As in a typical imamzadeh, Muslim pilgrims crowd the glittery interior of the Tomb of Daniel (Aramgah-e Danyal), kissing the zarih grate around a green-draped grave slab. Here, however, this behaviour is particularly intriguing given that Daniel has at best tangential relevance to Islam. In fact, he’s a semi-mythical Jewish figure who supposedly served as a faithful satarap (administrator) to Darius I (522–486 BC). Dubiously recorded in the Bible as having ‘tender love with the prince of the eunuchs’ (Daniel 1, 9) he is best remembered for unenviable ordeals in lions’ dens. These exploits were already over 300 years old when recorded in the Old Testament (Daniel 6, 16-23).
Whatever the real provenance of the Daniel relics, they brought Shush an extremely lucrative flow of Jewish pilgrims from right across the Middle East. Great wealth accrued to the townsfolk living nearby, but those living across the river were missing out on the bonanza and wanted a share of the pilgrims’ shekels. A compromise was arranged whereby Daniel’s bones would spend alternate years on either riverbank, bringing prosperity to both communities. In the 12th century, travellers reported that an even more fanciful arrangement had left the holy remains dangling in a crystal coffin suspended from a metal bridge across the middle of the river.
Muddy Elamite-era mounds pimple this otherwise-flat oasis area. Several are thought to have been small ziggurats dating from around 1400 BC. None are mind-blowingly exciting, but recent archaeological work has rendered them a little more interesting. Beside the site, a Unesco-sponsored museum is beautifully set amid bougainvillaea and soaring palms. It displays archaeological finds including a curious black sarcophagus. Photo-rich explanations detail the excavation, restoration and partial reconstruction of Choqa Zanbil (25km away).
One of Iran’s Unesco World Heritage sites, Choqa Zanbil’s magnificent brick ziggurat is the best surviving example of Elamite architecture anywhere. Even if you’re not a fan of ancient ruins, the great bulk and splendid semi-desert isolation of Choqa Zanbil can’t fail to impress. Although close access is prevented after 6pm, the ziggurat arguably looks most appealing after dusk when the golden floodlighting emphasizes the structure’s form better than the hazy desert daylight.