A Persian Odyssey: Slight Return

The Netherlands is home to some cracking museums; the Rijkesmuseum, Rijkesmuseum van Oudheden, Allard Pierson, the museum at Castellum Hoge Woerd and many more.

But I’ve never been to the north of the country, so I had no idea what was up there. That is, until, a Twitter post by @FollowingHadrian about an exhibition of Iranian (Persian) archaeology and artefacts at the Drents Museum in Assen. As I’m always on the lookout for exciting things of an archaeological bent to do and see, and as I was actually due to be in the Netherlands (albeit much further south) over the August Bank Holiday, I immediately set about working out how I could fit in a very quick trip north to have a look.

Artefacts in the exhibition were on loan from the excellent National Museum of Iran, which I visited when I was in Tehran in 2015, so I was very keen to get another look at them. As well as artefacts that I remember seeing, there were ones that were either not on display, or which I just didn’t see or notice, so there were plenty of ‘new to me’ things to see.


The Drents Museum was purpose-built as a museum in 1854, but the exhibition was in the newer extension, opened in 2011. The exhibition space, downstairs, is quite large, although not huge, open and nicely lit and there seemed to be a good number of people visiting the exhibition, including groups, although it was not packed (this was a Monday* lunchtime, so I wouldn’t have expected it to be really packed).

The exhibition, Iran: Cradle of Civilisation, takes in a really broad sweep of Iranian/Persian history, including prehistoric artefacts dating from as early as 7000BCE right into the Islamic period, ending in about 1700CE.

Prehistoric culture is represented by some really beautiful and delicate pieces. I was particularly struck by this small stone bowl (it’s about 4-5 cm in diameter). It’s carved out of a piece of the darker-coloured stone in which there are lighter bush-coral inclusions.

2600-2400BCE, Shahdad, National Museum of Iran, Tehran

This terracotta bowl is decorated with a painted frieze of dancing figures. Perhaps commemorating a particular occasion or a festival of some sort.

I was particularly fascinated by this clay ball, as it brought to mind the stone balls seen in collections in the north of Britain (have a look at the Huntarian Collection in Glasgow for some examples).

Clay Bulla, 3200BC, Susa, National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

It isn’t really known what the balls found in Britain were for but the accompanying film explained this Persian ball. It’s a seal!

The ball is covered with figures of human and animals.

I stood in front of the screen filming the whole video because it really explained this artefact very well. You can see the video here: Clay Bulla (message to anyone from the Drents Museum: If you would prefer it if I took this video down, please let me know and I’ll do so).

The two objects below, although not particularly fancy looking, are evidence for the technological development of the region. The first a rather mucky-looking footed-dish, is actually a crucible in which copper was smelted.

Clay crucible 4000-3700BC, Tappeh Qabrestan, National Museum of Iran, Tehran. When copper ore is heated to a temperature above 1084c it will melt and can then be poured into moulds. At first only pure copper was melted, but the coppersmiths gradually started to mix it with other metals. One of those experiments lead to the discovery of bronze (copper and tin).

The second, a mould for casting a copper axe-head. Found at the site of Tappeh Ghabrestan, northwest of Tehran, which is known for its finds associated with copper-working, with furnaces and moulds dug into the ground as well as these smaller, terracotta moulds.

Terracotta mould, 3500-310BCE, Tappeh Ghabrestan, National Museum of Iran, Tehran

Although these not the fanciest exhibits in the exhibition, they are hard evidence of technological development and expertise in the region.

So what are the fanciest artefacts?

From the third millennium BCE, comes a gorgeous selection of carved soapstone vases, pots, cups and bowls. Soapstone is soft and relatively easy to carve, so it lends itself to these kinds of intricate, detailed designs. The imagery include real and imagined creatures, demons, deities, scroll-work and complex, interlocking geometric designs. I spent a long time admiring these wonderful artefacts and wanting so badly to be able to touch them.

From the 6th until the 3rd centuries BCE, the first Persian empire, the Achaemenids, founded by Cyrus the Great, dominated this part of the world. This dynasty, which included the other Persian ‘Greats’, Darius, and Xerxes, is notable for, among other things, its fine gold work. Examples in the exhibition also include beautiful vases and drinking horns (rhyton).

And one of the many highlights of this exhibition, this wonderfully weird pottery jug. Fashioned in the form of a man tending his bird-beaked pot-beast 😀

Pottery jug 850-550BCE, Kaluraz, National Museum of Iran, Tehran. This jug appears to have a spout in the shape of some kind of beak. Such beaked jugs were used for special wine ceremonies at burials. The Kaluraz cemetery is well known for its beautiful pottery vessels. This is the finest example – functional and yet artistic.

And there were even some reliefs from the imperial city of Persepolis.

Many reliefs at Persepolis show representatives of the 23 peoples of the empire, who came to the imperial city to pay tribute to King Darius. on the left, a gift-bearer climbing the stairs and on the right, a ma presenting a gift of arms to the King.

A whole wall of the exhibition space was transformed into a famous and spectacular monument, the original of which is situated at the World heritage Site of Behistun in north-west Iran (there are several spellings of this: Bisotun, Bistun or Bisutun).

The life-sized figure holding a bow, as a sign of kingship, is Darius the Great, beneath his foot is a figure, possibly the pretender to the throne, Gaumata. Behind him are two attendants and facing him are bound captives representing the conquered peoples. The symbol above the scene is the Faravahar the central symbol of the Zoroastrian religion.

The text, is written in three ancient languages; written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (an Akkadian dialect) and it provided the key to the decipherment of cuneiform, in much the same way the The Rosetta Stone was the key that unlocked Egyptian hieroglyphs. The inscription begins with the biography of Darius the Great, for whom the monument was created, and the history of the empire following the death of its founder Cyrus the Great. It describes the battles fought and won, and the rebellions put down by Darius and the generals subjugated.

This life-sized replica, measuring 15 x 6 metres, was created especially for this exhibition and installed at the same height as the original would be viewed. This gives a good idea of how the original in-situ would be seen, although, obviously, in a very different location.

When I was looking at visiting this exhibition, one of my burning questions was how on earth it had come about. I assumed that there must be some professional connections between curators in Assen and Tehran that had enabled the Drents Museum to secure such an amazing array of loans. Handily, the exhibition included a film answering this, and other questions, and the curatorial connections between the museum services has resulted in this exhibition and a return exhibition of Dutch art and archaeology now on display in Tehran. You can watch a mini-doc about the exhibition here:  https://drentsmuseum.nl/en/exhibitions/iran

This is certainly one of my exhibitions of the year and I would love to visit again, but I doubt that I’ll be able to get to Assen again before the exhibition closes on 18th November.  However, I think I’m going to have to plan a return visit to the Drents Museum in the not-too-distant future, for the next exhibition, ‘Nubia – Land of the Black Pharaohs‘ I just wish that exhibition catalogue was available in English. If it had been, I would have snapped it up.


*I should say that the Drents Museum, just like pretty well every other museum in the Netherlands, isn’t generally open on Mondays. I was lucky in that I was visiting at the end of the school holidays and it happened to be open on the day that I was able to get there.

Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city*

Much as I’d love to go to Nineveh, that great city, the security situation in Iraq at present does not allow it so I’ve had to make do with the wonderful exhibition at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden.

Rijksmuseum van Oudheden

In its heyday, of all the cities in the ancient Neo-Assyrian empire, Nineveh was the greatest and the most populous. It has had a lasting impact on western consciousness, particularly on account of Biblical references, especially relating to Jonah, and its semi-mythical status.

Etching of Jonah made by Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert between 1548 and 1552, Rijksmuseum.

Situated on the east bank of the Tigris River and encircled by the modern city of Mosul, Iraq. Nineveh was located at the intersection of importants trade routes crossing the Tigris on their way between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. It was the capital city of Assyria’s most powerful kings and the hub of the Neo-Assyrian Empire at its height.

The area of Nineveh has been settled since the late neolithic period, around 6,000BCE and there has been a city there since at least 3000BCE. During the Old Assyrian period (around 1800BCE), the city was known as an important centre for the worship of Ishtar, the ancient goddess of love, sex, beauty, fertility, war and power.

The expansion and embellishment of Nineveh as a royal city began in 705BCE on the accession of King Sennacherib, after the death on the battlefield of King Sargon II – ‘The Unfortunate’. This is when Nineveh turned from a primarily religious centre into a royal capital.

The walls of the palaces were clad in limestone panels with reliefs depicting kings and other important men, battle scenes, gory scenes of the execution of prisoners and, less gorily, daily life.

Much of what we know about the rulers and events in the history of Nineveh, the names of kings, information about great battles, building projects and religious life, comes from the contemporary texts, written on clay and stone in cuneiform. Many texts are yet to be deciphered, but the epigraphic habit of the Assyrian courts has yielded important information.

Clay cylinder describing the construction of the palace of Sennacherib, 704-681 BCE, Nineveh.

Mud brick from the ziggurat of Nimrud, inscribed with the name of King Shalmaneser III, 859-824BCE, Nimrud.

Even the limestone floor tiles from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II (9th c. BCE) were covered with text, here, an ode to the king.

The exhibition at the RVO has sections on different aspects of Nineveh; its wider historical and cultural context, biblical references, it rediscovery by western explorers (although it was long known about by Arab scholars), the construction and expansion of the city, trade, religion and daily life.

There is also an extensive section on Nineveh’s more recent history. When daesh invaded the city of Mosul in 2014, one of their stated aims was to destroy the ancient city. In early 2015, the group began posting films of artefacts, sculptures and even parts of the city wall begin destroyed. The two Iamasi below are similar to those featured in one particular destruction video posted by the terrorists.

Replicas of two Iamasi from Nimrud (the originals are in the British Museum).

This part of the exhibition examines the evidence for recent destruction and the response of the international community of archaeologists, heritage experts, scientists and digital imaging experts in their efforts to record and retain as much information about the city as possible, even in the face of its destruction.

Mosul and Nineveh

This has included the use of satellite imaging, 3d printing, digital photography, CGI and even the use of small drones, used to investigate, among other things, a series of underground tunnels dug by daesh fighters, which unwittingly uncovered new discoveries of antiquities.

I’ve posted a little film about this last initiative on youtube but don’t expect too much quality-wise. It was just me pointing my camera at the projection on the wall. It’s an interesting watch nevertheless.


The exhibition ‘Ninevah – Heart of an ancient empire‘  is on at the Rijksmusem van Oudheden in Leiden until 25th March 2018.

*Jonah 1:2

Horse guards parade.

The Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition currently on display at ten sites across the northern frontier lured me up north for a short visit. As I didn’t have the time to get to all of the exhibition sites, I prioritized the expos in Newcastle and Carlisle at the Great North Museum: Hancock, at Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum, at Segedunum and at Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery.

I’ve previously written about the extreme coolness of Roman cavalry parade helmets, so this is a little bit of an extension of that, as well as just a general Roman cavalry parade helmet love-in.

First up, Arbeia.

Arbeia Roman Fort, situated at a strategic point on the River Tyne was founded in about 120CE and was occupied right up until the end of the Roman period in Britain. Throughout this long life-span, the fort served as a base for (among others) auxiliary units of cavalry from Spain,  the First Asturian, and boatmen from Mesopotamia. It was converted into a supply station in the Severan period, handling the import of commodities destined for troops in the military zone.

At Arbeia Roman Fort, the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition, ‘Uncovering cavalry‘ is more about highlighting objects in the existing collection with just a couple of additions of objects on loan. This iron cavalry helmet from Limesmuseum Aalen is known as an ‘Alexander’ type due to its resemblance to portraits of Alexander the Great from around the same period, CE150-250.

Many surviving cavalry helmets are made from copper-alloy, sometimes coated in silver, but far fewer iron helmets have been found as they are more prone to corrosion. This helmet was found in a scrap metal dump near the workshops of Aalen cavalry fort.

A quick hop over the Tyne on the ferry took me to Segedunum. The larger exhibition there, ‘Rome’s elite troops – building Hadrian’s cavalry’, looks at the make up of the cavalry units and some of the manoeuvres used by cavalry units in battle.

Segedunum Roman Fort was built in about 127CE, when Hadrian’s Wall, originally starting at Pons Aelius (Newcastle upon Tyne) in 122AD, was subsequently extended by four miles to the east, to Wallsend. The fort was home to mixed cavalry-infantry units including the Second Cohort of Nervians in the 2nd century and, in the 3rd and 4th centuries the Fourth Cohort of the Lingones.

Alongside objects from Segedunum’s own collection are several helmets and helmet cheek-pieces on loan. One unusual helmet from Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins is this double-eagle crested helmet, a type worn by members of the Imperial Horse Guard in the third century.


Also in the exhibition is this silvered shield boss on loan from a private collection in the UK. The boss shows significant damage, probably sustained in battle during the Dacian Wars.

The boss is decorated with incised images of mythological subjects; Mars, Medusa, Jupiter, Apollo and Hercules. The outer part is decorated with images related to battle; shields, winged Victories, armour and a helmet.

There are two inscriptions on the boss; at the top, a statement of the ownership of the shield by Marcus Ulpius, a member of the Imperial Horse Guard in the time of the Emperor Trajan, and at the bottom, a record of the donation of the shield boss as an offering by Flavius Volussinus in memory of Marcus Ulpius.

Back in town, I went off to Newcastle’s Great North Museum: Hancock to see two helmets of a particular type. The display there, ‘Hadrian’s Cavalry: Shock and awe – the power of the Roman cavalryman’s mask’ shows the Ribchester Helmet (on loan from The British Museum) together with a second helmet of the same type (on loan from a private collection).


The Ribchester Helmet was found in Lancashire in 1796, as part of the Ribchester Hoard. It’s a bronze ceremonial helmet with a distinctive peak. The second helmet has been dated to roughly the same period as the Ribchester Helmet; 70-110CE/75-125CE.

Also at the GNM is Mithras.

The museum is home to a brilliant collection of Mithraic images and objects collected from sites along and around Hadrian’s Wall. Alongside more familiar mithraic imagery of the Tauroctony and the companions of Mithras, Cautes and Cautopates, this collection also includes this amazing carved stone sculpture of the birth of Mithras, with the god emerging from the Cosmic Egg.

Added to this, until 27th August, are three objects on loan from the collection at the Museum of London. The three marble busts were found buried under the floor level of the Mithraeum at Bucklesbury. They are a marble head of Minerva, the head of Serapis and the head of Mithras himself.

This is such a great idea. Bringing together the two best Mithras collections in the country. It’s also a good opportunity to have a bit of  look at Mithraeism in two different environments; the Mithraeums up on Hadrian’s Wall were in a military zone and associated with forts; e.g. Housesteads/Vercovicium and Carrawburgh/Brocolitia, while the London mithraeum was in civilian, urban area. The accompanying film also looks at the discovery of the London mithraeum in the 1950s.

A swift trundle west to Carlisle brought me to Tullie House Museum for the Guardians on the edge of empire – cavalry bases and Roman power exhibition, and more helmets. This is the largest of the exhibitions that I visited and there were some fantastic objects on display.

The fort at Carlisle, Stanwix/Uxelodunum, is thought to have housed cavalry troops, most the Ala Petriana. Home to a thousand mounted troops and their horses and support staff. This unit’s exceptional service earned them Roman citizenship while still serving. This is the unit in which Flavinus the signifer whose memorial now stands in Hexham Abbey, served, albeit at an earlier date.

The exhibition focuses, again, on the role and organization of the cavalry on the frontier and has an impressive range of helmets, face masks and other armoury pieces on display.

There are some pretty showy pieces, including this 2nd-3rdc. CE ‘Ostrov’ type helmet from Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins.

The helmet is a shape similar of one found in a burial at Ostrov, Romania and has a distinctive Phrygian cap shape on the upper part, topped with the head of a griffin and covered in scales.

The Gallery Attendant on duty when I visited was also very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the exhibition, and I had several conversations with her while I was looking round. She was particularly interested in this 3rdc. CE Amazon face mask (from Archäologische Staatssammlung München) and wondered about its origins and possible influences on the styling.


It really has a strong eastern look, reflecting the exoticism of the Amazon warriors. But comparing  it with the second Amazon face mask in the exhibition (mid-2nd – mid-3rdc. CE, from Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg) just shows up how exotic this one really looks.

This 1stc. CE ‘kalkreise’ type face mask (below), on loan from a private collection, is interesting as it has markings on the cheeks. As Imperial cavalry forces were usually auxiliary, i.e.non-citizen, units raised in provinces incorporated into the empire, these could have been indicative of tribal tattoos.

It’s really interesting to see the number of helmets and masks, and other pieces of armour, on display that are from private collections. This makes these displays even more worth seeing while they’re on, as there’s no telling whether they’ll be displayed in public again.

So there you are. A little peek at a few of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibitions. It would have been nice to have been able to do all ten as a road trip but I only had time for a flying visit. And I should also just point out that these exhibitions are in addition to the already excellent Roman collections at the museums and sites in question. Of course, on the back of seeing these exhibitions and displays, I’m now going to have to get down to Mougins to visit the museum there, and it has encouraged me to add more of Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium to the (never-ending) list.


The Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition continues until 10th September at ten sites along Hadrian’s Wall and down the western coast as far as Maryport.

More Bridges of the World

On the walkways of Tower Bridge there is currently a display of other iconic, interesting, ancient and modern bridges around the world.

There are some big hitters in the display; the Pont Neuf; the Golden Gate Bridge; Ironbridge, and some interesting but less widely known examples, for example the Moses Bridge at Fort de Roovere, Halsteren, Netherlands. Looking at this exhibition, an in-passing conversation got me thinking about other bridges that have taken my fancy on my travels, so here are a few ‘Other Bridges of the World’.

The Tower Bridge display include a beautiful bridge which I was fortunate to visit in Isfahan, Iran, the Allāhverdi Khan Bridge, more commonly known as Si-O-So-Pol.

Here are a few of my images of this lovely bridge.


A little way to the west of the Si-O-So-Pol bridge is another mid-17th century beauty, the Khaju Bridge.

Again, the bridge is built of two levels of arcades, and has the original tiles and paintings still intact.

The bridge works as both a bridge and a weir, but it also has a function as a buildings for meetings, a space for the Shah Abbas, the Persian Safavid king, to relax, take tea and admire the view.

The weir’s effect on the river is very evident but, as long as the water isn’t too high, it’s quite safe to sit by the water to enjoy the cool space on a hot day.

When I visited, the area around both of these bridges and along the riverside was peppered with people; individuals, couples, groups of friends and families, all enjoying the same relaxing space as the Shah Abbas. Strolling along the riverbank, sitting by the water, listening to music and eating ice-cream. Some things never change.

The sole Roman Bridge in the Tower Bridge display is the Pont du Garde, near Nimes in France.

I’m including another Roman bridge here for good measure. In Algeria, crossing the El Kantara gorge in Biskra, on the journey south to Ghardaia, we came to the El Kantara Roman Bridge.

The bridge was substantially rebuilt under Napolean but its roots are Roman. Built, probably, by the Third Legion Augusta, who were stationed at Lambaesis, this bridge crossed the gorge which was, and still is, the gateway to the desert. This made it a vital point of access for trade and people.

The bridge eventually fell into disrepair but was  renovated and widened under Napoleon.

Some of the original Roman construction blocks can be seen, and there is also an area of the original pavement, although it doesn’t look like it’s still in situ.

During our visit, we were joined at the bridge by a wedding party, and the happy couple has photos taken by the side of the river and on the bridge. We were told that it’s a bit of a tradition in the area to have wedding photos taken there and it’s certainly a lovely spot for it.

In the exhibition is a bridge which became a victim of war and, subsequently, a symbol of  post-war recovery and reconcilliation: Stari Most, the Mostar Bridge.

Originally built in the 16th century, on 9th November 1993, the Mostar Bridge was destroyed by Croat forces in the Croat-Bosniak War. Its destrucion has been described as a deliberate attack on the culture of Mostar in an act of “killing memory”*, so its reconstruction and reopening in 2004 acted as a symbol of the town’s recovery, both physically and culturally.

A bridge in my own alternative exhibition has suffered a similar fate and, we must hope, may yet act as a symbol for the future. In the northern Syrian town of Deir-ez Zor stood the Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge (Arabic: جسر دير الزور المعلق‎‎).

Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, early misty morning.

This bridge was built in 1927, under the French Mandate and acted as a pedestrian route across the Euphrates, connecting the Levant region of the city on the southern bank with the Upper Mesopotamia region on the north bank. When I visited Deir-ez Zor in 2009, I was particularly gleeful about being able to walk from the Levant to Mesopotamia.


The bridge was destroyed in May 2013 in shelling by the Free Syrian Army.

Deir-ez Zor has suffered horribly in the Syrian War and this situation continues with no obvious end in sight. Clearly I have no idea how the situation in Syria will be resolved but I can only hope that one day, soon, the Deir-ez Zor Suspension Bridge might act as a symbol for the end of war and the beginning of recovery, as has the Mostar Bridge.

To end on a slightly less depressing note, a bridge that’s a bit more modern.

One of the (many) things I like about Newcastle is the great abundance of bridges over the Tyne. There are railway bridges and road bridges, some of them towering above the river and the streets below them.

There’s a swing bridge!

Walking over the Tyne Bridge feels like an act of folly due to the thunderous traffic, but it’s quite fun nevertheless.

But there is also a more recent and more chilled out bridge taking pedestrians from the city over to the Baltic on the Gateshead side of the river: the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.

Work on the bridge began in 1999 and it opened to the public in September 2001. It is a bit of a symbol of the regeneration of the riverside area. I’m pretty sure that anyone who lives in an old industrial city can testify, ‘regeneration’ can be a double edged sword. Down at heel, even derelict areas can be brought back to life and made really nice. The addition of a decent cafe is always welcome. But in the rush to lure new money and new people to an area, ‘regeneration’ can often ignore the people who already live or work there. I’m not sure exactly how the people of Newcastle feel about their riverside’s regeneration but, as a visitor, I like it.

It’s a tilting bridge which consists of two steel arches, one which carries the footpath and the other which acts as a counterweight. Like Tower Bridge, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge ‘opens’ for river traffic to pass underneath, but rather than using the split roadway idea, the entire bridge tilts.

Despite having seen and walked across this bridge lots of times, I’d never seen it actually tilting but on a recent quick jolly up north to see some of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition, I was able to catch it on its regular midday tilt**. It’s brilliant 😀 I already liked this bridge but, having now seen it tilting, I like it even more.

These are just a few bridges that have impressed themselves on my memory on my travels. There are others that I really like, in Constantine, Algeria; at Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland and, of course, in London, but I think that I’ll leave those for another day.



** There’s a little Youtube video here: https://youtu.be/lQ0ZqeE7vB0

A Persian Odyssey: water, water everywhere.

Water. The stuff of life.


Water is obviously a vitally important factor for life, and the need becomes even more pressing in areas where its acquisition is problematic. In desert regions, the possibilities for accessing water really all involve some element of human intervention. Rainfall is too sparce and/or erratic to rely on it for crop irrigation, to fill reservoirs for drinking, or to be available for washing, general cleaning or all the other many uses we put it to.


This is one of the features that I was most looking forward to seeing in Iran.

8 Qanat (1)

Hmm. A hole in the ground by the side of the road.

But no! This is so much more than a hole in the ground. This is a bit of a qanat.

1 Qanat (6)

When I was working on my masters dissertation, I came into contact with this technology almost immediately, but in Libya (which I was researching) they’re called foggaras.

Basically this is a method for tapping into aquifers and bringing the trapped water to the surface. It doesn’t work like a well; you don’t hoist water up, rather this is a method for releasing water trapped in rocks using gravity and the land contours.* The water source and its eventual place of use may be many many kilometres apart and, in parts of Libya, these systems extend over hundreds of kilometres.

The most visible feature of the qanat is the vertical shaft. On the ground surface we see the hole, sometimes lined with stones, tiles or plaster, with a ring-mound around it.

1 Qanat (5)

Lines of these features snake off for miles into the distance, and they mark the line that the water is being carried in an underground channel from its source to the place where it emerges at the surface and can be utilized.


Water Museum

In the city of Yazd, there is a whole museum devoted to water.


The group that I was with wasn’t due to be visiting this museum, but I was very keen and as it is actually situated right near the main square, it was easy for me to nip in while the others had a little look in the shops and bought some extremely tempting-looking sweeties.

Although this was a flying visit, I was able to have a quick look in each room and see models of water technology used in the city and in the wider area. This models shows how the qanats work, bringing water from under the hills down to the city.

19 Yazd (10)

One thing that I was amazed about was the use of water mills actually in the underground channels of the qanats.

20 Yazd (10)

It is a huge engineering task to build these systems but they are actually very elegant and allow water to be used very efficiently.  Before the water reaches town it has been used for milling; in town water can be directed for drinking and for other industrial or domestic purposes; waste water is then finally directed towards field systems and cottage gardens to be used for irrigation purposes. Nothing is wasted. Sweet.

Ab-anbar and badgir

When the water reaches town, it is stored in large underground cisterns, Ab-anbars, which are kept cool by a system of wind towers, badgirs . The domes and towers can be seen all around the area.

1 P1190951

The wind towers work by catching prevailing winds and drawing the cool air down to the storage cistern, cooling the water stored there. Houses and other buildings also use the wind towers for cooling.

16 Yazd (8)

Some private houses, especially the houses of wealthy merchants, in Yazd have their own private water supply. Smaller channels from the qanats bring water into the basement where is can be drawn off to be used for the household.

In this merchant house in Yazd, there is a small pool in the basement area which, I was told, was used for keeping fish for consumption, rather than for keeping drinking water. The water flows into the pool via the conduit on the left.

19 Yazd qanat (1)

The seats around the room made it a cool, relaxing space for members of the household to hang out in on hot days.

Yakh dan

Another key use of water in Iran has been for ice. In the area around Yazd in particular, these ziggurat-looking buildings can be seen on the edges of towns. These are yakh dan or ice houses.


Inside the building, there’s a lowered floor level and the thick, clay walls mean that the internal temperature is significantly lower than the external temperature. I went inside this one and, despite the heat outside, it was quite cold under the dome. The ice is brought from the mountains and can be kept for many months and used as required.

Persian Gardens

Iran is famous for its Persian Gardens and water is an integral element in the design and layout of these gardens.


Fin Gardens, Kashan

The idea of Persian gardens dates from the Achaemenid period and they are designed to represent paradise on earth. They were usually walled and included areas for relaxation, areas of light and shade, plants, including trees, indoor and outdoor areas and, of course, water.

4 Golestan (2)

Golestan Palace, Tehran

The huge public square in Esfahan, Naqsh-e Jahan  or ‘Imam’ Square, features areas of grass, trees and large expanses of water with fountains. Even in this vast area, there is a relaxed feeling, with families and individuals strolling, relaxing and paying visits to the surrounding buildings.

5 Imam Square (2)

Imam Square, Esfahan

Visitors can also go on pony’n’trap rides, do a bit of shopping and visit a mosque.



*Wikipedia has quite a lot about qanats/foggaras here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qanat


A Persian Odyssey: The fire of Zoroaster


This (above) is the Faravahar (fravahr), a winged disk, often with the figure of a feather-robed archer symbolizing Ashur, and it’s the key symbol of the Zoroastrian religion.

Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Persia prior to the Islamic conquest of the Sasanid Empire in the 7th century and is one of the world’s oldest extant religions, founded by the Iranian Prophet Zarathustra in the second millennium BCE. Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion, from a time when polytheism was the norm, and its  god, Ahura Mazda, is considered to encompass two key attributes: Being, ‘Ahura‘ and Mind, ‘Mazda‘.

The theology includes the duty to protect nature and, in particular, the elements of water, earth and fire and air. Of the four primordial elements, fire and water are seen as purifying and, consequently, are important elements of ritual, incorporated into the fabric of the places of worship. Some people think that Zoroastrians worship fire, but this is not the case. Fire is used for its symbolical power in the worship of the god, signifying purity and truth.

In one of the main modern centres of Iranian Zoroastrianism, Yazd, the Fire Temple Atash Behram, built in 1934, is home to a Zoroastrian fire said to be fifteen hundred years old.


Taken from Pars Karyan Fire temple in Larestan and brought, by stages, to Yazd. The full story can be read here.  The main temple hall is not open to non-Zothroastrians and the fire itself is housed in the inner sanctum, the atashgah, which is accessible only to the temple priests. Visitors to the temple can view the fire through a window installed in the inner sanctum.

The Fire Temple itself is quite a simple building with a little bit of an art deco feel.


Zoroastrian fire temples tend to be relatively simple, with little of the surface decoration seen on Persian mosques, for example, but this one is set in a small but lovely garden, with a pool and fruit trees. It’s all very calming, even though there were lots and lots of visitors coming and going.

After dark, the temple looks stunning.


Some of the most moving Zoroastrian sites can be found in the Yazd region, one just on the outskirts of the city itself. These are the dakhma; the Towers of Silence.


In his writings about his travels through Persia and Afghanistan, the explorer Robert Byron describes his first view of one of these structures:

“Yezd, March 28th. –  Approaching Yezd (sic) in the early morning, after another all-night journey, we met a Zoroastrian funeral. The bearers were dressed in white turbans and long white coats; the body in a loose white pall. They were carrying it to a tower of silence on a hill some way off, a plain circular wall about fifteen feet high.” (Byron, 2007, p. 207)


In other cultures this is called ‘sky burial’ or excarnation.

Funerary ceremonies were carried out in buildings at the base of the hills. Then the body was carried to the tower at the top of the hill and laid out on the flat internal floor.



Men, women and children were laid out separately, with men around the outermost ring, women round the next inner ring and children around the innermost ring.

The process of excarnation involves the exposure of the bodies for wild birds, here vultures, to consume the soft tissues, leaving only the bones. At the very centre is a pit into which the bones of the deceased were collected to be dissolved with the use of lime. I think that the idea is that there should really be nothing left at the end.


These funerary structures represent a workable solution to the problem of the disposal of the dead within a belief system that seeks to avoid the perceived pollution that the dead would cause to the earth, water, fire and air. Perhaps this sounds a bit gruesome, but it’s quite a logical response to the problem of disposal without contamination.

Iranian Zoroastrians don’t carry out this process any more. Instead, the deceased are buried in graves that are lined with concrete in order to avoid the body making direct contact with the earth. I was told that one of the problems is a shortage of vultures. Numbers in the region have declined and, apparently, this was partly due to the bodies containing ibuprofen (from people self-medicating), which kills vultures!*


Other signs of the earlier history of Zoroastrianism can be seen at significant sites around the country.

This is me having a look at one of the royal tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam.


This particular one is the tomb of Darius I, The Great. He was a firm believer in the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda, and in divine support for his rule, but he was pretty relaxed about other religious and spiritual beliefs among his subjects, as were earlier and later Achaemenid rulers.

In the top sections of the rock-carved tombs is the image of Ahura Mazda.


Here’s a slightly bendy panorama of the main section of the site. From left to right these are the tombs of Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I, Xerxes I cut into the cliff-face, with the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht tower in front on the left.


Byron didn’t think much of them:

“The accent is struck by the four tombs of the Achemenid kings, regular landmarks hacked out of the cliff in the form of crosses. Each is carved with a tedious uniformity of low reliefs. “ (2007, p.179)

I was a little bit more impressed than that. The size and situation of the tombs was striking, and it was just the impression that it made on me, of standing before the tombs of Darius and Xerxes. If you ask me, Byron was too jaded by half.


*This is what I was told, but I don’t know if it’s correct.

Byron, R. (2007). The Road to Oxiana. Penguin Classics, London.


A Persian Odyssey: Persepolis now

I couldn’t quite believe it. Persepolis. Is it real? Is it mythical? Both?


Visiting Persepolis is an absolute MUST when visiting Iran. Persepolis is one of those places that, though real, can rightly be termed ‘legendary’. This is the city of greats; Cyrus the Great conceived of it; Darius the Great built it; the Great Xerxes extended it; and finally its conqueror Alexander the Great burnt it (or his troops did at any rate).

The city was conceived of and built by the Achaemenid dynasty and was the Persian empire’s seat of power between about 515BCE and its destruction in 330BCE, rivaling the great European empires of the classical world, Athens and Rome. Persepolis was built as a royal city, a series of palaces, reception halls, military barracks and processional ways.

There was still occupation at the site after its destruction by Alexander and, indeed, it continued to be an important city regionally, but it’s real glory days were over.




Looking at the ruins today, it’s clear that its glory days were really very glorious indeed.


The city is built on a raised platform, partly built up and partly cut into the mountain at the back of the site, which is reached via processional staircases.


Amongst the site’s iconic structures is the Gate of All Nations, built by King Xerxes.


Visitors would pass through doorways flanked by pairs of massive bulls and great winged oxen with human faces, Lamassu.

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Above the huge statues are tri-lingual inscriptions proclaiming Xerxes as the builder, written in Elamite, Old Persian and Babylonian.


The largest and most magnificent buildings were the Apadana and the Council Hall. Grand meeting spaces where the Persian Kings received visitors and tribute.




On the staircases up to these buildings are processional friezes with relief images of delegates from the 23 subject nations of the Persian Empire, bringing gifts and paying tribute to King Darius I.

The friezes contain many many individual characters, I guess there must be several hundred, but they aren’t just static copies of one another. There are certainly ‘types’, and there are repeated scenes, but we see figures with signs of individuality, especially expressing friendship; holding hands, smiling, talking together and so on.

They also depict ranks of the elite imperial troops, The Immortals.


Inside the Apadama there were seventy-two 19m tall columns, topped with animal sculptures, and many other animal sculptures are seen on columns and doorways throughout the site.

Cut into the mountain behind the city are two rock-cut tombs, similar to those seen at Naqsh-e Rustam. These are probably the tombs of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III.


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Up at the top of the scene is the Zoroastrian symbol, the Faravahar (Persian: fravahr). The key symbol of ancient Persia and one which is seen all over the place in modern Iran.


Here is another version from the Apadama.


Up on the top of the mountain, above the tombs, a modern visitor was commemorating his visit in the usual way.


The museum is, to be honest, a bit basic, but it does house some nice objects.


I wanna go again 🙄