The Sassanians: Water engineers.
The Sassanians were not just great fighters it and great artists, they were also great engineers. Some of their bridges are still standing and also an amazing complex of water mills at Schushtar.
In the year AD 260 the Iranian king, Shapur the Great defeated the Romans at the battle of Edessa and captured not only the Roman emperor Valerian but also the Roman army, which included a core of talented engineers. According to some 9th century Muslim historians the engineers were then set to work, and their prowess sparked a new phase in Persian architecture.Their main achievements can be seen at Shushtar, a thriving town 40 miles south-east of Susa, the capital of Persia. Here the river Karun flows through a wide plain which would be very fertile if only it was irrigated properly, so the Roman military engineers were set to work to irrigate this plain, so they constructed a canal 50 kilometers long to irrigate this plain.
However the canal needed to be fed, and for this purpose the river needed to be dammed; so they built a dam or rather a weir which raised the water level by several meters and on top of the weir they then built a bridge called Band-e Kaisar, or Caesar’s Dam – sometimes the Bridge of Valerian. The bridge itself over the river has not survived, but the approach stills survives in part revealing typical Roman masonry bonded with mortar, a technique completely foreign to indigenous architecture.
It is often said that this engineering prowess was sparked off by Roman military engineers. Following Shapur’s great success at the Battle of Edessa where they captured the Roman Emperor Valerian, they also captured the Roman army, and according to Moslem historians, they put these conquered soldiers to work and the skills of the Roman military engineers produced a great spring forward in Sassanian architecture. Certainly it appears that a number of other peoples conquered by Shapur were settled within the Empire.
The most prominent of these is at Shushtar, a town some 50 miles south-east of Susa, the Persian capital, on a prime position on the River Karun. Here that they build a bridge, the abutment of which is still standing. Unfortunately the actual bridge has long been destroyed. But the abutment of the bridge still survives with evidence of several phases of building and rebuilding.
In Shushtar itself they also constructed an amazing mill complex where the mills were fed by a hidden water channel hidden along the top left bank in this photo. The tunnels leading down into the cleft runs through the middle of the town. The system remains in use down to modern times and in the 19th century it was recorded that over 40 water mills were still at work utilising the tunnels built by the Roman engineers. In the western Roman world the classic example of water mills is at Barbegal, in the south of France where a bank of 18 mills erected in pairs down the side of a valley fed by a long aqueduct. But this is far exceeded by the engineering achievements at Shushtar.
zxThe great volume of water still flows impressively in the water-mill complex.This plan photographed on site shows how the water enters at the top and then runs off through tunnels into the central pool.
Some of these bridges are still in use. This one is at Defzul, an industrial town which is in fact the largest town in south-western Iran with over 1 million inhabitants. This bridge is still in use, though it has been many times renewed, but some of the original peers still survive.
The Sassanians deserve to be better known for their engineering achievements, for though their techniques at the beginning may have owed something to Roman military engineering, the many bridges throughout the country show that the lessons were well learnt and widely applied.