From Ancient Ruins to Majestic Palaces: Iran's UNESCO World Heritage Highlights 

You have probably heard of the term UNESCO World Heritage before. When the name UNESCO World Heritage comes up, it refers to the most famous historical sites worldwide. Given that some of Iran's historical sites have been added to this list, in this article, we aim to review the list of Iran's registered sites in UNESCO and the unique features of each one with you.

What you will read in this article:

What is the UNESCO World Heritage Organization?

UNESCO World Heritage consists of a collection of cultural or natural places registered by the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO. Based on this convention, member countries can nominate their historical, honest, and cultural monuments to be listed in UNESCO World Heritage. After a memorial is registered in the list, its preservation is the responsibility of the originating country and all member countries of the committee. Italy ranks first with the most registered heritage sites in the UNESCO World Heritage Organization, boasting 58 areas. The list of Iran’s registered sites in UNESCO reached 27 in 2023 with the registration of Iran’s caravanserais.

What are the criteria for Iran's registered sites in UNESCO?

Any attraction for registration in the UNESCO World Heritage List must meet at least one of the criteria mentioned below. There are six criteria for registration in the cultural section and four for natural monuments.

Natural Criteria

  1. The natural phenomenon should be unique with exceptional and aesthetic features.
  2. This is an outstanding example of the historical evolution and course of geology.
  3. An outstanding example of environmental and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, coastal, and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals.
  4. Includes significant natural habitats in terms of biodiversity and encompasses endangered species.

Cultural Criteria

  1. Represent a masterpiece of human ingenuity and creativity.
  2. Show an interchange of human values over time or within a cultural area of the world on developments in architecture or technology, urban planning, or landscape design.
  3. Bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or a civilization that is living or has disappeared.
  4. Be an outstanding example of a building or architectural or technological that illustrates a significant stage in human history.
  5. Be an outstanding example of a t, representing land or sea use, representing a culture.
  6. Be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, ideas, or beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.

List of Iran's Registered Sites in UNESCO

Iran joined UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in February 1975. Since then, it has successfully registered 26 cultural and natural sites on this list. The Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, Persepolis, and Chogha Zanbil were among the first sites registered in 1979. Below, we introduce the 26 sites registered by Iran on the UNESCO World Heritage list in order:

1. Chogha Zanbil Temple, Khuzestan, 1979

Chogha Zanbil is an ancient temple belonging to the Elamites, built around 1250 BC. This ancient temple is the remnant of the city of Dur Untash and is currently located near the town of Shush in Khuzestan province. It should be noted that this structure is the first item on the list of Iran’s registered sites in UNESCO.

2. Persepolis, Fars, 1979

Persepolis is a magnificent and glorious remnant of the Achaemenid Empire in Iran. This site is located in the Marvdasht county in the north of Fars province and was the nampalaces called cities of Iran. In this city, there is a palace called Persepolis built during the reigns of Darius the Achaemenid, Xerxes, and Ardeshir I.

3. Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan, 1979

Naqsh-e JahanStructures from the Safavid era surround this squarehan. Structures from the Safavid era surround this square—the current form of Naqsh-e Jahan relates to the reign of Shah Abbas Safavi. Historical facilities in Naqsh-e Jahan Square include the Ali Qapu Mansion, Imam Mosque, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, and Qeysarieh Portal.

4. Takht-e Soleyman, West Azerbaijan, 2003

Takht-e Soleyman is one of the most intriguing structures registered by Iran on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It is located near Takab and the village of Takht-e Soleyman in West Azerbaijan province. Historical buildings at Takht-e Soleyman surround a natural lake and date back to the Parthian, Sassanid, and Ilkhanid periods. The most significant remaining structure is a Zoroastrian fire temple and Sassanid-era halls.

5. Bam Citadel and its Cultural Landscape, Kerman, 2004

The Bam Citadel, located in the city of Bam in Kerman province, is said to date back to the Parthian or Achaemenid periods. Until the end of the Qajar era, the Bam Citadel was inhabited. This historic structure was destroyed in a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in 2003, but it is still on the list of Iran’s registered sites by UNESCO.

6. Pasargadae Complex, Fars, 2004

The Pasargadae complex consists of silent remnants from the Achaemenid period. This complex is located in Fars province. Within the complex is the Tomb of Cyrus the Great, the Royal Garden of Pasargadae, the Gate Palace, the Audience Palace, the Private Palace, the Pavilion, and the Royal Garden’s fountains, Cambyses’ tomb, defensive fortifications of Tel Tak, ht, Muzaffari Caravanserai, and the, sacred precinct.

7. The Dome of Soltaniyeh, Zanjan, 2005

The Dome of Soltaniyeh, or the Tomb of Mohammad Khodabandeh, was built between 1302 and 1312 near Zanjan in the city of Soltaniyeh. Architecturally, this structure is significant and valuable. The dome’s color and height are extraordinary.

8. Bisotun, Kermanshah, 2006

The world’s most extensive inscription, the first known Iranian text from the Achaemenid period, is located in this area. The Bisotun inscription is located thirty kilometers from the city of Kermanshah, on the slopes of Mount Bisotun.

9. The Collection of Azerbaijani Churches, 2008

This collection, which includes three Armenian Churches, the Qara Church, the St. Stephanos Church, and the Zor Zor Church, is located in West Azerbaijan and East Azerbaijan. These churches were built during the 7th to 14th centuries AD and havhydraulicred several times.

10. fundamental Structures of Shushtar, Khuzestan, 2009

The hydraulic structures of Shushtar date back to the Sassanian era and were constructed to utilize water power to drive industrial mills. This vast complex includes mill buildings, waterfalls, canals, and massive water tunnels. Additionally, there is the Sikka, which serves as a place for relaxation and recreation.

11 Historical Bazaar of Tabriz, East Azerbaijan, 2010

The Tabriz Bazaar is considered the largest covered market in Iran and Asia. With an area of about one square kilometer, it is the world’s largest covered markets. The bazaar has numerous marketplaces, Timches (small markets), Sarās (trading spaces), and caravanserais, beautifully showcasing Iranian architecture.

12. Mausoleum and Khanqah of Sheikh Safi al-Din Ardabili, Ardabil, 2010

The unparalleled mausoleum of Sheikh Safi al-Din, renowned as the great mystic Sheikh Safi al-Din Ardabili and ancestor of the Safavid kings, was constructed in the year 1334 AD by his son Sadr al-Din Musa. In the Safavid era, the mausoleum was adorned beautifully by the great artists of that period.

13. Persian Gardens, 2011

This collection essentially refers to the unique architecture and structure design of Persian gardens. Pasargadae Garden is considered the origin of Persian garden architecture. The Persian gardens registered in the UNESCO World Heritage List include Pasargadae, Eram, Chehel Sotoun, Fin, Abbas Abad, Shazdeh Garden, Dolat Abad, Pahlavanpour, and Akbarieh.

14. Jameh Mosque of Isfahan, Isfahan, 2012

The Jameh Mosque of Isfahan is one of the most important and oldest religious buildings in Iran. This historical complex spans an area of 170 by 140 meters in the northeastern part of Isfahan, adjacent to the old square or Sabzeh Maidan. Today, it comprises various sections like the Nizam al-Mulk dome, Taj al-Mulk dome, four Iwans, Shabestans, Muzaffari school, Al-Jayto Mihrab, each representing the evolution of Islamic architectural art during a specific period. Additionally, the mosque’s architectural style follows the Razi method.

15. Gonbad-e Qabus Tower, Golestan, 2012

The Gonbad-e Qabus is a historical structure from the 4th century AH located in the city of Gonbad Kavus in the north of Iran, Golestan province. Its architectural style is of the Razi method. This structure, the world’s tallest fully-bricked tower, stands atop a mud hill approximately fifteen meters above ground level. It was built in the solar year 996 AD during the reign of Shams al-Ma’ali Qabus ibn Wushmgir.

16. Golestan Palace, Tehran, 2014

Golestan Palace is a collection of buildings located in Arg Square, Tehran. The structures of this palace were built at different times. The name of this palace is derived from the Golestan Hall, located in the outer building. Golestan Palace was historically a royal citadel. Its construction can be traced back to the historical Arg of Tehran during the reign of Shah Tahmasp I in the Safavid era, in the old part of Tehran. The main sections of it were built within the ancient walls of Tehran. However, during the Qajar dynasty, it expanded significantly and was the residence of the Qajar kings. During the Pahlavi era, it was used for official ceremonies and as a residence for presidents and special foreign guests.

17. Burnt City, Sistan and Baluchestan, 2015

The Burnt City is the remnants of an ancient urban state in Iran located on the silt deposits of the Hirmand River flowing into Lake Hamun and was once constructed on the bank of this river. The construction era of this enormous city coincides with the Bronze Age of Jiroft civilization, and Iranians lived in this city about 8,000 years ago. The Burnt City spans 280 hectares. The town consists of five main parts: residential area, central sections, industrial zone, monuments, and the cemetery, which are continuous and adjacent hills.

18. Cultural Landscape of Meymand Village, Kerman, 2015

Meymand is a rock and hand-carved village with a history spanning several millennia. This structure is undoubtedly among the earliest human settlements in Iran. The stacked town of Meymand has 406 alleys and 2,560 rooms. The residents of this village have unique customs and traditions, and in their language and dialect, they still use Sassanid Pahlavi words.

19. Ancient City of Susa, Khuzestan, 2015

The ancient city of Susa is one of the oldest known settlements in the world. According to ancient documents, Susa was one of the most important and magnificent ancient cities of Iran and the world. At one time, Susa was a center of interaction for two significant civilizations, each influencing the other.

20. Persian Qanat System, 2016

The uniqueness of these qanats includes the associated technologies for their construction, taking into account their unique characteristics, such as the deepest, longest, or oldest qanat in Iran. These 11 qanats include Qasabeh Qanat of Gonabad, Baladeh Qanat of Ferdows, Hasanabad Qanat of Mehriz, Bagh Zarch Qanat, Ibrahimabad Qanat of Arak, Mazdabad Qanat, General Qanat of Vazvan, Moon Qanat, Goharriz Qanat of Jupar, Akbarabad Qanat of Bam, and Qasemabad Qanat of Bam.

21. Lut Desert, 2016

The Lut Desert is the first natural monument of Iran registered in the list of Iran’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. There is a civilizational history of more than 5,000 years around the Lut Desert, and approximately 3,000 historical artifacts have been discovered in this area. Among these discoveries is the 5,000-year-old flag of Shahdad, considered the oldest flag in the world.

22. Historic City of Yazd, Yazd, 2017

The architectural design and structure of the city of Yazd is one of the most prominent examples of architecture specific to hot and arid climates in the world. Its compatibility with the climatic and cultural needs of the region’s people, besides the unique beauty of its architecture, is one of its features. At the center of each neighborhood, there is usually a bathhouse, market, cistern, mosque, Husseiniyah (commemoration hall), windcatchers, small workshops, and water channels (for access to qanats), many of which are still intact. Windcatchers, minarets, and domes are the most distinct architectural features of the city.

23. The Sasanian Archaeological Landscape of Fars Region, Fars, 2018

The Sasanian archaeological perspective of the Fars region includes eight archaeological sites located in three ancient areas: Firuzabad, Bishapur, and Sarvestan in the southwestern province of Fars. The historical artifacts in these sites, registered as a file in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, include the ancient city of Bishapur, Shapur Cave, the Sasanian palace of Sarvestan, the old town of Ardashir Khurreh, Ardashir Babakan Palace, Qal’eh Dokhtar, the Naqsh-e Rajab inscription, and the Naqsh-e Rostam inscription depicting Ardashir’s victory over Ardavan.

24. Hyrcanian Forests, 2019

These forests are located in northern Iran, along the southern coast of the Caspian Sea and the north slope of the Alborz mountain range. In these forests, broad-leaved trees span 850 kilometers of the Caspian coastline and are between 25 and 50 million years old. In the past, these forests covered most of the temperate northern regions. During the Quaternary ice age, these forests shrank but expanded again after the ice age ended. These forests were previously registered as one of the world’s 200 natural ecosystems in the World Wildlife Fund’s list. In addition to various flora and fauna, the Hyrcanian forests are also home to approximately 7.5 million people.

25. Trans-Iranian Railway, 2021

The reason for registering the Iranian railway in UNESCO was both its historical and industrial significance and its cultural aspect, as it connects different Iranian ethnic groups. The Iranian railway, with a length of 1400 kilometers connecting various provinces, is among Iran’s chain files in UNESCO, like qanats, Persian gardens, and churches, which introduces all stations, bridges, etc., as global destinations and links them to each other. This railway passes through significant stations such as Qaemshahr, Godouk, Garmsar, Tehran, Arak, Doroud, Shahbazan, and Andimeshk.

26. Cultural Landscape of Uramanat or Hawraman, Kermanshah, and Kurdistan, 2021

The region of Uramanat or Hawraman, which encompasses parts of Kurdistan and Kermanshah, is distinctive not only for its terraced architecture but also for its unique cultural fabric. This area includes details of the Sanandaj and Kamyaran districts, a significant portion of Sarvabad and Marivan in Kurdistan province, the entirety of Javanrud and Paveh, and parts of Ravansar and Thalath Babajani in Kermanshah province.

27. Iranian Caravanserais

The global recognition of Iranian caravanserais was achieved in 2023 by UNESCO to bring international attention to these historic structures. Caravanserais stand as a testament to the reigns of kings who prioritized the welfare of travelers and the flourishing of trade in Iran, building these valuable structures on busy routes to accommodate domestic and foreign travelers. Often established to host pilgrimage or trade caravans on frequently traveled paths and typically near significant cities, Iran boasts over 700 caravanserais that have achieved national registration. Of these, 54 have been additionally inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.