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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.

A silver gilt head of Shapur II (309 to 379 AD)

A silver gilt head of Shapur II (309 to 379 AD)

Because Greco/Roman civilization takes such a central place in the foundations of contemporary Western society, we tend to forget the true counterweight to Greece and Rome.  East of the Roman Empire lay the vast and powerful Persian Empire.  Western classicists tend to think of Persia monolithically—but it was actually three great empires: the  Achaemenid Empire (550 BC – 330 BC), the Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD), and finally the Sasanian dynasty (224 AD to 651 AD).

The Sassanid Empire in 570 AD

The Sassanid Empire in 570 AD

Today’s post features a peek into the last of these great Persian eras. The Sasanians were the antithetical power to the Roman/Byzantine Empire and much of the history of the two civilizations involved their struggle against each other.

A bust of a Sasanian King--probably Shapur II (AD 310-379), silver with mercury gilding, raised from a sheet of silver with chased and repousse details

A bust of a Sasanian King–probably Shapur II (AD 310-379), silver with mercury gilding, raised from a sheet of silver with chased and repousse details

Here is the bust of a great Sasanian King–Shapur II (AD 310-379) who was the tenth monarch of the dynasty. He is pictured wearing a typical crenelated crown topped with a striated orb and a crescent (which he is also wearing in the sculpture at the top of the post). The actual crown Shapur II wore is lost in the mists of history, but it was atypical in that he was literally crowned before his birth.  His predecessor Hormizd II, was unpopular with the Persian nobility.  When Hormizd died, scheming nobles killed his eldest son, blinded the second oldest, and imprisoned/exiled the youngest.  They chose to crown his unborn son as emperor, in order that the child could be brought up as an ideal pawn, and the Zoroastrian priests placed the crown on him while he was yet unborn (resting it on his mother’s gravid belly).

Silver plate with Shapur II hunting boars )ca. 4th century, silver with gold leaf)

Silver plate with Shapur II hunting boars )ca. 4th century, silver with gold leaf)

As often happens in such circumstances, Shapur II stymied his puppetmasters by growing wise in the ways of the court as a child and ruling as a powerful sovereign.  He defeated the greatest Roman attack against Persia in classical history (the all-out assault by Emperor Julian the apostate.  He left the Sasanian dynasty much stronger than it was under his father.

Gold Coin with Shapur II

Gold Coin with Shapur II

It is interesting to see how similar the idea of a Persian crown—a crenellated circlet topped with a scepter–was to the crowns which later became the norm in Christendom. The Byzantine emperors wore a diadem instead.  I wonder how the Persian ideal became the standard for Western Europe in the centuries that followed.

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