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Bishapur [Bîchâpour; Pers. Bĭshăpŭr]locked

  • G. Herrmann

Site of Sasanian city 21 km east of Kazerun in south-west Iran. It was founded by the Sasanian king Shapur I (reg ad 241–72) and flourished in the early and middle Sasanian periods (see Sasanian). A relatively small area of the large, approximately rectangular city was cleared by Ghirshman in the 1930s, together with some of the defensive walls.

The purpose of the excavated buildings is disputed. They were once identified as a temple and associated palaces, but the whole area may have had a religious function. One structure, built of fine, ashlar masonry, is semi-subterranean and consists of a central square cella or court surrounded by an ambulatory. A series of subterranean stone channels linked the structure to the river, enabling the cella to be flooded when required. The building was once considered to be a fire temple (see Zoroastrianism, §1), but was more probably dedicated to the goddess Anahita. Another building consists of an enormous hall with four iwans opening on to it; its roofing and that of the stone temple are conjectural. The walls were decorated with simple painted stucco, and the pavements of some floors were covered with mosaics, almost certainly the work of Roman mosaicists. The geometric motifs and ornamental details in these mosaics are Greco-Roman, but there are also distinctively Iranian scenes with subjects such as dancers and harpists. Shapur’s greatest military successes were achieved against the Romans, whom he defeated three times, finally capturing the unfortunate Emperor Valerian alive. Many prisoners were settled in Iran, and their influence is much in evidence at Bishapur, in its orthogonal plan, in the ashlar masonry used for the temple and for the commemorative monument erected at the intersection of the city’s two main axes, and in the mosaics.

Shapur’s victories provided the principal sculptural impetus for the rock reliefs carved in the nearby gorge, the Tang-i Chogan (see fig.). The two earliest reliefs occupy the sites nearest the city. The first, which is poorly preserved, illustrated both Shapur’s investiture by Ahura Mazda, the supreme god of the Zoroastrian pantheon, and his early successes against the Romans. Opposite is a most unusual sculpture. This abandons the standard formula in rock reliefs of relatively few large figures carved on a massive scale, and replaces it with five registers of small figures. The design must reflect Roman influence, and it seems probable that the relief was sculpted by a Roman working within a strict Sasanian vocabulary. Other novel features include the choice of a curved panel so that the figures seem to step out of the stone, a taut design with overlapping figures, and the introduction of the winged Victory motif. The relief commemorates both Shapur’s Roman victories and his successes in the east of the empire. In another version of the same theme at the far end of the gorge the designer used a more Iranian mode of expression, although, as the relief is unfinished, it appears misleadingly crude. Work stopped at an even earlier stage on the two-register relief opposite, with neither the outlines of all the figures nor the King’s crown completed; it may also belong to Shapur I. It is possible that work on these two reliefs was in progress when the King died and had to be completed in plaster in time for his funeral, said to have been held at Bishapur.

Bishapur, Tang-i Chogan, rock relief showing Shapur I triumphing over the Emperors Philip the Arab and Valerian (in situ), c. ad 260–72; Photo credit: SEF/Art Resource, NY

The last two reliefs are elegantly carved in high relief and worked to a fine matt finish. One shows Shapur’s son and successor, Bahram I (reg ad 273–6), being invested by Mithra in a beautifully balanced and symmetrical scene, while the other shows Shapur’s grandson, Bahram II (reg ad 276–93), receiving a delegation. In this scene the King is mounted, while the delegation, introduced by a Persian usher, is on foot and arranged in two rows, one above the other. The calm grace of the King balances the mass of people on the right. These two reliefs were carved within a short space of time and are so close in style that they were probably by the same team of sculptors. One of the most remarkable works of the early Sasanian period, carved from a massive stalactite in a cave on top of a hill near Bishapur, is a monumental statue of Shapur I, closely similar in style to his representations on the reliefs. It was unfortunately broken in an earthquake, although it has since been re-erected.


  • E. Herzfeld: Iran in the Ancient East (Oxford, 1941)
  • R. Ghirshman: Bîchâpour, 2 vols (Paris, 1956–71)
  • R. Ghirshman: Iran: Parthians and Sasanians (London, 1962)
  • V. Lukonin: Persia, 2 (Geneva, Paris and Munich, 1967)
  • V. Lukonin: Des Séleudes aux Sassanides (1967), i of Iran (Geneva, 1967–)
  • G. Herrmann: The Iranian Revival, The Making of the Past (Oxford, 1977)
  • G. Herrmann: Iranische Denkmäler, 9–11 (Berlin, 1981–3)
  • L. Vanden Berghe: Reliefs rupestres de l’Iran ancien (Brussels, 1984)