The ancient Persians were very important for Juergen (actually more for his tests and grades) during his nine years of Latin and seven years of Greek in high school. His teachers made sure he’ll never forget that the Greeks defeated Darius I at Marathon in 490 BCE and Xerxes I at Salamis in 480 BCE…Standing in front of Darius II tomb (above) over 50 years later was quite an emotional experience.

The Islamic Republic of Iran mandates a strict dress code especially for women. Yvonne is wearing an appropriate Islamic hijab (headscarf, little of no hair showing, long coat). Juergen wasn’t supposed to run around with bare arms. He did and got away with it. Perhaps the beard helped.


A government crack down on short-sleeves for men and any hair showing for women started just as we left Iran. We were lucky we were there when we were!



Our group of 12 had a very comfortable new Mercedes bus with 45 seats. We had a male Czech MIR guide, a female Iranian national guide, a wonderful driver and his assistant permanently with us. At many places we also had local guides in addition.


The tour was organized by MIR. It was their first group tour to Iran since 2001. They called it “Ancient Persia and Modern Iran.”  We divided our pictures into three groups: Ancient Persia, Islamic Iran, and People and Posters.


We were bussed some 2300 mi - our tracks are shown in yellow. We started in Tehran, drove to the Caspian Sea, visited Masuleh and drove back to Tehran. We flew to Yazd, and then drove to Kerman, Shiraz, Esfahan, Kashan and back to Tehran.





What does the picture of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (at left) have to do with Ancient Persia???


On the way to Tehran we miscon-nected in Istanbul and had to stay there for one day. As Istanbul is one of our favorite cities, we revisited some of its magnificent sites. The Hagia Sophia became the model for many Islamic mosques. Since the Hagia Sophia predates Islam and was a Christian church built by the Emperor Justinian between 532-537 CE one might assume that Islam borrowed a Christian style. Wrong. The reason we include the picture here is that the idea to build a circular dome over a square base using squinches (arch supports across the corners) comes from ancient Persia (The Hagia Sophia actually uses pendentives which is a Roman architectural device to support a round dome over four colossal pillars).




The oldest example of a dome structure over a square base using squinches is the palace of the first Sassanian king Ardeshir I (221-224 CE) located near Firuzabad. The picture below right side shows one of the squinches.











Another example of the same architectural style is the palace of a later Sassanian king Bahram V (421-438 CE) predating the Hagia Sophia by some 100 years.


Note that many of the magnificent archeological sites are in the middle of nowhere with no tourists, souvenir stands etc.



7th c.-331 BCE


Cyrus (558-529)

Darius I (521-485)

Xerxes I (485-465)

Artaxerxes I (465-424)

Darius II (424-405)

A short history table helps us to place dynasties and names in their proper historical order.

The table on the left lists the major dynasties and some of their rulers of ancient Persia from the 7th c. BCE to 636 CE. The Achaemenian empire was defeated by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. After Alexander’s death, the Seleucids reigned until the Parthian King Mithridates took over. The Sassanians under Ardeshir I replaced the Parthians and lasted until the Arabs defeated them in 636 CE and introduced Islam.

323 - 2nd c. BCE



2nd c. BCE – 226 CE


Mithridates I (171-138 BCE)

226 CE – 636 CE


Ardeshir I (224-241)

Shapur I (241-271)

Bahram V (421-438 CE)




The influence of ancient Persia on our and other civilizations can’t be overstated. An intriguing aspect is the relationship of Zoroastrianism and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious traditions.


Zoroaster was a prophet who predates or coincides with early Judaism. Here are some of Zoroaster’s teachings: the world was created by one transcendental god, there is the eternal dualism between good and evil and humans have a choice, humans have an immortal soul, the world will come to an end when a Messiah appears.


Sounds quite familiar, doesn’t it? The question of which of the religious traditions influenced the other or if both Zoroastrianism and Judaism have common roots can’t be answered because of the uncertainty of when the prophet Zoroaster lived. The dates range from 1700 to 600 BCE with the majority believing he lived somewhere between 1000-600 BCE. Zoroastrianism became the official Persian state religion under Darius I and remained that for 1100 years until the Arabs introduced Islam in the 7th c. CE.


Even in Islamic Iran, there are many Zoroastrian traditions. The most important one is the two-week Norus celebration of the new year starting at the spring equinox, a celebration that has nothing to do with Islam.




Zoroastrianism (as is Judaism and Christianity) is a religious tradition tolerated and openly practiced in Iran, though only some 5500 adherents are left (world-wide, there are about 150 000). 


The picture on the right shows us in front of the temple in Yazd in which an “eternally” burning flame symbolizes the omnipotent and eternal god Ahura Mazda. The temple is adorned with a bas-relief winged figure (Fravahar). The layers of feathers symbolize the Zoroastrian maxim of purity of thoughts, words, and actions.


This figure is found at other sites, notably the Achaemenian sites around Persepolis. The background of this website is an example from Persepolis.








Zoroastrians believe in the purity of the elements so they don’t bury their dead (because it pollutes the earth) or cremate them (because it pollutes the atmosphere). Instead the dead were exposed in “towers of silence” like the one on the left, where the bones soon were cleaned up by vultures.


Iran outlawed this practice in the 1960s and nowadays deceased Zoroastrians are buried in graves lined with concrete to prevent contamination of the earth.



On the right, a magnificent depiction of the Fravahar from Persepolis.


The old man symbolizes wisdom and the ring in his left hand symbolizes adherence to the principles of Ahura Mazda. The ring around his waist indicates he is encircled by time during which he should lead a pious life until his immortal soul enters afterlife.


The three layers of horizontal feathers symbolize he should fly upward adhering to good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. The tail feathers pointing downward symbolize the struggle against evil thoughts, evil words, and evil deeds.











Persepolis was created by the Achaemenians to serve as the religious hub of an empire whose primary faith was Zoroastrianism. It is the most famous ancient site in Iran.


Unfortunately, Alexander the Great trashed it in 330 BCE but what’s left is still a magnificent site. It was started by Darius I around 518 BCE and added to through Artaxerxes III over a period of about 150 years.


One enters via a grand stairway into Xerxes’ gateway on the left.














Part of Xerxes’ gateway.















Its very existence and the good condition of what’s left is due to the fact that Persepolis was lost for centuries as it was totally covered by dust and sand. It wasn’t until the 1930s that extensive excavations revealed its glories once again.











Palace of the 100 columns.










The picture on the left is a frequently found symbolic representation of the new year (lion) killing the old (unicorn) and signaling a new beginning.


Even today, the two week long new years’ celebration (Norus) which begins at the spring equinox is the biggest celebration in Iran. Yes, Islamic Iran. The Mullahs tried to stop any practice of Zoroastrian rituals but they are too deeply embedded in Persians for that to happen.












The bas-reliefs of Persepolis (right and below) are of such exquisite quality and beauty of expression that’s hard to believe they are over 2500 years old.












The rock tomb of Artaxerxes II at Persepolis. It was built here rather than at the main Achaemenian burial site of Naqsh-e-Rostam 4 miles north because there was no more space there.


This tomb and the following one is modeled after the ones at Naqsh-e-Rostam. The door in the massive tombs lead to funerary chambers where the bones were stored after the vultures had picked them clean.











A closer look at Artaxerxes II tomb shows Zoroastrian carvings. They show the king standing at a Zoroastrian fire altar supported by figures representing the subject nations below.













Nearby is the tomb of Artaxerxes III quite similar in style to previous one.








The main Achaemenian burial site is at Naqsh-e-Rostam located 4 mi north of Persepolis. It’s a stunning sight with four huge rock tombs. The picture on the left shows three tombs (left to right) of Darius I, Artaxerxes I, and Xerxes I. The rock mountain continues beyond the right side of the pictures at a right angle with the forth tomb of Darius II.









The tomb of Darius II is the best preserved. We used this tomb for the title page on top of this section.


It is shown here again. Notice Yvonne directly at the base in order to sense the enormous dimensions.













Zooming in at the top of the tomb, we see a Zoroastrian carving depicting the Fravahar.


 In this earlier representation, the feathers are more stylized than and not as elaborate as later depictions at Persepolis.








The site at Naqsh-e-Rostam was also used by dynasties other than the Achaemenians.


There are still some bas-reliefs of the Elamites who preceded the Achaemenians and Sassanian carvings like the one on the right.


A Sassanian King (l.) gets his credentials from the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda (r.). Both of their horses are stepping on someone. The king’s horse is on his enemy and Ahura Mazda’s horse is on Ahriman (the personification of evil).










Near Kazerun (west of Shiraz) are several interesting Sassanian ruins but no too much has been reconstructed.


At the site of a Sassanian palace we encountered this guard. He looked like he was around when the palace was built.














The red poppies were just beautiful.


When we photographed one flower, we noticed an iridescent beetle that totally trashed the inside by ripping out all the stamens and piling them up.


Only Ahriman knows why.



Also in the Kazerun area are the Shapur cave and several interesting bas-reliefs.


The Lonely Planet thinks that the Shapur cave with a 23 foot statue of King Shapur I is one of the most impressive archeological sites in Iran. Visiting the site was in our program but our guide had never done it as the local guide had always talked him out of it. It lies in a remote area, requires a local guide from the closest village, and involves a demanding 1-1.5 hour, hike/climb in rocky terrain. There is no shade which makes the climb even more difficult when it’s hot (which it was). The trail goes to the left of this picture and circles up to the right.


The cave is barely visible in the right picture under the word “cave” which was added to the photo (and is not on the rocks).
















This is the cave which is pretty well hidden in the rocky cliff.










This is Yvonne climbing down again. Our young local guide didn’t speak one word of English but he gladly gave the two ladies who did the climb permission to take off the scarf and open up the long coat. It still wasn’t the hiking gear Yvonne would have preferred but she managed.










The effort was certainly worth doing.


 Entering the cave one finds this imposing 23’ statue of Shapur I.


It was carved in situ. It was knocked over once because people thought there was a treasure hidden underneath.







The face of Shapur I (241-271 CE).


Even though Alexander the Great lived over 500 years earlier, the Hellenistic influence is strikingly evident. The artisans he brought to Persia and other parts of his empire to the east had a long lasting influence.


For example, early Buddha statues from Afghanistan and Pakistan look like Greek gods.
















A view from inside the cave. One person is just coming up to the cave.















Along the way to Shapur’s cave, there are some magnificent bas-reliefs commemorating the victory of Shapur citizens over Roman invaders.













Here is another example of Ahura Mazda (l.) installing and blessing a Sassanian King (r.) with his ring.


The groove on the bottom of the pictures above and right was caused by a powerful flood in the 1960s.












We sent several emails from Iran. They contain more travel details and if anyone is interested in further reading to experience our Iran learning-curve, click on reports from Iran.








The end.