For the adventurous traveller, one of the most interesting coutries to visit today is Persia, or Iran.

So many of the interesting countries to the archaeologist – Syria, Iraq, Libya are sadly no longer accessible to trhe ordinary tourist, but there is one country that is the perfect destination if you want to be just a little bit adventurous and show off your adventurousness to all your friends — and that country is Iran or Persia. (There is I suspect a subtle political difference between Iran and Persia, but like all politics in Iran I have not yet cracked what the difference is). But Iran definitely seems to be the ‘in’ place to go for the adventurous traveller.  So we went on a fifteen day tour with Travel the Unknown, a young and up-and-coming travel company that seeks to make the unknown knowable and specialises in Iran.

We went round as a small group in a mini bus, stayed in eight different hotels in fifteen days and ended up, well slightly exhausted but very exhilarated.  But what were the highlights of our trip?

I took over 3,800 photos, but which ones best distil the essence of this magical country?  What should I choose to tell you all about Iran?

Iran is the hill country to the east of Iraq or Mesopotamia.  Thus whereas Iraq is hot, Iran is cool.  Most of the country is over 1,000 metres or 3,000 ft above sea level and there are many high mountains – there is apparently good skiing for enthusiasts.  

iran (1) The geography of Iran is dominated by the Zagros Mountains which run north/south, rather like the Pennines only very much steeper.  The Zagros Mountains are one of the places where the first farmers emerged and from which Neolithic cultures spread.  Some went west down into Mesopotamia where they formed the early civilisations of Ur, Babylon and Nineveh.  Others went east where they formed a thriving, though less spectacular Neolithic and Bronze Age — I shall be writing about Sialk later.

However, Iran does possess one of the most remarkable monuments of the rich Mesopotamian Neolithic in the form of a ziggurat at Chogha Zanbil.  Click here to see the special account of this remarkable monument.


The Medes and the Persians

It was only in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age that Persia rose to supremacy with the advent of the Medes and the Persians.The story begins with the Medes who were tough horsemen, coming down from the north and challenging the Assyrians who by now were becoming somewhat effete and incompetent: the Medes captured Nineveh in 612 BC.   The Medes made their capital at Ecbatana – modern Hamadan, but they in turn were conquered by the Persians, smooth sophisticates who came from the south and were civilised and efficient.

The key figure was Cyrus the Great who was a Persian on his father’s side, but whose mother was partly a Mede.  He was a very wise ruler whose sent the Jews home from their captivity, and even subsidised the building of a new temple in Jerusalem and whose magnanimity is also proclaimed in the Cyrus cylinder, now in the British Museum, much lauded as the first declaration of human rights.  He set up a new capital at Susa in the hot and humid south, though he kept Ecbatana as his summer capital in the cool north.

But it was his successor, Darius who founded the most stupendous capital in Persia at Persepolis.  This was burnt down in 330 by Alexander the Great, either as an act of revenge or by accident in drunken stupor; whichever it was, from the archaeological point of view was probably a good thing, for the site was abandoned and thereby preserved.  But it is one of the high points of any visit to Iran, for a number of pillars re-erected to show the scale of the construction. Most notably, some of the staircases are preserved with the carvings on the side, all subtly different and revealing the numerous nations that came to bear tribute to the great king.  There is a great treasury too, rather ignored as none of the columns have been re-erected, but it is recorded that when it was looted by Alexander over 3,000 camels were needed to carry away the loot.

The Great Persian Empire known as the Achaemenids – the family name of Cyrus the Great and his successors —came to an end in the 330s BC with the conquest of Alexander the Great, which inaugurated a period of Greek predominance.  However the Greek successor kingdoms were notoriously unstable and by the time that the Romans began to take an interest in the area, it was the Parthians from the north who built up a powerful empire and inflicted a number of defeats on the Romans.


The Sassanians

However the next stage in Persian greatness comes with the rise of the Sassanians  in the 3rd century AD.  They proved to be the most notably foes to the Roman Empire and the high point came when their king Shapur I extracted a huge indemnity of 500,000 gold coins from the emperor Philip the Arab, and then in 260 defeated the emperor Varian at the battle of Edessa, and then treacherously took him prisoner and kept him as a prisoner until his death –  an event that Shapur recorded in numerous rock carvings. This is the high point of Sassanian  achievement and they were determined to flaunt their success.

However for me the most notable achievement of the Sassanians came with their engineering achievements.  Numerous Roman soldiers were captured by the Persians, many of whom were skilled artisans and engineers who were set to work.  But although there may have been an infusion of Roman technology, most of the work must surely have been carried out by the Sassanians themselves and these engineering achievements form a counterpoint to the marvellous artistic achievements of the Sassanians.

We saw fine bridges of this period at X and Y, but the biggest surprise for me was the mass the collection of over forty watermills to be found at Shushtar, just to the east of Susa.  This was quite amazing with the water still pouring out from numerous channels.  I could not quite see how it all worked.  There must have been a considerable amount of tunnelling involved in building the channels, and I would have liked to have seen the dams and the input to the water supplies as well as the output.  But Shushtar must represent one of the great achievements of mechanical power in the ancient world, and it must surely be attributed essentially to the Sassanians.


The Safavid achievement

But the great glory of the Persian civilisation comes in the 14th and 15th centuries AD with the rise of the Safavid Empire.  The Safavids should really be considered in parallel with the Ottomans.  The Ottomans are the ones we know best in the west being essentially the Turkish invaders who eventually conquered Constantinople and established an empire that nearly captured Vienna.  To the south and east however the Safavids built up an empire based on Persia that eventually extended as far as India where they greatly influenced the Mogul Empire, so that today the Persian language Pashtu is still spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There was a major religious difference too: the Ottomans were Sunnis who have always been the more business-like, more aggressive and therefore the more successful branch of Islam. The Safavids however were Shiites who were always calling for a return to the purity of doctrine: they claimed to be the descendents of the family of the prophet, and were the poets, the dreamers and ultimately the less successful branch of Islam.  The Safavids were Shiites and under their leader Abbas the Great (1588-1629), who was the contemporary of Queen Elizabeth, they achieved great success.

He made his capital at Esfahan which became one of the great cultural capitals of the world. At the centre was a huge plaza, long and narrow, which was really a long narrow polo field, for he was a very enthusiastic player of polo.  At the middle of one of the long sides there was his palace with a large viewing platform at first floor level from which he could view the polo games.  The square itself is said to be the second largest square in the world, exceeded only by Tiananmen Square in Beijing, though far more elegant.

At the one end is the great mosque that is the finest example of Islamic architecture. There is however a problem in its design: the square is laid out north-south but the mosque faces towards Mecca, i.e. north-west to south-east.  The mosque therefore is in two parts: facing on to the square is the huge entrance hall with two tall minarets on either side, but when you pass through, there is a change of direction: the mosque behind is essentially an open courtyard with four great ivans or arches that are the stunning centrepiece of the whole design.  (Ivan, or Iwan, is a term I was not aware of, but they are crucial to Safavid architecture: they are the  four great open halls, fronted by a magnificent arch, that open onto the central courtyard of the mosque). `By this time the technology of the manufacture of glazed tile had reached its perfection.  It was no longer necessary to build in mosaic work, the designs could be fired in glorious colour into the tiles and the result is superb.  (I was interested to note that I did not have to take my shoes off anywhere.  The building is now essentially given over to the tourist.  I am sure there are plenty of prayer rooms in the building, but I suspect they are concealed from the prying eyes of outsiders who are allowed to enjoy the glories of the architecture without disturbing the prayers).

There is a second major mosque, the Sheik Lotfollah mosque, that lies directly opposite the royal palace and was used more as the domestic mosque, a private chapel for the Shah and his harem.   This too has a problem of orientation, cunningly solved by an elaborate approach: when you enter you go down a passage where you do not realised that you have turned an angle of 45 degrees.  Halfway down the passage it turns again through 90 degrees and only at the end of the passage do you enter the Great Hall with its flawless Iranian dome.  The mosque indeed faces towards Mecca, but once inside it is hard to know where the Great Square is.

There is much else to see in Esfahan – the glorious Chehel Sotun for example a Persian version of the Taj Mahal, surrounded by marvellous gardens. There are many fine gardens in Iran,  for the Persians were great contrivers of gardens.  Persia today is still largely part of the unknown to the travellers from the west.  It deserves to be better travelled.




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