Choqa Zanbil Ziggurat

Top choice ruins in Shushtar

Choqa Zanbil’s magnificent, Unesco-listed brick ziggurat is the world's best surviving example of Elamite architecture. Even if you’re not a fan of ancient ruins, the great bulk and splendid semi-desert isolation of the site can’t fail to impress. Try to catch it in the soft, golden light of late afternoon rather than the harsh midday sun. A private taxi tour from Shush to Shushtar via Haft Tappeh will cost $US35. The ziggurat is floodlit at night – and closed.

The ziggurat was dedicated to Inshushinak, the chief god of the Elamite pantheon and patron of Shush. In those days the area was fertile and forested, and the ziggurat was built on a slightly raised base to guard against flooding. It has a square plan with sides measuring 105m. The original five storeys were erected vertically from the foundation level as a series of concentric towers, not one on top of another as was the custom in neighbouring Mesopotamia. At the summit (now lost) was a temple accessible only to the highest elite of Elamite society. Even now the taboo remains and you’re not allowed to climb the remnant stairways that rise on each of the four sides.

The structure is made of red bricks so well preserved that an observer could believe they’re brand new. However, if you look very closely, a brick-wide strip at eye level is intricately inscribed with cuneiform, the world’s first alphabet, which looks like a spilt box of tin tacks. The inscriptions are not easy to make out unless you cross the rope cordon, which every guide tells you he alone has permission to do (which means he's tipped the caretaker). Look for the sacrifice stones (halfway along the northwestern side) and an ancient sundial (facing the southwestern central stairway) and, beside it, the strangely moving footprint of an Elamite child, accidentally preserved for three millennia.

The ziggurat was surrounded by a paved courtyard protected by a wall. At the foot of the northeastern steps would once have been the Gate of Untash Gal: two rows of seven columns where supplicants would seek the pleasure of the king. Around the wall was originally a complex of tomb chambers, tunnels and qanat channels. Once the site’s climate became drier, qanats brought water an incredible 45km from ancient rivers. Vestiges are still visible. Outside were the living quarters of the town and 11 temples dedicated to various Elamite gods and goddesses. Little of this remains.