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Sassanid Archaeological Landscape

Fars Region, Iran
In the 3rd century AD, a dynasty emerged in Iran that would go on to rule for more than 400 years. The Sassanid Empire spread across the Middle East and its cultural influence reached far across the world, to Western Europe, Africa, and China. The first cities of the Sassanid Empire were founded in the Fars region of Iran, and it's here that we can discover their remains today. In particular, eight architectural relics spread across three sites showcase the historical and cultural importance of this great civilisation through its palaces, fortresses and other grand monuments.

The Sassanid Empire was the last Persian imperial dynasty before the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD. It was founded in 224 AD by Ardashir Papakan, who rose to power over the declining Parthian State. From the very beginning, he set about expanding his rule and, over the next four centuries, the Sassanid Empire grew to cover all of modern Iran and Iraq from Turkey to Pakistan, as well as parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

The period of Sassanid rule was the longest of any Persian dynasty, lasting until 651 AD, and is considered by historians to be one of the most important. The empire became a major power in the region as it developed a complex government bureaucracy. It built grand monuments and educational facilities, cultural institutions flourished and Zoroastrianism was again embraced as the main religion, although other faiths were often tolerated. Through trade and territorial expansion, the cultural influence of the Sassanid Empire stretched across much of the globe and even shaped some aspects of European and Asian art.

The main cities of the Sassanid Empire changed over the centuries, as geographical priorities shifted and successive leaders tried to create their own legacies. But the first ones were founded in the Fars region, not far from the Persian Gulf. Ardashir Papakan constructed the first capital at a city named Ardashir Khurreh, which is near to modern Firuzabad. Five of the eight locations of this World Heritage site are here.

Ardashir's eldest son and successor, Shapur I, then built his own city called Bishapur about 150 kilometres away when his reign began in 241 AD. Two of the World Heritage site locations are here. The last of the monuments included in the site is at Sarvestan which, although only about 80 kilometres from the first capital, was built about four centuries later during the reign of Yazdegerd III, between 634 and 652 AD. It was during this period that the Sassanid dynasty began its end, with the fall of the empire after successful attacks from the Muslims Arabs who were expanding north east.

Shapur the Great
Shapur the Great

Firuzabad

The Firuzabad area, about 100km south from Shiraz, consists of a fertile plain enclosed by rocky peaks which is accessed by a steep river valley winding between rugged mountains. Five individual sites remain from the first Sassanid capital of Ardashir Khurreh. The best order to visit them is: Qaleh Dokhtar, the Ardashir Investiture Relief, the Victory Relief of Ardashir I, Ardashir Palace and Ardashir Khurreh (the Middle-Persian name of Firuzabad).

Remains of the once great Firuzabad
Remains of the once great Firuzabad

The first attraction, Qaleh Dokhtar, consists of the remains of a 71-hectare fortress built on a rocky mountain plateau in a dominant position above the Tang-i Ab valley and the Firuzabad plain The inner part of the fortress was a residential unit that was home to the first Sassanid ruler, Ardashir Papakan, who defeated the last Parthian king. Walking distance from Qaleh Dokhtar, at the bottom of the valley, lies Ardashir Investiture Relief that depicts the Zoroastrian creator god, Ohrmazd, standing in front of Ardashir and handing him a large ring symbolizing the right to sovereignty. This is only one of the five reliefs Ardashir placed during his reign. Another example of it is the Victory Relief of Ardashir I. This one is located at the southern end of the Tang-i Ab valley and is accessed through a path from the modern village of Ateshkadeh. It shows Ardashir’s victory against the last Parthian king. This incredible piece of artwork measures 18 metres long and is one of the most impressive remains of ancient art of the Sassanid Archaeological Landscape.

Continuing south, you'll enter the Firuzabad plain, finding next to the Ateshkadeh village, Ardashir's Palace, traditionally known as Ateshkadeh due to the presence of the domes, which are usually associated to fire-temples (ateshkadeh). The palace was built after King Ardashir had established his influence as a ruler, therefore the construction doesn't include a fortification or extensive defence structure. It does, however, resemble a lot of the structures created for the Qaleh Dokhtar residential unit with an improved layout and placed in the plain. Immediately in front of the entrance façade of the palace there is a pond created by a spring, confirming that waster was an element of great importance in the Sassanid culture.

Finally, moving away from the Palace towards the middle of the plain, the heart of Ardashir’s capital city, Ardashir Khurreh, will capture your attention with its outstanding architectural planning. It's a circular city with a diameter of 1,950 metres, divided into 20 sections with a precise geometric system of 20 radials and several concentric streets. It is also possible to notice the remains of a pressed earth wall designed to protect the city with the association of a ditch. The entire complex is well designed with the administrative, ceremonial and religious structures being located in the centre of the city, surrounded by civil and residential structures. Noteworthy are the remains of a tower-like structure used to design the circular plan of the city ("menar") and of a monumental Zoroastrian fire-temple known as "Takht-e Neshin".

King Ardashir's Palace
King Ardashir's Palace

Bishapur

The next attraction in the Sassanid Archaeological Landscape is Bishapur, the city built by Ardashir’s successor Shapur I, some 20km north from Kazerun in Western Fars at lower elevation. The city, unlike the circular Firuzabad, is rectangular in shape with orthogonal streets and four gates, with a total area of 155 hectares. It has a sophisticated defence system with two walls, one surrounding the royal pavilion and the other protecting the entire city. Even though not much of the area has been excavated, one key finding is what was once interpreted as Shapur's Palace but is now better believed to be the fire temple, with an impressive dome of more than 20 metres. Some patches of the mosaic floor once decorating the complex, pointing to a Roman influence, are kept in the site museum.

The Bishapur complex also emcompasses two fortifications, Qaleh Dokhtar and Qaleh Pesar, six carved rock reliefs on the right and left bank of Tang-e Cowgan and, about 6km from the Bishapur complex, the Shapur’s Cave. The Shapur’s Cave has great importance in the archaeological landscape as it exhibits a nearly seven metre high statue of Shapur I carved out of a stalagmite formed in situ. The extreme detail found in the statue testifies to the importance of the site and the presence of three water basins in the cave may suggest the importance of the symbolic value of water.

Intricate stone carvings in Bishapur
Intricate stone carvings in Bishapur

Sarvestan

The third and last part of the archaeological landscape is the Sarvestan monument, located some 90km south-east from Shiraz city. The structures found on the site date back to the late 7th, mid 8th and late 9th century, representing a structure built at the end of the Sassanid empire. It is locally called Qasr-e Sassan (Sassan’s Palace) or Chahar-taqi (the square with dome resting on four arches or short barrel vaults). Recent research shows that the monument might have been built in Sassanid times as a fire temple that was continued to be used after the Sassanid Empire during the Islamic era. It consists of a central domed square hall, two columned hallways, a courtyard and two rectangular hall spaces with walls on three sides (ayvan).

Stunning remains of Sarvestan
Stunning remains of Sarvestan

How to get there

There is no public transport that will take you to the sites, therefore, to hire a car or taxi will be needed and it is highly recommended to get a guide. In order to arrive in Shiraz from Tehran, there are regular flights leaving twice a day.

How to Visit

As the sites are located far away from each other it is recommended to visit by car or with a hired tour guide. The distance between the sites also require more days of visitation, being recommended for the visitor to stay for a minimum of two days in order to see most of the sites. Hiring a tour guide is recommended in some parts of the itinerary due to complicated roads. For example, Tangab is a playful valley where there are two Sassanid reliefs, but you must use a local guide and be careful of possible road and mountain dangers. Observe the same thing when visiting Shapur Cave in Bishapur. The cave is very important and interesting, but you should use the local guide. In the Fars province, you can find accommodation in the city of Shiraz where the visitor can find hotel options as well as tour operators.

The remains of the Sassanid cities lie in a charming landscape of the Fars region, close to the Persian Gulf coast. From pockets of green grass, rise the ancient ruins that were witness to the great expansion of Persian culture - enormous fortifications, opulent palaces, carefully-planned cities. At Ardashir Khurreh, the first capital of the Sassanid dynasty, a three-level fortress stands as a testament to the power of the empire's founder. At his successor's main city, Bishapur, you'll find a large palace and intricate carvings in the rock faces.

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