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The Colossal Statue of Shapur, Powerful King of the Sassanian Empire

The Colossal Statue of Shapur, Powerful King of the Sassanian Empire


The Colossal Statue of Shapur is the name given to a carved figure of the 3 rd century AD Sassanian ruler, Shapur I. This giant statue is located in a limestone cave known as the ‘Shapur Cave’, which is situated in the Zagros Mountains in southern Iran. This cave lies about 6 km (3.7 miles) from the ancient city of Bishapur, which is said to have been founded by Shapur himself. This statue of Shapur is often regarded as one of the most outstanding sculptures produced by the Sassanians that is still in existence today.

The Zagros Mountains in Iran

The Zagros Mountains in Iran ( Stefan Jürgensen / Flickr )

Shapur I, King of Kings

Shapur I (known also as ‘Shapur the Great’) was the second shahanshah (meaning ‘king of kings’) of the Sassanian Empire, who reigned from around 239 AD to 270 AD. Shapur is perhaps best known for his military campaigns against the Roman Empire, during which a Roman emperor, Gordian III, was killed on the battlefield. Another, Philip the Arab, sued for peace, and paid a huge indemnity to the Sassanians, and yet another, Valerian, was captured, and later died in captivity. The commemoration of these military victories may be seen in several rocks reliefs, such as those at Naqsh-e-Rustam and Bishapur.

Rock reliefs at the spectacular Naqsh-e-Rustam commemorate Shapur’s military victories

Rock reliefs at the spectacular Naqsh-e-Rustam commemorate Shapur’s military victories ( public domain )

Different Sculpture

The statue of Shapur is quite a different type of sculpture from the rock reliefs. For example, the latter are found in areas where they could easily be seen by the population, thus giving them a propagandic function. The former, on the other hand, is located in a secluded cave, where it is less visible to the public. Additionally, it has been claimed that there are no known references to the cave in the many inscriptions dating to Shapur’s reign. Whilst the purpose of the statue is unclear, it has been speculated, amongst other things, that it marked the site of Shapur’s burial, i.e. somewhere in the cave, or that it was the site of a ruler cult.

Pahlavi crown carved on a cave wall inscriptions of Shapur top army

Pahlavi crown carved on a cave wall inscriptions of Shapur top army ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Statue

The statue of the Sassanian ruler can be found about 35 m (114 ft.) from the entrance of the cave. It has been measured to be 6.7 m (21 ft.) in height, with a width across the shoulders of more than 2 m (6.5ft.). The statue is said to have been carved out of a huge stalagmite that was formed in situ . The sculptor(s) paid great attention whilst producing this piece of artwork, as is evident by the amount of detail found on the statue.

For example, the features of the king’s head and the hair are said to have been carved symmetrically. In addition, three pieces of jewelry – a necklace, a pair of pearl earrings and a bracelet on the right wrist, are also visible. On top of that, the details of the king’s garments – his undershirt, upper garment, and wide trousers, were also carved with great detail.

The Colossal Statue of Shapur I, Restored by George Rawlinson, 1876

The Colossal Statue of Shapur I, Restored by George Rawlinson, 1876 ( Public Domain )

The statue of Shapur portrays the king as an athletic individual, as seen by his muscular biceps, broad chest, and flat stomach. The king’s hair is depicted as flowing and resting on his shoulders, and he is shown as having a moustache and a beard. The statue’s right arm is resting on its waist, whilst its left is resting on the hilt of its sword. Unfortunately, little of the statue’s legs have survived, though it may be observed that the king was depicted as wearing wide trousers. Other pieces of clothing include an upper shirt that fits tightly to the body of the king, thus emphasizing his physique, a belt that held together this upper garment, and another belt on the waist that held the sword scabbard.

The statue of Shapur had fallen onto the ground when it was re-discovered in modern times. It has been speculated that a strong earthquake that happened between the 15 th and 19 th centuries was responsible for its collapse. In the 1950s, the statue was raised again, with two concrete pillars taking the place of its original legs.  

The fallen statue before restoration

The fallen statue before restoration ( public domain )

Top image: The Colossal Statue of Shapur. ( public domain )

By Wu Mingren


Ayatollahi, H., 2003. The Book of Iran: The History of Iranian Art. Tehran: Center for International-Cultural Studies.
Garosi, G. R., 2012. Shapur I ii. The Great Statue. [Online]
Available at: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/shapur-I-ii-great-statue

iranvisitorguide.com, 2016. Shapur Cave. [Online]
Available at: http://iranvisitorguide.com/shiraz/listing/shapur-cave/

Shahbazi, S., 2015. Shapur I. [Online]
Available at: http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/History/Sasanian/shapour_I.htm

The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, 2015. The Cave Of Shapur In the Village Of Sasan. [Online]
Available at: http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Archaeology/Sasanian/cave_of_shapur.htm

Zakerin, M., 2016. Visit Shapur Cave and Get Hugely Surprised!. [Online]
Available at: http://www.destinationiran.com/visit-shapur-cave-get-hugely-surprised.htm



It is really surprising that some old relics in Iran have been kept intact, whereas some middle east countries have seen ruthless destruction of old relics. I like to remind the humans that they are the youngest entrants on Earth long and long period after all other creatures. Secondly if the humans are thought in the perspective of the universe, humans will be saddened to see their infinite smallness and the Earth is not even a decimal point.Pity the humans boast so much of the glory of last 1500 years !

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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