Naqsh-e Rustam, the Ancient Necropolis of Powerful Persian Kings

Naqsh-e Rustam is an ancient necropolis situated northwest of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Naqsh-e Rustam (Naqsh-e Rostam) is an impressive reminder of once glorious Achaemenid Persian Empire (c. 550–330 BC) and it stands as a magnificent manifestation of ancient Persian art. Naqsh-e Rustam is the house for the immense rock tombs cut high into the cliff. The rock tombs belong to four Achaemenian kings. The ancient tombs attracted Sasanian kings as well. They wished to imitate the glory of the Achaemenian kings; maybe that is why they created huge reliefs besides the tombs. The immense rock reliefs mainly depict the investiture scenes and the equestrian fights of the Sasanian kings. However, the history of Naqsh-e Rustam is not limited to  the Achaemenid and Sassanid periods. There is evidence that the site exists from the Elamite period.  An ancient rock relief dating back to Elamite period indicates that Naqsh-e Rustam had been a sacred place during the ancient times. That might be the reason Darius I ordered to carve his monumental tomb into the cliff at the foot of Mt. Hosain (Huseyn Kuh). His rock tomb is famous for its two inscriptions known as the king’s autobiography. The inscriptions indicate that Darius the Great had been the king who ruled according to justice. Travel to Iran and enjoy visiting so many great cultural attractions especially the great ones registered on UNESCO World Heritage List or waiting to be registered. Pasargadae, Persepolis, Naqsh-e Rajab that lies a few hundred meters from Naqsh-e Rustam, and Naqsh-e Rustam, the ancient necropolis of the powerful Persian kings are the best cultural attractions of Iran located in Shiraz, Fars province,.

Achaemenid Tombs

Naqsh-e- Rustam houses four rock tombs carved out of rock face. Since the façades of the four Achaemenian tombs look like Persian crosses- chalipa- some call it Persian Crosses as well. The entrance to each tomb is located at the center of the cross and it leads to a small chamber where the king’s body lay in a sarcophagus. It is not clear whether the bodies were directly put into the sarcophaguses or the bodies were exposed to a tower of silence, and then the bones were put there. What is certain is that the tombs were closed after the burial, but the doors were smashed and the tombs were looted after the invasion of Alexander the Great in the 4th BC.

Darius I standing on a platform in front of an altar and the winged figure of Ahuramazda

Ka’ba-ye Zartosht 

In front of the rock tombs, there is a square tower known as the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht that means the Cube of Zoroaster (Ka’ba is the famous monument as a holy site for Muslims located in Mecca). The structure of the building is a copy of a sister building at Pasargadae known as the Prison of Solomon; however, this building is a few decades older than Ka’ba-ye Zartosht. On the wall of the tower, there is an inscription in three languages from Sasanian time and it is considered as one of the most important inscriptions of that period. It is not obvious what the purpose of the building had been. It might have been a library for the holy books, a place to keep the holy fire, or maybe a treasury.

Ka’ba-ye Zartosht in front of the rock tombs at Naqsh-e Rustam

According to Persepolis fortification tablets, there must have been trees at Necropolis that apparently it refers to Naqsh-e Rustam. The experts believe that there must have been three lines of trees in the area between the tower and the tombs; however, it has been a long time since the trees have disappeared.

Sassanid Reliefs

Besides the tombs, there are seven over-sized stone reliefs dating from the 3rd century AD.  The huge rock reliefs mainly belong to the Sassanid period and they depict scenes of imperial conquests and royal ceremonies. What is amazing about the reliefs is that they indicate details of events carved in the heart of rough rocks. Therefore, they can give the visitors a visual insight into the spirits of the ancient times.

The most famous rock relief at Naqsh-e Rustam belongs to the Sasanian king Shapur I. The relief depicts his victory over two Roman emperors; Valerian and Philip the Arab. Shapur I is on the horseback, while Valerian is bowing to him and Philip the Arab is holding Shapur’s horse.

Shapur I celebrates his victory over two Roman emperors; Valerian and Philip the Arab

The investiture relief of Ardashir I as the founder of the Sassanid Empire is also depicted. The relief indicates Ohrmazd giving Ardeshir the ring of kingship. The inscription also has the oldest use of the term “Iran”.

There are also the equestrian reliefs such as equestrian relief of Hormizd II at Naghsh-e Rustam. The relief depicts Hormozid and above the relief, one would see a badly damaged relief that apparently is depicting Shapur II with his courtiers.

The relief of Bahram II depicts the king with an oversized sword. On the left, five figures stand and they seem to be the members of the king’s family. On the right, three courtiers stand and one of them is apparently Kartir- a highly prominent Zoroastrian priest.

The Oldest Relief at Naqsh-e Rustam

The oldest relief at Naqsh-e Rustam dates back to approximately 1000 BC and it dates back to the Elamite period. Though the relief is severely damaged, it depicts a faint image of a man with an unusual head-gear. He is thought to be an Elamite one.

Why Is It Called Naqsh-e Rustam?

Sassanid reliefs mainly depict equestrian fights or investiture scenes. Since the equestrian fights of the Sasanian kings represent the tales of chivalry, locals believed that the man depicted on reliefs was Rustam, the hero of Shahnameh. The epic of Shahnameh is the masterpiece of Ferdowsi, the great Iranian poet of the 10th and 11th the century. Therefore, the site is called Naqsh-e Rustam (meaning the carvings of Rustam); because the locals believed that the carved man on the reliefs was their epic hero” Rustam”.

Locals believed that the carved man on the reliefs was their epic hero” Rustam”
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In ancient times, coins were minted as means of governmental or religious propagations and rarely as fixed means of facilitating business.

Little by little, people got to find out money’s real function. Since then, people started to exchange money for goods. Therefore, money minting began as the production craft by the local as well as central governments.

Coinage Development in Pre-Islam Period

At about 515 B.C, In Iran, the first Iranian coins were ordered to be minted by Darius I, Achaemenian emperor. There were depicted a warrior holding a bow on the front and a quadrangular sign on the back of these coins. Achaemenians’ gold coins were called Darick equal to 20 silver coins. This lasted for 200 years.

Parthian kings, as a result of Hellenization, minted 4.25 g silver coins called Drachmas, Athens

standard. There were both silver coins and copper coins minted by them. Frequently, in each historical period, there was an original pattern for coins and later other modifications were implemented. Usually on the back of Parthians’ Drachma, there were patterned the founder of the dynasty, Ashk I, for example, sitting and holding a bow in his hands, similar to Seleucid coins patterned by embossed Apolon sitting on the spherical stone of Delphi temple.

The minting of Sassanian coins dates back to 499 A.D. Hellenistic civilization is obviously indebted to coin minting to Sassanian Pioneers. Sassanian coins were clearly innovative and purely Iranian. They did not follow or imitate their predecessors. For the first time in the history of coinage, thin flat circular metal made coins were minted.

They were later used as well-decorated and current coins in Arab regions, Byzantine Empire and the Middle Ages Europe. The vividly pictured profile of the king was patterned as he was looking at left. Personal facial features were clearly seen. King’s name was also mentioned in Pahlavi in front of his face. The back of coins has always been symbolically used for religious purposes, as still functional in Iran.

On Sassanian coins, a fire altar in the middle with its fire flames blazing patterned this side. There were often two fireguards on both sides as well.

Coinage Development in Post-Islam Period

The coins used during long sovereignties of Khosrow II and Yazdgerd III were still widespread after Arabs’ invasion, specially the coins minted during Khosrow II, which were in use with little modifications toward the end of 7th century as main models for silver coins.

In post-Islam period, some coins, called Arab-Sassanian, were in use till around 650 – 700 A.D. The name and title of Arab rulers replaced the Iranian King’s in Pahlavi and a religious word or two or prayer formed the Arabic lettering on coins. The dates on the coins were from three various calendars: One lunar calendar and two Yazdgerdy calendars, one beginning with the date of his coronation, the other with his death.

Around 100 years after Arabs’ invasion, the Islamic world started to mint coins experimentally. A Caliph with his sword in sheath, Islamic witnessing phrases and a Caliph standing with his hands in form of prayer were different patterns and letterings on the coins.

Between 696 and 699 A.D, Abdolmalek, an Arab Caliph, made a radical change in coins and introduced Islamic doctrine in coinage by saying no to idols (portraits of rulers faces), banning the picturing of living beings and prohibiting luxury. Instead, religious words filled the whole surface of coins except for the date and place of coinage. Arabic measurement standard were used for gold Dinars and silver Drachmas. The Arabic language was also constantly used for lettering.

Another major change happened during the third century after Arabs’ invasion. Gold Dinars minted in Iran, Iraq and also Egypt bore the place of coinage. It indicated Caliphs’ monopolization in coinage and satisfying the flourishing economies’ demands. The name of Caliphs appeared gradually on coins and Caliphate political realm of power began to be disintegrated. Anyhow, the Islamic world had reached a single economic currency freely and actually creditable even in very remote areas of the Empire.

Tahirid, Saffarid and Samanid governors as well as other dynasties in Iran minted lots of coins and used them in trade with North Europe. Admiring titles started to appear on coins to the extent that three or four titles were used on Buwayhids’ coins or the Achaemenian title of “King of Kings ” was used on Daylamites’ coins.

Seljuks minted remarkably precise and well-decorated gold coins for some time, but later the precision and uniformity and even credibility of coins began to undergo drastic decline. During 130 years after the death of Sanjar at 1156, no coins were minted even in very active mint houses in Esfehan or Rey.

After Mongols’ invasion, some pictorial and non-pictorial coins were minted in silver. In addition, the language and writing system of Mongols were used beside Arabic ones.

During Timurids and after them, the date of coinage was being mentioned not in words, but in numbers.

Safavid period was the time of revival and promotion of the highest characteristics used in coinage like quality, art, legibility, design and above all, the Farsi language. Safavid government minted gold Ashrafy and silver Abbasy coins in compliance with Duka currency in use in Venice. Later, Nader Shah, Afsharid king, ordered some gold Mohr and silver Rupee coins to be minted based on the monetary system of India.

There were not any pictures on early Qajar coins, but they later added them to their coins.

After more than half a century, Reza Shah’s profile appeared with an aigretted hat on gold coins in 1926. A few years before him, during the last Qajar king, Mohammad Shah, the national flag emblem of “Red Lion and Sun” appeared on the front of coins for the first time.

During Pahlavis, this pattern was combined either with the king’s face or an inscription certainly commemorative of the first time coinage started in Persian Empire.


Cyrus II, who was later known as Cyrus the Great, is the founder of Achaemenian dynasty, creator of Persian Empire and the father of a nation called Iran. He was appointed as governor at the Southern part of Iran by Medes who rules from Zagros Mountains at the Northwestern and Western of Iranian plateau. He was also the king of an area known as Anshan for eight years. It was a territory at central Iran.


Famous Reliefs attributed to Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae

Two Major Accomplishments of Cyrus the Great

The reputation of Cyrus the Great is due to two major accomplished tasks he had brought to reality:

  1. He changed the small country of Persia to a powerful empire in a vast territory. No other government had reached this level of authority in the world till then.
  2. His ethical values had made him a well-behaved emperor with humble policies and favorable method by which he treated the conquered nations.

The world was dominated by brutal arrogant rulers who didn’t care about their nations’ rights. In fact, they oppressed everyone with sheer rigidness to put awe in their hearts. Cyrus changed all such mannerism.

When the final years of Medes’ domination was accompanied by oppressing people and treating them unfairly, the level of injustice was so high and suppression so severe that Median people had no choice but to wait for someone to save them from their brutal ruler. Cyrus turned to be this savior character. When he came to power, the new situation couldn’t corrupt him and make another monster out of him. Instead, he won lots of hearts and gained many nations’ respect for his mannerism. Cyrus united Medes with Persians.


The tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae


The Policies of Cyrus the Great

He maily focused on bringing peace, security, understanding, respect for others’ opinions and justice to his empire. He deeply influenced the civilization at the world of his time with positive impacts. The century in which he established Achaemenian Empire became the golden era of the world history and the century of creating arts and cultures. Subsequently, he brought about the acceleration in evolution of human societies and the development in ethical values, civilizations and human rights.

Cyrus the Great is well-known for his policy of tolerance and respect. When Cyrus defeated Croesus, the last king of Lydia, he ordered him to be saved, not killed and made him an advisor for his empire. He conquered Babylonia without a fight. He respected hand-made gods of all conquered nations despite of the fact that he believed in an unseen God. He went further and even helped the followers of other religions to rebuild their temples and take back their gods to their worshipping places. Historians and the Old Testament has recorded the way he treated captivated Jews forever.


Ruins of the residential palace of Cyrus at Pasargadae

Cyrus allowed the nations under Persian Empire to keep their religions, traditions, dress code, language, etc. He didn’t force the ideas, rituals and beliefs of Persians to the rest of the world. However, today we see that there are lots of powerful influences of Persian culture outside the present boundaries of Iran in a vast area.

The mighty rulers before him used to build minarets out of people’s heads and created heaps of corpses to demonstrate their power to the subject nations. They burned the people alive in fire, gouged their eyes, cut their tongues and boasted of the number of young girls and women imprisoned and taken away by their brutal soldiers. On the contrary, he didn’t carry out bloodshed, plunder, brutality, etc to prove his power. He established a government that tried hard to found unity and peaceful coexistence among nations from India to the Mediterranean Sea. To win people’s support, he used a different policy: He supported their rights, promoted justice and worked for their prosperity.



Ruins of the fortification at Tal-e-Takht at Pasargadae

The Legacy of Cyrus the Great

After the death of Cyrus the Great, Pasargadae, his capital city, wasn’t the capital anymore. Yet, it kept its significance among the succeeding Achaemenian kings. They held their coronation ceremonies there first and paid their respects to him as the founder of the dynasty. Then, they went to Persepolis to keep up with their festivities.

He built the first series of Achaemenian palaces in Pasargadae. He planned and made the first examples of Persian gardens at Pasargadae. He planned water channels and basins along the ducts there. We see the same style of parks and gardens made in Iran using the same plan.


Water Channels of Persian Gardens remained at Pasargadae


Without Cyrus the Great, there wouldn’t be any nation called Persia and later Iran. He united different ethnic groups via mutual respect and humanitarian supports under one flag. He taught everyone that tolerance and kindness is more powerful than any other weapons.

Even until 20th century, all dynasties in Iran tried to connect themselves somehow, through bloodline, etc, to Achaemenians and Persian Emperors. He’s the author and father of Iran. He’s the source of pride for everyone in Iran.


Cyrus II, known as Cyrus the Great, was the founder of Achaemenid dynasty. His maternal grandfather was Astyages, the last king of the Medes, and his paternal grandfather was Achaemenes, the first founder of hereditary rule among the Persians.

Cyrus presented a new empire based on morality, justice, and decency to the world. Unlike the previous emperors, he treated the defeated with compassion, enemies with tolerance, and those with opposing beliefs and customs with liberality. His statement in Babylon, written on a clay cylinder, is the first draft of the Declaration of Human Rights.

The followings are three sites worth exploring to learn more about the rise and fall of Achaemenids. You can leave Shiraz for a one-day tour to visit these spectacular sites and then come back.

Pasargadae: This Is Where Achaemenids Rose to Power


Tomb of Cyrus at Pasargadae, Iran


It was the dynastic capital of Achaemenid Empire, the first great multicultural empire in western Asia. Today, it’s located near Shiraz in Fars province, south western Iran. It’s where Cyrus the Great conquered Astyages, the last Median king, in his last battle, and then founded the first Persian Empire in the same region and beyond. He founded Pasargadae and constructed palaces in memory of his victory. It was the rise of Achaemenids and Cyrus the Great was the author of Achaemenid dynasty. His tomb is also here in this city.

According to UNESCO, “palaces, gardens, and tomb of Cyrus are outstanding examples of the first phase of royal Achaemenid art and architecture, and exceptional testimonies of Persian civilization”.

A brief description of the site

The tomb of Cyrus has long been a focal point for visitors to Pasargadae and the palace area lay almost a kilometer north of it. This area included a palace to receive audiences and a whole series of adjacent gardens. They emerged to be the first Persian gardens. Unfortunately, all that has remained from Achaemenid era in this region are stone foundations and some wall socles.

In this site, the columned hall is the most common form of design. A notable architectural point about this hall was making use of stone-working techniques. It’s notable because all the previous columned halls in Iranian plateau were built in mud-brick walls and wooden columns.

Such an innovation facilitated the production of stone platforms, staircase, floors, and stone columns. Each one of these structures was to become a hallmark of architecture in Achaemenid era from about 540 BCE onward.

The gardens at Pasargadae would appear to be the first known occurrence of chaharbagh or fourfold garden, a specific articulation of space. It went on to become a distinctive characteristic of later garden designs in Iran for centuries.

Pasargadae kept its importance to Achaemenid emperors, but during the reign of the next kings, the capital moved to other cities.

Persepolis: The Glorious Times of Achaemenids



Gate of All Nations at Persepolis, Achaemenid Era


It’s the other dynastic center of Achaemenid kings located about 60 kilometers south of Pasargadae. After Cyrus the Great, Darius I, known as Darius the Great, succeeded in ruling the Persian Empire. He started the construction of Persepolis. It consists of ceremonial palaces, provisional residential palaces, a treasury, and a chain of fortification. It was built as a ceremonial palace complex mainly for celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year festival.

The gate to the site was from the south, through a staircase. To the right of this entrance, you can see a huge rectangular block bearing four cuneiform inscriptions in the name of Darius the Great: Two in Old Persian, one in Elamite, and the fourth in Babylonian. These scripts were clearly meant to inform visitors of the nature of Persepolis, the people who contributed to its construction as well as Darius’ beliefs and ideals.

The remarkable parts of the palace complex consist of:

  • The Gate of All Nations.

It was a four-columned square hall with three stone doorways. Two enormous winged bulls are carved at the inner side of eastern as well as western doorways, and the gates are decorated in the upper part with six cuneiform inscription sections.

  • The audience palace of Darius, The Apadana

The double-reversed stairways of this palace are the most splendid parts of Persepolis

  • The Palace of Darius known, the Tachara.

A charming structure which is the oldest palace of Persepolis. Here, you can find three different scripts carved in various historical periods: one in cuneiform from Achaemenid era, one in Pahlavi from Sassanid era, and one in modern Persian from Qajar era.

  • The Palace of Xerxes, the Hadish

It was the Xerxes’ temporary residence.

  • The Central Palace, the Tripylon

A small but lavishly ornamented structure located in the center of the complex. Three doorways and a couple of corridors and staircases were linked to the other palaces. It must be attributed to Xerxes and Artaxerxes I.

  • The second largest palace of Persepolis, The Hundred Column Hall

Its main feature was a square hall provided with ten rows of ten columns. It was an audience hall.

These structures were built by Darius the Great and his successors, Xerxes and Artaxerxes I, and maintained until 330 BCE, when they were looted and burnt by Alexander of Macedonia. Although today you can see only the remains of this complex, its magnificence can still impress you.

Darius the Great was a powerful and sage emperor in the ancient world. His territory was so extended that there were no such imperial expansion until then and long after.

Naqsh-e-Rostam, Mighty Emperors Have Rested Here


Naqsh-e Rostam, Achaemenids’ Necropolis near Shiraz, Iran


It’s one of the most spectacular ancient sites of Achaemenid era dating back to the times when the fall of Achaemenids was about to happen. It’s located almost 5 kilometers northwest of Persepolis, and consists of the colossal rock tombs of Persian kings dating back to the first millennium BC. Here you can see the best ancient rock reliefs in Iran from both the Achaemenid and Sassanid periods.

The rock-cut tombs of Achaemenid rulers and their families dating back to the 5th, 4th, and 3rd centuries BC have been engraved on the façade of a mountain. The tombs belong to Darius the Great, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II. In addition to being a royal necropolis, Naqsh-e-Rostam was a major ceremonial center for the Sasanians until the 7th century AD.

I highly suggest you to put these three spectacular Achaemenid sites in your checklist for travelling to Iran. It takes just one day to visit them all and learn about the rise and fall of Achaemenids. I promise there will be so many amazing things that can cause your admiration.




Ganjnameh  inscriptions (literally ‘Treasure Book’) is so named because its cuneiform rock carvings were once thought to be cryptic clues leading to caches of Median treasure.

Ganjnameh Inscriptions

Ganjnameh Inscriptions

The Ganjnameh are set of cuneiform characters written in three languages (ancient Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian), set into a rockface on Mount Alvand, about 5 kilometers from modern-day Hamadan. They were first studied in detail by the French painter and archaeologist Eugene Flandin, who was accompanied by Pascal Coste. Following on their work, Sir Henry Rawlinson, a British explorer, used the inscriptions as a sort of Rosetta stone to descipher the cuneiform characters of the era. The inscriptions proved to belong to the age of Darius I (521-485 BCE) and Xerxes I (485-65 BCE), refuting earlier myths that the inscriptions described the location of buried treasure–hence the name Ganjnameh, or ‘treasure epistle’.

Ganjnameh Entrance Sign

Ganjnameh Entrance Sign

The texts are in fact a hubris-laden suck-up to the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda from the Achaemenid monarch Xerxes (r 486–466 BC) for making him such a stellar king. To emphasise the point, the message is repeated in three languages (Old Persian, Elamite and neo-Babylonian) on rock faces some 2m high. A second panel similarly commemorates his father, Darius. All this is rather ironic considering the modern-day fetish for social-media immortality.

Cuneiform Inscriptions of Darius and Xerxes in Ganjnameh

Cuneiform Inscriptions of Darius and Xerxes in Ganjnameh

The right inscription, belonging to Xerxes I, reads: “The Great God [is] Ahuramazda, greatest of all the gods, who created the earth and the sky and the people; who made Xerxes king, and outstanding king as outstanding ruler among innumerable rulers; I [am] the great king Xerxes, king of kings, king of lands with numerous inhabitants, king of this vast kingdom with far-away territories, son of the Achaemenid monarch Darius.”

In this context, “God” refers to Ahura Mazda of the Zoroastrian religion.

Ganjnameh Waterfall

Ganjnameh waterfall is one of the most important waterfalls of the province, near the city of Hamadan and at the tail end of the recreational area of Abbas Abad Valley. This waterfall flows down from a height of about 12 m. and is known as the water of Abbas Abad. Its average output is 200 litres / second. This waterfall is in the vicinity of the Ganjnameh Inscriptions and also en route to the track from where the heights of the Alvand mountains are accessible.

Beautiful Ganjnameh Waterfall

Beautiful Ganjnameh Waterfall

Ganjnameh Waterfall in Winter

Ganjnameh Waterfall in Winter




Everyone says you’ll be surprised by Iran (except for those who say, you’re nuts for going — and they’d probably be the most surprised of all). So I went in expecting to be surprised, but I still wasn’t prepared.

I was surprised by the red poppies bursting out all over the landscape, the snowcapped mountains where I’d expected desert, and the national commitment to mystical poetry and song. The most profound surprise of all was the genuine warmth of the people. From Tehran to Tabriz to the smallest village in the desert, people went out of their way to express appreciation at our visit. In Yazd, a restaurant owner went so far as to place an American flag on our table and blast “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the speakers, causing the other patrons to rise from their seats out of respect. Now, that’s surprising.

Below are a few of my favorite memories:

The palace was a pleasant surprise — an equivalent place in Europe would be overrun with tourists and selfie sticks. Instead, it was magnificently quiet; you could hear the babble in the fountains and the chattering of parrots overhead.



I had my picture taken by a young Iranian couple who were also strolling around Golestan, being tourists themselves. They were thrilled to see a group of Americans touring their capital.

One thing that surprised me about Iranian cities was the fun public art. I expected to see lots of sober portraits of the Supreme Leaders, Khomeini and Khamenei, and yes, I did see those. But I didn’t expect colorful murals and whimsical sculptures, and I saw lots of those, too. I think the picture above is actually an advertisement, but it’s a nice reminder of how Iranian cities can be joyful places, not just somber ones.

On Iran's rural border with Azerbaijan, set within a canyon and reachable only by a steep walk, the centuries-old St. Stephanos Church feels like it's in a different world from cosmopolitan Tehran.

On Iran’s rural border with Azerbaijan, set within a canyon and reachable only by a steep walk, the centuries-old St. Stephanos Church feels like it’s in a different world from cosmopolitan Tehran.

Iran’s Islamic architecture is dazzling, no surprise there. But there are other religions in Iran, and exploring sites sacred to Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism was a surprise highlight. Saint Stephanos Church is a long drive from the closest major city; perched just across the border with Azerbaijan, it holds court in a canyon of red rock that feels like one of the archives of time.

The Iranians that we met on the "Treasures of Persia" trip were always eager to have their picture taken with us. Same goes for this group of guys who ran into us at St. Stephanos Church.

The Iranians that we met on the “Treasures of Persia” trip were always eager to have their picture taken with us. Same goes for this group of guys who ran into us at St. Stephanos Church.

We visited Saint Stephanos on a weekend, and it was busy. At each corner and courtyard of the church complex, we were approached by people who wanted to welcome us and chat with us — or take their photo with us. Kathie is pictured here with a group of gentlemen who wanted to immortalize the visit.

A spring fills this volcanic crater at Takht-e Suleiman, Iran - it's easy to see why it was considered a sacred site to different civilizations throughout Iranian history.

A spring fills this volcanic crater at Takht-e Suleiman, Iran – it’s easy to see why it was considered a sacred site to different civilizations throughout Iranian history.

At first I was a bit skeptical as we walked up to Takht-e Suleiman, a windy mountaintop UNESCO World Heritage Site. We’d driven hours through mountain landscapes to get there, and as you approach, you can’t see much except the crumbs of ruins. But the opaque, blue-green pool in the center of the site, formed in a volcanic crater, brought into focus how magnificent and spiritual it was. “One of the most sacred places in Iran,” our trip leader, Sylvie, said, and it was pretty easy to see why.

As with so many other places in northern Iran, we pretty much had the whole site of Takht-e Suleiman — all of its chambers, tunnels and temples — to ourselves to ponder and explore. Here, our national guide, Peyman, is explaining the Zoroastrian fire temple that once burned here.

The atmospheric ruins of Takht-e Suleiman, a sacred site in rural Iran.

The atmospheric ruins of Takht-e Suleiman, a sacred site in rural Iran.

There was just one other group of tourists visiting the ruins at Takht-e Suleiman that day, an older couple strolling with a young man. The woman asked me to take a photo with her. After the young man had taken the picture, the woman squeezed both of my hands in hers and kissed both of my cheeks. I don’t think anyone has ever been so happy to take a picture with me in any other country I’ve visited.

Military service is compulsory for most young men in Iran. These two soldiers serve their time as guards at the crumbling Anahita temple, a pre-Islamic ruin in the town of Kangavar, dedicated to the Zoroastrian goddess of water.

An Iranian woman in Kangavar offered warm bread to some members of our group. At first we declined, trying to adhere to the Iranian custom of taarof, which governs etiquette, but as you can see, eventually the aroma of warm bread overcame us.

Persepolis! Ancient cities haven’t always been my thing — in the Roman Forum I was preoccupied by the scrawny cats begging between the columns — but this site is magnificent from the very first approach. The city was a ceremonial capital for the Achaemenid kings, built on these tremendous stones that heave it toward the sky like an altar, and decorated with astonishing carvings and reliefs. It was more recently famous for being the site of the last Shah’s final big party in 1971, which lavishly celebrated 2,500 years of Persian civilization and provoked the outrage of then-exiled Khomeini.

This third-century relief at Naqsh-e Rustam, just a few miles from Persepolis, depicts the beginning of an empire: Ardashir, the first Sassanid king, is receiving a ring of kingship from the Zoroastrian deity Ahuramazda. The empire only ended four centuries later with the arrival of Islam in Iran.

This third-century relief at Naqsh-e Rustam, just a few miles from Persepolis, depicts the beginning of an empire: Ardashir, the first Sassanid king, is receiving a ring of kingship from the Zoroastrian deity Ahuramazda. The empire only ended four centuries later with the arrival of Islam in Iran.

The highway from Shiraz to Yazd follows historical trade routes, passing the same desert mountains as the camel caravans of previous centuries.

The highway from Shiraz to Yazd follows historical trade routes, passing the same desert mountains as the camel caravans of previous centuries.

The highway from Shiraz to Yazd follows historic trade routes, passing the same desert mountains as the camel caravans of previous centuries.

I’m posing here with a gentleman who has greeted travelers to the Towers in Silence, a Zoroastrian ruin on the outskirts of Yazd, for years — maybe decades. “Over the years I’ve come here, he’s gone through three different donkeys,” our guide explained, “but it’s always the same man.”

Kathie admires the tile work and calligraphy at the Friday Mosque in Yazd.

Only 20 columns support the ceiling of the Chehel Sotun, or Forty Column Palace. The other 20 are created by the reflection in the pool at the entrance to the palace.

Only 20 columns support the ceiling of the Chehel Sotun, or Forty Column Palace. The other 20 are created by the reflection in the pool at the entrance to the palace.

Only 20 columns support the ceiling of the Forty-Column Palace. The other 20 are created by the reflection in the pool at the entrance to the palace.

Esfahan's Forty-Column Palace has an impressive variety of mustaches depicted in the artwork on its walls. On the day we visited, they honored their mustache heritage with a make-your-own-Persian-'stache station.

Esfahan’s Forty-Column Palace has an impressive variety of mustaches depicted in the artwork on its walls. On the day we visited, they honored their mustache heritage with a make-your-own-Persian-‘stache station.

The Forty-Column Palace might have only had 20 columns. What it had in excess was mustaches depicted in its artwork and frescoes — an impressive variety. On the day our group visited, the palace happened to have a temporary exhibit dedicated to this mustache heritage, including a “make your own historical Persian mustache” station that we took full advantage of.

The exterior of the Imam Mosque, in Esfahan, is covered in ornamental red bulbs to honor the birthday of the Hidden Imam, a Messianic leader believed by some Shia to be living in secrecy among the people.

Lots of people have written about the beauty of the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque in Esfahan. I am happy to confirm that they were all correct. It’s a masterpiece. The mosque was built in the 17th century as a private mosque for the women of the Shah’s family. The pious women were invisible while at prayer thanks to a long, curving hallway that twists away from the entrance doors.

As our trip wound to a close, we stopped in the village of Abyaneh, in the Karkas Mountains north of Esfahan. It’s beloved for its historic red-brick houses and its fruit leather (it tastes better than it sounds).


The joint efforts of Iranian-Italian excavation expedition bore further fruits in Tal-e-Ajory historical mound in the vicinity of Persepolis. The result has been a gateway had been constructed for an Achaemenian palace already in place before Persepolis had been built! Yes, the fact is that this discovery has unveiled some ambiguous unknown period about the ancient city of Parseh. The time period is between 559 and 521 BC, the era of the Persian Empire reigned by Cyrus the great and Cambyses.

The Square Structure of Gateway

Part of the brick-made gateway

Part of the brick-made gateway

According to Cultural New Agency, the dimensions of the recently discovered gateway has been:

  • 40 m long walls on North-South side
  • 30 m long walls on East-West side
  • 10-12 m thick walls on all sides

This square gateway was built in a 40 sq meter area leading people in and out on SE and NW corridors. There could have been approximately 1000s of 33 cm by 33 cm bricks, each one 11 cm thick forming the gateway. After the fall of Achaemenians, this historical mound built by such large number of bricks was demolished. That’s why local people call it Tal-e-Ajory, meaning brick-made mound.

Art & Architecture at This Achaemenian Gateway

As a result of the recent archaeological excavations in Iran as well as studying 12 other Achaemenian monuments at this side of Persepolis, it’s largely speculated that this part of the ancient city of Parseh used to exist at the time of Cyrus the great and more importantly, before the construction of Persepolis. The reason for such inference is the fact that there are several similarities between the motifs on the glazed bricks of this newly discovered gateway and those of the Mesopotamian myths, in particular with those of Ishtar Gateway in ancient Babylon. Another similarity is found between the plan of the discovered palace near this Gateway and those of the ancient Babylon as well as Pasargadae.


Sample glazed bricks with patterns,

Sample glazed bricks with patterns

There can be found the traces of mythical animals on these glazed bricks. The most significant discovery of this season of archaeological excavations in Iran have been 30 glazed bricks decorated by combinations of winged animals. In most of them, there can be noticed mythical griffins of Elamite and Achaemenian eras depicted with the ancient traditions of SW Iran, Susa and the Mesopotamia. Among them all, Mushussu, is the legendary animal depicted on bricks like in ancient Babylon. It’s an animal that looks like dragons, lions and snakes combined.

Bas-relief of Mushussu in the Pergamon Museum,

Bas-relief of Mushussu in the Pergamon Museum


Approximately 100 m South of this historical mound, there’s another historical mound in which a large palace (50 m by 60 m) had been unearthed. The space between this palace and newly discovered gateway had been planned as Persian gardens with some water supplement structures. Geophysics studies have proved the existence of such gardens and their water supplying facilities.

More Discoveries at this Area

As more and more remnants of ancient monuments and archeological excavations are found at this area of Iran, an interesting fact is revealed to us: In an area of 600 square acres, there had been laid a landscape with several royal monuments as well as Persian gardens among them, creating a breathtaking view for those inside Persepolis.



A closer view of Achaemenian inscription & relief at Bisotun

A closer view of Achaemenian inscription & relief at Bisotun

This ancient archeological site is one of the most outstanding historic  attractions of Iran. It has got its name from a relatively perpendicular mount by the same name where it is located. A prehistoric cave called “hunter’s cave” indicates this place has been a human shelter since 40,000 years ago. The ancient trade route between the Mesopotamian and Iranian merchants used to pass by a valley in front of this mount. There are some remnants of Medes, Achaemenians, Sassanians, Ilkhanids and Safavids here that were created several centuries later. I’m going to introduce them at this post:

Bas Relief & Inscription of Darius the Great

After the death of Cyrus the Great, the founder of Persian Empire and Achaemenian dynasty, there was a chaotic situation across the empire about who was his son to ascend the throne. At such crucial time, a few people falsely introduced themselves as Cambyses, his son. When Darius I and other Achaemenian nobles realized the pretenders’ plots, they decided to stop them, save the country and bring law and order back to the nation. Therefore, in a period of approximately less than 2 years, he suppressed these liars and ordered the truth to be written on parchment and potsherd to be distributed everywhere and carved on the face of the mount Bisotun.

This large cuneiform inscription carved on mount Bisotun is the world’s largest inscription ordered by Darius the Great to be inscribed at this site. It explains what the true identity of these people were, where they had come from, who they had pretended to be and how they were arrested. The bas relief also illustrates the story in a scene in which 9 rebels are tied to one another in a row and a magus, the priest, called Gaumata under Darius’ foot.

The decipherment of Bisotun inscription largely contributed to the understanding of cuneiform as well as understanding of ancient civilizations. In this sense, it can be compared to Rosseta Stone in Egypt.

Other Historic Monuments in Bisotun Area

The most significant monuments and historic remnants are:

  • Hunters’ cave: a cave from Neandertals’ time, app 40,000 years ago,
  • Median remnants: a fortress going back to 8th/7th century B.C on the slope of the mount near the inscription, a Median terrace below the relief of Darius most probably for the worship of an image,
  • Achaemenians’ remnants: a royal road built at the time of Darius the Great extended from Susa to Sardis passing by this area,
  • Seleucid  remnants: a statue of Herakles with a curly hair lying in front of an olive tree,


Statue of Herakles Recumbent at Bisotun

Statue of Herakles Recumbent at Bisotun

  • Parthian remnants: it includes the remnants of Parthian town, bas relief of Gotarzes II and bas relief of Mithridates II, a site of worship, relief of king Balash, etc,

Mithridates relief & Zanganeh Endowment Inscription at Bisotun

Mithridates relief & Zanganeh Endowment Inscription at Bisotun


Mithridates relief & Zanganeh Endowment Inscription at Bisotun
  • Sassanian remnants: Behistun Palace, which is said to be Palace of Khosrau II, carved stones, Farhad Tarash (a rectangular area of the foothill cut perpendicularly most probably to form some bas relief, but not completed).
  • lkhanid caravansery: the rocks, bricks and mortars in form of semi-standing walls and vaults down the slope from the mount and close to the inscription.
  • Safavid remnants: a caravansary still standing in the area at a walking distance from the inscriptions, inscription of Sheikh Ali khan Zangeneh, which is a text endowment.


A general view of the remnants of Ilkhanids & Safavids’ caravansaries

A general view of the remnants of Ilkhanids & Safavids’ caravansaries




The ancient city of Bam and its protective walls

The ancient city of Bam and its protective walls


The ancient city of Bam, a world heritage site registered in UNESCO’s list, has emerged at least at the time of Achaemenians (6th to 4th centuries). The flourishing time of Bam traces back to 7th to 11th centuries when it was at the crossroad of ancient trade routes. This city started to be inhabited since Achaemenian period until around 200 years ago. After that, it was used as military station for soldiers until approximately 80 years ago.

The creation of the ancient city of Bam was indebted mainly to the ancient underground water supplement system of Iran called Kariz (qanat in Arabic). This system has been continuing the provision of water for this city till now.

Whereabouts of Ancient City of Bam

It has been located between the Southern part of Kavir-e-Lut, Southern desert pit of Iran and the Northern part of Barez local mountain range, South East of Iran. The importance of Bam has been due to its geographical location in a broader scale, in connection to the centers of commerce in Western Asia during antiquity.

Originally, like any other communities at or inside deserts, the city was surrounded by protective walls and its governor was living within another walled section, a citadel, inside the walled town. The entire walled city of Bam was 200,000 square meters. Desert towns feel safer this way and can grow much more confidently. The surrounding wall is as long as 1810 meters and its height varies from 15 to 18 meters. There seems to have been 38 watch towers along this wall and a deep moat outside the city’s walls, which was filled with water at the times of danger.

Apart from the walled town and its citadel being the central focus of this valley, the cultural landscape of Bam is connected to a series of forts and citadels now destroyed. Today you may see a fortress of 7th century called Qale Dokhtar at the North of Bam and a couple of shrines dated back to 11th and 12th centuries – Emamzadeh Asiri and Emamzadeh Zeyd mausoleums.

Various Parts of Ancient City of Bam

Tourists visiting the ancient city of Bam after earthquake

Tourists visiting the ancient city of Bam after earthquake


What makes the ancient city of Bam unique in regards to its construction is the vernacular technique applied there: Traditionally, the architects have used mud layers (Chineh), sun-dried mud bricks (khesht), and vaulted and domed structures. This is the best example of desert architecture that you will find in several parts of Iran around the deserts. No matter which part of the city we visit, we will see the same style and technique applied to the structures.

The ancient walled city of Bam consists of 2 main sections for the governor (citadel) and common people. The Governor’s section, built on top of a rock higher than the rest of the city, includes royal stable, garrison and governor’s house. The common people’s section, spreads out from the foot of the governor’s section to the city walls in a relatively flat area, has got all including what a city required: 528 residential houses, main bazaar, Meydan (Tekieh), Friday mosque, Mirza Naeem School, Zurkhaneh (traditional sport club), Malek-o-Tojar House (a merchant house), caravansary, public bathhouse (hammam), Jews’ Sabat (rest area) and a noble’s house.

Some of the most important structures are:

Bazaar: it’s 115 meters long accommodating 42 shops in it. It used to offer silk and cotton fabrics to the traders traveling on the spice route, a sub-branch of silk route.

Friday Mosque: It was built on the site of a former temple, a Zoroastrians’ fire temple, with four eyvans (porticoes), later changed to three.

Zurkhaneh: The tradition of building such clubs dates back to ancient times in Iran when this sport was exercised.

Mirza Na’eim School: it’s a beautifully built structure consisting of two sections of interior (living quarter for the teacher) and exterior (studying quarter for the students).

What separates the common people’s section from the governor’s is the government’s reinforced gate. There are two rooms attached to this gate when you enter with their upper floors for the guards. After you cross this gate, you will see a different section. First you go to the left where the royal stable is located. You turn right and go through a garrison where the governor’s soldiers and guards were stationed. A corridor on the right side leads you to a steep slope which goes up first toward the commander’s house on the right and eventually leads to the top, house of governor.

Governor’s Section at the Ancient City of Bam

Governor’s Section at the Ancient City of Bam


The main part of this section is where the Bam’s governor used to live:

House of Governor: it consists of summer eyvan, winter eyvan and open space. There’s a building called four-season mansion. It could be used during all seasons as the name implies. It was a three-storey building. On top of all, there’s a watch tower square in base, which used to be circular and changed shape under Qajars after some destruction. Behind all parts of the governor’s section, there’s a private bath.

Water Supplement System at Bam

Apart from the Kariz system that brought water from Barez Mountains to the vicinity of the walled town and was transferred inside the walled city of Bam through a U-shaped pipe, many houses had their own wells. There was a deeper well half way to the top at the garrison and one well, the deepest, next to the private bath of the governor. Some water canals are on the surface for the irrigation of the trees.

Water supplement helps the irrigation of palm trees

Water supplement helps the irrigation of palm trees

Bam’s Present Condition

Outside the walled city, as the time passed by, the population grew and the security is the region was supported, some new houses were built and people started relocating to those houses. The centers of business moved outside and main places for religious ceremonies went outside the city walls. There are several palm tree areas and many trees along the streets shaping a garden city out there. Gradually, the walled city was evacuated and the new city of Bam was formed.
Some started looting the ancient city for the antiques, some for its fired bricks and some for the old soil to be used for their gardens. All these contributed to the tear and wear of the ancient walled city of Bam.

The 2003 earthquake largely devastated the new city and the ancient city of Bam. The newly restored city has kept its city planning and the ancient monuments’ restoration is underway. Fortunately, the foundations of several walls were still standing after the earthquake. This made the restoration job move convenient.

The city is undergoing more restoration these days, but it’s worth some exploration. Even before the earthquake when several world travelers visited the city, it wasn’t complete and intact. When you go to the ancient city of Bam, you see more or less what could be seen before 2003’s natural disaster.


Shapur Statue inside Shapur Cave

Shapur Statue inside Shapur Cave

This cave is located on the heights overlooking Chogan Valley, about 6 km from the ancient city of Bishapur in the south of Iran. Shiraz is one of the cities from where you can start your trip to get there.

Now imagine you’re up there. What appears in front of your eyes is a huge statue standing in front of you not far ahead. He’s Shapur I, the second king of the Sassanid Empire. Yes, it’s really surprising to see such a huge statue in a cave at the top of a mountain. But it’s not the only thing that can surprise you.

Sculptures and rock reliefs have formed an outstanding part of Sassanid art. Although such carvings benefited less popularity at those times as compared to the other ancient periods, they’ve done the best in depicting some significant figures and events.

What You Need to Get to Shapur Cave

  • Because of the steppe climate in this region, you’ll need cotton clothes in light colors if you want to be there in spring or summer. But if your trip is in fall or winter, you’ll need warm clothes. The annual precipitation is very low in this region but to be assured of your comfort, have a raincoat with yourself.
  • You’ll need suitable and comfortable footwear because you have to go up the carved stairs with about 230 treads to get to the entrance of the cave. Or you can hike the steep slope of the mount if you wish. It can be challenging but you don’t need to be a professional mountain climber.
  • Have a bottle of water with yourself. There’s no access to drinking water in the cave. It takes about an hour and a half to get there. It’s rather a long way and makes you tired and thirsty.

Now It’s Time to See the Real Surprise

Shapur Statue inside Shapur Cave

Shapur Statue inside Shapur Cave

So, to see the real surprise, you have to reach a cave which is located at a height of about 800 meters above the mountain foot. The entrance of the cave is about 30 meters wide and 15 meters high, and its length is about 450 meters from the entrance to the end. It’s called Shapur cave because the enormous statue of Shapur I is there.

Yes, this remarkable manifestation of Sassanid art is so impressive. The height of this statue is about 7 meters and the shoulders are more than 2 meters wide. It’s carved out of a stalagmite in this limestone cave and dates back to about 17 centuries ago. It’s the only sculpture this large remaining from the ancient times in Iran.

Shapur I was one of the most powerful Persian kings who achieved great victories against the Romans. In his last war with the Romans in early 260 A.D., he arrested the Roman Emperor and imprisoned him in the ancient city of Bishapur, 6 km from the cave, and therefore, the Roman Empire was dominated for a long time. This victory attracted attention of the civilized world of the day to the power of the Sassanid Empire.

Other Attractions in and around Shapur Cave

  • There are two pieces of stone inscription cut in the wall of the cave. One of them dates back to the ancient times in Sassanid period. It is the translation of a piece of inscription attributed to Shapur. The other one belongs to the contemporary times and talks about how the statue was raised again after about 14 centuries in 1957. It was pulled down after the Arabs invasion of Iran and the collapse of Sassanid dynasty.
  • As you go further into the cave, you can see two water reservoirs dug in stone. They are about one meter deep and have stairs for access to water. Water dripping from the ceiling of the cave was collected in these ponds. The locals used to provide drinking water from these ponds.
  • There is a beautiful flowstone by the reservoirs on the left. At the back of this flowstone, you can see some of most eye-catching stalactites and stalagmites.
  • As you explore in depth of the cave, you encounter a very large hole in the floor with a diameter of about 100 meters. It reminds you of dry lakes. It’s about 30 meters deep from the front hall floor.
  • Passing the hole, on the left, there’s a flat area partially created by locals. It seems it was used as a spot for ceremonies or offering sacrifices. The height of the ceiling in this hall is about 40 meters. It’s the highest point of the cave’s ceiling.

It’s said that the dead body of Shapur I is buried somewhere in this cave. There is also another legend narrated by the locals about this issue. It says that Shapur, being defeated in a war, took refuge in this cave. Since then he has been disappeared and his body has never been found.

These are not the only wonderful attractions in the region. You can take a tour to visit the other ancient spots near Shapur cave. Among them all, I suggest visiting the ancient city of Bishapur and Chogan Valley rock-reliefs. There you can learn much more about Sassanid art and get hugely surprised, too.