A Large Museum Called Iran: A Glance at Stone Carvings on Rocks

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Abbas Rezaeinia

Human beings have been interested in making their wishes, beliefs, and thoughts perennial, by recording them as paintings, carvings, stone cuttings, statues, as well as stone inscription. One of the most important ancient Iranian arts has been carving on mountains and rocks.

Stone inscriptions are, in fact, pages from the book of Iranian history, culture and arts which hide a lot of ideas behind them. Thus far, extensive research has been carried out on relief inscriptions and they have been studied from various aspects including artistic styles, historical events, decoration of faces and hair, weaponry, costumes and ornaments. Those studies have played a major role in revealing the Iranian history and civilization.

Therefore, the present paper reviews the art of stone inscription in Iran and its features as well as the number of bas-reliefs that have been identified, their artistic styles, techniques used to make them and other related issues.

Zagros mountain dwellers, beginners of stone inscriptions on rocks

The ancient samples of rock art in Iran date back to the third millennium B.C. it seems that Lului king, Anubanini, in western and northwest parts of Iran and contemporaneous with Naram-Suen, the king of Akkad, has been the first person who has inscribed his triumphs on a rock near Sar-e Pol-e Zohab. Two bas-reliefs of the king worked out on Miankal Mountain at a distance of 20 m from each other depict the triumph of the king over his enemy in presence of a goddess.

There are two other bas-reliefs made by Lului people, one 10 m over the grounds on Kalgara Mountains with the other one on the right side of Helvan River on the rocks of the same mountain. Those bas-reliefs also depict the victory of Lului rulers.

Some 45 km northwest of Kamyaran, about 500 m northwest of Tangivar village, there is a high bas-relief which shows a king, probably Sargon II. Sargon II has described his triumphs in cuneiform and Assyrian languages. The stone inscription possibly dates back to the late 2nd millennium or early 1st millennium B.C.

Elamites, continue creating bas-reliefs

Elamites, who ruled southern parts of Iran, continued to create bas-reliefs. Elamite bas-reliefs provide a lot of information about the civilization of Elam. Thus far, 17 bas-reliefs by Elamites have been recognized in various regions including Kurangoun, Naghsh-e Rostam, Koul Fareh, Eshkoft Salman, Toul Castle, Norouzi Pass, Shahsavar, and Hajiabad. The Elamite bas-reliefs generally depict religious and non-religious issues. Out of 17 bas-reliefs, 12 belong to the first group and 5 belong to the second group.

Elamite bas-reliefs have been found in different regions. A public reception by gods has been depicted in Kurangoun and Naghsh-e Rostam while immolation for gods and scenes showing statues of gods or kings carried have been carved out on other rocks of Koul Fareh. Most bas-reliefs related to worship rituals have been found in Eshkoft Salman and Naghsh-e Rostam (Hajiabad village) region. Non-religious scenes have been found in Toul Castle, Shoush, Koul Fareh, Norouzi Pass, and Shahsavar regions. Apart from bas-reliefs of Shoush and Toul Castle, which have been carved out on stone tablets, other scenes are decorating mountains in Fars and Khuzestan provinces.

A characteristic of Elamite bas-reliefs is that heads and feet are demonstrated in profile while the body is depicted full-face. The only persons who have been excluded from that rule are those who carry out special ceremonies.

In general, bas-reliefs depict people in official positions and lack needed delicacy. Also, people have not been depicted in their life size. Those who belong to a higher social class have been carved out bigger than others.

Medes and rock art

Out of stone inscriptions remained from the era of Medes; one can single out bas-reliefs on Median graves. They are usually seen on the upper, and sometimes on the lower, part of the graves and convey a religious theme. Graves that are decorated by bas-reliefs can be found in Kermanshah province. Qizqapan grave at Sourdashi village near Sulaimaniyah city of Iraq shows two worshippers who are standing on two sides of a fireplace and have raised their hands in worship.

There are controversies about chronology of bas-reliefs and such graves and new studies have attributed them to the era of Achaemenids, Seleucids, and Ashkanids. The aforementioned bas-reliefs are not very ornate and it seems that the artist has not cared for the details. The said bas-reliefs have served rock architecture and as we see in later eras, they have not been meant to be simply bas-reliefs.

Achaemenids, artful stonecutter

The stonecutting was used to decorate Achaemenids palaces at Pasargad and Persepolis and the art of Achaemenid stonecutting has been materialized at that two palaces. Apart from inscriptions on buildings, stone inscriptions related to Achaemenid era can be seen on Bistoon Mountain as well as Naghsh-e Rostam and Persepolis monuments. One of the most valuable works of Achaemenid era after Darius the Great became king, was a bas-relief at Bistoon in which Darius has depicted his triumph over Geomat Mogh and nine other army commanders who had risen against him. There is a stone inscription below the bas-relief in three languages: Elamite cuneiform, Babylonian, and ancient Persian. What we see more in Achaemenid bas-reliefs is the glory of the king and balance cut stones.

Achaemenid art always depicts the king in a very official position. The stonecutting art of that period has been inspired by past experiences of Lului, Elamite, and Median stonecutters as well as other nations like Egypt and Assyria. Like other parts of that period, the Achaemenid stonecutting was very fashionable and chose the best elements from other nations’ arts. The Achaemenid art has not cared much about dispositions of various people and has not tried to depict the third dimension. It has sufficed to profiles. The Achaemenid bas-relief represents an official and symbolic art.

Ashkanids, innovators in stone inscriptions

On Bistoon Mountain as well as Bakhtiari mountains, Ashkanid and local Eliman kings have followed suit with the Achaemenid traditions and have created bas-reliefs. The most ancient of Ashkanid bas-reliefs has been created on Bistoon Mountain. Eliman kings who ruled Khuzestan at the time of Ashkanids have created many bas-reliefs on Bakhtiari Mountains. They can be divided into religious and non-religious ones which depict scenes of worship as well as other religious rites.

Non-religious scenes show the king lounging on a throne, depict a cavalry fighting and also include fighting with a lion, delegation of power in Khoung Azhdar, as well as scenes of servitude which have been carved out on the rocks of Khoung Kamalvand and Khoung Yaralivand.

Generally, Ashkanid carvings are less exquisite that those of Achaemenid era. The designs are less delicate and artists have not been successful in working out bas-reliefs. Therefore, carvings seen at Tank Sarvak remind one of simple linear designs. Gradually, artists advanced in this field at the end of Ashkanid era. An example is the bas-relief in Bistoon which is not linear. Also, the carvings are more realistic though their general disposition is too official and lacks flexibility. The most important innovation in Ashkanid era, however, is carving out full-face bas-reliefs which are among major features of Ashkanid art.

Sassanids; the climax of stone carving

The Sassanid era marked the climax of stone carving during which beauty, delicateness, skill and accuracy of designs reached its peak. Thus far, 37 bas-reliefs related to that era have been identified of which 29 carvings have been found in Fars province, six carvings at Taq-e Bostan in Kermanshah province, a carving near Salmas city in East Azarbaijan province and a carving near Shahr-e Rey. Bas-reliefs of Fars province have been found in such regions as Tangab-e Firouzabad, Naghsh-e Rostam, Naghsh-e Rajab, Tang-e Chogan, Tang-e Qandil, Darabgard, Baram Delak, Goyoum, Sar-Mashhad, and Sarab Bahram.

The main subjects depicted in Sassanid stone carvings include bestowing crown on the king by Ahura Mazda and Anahita, triumph over enemies, lauding the king by courtiers, family scenes, fighters and hunting. Bas-reliefs are usually accompanied with inscriptions in Ashkanid and Sassanid Pahlavi languages, which introduce personalities. There are also inscriptions which have nothing to do with people in bas-reliefs.

A major feature of Sassanid bas-relief art is attention to nature as well as flexibility of design. Apart from the lesser and greater porticos of Taq-e Bostan, other bas-reliefs are confined within a quadrangle frame.

Presence of gods in those carvings is meant to denote the legitimacy of the king. Big bas-reliefs of the king in all carvings sometimes exceed the limits of the frames and are meant to highlight grandeur of the king. The ancient crown is a symbol of the king and a sign of divine confirmation for his power. This shows that Sassanid kings attached importance to divine origin of their rule.

Bas-reliefs gradually developed and changed from conveying ideal states to show personal qualities. The mild design of bas-reliefs as well as folds on clothes including attention to delicate points related to costumes, caps, weapons, insignias, and facial expressions were focus of attention by Sassanid artists and attest to considerable progress in the field. A technique, which has been used for working out bas-reliefs in that period was plasterwork and sometimes, painting. An example of this method is seen in bas-relief of Shapour II at Tang-e Chogan. The stone surface has not been leveled off so that a layer of plaster would stick to it. Then the surface of bas-relief has been covered with plaster, and in some instances, painted. It seems logical to assume that many stone carvings related to different eras have been preserved against climatic conditions by painting. This viewpoint has been upheld by the painting carving which is near Taq-e Bostan and pertains to Fathali Shah, the Qajar.

Due to religious reasons, creating bas-reliefs was restricted in the Islamic era and the sole remnants of that period pertain to the time of Ilkhanid rulers and Qajar kings. Ilkhanid rulers built a rock temple in Dashkas Mountains whose walls were decorated with two big dragons.

Most Qajar bas-reliefs have been ordered by Fathali Shah, which depict him and his courtiers while during formalities and hunting ceremonies. Seeing bas-reliefs in Persepolis, Naghsh-e Rostam and other places in Fars province as well as studying historical books, encouraged Fathali Shah to order stonecutters to make his bas-reliefs in various places, including in Shahr-e Rey and Washi Pass near Firouzkouh city.

Both bas-reliefs show him hunting, which was one of his main hobbies. The royal hunting grounds are the subject of a bas-relief at Washi Pass of Firouzkouh which has been framed with a biography of the king in nastaliq handwriting accompanied with poems and verses of Quran. The bas-relief has been worked out by three artists whose names have been mentioned in the nearby inscription as Abdollah, the painter, Qasem Valad, the architect, and Gholamali, the stonecutter. The last bas-relief pertaining to Qajar kings has been ordered by Nasser-ed-Din Shah and is located along Haraz Road.

As said before, the art of stone carving, from early experiences up to the finest bas-reliefs, has been indicator of the capacities and finesse of the Iranian artists and has worked to keep the Iranian thought alive.

Out of 105 known bas-reliefs, the most famous pertains to Ashkanid and Sassanid eras. The most notable of those bas-reliefs include four Lului, one Lului- Gothi, two Assyrian, 17 Elamite, five Median, eight Achaemenid, 25 Ashkanid, 37 Sassanid, one Ilkhanid and five Qajar stone carving.