Sarab-e Qandil: what ambiguous bas-relief hint at Sassanid monarchy?

February 1, 2020 - 20:20

TEHRAN - Reliefs bear significant testimony to fragments of the history of mankind as well as the art history, itself.  Reliefs can be found more or less in each corner of Iran, and even the globe. Who knows, maybe some of them are still having untold stories.

Sarab-e Qandil (literary meaning “ice cold spring”), which dates back to Sassanid-era (224-651 CE), is among Iran’s puzzling bas-reliefs, locating near modern Kazerun in southern Fars province.

Like almost Iranian rock reliefs, this one is located near a source of water. The relief is contained in a quadrangular frame, carved on an isolated rock beside the bed of a river, without having been much eroded or damaged by the water. Its isolation from frequented roads might explain its excellent state of conservation: it was not accessible for vandals.

It depicts a queen offering a lotus flower to her husband [widely believed to be the Iranian king Bahram II (r.276-293)]. The two characters look at each other, while a prince (probably their son, the future king Bahram III) holds a ring of power.

The carving is well-executed. Special attention has been paid to the clothes, which show beautiful and fine details, giving an impression of lightness, of aerial movement. The king appears to wear his winged crown and jewels. His left hand is on the top of his sword. His right hand is open, waiting for the gift. The composition shows the royal figure at the center of the panel, the queen being on his right, the prince being on his left/back.

Both attitudes of the king and the queen express love and respect, according to, which is a website on ancient history written and maintained since 1996 by the Dutch historian Jona Lendering.

“Such representations of love are very rare in Sasanian iconography, which generally consists of audience, victory, or inauguration scenes. An equivalent image of love was carved at Barm-e Dilak, where it is the king who offers the flower to the queen.”

Although this relief is generally attributed to Bahram II, the lack of an inscription makes that experts couldn’t be completely certain. The main arguments for identification with Bahram II lay in the fact that he is the only Sasanian king who showed his queen on coins, and that the female figure might appear to be dressed more like a queen and not a goddess. Scholars like Vanden Berghe and Aerinck, therefore, think that the relief can be attributed to Bahram II. However, Lewitt-Tawill maintains that the relief represents Ardashir I and the goddess, the prince being Shapur I.

Soon after Bahram II, the son and successor of Bahram I, was enthroned, he was forced to defend his position against a brother, Hormizd, viceroy of the eastern provinces.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in 283, exploiting Bahram’s preoccupations, the Roman emperor Carus invaded Mesopotamia unopposed and entered Ctesiphon, the Sasanian capital. Carus’ sudden death, however, forced the Romans to withdraw, and soon thereafter the overthrow of Hormizd made Bahram secure. Numerous southern Persian rock sculptures depict Bahram wearing his winged crown, and several include his queen. Because female portraits are rare in Sasanian art, she is thought to have been a major dynastic personage.

The Sassanid era is of very high importance in the history of Iran. Under Sassanids, Persian art and architecture experienced a general renaissance. Architecture often took grandiose proportions such as palaces at Ctesiphon, Firuzabad, and Sarvestan that are amongst highlights of the ensemble.

Crafts such as metalwork and gem-engraving grew highly sophisticated, yet scholarship was encouraged by the state. In those years, works from both the East and West were translated into Pahlavi, the language of the Sassanians. Rock-carved sculptures and bas-reliefs on abrupt limestone cliffs are widely deemed as characteristics and striking relics of the Sassanian art, top examples of which can be traced at Bishapur, Naqsh-e Rostam and Naqsh-e Rajab in southern Iran.

In 2018, UNESCO added an ensemble of Sassanian historical cities in southern Iran -- titled “Sassanid Archaeological Landscape of Fars Region”-- to its World Heritage list.


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