The earliest known relief in Iran, the Annubanini Relief in Sar-i-Pul, Kermänshah province, was created by the Lullubi (a group of Zagros tribes) during the third millennium BC. This began a tradition followed in many subsequent periods: the Elamites used this form to depict religious scenes and images of royal audiences; the Medians used reliefs on their rock tombs, as did the Achamenids; the Parthians also made use of this form, introducing Hellenistic themes. The artistic pinnacle in the medium of the bas-relief occurred under the Sassanids when reliefs were used for the glorification of kings, the display of dominance over enemies, and also to stress ties with Urmazd (Rezaei niä 2007: 87). The most significant characteristic of Sassanid reliefs is the realism with which the artists depicted scenes. With the arrival of Islam, religious considerations prevented rulers from using this medium. It was only in the Qajar era (1785–1925) that a revival in carving bas-reliefs occurred under Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834) and Naser al-Din Shah (r. 1848–1896). Some eight Qajar bas-reliefs are known, but it is latest of these—known as the ‘Vänä tunnel relief’—created during the reign of Naser al-Din Shah which is the subject of this article. It represents the final Iranian bas-relief—and also a significant break with tradition.
To date, there has been no comprehensive study of Qajar reliefs with the exception of an introductory text by Sotudeh (1995) and an MA dissertation by Haji Alilu (2006). The aim of the present paper is to contribute to awareness and knowledge of the Qajar reliefs.