Although Tehran is the capital of Iran and the Islamic Republic’s largest city, Shiraz and the surrounding Fars province is the country’s cultural heartland. Located in the southwest of Iran, Shiraz sits at the base of the Zagros Mountains on a fertile plain 1,500 meters above sea level. The city’s existence has long been assured by its proximity to the Persian Gulf and the trade routes of the ancient world.
No one is really sure how old Shiraz really is, but the name can be traced at least as far back as 2000 BC. After the rise of the Achaemenid Empire during the 500s BC, Cyrus the Great and his successors built two imperial capitals not far from Shiraz at Persepolis and Pasargadae. The city maintained its importance through the reigns of the Seleucids, Sassanids, and on into the Islamic Era. In the 21st century Shiraz has a population of 1.5 million (the third largest in the country) and is the principle city of southern Iran. Shiraz is known as the “City of Roses” or the “City of Gardens”. The city is also celebrated for its poetry and viticulture. In addition to its cultural charms, Shiraz is also an industrial center, home to an oil refinery, cement, fertilizer, and textile production, as well as the bulk of the Iranian electronics industry.
As an international tourist destination, Shiraz offers much to those seeking to experience Iran’s cultural and historic heritage. The city is increasingly accessible to foreign travelers, with an international airport that is second only to Tehran’s Imam Khomeini in terms of volume and reliability. Shiraz has a metro and bus system and is in the process of building an urban railway connecting it with surrounding towns. Shiraz is also one of the most diverse cities in Iran, with a substantial Jewish and Christian population. The famed hospitality of Iranians also insures that most travelers have a pleasant stay.
Many historic buildings in the city have survived the upheavals of the centuries; Shiraz was spared by both Genghis Kahn and Timur after its rulers
submitted peacefully to the conquerors. The old part of town features at least a dozen mosques noted for the beauty of their architecture and decoration. The Masjid-e-Vakil (Mosque of the Regent) is famous for its tile work, columns topped with acanthus leaves, and a minbar cut from a single piece of green marble. The mosque is adjacent to the Vakil Bazaar. This covered bazaar traces its origins back to the medieval period and is known for its vaulted ceilings, courtyards, and caravanserais. Today, merchants still sell Persian carpets, spices, and handicrafts in the bazaar. At the northeastern entrance to the city stands the Quran Gateway, a magnificent entryway built during the 10th century. On top of the gateway arch is a small room that contains handwritten Qurans, which are rumored to bless the passing travelers below. The many tombs of famous poets and mystics that hailed from the city are also popular tourist attractions. The Mausoleum of Shah-e-Cheragh is famous for its pear-shaped dome. The tomb of the poet Saadi is known for its intricate tiles depicting floral motifs and verses from the works of the poet.
Shiraz is also famous for its many gardens. The Eram Garden (Garden of Paradise), which was built during the time of the Seljuks, is among the most beautiful gardens in Iran. Persian gardens are enclosed sanctuaries that are filled with light yet offer shade. A Persian garden will usually feature water in the form of a pool, well, or running stream. Gardens like Eram also bring elements of indoor architecture such as courtyards and archways to enhance the effect. Eram is currently a botanical garden open to the general public. The Delogosha Garden dates back to the time of the Sassanid Empire. At a spacious 7.5 hectares, the garden is popular with the city’s residents. The Chehel Tan Garden was originally a graveyard and was modified to be a place of sanctuary.
A city with as much history as Shiraz will naturally host many museums. The Pars Museum showcases artifacts unearthed in the region from the many different periods of Persian history. Shiraz is also home to a military museum, natural history and technology museum, and a museum devoted to the Sassanid Period.
One of Shiraz’s major draws is its proximity to many historic sites. The most important of these, and perhaps Iran’s most famous tourist attraction, is the ancient capital of Persepolis. Built during the reign of the Achaemenid ruler Darius I, Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire. After defeating the last Achaemenid ruler at the battle of Gaugamela in 330 BC, Alexander the Great and his armies looted and destroyed the city. Within the ruins, however, you can find many fine examples of Persian statuary, architecture, and relief carving. The Apadana Palace, built by Darius I, was one of the finest palaces in the Empire. The stairs still bear images of royal visitors bringing gifts to the King of Kings.
Some 70 kilometers from Shiraz stands the oldest Persian capital of Pasargadae. The city was built by Cyrus the Great, who founded the Persian Empire and reigned from 559 to 530 BC. Cyrus and his son Cambyses, the conqueror of Egypt, are both buried there. The supposed tomb of Cyrus, a small ziggurat-style stone structure, is the most famous attraction within the site. Pasargadae also features a military fortress, the ruins of two palaces, and gardens. One of the most remarkable features of Pasargadae has been the site’s ability to withstand earthquakes. From an engineering stand point, Persian builders incorporated earthquake proofing measures comparable to those of modern structures.
Another important site near Shiraz is that of Naqsh-e Rustam, located about 10 kilometers north of Persepolis. Several Achaemenid ruler tombs, including those for Darius I and Xerxes I, were carved into the rock face of the site.
The later Sassanid rulers ordered carvings depicting their military triumphs. The most famous of these is the bas relief depicting the Roman Emperor Valerian submitting to the Sassanid King Shapur I after his defeat and capture at the battle of Edessa in 260 AD.
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