Dezful Bridge: The Oldest Usable Bridge in The World Was Built by 70,000 Roman Prisoners
The city of Dezful, located in present-day southern Iran, once belonged to the ancient and powerful Persian Empire. One of its most iconic landmarks, the Dezful bridge, is the oldest still-standing bridge in the world. It remained in full functionality until recently. The ancient bridge was originally commissioned in 260 AD during the Sassanid era (circa 224-661 AD) by King Shapur I, who used 70,000 Roman prisoners of war to construct the great monument.
Building the Bridge
Iran is a country covered by an abundant landscape of rugged mountains, which would have made the construction of roads very difficult and expensive. However, these natural barriers also served as protection from foreigner invaders. With over 6,000 years of history, the Persian territory has been home to great and powerful civilizations. During its past, the Persian Empires built many bridges for communication and transportation, and the Dezful bridge is among one of their many accomplishments.
Built by Romans
Historical accounts are not consistent when it comes the origins of the Dezful bridge, but one thing is certain: the bridge was built by Roman prisoners of war after suffering a defeat at the hands of the Sassanid King Shapur I the Great, who reigned over Persia from around 240-270 AD. The story about the fate of this conquered Roman army is divided into two very different versions. The first tale states that after Shapur I won the Battle of Edessa in southern Turkey over the Romans in the year 260, he held all of the seventy thousand warriors and their emperor, Valerian, captive.
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The Humiliation of Emperor Valerian by Shapur, King of Persia (public domain)
Knowing about the great reputation of Roman craftsmanship and engineering, Shapur I chose to take full advantage of the Roman army and used them to build many structures in his empire, including a bridge over the Dez River, which is known as the Dezful Bridge. This side of the story also relates that the Roman soldiers and Valerian were treated well and kept under friendly conditions. The other version of this story is not so positive and describes the Roman soldiers and emperor Valerian being kept under poor and humiliating conditions by Shapur I.
A rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rostam, depicting the triumph of Shapur I over the Roman Emperor Valerian. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Scholars have long recognized the connection between Shapur I and Roman art and work. “Literary evidence in the form of the tenth-century Persian author Firdausi’s statements that Roman prisoners were put to work in the design for Shapur”, as Marjorie Mackintosh described. Adding to this feature, in Shervin Maleki’s words, “The construction of masonry arches was perfected during the Sassanid’s rule. Brick substituted stone as the primary material for arch-making in this era, although the piers were made from stone mansard and lime”. The Dezful bridge has piers which are almost 1800 years old, but its pointed archers were reconstructed at a later time.
The Old bridge of Dezful. (Picolo P / Flickr)
A Massive Structure
The Dezful bridge was constructed using dressed stone, mortar and is some places, baked clay brick. “The bridge consists of 14 original arches; 13 arcs and 3 contemporary concrete arches. Some of the pedestals of the bridge are also related to more contemporary eras. The bridge consists of 20 pedestals which operated as water ways. The maximum height of the structure is 10 meters (32 ft.); with a deck width of six meters (19 ft.), and it is approximately 350 meters (1148 ft.) in length” as Somayeh Khatibi and Mehrshad Mehrdadiaan report.
Unfortunately, due to natural causes, including seasonal floods on the Dez River, the bridge has suffered repetitive damage through the years. But even that was not strong enough to destroy this massive structure completely. This bridge lives by the strength of the reputation and skillful work of the warriors who have built it.
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Old photograph of the Dezful bridge. (Public Domain)
The Dezful bridge has been repaired and rebuild throughout the years to ensure its functionally and preservation. Nowadays, cars are no longer allowed to drive over the bridge due to its historical value and fragility. The Dezful Bridge is currently on the list to be added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Top image: The Dezful Bridge (Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies)
By Marina Sohma
Financial Tribune https://financialtribune.com/articles/travel/11230/on-a-bridge-from-past-to-present (accessed Nov 4, 2016)
Marjorie C. Mackintosh, ‘Roman Influences on the Victory Reliefs of Shapur I of Persia’ (1973)
jstor.org/stable/25010653 (accessed Nov 3, 2016).
Somayeh Khatibi and Mehrshad Mehrdadiaan, ‘Retrofitting the Old Bridge of Dezful’ (2016).
http://www.textroad.com/pdf/JAEBS/J.%20Appl.%20Environ.%20Biol.%20Sci.,%206(2S)222-239,%202016.pdf (Accessed Nov 5, 2016).
The Iran Project
http://theiranproject.com/blog/2014/09/10/unesco-to-register-dezful-in-world-heritage-list/ (accessed Nov 1, 2016).
Wai-Fah Chen, Lian Duan (ed), “Handbook of International Bridge Engineering” (2013).