Iran remains a country full of rich history, both ancient and modern. From Biblical scenes to those scattered in the great stories of myth. While many may think that Iran consists mainly of desert, wasteland only makes up 23% of the country. In reality, 55% of Iran consists of non-arable land, so it cannot be farmed. Additionally, mountains and forests cover the countryside, with the centuries of history etched into them.
Iran’s Ancient History
Iran was predominantly known as Persia up until the 1930’s. The term ‘Persia’ specifically applied to the region of Persis, or modern day Fars. The Persians were Indo-European nomadic people who, in 1000 BCE, migrated to the region. Records from the annals of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser II in 844 BCE provide the first mention of Persians. The ancient Greeks first encountered Persians during the Achaemenian, or First Persian Dynasty, in 559-330 BCE. Until Alexander the Great of Greece conquered them, the Achaemenid dynasty was dominant. Afterwards, the Sasanian dynasty, which was also made up of those native to Persis, rose to power on the Iranian plateau. They remained powerful up until the 7th Century CE.
Persepolis & The Gate of All Nations
Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the First Persian Empire and became a World Heritage Site in 1979. The ruins date back to 515 BCE and are in the plains of Marvdasht, just 60km southwest of Shiraz. Persepolis’ construction can be traced back to Darius I, who made the city the new Persian capital. As the city was in a mountainous location, it was mainly visited in the spring. Additionally, the area meant that it was not ideal for administration and ruling the empire. Because of this, other cities such as Babylon were used as the centre of administration for the First Persian Empire. Due to this, Persepolis was relatively unknown to the Greeks before Alexander the Great invaded Asia in 330 BCE.
This ultimately happened as a result of Xerxes’ attempt to invade Greece a century before. No doubt due to Xerxes’ actions, Alexander the Great plundered the capital and burned the Palace of Xerxes. By doing this, Alexander conquered the First Persian Empire.
The Gate of All Nations can be found in Persepolis. The Gate also has the name ‘The Gate of Xerxes’ as construction began under Xerxes I. The name derives from the fact that the only entrance to the throne hall was through the gate. This meant that all visitors from all nations had to pass through it to see the king.
Naqsh-e Rostam, Iran’s Ancient Necropolis
Located 13 kilometres from Persepolis, you can find a place called Naqsh-e Rostam, which translates to ‘Picture of Rostam’. Four tombs are carved high on the mountainside, one of which evidence suggests belongs to Darius I. The other tombs are thought to belong to Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I and Darius III. Furthermore, on the rock face behind Persepolis 13 kilometres away, three more sepulchres are carved into the rock. These beautifully decorated tombs are thought to belong to Artaxerxes II and III, and the unfinished one to Darius III. The third tomb may be unfinished, as Darius III was the last of the Achaemenian line, and was overthrown.
At the foot of the cliff face sits a building 12 metres high and 7 metres squared. Although it had inscriptions from later periods, it has been suggested to have been built in the 6th century BCE. The building’s purpose has remained ambiguous, but it may have also been used as a tomb at one time.
This site can be found in the ancient Elamite city of Dur Untashi, southwest Iran. It became a World Heritage Site in 1979 and used to be a temple and palace complex. There are thirteen temples, three palaces and the largest ziggurat in the country. The ziggurat measures 105 metres on each side and is 24 metres high, less than double the original predicted height. Chogha Zanbil was built around 1250 BCE under the rule of Untash-Gal, an Elamite ruler in the Middle Elamite Period. Of the thirteen temples, four are well preserved and evidence suggests that the ziggurat was once beautifully decorated. It was once covered in blue and green glazed terracotta on the outside and glass and ivory mosaics adorned the inside. Evidence tells us that the site was never completed. However, after being heavily damaged by the Assyrians in 640 BCE, it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
Chogha Zanbil was rediscovered in 1935 by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This was done while the company carried out an aerial survey and the site was spotted. Excavation began in 1946 and continued for close to 20 years. Several bull sculptures depicting the god Inshushinak were uncovered, as well as many other artefacts. Additionally, five vaulted underground tombs were found, with remains inside. Unusually, four of the bodies had been cremated while only one followed the traditional Elamite ritual of being buried.
Taq-e Bostan holds some of the best preserved examples of Persian carvings from the Sasanian period. The site can be found near Kermanshah city, western Iran. Those depicted in the carvings include Ardashir II and Shapur III. The series of carvings etched into the mountain side include one 9 metres tall and another 4 metres tall. The first arch depicts a Sassanid king’s coronation and below it a man on his horse. Many historians believe the man to be Khosrow Parviz and his horse, Shabdiz. The sides of the arch are scenes of a royal hunt. On the right wall the king chases deer, while on the left he goes after a sounder of boar.
The second arch depicts father and son, Shapur III and III. Both have their hands on their swords and are facing one another. Lastly, the third relief on the right side is smaller and far older. Historians believe that this relief is the oldest and depicts a king, his predecessor and the god Mithra. They stand upon a man as a sign of them defeating their enemies.
The Behistun Inscription, also spelled Bīstūn, became a World Heritage Site in 2006. This inscription can be found in the Zagros Mountains, in western Iran. The village in which it sits carries the same name and was on the old road used by the Persian Empire. The road took you from Babylon to the capital of the ancient media, Ecbatana. King Darius I inscribed the famous trilingual code on his journey from one city to the other. The etchings were done in Elamite, Babylonian and Old Person and are unique.
Deciphering this mystery led to key information being revealed from studying the cuneiform script. Upon translating, it was found that the inscription detailed the story of how Darius came to power. Darius killed the usurper Guamata and assumed the throne once, defeating the rebels. Additionally, it made a note of how the Persian territories were organised into provinces. Archaeologists determined from the inscriptions that the events took place between the autumn of 522 to spring 520 BCE.
Naqsh-e Rajab, along with Naqsh-e Rostam, are candidates to be designated as World Heritage Sites. This site lies 5 kilometres north of Persepolis at the foot of Mount Hosian. The three carvings on the rock face include Ardashir Babakan, Shapur I and other significant individuals from the Ardashir Era. All of the carvings date back to the early Sassanid era and are beautifully kept.
There are reliefs of Ardashir and his successor, Shapur, as well as the carving known as ‘Shapur’s Parade’. This part of the relief shows the celebration of the king’s victory over the Roman Emperor in 244 BCE. The fourth carving on the site depicts a high priest under Shapur I and the king’s sons, Hormizd I and Braham I.
Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System
This immense system dates back to the 5th Century BCE. The hydraulic system was built over several centuries and by different civilizations, each adding more. It has been suggested that construction began under the rule of the Persian King Darius the Great. The entire system reached completion around the 3rd Century CE. This was done with knowledge from the First Persian Empire, the Mesopotamians and the Romans. It became a World Heritage Site in 2009 and was used up until the 20th century. The water that was diverted from the Karun River and into different man-made canals powered mills for centuries. Though it was in use until recently, it is unlikely that it functioned as well as it did a few hundred years ago.
Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran
These three churches are located near the northern border of Iraq. The churches are some of the oldest Christian buildings in Iran and date back as far as the 1st Century CE. Historical records show that many Armenians were followers of the prophet Zoroaster while others were sun worshippers. Christianity was preached by two men by the names of Tatavoos (Thaddeus) and Batholemus (Bartholomew). These three churches are incredibly important as they have survived over 2,000 years of destruction and natural disasters. Furthermore, these churches are the only vestiges of Armenian culture in the region they reside in.
Monastery of Saint Thaddeus, Iran’s Oldest Church
Also known as Qara Kelisa, or ‘Black Church’, this monastery has been given the title of Iran’s oldest church. The site is one of the oldest surviving Christian monuments in Iran and is very notable. This church is highly significant as it represents the Armenian Orthodox community in the country.
In 66 CE, the Armenian ruler ordered a massacre in an attempt to stop the spread of Christianity. The bodies of those who were killed were buried around the church, giving it the name it holds today. Renovations and repairs carried out on the church have given it two distinct sections. The original part of the church was built with black stone while the newer with white. These different sections have been given the name ‘black church’ and ‘white church’.
This church dates back to Saint Bartholomew. It sits above the Aras River on a wooded hill, tranquil and quiet. On the outside of the church are carvings of angels, saints and Armenian crosses.
Dzor Dzor Chapel
Dzor Dzor Chapel, also known as St Mary’s Church, has had a tumultuous history. The church was destroyed over the years and was even moved from its original location to preserve it. This chapel measures 7 metres long and 5 metres wide and, in 1987, moved 600 metres away uphill. The new site was 110 metres higher than its original location and took 25 days to complete. This was done in order to save the site from a dam being built nearby and hold onto the Armenian history.
Arg-e Bam, also known as Bam Citadel, is the largest adobe building in the world. This site can be found in south-eastern Iran, in the Kerman Province. Bam city, in which the citadel can be found, sits at the crossroads of the silk road. This crossroads sits by the roads leading to Egypt, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Due to its location, the citadel was highly important as a trade centre, often aiding in the trade of cotton fabrics and silks.
This citadel was constructed in the Sassanid Era but was conquered by the Arabs in 645 CE. Afterwards, the site was used as a refuge for Khawarij rebels. Over the years it was used for military purposes by various groups and nations. Records show that the citadel was used for these purposes up until the 1930s. This was well after it had stopped being used as a residential area. Unfortunately, 80% of the citadel was destroyed by an earthquake in 2003. Since then, reconstruction and repairs have been underway to make this site as breath-taking as it once was.
Rayen castle is the second largest adobe structure in the world, second only to Arg-e Bam. This castle can be found west of Rayen city, on top of a hill on Hazar Mountain. The site dates back to the Sassanid Dynasty, before the Islam-Period. Used as a commanding fortress at one point, the castle sits on the trading route from Kerman to Jiroft.
Historic documents tell us that the castle was built on the ruins of other structures, most likely castles. These other buildings are said to have been destroyed due to earthquakes or other natural causes. Because of the geographical location and architecture of the castle, the structure has avoided being damaged too much. This has given Rayen Castle the title of the ‘most robust and impermeable structure’. Up until 150 years ago, the castle was inhabited but gradually forgotten over the years. In 1995 the site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and restoration began.
Final Thoughts on Iran… Why Visit?
One of the most iconic things about Iran must be the bazaars. The most famous of these may be the Grand Bazaar in Tehran, with 10 kilometres of corridors. Not only are the bazaars, but there are also some exceptional buildings to visit. These include the Golestan Palace, the National Jewellery Treasury and the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque. No doubt there are more places than you expect that will amaze you, and far more than could fit in a finite list.
With sagas that span the ages, you will not run out of historical sites to stare at in awe. Whether you enjoy the ruins of castles or the ancient carvings left in stone, Iran has something for you. If you cannot get enough of history, check out the Catacombs of Rome or Angkor Thom.