Histories of the Sassanian Kings Rivalry with the Romans Are Set in Stone at the Taq-e Bostan Monument
Taq-e Bostan (known also as Taq va san) is an archaeological site located in Kermanshah, a western province in Iran. This region is best-known for its numerous monuments dating to the Sassanian period, including the famous site of Behistun (which was first used by the Achaemenids, and then later on the Sassanians). Like Behistun, Taq-e Bostan is a site with a series of large rock reliefs, which includes a number of themes. It may be added that in recent years, a Late Sassanian stone-cutting workshop was discovered at the site, which suggests that the site served not only a propagandistic function (through its rock reliefs), but also a utilitarian one.
Taq-e Bostan Stone Arches
Taq-e Bostan may be translated to mean ‘Arch of the Garden’, whilst its alternative name, Taq va san, can be translated to mean ‘Arch Made of Stone’. The site of Taq-e Bostan consists of several elements, including a small cave and a larger one (known as an iwan), which are decorated with reliefs. There is also a small man-made lake, as well as an ancient garden, or ‘paradise’, which were likely to have been created during the preceding Parthian period.
Taq-e Bostan - High relief: investiture scene; from left to right: Anahita, Piruz I, Ahura Mazda ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Sassanian Investiture Reliefs
A number of the rock reliefs depict the investiture ceremony of Sassanian kings. The oldest relief, for instance, is a representation of the investiture of Shapur II, who reigned from 309 to 379 AD, his entire life of 70 years and the longest reigning monarch of the Sassanian Persian Empire. In the relief, the king is shown to be receiving a cydaris ring and a diadem (symbols of kingship and authority) from Ahuramazda, the supreme god. In addition, Shapur II is standing on top of a defeated enemy, a bearded man who has been identified with a Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate. The latter had led a military campaign against the Sassanians, but was defeated, wounded in combat, and died as a result of this injury. Julian’s successor, Jovian, succeeded in negotiating a peace treaty with the Sassanians by surrendering the Roman possessions to the east of the Tigris, thus bringing the war to an end. In the relief, Mithras, the god of treaties, is also represented, and is shown holding a barsom, a sacred bundle of twigs used for religious rituals.
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Taq-e Bostan: high-relief of Ardeshir II investiture; from left to right: Mithra, Shapur II, Ahura Mazda. Lying down: dead Roman emperor Julian. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Some scholars have argued that the king in this rock relief is not Shapur II, but his successor, Ardashir II. There are, however, a few problems with this interpretation. For instance, the Sassanian kings may be recognised by their crowns, and the crown worn by the man in this relief belongs to Shapur II, and not to Ardashir II. Moreover, the enemy under the king’s feet is unlikely to be anyone else other than Julian the Apostate. During the reign of Ardashir II, the Emperor of Rome was Theodosius I, who is neither known to have had a beard, nor to have waged war against the Sassanians.
Other Ancient Scenes
Apart from investiture ceremonies, the rock reliefs at Taq-e Bostan also depict other subject matters. As an example, in the iwan of Khusrau, two hunting scenes decorate the cave walls on the left and right of the central scene.
Taq-e Bostan, a low-relief depicting a boar hunt of King Khusrau II ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
On the left, the king, Khusrau II, is shown standing on a boat hunting wild boars. His attendants, some of whom are shown on elephant back, may also be identified. It has been suggested that inspiration for this scene was drawn from Indian art, as elephants are not found naturally in Iran. On the right, the king is portrayed as seated on a horse, whilst his attendants are hunting stags.
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Taq-e Bostan, a low-relief depicting a stag hunt of King Khusrau II ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Masons’ Workshop
It has been mentioned that the scholarly focus on the rock reliefs at Taq-e Bostan has, unfortunately, led to a neglect of the study of the surrounding area. A survey around the environs of Taq-e Bostan led to the recording of several stone blocks that show traces of cutting and finishing on their surfaces. These blocks indicated that there had been a stone-cutting workshop in the vicinity, which prepared stone blocks for construction purposes. The traces on the blocks indicate the technique used to cut them, and also suggest that they were contemporaneous with the quarries of Behistun and Kangavar, as the blocks at these two sites also show the same traces of work, and are of similar dimensions.
Top image: Taq-e Bostan, famous rock relief monument of Sassanid Persia ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
By Wu Mingren
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Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5182/