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The Cube of Zoroaster at Naqsh-e Rustam - an ancient necropolis located in Fars Province, Iran, with a group of ancient Iranian rock reliefs cut into the cliff, from both the Achaemenid and Sassanid periods.

The 2500-year-old Cube of Zoroaster To Stay Shaken But Not Stirred

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Many archaeologically significant sites are under threat from the elements or because of environmental issues. For some time, one of the most important monuments in Iran was believed to be under threat from subsidence. However, experts have now declared that the rather mysterious monument known as the ‘Cube of Zoroaster’ is not at risk of collapse or structural damage - at least for now.

The Cube of Zoroaster, or ‘Ka’be-ye Zartosht,’ is a large rectangular monument built on a triple stair base. It measures 40 feet (13 meters) high and is made from local limestone. There is a stairway of some thirty steps that lead to the only entrance to the building, which is in the shadow of a mountain. On the side of the ‘cube’ there are niches which served an unknown purpose. The structure has been dated to the Achaemenid Empire (553-330 BC). It was possibly built when the Emperor Darius I moved from the first Achaemenid capital, Pasargadae, where there is an almost identical building to the ‘cube’.

Old Achaemenian temple at Pasargadae, said to be the "Prison of Salomon" (Zendan-é Salman). (dynamosquito/CC BY SA 2.0)

Old Achaemenian temple at Pasargadae, said to be the "Prison of Salomon" (Zendan-é Salman). (dynamosquito/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

The Prophet Zoroaster

The structure is named after the semi-mythical founder of the Zoroastrian faith , which was once the official faith of the Persian Empire and still has a small number of followers in India and Iran. However, studies have shown that the structure was not always known as the Cube of Zoroaster and this name has only been used by locals since the 14th century. The monument was known by another name during the Sassanian Empire (224-661 AD) and why it has come to be known as the ‘cube of Zoroaster’ is a matter of conjecture.

Zoroaster. (Public Domain)

Zoroaster. ( Public Domain )

Another mystery about the structure is what its original purpose was. There are many theories proposed, including: that it was a Zoroastrian fire-temple, a pilgrimage site, or it was a memorial to dead emperors buried nearby. There is also a theory that the rectangular building was used in astronomical studies. The limestone structure was most likely used as a royal tomb, based on descriptions by Greek classical writers, such as Arrian.

The Marvels of Naqsh-e Rostam

The structure is in Naqsh-e Rostam , an ancient necropolis, and it “incorporates memorials of the Elamites, the Achaemenids and the Sassanians”, reports the News Network Archaeology blog . This area is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is the burial ground for four members of the Achaemenid dynasty, including that of the mighty monarchs Darius II and Xerxes II. This site is situated not far from the ruined Persian capital of Persepolis, which was burned to the ground by Alexander the Great.

Panoramic view of the ancient Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis located in Fars Province, Iran. The site includes rock reliefs of Achaemenid and Sassanid periods, 4 tombs of Achaemenid kings and a Cube of Zoroaster (far left). (Diego Delso/CC BY SA)

Panoramic view of the ancient Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis located in Fars Province, Iran. The site includes rock reliefs of Achaemenid and Sassanid periods, 4 tombs of Achaemenid kings and a Cube of Zoroaster (far left). (Diego Delso/ CC BY SA )

The Threat to the ‘Cube’

There have been concerns expressed in recent years that extended periods of droughts could put the Cube at risk from subsidence. The drop in the water table could lead to sudden subterranean shifts in the earth and this could damage the building. The monument is particularly vulnerable to any downward movements of the earth because of its age and the fact that its stones are not bound together by mortar. Any movement of soil might undermine the building and could result in the Cube of Zoroaster collapsing. This led to a team of experts examining the area around the famed structure.

The results of the investigations have been positive, which has come as a relief to the management of the World Heritage Site. The director of the Naqsh-e Rostam  site, Hamid Fadaei, has stated that the “monument stands strong, and so far, no subsidence-related issues have been found”, according to News Network Archaeology . This means that no action needs to be taken to protect the 2,500-year-old structure.

The Cube of Zoroaster in Naghsh-e rostam, Iran. (Diego Delso/CC BY SA)

The Cube of Zoroaster in Naghsh-e rostam, Iran. (Diego Delso/ CC BY SA )

There were plans in 2006 to build a railway line not far from the Naqsh-e Rostam. According to crystallink.com, at the time it was feared that the “rumbling of the trains will damage the monument in the future.” The line was not built, but there are persistent fears that at some time in the future the railroad project or a similar one could be revived, which could lead to dangerous earth movements that would threaten the integrity of protected building.

Top image: The Cube of Zoroaster at Naqsh-e Rustam - an ancient necropolis located in Fars Province, Iran, with a group of ancient Iranian rock reliefs cut into the cliff, from both the Achaemenid and Sassanid periods. Source: Herbert karim masihi/ CC BY SA 4.0

By Ed Whelan

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