Editor-in-Chief Andrew Selkirk has been visiting Iran. What did he discover?

We always thought that when we retired – if we were ever to retire from Current Archaeology! – we would visit the Near East, the magical cities of Mesopotamia in Iraq and Syria. Alas, these countries are difficult, if not impossible to visit, but there is one country that is becoming very much on the tourist route and that is Iran. Wendy and I therefore decided to explore Iran and to visit it with a young and upcoming travel company: Travel The Unknown, which specialises in running tours to the lesser known travel destinations – especially Iran.

Is this a restoration? Is it Hollywood circa 1970? Or is it a ziggurat built by Untash-Napirisha in the 13th century BC? This is the main entrance, but note the circular feature in front, presumably a shrine.

It was a splendid tour: we stayed in 9 different hotels over 16 days, which meant that we were always on the move. But this was just what we wanted, for we explored the heart of the historic country and saw – if briefly – most of the best-known archaeological sites. We took over 3,800 photos: I took 3,000, Wendy took 800. But how can I sort them all out and present to you what Iran is all about? I think I will do it chronologically: a drama in three acts, or rather three and a half acts; though in fact I have so much to tell you that I am going to leave the third act – the Safavids and their glorious city of Esfahan until the next issue. But here I am going to tell you about the Achaemenids, the Persians who fought the Greeks and were eventually conquered by Alexander, and then the Sassanians, who fought the Romans, and even captured a Roman emperor whose conquest they celebrated with some magnificent bas-reliefs and some fascinating water engineering.

Up the ziggurat

I shall begin with a small overture and go back into prehistory to tell you about a fascinating ziggurat. Ziggurats are perhaps the principal monuments of the Mesopotamian civilisation, but they are little known. They are essentially great mounds built in steps, on top of which was a temple or palace, or shall we just say a ritual feature. They are reminiscent in some respects of the great pyramid-temples of the Maya in Central America, but whereas the Mayan pyramids were built of stone, the ziggurats were built of mud brick and thus survive simply as rather large mounds. There are dozens of these in Mesopotamia, but only half a dozen of them are well known. The best known is the ziggurat at Ur, in modern Iraq, but the most spectacular is that at Chogha Zanbil in Iran.

This stitched-together photograph shows the wide zone that surrounds the ziggurat. This was where most of the shrines were located – Untash-Napirisha was a great collector of gods.

Iran is in essence a mountainous country but Chogha Zanbil is in the lowlands in the south-west corner, near the Persian Gulf and the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates, essentially part of Mesopotamian archaeology. It was extensively excavated from 1951 to 1961 by the great French archaeologist Roman Ghirshman. (He was actually a Russian, who wrote the classic Penguin book on Iran, published in 1954, of which I still have the fading copy I bought 60 years ago.) His work revealed that the ziggurat was built by the 14th-century ruler Untash-Napirisha – as indicated by the glazed pottery wall plaques found everywhere on the site. It was never finished, but it was destroyed by Ashurbanipal in 646 BC, thus contributing to its good state of preservation. You can no longer climb up it as it is far too fragile, but what impressed me was that it was surrounded by a wall and between the wall and the ziggurat was a wide sacred area full of little shrines, where presumably many of the rituals took place. There are two further walls beyond, which enclosed the actual palaces.

Rise of the palaces

A new story begins in the first millennium BC, with the rise of the Achaemenids: the real Persians. Mesopotamia, which is essentially modern Iraq around the Tigris and Euphrates, is low lying and hot; whereas Iran, separated from Iraq by the Zagros mountains, is largely mountainous and cooler – rather too cool in the winter, but ideal in April/May when we visited. Our knowledge of prehistory tends to be focused on Mesopotamia, but when the Babylonians and Assyrians had run their course in the early first millennium BC, the Persians took over under their three great kings – Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes. We tend to see them through the wrong end of the telescope as told by the Greek historian Herodotus, who provides the story of how the wonderful Greeks defeated the Persian army. From the Persian point of view, the story is rather different: the Greeks were a minor irritant at the far western extremity of a great empire, which at its largest extent under Darius stretched from the Aegean through to India and incorporated, so it has been calculated, a third of the population of the world at that time. And at the head of that empire is the wonderful archaeological site of Persepolis.

Persepolis was built by Darius between 530 and 520 BC, but it suffered what you can either consider to be a great disaster, or possibly a great stroke of good fortune, in that 200 years later it was destroyed by Alexander the Great, either in a fit of revenge or possibly in a drunken orgy – no one seems quite to know. But this, though disastrous at the time, has meant that archaeologically it is wonderfully preserved. It is out in the middle of nowhere, 50 miles north of the city of Shiraz, and it was extensively excavated by the Americans in the 1930s. At its heart lay the Apadana, or audience hall, a huge reception room set on a forest of columns. Of these, 14 still survive, providing the uprights that form the unmistakable panorama of Persepolis.

One of the great archaeological sights: Persepolis. This is the Apadana, the meeting hall where the emperor met his princes. Fourteen pillars still stand, despite the complex having been destroyed by Alexander the Great.

I had always assumed that these 14 columns were all restorations, but no, they were apparently original. When they were first painted by a European traveller in 1619, 20 columns were still standing. In 1694 this had been reduced to 17, and by 1841 to 13, all of which are still standing today, though in the late 1970s a reconstructed column was added. It seems that when Alexander burnt the palace, the columns still remained standing, though the walls have collapsed over time.

Surrounding it are all the other buildings: there is a magnificent entrance hall to the north, which Xerxes flamboyantly called the Gate of All Lands, and which is today the best preserved and most impressive of the ruins. To the other side of the Apadana there are palaces of both Darius and Xerxes, and then to the east there is the Hall of One Hundred Columns, where none of the columns has been preserved, but most of the walls. Adjacent to it is the Treasury, totally hidden until it was excavated by the Americans in the 1930s. However, when Alexander looted Persepolis, he found as much coined money as at Susa, while it took 10,000 pairs of mules and 5,000 camels to carry away the other furniture and wealth. Do not believe the anthropological theory that with gift exchange, the gifts that flowed into the treasury were then redistributed by the benevolent ruler. Many of the gifts remained in the Treasury, just piling up. For the archaeologists, however, the greatest treasure was more than 750 clay tablets, of which just over 100 were readable, providing fascinating accounting details of how the palace worked. (A full publication on the tablets is available at

The great formal entrance was called the Gate of All Lands. below The complete gate suite, with a great gateway at either end and three of the four columns of the central hall in the middle.
One of the great gates with Assyrian-type bulls.

The other great glory of Persepolis is the eastern staircase leading up into the Apadana. This had been completely covered by spoil, so when it was excavated in the 1930s the carvings were revealed in their pristine glory. These showed a procession of the various nations of the Persian Empire with their offerings, and scholars have had great fun in identifying all the nations by their different costumes and offerings. The Persians have high hats and flowing robes. The Medes have leather helmets and trousers. The Scythians have pointed hats, and the Ionians, that is the conquered Greeks, bring offerings of food or perfumes, blankets, and balls of wool. The whole presents a wonderful picture of life in a gift-exchange empire, with all the nations bringing their tribute to the great king.

The palace of Darius (this is currently closed to visitors).
Plan of Persepolis. This dates to 1911, before the American excavations revealed the Treasury (which would be located under the caption). Bottom left is the Gate of All Lands. Centre bottom is the Apadana with the palaces to the right. Above centre is the Hall of One Hundred Columns.

But Persepolis is not the only palace, not by a long way. The principal palace, the capital as it were of the empire, is Susa, down in the hot and dusty lowlands, near the Persian Gulf. This is less impressive today. Indeed, the ruins find themselves in the unusual position of being upstaged by the archaeological dig house, which was built in spectacular style as a French château! It rather incongruously dominates the site, providing an unmissable reminder of the extensive French excavations there.

Then there was the predecessor to Persepolis, Pasargadae, 50 miles to the north, which was built by Cyrus the Great, the founder of the great Achaemenid state and Darius’s predecessor. He built a palace there, essentially a garden palace. The main palace was fronted by a large elaborate garden, the water channels of which have been discovered by the excavators, while to one side there was a great meeting hall and also an imposing gateway. Cyrus was buried there too, and his tomb, small (or comparatively small) but elegant, still survives about a mile away and is the best-known feature of the site. But there was apparently little else, just a palace in the desert.

Two of the panels from the eastern staircase.
The Medes and Persians were meant to be co-equal rulers. From the left are shown a Persian with a cylindrical hat (crown?), a figure-of-eight shield and a long flowing dress, then a Mede with a conical leather hat and trousers, followed by another Persian, then another Mede.
The Scythian delegation – you can tell they are Scythian by their pointed hats. Starting from the right, a Mede leads the leader of the delegation by hand. Then a Scythian horse, then a Scythian bearing a torc, or neck-ring. Then two Scythians with clothing, and the last Scythian is bringing a pair of trousers.

The Achaemenid Empire flourished exceedingly, but in the years around 330 it was conquered by Alexander the Great. He or his successors took over much of the structure of the Persian Empire and it continued to flourish, at least in the material sense. Then comes the Parthian episode (238 BC to AD 224), when fierce warriors from the north took over Iran, harrying the Roman Empire and thwarting its easterly expansion.

War and water

A new Persian dynasty followed – the Sassanids, who form the second of the three great dynasties whose monuments every visitor must admire. The great Sassanid king was the second, Shapur I (around 240-270). His great success came at the battle of Edessa in AD 260 when he captured the Roman Emperor Valerian and kept him prisoner until he died in captivity two years later. The previous emperor Philip the Arab had also been humiliated when he was forced to pay an enormous indemnity of 500,000 denarii in order to keep his eastern front secure while he hurried back to Rome to appease the Senate. These two events were celebrated in the bas-reliefs that Shapur had carved. The best known is about five miles from Persepolis at Naqsh-e Rustam, though there is another just outside his new town at Bishapur, in the Chogan gorge. He was clearly very proud of his success and wanted to display it prominently.

The approach to the reliefs at Naqsh-e Rustam.
The Achaemenid reliefs (4th century BC) are the big ones at the top. The Sassanian reliefs are the smaller ones at the bottom.

The reliefs also remind us of the religion that was dominant in Iran at this period – Zoroastrianism. The chief god of the Zoroastrians was Ahura Mazda (yes, the car firm Mazda is named after him), and the god is often portrayed in the carvings as presenting the ‘crown’ in the form of a circular ring.

But the Sassanians should not be portrayed only as great warriors and fine artists: they were also good engineers, both water engineers and road engineers. The greatest of their achievements is at Shushtar, a town 50 miles east of Susa. This lies in the broad fertile plain of the River Karun, but the water needs to be managed to make the land fertile and so Shapur had a bright idea: when he captured the Roman emperor, he not only captured the emperor but also his army, 60,000-men strong, many of them highly skilled engineers. So he set them to work to make the plain of the river fertile, and they did this by digging out a canal 50km long, which flowed parallel to the river on higher ground. However, to make the scheme work, they had to build a dam to raise the water level, and this they did by building a dam with a bridge on top of it called Band-e Kaisar, or Caesar’s Dam – sometimes the Bridge of Valerian. The actual dam and bridge no longer survive, but the spectacular approach bridge does and it shows its Roman origins in the use of mortar. (This story of the use of Roman legionaries comes from Muslim historians writing 500 years later, but there does seem to have been some Roman influence.)

The Sassanians built many other bridges throughout their empire, some of which still survive. Indeed, the one at Dezful is still in use, though an examination of the bastions suggests that it has been rebuilt more than once. We also saw the remains of another fine bridge at Khoramabad where work was in progress to consolidate it and make it ready for inspection.

Shapur I, great king of the Sassanids, celebrates victory over the Romans. Shapur on his horse receiving the captured Roman emperor, Valerian, who kneels before him. Behind is his predecessor handing out bags of money.
The coronation ceremony. On the right, the great god of the Zoroastrians, Ahura Mazda, hands over a circular mark of office to Shapur (who had seized power by very dubious means, hence the need for divine approval).

However, the most spectacular example of Sassanian engineering was to be found in a complex of watermills at Shushtar. These were powered using a canal that was built alongside a gorge running through the centre of the city. Tunnels were then built that came out in the gorge, where they powered watermills. Indeed, in the early 20th century, there were over 40 watermills still in operation, and water is still running. This must be the most spectacular display of mechanical power in Classical antiquity. At Barbegal in the south of France there is a spectacular collection of 16 watermills in eight pairs running down a hillside, fed from an aqueduct at the top. In number this is far surpassed by the watermills of Shushtar, which represent a virtuoso display of engineering prowess.

The Sassanians were great engineers – helped by the Romans. This is the approach to the bridge at Shushtar, which also served as a weir.
The watermills at Shushtar. At the beginning of the 20th century there were still 40 watermills working: this was the greatest collection of water power in Classical antiquity.

There is much to see for the archaeologist in Iran looking at the Achaemenids and the Sassanians, but there is a third dynasty that produced the most spectacular architecture of all – the Safavids, who under their king Abbas the Great built the superb city of Esfahan between the years 1600 and 1650. You have not heard of the Safavids, the rivals to the Ottomans? No, neither had I, but in our next issue I will tell you all about them.

We went to Iran with Travel The Unknown, Riverbank House, 1 Putney Bridge Approach, London SW6 3BQ. Tel: 020 7183 6371. Web:
My own website of our Iran adventure can be found at with more sites and larger photographs.
You can read part 2 of this account dealing with Esfahan and the Safavid Empire here.
ALL IMAGES: A Selkirk.