Naqsh-e Rostam: Achaemenid Empire and Murderous Sibling Rivalry

Valley of the tombs of four great kings of the Sassanid period

Naqsh-e Rostam doesn’t look like more than a few holes in the side of a hill of limestone.  This hill is where four great leaders of Persia once laid to rest – Darius the Great, Xerxes I,  Artaxerxes I and Darius II.  These men lived at a time where brother killed brother in order to gain the power they thought they rightfully deserved.  It was survival of the strongest or the greediest perhaps. Murdering to gain position became a common practice in the Achaemenid household.

These cross-shaped tombs look as if they were constructed at the same time since they are all built to almost the same specifications.  The first Darius the Great – said to be completed around 493 BC and the last was built for Darius II – great-great-grandson to Cyrus the Great – around 400 B.C. when he passed.  So, these were all built in a span of  90 years – give or take a few years.

Naqsh-e Rostam
Center stairway entrance to Naqsh-e Rostam
Naqsh-e Rostam
Young guard dogs of the Nashq-e Rostam
Naqsh-e Rostam
Cross shaped tombs of Darius the Great
Tomb of Darius the Great. Umbrella is needed to view in the hot months

Tomb of Darius the Great (son-in-law of Cyrus the Great 522-486 BC)

A few scrappy puppies stand guard at the tombs of Naqsh-e Rustam.  They couldn’t be bothered on this hot September day in southern Iran. This impressive but little visited site is a 20 minute drive from its more popular stepbrother Persepolis.  Darius the Great – son-in-law of Cyrus the Great was the first occupant of this Necropolis. The cliff side cemetery was his idea. His tomb’s was built during his reign and  was completed seven years before his death in 486 BC.  He had many wives but the most important one was Astossa who is the daughter of Cyrus the Great and mother of Xerxes I was king after Darius.  Darius became king after Cyrus’ son Cambyses II died of a leg wound that was either self-inflicted or happened during battle.  Bardiya, younger brother to Cambyses II, succeeded him but later murdered by a group of seven nobles who then made Darius their king.  Darius the Great was best known for completing many of the construction projects started by his father in law Cyrus the Great.

Naqsh-e Rostam: Tomb of Xerxes I of Persia
Naqsh-e Rostam: Tomb of Xerxes I of Persia

Tomb of Xerxes I (son of Darius the Great 486-465 BC)

Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes I, grave is found next to his father’s. Xerxes I wasn’t Darius’ eldest son,  but the only one “born in the Purple” or of royal blood. Xerxes fought many battles and is best known for building the largest structures at Persepolis, the Gate of all Nations and the Hall of a Hundred Columns.  He also completed the Apadana, the Palace of Darius and the Treasury all started by Darius.   He added on his own palace which was twice the size of his father’s. Xerxes I and is young son Darius were both murdered by his royal guard Artabanus the Hyrcanian.

Naqsh-e Rostam
Tomb of Darius II

Tomb of Artaxerxes I (son of Xerxes I 465-424 BC)

Artaxerxes I came into power after the assassinations of his father Xerxes I and his young brother Darius.  Artaxerxes I lived until he was 54 and all that is known about his death is that it happened sometime in between December 424 B.C. and March 423 BC.  He is known as Artaxerxes Longimanus.   He had the nickname  Longimanus because his right hand was longer than his left. He fought battles against the Greeks. He continued to support the rebuilding of the Jewish community in Jerusalem which had begun under Cyrus the Great.  He died by natural causes unlike most of the rulers of the Achaemenid Period.

Tomb of Darius II (son of Artaxerxes 423-404 BC)

Vahuka, letter becoming Darius II when king, came to power after the death of two of his elder brothers.  Xerxes II was the only one “born in the purple”. He was the crown prince and son of the Queen.  His other two half brothers, Vahuka – later known as Darius II – and Sogdianus were born out of the royal line.  Xerxes II was next in line and was given the throne.  His brother Sogdianus murdered him 45 days later.  Sogdianus lasted only six months until he was also murdered by the commander of the cavalry who didn’t recognize his rule.  Historians can’t agree about what really happened.  It doesn’t help that Sogdianus married his half-sister and both murdered sons Xerxes II and Sogdianus declared themselves king before their father’s body was cold.

In the end, the next brother, Vahuka or Darius of Ochus became king. He was the son of Artaxerxes and a Babylonian concubine, hence the nickname of Nothos which means the child of unmarried parents.  He had a lot of help from his wife and half-sister.  He is said to have taken care of things and got rid of the rest of his relatives in secure his seat.  Artaxerxes I had 18 children.  There are very few details of Darius II life.  He fought  and survived many battles and held on to power much longer than Xerxes II and Sogdianus.  Unlike the two,  he does have a place at Naqsr-e Rustam and one must assume he was a great leader.

Naqsh-e Rostam:  Ka'ba-ye Zartosht
Naqsh-e Rostam: Ka’ba-ye Zartosht

Ka’ba-ye Zartosht

Is it a Zorastrian fire temple?  Not a fire temple but an ancient flood light that eliminated the tombs at night?  A royal tomb that was never occupied?   What this building was except an uncanny Doppelganger to one found at Cyrus the Great’s Tomb at Pasargadae.  Whether it was a depository for objects of dynastic or religious importance or tomb is a mystery that may be solved someday.  Much of the area of the site still remains buried and there are many objects, carvings and perhaps larger segment waiting to be discovered.  I’m looking forward to returning back – especially when it’s not over 100 degrees F.

side note: The sources I used to get information in this post was found from various places ranging from my guide Mahmoud to online sources to old-fashioned textbooks in the library. I have found the history about Naqshr-e Rustam or Naqshr-e Rostam has many versions. Please let me know if I have made any mistakes with the facts I have gathered.  Many of the facts are ones consolidated by larger accounts found in Wikipedia.

Published by farflungistan

I'm a curious traveler who enjoys sharing street, architectural and landscape images that capture daily life and represent how history has made its mark on the present.

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