Iran is an ancient land with a unique geographical location along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 CE), which made the country a frequented destination.
Cities embellished with mosques, school and caravanserais adorned with the finest of decorations along this ancient route facilitated the trade of cultures, helped to forge political and economic ties between Persia, China, India, Europe and Arabia and allowed for the trade of cultures, religions, syncretic philosophies and various technologies among these civilizations.
Naqsh-e Jahan Square
Naqsh-e Jahan Square | Isfahan
Naqsh-e Jahan Square, the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, is a masterpiece of Islamic and Iranian architecture, which sits at the heart of Isfahan city in an area of 89,600 square meters.
This royal square, which literally means ‘Exemplar of the World,’ was designed by the polymath Sheikh Baha’i (1547- 1621) upon the order of the founder of the Safavid Dynasty, Shah Abbas I (1571-1629).
The square is surrounded by Isfahan Bazaar or Qeisarieh in the north, Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque in the east, Imam Mosque in the south and Ali Qapu Palace in the west.
The first of the four monuments dominating Naqsh-e Jahan Square is Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque which was built as the private mosque of the royal family and court over a period of 18 years. Unlike other mosques in Iran, Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque has no courtyard or minarets.
Despite its simple architecture, the finest materials were used in the construction of the mosque and prominent artists like calligrapher Ali Reza Abbasi were commissioned to create its complex interior and exterior decorations. This mosque has a famous underdone which has inspired the creation of beautiful Persian carpets and Iranian squares.
Imam (Shah) Mosque, also known as Jame Abbasi Mosque or Royal Mosque, was built to replace the Jame Mosque of Isfahan as the venue for the Friday Prayers. The dome of this mosque was designed by Sheikh Baha’i so that travellers on the Silk Road could see it glittering like a turquoise gem from miles away.
Ali Qapu (Imperial Gate) Palace is actually a six-story pavilion, which was the entrance to the Safavid royal quarters. Shah Abbas I spent most of his time in this palace, entertained visitors and foreign emissaries there and used the upper galleries to watch polo games, military parades and to host lavish banquets.
Isfahan Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest bazaars in the Middle East. This two-kilometre vaulted street connects the main entrance known as Qeisarieh with the city’s Jame Mosque. Above the portal of Qeisarieh Bazaar is a tribune that once accommodated musicians giving public concerts.
The magnificent multi-purpose Naqsh-e Jahan Square, which served as a marketplace, polo field, place for social meetings, concert grounds and a festival park, is depicted on the back of the Iranian 20,000 Rial banknote.
Golestan Palace | Tehran
Golestan Palace or the Rose Garden Palace is a masterpiece of Qajar era (1785–1925) crafts and architecture and the place where traditional Persian arts meet European architecture. The palace was originally known as the Arg of Tehran and was built during the reign of the founder of the Safavid dynasty, Shah Abbas I (1571-1629). It found importance after Agha Mohammad Khan (1742-1797), the first of the Qajar Kings, chose Tehran as his capital and resided in this place.
The palace complex was expanded during the reign of Fath-Ali Shah (1772-1834). During the reign of Nasser-al Din Shah (1831-1896), who ruled for 49 years and was the first Iranian king to visit Europe three times, additions inspired by European architecture were added to the palace.
The palace has some of the finest examples of Persian mirror work, stucco and stained glass decorations and consists of 17 palaces, museums, and halls, which were mostly built over the two centuries of Qajar rule.
Bam and its Cultural Landscape
Bam | Kerman
Bam is located 180 kilometres southeast of the city of Kerman and is considered to be the second largest city in Kerman Province. Bam is the only Iranian city to be registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bam has arid climate and due to its proximity to deserts experiences extreme climate variations as a result of which the city sometimes has the hottest summers and coldest winters in the country.
The city was located along the Silk Road and was an important military and trade centre in the Sassanid era (226-651 CE). The last ruler of the Zand Dynasty Lotf Ali Khan (1769-1794) fled to this city where he was ultimately captured by Agha Mohammad Khan (1742-1797), the first of the Qajar dynasty (1785-1925).
The current city of Bam is built around the Bam Citadel or Arg-e Bam, which is also the city’s main attraction. This fortress city dates back to the Achaemenid era (550-330 BC) and was inhabited for over 20 centuries before being abandoned in the late 19th century when its inhabitants moved to the current city of Bam.
The citadel was built to withstand long sieges and was impenetrable when its gates were closed. It was also the largest adobe structure in the world but 80 percent of it was destroyed in a devastating earthquake in 2003. Since then efforts have been underway to restore this ancient citadel.
Iran is one of the main producers of dates in the world and produces over 400 different types of dates, 15 of which are known in international markets. One of these 15 date varieties is the Mazafati, a soft black date, which is exclusively produced in Bam.
Pasargad | Shiraz
The ruins of Pasargadae, the first dynastical capital of the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC), lie northeast of Persepolis, in Fars Province. Pasargadae was the capital and holds the tomb of Cyrus the Great (576-530 BC), who is best remembered for his unprecedented tolerance and magnanimous attitude towards the nations he conquered and for drawing up the first Charter of Human Rights known to man.
It is said that Cyrus chose the location of his capital as it was near the battlefield in which he defeated Astyages (reign 585-550 BCE), the last Median ruler.
What remains of the palace of Cyrus the Great contains a pillar with a unique ‘winged figure’ relief which is believed to be a representation of Cyrus. The figure is seen in Elamite robes, wearing an Egyptian crown and with Assyrian wings—all subject nations of the Achaemenids.
On a hill on the northern limit of Pasargadae stands a fortified terrace platform made of limestone known as Tall-e Takht. As customary of Achaemenid architecture, the anathyrosis method (the ancient technique used to dress the joints without the use of mortar) was used to join the stone blocks used in the construction of this structure. While the palaces of Pasargadae were abandoned over time, Tall-e Takht continued to be used as a fort in later times.
The tomb of Cyrus, which is one of the most prominent structures of Pasargadae, has a design similar to Mesopotamian ziggurats. The limestone structure has six steps leading to the sepulchre where it is believed that the body of the Achaemenid king was placed on a golden bed. It is said that during the Attack of Alexander (356-323 BC), Cyrus’ Tomb was raided and its riches were plundered.
According to Greek accounts, when the raiders entered the tomb they found an inscription which read “O man, whoever thou art, from wheresoever thou cometh, for I know you shall come, I am Cyrus, who founded the empire of the Persians. Grudge me not, therefore, this little earth that covers my body.”
Until 100 years ago it was believed that the tomb of Cyrus belonged to Prophet Solomon’s mother. The tomb was a pilgrimage place and a mosque was built around it, which was in use until the 14th century. The remains of the mosque were cleared from the site in the 1970s when the tomb of Cyrus was restored.
Sheikh Safi al-din Khanegah and Shrine
Sheikh Safi al-din Khanegah and Shrine | Ardebil
Sheikh Safi al-Din Ardabili’s Ribat and Shrine is a 16th-century religious complex that became the prototype for Ribats built by Sufis in later years. The complex includes a library, a mosque, a school, an Ab-Anbar (water reservoir), a hospital, kitchens, a bakery, and offices as well as the tombs of several Safavid Sufi masters, Safavid royals and their wives and some of the fallen soldiers in the 1514 Battle of Chaldoran at the time of the Ottoman–Persian Wars.
Sheikh Safi al-Din (1252–1334) was the founder of the Safaviyya Sufi order and the eponym of the Safavid dynasty (1501–1736). His mausoleum was originally built by his son Sheikh Sadr al-Din Musa in 1334. One of Sheikh Safi al-Din Ardabili’s decedents Shah Abbas I (1571-1629) renovated parts of the shrine and expanded it. He employed Safavid calligraphers and artisans to create the exquisite ornamentation of this structure.
The result was some of the finest examples of Mo’arraq tilework, Muqarnas or ornamented vaulting, Monabbat or wood carving and inlaid work, stucco reliefs featuring the works of Safavid calligraphers, illuminated tiles, Persian miniature paintings, stone carvings and gold and silver embellishments, which amaze visitors to this day.
Soltaniyeh Dome | Zanjan
Built on the order of the eighth Ilkhanid ruler Oljeitu, also known as Muhammad Khodabandeh (1280 – 1316), Soltaniyeh was the third Ilkhanid capital after Maragheh and Tabriz. Soltaniyeh was the place Ilkhanid rulers went hunting and to relax. Muhammad Khodabandeh is said to have built the Soltaniyeh Dome to become the first Shia Imam Ali (PBUH)’s (599-661) new shrine. After encountering fierce opposition from the Scholars of Najaf who were furious at the Ilkhanid ruler for wanting to move Imam Ali’s remains, Muhammad Khodabandeh abandoned his plan and Soltaniyeh Dome eventually became his own mausoleum.
Soltaniyeh Dome is the third tallest dome in the world after Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Italy and Hagia Sophia in Turkey. The dome of Soltaniyeh is 25.5 meters in diameter at its base and 48.5 meters tall. After a lengthy process, the tilework of this dome was successfully renovated in 2008.
Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System
Historical Hydraulic System | Shushtar
The Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System dates back to the 3rd century CE and includes parts that are datable to the 5th century BC. The hydraulic system, which has been described as an advanced industrial complex that existed long before the 18th century Industrial Revolution in Europe, consists of a network of weir bridges, dams, water channels, watermills, rivers, and moats as well as a castle which was the centre controlling the system’s operation.
The oldest parts of the system date back to the Achaemenid era (550-330 BC) and include a manmade river known as Gargar Channel and Salasel Castle, which is the operation brain of the entire Hydraulic System. Salasel Castle not only controlled the operation flow of the water system but was also part of the defences of Shushtar city. In later periods, the castle was expanded to include a bakery, stables, barracks, guardrooms, a bath, a kitchen area, and several courtyards and became the residence of the Governor of Khuzestan Province.
Persepolis | Shiraz
Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire, was once known as the richest city under the sun. Persepolis was built by the Achaemenid King Darius I (550-486 BC) and his successors. The compound includes military quarters, the treasury, reception halls and living quarters for Achaemenid kings.
While many of the historical and natural wonders of the country have been photographed, documented and shared with the rest of the world, there are still many others which have not been properly promoted and are worthy of much more tourist attention. To get familiar with these unique sites follow our blog for future posts.