The Elamite Relief at Naqš-e Rostam

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Categories: Ancient

A relief set deep into a mountainside of seven men standing on either side of a tall, crowned figure holding a sword

Naqš-e Rostam is famous because Darius and three of his successors were buried there in a new style of tomb cut deep into the rock, and for the mysterious stone cube (Kaˁba) which probably also dates to his reign. The reliefs by the Sasanid kings, and the long inscription of Shahpur boasting of his victories over the Romans, are also renowned.

If you climb up from the parking lot past the souvenir shops and toilets through the remains of the Sasanid ring wall, and follow the cliffs beneath the tombs of the kings of old and past the Kaˁba, you will find something else.

Four figures on the left, with bare chests or pleated tunics and long curly hair.  Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.
Four figures on the left, with bare chests or pleated tunics and long curly hair. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

Anyone familiar with Iranian art should be able to assign this relief to the Sasanid period (224-642 CE). The early Sasanid kings commissioned a flurry of rock reliefs to ensure that everyone remembered that they had been granted kingship by Ahuramazda and triumphed over the Parthians, the Romans, and many other enemies. But that off-hand assessment is not the whole story. Those smooth, empty panels are not typical of Sasanid reliefs …

An erased section of relief showing a head with a battlemented crown and the hair gathered and pluffed out behind the head
At the far left, a head wearing a corona muralis from the old relief is still visible. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

The head floating in one of those panels is carved in a different style …

Three figures on the right.  Under the rightmost figure traces of a coiled snake are visible.  In Neo-Elamite art, kinds and gods often appear seated on a coiled snake.  Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.
Three figures on the right. Under the rightmost figure traces of a coiled snake are visible. In Neo-Elamite art, kinds and gods often appear seated on a coiled snake. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

That coiled pattern under one of the busts does not belong either …

A shallow relief sculpture of a man with a long robe wrapped around his body
At the farthest right, a complete figure from the old relief has been preserved. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

And the figure at the furthest right is completely out of place. All of these things are typical of the Middle Elamite period around 2000 BCE, like the Lullubian reliefs at Sar-e Pol-e Zahab.

When Darius came and ordered his tomb to be built a few hundred meters down the cliff, the relief was already about 1500 years old. If he had asked learned Babylonians in his household, they would probably have given him a similar number, because some of Middle Elamite reliefs bore Akkadian inscriptions which mentioned kings from the King Lists, and because Babylonian scholars were interested in the styles of art and calligraphy used in particular historical periods. Darius ordered that his bigger, finer, deeper relief be placed within sight of the old one while leaving it untouched.

A relief like the facade of a building set into a cross-shaped cut into a cliff
One of the Achaemenid royal tombs at Naqš-e Rostam. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

Eight hundred years later, another set of Persians did something very odd. They carefully erased the old relief, then carved their own relief around its margins to celebrate their king and his favourite god. But they left just enough that passers by could see there had been an earlier relief, and they did their best not to make their own relief impinge into the space which the earlier sculptures had occupied. This meant that most of the figures in the background of their scene are busts rather than full-height figures, and that most of the relief is now smooth and empty. When the first of their chisels touched the face of the cliff, the Elamite relief was about as far from them in time as they are now from us.

0 thoughts on “The Elamite Relief at Naqš-e Rostam

  1. Pen Name says:

    Re-purposing and changing the public face of existing shrines is a common practice which includes the Hagia Sophia and the Pantheon. The Hagia Sophia was purged of visible portraits, but traces also remain.

    I wonder whether the remaining traces are a happenstance related to time and budget.

    Could leaving the traces visible have been an attempt to associate the political and religious rulers at the time as either heirs or conquerors compared to the originals?

  2. The Elamite Rock Relief at Kurangun | Book and Sword says:

    […] The central relief features a king in a horned helmet on a serpent throne. This carving helps scholars interpret the coiled pattern on the Elamite relief at Naqš-e Rostam. […]

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