The Romans were pretty handy engineers particularly when it came to channeling water. Ancient Rome was serviced with over 600 kilometres of aqueducts. And historic conduits and waterworks across the Roman Empire, such as Pont du Gard in the south of France, the aqueduct at Segovia in Spain, in places 60 metres high, and Bath in England, draw admiring visitors almost 2000 years later. So it’s a little surprising to visit ancient Roman channeling that was far from a triumph for these ardent irrigators.
Aqueducts and channels (plus graffiti signs) at Shushtar.
In 259 AD the Sassanian King Shapur I conquered the emperor Valerian at the battle of Edessa, present-day Sanliurfa in southern Turkey, making him the first Roman emperor ever to be captured alive. The old adage says “to the victor go the spoils” and King Shapur did not waste the opportunity to put Valerian’s captured legionnaires to work in his barren domain on the Khuzestan Plain in southern Iran. The state-of-the-art system of channels, water mills and bridges they built under duress around what is now Shushtar was so cleverly engineered it’s still in use today.
Impressive watermills complex at Shushtar.
Maybe those Roman slaves would at least be happy to hear their handiwork has been recognised with World Heritage listing. Unfortunately their captured leader was not rewarded for his men’s good work. Valerian was said to have been imprisoned by Shapur I at Salosel Castle, which looks across the irrigated plains from a hillside clifftop, and horrifically executed by being made to drink molten gold.
Salosel Castle, the reputed prison of the emperor Valerian.
The aquatic bounty delivered by the water mills and channels gives potent agricultural life to a parched landscape best known for its oil production. Crops turning the stark landscape green include sugar cane and watermelons, not harvests usually associated with deserts. Shapur I was not backwards in coming forwards about proclaiming his conquest commissioning impressive commemorative reliefs to be carved into the cliffs at nearby Bishapur, his capital.
Shapur I boasts of his victory over Valerian in Bishapur rockface reliefs.
The regular source of Khuzetsan’s wealth.
Lush cane fields amidst the desert.