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The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargade


The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae
The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae

CC Flickr User Travelling Runes

While he still lived, Cyrus the Great planned for his burial at the Persian city of Pasargadae, 40 km northeast of Persepolis.

Cyrus II (559-530 B.C.), known as Cyrus the Great, was the founder of the first Persian dynasty, which is known as the Achaemenid Dynasty. It lasted for about two centuries, through various related rulers like Cambyses, Xerxes, Artaxerxes, and Darius. Especially the earlier of these kings concentrated on expanding Persia's territory to impressive limits, even into Greece, where they fought what we refer to as the Persian Wars. Then, in about 330 B.C., Alexander the Great conquered Persia and ended the dynasty.

We think that Cyrus was a Zoroastrian -- which is a dualistic religion in which if you aren't helping the good, in thought, word, and deed, you're helping the evil. The king's burial practice, as also that of his successors, did not conform in all ways to what we understand as the full requirements of ritual purity. Zoroastrian bodies were to be left on a high place open to the sky, where dogs and vultures consumed them. Strict practitioners avoided burial because it was thought the corpse, which was, by definition, ritually unclean, would pollute the good parts of the world, which includes the earth. They couldn't cremate because fire was sacred and the body would corrupt the flame.

To participate in a burial that avoids adding to the evil of the world, the Achaemenid kings, starting with Cyrus the Great, chose burial high up so they wouldn't come in contact with the "creations" Zoroastrians wished to keep good, clean, and pure, like the aforementioned, earth and fire, as well as water.

The late, Zoroastrian scholar Mary Boyce describes the burial and the methods for securing a burial that would comply with the purity requirements, in her chapter on Persian religion, from The Cambridge History of Judaism. Here is the relevant section:

"So the tomb chamber was made of stone, set high on a six-tiered plinth of solid stone; and it had a stone door and a double roof of stone. Over the door was carved its only ornament, a great flower, the symbol of immortality. At Cyrus' death his son Cambyses duly had his body laid in this tomb, royally clad, and in a gold coffin...."

Living only about two centuries later, Alexander the Great was able to view the lavish tomb of Cyrus the Great, complete with a golden couch. He also read an inscription in which Cyrus, specifically identified, claims to have founded the (Achaemenid Persian) empire, becoming king of Asia.

R.D. Barnett describes the tomb as resembling temples in Urartu, with a gabled roof and box-life, like a miniature ziggurat at the top of a series of six steps. Copied by Darius I at Naqsh-e Rostam the Zendan-e Solayman was a tower whose function many guess at, but no one knows.


  • Chapter 11: "Persian religion in the Achemenid Age," by Mary Boyce; The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume 1 "Introduction; The Persian Period," 1984
  • "On the Zoroastrian Temple Cult of Fire," by Mary Boyce; Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1975), pp. 454- 465.
  • Chapter 20: Pasargadae," by David Stronach; The Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 2 "The Median and Achaemenian Periods," 1985.
  • "Persepolis," by R. D. Barnett; Iraq, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring, 1957), pp. 55-77.
  • "Technologies of Memory in Early Sasanian Iran: Achaemenid Sites and Sasanian Identity," by Matthew P. Canepa; American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 114, No. 4 (October 2010), pp. 563-596

Also see the illustrated article on another "great" of the Achamenid Persians: The Tomb of Darius the Great at Naqsh-i Rustam.

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