Friday morning we got an early start on what was the Iranian/Islamic sabbath. The roads were pretty barren as we made the drive back toward Shush. Less than half way to Shush we exited and drove another twenty minutes to the Chogha Zanbil ziggerat (temple). As we approached, Bahman made me close my eyes until he told me I could open them. Once I did, it was one of those holy crap moments. The site was an enormous red brick stucture in the middle of the hot, arid desert.
We got out of the van and were immediately hit by a blast of hot air. Fortunately, we had come early enough in the morning so that we were not facing the full heat of the day. And, as luck would have it, there was a nice little breeze that appeared to be coming from the direction of the river so it was not at all humid. We definitely lucked out.
My first sight of the Chogha Zanbil reminded me of a red brick, square version of the Egyptian Pyramids. Bahman had told me that the temple was comprised of four towers built within one another, but not on top of each other. In other words, each tower was built from the ground up.
The temple was constructed by the Elonites and King Untash Gal in 1250 BC and served the city of Dor Untosh. The city and temple were surrounded by three fortification rings, and the temple was originally 150′ high, Incredibly, the site remained unknown until it was accidentally discovered in 1935 during an aerial survey for oil.
Bahman and I had the guard at the site provide us with a brief tour and then we wandered around by ourselves. (We actually did not need the guard, but the only way to get “inside the ropes” and up close and personal with the temple was to give the fellow a few rials and allow him to escort us around.)
One of the cool features the guard pointed out was the many bricks that featured cuneiform (the world’s first alphabet comprised of spiky letters) inscriptions. One of the bricks read “ Untash Naparisha having built a multileveled temple of golden (colored) brick, silver (colored) brick stone, black opal stone and white stone of the area and having dedicated this holy area to the gods Inshushinak and Naparisha. May the curse of the holy area of Inshushinak Naparisha and Kiririsha befall on the person who destroys, harms or relocates its gold (brick), silver (brick), stone, black opal, white stone or bricks and may his descendants be removed underneath the sun.” YIKES. King Untash Gal clearly did not want his masterpiece touched without some consequences to the evil doer. The French apparently did not listen because they relocated a number of bricks during excavation … so that might explain their 2006 loss in the World Cup.
Anyway, we wandered around the circular courtyard that surrounded the site, saw an ancient child’s footprint in the stonework which was absolutely mesmerizing, two or three sundials and sacrificial alters and an incredible irrigation system that brought water from the nearby rivers to the temple and surrounding city. We then took a short walk across the desert to the burials sites of the Elamite royal families, including the tomb of what we believed to be King Untash Gal. The weather continued to cooperate with a breeze to cool us as we wandered the hot sands.
We got back in the car and headed next to the town of Shushtar (which means “more beautiful” in Farsi – apparently it was in competition with the “beautiful” Shush). As we drove, Bahman pointed out a series of bunkers that were used by the Iranian army during the Iran-Iraq war. Bahman was a “seal” during the war and was stationed on a ship in the Persian Gulf, but he spent time in the bunkers and had some stories about life inside. (If you have been reading my blogs to date, you will notice that there has been a lot of mention about the Iran-Iraq war. Obviously the war had a devastating impact on Iran, but it also worth mentioning that the area I have been traveling is at times within 100 miles of the Iraqi border and at one point in the war, Iraq’s forces had advanced close to that distance inside Iran. As a result, the region was heavily impacted by the war.)
As we continued to drive to Shushtar, we passed endless fields of sugar cane and watermelon, as well as Nomad goat herders and fruit stands before we reached Shustar. As we entered the town, the Friday call to prayer was just beginning. I had mentioned to Bahman that it was odd I had only heard the call to prayer a couple times since I arrived. Apparently in Iran the call to prayer is only three times per day and not five as in the Arab world. I am also learning, that Iran is not as Islamic as the mullahs in Qom portray it and or would like it to be, which I find fascinating. When I came to Iran, I envisioned a very religious country with religious overtones in virtually every facet of life. However, what I am learning from the folks I am meeting is that what the government wants and portrays is one thing and what the average person wants is something entirely different.
Anyway, the call to prayer was still quite beautiful as we drove through the city center. And I found that Shushtar actually lived up to its “more beautiful” name. The town was gorgeous and its star attraction was the hydraulic water system that dates back to the time of the Achaemenian king Darius the Great and the 5th century BC. It is an amazing complex of rivers, waterways, dams, waterfalls and canals that were built to harness the water from the nearby Karoon River.
While the Shushtar water system may have its roots in the Achaemenian times, much of its expansion was done by the Sassanians and much of the construction was done by Roman soldiers captured by Shapur I following his victory and capture of the Roman Emperor Valerian around 250 BC. One of the most impressive structures built by the Sassanians is the ancient hydraulic watermills designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
The watermills were created when the Sassanians damned the Gargan waterway forcing the water level to significantly rise. The water was then channeled into three manmade canals carved through the rocky surroundings. Once inside the canals, water branched off in many directions and ultimately ended up feeding approximately 40 watermills before exiting on the other side and pouring down into the water pools.
To reach the pools, Bahman and I walked down a series of ancient stone steps in order to see the cascading waterfalls that were flowing into beautiful blue green pools. The pools and falls were surrounded by ancient brown sand and stone structures. The result was that the watermills were a spectacular vision of rocks and water and pools, which were as as functional as they were beautiful. In fact, in 1933 an electric company formed Iran’s oldest hydroelectric plant at the site to harness the power of the watermills for use by Iranians. The system has only recently been replaced by damns.
As we left the site, we stopped and bought some dates for the return trip. (The Iranian dates are simply amazing!) On the way back to Ahwaz we were able to visit the Band-i Qaisar, which is an ancient Sassanian bridge dating to around the first century AD. The bridge is also known as Valarian’s Bridge and you can clearly tell that Roman slaves built the bridge because it looks just like a Roman aqueduct. The bridge originally had 45 arches and its construction helped raise water levels in the surrounding river to enable the city residents to irrigate their lands and permitted the watermills to function.
After the visit to Shushtar we drove back to Ahwaz for lunch and a rest. Before dinner, I wandered around the lobby and ran into a couple guys who immediately struck up a conversation with me. Their English was limited, but I learned that the two fellows were on the Iranian national boxing team and one of them had fought in Chicago in some international competition in 2007. Baham showed up on the scene and helped with translation and I learned that the fellows were in town for the national Iranian boxing championships. Both guys were from Kermanshah and the taller fellow was fighting in the 75 kg category and the smaller fellow in the 64 kg category. They were both the reigning national champions and would be fighting five matches over the next two days. Yikes. They told me that they both wanted to fight professionally and wanted to know if I knew about U.S. immigration laws for athletes. (Bahman told them I was a lawyer). I promised them I would see what I could find out and wished them both luck. Really nice guys.
Before having dinner, Bahman wanted to take me to the local malls to do a little shopping. We wandered around the mall and looked at a variety of women’s clothing including manteaus and Iranian wedding dresses (seriously … and the wedding dresses are just about as big and puffy as you can get). We were just about to head downstairs when … low and behold …. I found a Christmas ornament of sorts …. it was actually a Santa Claus on a key chain, but hey it would suffice for now….. I guess the streak kind of continues ….
After we finished window shopping we called Hamid to take us back to the hotel through the myriad of lights that had been hung around the city to celebrate Eid Al-Adha, the holiday marking the end of the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Bahman and I ate a quick dinner, and I made it an early night since Saturday would be a long (350 mile) drive to Shiraz.