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Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia’s Ancient Necropolis

Insights into Naqsh-e Rostam's Royal Tombs

Located 10 kilometers from Persepolis in the city of Marvdasht, there’s a magnificent complex of tombs and bas-reliefs from three major royal dynasties in Iran: the Elamite, Achaemenid, and Sassanian. This site, known as Naqsh-e Rostam, features these inscriptions and tombs carved into a mountain, locally referred to as Hossein Kuh. Other names for this mountain include Kuh-e Estakhr and Kuh-e Naftesh.

Location and Accessibility

Naqsh-e Rostam, an ancient necropolis steeped in history, lies in the heart of Iran’s Fars province, a mere 6 kilometers northwest of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. This historic site, known for its awe-inspiring rock reliefs, serves as a testament to the grandeur of ancient Persian civilization. It is easily accessible from Shiraz, the nearest major city, making it a must-visit destination for travelers exploring Iran’s rich cultural heritage.

From Shiraz, travelers can opt for a short drive to Naqsh-e Rostam, with the journey taking approximately an hour. This proximity allows for seamless integration into travel itineraries that include Persepolis, offering a comprehensive glimpse into Iran’s ancient history in a single day trip.

Public transportation options, including buses and taxis, are readily available from Shiraz, providing convenient access to Naqsh-e Rostam. However, for a more personalized experience, consider arranging a private tour through reputable travel agencies like SURFIRAN or OrientTrips. These tailored tours not only ensure comfort and convenience but also offer insightful commentary on the historical significance of the site, enhancing the overall visitor experience.

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran (photo by Wikipedia)

Upon arrival, guests will find that Naqsh-e Rostam is well-equipped to welcome tourists, with facilities such as parking, guides, and informational plaques that elucidate the site’s history.

The best time to visit is during the cooler months from March to May and September to November, when the weather is pleasant, allowing for a more enjoyable exploration of the outdoor site.


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Getting to Naqsh-e Rostam

To visit Naqsh-e Rostam, located 56 kilometers northeast of Shiraz, you can easily access this site from Persepolis, with just 6 kilometers separating the two. For those with a personal vehicle, the journey is straightforward: head towards the city of Marvdasht and follow the Marvdasht-Sa’adat Shahr highway to the Persepolis to Istakhr route, also known as the ancient royal road. If driving isn’t an option, one-day tours or taxis represent the best alternatives for reaching Naqsh-e Rostam, offering convenience and the opportunity to explore this historic site without the need for personal transportation.

Within this site, there are four grand tombs belonging, from left to right, to Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I, and Xerxes I. Chronologically, the first bas-relief carving belongs to Darius the Great, followed by Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II. Below these tombs, impressive carvings of Sassanian kings are visible, depicting themes of coronation, victory, and their battles. Directly opposite the tomb of Darius II stands a beautiful, cubic structure known as the Cube of Zoroaster, believed to have been a fire temple or a very sacred place in the past. Other significant parts of this historical site include stone fireplaces, a fortress with protective walls, and a water well.

In the ancient complex of Naqsh-e Rostam, there are four tombs from left to right, belonging to Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius the Great, and Xerxes.

Tomb of Darius II (420 to 404 BCE)

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Tomb of Darius II, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran

This tomb, located at the westernmost point of Hossein Kuh and directly opposite the Cube of Zoroaster, does not have a specific reason for its positioning. The facade of Darius II’s tomb, like the other three, is carved in a cross shape, and unfortunately, the depiction of King Darius II has suffered significant damage. Similar to other Achaemenid bas-reliefs, Ahura Mazda (the creator of life) is positioned in front of the king. The depiction of Ahura Mazda is straightforward and unadorned, with more horizontal lines on its wings compared to other tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam. The bas-relief shows the royal throne being carried by 30 throne bearers, with the king standing in front of a fire altar under the protection of Ahura Mazda, flanked by courtiers.

Inside the Tomb of Darius II

The entrance or hallway of this tomb, approximately 280 cm in height, is crudely carved and does not closely resemble a rectangle. Inside, there are three chambers, each with a more precisely carved entrance and containing a grave. It is believed that the central grave belongs to King Darius II and another to Queen Parysatis (daughter of Artaxerxes I, wife of Darius II). The occupant of the third grave remains speculative.

Who Was Darius II?

Darius II ascended the throne after Artaxerxes I and ruled for about 20 years. Historical records often describe him negatively, portraying him as indulgent and authoritarian, contrasting significantly with the characteristics of previous Achaemenid rulers.

Tomb of Artaxerxes I (450 to 430 BCE)

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Tomb of Artaxerxes I, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran

Located immediately after the tomb of Darius II and about 37 meters from the next tomb (Darius the Great), the facade of Artaxerxes I’s tomb is also cross-shaped and stands 22 meters tall. In this carving, the Faravahar is precisely above the king, with a simple ring around its body, mirroring the depiction in Darius II’s tomb. The king is depicted holding a ring that aligns with the image of the Faravahar, with the sleeves of his garment grasping the ring. Like the other three carvings, the king stands on the Kiani throne, with throne bearers moving the throne.

Inside the Tomb of Artaxerxes I

The interior of Artaxerxes I’s tomb, modeled after the tomb of Darius the Great, features three chambers. However, a significant difference from Darius’s tomb is the lack of geometric order and proportion in various sections, including the hallways. Speculations suggest the central grave belongs to Artaxerxes I due to its larger size and the greater care taken in its construction. Likely, another grave belongs to Queen Damaspia (wife of Artaxerxes I, mother of Xerxes II), who is said to have died shortly after Artaxerxes I. The third grave is presumed to belong to the chosen successor of the king.

Who Was Artaxerxes I?

Artaxerxes I, also known as Artaxerxes III, was the son of Xerxes and the sixth Achaemenid king. When he began his reign, the empire was experiencing internal conflicts. After brief engagements with Egypt and Greece, he lived a royal life, completing the magnificent palaces of Persepolis and Susa, finishing the unfinished work of his father, Xerxes.

Tomb of Darius the Great (519 BCE)

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Tomb of Darius the Great, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran

Following the tomb of Artaxerxes I, the tomb of Darius the Great is located, positioned almost centrally at Naqsh-e Rostam. Inscriptions confirm the tomb’s assignment to Darius the Great (Darius I), who likely initiated its construction alongside the Apadana of Susa and Persepolis. Carved 60 meters above ground level, the tomb’s facade is cross-shaped. In this bas-relief, Darius the Great sits on a throne with lion’s paw feet, supported by 28 figures from various lands. Above the king, the Faravahar, or the divine symbol, looms, with the royal fire altar carved beside Darius. The king is dressed in Persian attire, holding a bow in his left hand and extending his right hand toward the fire altar. To Darius’s right, a circle containing a crescent is visible. Additionally, figures carved on either side of the king appear to be his close associates.

Below the bas-relief of the king, the tomb’s entrance is flanked by four pillars with bull-head capitals and a palace design. These carvings suggest the tomb closely resembles the Tachara Palace (Darius the Great’s residence), reflecting the Achaemenid belief in resurrection, hence constructing the tombs to resemble their earthly dwellings. Notably, this tomb stands out for its construction precision and carving delicacy compared to other tombs, with the lower part of the cross-shaped facade polished and smooth to deter access to the tomb.

Inside the Tomb of Darius the Great, the mausoleum contains three chambers, each housing three sarcophagus-like graves. It is believed that, apart from the king, eight other close relatives are buried here. The graves do not significantly differ in design or size, making it challenging to identify Darius’s grave among them. However, Erich F. Schmidt, a German-American archaeologist, contends that Queen Atossa (mother of Xerxes, wife of Darius, and daughter of Cyrus the Great) is definitely buried in one of these graves.

Who Was Darius the Great?

Darius the Great was the third king of the Achaemenid Empire. He ascended to the throne in 522 BCE by killing the magus Gaumata and reigned for 36 years until his natural death at the age of 64. The construction of Parsa (Persepolis) began under his reign but was not completed. During his rule, Darius undertook significant projects like the creation of the canal linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, standardizing imperial taxes, establishing the Royal Road, forming the Immortals (the elite army unit), among other services, cementing his legacy as a benevolent figure in human history.

Interesting Fact

According to historical records, on the day Darius the Great completed the construction of his tomb, he asked his parents to visit it. They used a rope to ascend, but it broke, resulting in their fatal fall. Following this tragic event, Darius the Great ordered the execution of those responsible for the accident.

Inscriptions of the Tomb of Darius the Great

Two inscriptions in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian are found at the tomb of Darius the Great, serving as a sort of spiritual will for posterity. The first inscription, located above, is known as the DNa inscription, presenting a completely impartial narrative. The second, beside the entrance, known as the DNb inscription, is more personal. A third inscription was added during the Seleucid period below the Elamite line of Darius’s inscription, presumably written during the reign of Seleucus I or his son Antiochus, as some researchers suggest the name “Seleucus” is readable in this inscription.

English translation

A great god is Ahura Mazda, who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius king, one king of many, one lord of many.

I am Darius the great king, king of kings, king of countries containing all kinds of men, king in this great earth far and wide, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid, a Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, having Aryan lineage.

King Darius says: By the favor of Ahuramazda these are the countries which I seized outside of Persia; I ruled over them; they bore tribute to me; they did what was said to them by me; they held my law firmly; Media, Elam, Parthia, Aria, Bactria, Sogdia, Chorasmia, Drangiana, Arachosia, Sattagydia, Gandara [Gadâra], India [Hiduš], the haoma-drinking Scythians, the Scythians with pointed caps, Babylonia, Assyria, Arabia, Egypt, Armenia, Cappadocia, Lydia, the Greeks (Yauna), the Scythians across the sea (Sakâ), Thrace, the petasos-wearing Greeks [Yaunâ], the Libyans, the Nubians, the men of Maka and the Carians.

King Darius says: Ahuramazda, when he saw this earth in commotion, thereafter bestowed it upon me, made me king; I am king. By the favor of Ahuramazda I put it down in its place; what I said to them, that they did, as was my desire.

If now you shall think that “How many are the countries which King Darius held?” look at the sculptures [of those] who bear the throne, then shall you know, then shall it become known to you: the spear of a Persian man has gone forth far; then shall it become known to you: a Persian man has delivered battle far indeed from Persia.

Darius the King says: This which has been done, all that by the will of Ahuramazda I did. Ahuramazda bore me aid, until I did the work. May Ahuramazda protect me from harm, and my royal house, and this land: this I pray of Ahuramazda, this may Ahuramazda give to me!

O man, that which is the command of Ahuramazda, let this not seem repugnant to you; do not leave the right path; do not rise in rebellion!

— DNa inscription of Darius I.

Tomb of Xerxes (circa 465 BCE)

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Tomb of Xerxes, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran

The tomb of Xerxes is situated at the easternmost point of the mountain, approximately 100 meters away from the tomb of Darius the Great. Its cross-shaped design and the thematic elements of its reliefs closely resemble those of Darius the Great’s tomb. The king is depicted sitting on the royal throne, with people from various lands (from India to Egypt and Libya) bearing it. A Faravahar is engraved above the king, with a royal fire altar in front of him, towards which the king is extending his hand.

Inside the Tomb of Xerxes

The entrance to the tomb stands about 6 meters high. Inside, there is only one chamber, containing three graves. These graves are simpler than those in Darius’s tomb, with the central, larger-doored grave likely belonging to Amestris (daughter of Otanes, mother of Artaxerxes I, and wife of Xerxes).

Xerxes, the son of Darius the Great and the fourth emperor of the Achaemenid Empire, led numerous battles during his reign. His life came to an abrupt end when he was assassinated in his sleeping quarters by Artabanus, the head of the royal guard, and a eunuch named Mithridates.

Sassanian Reliefs at Naqsh-e Rostam

We’ll briefly explore the Sassanian kings’ reliefs at Naqsh-e Rostam.

Relief of Ahura Mazda and Ardeshir I

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Relief of Ahura Mazda and Ardeshir I, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran

This relief stands as one of the best-preserved from the Sassanian era, showcasing Ardeshir Babakan on a decorated horse, facing Ahura Mazda, also mounted. Behind Ardeshir, a figure is seen fanning the great king. Beneath Ardeshir’s horse lies Artabanus IV, the last Parthian king, and under Ahura Mazda’s horse, the dark deity or Ahriman, symbolizing Ardeshir’s victory over Artabanus V and Ahura Mazda’s triumph over Ahriman. In this carving, Ahura Mazda, crowned with a crenellated diadem, offers the ring of kingship to Ardeshir with his right hand, holding a barsom (a bundle of sticks) in his left. Ardeshir’s horse bears a pendant inscribed in three languages: Parthian, Middle Persian (Pahlavi), and Greek, stating:
“This is the figure of Mazda-worshipping divine Ardeshir, king of kings of Iran, whose seed is from the gods, son of the divine Babak, king.”

On the body of Ahura Mazda’s horse, an inscription reads:

“This figure is the god Lord Ahura Mazda.”

Relief of Hormizd II’s Battle

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Relief of Hormizd II’s Battle, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran (photo by Wikidata)

Located directly below the tomb of Ardeshir I and the relief of his father, Narseh, this carving depicts Hormizd, grandson of Shapur I, thrusting his spear into an armored Iranian enemy. Hormizd is dressed in tight clothing with baggy trousers, his long hair reaching his shoulders, though, unfortunately, Hormizd’s crown is damaged, with only the eagle’s wing and a pearl-like part remaining. Behind Hormizd stands a figure, identifiable by his hat as one of the royal court’s dignitaries.

Unfinished Relief of Adur Narseh

Above the relief of Hormizd II is an unfinished carving, likely intended for Adur Narseh, Hormizd’s son. Adur Narseh ascended the throne only months after his father’s death but was quickly deposed by the court’s magnates. The details of this relief are unclear, showing a bearded king seated on his throne, holding a sword or staff, with two indistinct figures standing before him.

Note: The photo above belongs to Hormizd II, and nothing remains of the Adur Narseh relief.

Relief of Shapur I’s Battle

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Relief of Shapur I’s Battle, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran (photo by Wikipedia)

This is the largest and most magnificent Sassanian relief at Naqsh-e Rostam, located to the right and below Darius the Great’s tomb. It depicts Shapur I’s victory over Valerian, the Roman Emperor. Shapur is shown mounted on a richly adorned horse, wearing a large, globe-shaped crown, a necklace, and earrings. Underneath the horse’s belly, an inscription in Greek, Pahlavi, and Parthian languages was placed, with only the Greek portion surviving. Facing Shapur’s horse is a middle-aged man with curly bearded Roman attire, kneeling (Valerian of Rome), and next to him stands a beardless man in Roman clothes, likely Gordian III, Valerian’s rival. This relief, one of the most beautiful from the Sassanian period, is said to bring the figures to life. It’s believed that due to Valerian’s presence, the carving dates back to around 262 AD.

Adjacent to the bas-relief of Shapur and directly behind him is an engraving of Kartir, the high priest of Zoroastrianism. He is depicted with a clean-shaven face and wearing a tall hat. The identity of Kartir is recognized by the scissor-like symbol on his hat, a motif also seen in his depictions at Naqsh-e Rajab and Naqsh-e Bahram in Sar Mashhad. Kartir is shown extending his right index finger in worship towards the king, standing respectfully. Below this design is a 48-line inscription, echoing the content found on the walls of the Kaaba of Zoroaster, likely carved during the reign of Bahram II.

Bas-relief of Bahram II and Courtiers

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Bas-relief of Bahram II and Courtiers, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran (phot by Wikimedia Commons)

Located directly beneath the tomb of Darius the Great, this carving shows Bahram II, identifiable by his eagle-winged hat, mounted on a decorated horse, thrusting his spear into the chest of an unidentified enemy. Besides this figure, another person, likely deceased, lies beneath the horse’s hooves. Behind Bahram II stands a figure holding a flag atop a wooden pole. Bahram II, like other Sasanian kings, wears a tight tunic and baggy trousers.

Experts speculate that the defeated enemy before Bahram might be Hormizd, Bahram II’s brother, who took advantage of the king’s absence to claim the throne. Bahram II defeated him and granted the rule of Sistan to Bahram III. Some suggest this relief represents Shapur I’s victory over Gordian III of Rome, while others believe it depicts Bahram IV’s victory over the Huns or the Hephtalites who attacked from China and the Caucasus. However, the exact identity of Bahram II’s enemy in this relief remains uncertain, probably carved around 285 AD.

Elamite Bas-relief | Beneath Bahram II’s Bas-relief

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Elamite Bas-relief, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran

At first glance, Bahram II’s bas-relief draws attention, but a closer inspection reveals two figures with Elamite features on either side of the relief. The figure on the right has hands in a prayer position, and on the left, a man wears a Persian cap, indicating a friendly relationship between the Elamites and Persians (later known as the Achaemenids). Further research shows these two Elamite figures seated on a royal platform adorned with serpent decorations, likely representing a god and goddess of Elam. The serpent designs can still be distinguished beside Bahram II’s relief. This bas-relief, possibly carved around 1000 BC or 700 BC, might depict a goddess on the left and a god of Elam on the right.

Bas-relief of Bahram III

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Bas-relief of Bahram III, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran

Above Bahram II’s bas-relief, another carving, believed to be of Bahram III due to its thematic connection to Bahram II’s relief, depicts a crownless young man defeating an enemy. The prince’s hat and attire suggest he was a high-ranking Sasanian prince. The defeated foe holds the horse’s bridle with his right hand and a spear with his left, though his attire indicates a lower rank. This carving was likely made around 285 AD.

Bas-relief of Anahita and Narseh | Coronation of Narseh

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Bas-relief of Anahita and Narseh, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran

This bas-relief shows the coronation of Narseh (son of Shapur I and father of Hormizd II), with the goddess Anahita bestowing the ring of kingship upon him. Narseh wears a magnificent crown and the royal attire of Sasanian kings, with a young figure behind him, possibly his grandson or heir apparent, Hormizd II, due to the long bands on his hat. The unfinished nature of this bas-relief suggests it may have been carved around 300 AD, the year Narseh died, and Hormizd II succeeded him.

Unadorned Carved Panel

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Unadorned Carved Panel, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran (photo by Wikipedia)

To the west of Narseh’s coronation scene by Anahita, there is a large, polished panel without any carvings, resembling the panel known as Farhad Tarash in Bisotun. Experts associate both panels with Khosrow Parviz, who might have intended to leave a grandiose portrait of himself but was prevented by his defeat to the Byzantine emperor. In 1821, a wealthy local ordered a 24-line Persian Nasta’liq inscription of the Hajiabad land deed to be carved into this panel. The only features on this panel are three large square holes, and beside it, a Qajar period inscription related to the division of water and agricultural lands is visible.

Cube of Zoroaster

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Cube of Zoroaster, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran

The Cube of Zoroaster at Naqsh-e Rostam is a majestic stone structure characterized by its quadrangular, stair-stepped design, situated opposite the Tomb of Darius II within the ancient ensemble of Naqsh-e Rostam. This edifice incorporates various stone types, including black and white limestone, reminiscent of those used in Persepolis, indicating its Achaemenid era origin. The construction utilizes large, rectangular stones assembled without mortar, connected by dovetail clamps, showcasing precise dimensional and proportional accuracy.

Inside the Cube lies a chamber, historically accessible via 30 steps leading to its entrance. On its northern, southern, and eastern walls, three inscriptions in Sassanian Middle Persian, Parthian Middle Persian, and Greek recount significant historical accounts from the Sassanian period.

Function of the Structure

The Cube’s original purpose remains debated, with several theories proposed:

  • Fire Temple: Some suggest it served as a Zoroastrian fire temple, evidenced by black smoke stains in certain areas and its stair count’s similarity to the Zoroastrian temple, the Prison of Solomon. The precision of its construction and significant inscriptions point to its importance as a sacred site.
  • Observatory: Others believe its resemblance to the Prison of Solomon indicates a shared function as observatories, utilizing their shadows for precise timekeeping.
  • Tomb: Some experts argue it could be a tomb, drawing parallels to Cyrus the Great’s mausoleum, further supported by its proximity to other tombs in Naqsh-e Rostam, suggesting a similar use.
  • Treasure Vault: Another theory dismisses it as a fire temple or tomb, proposing instead that it served as a treasury, safeguarding valuable items such as sacred texts, possibly including the original Avesta. There’s also speculation that it could be the tomb of the last righteous Achaemenid, Bardiya, secretly killed by Cambyses, later repurposed as a treasure vault by the Sassanians.

Kartir’s Inscription

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Kartir’s Inscription, Naqsh-e Rostam, Shiraz, Iran

Kartir, a Zoroastrian high priest with significant influence among Sassanian kings, commissioned an inscription detailing his life and contributions, likely carved during Bahram II’s reign.

Dual Stone Fire Altars

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Dual Stone Fire Altars, Naqsh-e Rostam (photo by Flickr)

Near Hossein Kuh, two stone columns, one larger than the other and spaced 80 meters apart, are identified as fire altars. Both feature crescent-shaped arches and conical depressions on top, presumed to hold bowls or fire altars used in religious ceremonies. The smaller column likely served specific rituals, while the larger was used for maintaining fire. Their origins trace back to the late Parthian and early Sassanian periods.

Fortress and Protective Walls

Naqsh-e Rostam: Persia's Ancient Necropolis
Fortress and Protective Walls of Naqsh-e Rostam

This segment, not readily visible to the public, is believed to have held significant religious and spiritual importance during the Sassanian era. Evidence suggests a substantial enclosure with watchtowers surrounding the area, similar to those in the historical city of Istakhr.

Water Well

Northeast of Bahram II’s bas-relief, a large pentagon-shaped pit was carved, likely for water collection during droughts, resembling the Shah’s Well in Persepolis near the tomb of Artaxerxes III.


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Final Words

Naqsh-e Rostam stands as a testament to Iran’s rich history, reflecting the ingenuity of the Achaemenid, Sassanian, and Elamite eras. This site, with its grand tombs and intricate bas-reliefs, connects visitors to the ancient past. It showcases the creativity and spirit of civilizations long gone but never forgotten. As you depart from Naqsh-e Rostam, carry with you the awe inspired by these ancient achievements and the stories carved into the rocks. Let the echoes of history inspire a deeper appreciation for our shared human legacy. Naqsh-e Rostam is more than a journey through time; it’s a celebration of enduring human artistry and the unbroken thread of history that connects us all.

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SURFIRAN Editorial Team

SURFIRAN is an Iranian tour operator and travel agency offering tour packages to those interested in Iran. It provides the tourists with services needed to travel to Iran, offers tours across the country, and assists the tourists in obtaining Iranian visas.

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