The other ancient Iran

Persepolis and its nearby sites are well known, but Iran has much more to offer for those who love history, culture and antique architecture. There are a couple of excellent sites relatively close together in the South Western part of Iran. They are of the beaten track, so most ordinary tours don’t go there, and it takes a bit of an effort to see them. But it’s certainly worth it. So let us guide you to these ‘hidden gems’ of ancient Iran.

The easiest way to get there is to fly to Ahvaz. Ahvaz Airport has a lot of domestic connections and some international flights. From here, you can arrange a tour or just rent a taxi for a day. We did the latter and were very satisfied with our choice. The taxi driver was friendly, had an airconditioned car and had gave some insightful information.

Something we should mention; every Iranian we told that we were going to this corner of the country was shaking their head, because even in Spring, temperatures can reach a whopping 50 degrees Celsius. And because it’s a river delta area, the heat is humid. It took some getting used to after the relative coolness of the desert.

Susa

Susa – The other Capital of the Persian Empire

Our first destination of the day was the ancient Elam capital of Susa, nowadays Shush. Susa is a truly ancient city. The first settlement dates from 4,395 BCE, more than 6,400 years ago. In the 4th millennium BCE, the city came under the influence of the Sumerian city of Uruk. From 3,100 to 2,700 BCE Susa became the centre of the Elam civilization and the Iranian history starts at this time. For 2,000 years Susa developed, sometimes as the centre of Elam, other times under the larger Akkadian empire. The Elam empire came to an end in 647BCE when the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal levelled the city.

Tile decoration

Susa came Persian Achaemenid control during the rule of Cyrus the Great around 540BCE. Darius the Great made Susa the winter capital of the Persian empire. The oldest surviving theatre play is situated in the city during this time (The Persians).

Susa would be conquered by Alexander the Great who held his mass wedding between his commanders and Persian nobility. It became a capital of the Parthian empire when it became independent and it was the furthest eastern expansion of the Roman Empire as Trajan briefly captured the city.

The city would be destroyed another two times. Once by the Arabs as they conquered Persia and later by the Mongols. However, the ruins and some preserved reliefs of the city can still be seen today.

Museum         

At the entrance to the archaeological site of ancient Susa is a little museum with some beautiful finds and a lot of explanation about the history of the site. Much of the reliefs in the museum are copies, since the original were brought to France and can be seen in the Louvre museum.

Royal city

The old royal city was located on an artificial mount (tepe). So, climb the mount as you exit the museum. The major remains you can see here are the foundations of Darius his palace. Susa was his favourite capital. This palace was built at the same time as the palace in Persepolis. It would also have included a large hypostyle hall (apadana) as you can still partly see at Persepolis.

Castle

Towering over the archaeological site is the crusader-style castle built by the French archaeologists in 1885 to protect themselves. The castle is a strange anomaly in Iran, it reminds you of the castles in France and the crusader castles in the Middle East. But it is neither.

Tomb of David

Tomb of David

Another site is the tomb of the prophet David. He is said to be buried here, the church which used to house his remains was destroyed by the invading Arabs. But he is said to be reburied in the tomb.

Haft Tepe                   

On your way from Shush to the ziggurat of Choga Zanbil lies Haft Tepe (Seven Hills), which probably is the ancient town of Tikni. Here you’ll find several Royal Tombs, and other remains of what could be a palace and a ziggurat. The museum explains much about the site and its relation to both ancient Susa and Choga Zanbil.

Choga Zanbil

Choga Zanbil
Choga Zanbil

The ziggurat of Choga Zanbil is the best example of a ziggurat in Iran. Chogha Zanbil is an Elamite ziggurat built in the 13th century BCE. The Elamite king Untash-Napirisha founded it in honour of the god Inshushimah. Around the ziggurat are smaller temples dedicated to other Elamite gods. The ziggurat was made from mud bricks, stacks of unused baked bricks still stand next to the building. The original name of the site was Dur Untash, town of Untash. Choga Zanbil is the highlight of this trip and may even be one of the best things you’ll see in Iran period.

Shushtar

We end our trip in Shushtar and stay the night to continue northwards by bus to ancient Bisotun. You can also return to Ahvaz and continue your journey from there as it holds more options. However, you’ll not see something like Sushtar anywhere else in the world. Shushtar was one of the places where captured Roman legionnaires were set to work. The remains of their work can still be seen today.

Band-e Kaisar

Band-e Kaisar

The Romans built the bridge over the river Karun, it’s not in the best of states but many of its arches can still be seen on both sides of the riverbanks. You can go on a semi-refreshing little river cruise on one of the speedboats on offer by the locals.

Hydraulic system

The main site is the UNESCO world heritage site of the Hydraulic dam and water mills complex. The complex is Sassanid in origin and probably the Roman engineers also worked on this complex. Sadly, many of the original mills have been destroyed, but you can still see the overall structure and wander through it. We watched a carpet maker weave his carpet powered by water here.

mosque

Highlights of Shiraz

Most people come to Shiraz to visit the ancient sites of Persepolis and Pasargadae. But Shiraz itself holds many beautiful gems too. So, make sure to have at least one full day to spend in this lovely city. As with most Iranian cities, traffic can be a nightmare and pollution can be a hinder. Don’t let that dissuade you, leave early if you are going on a day trip to Persepolis to avoid the traffic. And take your time when going from one place to another. If the weather allows it, walking can be a faster mode of transport than a taxi.

Masjed-e Nasir al Molk

Masjed-e Nasir al Molk
Morning sun in the Nasir al Molk mosque

Masjed-e Nasir al Molk is a beautiful mosque you’ve probably seen. Pictures of this magical mosque are everywhere on social media, travel guides and brochures for trips to Iran. Although the mosque itself is just over a hundred years old it’s hugely popular with tourists for its stained-glass windows. Go early in the morning when the light falls through the windows for the best sights and pictures.

Vakil Bazaar

Vakil Bazaar and the next-door Mosque were both build at the end of the 18th century by Karim Khan Zand, who was the regent (vakil) of this area. Hence the name. The bazaar is huge and it’s easy to veer off in the wrong direction, but help is always nearby, as are good shopping opportunities.

Vakil Mosque

Vakil mosque is as old as the bazaar. It probably replaced an earlier mosque which stood on the same spot. The mosque is decorated with lush coloured tiles with floral motives.

Citadel Karim Khan Zand

Citadel Karim Khan Zand
Citadel Karim Khan Zand

This citadel was again built by the productive Karim Khan, around 1763. The citadel is well preserved and gives a good insight into urban fortifications in 18th century Persia. It also has a nice courtyard and a bathing area you can visit.

Aramgah-e Ali Ibn Hamzeh

Most visitors of Shiraz flock to the mausoleum of Shah Cheragh with its two shrines to brothers of the eighth imam Reza. This shrine, however, is dedicated to Ali Ibn Hamzeh, a nephew of the Imam. The shrine is much quieter and just as beautiful. The reception is also much more relaxed, we got invited into the tourist office and handed some cookies, water and tea. While we could cool down we take a look at some picture books and got some information about Shia islam. Afterwards, we were guided around and encouraged to take pictures. This still was a bit awkward as people next to you are kneeling on the ground, engaged in prayer.

Aramgah-e Ali Ibn Hamzeh
Aramgah-e Ali Ibn Hamzeh

Hafez Tomb

Just 5 minutes from the shrine Aramgah-e Ali Ibn Hamzeh is the tomb of Hafez, one of the most popular poets of Iran. The mausoleum is always busy both with admirers of the poet, who will recite some poems there and ordinary people escaping the hot city and enjoying the surrounding garden. The present-day mausoleum is a 20th-century construction which replaced the earlier when build by Karim Khan.

Bagh-e Delgosha (Garden)

These extensive gardens are on the way to Saadi’s tomb. They date to the end of the 18th century and are a good example of a classical Persian garden.

Saadi Tomb

Also set in a nice garden is Saadi’s tomb. This is the quieter of the two poet’s tombs as its more on the outskirts of the town. It’s set in a nice relaxed area with beautiful cypress trees and hills.

Mausoleum of Shah Cheragh

Mausoleum of Shah Cheragh
Mausoleum of Shah Cheragh

The mausoleum of Shah Cheragh is one of the more important ones in Iran. It holds the shrines to two of the brothers of the eighth imam Reza. Therefor it is a very busy place. Tourists can only visit this place with a guide which will be provided at the entrance. Guards with green feather dusters will correct females if their clothing slips up.

Bagh-e Eram (garden)

Bagh-e Eram
Bagh-e Eram

The best garden in Shiraz, this classical Persian garden is one of the highlights of the city. It’s always busy with people searching for refreshment and shade. It has a beautiful little palace which now houses the law faculty but can still be admired from the outside. There are many different species of plants and trees here which all are named, also in English.

Masjed-e-Sheikh-Lotfallah

Isfahan a two day itinerary

According to a Persian saying, “Isfahan nesf-e jahan“, Isfahan is half the world. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful city in the world! In the same range as Rome, Paris and Saint Petersburg. So Isfahan is a must-visit city, even if you are on a tight schedule. We made you an two-day itinerary, covering all the highlights.

Day 1

Maydan-e Iman
Maydan-e Iman

Exploring Isfahan is best done starting at the grand public square Maydan-e Iman. It’s surrounded by some of the best sights of the city. Watching sunrise there, is truly magical.

Ali Qapu palace

Start the day at Ali Qapu palace, which opens the earliest of the sites (8:00). The palace was built around 1600. Its main feature is the balcony (Talar) from which you have the best views of the square and of the two mosques. Don’t forget to look up while there, to inspect the beautiful ceilings.

Masjed-e Imam

At the southern corner of the square lies the Masjed-e Imam. Building of the mosque started around the same time as the square. Shah Abbas I initiated both at the beginning of the 17th century. Right after entering the mosque you’ll notice that the mosque itself is built at a 45-degree angle in position to the square. The north south orientation of the square prevailed in the design of the area. Both the tiling and the inlay work of the mosque is of great quality and the domes of the buildings make for fine pictures.

Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfallah

On the eastern side of the square is the small Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfallah. This is the most beautiful mosque of the city, especially when the sun is low, and sunbeams penetrate the domed chamber. Have a sit and marvel at all the intricate geometrical shapes.

Bazar

Masjed-e-Jame
Masjed-e-Jame

Now that you are relaxed and peaceful, it’s time to make your way to the northern side of the square and enter the bazar. Head in a north-eastern direction towards Masjed-e Jame. In the meantime, you’ll come across all the spices, scarfs, jewellery and tapestries you could ever need. Get a bite to eat while you’re there.

Masjed-e Jame

Almost a thousand years old, the Masjed-e Jame (Friday mosque) is a true gem. Marvel at the 11th century dome with a 17-meter diameter. Don’t forget to take a look at the Objeity mihrat, a plastered panel from 1310 in honour of the Illhamid ruler Onjeitu. Behind this room is the vaulted winter mosque. Guides will turn the lights on and off for a great scene. More arcades and a dome are at the northern end.

Day 2

Chetel Shotun

Start the day at Chetel Shotun. This 17th century palace was used to receive foreign envoys and dignitaries. The pavilion has some huge painted battle scenes depicting battles with the Turks, Afghans and Uzbeks.

Hasht Bekesht / Ablassi hotel

If you’re into modern art, pay a visit to the contemporary art museum next door for some Iranian art. Make your way south to the small and intimate Hasht Bekesht palace and the surrounding park. If you want an ice-cream or a cup of tea, head over to the Ablassi hotel. Indulge in some luxury in this converted caravanserai and its pleasant courtyard.

Vank Cathedral

Vank Cathedral
Vank Cathedral


Next, go to the Armenian quarter (New Jolfa) on the south side of the river. The main draw here is Vank cathedral. This 17th century cathedral has beautifully painted walls. On these walls you can see various biblical scenes and Armenian tales. The grounds of the cathedral also house a memorial to the Armenian genocide and a small museum.
A short walk to the east lies Bethlehem church. This smaller church is a couple of decades older than Vank Cathedral. It has similar nicely painted and decorated walls and ceilings.
For lunch or a drink, head over to Toranj traditional restaurant. This old restored merchant house has some nice rooms and a pleasant patio.

Thuhlte Foulad
Thuhlte Foulad

Thuhlte Foulad

A ten-minute taxi ride to the east brings you to Tauhlte Foulad. A cemetery dating from the 10th century. The different tombs give an interesting overview of Islamic architectural styles.

Zayandeh River

Si-o-se-pol
Si-o-se-pol

Take the northern exit and walk for some 10 minutes towards Zayandeh River. Get some food and join the hundreds of Iranians on an evening stroll and picnic alongside the river. We’ll start our walk at Khaju Bridge. Shah Abbas II built this bridge with its octagonal pavilions in 1650. Walk westwards along the river until you reach Si-o-se-pol. This bridge is also known as Allahverdi Khan Bridge and was built in 1599. Its 33 arches are a great site at night when the bridge is lit and mirrored in the water.

Don’t forget to read our two day itinerary for Tehran!

How to spend 2 days in Isfahan
Golestan Palace

How to spend two days in Tehran

It was difficult to decide whether to make a 2 or 3-day itinerary for Tehran. Not so much because of all the things to see but more because of the sheer size of the city and the difficulty navigating it. But two days should be enough for the highlights. And most of the time, the air in the city is so polluted that its detrimental to your health anyways.

As with many big cities, Tehran lacks a proper city centre. Most of its attractions are scattered around the city. To ease you into the city we’ll start our itinerary in what could be described as a sort of centre of Tehran.

Day 1

National Museum of Iran

Darius
Darius, King of Kings


We start the day with a visit to the national museum of Iran. The museum is a bit old fashioned but it’s a great place to learn the pre-Islamic history of Iran. Highlights are the Achaemenid statues and reliefs. Which are in better state here than at Persepolis.

Next door is the Islamic museum, which is part of the same complex, so you can buy a combi ticket if needed. It has great pieces from all the periods. We’ll go to the Reza Abbasi museum also covers this.

Golestan palace complex

Next, we head south and take a walk through Park-e Shahr (City Park) and exit at the south-eastern corner. This brings us to the Golestan palace. Most of what remains today is from the end of the 19th century. The Golestan palace complex is divided into separate museums for which you’ll have to pay separately. This is the case for all palace complexes in Tehran. Choose only what interest you and skip the rest. We suggest at least a visit to the art gallery (Neggar Khaneh).

Bazar

Now its’s time to mingle with the locals by paying a visit to the bazar. Do some souvenir shopping and take in the sights. A good place for lunch is Sharaf Al-Eslami at the eastern end of the bazar, near the Imam mosque.

National jewel museum

After lunch time, the national jewel museum will open. If you like sparkling and glistering things, this is the place to go. Here you find the world’s largest pink diamond, various crowns and other outlandishly shiny objects.

Bagh-e Negarestan

Kamal al-Molk museum.
Kamal al-Molk museum

One metro stop away, near Baharestan Metro Station lies Bagh-e Negarestan (Negarestan garden). Nowadays its part of Tehran university and houses the Kamal al-Molk museum. The museum is dedicated to Iran’s most famous painter and his followers.

Day 2

Azadi Tower

We start at the Azadi Tower, built to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the birth of the Iranian nation. Nowadays it is rebranded as the freedom tower.

Milad Tower

Milad Tower
Milad Tower

Take the taxi to Milad tower, from where you’ll have great views of both the city and its mountainous backdrop.

Reza Abbasi museum

Head eastwards to the Reza Abbasi museum. This is the best museum in Tehran and you shouldn’t miss it. The museum has superb examples of Iranian miniature paintings, decorated Quran’s and archaeologic treasures.

Niavaran Palace complex

Depending on the time and your appetite for palaces, decide whether to visit the Niavaran palace complex. This is a mainly 20th century palace complex, it was the place from which the last Shah fled into exile. It consists of seven separate museums which all need a separate ticket. If you go here, at least visit the Niavaran palace itself. Completed in 1968, it looks very modern from the outside, but its interior is classic in design.

Saadabad Palace

Saadabad Palace
Saadabad Palace


When you only want to do one palace, go to the Saadabad Palace complex. It’s a 15-minute walk from Tajrish metro station. This large complex lies in the northern part of Tehran, set against the hillsides. It’s a great place to escape the madness of Tehran, relax and go for a walk. There are sixteen different museums in the complex all with sperate tickets. At least visit Mellat palace and the fine arts museum.

Darband

Take the northern exit from Saadabad palace towards Darband. Join the hundreds of Iranians going here for a walk, drink, smoke and a bite to eat. At the end of the road where the cars must turn back, take the elevator for some great views of the city. Continue back down alongside the stream. Pick a place and end your time in Tehran watching its people walk by and enjoy themselves.

Also read our review of Chogha Zanbil.

how to spend 2 days in Tehran
chogha-zanbil

UNESCO World heritage site review: Chogha Zanbil, Iran

History

Chogha Zanbil is an Elamite ziggurat built in the 13th century BCE. The Elamite king Untash-Napirisha founded it in honour of the god Inshushimah. Smaller temples dedicated to other Elamite gods surround the ziggurat. The ziggurat is made from mud bricks, stacks of unused baked bricks still stand next to the building. The original name of the site was Dur Untash, town of Untash.

The site extents around one square kilometre and was originally surrounded by a four-kilometre wall. Building stopped after the death of Untash-Napirisha. There is discussion about the period of Untash-Napirisha’s rule, the most recent thought is that he reigned between 1275-1240 BCE. The site remained in use after the death of Untash-Napirisha until the Assyrian king Ashurbanipul destroyed it in 640 BCE.

In a month of days, I levelled the whole of Elam. I deprived its fields of the sound of human voices, the tread of cattle and sheep, the refrain of joyous harvest songs. I turned it into a pasture for wild asses, gazelles and all manner of wild animals.” This inscription from an Assyrian palace tells us about the destruction. Only decades later, the Medes would bring the same kind of destruction to the Assyrian civilization.

Review

Read more about how we rated Chogha Zanbil and other World Heritage sites at our UNESCO World Heritage Site Review page.

Beauty 4/5

The orange red bricks perfectly contrast the blue sky. As you walk around the ziggurat in the burning sun, the 3,500-year-old 53-meter-high building provides a passageway through time. Much of the ziggurat looks like it was built only yesterday. The site is even more magical at dawn or dusk, when the orange sky complements the warm colours of the ziggurat.

This results in an appreciation of 4 out of 5 for beauty.

Uniqueness 5/5

chogha-zanbil
Chogha Zanbil

Chogha Zanbil is one of the best-preserved ziggurats in the world. It’s also one of the few ziggurats built outside of Mesopotamia. And if the security situation in Iraq hasn’t improved, this is your best option anyway. All this results in an appreciation of 5 out of 5 for uniqueness.

Experience 3.5/5

The ziggurat itself doesn’t come with much explanation. There are some bilingual signs in English and Iranian, explaining the functions of the different buildings. You’re free to wander the area as long as you stay of the ziggurat itself.
To give your visit more context, visit the nearby museum at Haft Tepe. Here you’ll find a detailed history of the ziggurat and the Elamites. The museum also houses archaeological finds from the site.

Disability: The site is flat without any stairs making it easily accessible. Major climate warning, there is almost no shade at the site. The temperature averages around 40+ degree Celsius in the spring and 50+ degree Celsius in the summer. Bring some water, air-conditioning, sunscreen, parasols and sunglasses.

Value for money: The entry price is 200,000 Rial (€4.5/$5), this is the average price tourists must pay for historical sites and museums. So, the value for money is good.

Location 2.5/5

chogha-zanbil
Foundations of surrounding temples

Located in the south-western part of Iran near the Iraqi border, the only way to get to Chogha Zanbil is by car. So there are only a couple of options. Rent a car and drive yourself. Hire a taxi for a day and additionally go to Shush (Susa) and Shushtar to make the most of your day. Or be part of an organised tour which includes Chogha Zanbil in its itinerary. Apart from Shush and Shushtar there isn’t much to see in this area. So you need to plan carefully and arrange for enough time. This all leads to a score of 2.5 out of 5 for location.

Overall rating 4

Chogha Zanbil is a beautiful and unique site in a far corner of Iran. There is room for improvement. It needs to be accessible by public transport and the site can be better explained. But at the same time, there is a big chance that you will be all by yourself with this 3,500-year-old building. That’s worth some effort. Considering everything, we’ll give Chogha Zanbil a light 4.

Links

Some websites mix the date of destruction with the date of the end of construction. To be clear, construction of the site stopped somewhere around 1240BCE. The site stopped being used in 640BCE after the destruction by the Assyrians.

Chogha Zanbil Unesco entry

Also read our two day itinerary for Tehran.

Chogha Zanbil