May 31, 2023

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12 top places to visit in western Iran

TEHRAN – Many foreign sightseers are traditionally attracted to Iran’s giant destinations in Isfahan, Shiraz, and Yazd, mainly situated in the central and southern parts of the country.

Many believe that every corner of the ancient land is home to travel gems such as labyrinthine bazaars, centuries-old monuments, colorful landscapes, scorching deserts, snow-capped mountains, eroded volcanic plateaus, long-abandoned castles, ancient river valleys, enigmatic places of worship, and above all, hospitable and.

The following places in western Iran have been carefully chosen for those seeking an authentic experience of Iran.


A UNESCO World Heritage, Susa is one of the oldest yet most splendid cities in the world. No need to head out of town, the modern oasis of Shush sprawls around the base of ancient Susa, whose relics occupy the flat-topped central hill.

Situated in the southwest of modern Iran, Susa was once the capital of the Elamite Empire and later an administrative capital of the Achaemenian king Darius I and his successors from 522 BC.

Over the past decades, seasons of archaeological excavations have uncovered evidence of continual habitation dating back to about 5000 BC. The earliest urban structures there date around 4000 BC.

Part of Susa is still inhabited as Shush, Khuzestan province on a strip of land between the rivers Shaour (a tributary of the Karkheh) and Dez.

According to UNESCO, “the excavated architectural monuments include administrative, residential, and palatial structures” and the site contains several layers of urban settlement dating from the 5th millennium BC through the 13th century CE.

Relics unearthed from the region demonstrate that even the earliest potteries and ceramics in Susa were of unsurpassed quality, decorated with birds, mountain goats, and other animal designs.

Oljaytu Mausoleum

A UNESCO-designated site, the Mausoleum of Oljaytu is highly recognized as an architectural masterpiece, particularly due to its innovative double-shelled dome and elaborate interior decoration.

The very imposing dome of the 14th-century monument stands about 50 meters tall from its base. Covered with turquoise-blue faience tiles, the stunning structure dominates the skyline of Soltaniyeh, an ancient city in Zanjan province, north-western Iran.

The extremely rich interior of the mausoleum, which includes glazed tiles, brickwork, marquetry, or designs in inlaid materials, stucco, and frescoes, illustrates an important movement towards more elaborate materials and themes. The interior spaces are such impressive that scholars, including A.U. Pope, described it as ‘anticipating the Taj Mahal.’

A great-grandson of Hulegu, founder of the Il-Khanid dynasty, Oljaytu was a Mongol ruler who, after dabbling in various religions, adopted the Shia name Mohammed Khodabandeh.

The city of Soltaniyeh was briefly the capital of Persia’s Ilkhanid dynasty (a branch of the Mongol dynasty) during the 14th century.

According to UNESCO, the Mausoleum of Oljaytu is an essential link and key monument in the development of Islamic architecture in central and western Asia. Here, the Ilkhanids further developed ideas that had been advanced during the classical Seljuk phase (11th to early 13th centuries), during which the arts of Iran gained distinction in the Islamic world, thereby setting the stage for the Timurid period (late 14th to 15th centuries), one of the most brilliant periods in Islamic art.

The ancient monument is the earliest existing example of a double-shelled dome in Iran.


The ruined city of Ecbatana was once the capital of Media and was subsequently the summer residence of the Achaemenian kings and one of the residences of the Parthian kings.

The view of distant mountains from Ecbatana is pleasantly rewarding, especially in the late afternoon.

Moreover, there is a smart museum nearby, as well as two Armenian churches, now part of Hamadan University.

Ecbatana was first excavated in 1913 by the French Assyriologist Charles Fossey. Excavations have been limited due to the modern town covering most of the ancient sites. In 2006, excavations in a limited area of Hagmataneh Hill failed to discover anything older than the Parthian period (247 BC – 224 CE), but this does not rule out older archaeological layers existing elsewhere within the vast site.

Armenian churches

The earliest churches in Iran may appear unremarkable to the untrained eye, but they reveal a vast array of architectural and decorative scenes that combine Byzantine, Orthodox, Assyrian, Persian, and Muslim cultures with Armenian culture.

St. Thaddeus, St. Stepanos, and the Chapel of Dzordzor are three photogenic ancient churches that constitute the Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran, which were collectively inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage in 2008. They are dotted in fresh and green lands of northwest Iran and are important pilgrimage sites for Armenian-Iranians and others from across the globe.

Locally known as the Qareh Klise (“the Black Church”), St. Thaddeus, as one of the oldest surviving Christian monuments in the country, is situated in Chaldoran county some 20 kilometers from Maku, adjacent to the borders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.

The ancient Church shows off elaborate bas-reliefs of flowers, animals, and human figures on its façade and exterior walls. It bears verses from the Old and New Testament in Armenian calligraphy as well.

The Chapel of Dzordzor stands tall on the outskirts of Maku. The name narratively originates from a famous painter Hovans Yerz, known as Dzordzortzi, who supervised the chapel’s restoration for a while.

Takht-e Soleiman

Takht-e Soleiman encompasses a lake roughly 80 by 120 meters and a Sassanid-era Zoroastrian temple complex dedicated to Anahita, an ancient goddess of fertility, parts of which were rebuilt in the 13th century during the Ilkhanid era.

Situated in the southeastern highlands of West Azarbaijan province, the ensemble was established in a geologically anomalous location as the base of the temple complex sits on an oval mound roughly 350 by 550 meters. It draws local and foreign travelers who want even for minutes to revel in its peaceful atmosphere.

As mentioned by Britannica, its surrounding landscape was probably first inhabited sometime in the 1st millennium BC. Some construction on the mound itself dates from the early Achaemenian dynasty (559–330 BC), and there are traces of settlement activity from the Parthian period.

Bazaar of Tabriz

The sprawling, still-operating Bazaar of Tabriz, one of the biggest and oldest covered markets in the world, maybe the simplest ancient site to locate in western Iran.

The labyrinthine bazaar has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2010 and was mentioned by Marco Polo when he traveled the Silk Road in the Middle Ages. A labyrinth of interconnected covered passages that stretches for about 5 km, the bazaar has been a melting pot of cultural exchange since antiquity.

Apart from countless shops, the bazaar is home to over 20 caravanserais, and inns, some 20 vast domed halls, bathhouses, and mosques, as well as other brick structures and enclosed spaces for different functions. Its history dates back over a millennium, however, the majority of fine brick vaults that capture most visitors’ eyes date from the 15th century.


The massive bas-relief of Bisotun bears exceptional testimony to the distinctive visual arts in prehistoric Iran. The rock carving is nested on an elevated limestone cliff of a mountain of the same name in the western Kermanshah province.

Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, the inscription is a patchwork of immense yet impressive life-size carvings depicting the Achaemenid King, Darius I, and several other figures. It was the first cuneiform writing that was deciphered in the 19th century.

The inscription, measuring about 15 meters high and 25 meters wide, was created on the order of Darius I, byname Darius the Great (r. 522–486 BC). It bears three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian.

UNESCO has it that Bisotun bears outstanding testimony to the important interchange of human values in the development of monumental art and writing, reflecting ancient traditions in monumental bas-reliefs.

Aras Valley

The picturesquely impressive Aras Valley, which forms Iran’s northern border with Azerbaijan and Armenia, has welcomed traders, spies, and marauding armies since biblical times.

Highlights of the valley include the Kordasht Hammam, an ancient subterranean bathhouse within a bubble-blowing distance of Armenia, and the Khodaafarin Bridges, dating from the 13th century, still spanning the Aras.

While traveling through the valley on the Iranian side is perfectly safe, be careful where you point your camera, as the border guards are notoriously paranoid.

Sheikh Safi-al-Din Mausoleum

One of the most revered founders of Sufism, Sheikh Safi’s shrine, is hidden behind high walls on the main street of Ardabil. The shrine, which his son Sadr built after he died in 1334, was later enlarged by the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century.

According to UNESCO, the building is an eminent example of traditional Iranian architecture due to its intricate blue mosaics, vaulted ceilings, tiled courtyards, formal gardens, kitchens, and hammams, among other elements.

Tchogha Zanbil

One of the top tourist destinations of Khuzestan province, Tchogha Zanbil, is considered by many the finest surviving example of Elamite architecture in the globe.

The brick ziggurat was made a UNESCO site in 1979. It is a multi-leveled square structure in which each level diminishes in size as it reaches for the sky, like a tiered wedding cake.

Construction of the magnificent ziggurat started in c. 1250 BC upon the order of the Elamite king Untash-Napirisha (1275-1240 BC) as the religious center of Elam dedicated to the Elamite divinities Inshushinak and Napirisha.

Experts believe that Tchogha Zanbil bears testimony to the unique expression of the culture, beliefs, rituals, and traditions of one of the oldest indigenous communities of Iran.

The prehistoric mud-brick complex overlooks the ancient city of Susa (near modern Shush) in Khuzestan Province. Reaching a total height of some 25m, the ziggurat was used to be surmounted by a temple and estimated to hit 52m during its heyday.

UNESCO says that Tchogha Zanbil is the largest ziggurat outside of Mesopotamia and the best preserved of this type of stepped pyramidal monument.

Tchogha Zanbil was excavated in six seasons between 1951 and 1961 by Roman Ghirshman, a Russian-born French archeologist who specialized in ancient Iran.

Qal’eh Babak

The magnificent 9th-century citadel of Babak Khorramdin, who is known as a national hero, is perched high above the town of Kaleybar in the mountainous far north.

Babak can be reached by several hours of stiff climbing from the village below. The final approach on a stone staircase winding through a rock-cleft above sheer cliffs is pure Tolkien.

While in the castle, 360-degree vistas are appropriately stunning, and the castle looks particularly photogenic in the low light between late autumn and early spring. Give it a miss in summer as there’s no shade on the entire climb.

Uramanat rural landscape

The UNESCO-designated Uramanat region may be a unique choice for those seeking lesser-known destinations because of its beauty, grandeur, glory, antiquity, and its people’s time-honored arts and culture.

Stretched on the slopes of Sarvabad county at the heart of the Zagros Mountains and shared between the provinces of Kordestan and Kermanshah, the Uramanat cultural landscape embraces hundreds of villages, 106,000 hectares of land and 303,000 hectares of surrounding properties.

The rural landscape boasts dense and step-like rows of houses in a way that the roof of each house forms the yard of the upper one, a feature that adds to its charm and attractiveness.

According to UNESCO, Uramanat is an exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition of the semi-nomadic agropastoral way of life of the Hawrami people, a Kurdish tribe that has resided in the Zagros Mountains for millennia. This outstanding cultural tradition is manifested in the ancestral practices of transhumance, the mode of seasonal living in Havars, steep-slope terraced agriculture, soil, and water management, and traditional knowledge for planning and constructing steeply terraced villages, and rich diversity of intangible heritage, all reflecting a harmonious co-existence with nature.


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