Iran’s cultural properties define not just the country’s history and identity, but the heritage of the world.
In the aftermath of World War II, as the Cold War simmered steadily between East and West, the Hague Convention was born. The international treaty condemned the destruction of all exceptional cultural property—everything from museums to libraries to archaeological sites—in the event of armed conflicts. Important cultural, architectural, and historical heritage defines not just an ethnic group or a nation, says the Convention, but the humanity of the world. Its destruction is a crime against humanity.
Since its writing in 1954, 133 countries have ratified the international humanitarian law, including the United States, which signed on in 1994. But that changed this week when President Donald Trump defied the Hague Convention by threatening by tweet to target “52 Iranian sites…important to Iran & Iranian culture” as a means of retaliation in the event the Iranians attack the United States. The current tensions are a result of the U.S. assassination of Iran’s major general Qasem Soleimani.
Though Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has since insisted the Pentagon has ruled out striking cultural sites and Trump on Tuesday downplayed his initial tweet by affirming that “we will obey the law,” the threat still lingers. These are just ten of the most important cultural properties at stake.
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WHERE: Fars Province
One of the world’s most magnificent ancient cities, Persepolis is a place of soaring columns, stone-bound beasts, and architectural splendor. Persian king Darius I began building the royal city, which sits at the foot of the Mountain of Mercy (Kuh-e Rahmat), in 518 BCE. Comprised of palaces and throne rooms, Persepolis was a majestic symbol of the monarchy perched on a defensible half-built, half-natural terrace whose walls were carved with the myths of sovereignty and spirituality. Looted and partially burned by Alexander the Great’s invading army in 330 BCE, the ruins of Persepolis remain a monument to Western Asia’s great Persian Empire.
INSIDER TIPPersepolis was among the first sites from Iran added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. Today the country has 24 sites of exceptional cultural or natural value inscribed on the list.
Masjed-e Jāmé of Isfahan (Jameh Mosque)
This great mosque in the city of Isfahan was a labor of love 1,200 years in the making, one of the oldest still standing in Iran. Begun around 841 CE, the Masjed-e Jāmé was the first to use a four-courtyard layout, which spans over 200,000 square feet at Isfahan’s center. Topped with double-shelled domes and detailed in stucco carvings and elaborate blue tiles, the Masjed-e Jāmé inspired the design of mosques throughout the Islamic world for centuries to come. The complex is still in use today as a “Friday Mosque,” a congregational place of worship.
WHERE: Kerman Province
This fortified city was at the crossroads of trade routes that carried silk and cotton from east to west between the 7th and 11th centuries. The fortified town resembles a medieval castle but instead of using stone, its builders constructed its forts and domes of bricks and layers made from desert mud. Littered around the citadel’s core are mausoleums and some of Iran’s earliest underground irrigation channels or qanāts. Though Bam is now in ruins, those canals still run with water, a testament to human innovation in a harsh, dry land.
INSIDER TIPThe Arg-e Bam, the citadel at Bam’s core, is the largest adobe structure in the world. The 44-acre complex, begun in the 6th century BCE, is surrounded by 20-foot high walls.
WHERE: Yazd Province
Nicknamed the “City of Windcatchers,” Yazd is a nearly 2,000-year-old city where aspects of Zoroastrian, Muslim, and Jewish culture and religion exist side-by-side. Made largely out of adobe taken from the surrounding desert, the city is built to keep the heat out, with the courtyards of traditional homes built below ground level and partially covered alleyways. With a population of over 500,000, Yazd brims with traditions that have long been snuffed out in other large Iranian cities. At the historic bazaar, vendors sell Persian cotton candy and other unique confections, as well as locally woven silk and carpets.
INSIDER TIPAt the edge of town the Zoroastrian “Tower of Silence” has kept a fire continuously burning for more than 1,500 years straight.
This masterpiece of Persian architecture and craftsmanship at the center of Tehran became the Iranian seat of government in 1779 CE. Seventeen palaces, museums, and halls make up the Golestan Palace complex, each graced with intricate artwork including the Marble Throne, a lavish terrace used for crowning royalty, and shining mirror-work and chandeliers like those in Brilliant Hall and Diamond Hall. Outside, the palace is surrounded by royal gardens irrigated by underground canals. Those same waters pool inside the Karim Khani Nook, part of a former king’s private residence, and the Pond House, a summer chamber used by rulers during the Qajar era.
WHERE: Khuzestan Province
Adjacent to the modern town of Shush lie the ruins of ancient Susa. The Biblical town where Esther reigned as queen was first settled over 6,000 years ago. The Jewish prophet Daniel is said to be buried in its earth. Since then, Susa passed from hand-to-hand among the world’s earliest empires—the Sumerians, the Elamites, the Ur Dynasty, the Assyrians, the Persian Achaemenids, and others—until its conquest by Islamic armies in the 7th century CE. When invading Mongols razed the city in 1218 CE, Susa began a slow march towards abandonment. By the 15th century, most of its population had immigrated to the nearby city of Dezful. Today, all that remains of Susa are the ruins of its former palace complexes, along with the marble, ceramic and stone-carved artwork created over thousands of years of occupation.
Mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini
Work began on this holy shrine south of Tehran following the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Still incomplete, when completed the mausoleum will cover more than seven square miles and include a cultural center, an Islamic university, a seminary, a shopping mall and parking lot with space for 20,000 cars. The core of the complex, which houses Ayatollah Khomeini, his wife and second son, and several deceased political figures, is a site of pilgrimage for the ruler’s (Muslim-only) followers. Each June 4th, hundreds of thousands of mourners visit the site, where the ceilings are covered in tiny mirrors and the floors with 12,000 carpets.
INSIDER TIPFountains surrounding the shrine run red during the holy month of Muharram, which falls in August and September.
WHERE: Khuzestan Province
Twenty miles southeast of Susa is one of the last remaining ziggurats (ancient terraced temples) outside of Mesopotamia. Built around 1250 BCE in honor of the Elamite god Inshushinak, the great ziggurat—originally 345-foot long and 174-foot high—is surrounded by eleven other temples, multiple royal palaces, and five subterranean royal tombs. Tchogha Zanbil’s mud-brick ziggurat architecture is the best preserved in the world, inspiring its inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the first of many, in 1979.
The Azadi Tower, or Freedom Tower, is a major landmark of modern Iran. Erected in Azadi Square in Tehran in 1971, the 148-foot tall arch was made from 8,000 blocks of marble dug from the stone quarries of Isfahan Province. Groundbreaking for its time, the tower’s woven surfaces were modeled using early computers at a cost of around $6 million. In the monument’s basement, the Azadi Museum houses fifty spectacular works of gold, enamel, ceramic, marble, and several paintings, each representing a period of Iran’s 2,500-year history.
Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran
WHERE: West Azerbaijan Province
Once known as Medieval Persia, West Azerbaijan Province is populated by some of the oldest Armenian religious sites in the world. Three Christian monasteries—the St. Thaddeus Monastery, the Saint Stepanos Monastery and the Chapel of Dzordzor—date to between the 7th and 14th centuries CE. The apostle St. Thaddeus, who died in the 1st century, is believed to be buried beneath the monastery that bears his name. Blending architectural traditions from Byzantine, Persian, Eastern Orthodox, Muslim, and Armenian cultures, the structures stand in stark relief against the region’s hills where they remain an important pilgrimage site for Armenian Christians.
INSIDER TIPIn the 1980s, the building of a dam on the Makuchay River threatened to submerge the Chapel of Dzordzor. To save it, the entire church was dismantled brick-by-brick then put back together in exactly the same way 2,000 feet from its original site.