The Burnt City (Shahr-e Sukhteh): Iran’s Ancient Enigma

Sistan and Baluchestan is one of the provinces in Iran, and it hosted ancient civilizations in the past. Throughout Iran, various urban civilizations have left behind valuable traces. One of the places where you can find unique remnants of ancient civilizations is the city of Shahr-e Sukhteh. Archaeological findings indicate that Shahr-e Sukhteh is one of the oldest human civilizations. Shahr-e Sukhteh is a remarkable ancient civilization in the world. It holds significant importance in understanding the transition from nomadic life to settled agriculture in human history, and it’s a must-visit place in Iran today. If you like ancient artifacts, don’t miss this article and stay with us!

History of Shahr-e-Sukhteh

Shahr-e-Sukhteh, also known as the Burnt City, is one of the oldest known human civilizations, dating back over 5,000 years, roughly around the Bronze Age.

The earliest indications of a significant ancient site in this region were reported during the Qajar era by a British military advisor named Colonel Bates. Sometime later, the renowned Hungarian-British archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein conducted extensive excavations in this area in 1937 and provided valuable reports about the existence of a large ancient city. This region’s excavation and research project began in 1967 with Italian archaeologists. It expanded to involve a group of Japanese archaeologists and scientists, unraveling the extensive dimensions of this historical site.

Located on the shores of Lake Hamun and the banks of the Helmand River, this area used to be a significant city in ancient times, serving as a crucial hub for communication between the Indian subcontinent and Mesopotamia. Contrary to the current arid conditions of the Zabol region, it is said that in ancient times, Shahr-e-Sukhteh had a more diverse and lush environment with various trees. This lush setting allowed for the development of a city along the banks of the Helmand River.

History of Burnt City

History of Burnt City

Sectors of the city

The city covered an extensive area of approximately 280 hectares and was divided into five main sections. The residential area occupied about 80 hectares in the northeast, and the city’s other areas included the cemetery, the central district, and a section designated for industrial and administrative activities.

Northeast Residential Area

The highest parts of the city, rising to about 18 meters above the surrounding ground level, were located in this section. Most of the artifacts from the second settlement period in Shahr-e-Sukhteh were found in this part.

Cemetery

This vast area, covering around 25 hectares, is covered in sand, and no visible ancient artifacts are found on the surface. Archaeological excavations in 1997 revealed various items, including human skeletons, pottery, fabrics, wooden objects, textiles, and other materials dating back to around 2400 to 2600 BC.

Central District

Deep gullies to the west, south, and east separates this region from other parts. It spans an area of 20 hectares.

Industrial Area

In the past, this part of the city was industrial, with a wealth of stone tools and artifacts. The highest point in this section is about 12.5 meters above the surrounding ground level, and the findings here belong to the third and fourth settlement periods in Shahr-e-Sukhteh.

Shahr-e-Sukhteh is a fascinating archaeological site that sheds light on an ancient civilization with a rich history and diverse aspects of life, making it an important subject of study for archaeologists and historians.

Why is it called the Burnt City?

Sir Marc Aurel Stein first coined the name “Shahr-e-Sukhteh” for this region. The reason behind this name was the presence of a thick and extensive layer of ash in this area. The primary and most probable cause for the existence of these layers of ash can be attributed to two main factors.

Firstly, it relates to the development and flourishing of various regional industries. There were various furnaces in the industrial area of this city where the residual ash from all these furnaces was discharged into a specific section.

Another reason for this layer of ash in Shahr-e-Sukhteh is related to the nomadic and migratory tribes that used to camp in this area. They would dig shallow pit ovens for cooking and heating and, upon leaving, would often destroy them, leaving remnants of ash and burnt material.

Location of Shahr-e-Sukhteh

Today, the Burnt City is situated in the far eastern part of Iran, just a short distance from the Iran-Afghanistan border. This precious national heritage is located in the beautiful provinces of Sistan and Baluchestan. It’s about 170 kilometers away from Zahedan. The distance from Shahr-e-Sukhteh to Zahedan Airport is 60 kilometers, and it takes approximately 50 minutes to travel this route.

Location of Shahr-e-Sukhteh

Location of Shahr-e-Sukhteh

The Secrets of Shahr-e-Sukhteh

Shahr-e-Sukhteh, known as the Burnt City, is a mysterious place with hidden treasures buried deep in the soil, a legacy from people around 5,000 years ago. Some objects found here provide evidence of advancements in ancient medical knowledge. There are other fascinating archaeological findings, including burial sites, decorative objects, various pottery items, and stone vessels, to name a few.

  • Artificial Eye
    In Shahr-e-Sukhteh’s cemetery, an artificial eye was discovered, believed to belong to a woman aged between 28 and 32; the eye and the tomb date back 2,800 years. The artificial eye was made from natural bitumen and animal fat, with intricate golden wire designs resembling capillaries.
  • 13-Year-Old Girl’s Skeleton
    In one of the graves, the skeleton of a 13-year-old girl was unearthed. Her skull bore a deep incision, which archaeologists believe resulted from brain surgery, possibly making it the earliest recorded brain surgery in the world.
  • 5,000-Year-Old Line Drawing Tool
    Archaeologists found a 10-centimeter-long ebony line drawing tool in Shahr-e-Sukhteh, with astonishing precision down to a millimeter. This finding suggests significant advancements in mathematics in this ancient city.
  • Raw Mud Brick Graves
    A cemetery in this city was found to consist entirely of raw mud brick graves. The varied shapes, sizes, and materials used in these graves indicate potential differences due to social hierarchies religious or cultural disparities.
  • The Goat Cup
    In one of the 5,000-year-old graves in Shahr-e-Sukhteh, a cup featuring a goat design beside a tree was unearthed. This 10-centimeter-tall cylindrical cup had a unique feature: it featured an image of a goat that appeared to be grazing by a tree. Interestingly, the image of the goat was repeated five times with slight variations, and it seemed to depict the goat’s movement towards the tree and eating its leaves. After extensive research, experts concluded that this cup represents one of the earliest attempts at creating an animated or moving picture in ancient art history.

Museum of Shahr-e Sukhteh

During your visit to Shahr-e-Sukhteh, you can also check out the Burnt City Museum. This museum is specialized, covering an area of 20 hectares, and was opened in 2003. It showcases a significant collection of tools and artifacts discovered from the archaeological site of Shahr-e-Sukhteh and ancient civilizations in the South Khorasan, Kerman, and Sistan and Baluchestan provinces. You’ll find many artifacts from Shahr-e-Sukhteh on display, including pottery, stone objects, figurines, beads, and reconstructed graves found in the city. The Shahr-e-Sukhteh Museum is located on the road from Zahedan to Zabol, just across from the archaeological site of Shahr-e-Sukhteh.

See More: List of Top 10 Museums in Iran

The Burnt City: one of Iran's UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The Burnt City: one of Iran’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The Burnt City: one of Iran’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Shahr-e-Sukhteh made history as the first model for historical sites in Iran to receive global recognition. During the 38th session of UNESCO held in Doha, Qatar, in 2014, it earned a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List with the support of member representatives and the endorsement of 16 countries attending the session. One of UNESCO’s criteria for the global recognition of the historical site “Shahr-e-Sukhteh” was its exceptional testimony to human civilizations’ development and prosperity in terms of trade flow. This site played a vital role during the golden era. It is Iran’s seventeenth entry on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites.

See More: UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iran

FAQs about Shahr-e Sukhteh

  • How old is burned city in Iran?
    The Burnt City in Iran is approximately 5,200 years old, dating back to the Bronze Age. It was inhabited from around 3200 BCE to 2100 BCE.
  • The best time to travel to the Burnt City is which season?
    The best time to travel to the Burnt City to visit this ancient city is from early to mid-autumn.