In terms of Iran's UNESCO World Heritage status, the country currently ranks 11th in the world with 21 designated sites, boasting more UNESCO sites than Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Australia and Brazil. If this isn't enough, majority of the sites were approved as recent as 2003. To put this into perspective, there are 47 more sites on Iran's tentative world heritage list.
Most remarkably, Iran has preserved these impressive cultural sites despite the many tribal, religious and political conflicts throughout history. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for other neighboring countries.
These heritage sites range from ancient adobe construction, to early Christian architecture. Are you intrigued? Then here's Iran's top 21 sites.
As places of pilgrimage, the monastic ensembles are living examples of religious traditions in Iran, from Magi (Zoroastrianism) to early Christianity. Demonstrating Iran’s historical protection of Christianity, and more importantly the significance of Iran’s acceptance of cultural interchange, in particular between the Byzantine, Orthodox Christian and Persian culture.
Built as early as 62 AD, the churches and monasteries include: St Thaddeus Monastery, St Stepanos Monastery, Chapel of Dzordzor. The Monastic Ensembles of Iran are all located in the Azerbaijan region, in the north west corner of Iran.
"Bam and it's Cultural Landscape" is generally regarded as the largest adobe structure in the world, with origins dating back to the Achaemenid period (6th to 4th centuries BC) however earlier remains have also been found.
Arg-e Bam is an ancient fortress-city consisting of houses, water supply, stables, bazaar and a citadel (fortified core). The city oasis relied on underground irrigation canals, called qanāts, to supply sanitary water.
The old city was at the crossroads of important trade routes, and known for the production of silk and cotton garments. Especially during the 7th to 11th centuries, Bam's economy peaked. Eventually the rumours would spread to Europe, bringing the likes of Marco Polo to explore the Middle East.
With population growth, the more modern city of Bam has expanded around it. However on December 26, 2003, the Citadel was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake. Even so, the UNESCO Rectification Works are shaping Arg-e Bam to be a wonder like never seen before.
Derived from Old Persian 'Bagastana,' meaning "the Place of God," the Bisotun Inscriptions are a large multi-lingual rock bas-relief, measuring approximately 15 x 25 metres wide, and elevated 100 metres up a limestone cliff.
Authored by Darius the Great (Darius I) himself around 521 BC, the inscriptions are a very early autobiography, including the ancestry, lineage and lengthy sequence of events from Cyrus the Great to Cambyses II.
While Darius the Great proclaimed himself victorious in all battles in the region, basking his success on the "grace of Ahura Mazda," the inscriptions are far more important than simple stories of historical kings. The inscriptions were crucial to the decipherment of cuneiform script, a very early system of writing, where it was translated into 3 languages including Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a later form of Akkadian).
Sound interesting? Well consider this: what the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Bisotun is to cuneiform.
As the oldest historic monument in Tehran, the Golestan Palace represents the former monarch, offering royal residence, hospitality and coronation (think Buckingham Palace).
Construction originally started during the reign of Tahmasp I (r. 1524-1576) of the Safavid dynasty. It was later renovated and expanded during the Qajar Dynasty, when Tehran transformed into the capital city against growing threats of imperialist Russia and Britain. It then changed shape again in the the 20th century during Pahlavi rule.
Currently the Golestan Palace contains 17 important structures, including palaces, museums and brilliant halls. However the most impressive remains of the palace are the intricate Marble Throne and 'Diamond' mirror work.
The 72 m high tomb (base to peak) built in ad 1006 for Qābus Ibn Voshmgir, bears the cultural exchange between Central Asian nomads and the ancient civilization of Iran. The tower is the only remaining evidence of Jorjan, a former centre of arts and science that was destroyed during the Mongols’ invasion in the 14th and 15th centuries. Built of unglazed fired bricks, the monument’s intricate geometric forms constitute a tapering cylinder with a diameter of 17–15.5 m, topped by a conical brick roof. The geometry forms the golden ratio of phi, that equals 1.618. The Tower was built on such a scientific and architectural design that at the front of the Tower, at an external circle, one can hear one's echo. The tower was known to be the tallest minaret in the world at the time of construction. Gonbad-e Qabus illustrates the development of mathematics and science in the Islamic world at the turn of the first millennium AD, influencing sacral construction in Iran, Anatolia and Central Asia for your to come.
Located in the historic centre of Isfahan, the Masjed-e Jāmé (‘Friday mosque’) represents the brilliant evolution of mosque architecture over twelve centuries, starting 771 AD to the end of the 20th century. The structure was influenced by the Seljuqs, Mongols, Muzzafarids, Timurids and Safavids. It is the oldest preserved edifice of its type in Iran and a prototype for later mosque designs throughout Central Asia. The complex, covering more than 20,000 m2, is also the first Islamic building that incorporated the four-courtyard layout used in Sassanid palaces into Islamic religious architecture. Its double-shelled ribbed domes represent an architectural innovation that inspired builders throughout the region. The site also features remarkable decorative details representative of stylistic developments over more than a thousand years of Islamic art.
Built by Shah Abbas I the Great at the beginning of the 17th century, the site is known for the Royal Mosque, the Mosque of Sheykh Lotfollah, the magnificent Portico of Qaysariyyeh and the 15th-century Timurid Palace. The Maiden was where the Shah and the people met. Built as a two story row of shops, flanked by impressive architecture, and eventually leading up to the northern end to the Imperial Bazaar, the square was a busy arena of entertainment and business, exchanged between people from all corners of the world. As Isfahan was a vital stop along the Silk Road, goods from all the civilized countries of the world, spanning from Portugal in the West, to Greater China in the East, found its ways to the hands of gifted merchants. The Royal Square was also admired by Europeans who visited Isfahan during Shah Abbas' reign. Pietro Della Valle conceded that it outshone the Piazza Navona in his native Rome. Meidan Emam demonstrates the level of social and cultural life in Persia during the Safavid era.
Pasargadae was the first dynastic capital of the Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus II the Great, in Pars, homeland of the Persians, in the 6th century BC. Its palaces, gardens and the mausoleum of Cyrus are outstanding examples of royal Achaemenid art and architecture and exceptional testimonies of Persian civilization. The archaeological site covers 1.6 square kilometres including: the Mausoleum of Cyrus II; Tall-e Takht, a fortified terrace; and a royal ensemble of gatehouse, audience hall, residential palace and gardens. Pasargadae gardens provided the earliest known examples of the Persianchahar bagh, or fourfold garden design (see Persian Garden). Pasargadae remained the capital of the Achaemenid empire until Cyrus' son Cambyses II moved it to Susa, and eventually Darius settled in Persepolis. Pasargadae was the capital of the first great multicultural empire in Western Asia. Spanning the Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt to the Hindus River, it is considered to be the first empire that respected the cultural diversity of its different peoples. Which was reflected in the brilliant architecture, a synthetic representation of different cultures.
Founded by Darius I in 518 B.C., Persepolis was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. It was built on an immense half-artificial, half-natural terrace, where the king of kings created an impressive palace complex inspired by Mesopotamian models. Persepolis was greatly enhanced by King Xerxes I (son of Darius I), who unfortunately invaded and destroyed much of Greece in 480 BCE. By around 330 BCE, Persepolis was described by Alexander the Great as the wealthiest city under the sun and the private houses had been filled for a long time with riches of every kind. The city was eventually sacked and burned by Alexander. Darius III having lost control of Persia was assassinated by his cousin. The importance and quality of the monumental ruins make it a unique archaeological site. The buildings at Persepolis include three general groupings: military quarters, the treasury, and the reception halls and occasional houses for the King. Noted structures include the Great Stairway, the Gate of Nations (Xerxes the Great), the Apadana Palace of Darius, the Hall of a Hundred Columns, the Tripylon Hall and Tachara Palace of Darius, the Hadish Palace of Xerxes, the palace of Artaxerxes III, the Imperial Treasury, the Royal Stables, and the Chariot House. Persepolis is probably the most famous of the Iran UNESCO sites.
Shahr-i Sokhta, meaning ‘Burnt City’, is located at the junction of Bronze Age trade routes crossing the Iranian plateau. The remains of the mudbrick city represent early complex societies in eastern Iran. It was founded around 3200 BC and expanded up until 1800 BC, the finished structures included: monuments, separate quarters for housing, burial grounds and manufacturing areas. The burial grounds measure 25 hectares containing between 25,000 to 40,000 ancient graves. Diversions in water courses and climate change led to the eventual abandonment of the city in the early second millennium. The structures, burial grounds and large number of significant artefacts were well-preserved due to the dry desert climate in the far east of Iran. This provided a rich source of information regarding the emergence of complex societies and civilisation in the third millennium BC. Some special finds to date include a unique marbled cup, leather with drawings, the earliest known artificial eyeball, the earliest known set of dice (and backgammon), and a human skull identified with early attempts of brain surgery.
The Mausoleum of Sheikh Safi, in Ardabil was first built by his son Sheikh Sadr al-Dīn Mūsā after his fathers death in 1334. It expanded between the beginning of the 16th century and the end of the 18th century, which became a place of spiritual retreat in the Sufi tradition. The early Persian development of Sufi mysticism in the region, from modern day Turkey through to Afghanistan, combined beautifully with Islam at the time. It used traditional medieval Iranian architecture to maximize use of available space to accommodate a variety of functions. The ensemble includes a library, a mosque, a school, mausolea, a cistern, a hospital, kitchens, a bakery, and some offices. However what makes it so culturally important is the integration of Sufi teachings. There is a route to reach the shrine of Sheikh Safi divided into seven segments, which mirror the seven stages of Sufi mysticism, separated by eight gates, which represent the eight attitudes of Sufism. The ensemble includes well-preserved and richly ornamented facades and interiors, with a remarkable collection of antique artefacts.
Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System can be traced back to Darius the Great in the 5th century B.C. It involved the creation of a pair of diversion canals from the Kârun River, one of which is still in use today. This is named the 'Gargar canal,' providing water through the city of Shushtar. The hydraulic infrastructure included dams, tunnels, and canals that supply the water mills. It forms a spectacular cliff from which water cascades into a downstream basin. It then enters a plain situated south of the city where 40,000 hectares of orchards and farming land are cultivated. The fields are known as Mianâb (between water). The ensemble also includes the Salâsel Castel, the operation centre of the entire hydraulic system, the tower where the water level is measured to maintain the hydraulic infrastructure. This bears witness to some of the worlds earliest engineering principals from the Elamites and Mesopotamian cultures, as well as more recent Nabatean and Roman influence within the greater region.
The mausoleum of Oljaytu was constructed in 1302–12 in the city of Soltaniyeh, the capital of the Ilkhanid dynasty, which was founded by the Mongols. Situated in the province of Zanjan, Soltaniyeh is one of the outstanding examples of the achievements of Persian architecture and a key monument in the development of its Islamic architecture. The octagonal building is crowned with a 50 m tall dome covered in turquoise-blue faïence and surrounded by eight slender minarets. It has the earliest existing double-shelled dome in Iran. The mausoleum’s interior decoration is also outstanding, and scholars such as A.U. Pope have described the building as ‘anticipating the Taj Mahal’ in India, which was also founded by the Persians.
Tabriz has been a place of cultural exchange since antiquity and its historic bazaar complex is one of the most important commercial centres on the Silk Road. Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex consists of a series of interconnected, covered, brick structures, buildings, and enclosed spaces for different functions. The structure comprises of several sub-bazaars, including gold and jewellery (Amir Bazaar), carpet bazaar (Mozzafarieh), shoe bazaar, and many other ones for various goods. Tabriz and its Bazaar were already prosperous and famous in the 13th century, when the town became the capital city of the Safavid kingdom. The city lost its status as capital in the 16th century, but with the expansion of Ottoman Empire it remained important as a commercial and economic trade hub. It is one of the most complete examples of the traditional commercial and cultural system of Iran. Currently Tabriz Bazaar has remained the economic heart of both the city and north-western Iran.
The archaeological site of Takht-e Soleyman, in north-western Iran, is situated in a valley of a volcanic mountain region. Folk legend relates that King Solomon (Son of David) used to imprison monsters inside the 100 m deep crater of the nearbyZendan-e Soleyman known as "Prison of Solomon". Another crater inside the fortification itself is filled with spring water; Solomon is said to have created a flowing pond that still exists today. The originally fortified site, located on a volcano crater rim, includes a Zoroastrian sanctuary, partly rebuilt in the Ilkhanid (Mongol) period in the 13th century, as well as a temple dedicated to 'Anahita' during the Sasanian period of the 6th and 7th centuries. The designs of the fire temple, the palace and the general layout have strongly influenced the development of Islamic architecture. A 4th century Armenian manuscript relating to Zoroaster, Jesus, and Islamic historians mention this pond. The foundations of the fire temple around the pond is attributed to that legend. The conventional dates of Solomon's reign are circa 970 to 931 BC.
Tchogha Zanbil in local Baktiari means 'basket mound'. It is one of few existing ziggurates outside modern Iraq. Ziggurats were built by the Sumerians, Babylonians, Elamites, Akkadians, and Assyrians for religious purposes. The ruins of Tchogha Zanbil represented the holy city of the Kingdom of Elam. It was built about 1250 BC by the king Untash-Napirisha, mainly to honour the great god Inshushinak, however the city remained unfinished after it was invaded by Ashurbanipal. It has been speculated that Tchogha Zanbil was an early attempt to create a new religious centre to replace Susa, to unite the gods of both highland and lowland Elam at one site. The main building materials in Tchogha Zanbil were mud bricks and occasionally baked bricks. The monuments were decorated with glazed baked bricks, gypsum and ornaments of faïence and glass. Ornamenting the most important buildings were thousands of baked bricks bearing inscriptions with Elamite cuneiform characters by hand. Glazed terracotta statues such as bulls and winged griffins guarded the entrances to the ziggurat. Some early examples of kilns were also found near the temples of Kiririsha and Hishmitik-Ruhuratir.
The Persian Garden developed in the 6th century BC, it evolved and adapted to various climate conditions after Cyrus the Great united the first Persian empire from Europe to India. The gardens were always divided into four sectors, with water playing an important role for both irrigation and ornamentation. The Persian Garden was conceived to symbolize Eden and the four Zoroastrian elements of sky, earth, water and plants. These gardens also feature buildings, pavilions and walls, as well as sophisticated irrigation systems. They have influenced the art of garden design as far as India and Spain. The listed Iran UNESCO gardens include Pasargad, Chehel Sotoun, Fin Garden, Eram Garden, Shazdeh Garden, Dolatabad Garden, Abbasabad Garden, Akbarieh Garden, Pahlevanpour Garden, Taj Mahal (India), Humayun's Tomb (India), Shalimar Gardens (Pakistan), Generalife (Spain).
Meymand is believed to be a primary human residence in the Iranian Plateau dating 12,000 years ago. Maymand is a self-contained, semi-arid area at the end of a mountain valley. Many of the residents live in the 350 hand-dug houses in the rocks, some have been inhabited for as long as 3,000 years. Stone engravings nearly 10,000 years old are found around the village, and deposits of pottery nearly 6,000 years old bear witness to the long history of settlement. The villagers are semi-nomadic agro-pastoralists. They raise their animals on mountain pastures, living in temporary settlements in spring and autumn. During the winter months they live lower down the valley in cave dwellings carved out of the soft rock (kamar).
Susa contains several layers of superimposed urban settlements in a continuous succession from the late 5th millennium BCE until the 13thcentury CE. Susa was one of the most important cities of the Ancient Near East. Located in the south-west of Iran of the lower Zagros Mountains, the property encompasses a group of archaeological mounds rising on the eastern side of the Shavur River, as well as Ardeshir’s palace, on the opposite bank of the river. In historic literature, Susa appears in the very earliest Sumerian records. Susa is also mentioned in the Ketuvim of the Hebrew Bible, mainly in Esther, but also once each of Nehemiah and Daniel. Esther became queen of Susa to a Persian King who saved the Jews from Babylonian genocide. Both Daniel and Nehemiah lived in Susa during the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BCE. A tomb presumed to be that of Daniel is located in the area, known as Shush-Daniel. Many scholars believe the tomb was one of the points making 'Star of David'. Some excavations around Susa uncovered some administrative, residential and palatial buildings. The site bears exceptional testimony to the Elamite, Persian and Parthian cultural traditions at the time.
Between June and October, this arid subtropical area is swept by strong winds, transporting sediment and erosion on a colossal scale. Consequently, the site presents some of the most spectacular examples of aeolian yardang landforms (large corrugated ridges). Iran’s Lut Desert represents an exceptional example of ongoing geological processes.
Throughout the arid regions of Iran, agriculture and permanent settlements have thrived using ancient qanat systems. Tapping into alluvial aquifers at the heads of valleys, Persians’ have utilised many thousands of kilometres of underground tunnels to supply clean water to townships for centuries.
The UNESCO listed Persian Qanat comprises of eleven tunnel networks, including rest areas for workers, water reservoirs and watermills. The traditional communal management system allows equitable and sustainable water distribution, which is still in place today. This is an exceptional testimony to cultural desert traditions.
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