The Sasanian king Narseh (297-302 CE) choose to commemorate his ascent to the throne after a dynastic struggle building a monument next to the Paikuli mountain pass (Sulaymaniyah Province). Although Paikuli appears today as a remote place, it was a key element in the historical vicissitudes and ideological propaganda promoted by the sovereign. The pass was, in fact, located in a strategic area of the kingdom representing an important crossroads within a road system that connected the Mesopotamian plain to the Roman limes and the heart of the Iranian plateau. In this context, Narseh gave birth to a much-articulated monumental and figurative project that conveys a sophisticated ideological and dynastic message in solemn form. The complex included a bilingual inscription (Middle Persian and Parthian), which provides us with valuable historical and linguistic information, and massive busts of the sovereign that stressed the purely royal, iconographic and architectural, language of the structure. Since 2006, the Italian commitment to the Paikuli site and its monument has resulted in a series of projects supported by Sapienza, MAECI and other institutions, dedicated to the study, protection, and enhancement of this remarkable element of the Kurdistan Region cultural heritage.

Over the last decade, and in collaboration with the archaeological departments of Sulaymaniyah and Garmian, MAIKI has achieved significant results, especially concerning the study of the inscription and the architectural features of the monument. The analysis of the epigraphic material, now preserved at the Slemani Museum, has made it possible to identify a substantial number of unpublished inscribed blocks whose contribution, both linguistic and content, has expanded our knowledge of the early Sasanian kingship. These innovative aspects have highlighted the need to carry out new archaeological campaigns on the site to acquire data that are still missing. This need has become more pressing following the discovery of the fragments of a fifth in-the-round royal bust, which, together with the other four high-reliefs of the sovereign, accentuates the conceptual value of the figurative program conceived by Narseh. The most recent field activities at Paikuli aim at collecting complete documentation of all blocks that once constituted the outer casing of the structure, now scattered along the slopes of the hill. Equally central is the stratigraphic excavations of selected areas and the topographical survey of the territory. The latter investigation intends to relate other evidence or adjoining contexts connected to the main structure, with the aim of better understanding a royal complex whose symbolic value centres on the interaction of different constituents. As in the case of the epigraphic analysis, the understanding of the main structure, the nature of the site and the surrounding area remains a challenge that is as much stimulating as it is complicated. The 2018-19 field activities included an extensive campaign of aerial photographic documentation and blocks positioning. In this framework, more than 600 blocks have been identified and documented, while of particular interest is the discovery of about twenty blocks or fragments inscribed in Middle Persian or Parthian. The preliminary analysis of the material has highlighted its relevance for both philological reconstruction of the text and understanding of the original arrangement of the two epigraphs on the monument walls.

The lasting synergy between Kurdish institutions and the Department di Ancient World Studies (Sapienza University of Rome), together with the support of the Italian Development Cooperation Agency, resulted in the creation of a new gallery dedicated to the Narseh’s monument at the Slemani Museum, inaugurated in June 2019. Through the careful work of documentation, epigraphic study, and restoration, it was possible to arrange an exhibition of the inscribed and architectural pieces that offers to the public the philological order of the two epigraphs as well as the monumentality of the original structure.


The Paikuli monument was built by the Sasanian king Narseh (293–302/3 CE) in a narrow valley on the western slope of the Zagros, at the southernmost edge of the Qaradagh range, about 70 km south of the modern city of Sulaymaniyah. This was the spot where nobles and notables of the Sasanian kingdom waited for the sovereign to swear him loyalty after a dynastic struggle. To commemorate his victory over his rivals and the restoration of the social order, Narseh carved a bilingual inscription in Middle Persian and Parthian on two walls of the monument. Despite its fragmentary condition, the content of the inscription represents one of the most outstanding direct sources for Sasanian history.

Paikuli il monumento sasanide. Resti archeologici

When Wahrām II (276–293) died, his young son Wahrām III (293) took the throne with the support of a faction of the court lead by a nobleman called Wahnām. At that time, Narseh, son of Shapur I (240–272), one of the greatest sovereigns of the Sasanian dynasty, was King of Armenia, a title often borne by the heir apparent. Having heard about his nephew’s succession and prompted by the request of an influential part of the courtly aristocracy, Narseh marched southward with his army reaching the Paikuli pass. The spot likely marked the gate of the Asōrestān province, giving access to the capital Ctesiphon. This aspect could have made of Paikuli a fitting and symbolic place; here indeed, according to the inscription, Narseh met a delegation of dignitaries recognizing him as legitimate sovereign and offering him the crown of the Iranian kingdom (Ērānšahr).

In all probability, the monument was built in the first years of Narseh’s reign, possibly by 293 or 294 CE. Having completely lost its outer casing of large, unevenly rectangular stone blocks, today the Paikuli monument resembles a large and formless mound of conglomerate. The measurements show that the inner structure, made of small unhewn stones held together by mortar, measures approximately 8.50 × 8.50 m, suggesting that the original perimeter was about 9.50 × 9.50 meters. A number of moulded pieces (e.g. stepped battlements, three-quarter columns, monumental busts of the king) constituted the main decorative features of the monument architecture, denoting the association with well-known patterns of the Iranian art.

Other than a short visit of Sir Henry Rawlinson in 1844, it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld was able to carry out the first substantial scientific works on Paikuli and its inscription. Herzfeld undertook three expeditions on Paikuli (1911, 1913, 1923). In his essay devoted to this site (1924), he regarded the monument having a shape of a tower perhaps inspired at the features of the Ka‘aba of Zoroaster at Naqsh-i Rustam, the Achaemenian tower-like structure, of still obscure function, upon which Narseh’s father, Šābuhr I, engraved his own triumphal inscription. A new examination of the possible shape of the Paikuli structure is one of the main goals of MAIKI’s activities.

Paikuli il monumento sasanide. Resti archeologici

The monument also included massive sculptures of the king. Four of these are frontal busts in high relief; after the study of two large fragments, MAIKI has identified a fifth bust sculptured in the round. Along with the inscription and the monument architecture, the sculptures were part of a sophisticated visual program and ideological message extolling the royal dignity of Narseh.

The remains of the monument rise in a very evocative place, where the ridge of the Zagros features a point of transition between two worlds, Mesopotamia and the Iranian highland.

Though the Paikuli pass seems today isolated, quite the opposite was true during Sasanian times, when tradesman, soldiers and nomads – not to speak of emperors – passed by it. The Paikuli pass and, more generally, the territory of the modern provinces of Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, formed, in Late Antiquity, the core of a complex road system connecting the city of Ctesiphon and the western frontier in Upper Mesopotamia to the heart of the Iranian plateau and far beyond it toward the East. At least three main old roads, of primary importance for the life and the cohesion of the Sasanian Empire, intersected in this area. Archaeological evidence and historical sources underline the strategic relevance of this region for both economic and military perspectives.


T’he bilingual inscription reporting the words and endeavours of Narseh was originally carved upon two facades of the Paikuli monument: the eastern bore the Middle Persian version, the northern the Parthian one. The King’s inscription is one of the most important surviving, primary sources for the early history of the Sasanian dynasty and the development of middle Iranian languages. It indeed provides data crucial not only for the reconstruction of the administrative geography of the Empire but also for the knowledge of the courtly hierarchy and official posts. The content is almost identical in both versions and, despite the relevant loss of blocks, the overlapping of the two versions fill the numerous lacunas occurring in both texts enabling reading the text. Following this method, H. Humbach and P.O. Skjærvø (1978-83) were able to improve substantially the philological reconstruction of the text, whose first edition was provided by Herzfeld in 1924. The narration can be roughly divided into two sections; it begins with Narseh’s presentation, who states to be the King of Kings of Ērān and Anērān (i.e. Iran and not-Iran), in accordance with the official title of the Sasanian kingship. This first part of the inscription continues with a report of the historical events: it describes in detail the correspondence between the grandees of the Empire and the future ruler until his confrontation with the rival pretender to the throne Wahrām III and the nobleman Wahnām and their final defeat. The second part of the inscription consists of a long list of nobles and dignitaries who came to Paikuli to pay allegiance to Narseh. The linguist style of the inscription sounds archaising and solemn; likewise, the overall content of the text includes several formulas and narrative motives engaged with the oral, royal protocol, the epic literature as well as with the Zoroastrian dualistic tradition. Therefore, it is not surprising that the King’s exploit is cast in a mythical/religious, oriented perspective through which Narseh’s deeds assume an eschatological dimension within the cosmic battle fought by the good and evil forces.

Ricostruzione dell'iscrizione bilingue di Narseh

The text once covered the lower half of the facades continuing onto the projecting socle at the base of the monument. Both versions, the Middle Persian and the Parthian, extends over a total of fifteen tiers of inscribed blocks; the Middle Persian version displays eight tiers (A-H) for a total of 46 textual lines. By contrast, the Parthian text consists of 43 lines arranged on seven tiers (a-g). Unfortunately, no tier has been preserved in its entirety, while the state of conservation differs widely from a block to another. The amount of the inscribed blocks, currently known or documented, is of 146 (84 MP; 62 Pa), which should constitute a bit more than a half of the original, total number of the inscribed pieces. Many of the blocks discovered and documented by Herzfeld are now missing because of the looting perpetrated at the site of Paikuli during the 20th century.

The distribution of textual lines for each tier changes, probably for practical reasons occasioned by the structure of the monument; the standard number of lines, as found on nine tiers, is six lines to a block covering the entire surface of the stone. The epigraph is skilfully carved, letters, words and blank spaces between them are quite regular in shape and size, showing the care paid by the stonemasons to such a royal commission. The lettering is the so-called monumental or lapidary script in which each sign is well separated from the others, common to the other Sasanian inscriptions of the third century CE.

The use of an optical device to facilitate legibility reveals the great care with which the inscription was conceived and then carved. The inscription indeed has been written in perspective: letters are tall and wide in the upper tiers, their size decreases as the eye moves down the wall, reaching the smallest dimensions on the last tier. Such a device allowed the engravers, when needed, to fill the surface of lower tiers with seven lines of text, as it is in the case of the Middle Persian tier G.

From 2006 onwards, in collaboration with the Slemani Museum, an Italian team of experts has been investigating the monument, leading extensive surveys in its surrounding area, and studying the epigraphic materials now kept at the Museum. Though today the Slemani Museum hosts only about a hundred of inscribed blocks, while many of the pieces documented in the past are still missing, both the investigation of the Paikuli collection and the field activities at Paikuli carried out by MAIKI (2018-2019) revealed previously unknown blocks that had implemented the existing textual editions.

Field activities at Paikuli (2018-19)

Our research activities in the Sulaymaniyah Governorate started in 2006. The region’s political instability called for temporary suspensions of all field activities both in 2007 and 2014 and forced us to focus on data analysis and the study of the material kept at the Slemani Museum.

In 2018 we were finally able to recommence fully-fledged archaeological investigations on the site of Paikuli. In the course of three campaigns (June, December, May), carried out in synergy with the Department of Antiquity of Sulaymaniyah and the Department of Antiquity of Garmian, MAIKI teams have investigated the relationship between the site, the territory and the Paikuli monument, also carrying out on topographic surveys and documentation activities.

The MAIKI 2018-19 field activities at Paikuli included an extensive campaign of aerial photographs aimed at positioning all blocks in the archaeological area. To date, MAIKI has identified, measured and documented more than 600 blocks and discovered about twenty blocks or fragments inscribed in Middle Persian or Parthian.

The preliminary analysis of the material proved relevant both for the philological reconstruction of the text and understanding of the original arrangement of the two epigraphs on the monument walls. Indeed, the integrated data collected during these campaigns have provided innovative results that lead to a better understanding of the monument in its entirety.

In the course of the last campaign (May-June 2019) a stratigraphic trench was excavated in the SE sector to define the relationship between the monument and the terrace facing the south side. To ensure better access to the site, clear the area for future investigations and ensure their safekeeping, a large number of blocks were moved west (ca. 200 meters from the monument) and organised in parallel rows. Besides the different experts involved with the MAIKI field activities, the last campaigns saw the participation of PhD and MA students.