till 379 AD) over the Romans and the Christians. This
picture is totally different from the previous scenes; it looks rough and
unfinished, probably because originally it was plastered and painted. The top
central figure is the king in person in a sitting position looking rather
frightful. In the presence of his nobles on his left he reviews the prisoners
and the booty. On the bottom left quarter we find Persian warriors following
the king’s horse that is being led forward. To the right of the king Persian
soldiers are bringing in the captives, while on the bottom right quarter
soldiers are carrying decapitated heads surrounded by Persian warriors and
nobles carrying vases. I wonder if this is meant to frighten his people.
A last relief along this peaceful river is around the bend and less well preserved. It is in fact a repeat of an identical previous picture of Shapur I, enjoying his victory over Emperor Gordian III, Emperor Philip the Arab and the best preserved Emperor Valerian kneeling in front of him.
there are two more sites
with rock-reliefs. Here again, we find
the investiture of Shapur I as
represented above, where the king on horseback is receiving his crown from
Ahuramazda facing him and sitting on an identical horse. Persepolis
On the opposite wall in this loop there is another relief of Shapur I (reigned from 241 till 272 AD), this time showing the king on horseback surrounded by nine court dignitaries. Four of these nobles are more or less hidden behind the horse and the first man behind the king. In his direct suite three muscled men occupy a prominent position, with a hand on their long sword; the two others are mere busts. On the rear of the horse there is a trilingual inscription in Parthian, Pahlavi and Greek. This is the last known Greek inscription in
From an earlier date is the adjacent investiture on foot of Ardashir I, the very founder of the Sassanid Dynasty who reigned from 224-241 AD. He is receiving his crown from Ahuramazda facing him. In between them we see two smaller figures; the dressed one is believed to be King Bahram I, the oldest son of Shapur I facing the naked god of the same name who was later identified as the Greek Heracles. Behind Ardashir I stands a courtier holding a fan and next to him we recognize crown-prince Shapur I. Exceptional is the presence of two women on the right, undoubtedly members of the royal family and the one on the far end could be Ardashir’s spouse and sister Denak.
It is here that we find the highly unusual representation of the Zoroastrian high-priest, Katir, mentioned in the context of the Zoroastrian Tower at nearby Naqsh-i Rustam (see: The Cube of Zoroaster or the Ka’bah-i Zardusht at Naqsh-i Rustam) with a Pahlavi inscription.
Naqsh-i Rustam is within walking distance from Nasq-i Rajab and has by far the greatest number of rock-reliefs, both Achaemenid (see: Achaemenid Tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam and Persepolis) and Sassanid. These Sassanid reliefs have been etched in a lower register beneath the Achaemenid tombs and there is actually a series of seven such reliefs carved some five hundred years after the tombs for the Achaemenid kings.
For Shapur I, his triumph over the Romans is a repeat, although less elaborate of what I have seen at Bishapur (see here above).
Most popular figure here is, however, King Bahram II who reigned over
from 276 till 293 AD. We find this king three times: Persia
- with family members and court dignitaries bringing homage to their king:
Here the king is larger than life-size (
meters) set at the centre of the relief, his hands
resting on his long sword. Among the five members of the royal family on the
left we see the high priest Kartir
and the queen. On the right are the busts of three courtiers.
- in a cavalry fight (located below the Tomb of Darius II, see: Achaemenid Tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam and Persepolis)
Here the king is fighting a mounted Roman soldier, clearly hitting his adversary.
- in a double cavalry fight (located below the Tomb of Darius I, see: Achaemenid Tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam and
This scene is split in two panels. In the upper panel the king in a scaled armour is meeting his mounted Roman enemy in full gallop, while on the lower panel a helmeted prince is facing his enemy in the same fashion as the king above. In both cases the dead enemy is lying under the horse’s hooves.
Like at Naqsh-i Rajab, there is another investiture of Ardashir I, the founder of the Sassanid Dynasty, receiving his crown from Ahuramazda, both on horseback and facing each other. This panel carries a trilingual inscription in Parthian, Pahlavi and Greek.
The rock-relief depicting the investiture on foot of King Narseh shows how he is receiving his crown from Anahita, although this is being disputed since his posture does not the appropriate one to meeting a goddess; it is thought that the lady is a relative, maybe Queen Shapurdokhtak. In between them stands a smaller figure and it is suggested that this could be Narseh’s grandson and the son of Hormizd II. King Narseh succeeded to Bahram II in 293 AD and his successor in turn is Hormizd II.
King Hormizd II comes to power in 303 AD and is shown in the cliff-wall underneath the Tomb of Artaxerxes I. He is riding a galloping horse, forcing his opponent from his horse with his lance.
And finally, the last relief is that of King Shapur II, who ruled from 309 till 379 AD, sitting on the throne.
In between this relief and the Tomb of Artaxerxes is a badly damaged and hardly recognizable relief of what is thought to be Shapur II surrounded by his courtiers.
It is clear that the Sassanid kings intended to leave their imprint on their empire of which they were very proud. For me, the history of Persia would not have been complete without talking about the Sassanids as they were the last of the long lineage of rulers that started with Cyrus the Great (see: Cyrus the Great who made Pasargadae the capital of Persia). The rise of the Islam spreading along the trade routes ever further east put a final end to the Sassanids and to the grandeur of