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 – 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.