Naqsh-i Rustam in Islamic Iran: the construction of an identity

All they ask is attention, and they get it, like a child or Hitler

Robert Byron has never shown much interest in pre-Islamic Persian art. Similarly, when he arrived in Naqsh-i Rustam, on the 1st of March 1934, he was not at all impressed by the remains of the Persian civilizations. In his travelogue, he certainly recognizes the historical importance of the ruins of Naqsh-i Rustam. He underlines, for instance, that The carvings on the cliff at Naksh-i-Rustam range over twenty centuries, from Elamite to Achemenian to Sasanian”, and he adds, later on “In this one sentence of gigantic ideographs, they have recorded a crucial moment in the history of human ideas, when the divine right of kings emerged from prehistory to the modern world”. But when it comes to describing the altars, tombs, inscriptions, the artistic and architectural value of the place, his comments are blunt: “two fire-altars of uncertain date and an Achemenian tomb-house. Only the last is beautiful. The rest are negative art or repellent. […] Each is carved with a tedious uniformity of low reliefs”.

Panoramic view of the Naqsh-i Rustam. WikiCommon (link).

Talking about the Naqsh-i Rustam, its long history and all the details of the carvings and inscriptions, would be impossible to me: I’m not expert in the field and do not want to undertake such endeavor.

What I would like to talk about instead, is the ruins as seen in the Islamic period.

If Robert Byron had observed the “tedious uniformity of low relief” more closely, he would have discovered traces of two men in Buyid times that paid a visit to the ruins of their ancestors and recorded their visit carving few phrases.

The triumph of Shapur I over the Roman emperors Valerian and Philip the Arab. WikiCommon.

In F. Michael Feener’s ‘Muslim Cultures and Pre-Islamic Pasts: Changing Perceptions of “Heritage”’, published in the beautiful book The Making of Islamic Heritage, by Rico, the author meditates on the meaning of the pre-Islamic ruins for Muslim communities through times. He focuses on the case of Egypt, Indonesia, and India. When we talk about the Naqsh-i Rustam, it is important to keep in mind not only the ancient history of Persia but also the symbolical value of the pre-Islamic monuments and the meaning they have acquired through time.

In 1968, Gropp and Nadjmabadi surveyed a number of pre-Islamic monuments in Fars, among which the Naqsh-i Rustam. Their close inspection of the carvings revealed a rock-cut inscription, written in four lines in a simple Kufic style. It is written near the knee of Ardashir I, in the relief that shows the investiture of the king. The inscription reads:

 حضرا عثمن بن عفان وحمد بن موسى السيد النخاس من سيران
فى ولاية الامير الجليل عضد الدوله ابى شجاع بن ركن الدوله اطال الله بقاهما
حضر منصور … حاربا … سنة ثمان واربعين …

Translated as follows:

‘Uthman bin ‘Affan and Hamid bin Musa al-sayyd al-nahhas (?) from Siran were present under the sovereignity of the exalted amir ‘Adud al-Dawla Abu Shuja’ bin Rukn al-Dawla, may God prolong both their existances … in the year three hundred and forty-eight [959-960].

Naqsh-i Rustam. Photo by Robert Byron (link).

‘Adud al-Dawla was the Buyid ruler of the area, and he himself recorded his presence, pretty much with the same phrasing of this inscription, in Persepolis. In Persepolis also other inscriptions by the Buyids rulers are to be found. That fact has been explained by the virtual connection that the Buyids wanted to trace with their Persian ancestors.

The Buyids are part of the so-called Iranian intermezzo when minor dynasties originally from the Iranian plateau conquered the Iranian lands that were nominally under the ‘Abbasid caliph and ruled the place. The Buyids, as well as other dynasties, tended to draw a connection with the Persian Iranian past, particularly to the Sasanids, to justify their power.

What the inscription of the Naqsh-i Rustam underlines, is that the connection with the Sasanian past was not important only for the ruling class, but also for commoners in Buyid era. The two people the carved their names in Naqsh-i Rustam are nowhere to be found in historical sources: this inscription is the only mark they left in history.

This small inscription, then, make us think on the recognized importance of the pre-Islamic remains and their symbolic value in the construction of the identity during the Buyid period, a value not only exploited by the ruling class but also transmitted to the citizens.


S. S. Blair, The Monumental Inscriptions from early Islamic Iran and Transoxiana, Brill, Leiden 1992, pp. 36-37 (n. 8), ill. P. 222. [partially accessible via GoogleBooks]

H. Busse, “Iran under the Buyids”, in R. N. Frye (ed.), The Cambridge History of IranVol. 4 – The period from the Arab invasion to the Saljuqs, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1975, pp. 250-304.

Other important sources to know more about the Naqsh-i Rustam are the online article of the Encyclopaedia Iranica, and the collection of images put together by the University of Chicago.

Robert Byron took three photos of the Naqsh-i Rustam, available online at the website (1) (2) (3).






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