In about 1300 BC the Alamites in what is now western Iran built a Ziggurat – a massive five-tiered temple dedicated to their gods, in particular their top god Inshushinack. When they changed their religion, first to Zoastrianism and later to Islam, the temple got forgotten and covered by wind-blown sand.
It was rediscovered in 1935 by an aerial survey looking for signs of oil-bearing strata and is now listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
The pyramid-shaped ziggurat consists of five towers within a tower on a square 105m base. The internal construction was made of fired bricks and the outer of unfired. Many of the original bricks are intact as are large sections of paving. Not bad for a structure built more than 3,000 years ago.
A row of bricks at eye level is inscribed in cuneiform, the world’s first alphabet. It consists of wedge-shaped marks made by a reed on wet clay.
The pyramid is surrounded by a paved area protected by a wall and temples dedicated to lesser gods of the Alamite pantheon.
Now sited on a dry plain, during the period of construction, the ziggurat was surrounded by forest. Today, the vegetation is sparse, filled with mainly thorny acacias, jujube trees and the odd ring-in from Australia – eucalypts.
The temple is one of many ancient sights almost unknown outside Iran and remaining unknown in the West for political rather than tourism reasons.
Other sights near Shush, formerly Susa, an ancient town with roots back to the 5th millennium BC and a former capital of Persia. It was captured by Alexander the Great, who married Darius’s daughter there. Also at Shush is the remains of Darius’s winter palace and a small, but excellent, museum.
Men and women enter the shrine through separate entrances and women are expected to wear a tent-like outer garment called a chador, so as not to distract the men from their devotions.
The younger local women were delighted to meet and chat to their western visitors and to loan them a chador as well as demonstrate how to wear it.
Not far from Shush is Shushtar (or Greater Shush) the winter capital of the Sassanid Empire. Today Sushtar is the capital of Khuzestan province and a centre where irrigation water from the Zagros Mountains is channelled to grow watermelons, sugar cane and corn on the Khuzestan plains.
Shushtar also contains a bridge-cum-weir that raised the river level by two metres and a set of ancient watermills fed by floodwater channels through rock tunnels. The mills and irrigation works were built by Roman legionaries captured by Shahpur 1, king of the Persians at the battle of Edessa in 259 AD. These too are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Valerian, the only Roman emperor to be captured alive, was imprisoned there and is said to have been murdered by being forced to swallow molten gold.
Shahpur was understandably proud of his victory and recorded the event with reliefs carved in the rocky hillside at Naqsh-e Rostam near the ceremonial capital of Persepolis.
Why go to Iran on holiday
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