Document Type : Research Paper


Assistant Professor, Department of Archaeology, Faculty of Letters and Humanities, Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran, Iran.


Sasanians created more than thirty rock reliefs during their reign, most of which are loacated in their homeland of Pars. The study of Sasanian monumental rock reliefs has a long tradition and these fascinating monuments have been subject of scrutiny from many different perspectives. Nevertheless, one major issue still remains relatively unattended: how did these reliefs appear to ancient viewers? This broad question can be considered from at least two different angles: firstly, the relationship between the reliefs and their built and natural environment and secondly the original appearance of the reliefs, which now appear as grey rocky surfaces to us, when they were created and during their time of splendor. While the issue of polychromy in the Achaemenid rock art and architecture has been subject of intensive studies, apart from few brief references, this subject has not attracted much attention among scholars of Sasanian art and archaeology. Were these monuments decorated with color in their original form? If so, what colors were most commonly used? Can we reconstruct the colorful appearance of these reliefs? While empirical evidence of coloring has not been thoroughly documented on Sasanian reliefs yet, examination of several literary evidence as well as application of polychromy in other forms of Sasanian art, such as wall paintings, textiles, mosaics and stucco decorations can provide valuable indirect data on the subject and elucidate the Sasanian palette. Based on a such variety of evidence, as well as the long tradition of polychromy in ancient Iran at least from the Neo-Elamite period up to the Qajar era, it seems fairly rational that Sasanian rock reliefs were indeed colorful images standing out against their rocky background. Considering the close relation between three domains of wall painting, stucco decorating and rock reliefs, colorful appearance of Sasanian rock reliefs can be reasonably reconstructed


Ackerman, Ph. 1964. “Textiles through the Sasanian Period”, In A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present, Vol. II, A. U. Pope and Ph. Ackerman (eds.). London and Tokyo: Oxford University Press and Meiji-Shobo: 681-715.
Aloiz, E., J. G. Douglas, A. Nagel, 2016. “Painted Plaster and Glazed Brick fragments from Achaemenid Pasargadae and Persepolis, Iran”. Heritage Science 4 (3): 1-10.

Alvarez-Mon, J., 2013. “Braids of Glory. Elamite Sculptural Reliefs from the Highlands: Kūl-e Farah IV”, In: Susa and Elam. Archaeological, Philological, Historical and Geographical Perspectives. K. De Graef and J. Tavernier (eds.). Leiden: Brill.

Azarnoush, M., 1994. The Sasanian Manor House at Hājīābād, Iran, Monografie di Mesopotamia 3, Florence.

Bahadori, R. and F. Bahrololumi, 2010(1389Š). “Barresiha-ye Elmi bar Ruy-e Naqashiha-ye Divari-ye Kuh-e Khajeh Zabol (Scientific Examination of Parthian Wall Paintings in Kuh-e Khwajeh in Zabol)”, Asar, Vol. 49: 6-12.[in Persian].
Bater, M. 2010(1389Š). “(Barresi-ye Sakhtar-e Rangdaneha-ye Naqashiha-ye Divari-ye Asr-e Parthi dar Kuh-e Khajeh Sistan) Examination of Color Pigments in Parthian Wall Paintings of Kuh-e Khwajeh, Sistan”, Bolurshenasi va Kanishenasi-ye Iran, Vol 18 (3): 323-334.[in Persian].
Callieri, P., 2003. “At the Roots of the Sasanian Royal Imagery: The Persepolis Graffiti.” In: Eran ud Aneran: Webfestschrift Marshak, M. Comparetti, P. Raffetta, and G. Scarcia (eds.). Transoxiana Webfestschrift 1. available at http:// (accessed 21 May 2020).

Cereti, G. C. 2001(1395Š). La letteratura Pahlavi, translated by P. Sorayya, Tehran: Farzan-e Rooz.[Persian Translation].

Compareti, M., 2009. “Sasanian Textiles”, Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, available at (accessed on 28 June 2020).
Compareti, M., 2011. “The State of Research on Sasanian Painting”, e-Sasanika 13: 1-50.
Ghanimati, S., 2000. “New Perspectives on the Chronological and Functional Horizons of Kuh-e Khwaja in Sistan,” Iran 38: 137-50.
Ghanimati, S., 2013. “Kuh-e Khwaja and the Religious Architecture of Sasanian Iran”, In: The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran, D. T. Potts (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press: 878-908.
Ghanimati, S., 2015. “KUH-E ḴᵛĀJA,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, available at (accessed on 28 June 2020).
Ghirshman, R., 1951. L’Iran: Des origines à l’Islam, Paris.
Ghirshman, R., 1952. “Cinq campagnes de fouilles à Suse (1946-1951),” Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale 46(1): 1-18.
Ghirshman, R., 1962(1370Š). Persian Art, Parthian and Sasanian Dynasties, translated by B. Farevashi, Tehran: Elmi va Farhangi Publication.[Persian Translation].

Goldman B. and A.M.G. Little, 1980. “The Beginning of Sasanian Painting and Dura-Europos”, Iranica Antiqua 15: 283-98.

Grenet, F. 2005(1386Š). “Kashf-e Yeak Naqsh Barjaste-ye Sasani dar Shomal-e Afghanestan (Découverte d'un relief sassanide dans le Nord de l'Afghanistan (note d'information),” Bastanpazhuhi, Vol 4: 66-73.[Persian Translation].

Gropp, G., 2005. “SUSA v. THE SASANIAN PERIOD” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, available at (accessed 25 June 2020)

Gyselen R. and H. Gasche, 1994. “Suse et Ivān-e Kerkha, capitale provinciale d'Ērān-xwarrah-Šāpūr; Note de géographie historique sassanide,” Studia Iranica, Vol. 23 (1): 19-35.Harper, P.O. 1986. “Art in Iran, History of. v. Sasanian Art,” Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. II, Fasc. 6, pp. 585-594.

Herzfeld, E., 1920. Am Tor von Asien. Felsdenkmale aus Irans Heldenzeit, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.

Herzfeld, E., 1928. “La Sculpture rupestre de la Perse Sassanide,” Revue des Arts Asiatiques 5: 129-142.

Herzfeld, E., 1933. “Xerxes in ancient Persian art. The colour of treasures from the great Persepolis discovery”, The Illustrated London News April 8, 1933. 488-89.

Herzfeld, E., 1941(1391Š). Iran in the Ancient Near East, translated by M. Sharifi Nematabad, Tehran: Farzaneh.[Persian Translation].
Herrmann, G. and R. Howell, 1981. The Sasanian Rock Reliefs at Bishapur 2, Bishapur IV, Bahram II receiving a delegation, Bishapur V, The Investiture of Bahram I, Bishapur VI, The Enthroned King, Iranische Denkmäler 10, Berlin.
Herrmann, G. and R. Howell, 1983. The Sasanian Rock Reliefs at Bishapur 3, Bishapur I, The Investiture/Triumph of Shapur I and Sarab-I Bahram, Bahram II enthroned; The Rock Relief at Tang-I Qandil, Iranische Denkmäler11, Berlin.
Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadani, A. 1970(1349Š). Al-Boldan, translated by H. Masood, Tehran: Bonyad-e Farhang-e Iran Publications.[Persian Translation].
Isfahani, H. 1961. Tarikh-e Sini Muluk al-Arz wa al-Anbiya, Kaviani Publications [in Arabic].
Kaim, B., 2002a. Zarathustrian Temple of Fire: Five Years of Excavations at Mele Hairam in Southern Turkmenistan, Warsaw.
Kaim, B., 2002b. “Un temple du feu sassanide découvert à Mele Hairam (Turkménistan méridional),” Studia Iranica: 215-30.
Kawami, T. S., 1987. “Kuh-e Khwaja, Iran, and its Wall Paintings: The Records of Ernst Herzfeld,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 22: 13-52.

Kimball, F. 1937(1391Š). “Sasanian Building at Tepe Hissar”, in Excavations at Tepe Hissar by E. F. Schmidt, translated by K., Roustaee, Tehran: Semnan CHHTO: 413-442.[Persian Translation].

Krefter, 1989. “Persepolis in Farbe”, Archaeologische Mitteilungen aus Iran 22: 131-32.
Kröger, J. 1982(1396Š). Sasanidischer Stuckdekor, translated by F. Najd Sami’ee, Tehran: Samt and RICHT Publication.[Persian Translation].
Lerner, J., 1971. “The Achaemenid Relief of Ahura Mazda in the Fogg Art Museum”. Bulletin of the Asia Institute 2: 19-35.
Lerner, J., 1973. “A Painted Relief from Persepolis”, Archaeology 26(2): 116-22.
Lerner, J., 1976. “Polychromy in Achaemenid Relief Sculpture”, Akten des 7. Internationalen Kongresses für Iranische Kunst und Archäologie, Munchen 1976. Archaeologische Mitteilungen aus Iran 6: 240-241.
Mas’udi, A. 1970(1349Š). Al-Tanbih wa al-Ishraf, translated by A. Payandeh, Tehran: Bongah-e Tarjomeh va Nashr-e Ketab.[Persian Translation].
Mojmal al-Tawarikh wa al-Qasas. 1939(1318Š). edited by M. Bahar, Tehran: Kolale Khavar Publications.[in Persian].
Moorey, 1994. Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Morgenstern, L., 1964. “Mural Painting”. In A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present, Vol. III, A. U. Pope and Ph. Ackerman (eds.). London and Tokyo: Oxford University Press and Meiji-Shobo: 1365-1390.
Mousavi, A., 2012. Persepolis: Discovery and Afterlife of a World Wonder. Boston/Berlin: De Gruyter.
Nagel, A., 2010. Colors, Gilding and Painted Motifs in Persepolis: Approaching the Polychromy of Achaemenid Persian Architectural Sculpture, c. 250-330 BCE. Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan.
Nagel, A., 2011. “Farbe in Persepolis”. Teheran 50. Eine Ausstellung im Museum fuer Islamische Kunst in Berlin, B. Helwing and P. Rahemipour (eds.). Mains: AIT 11: 171-173
Nagel, A., 2013. “Color and Gilding in Achaemenid Architecture and Sculpture”. In The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran, D. T. Potts (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press: 596-621.
Pope, A.U., 1930. An Introduction to Persian Art since the Seventh Century A.D. London: Peter Davies.

Porda, Edith, 1965(1354Š). The Art of Ancient Iran: Pre-Islamic Cultures, Translated by Y. Majidzadeh, Tehran: Tehran University Press.[Persian Translation].

Rahbar, M., 1998. “Découverte d’un monument d’époque Sassanide à Bandian, Dargaz (Nord-Khorassan). Fouilles 1994 et 1995,” Studia Iranica 27: 213-50.
Rahbar, M., 1999. “Présentation d’un adorian, un temple du feu de la période sassanide, découvert à «Bandiyan, Dargaz» et questions d’architecture iranienne”, in Proceedings of the Second Congress of the History of Iranian Architecture and Urbanism, Bam citadel, Kerman, Iran, 14-18 April 1999, Tehran, II: 315-41.
Rahbar, M., 2004. “Le monument sassanide de Bandiān, Dargaz: un temple du feu d’après les dernières découvertes, 1996-98,” Studia Iranica 33: 7-30.

Riazi, M. 2003(1382Š). Tarh-ha va Noqush-e Lebasha va Bafteha-ye Sasani (Designs and Motifs of Sasanian Textiles and Clothing), Tehran: Ganjine-ye Honar. [in Persian].

Sajjadi, A. 1995(1374Š). “Honar-e Gachbori dar Me’mari-ye Eslami-ye Iran (Stucco Art in Islamic Architecture of Iran)”, Asar, Vol. 25: 194-214.[in Persian].
Sarre, F. 1964. “Sasanian Stone Sculpture”. In A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present, Vol. II, A. U. Pope and Ph. Ackerman (eds.). London and Tokyo: Oxford University Press and Meiji-Shobo: 593-600.
Schlumberger, D., 1970. LOrient hellénisé: L’art grec et ses héritiers dans l’Asie non-méditerranéenne, Paris.
Schlumberger, D., 1983. “Parthian Art,” In Cambridge History of Iran: Seleucid Parthian. Vol III (2), E. Yarshater (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1027-54.
Schmidt, E. F. 1953. Persepolis I. Structures, Reliefs, Inscriptions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Schmidt, E. F. 1970. Persepolis III. The Royal Tombs and Other Monuments. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Schmidt, J.H., 1934. “L’expédition de Ctésiphon en 1931-1932,” Syria 15(1): 1-23.
Shepherd, D., 1983. “Sasanian Art,” In The Cambridge History of Iran: Seleucid Parthian, E. Yarshater (ed.), Vol. 3(2): 1055–1112.
Simpson, St. J. 2009. “Assyrian colours: Pigments on a neo-Assyrian relief of a parade horse”, The British Museum Technical Research Bulletin 3: 57-62.
Stein, A., 1928. Innermost Asia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia, Kan-Su, and Eastern Iran, Carried Out and Described under the Orders of H. M. Indian Government, 4 Vols., Oxford.

Tafazzoli, A. 1997(1376Š). Tarkh-e Adabiyat-e Iran-e Pish az Eslam (History of Persian Literature in Pre-Islamic Period), Tehran: Sokhan Publication. [in Persian].

Tilia, A. B., 1978. “Color in Persepolis”, In Studies and restorations at Persepolis and other sites of Fars. Part II. Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente: 29-70.
Thomsen, P., 1932-33. “Wissenschaftliche Berichte. Ktesiphon”. Archiv für Orientforschung 8: 331-332.
Upton, J. M. 1932. “The Expedition to Ctesiphon, 1931-1932,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 27(8): 188-97.Wiesehöfer, J., 1994, Die "dunklen Jahrhunderte" der Persis. Untersuchungen zu Geschichte und Kultur von Fârs in frühhellenistischer Zeit (330-140 v. Chr.) (Zetemata, 90). München.
Yatsenko, S. A., 2012. “Colour Combination in the Costumes of Three Pre-Islamic Dynasties of Iran against the Background of the Synchronous Iranian World,” Proceedings of the 7th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East 12 April – 16 April 2010, the British Museum and UCL, London, Volume 2: Ancient & Modern Issues in Cultural Heritage Colour & Light in Architecture, Art & Material Culture Islamic Archaeology: 173-192.