Afterlives of Ancient Rock-Cut Monuments in the Near East

Ben-Dov, Jonathan & Felipe Rojas (eds.). 2021. Afterlives of ancient rock-cut monuments in the Near East. Brill.

This book concerns the ancient rock-cut monuments carved throughout the Near East, paying particular attention to the fate of these monuments in the centuries after their initial production. As parts of the landscapes in which they were carved, they acquired new meanings in the cultural memory of the people living around them. The volume joins numerous recent studies on the reception of historical texts and artefacts, exploring the peculiar affordances of these long-lasting and often salient monuments. The volume gathers articles by archeologists, art historians, and philologists, covering the entire Near East, from Iran to Lebanon and from Turkey to Egypt. It also analyzes long-lasting textual traditions that aim to explain the origins and meaning of rock-cut monuments and other related carvings.

Three chapters of this volume deals specifically Ancient Iranian rock-cut monuments:

  • Chapter 6. Robert Rollinger: “Herodotus and Empire: Ancient Near Eastern Monuments and Their Cultural Recycling in Herodotus’ Histories” (186–220)

Herodotus is well aware that the Great Kings of the Persian-Achaemenid empire, the super-power of his own time, made use of monuments and inscriptions to celebrate and proclaim their specific views of the world as well as to disseminate their imperial claims. More than once he challenges this view in a critical and ironic way. In this context the failure of the Achaemenid-Persian kings to expand successfully is a key topic of Herodotus’ work. In this discourse, anthropogenic monuments play an essential role in disclosing haughtiness and failure, over-ambition, and arrogant claims. Within this framework, “real” monuments are important markers in creating authentication and meaning. Since Herodotus is primarily interested in historical analysis and exemplification on human nature and political aspiration, these monuments are recycled and reconfigured to become integral parts of his narrative. This is even true for such famous monumental clusters as Bisutun and Nahr el-Kalb, whose “real” shape and structure are barely recognizable anymore in this masterpiece of world literature.

  • Chapter 7. Matthew P. Canepa: “Sculpting in Time: Rock Reliefs, Inscriptions and the Transformation of Iranian Memory and Identity” (221–271)

Monumental rock reliefs and inscriptions, either carved into the living rock or on highly valued ruins, played an especially important role in the formation, maintenance, and manipulation of memory in ancient Iran. This chapter considers the processes and practices that these visually and discursively articulated landscapes played in the development of Iranian conceptions of empire and, just as importantly, spatial and topographical experiences of the past. While the other vocations of rock reliefs enter into its discussion, such as constructing imperial space and cultivating sacred sites, this chapter focuses on the role rock-cut monuments played in continually reshaping perceptions of the past, bridging huge gulfs of time and losses of memory and creating useful pasts, either as direct interventions into royal or collective memory during the time of their creation or as raw material during later periods. In addition, rock-cut features allowed Iranian dynasties to make a meaningful connection with the architectural and, especially, rupestrian vestiges of the earlier cultures and empires of pre-Iranian Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the Iranian Plateau, even if the identity of creators of those earlier reliefs were unknown and the scripts and languages of the inscriptions long since forgotten. Here I focus particularly on the afterlives of rock-cut monuments and the varying roles that cumulative memorial landscapes played in constructing, supporting, and changing cultural memory, both regionally and on an imperial scale.

  • Chapter 8. Lindsay Allen und Moya Carey: “Éminences grises: Emergent Antiquities in Seventeenth-Century Iran” (272–344)

This chapter proposes new evidence for the active, multimedia reception of pre-Islamic antiquity in early modern Iran, found in a select group of manuscript paintings produced in Safavid Isfahan between 1605 and 1655. We argue here that some seventeenth-century narrative manuscript illustrations deliberately depicted figural stone reliefs inspired by Persepolis, the Achaemenid monumental capital. To support this thesis, we first trace a precursor mode of representing pre-Islamic monuments in earlier (thirteenth- to sixteenth-century) manuscripts of poetry and cosmology, which use Sasanian monuments at Ṭāq-e Bostān to represent “Mount Bisutun.” We then reassess direct engagements with the site of Persepolis in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, leading up to the reign of Shah ʿAbbas I. Examining contemporary political circumstances under ʿAbbas—including his 1590 re-conquest of Fars province and his establishment of Isfahan as his capital—we conclude that this artistic evidence exemplifies a creative, Safavid reframing of Iran’s pre-Islamic monuments. Although this chapter focuses primarily on Iran (in its fluctuating, early modern territorial forms), we suggest our case study has international resonances. The embedding of Persepolitan reliefs in pre-Islamic narratives precedes and coincides with increased foreign mercantile access to Fars, Persepolis and Isfahan. We suggest that this shows urban elites of Iran contributing to dispersed global dialogues about antiquity in the early modern period.