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Persepolis (pictured above) was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, the great Persian Empire which ruled the near east from around 550 BC to 330 BC (when Alexander the Great swept through and conquered it).  Persepolis was apparently a rather strange city—an imperial showplace of palaces, temples, and stately grandeur, but with very few inhabitants, at least compared to the thriving Persian cities of Babylon, Susa, and Ecbatana. Archaeologists are still arguing about whether it was a palace complex, an administrative center, or a seasonal city for high Zoroastrian festivals.  Whatever the case, Persepolis’ strange quasi-urban nature is a good segue to today’s featured location: Naqsh-e Rustam, a Persian necropolis which is located 12 km (7.5 miles) from the site of Persepolis (both locations are high in the mountains of what is today the Fars province of Iran).

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Naqsh-e Rustam, the cemetery of Persian emperors, had even fewer inhabitants than Persepolis, and mostly those inhabitants were (and still are!) deceased. The most important tombs are four large tombs cut high into the living rock of the cliff face.  These are the tombs of Darius I (c. 522-486 BC), Xerxes I (c. 486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (c. 465-424 BC), and Darius II, the great emperors of ancient Persia. The facade to Xerxes tomb is pictured immediately below.

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Not many cities have only 4 long dead inhabitants. Indeed, the site of Naqsh-e Rustam was sacred long before the Achaemenids carved their unearthly mausoleums. The oldest carvings are dated to around 1000 BCE and thought to be from the Elamite kingdoms.  Later on, the monarchs of the Sassanid dynasty (the empire which stood in counterweight opposition to Imperial Rome) also carved great reliefs there.  These illustrate battles and victories.  In the middle of the complex is a mysterious cubic tower known as the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht.  It was made at the same time as the tombs and is presumably a Zoroastrian sacred building, but nobody really knows what is was originally for.

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I wrote about this astonishing place, because I was struck by the majesty and remoteness of the great tombs carved out of living rock, but now that I have started writing, I realize that Naqsh-e Rustam strains any definition of a city (other than as a place of great human-crafted edifices).  The urban culture, the political hegemony, and the sheer human labor required to craft such a site are obvious from the 2500 year old architecture, but the bigger questions about why humans make the things we make, or even about why the Persians organized their great civilization in this fashion are not answered by the haunting graves an monuments.

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