pinterest verify Globerovers Travel Photography: Iran: From south-east to north-west

Iran: From south-east to north-west


My first visit to Iran was in March 2007 when I visited Tehran and then south to Esfahan, Shiraz and the desert around the town of Yazd. It was a great trip and I couldn’t wait to return. In February 2013 I flew back to Tehran and then took Mahan Airlines southeast to the town of Kerman where my Iranian friends awaited on my arrival. The first few days were spent in and around Kerman followed by a train trip further southeast to the desert town of Bam. From Bam I went back to Kerman, into the desert, and then up to Kashan for a few days. Back to Tehran where I took the overnight train to Tabriz in the far northwest, then along the Caspian Sea to the mountain village of Masuleh. Back in Tehran I stocked up on nuts, dates, figs, leather shoes and belts, and a lovely Persian carpet.




Iran is generally safe and currently all nationals except Americans are free to travel independently. Americans need to be on an organized tour hosted by a government approved local travel agency.


TEHRAN

To get over your culture shock upon arrival in Iran, it makes sense to spend the first few days in Tehran which is quite a developed city. Tehran, the capital of Iran as well as capital of the Tehran province, has a population of more than twelve million people which places it among one of the largest and most populated cities in western Asia. It is quite a pleasant city and home to many historical monuments, traditional buildings, mosques, churches, synagogues and even some Zoroastrian fire temples. 

Contemporary Tehran is known for its more recent structures such as the Azadi (Freedom) Tower at the west entrance to Tehran built in 1971 in commemoration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. Made of white marble stone from the Esfahan region, it is 50 m tall with an observation deck near the top. Finely constructed with eight thousand blocks of stone, this masterpiece currently appears a bit neglected. Tehran also unveiled their contribution to high city towers when they completed the 435 m high Milad Tower in 2007. This concrete tower, which in 2013 ranked as the 6th tallest tower in the world, is also referred to as the Tehran Tower.

Tehran is further known for its severe air pollution, good shopping such as at the Tehran Grand Bazaar with corridors stretching over 10 km in length, and of course the so-called “den of spies” which is the vacant former embassy of the USA. 

Among the notable tourist attractions in the city are the National Museum of Iran, the Carpet Museum, Glassware and Ceramics Museum, the Golestan Palace, Sa’dabad Palace Complex,  Niavaran Palace Complex, and the fabulous Tehran National Jewels Museum.

Located next to Laleh Park, the Carpet Museum of Iran (3,400 m²) was founded in 1976 and exhibits a large variety of different kinds of kilims and handmade rugs from all over Iran, in particular from Kashan, Kerman, Esfahan, Tabriz, Khorasan, and Kurdistan. Carpets are dating from the 18th century to the present time and one of the oldest and most precious carpets date from the Safavid dynasty who ruled Persia from 1501 to 1722.


The Glassware and Ceramic Museum of Iran is known for its building as well as for the valuable content. The building was constructed 90 years ago on the orders of Ahmad Qavam (Qavam-ol-Saltaneh) for his personal lodging (until 1953) but was then used for seven years as the embassy of Egypt. When relations with Egypt soured the building was converted to a bank and later sold to Farah Pahlavi’s bureau in 1976 and turned into a museum which opened in 1980. The Glass and Ceramics Museum is administrated by the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization and displays some of the most valuable glass and ceramics in the world.

The Golestan Palace is one of the oldest historical buildings in Tehran and is part of a group of buildings that once formed the arg (citadel) of the city.  The arg was built during the reign of Tahmasp I (reigned 1524-1576) of the Safavid dynasty (1502–1736). The arg later became the site of the former royal Qajar complex (1794–1925).  The Golestan Palace was then the official residence of the royal Qajar family which were of Turkic origin.  The building we see today dates from 1865. After the Qajar period it was used for formal royal receptions by the Pahlavi royals. Several coronations took place here including Reza Khan (reigned 1925-1941) as well as Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who was the last shah (king) of Iran and reigned from September 1941 until he was overthrown during the Iranian Revolution in February 1979. He died in exile in Egypt on 27 July 1980, aged 60, and his tomb is located in the Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. The Golestan Palace consists of 17 palaces, museums, and halls which were mostly built during the era of the Qajar kings.

 Traveling around the city is fairly easy as there are many taxis and buses. Tehran’s underground train, the Metro, currently consists of four lines with an additional two under construction since 2007.  It  carries about two million passengers a day and is extremely crowded during rush hours when passengers push and shove to get into and out of the trains.  Traditional Persian art is prominent in most stations. 

Hungry? In addition to many contemporary restaurants, Tehran has several cozy traditional restaurants that serve authentic Iranian cuisine. Look out for the popular breads (nan-e barbari, lavash, sangak, and taftoon) and Persian kebab which is often served with rice (chelo kabāb). Some yellow saffron rice is always sprinkled on the white rice which is either Basmati rice (from India and Pakistan) or Persian rice from the northern regions of Iran.  Try the tah-chin, a savory saffron rice-cake with a filling such as marinated chicken fillets.

Before leaving Iran, remember to stock up on carpets, nuts, dried fruits, and leather products. At Tehran’s Grand Bazaar you can buy different types of goods, including carpets, spices, copper, gold, and other precious metals. It is estimated that the total length of the many corridors is over 10 km long.  While the current buildings were constructed during the 19th century, the bazaar dates back hundreds of years.


ESFAHAN

About 450 km south of Tehran by train is one of the greatest cities in the Middle East.  Esfahan (or Isfahan), with a population of more than 3.5 million people, is probably the Iran highlight of most local and international tourists. The city is known for its good shopping (in particular copperware and Persian carpets at the Esfahan Bazaar at the northern section of the prominent Naqsh-e Jahan Square), the ancient bridges across the Zayande River, and the many mosques, palaces, caravanserais, old theological schools (madresse), churches and cathedrals, squares and streets, and other historical buildings.  Out of town are many additional places of interest to explore.

This is a city where you can spend days on end and not truly experience it all. One of the greatest places to relax is at the Naqsh-e Jahan Square and along the bridges where locals will come up to you to enquire about your life. Don’t be surprized with their first questions which almost always include: “Are you married, and what is your job?” Seems like these two questions are essential for them to detect your social standing. Relax, they are only interested in your life.

The Khaju Bridge is probably the finest bridge in Esfahan. It was built by the Persian Safavid dynasty king, Shāh ‘Abbās II around 1650 on the foundations of an older bridge.  It has 23 arches, has a total length of 105 m, and is 14 m wide.  Another lovely bridge, the Chubi, was also built by king Shāh ‘Abbās II around 1655 to help irrigate the nearby palace gardens.  It has 21 arches and has a total length of 150 m.  The much older Si-o-Seh Pol Bridge was built by the Safavid dynasty king, Shāh ‘Abbās I between 1599 and 1602.  It has two rows of 33 arches, has a total length of 300 m, and is 14 m wide. The name Si-o-Seh Pol means “the bridge of 33 arches”.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque on the eastern side of Naghsh-i Jahan Square (known as Imam Square or Meidan Emam) was built between 1603 and 1618 during the reign of Shāh ‘Abbās I.  It is known for its beautiful interior wall and ceilings decorated with blue, yellow, turquoise and white tiles with intricate arabesque patterns. The inscriptions on the dome was written by Ali Reza Abbasi, a famous Iranian calligrapher.  The nearby Imam Mosque was also built by Shāh ‘Abbās I between 1611 and 1629. It is known for its seven-colour mosaic tiles and complex calligraphic inscriptions.  

As one of the oldest mosques still standing in Iran today, the grand congregational Jāmeh Mosque went through several phases of construction and re-constructions starting around the year 770 until as recent as the end of the 20th century. The muqarnas (decorative corbels) added during the Safavid era are amongst the most beautiful in Islamic architecture.

Another beautiful building in Esfahan is the Safavid dynasty palace of Chehel Sotoon which was largely completed under Shāh ‘Abbās II. Construction started around 1598. It has 20 slender wooden columns laid out in three rows of six with two additional ones on either side of the main entrance. Some of the remaining frescoes and paintings on ceramic inside the Chehel Sotoon Palace are depicting important scenes in Esfahan from the 16th and 17th centuries. Sadly many of the ceramic panels are in the possession of major museums in western countries.

Another beautiful home in Esfahan, built in 1669 by Shah Sulaiman, is the Hasht Behesht Palace (‘Eight Paradises’ of Islam) which is one of more than forty large mansions constructed in Esfahan during the Safavid era. The “Hasht-Bihisht” architecture refers to the specific floorplan common in Persian architecture whereby the plan is divided into an octagonal layout of rooms surrounding a large central room.

And yet another Esfahani home, the grand palace of Ālī Qāpū was built by decree of Shah Abbas I in the early seventeenth century and is located on the western side of the Naqsh-e Jahan Square opposite the Sheikh Lotfallah mosque.  It is 48 m high and has seven floors which were constructed over a period of 70 years.

Time for shopping at the famous Esfahan Bazar. Don’t forget to stock up on some blue-enamel mina-kari artwork at the Esfahan’s Bazar-e Honar (Gold and Silver Bazaar). Mina-kari is one of Esfahan’s most famous artworks which is enamel works of decorating metals with colourful baked paintings. “Mina” means a glasslike coloured coating which is baked on metals such as copper.  While commonly used on plates, mina-kari is also applied to other dishes, vases, boxes and frames.

Hungry? In Esfahan try the huge meatballs as well as the Beryooni which is a dish made of baked mutton and lungs. 


SHIRAZ

To travel between Esfahan to Shiraz in the south (500 km) you need a car or bus as there is no train connection.  Shiraz, with a population of over 1.5 million people, has been a regional trade center for over a thousand years and is also one of the oldest cities in the history of Persia. Shiraz is celebrated for its now defunct Shirazi wine which was historically (since the 9th century) produced around the city of Shiraz in Persia. As the current government has formally banned all alcoholic beverages, grapes are still grown around the city of Shiraz but not, formally at least, fermented into wine. 

Other than wine, Shiraz is also known as the city of rose gardens, nightingales and poets. Two of Iran’s greatest ancient national poets, Hafez and Saadi, lay buried here. The well-maintained gardens at the mausoleum of Hafez have orange trees, paths, streams, and beautiful flower beds.  Families come here to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings. A tea house on the grounds provides refreshments in a traditional Iranian setting. Saadi Shirazi (Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī, born in 1184 and died in 1283) was one of the major Persian poets of the medieval period and is known for the depth of his social and moral thoughts.

Shiraz is home to the mausoleum of Shah-e Cheragh (the shrine of the lord of the light, or “King of the Light”) which houses the tombs of the brothers Sayyed Ahmad and Muhammad, sons of Mūsá ibn Ja‘far al-Kādhim the seventh (of twelve) Emams. Their tombs became a pilgrimage shrine in the 14th century and is now the most venerated pilgrimage destination in Iran after the shrines of Imam Reza in the northeastern town of Mashhad and Fatima in the town of Qom just south of Tehran.

Shiraz also has some of the most impressive mosques such as the Atigh Jame Mosque, Vakil Mosque, and the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque. 

A famous landmark in Shiraz is Arg-e Karim Khani (fort Karim Khani), a citadel which is impressive during the day and night.  Arg-e Karim Khani is located in the north-east of town. It was built in 1766-7 to serve as a safe home for Karim Khan Zand, the Kurdish hero, during the Zandieh dynasty that ruled southern and central Iran in the 18th century. As it resembles a medieval fortress, it was also used as a prison at which time all the valuable wall paintings were plastered over! It has four 12 m high walls connected by four 14 m round brick towers at a 90-degree angle. These outer walls are 3 m thick at the base and 2.8 m at the top, which made it a super safe home for Karim!

Qavam House (also referred to as the Eram Palace or Narenjestan e-Ghavam) is a private palace built for the wealthy Qavam family between 1879 and 1886. The garden is home to impressive cypress trees with some dating back 300 years ago. 

Shiraz’s Qur’an Gate is located at the northeastern entrance of the city. The Gate was first built in the first century during the reign of Adud ad-Dawla, then partly destroyed and neglected, and then rebuilt in the 18th century during the Zandieh dynasty. Earthquakes severely damaged it during the Qajar dynasty (1785 to 1925).


THE QASHGAI PEOPLE OF FARS PROVINCE

While in Shiraz, take a day-trip south towards the town of Firuzabad which is about 115 km south of Shiraz. With a population of about 62,000 people, Firuzabad is known for being surrounded by a mud wall and ditch. However, of more interest to some visitors is the amazing Qashqai nomadic people who live in the fields around town. 

The Qashqai people (also spelled as Ghashghai and other variants) are a semi-nomadic Turkic people who generally speak the Persian language of Farsi as well as their own Qashqai (type of Turkic) language.  They are not a homogenous cultural group but rather consist of several tribes and sub-tribes including the Amalaeh, Darreh-Shuri, Kashkuli, Shesh, Baluki, Farsimadan, Qaracheh, Rahimi and the Safi -Khani people. 

They are mostly nomadic pastoralists although families are increasingly settling down in the towns and villages. The traditional nomadic Qashqai people live in tents made of goats’ hair and almost entirely live off their sheep and goats. They frequently move their herds of sheep and goats to new pastures. 


THE LOST CITY OF PERSEPOLIS

About 70 km northeast of Shiraz lies the ancient tombs of Naqsh-e Rustam and the lost city of Persepolis.  

The First Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, lasted from about 550 to 330 BC and was founded by Cyrus the Great (559–530 BC). The ancient capital city of Cyrus is called Pasargadae, located another 80 km northeast of Persepolis. The tomb of Cyrus can also be seen here in Pasargadae.

During the time of the Achaemenid Empire, the city of Persepolis was their “ceremonial capital”.  Some of the earliest remains of the city dates back to 515 BC. Historians found that Cyrus is the guy who chose the site while it was really Darius the Great who should get the credit for building most of the terraces and the great palaces of Persepolis. Whatever old Darius could not complete, his willing son, King Xerxes the Great, completed for his dad.  Construction here continued until the downfall of the Achaemenid Empire.

Then came Alexander III, also referred to as Alexander the Great. Alex was a king of Macedon, a state in northern ancient Greece, and he and his forces invaded Persia in  the year 330 BC. They captured the city before its treasury could be looted but then later allowed his men to ransack the precious city.  Much of Persepolis was then destroyed by a fire that broke out in the Palace of Xerxes, and spread to the rest of the city. The forces of Alexander the Great is to blame though it is not exactly clear if the fire was set intentionally or if it was by accident. Today we don’t have much left to look at, but with some wild imagination, we can imagine the splendour of the city.

The impressive “Gate of All Nations” at Persepolis refers to subjects of the empire and consisted of a huge hall measured about 25 m in length, with four columns and its entrance (Gate of Xerxes) on the western wall. King Xerxes the Great (519–465 BC), the fourth King of Persia, ordered the construction and had his name written all over  the entrances - hence the name “Gate of Xerxes”, as so thy King named it! A pair of Lamassus bulls (a protective deity) with the heads of bearded men guard the gates, although long ago they sadly lost their heads to looters.

The Throne Hall or the Imperial Army’s Hall of Honour (also descriptively referred to as the “Hundred-Columns Palace”) measures 70 x 70 square meter making it the second largest building of the Terrace. Xerxes started the construction but his son, Artaxerxes I, completed it by the end of the fifth century BC. The Tomb of Artaxerxes II who ruled from 404 BC until his death in 358 BC is also located at Persepolis. He apparently proudly killed his own brother ‘Cyrus the Younger’ and executed several other people whom he didn’t like. He is reported to have had a number of wives and also married several of his own daughters.

Cuneiform inscriptions are clearly visible on window frames at the Palace of Darius I (also called “Tachara Palace” or “Mirror Hall”) which was the exclusive palace of Darius I although only a small portion of the palace was finished under his 36-year rule (522 BC to 486 BC). His son and successor, Xerxes I, completed the palace after his dad died and called the house a Taçara which means ‘winter palace’. This is one of the few places that the fire by Alexander the Great did not destroy.

Darius I (550 BC to 486 BC) was the third king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire and built Apadana Palace, described as the greatest palace at Persepolis. Construction started in 515 BC but was only completed 30 years later by his son, Xerxes I.  Oak and cedar beams which connected the seventy-two columns were brought in all the way from the hills of Lebanon.


THE MUD CITY OF YAZD

From Persepolis continue in a northeastern direction to the ancient city of Cyrus (Pasargadae) and then on to the “modern” city of Yazd which is another highlight of Iran. Located in central Iran (400 km northeast of Persepolis and 730 km south of Tehran), the city of Yazd (pop. of about 500,000) is the capital of Yazd province. Made from sun-dried mud bricks, the oldest part of the city is one of the oldest human settlements on earth. The city was originally situated at an oasis roughly where the Dasht-e Kavir and the Dasht-e Lut deserts meet. The backdrop to Yazd is the impressive Shir Kuh, the tallest mountain in the region at 4,075 m. Nearby Kharanaq and Chak Chak are ancient mud-brick villages believed to be more than 1,000 years old. Chak Chak is the most sacred of the mountain shrines of Zoroastrianism in Iran.

Among the most impressive attractions of Yazd is the 15th century domed Bogheh-ye Seyed Roknaddin (Mausoleum of Seyed Roknaddin), with its fine blue-tiled dome which was also called “Alexander the Great’s Prison” as it has a dungeon. However, historians believe it was neither built by Alexander nor was it a prison. In fact, it was an old school. The 12th century Jameh Mosque of Yazd was rebuilt between 1324 and 1365 and proudly sports two 48 m high minarets and an impressive mosaic-decorated dome. The colourful Amir Chakhmagh Mosque is freshly lit up at night but was built in the 14th century by Amir Jalaledin Chakhmagh - one of the Shahrokh Teymuri’s commanders and the governor of Yazd with the inspiration of his wife, Seti Fatimeh.

Being surrounded by very hot and dry deserts, Yazd is known for its “badgirs”, which are wind towers or windcatchers that create a natural ventilation in traditional Persian-influenced architecture. They function by creating a downward airflow due to direct wind entry followed by an upward airflow due to the temperature gradient. Yazd also has several old traditional houses such as the 150-year-old Khan-e Lari which is a Qajar-era traditional house complete with badgirs, traditional doors, stained-glass windows, elegant archways and even alcoves (vaults). As a tourist, stay at the lovely “Silk Road Hotel” which is a guesthouse located in an old traditional Persian house. 

A short distance outside Yazd is the dakhma or dema (“Towers of Silence”) which is historically a centre of Zoroastrianism. The raised structure was used by the Zoroastrians for exposure of their dead, particularly to scavenging birds. Orthodox Zoroastrians continued to maintain their dakhma until the 1970s when they were shut down by law. Since then they either cremate or bury the dead in graves lined with rocks, and plastered with cement to prevent direct contact with the earth.

About 85 km northeast of Yazd is the ancient mud-brick village of Kharanaq. Some parts of the village is believed to be more than a thousand years old but the site has been occupied by humans for more than four thousand years. A little north of Kharanaq, nestled in the mountains and surrounded by the desert, is the small pilgrimage village of Chak Chak which houses one of the most sacred mountain shrines of Zoroastrianism. 


THE DESERT OASIS OF GARMEH

Head into the deep desert. A 300 km trip northeast of Yazd ends at the oasis village of Garmeh.  Trying to find the village on a map of the vast Dashte-Kavir desert? Look for a tiny spot of a cluster of date trees next to a small pond of water at the feet of the nearby barren mountain.  

Garmeh is truly an oasis village as the only water source of this mud village comes from a spring that flows out of the nearby mountains.  The history of human settlement around this fountain dates back about 4,000 years, and possibly 7,000 years! During the more resent times (i.e. the past 2,000 years), this settlement was on the main route of the famous Silk Road.

This village is unquestionably rich in history and you get a true sense of its history by just walking around the ancient mud buildings, arches, and alleys. The village is surrounded by date and palm trees and of course the nearby springs with fresh water. A 60 minute drive to the north enters the vast dry salt lakes which has a surface area of about 3,000 square kilometer. On the way are many sand dunes, wild camels, and miles and miles of dry desert land!


KERMAN, HOME OF THE KERMANI PEOPLE

Head back to Yazd and get on the 360 km train ride in a southeast direction to the town of Kerman. Here you will find the lovely Kermani people known for their hospitality and their great talents with making Persian carpets and pateh weaving - a unique woven and needle-work handicraft. Kerman (pop. 650,000) is the capital city of Kerman province famous for its long history and cultural heritage which is evident in its array of mosques, historical buildings, grand bazaar, and Zoroastrian fire temples. As a formal capital of Persia, Kerman was home to many famous leaders. Today Kerman is also known for its clean streets, its bazaar, food, and the most beautiful carpets and pateh.

The Ganj Ali Khan Square in Kerman was built between 1596 and 1621 and measures 99 m by 54 m. The Bazar-e Ganj Ali Khan is a Safavid-era market building complex located in the old centre of the city of Kerman. The complex consists of a large square, school, caravanserai, a now non-active bathhouse, an ‘ab anbar’ (water reservoir), a mint, mosque and a busy bazaar.  Ganjali Khan, governor of Kerman, Sistan and Kandahar provinces built this complex from 1596 to 1621 under the rule of  Safavid-era ruler Shah Abbas I.

Also built in the Safavid-era, the Hamam-e Ganjali-khan (bathhouse) is located inside the Bazar-e Ganj Ali Khan. It is now restored as a museum and has mummies showing what the daily bathing routine must have looked like. 

Fancy an atmospheric meal? Head over to the Hamam-eVakil Chaykhaneh which is a magnificent subterranean teahouse located in the old Vakil bathhouse built in 1820. If you are lucky you may dine at the sounds of a musician playing the Persian santoor. The Persian santoor is a trapezoid-shaped box often made of walnut wood and has 72 strings in 18 sets of four.


MAHAN

Nearby Mahan (37 km from Kerman) is home to the tomb of poet Shāh Ni’matullāh Wali (1330–1431). The Aramgah-e Shāh Ni’matullāh Wali mausoleum of this great Sufi leader dates back to the 15th century when it was partly built by an Indian king who was an adherent of Ahmad Shah Kani’s teaching. Some beautiful wooden doors brought from India still adorn the mausoleum.  Shāh Ni’matullāh Wali was an Aleppo-born Syrian poet who settled in the Baloch region of Kerman province and is considered to be the founder of the Sufi order of Nimatullahi.

The nearby Shazdeh Garden (meaning Prince’s Garden) is a historical Persian garden located 6 km from Mahan on the road back to Kerman. 

West of Mahan (23 km) is the village and farming community of Joopar (Jupar) with the impressive Imamzadeh-ye Shahzade Hossein mosque. Get a glimpse of rural and village life in and around Joopar.


ANCIENT CITADELS OF BAM AND RAYEN

Back to Kerman, a 3-hour train ride (190 km) goes south to the oasis town of Bam which is most famous for the Arg-e Bam, an ancient citadel dating back around 2,000 years ago to the Parthian Empire (248 BC–224 AD). Most of the current buildings (or ruins) were built during the Safavid dynasty (1501 to 1722 AD). Sadly, a shallow 6.6 earthquake on December 26, 2003 leveled much of Arg-e Bam and killed at least 30,000 people (half the residents of Bam) and injuring an additional 30,000. Since the earthquake parts of the citadel has been rebuilt but some estimate the rebuilding won’t be completed until the year 2040. 

Other sights in Bam are the mausoleum of Imam Zade Zeyd, the Mosalla Mosque (Friday Mosque), and the interesting bazaar.

A much better preserved citadel in similar design as the damaged Bam citadel is located at the village of Rayen which is 134 km north of Bam on the road back to Kerman. The Rayen citadel (also referred to as Rayen Castle or Arg-e Rayen) did not suffer during the 2003 earthquake and is still in good condition. Founded during the Sasanian era (224 BC to 651 BC) and expanded during the Safavid era (1501 to 1722) it was inhabited until about 150 years ago and is extremely well preserved despite the numerous natural disasters. Similar to the Arg-e Bam, the Arg-e Rayen is an adobe structure (usage of natural building material such as sand, clay, water, and some kind of fibrous or organic material). The nearby Hezar Mountains (4,465 m) is a beautiful backdrop to the old citadel of Rayen.


THE KALUTS

Lets get back into the depths of the Iranian deserts. Head back to Kerman and then swerve in an eastern direction towards the Afghanistan border. A drive of about 150 km east of Kerman past the Zagros mountains (4,000 m) into the vast Dasht-e Lut desert and you could be wondering if you have stumbled into a lost city with miles of eroded towers, walls, and fortresses.  

Welcome to “The Kaluts” which is among the hottest places on earth where the temperature easily rises well above 50ºC.  Camping (not during the cold winters) is possible though discouraged by some locals who fear the “desert pirates”. 

The Kaluts is the largest expanse of yardangs in the world. A yardang is a streamlined hill carved from bedrock and formed by wind erosion which removes the soft rock while the hard rock remains. While the Dasht-e Lut desert is vast, the Kaluts is concentrated over a smaller area where you can roam on feet, 4WD, or with your scrambler bike. Get loose and feel the freedom!


KASHAN

From Kerman the train takes about nine hours north to the town of Kashan, in the Esfahan province.  Kashan (pop. 250,000) was an important centre for the production of high quality pottery and tiles between the 12th and 14th centuries. Many of Persia’s rich and famous called Kashan “home” and built several luxurious traditional Persian houses which are now open for viewing. Kashan is also known for its ancient Sultan Amir shrine and bathhouse, the ancient city walls, Agha Bozorg Mosque, Fin Gardens, the Kashan Bazaar (complete with several mosques, tombs, caravanserais, arcades, baths and water reservoirs), as well as fortresses, underground cities and caravanserais in the nearby desert.

Built in 1857, the Boroujerdi historical house is a traditional Persian residential house in Kashan. It consists of a rectangular courtyard, impressive wall paintings and three 40 m tall badgirs (wind cooling towers) which help to cool the house. The nearby Khan-e Tabatabai historical house was built in the 1880’s for the affluent Tabatabai family. This is arguably the most impressive historical house in Kashan. Tabatabai’s daughter married into the Haji Mehdi Boroujerdi. Another beautiful house is the Khan-e Ameriha, the house of the Āmeri family built in the mid 19th century during the Qajar dynasty. Notable rebuilding was required after a series of massive earthquakes in the 18th century such as on June 7, 1755 which killed about 40,000 people. The Khan-e Abbasian is a late 18th century traditional Persian house in Kashan. It has six courtyards that accommodated a few different families as well as many guests. The guest quarters are substantially more flamboyant than the family’s living quarters.

Not to be missed in Kashan is the Hamam-e Sultan Amir Ahmad, a traditional Persian public bathhouse constructed in the 16th century during the Safavid dynasty. With a size of about 1,000 square meter it consists of a sarbineh (the dressing hall) and the garmkhaneh (the hot bathing hall). It has long been converted into a museum. The mausoleum of Imāmzādeh Sultan Amir Ahmad is nearby his bathhouse.  An “Imāmzādeh” means “offspring” and is a Persian term for someone who is an immediate descendant of a Shi’a Imam.

In the very impressive Kashan bazaar, explore the carpet shops in the old Khan Amin al-Dowleh Timche caravanserai inside the bazaar. This caravanserai must be a national treasure!

The Masjed-e Āghā Bozorg mosque and madraseh (theological school) in Kashan was built in the late 18th century. It was specifically constructed for Molla Mahdi Naraghi II, known as Āghā Bozorgh, to conduct sessions of prayers, preaching and theological teaching.

Outside town is the grandeur Mohammad Helal Ibn Ali mausoleum in Aran, a village 14 km north of Kashan. Mohammad Al Awsat, nicknamed “Hilal Ibn Ali” was one of Imam Ali’s offsprings and is buried in this sacred mausoleum. It is unquestionably a very sacred place. Right outside the Mohammad Helal Ibn Ali mausoleum are graves of martyrs from the 1980’s Iran-Iraq war. Further north east into Maranjab desert is the Maranjab caravanserai next to the Namak Salt Lake. The salt lake is located about 100 km east of Qom at an elevation of 790 m above sea level. The lake surface is about 1800 km², but most of this is dry. The water gets to a depth of only one meter on a good wet day, which is rare! Enroute to the caravanserai and salt lakes the road passes many very lonely and thirsty camels, yearning for attention. Get out of your car and see what happens!


ABYANEH

Almost 80 km south of Kashan, passing right next to the controversial uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the road goes into the mountains to the village of Abyaneh. Abyaneh is one of the oldest villages in Iran and dates back to the Safavid period (1501 to 1722). 

The village is known for the peculiar reddish hue of the adobe buildings (natural building material made with sand, clay, water, and some kind of fibrous or organic material). The language spoken by the residents is called Parthian Pahlavi. The village is situated on high ground along a small stream (it’s name being derived from the word “viona” meaning willow grove), and is surrounded by a Sassanid era fort and the Castle of Haman. 

The people are very conservative and have maintained their traditional costumes with the women typically wearing a white long scarf which has a colourful pattern. Most doors have two distinct door handles: The left door handle is for men, and the right handle for women. They have different designs and make different sounds so the inhabitants know who to send to open the door and what attire should be worn, e.g. a headscarf or not.


TABRIZ

Done with south and central Iran? Head up north by bus to Tehran from where a 12 hour overnight train crosses the 630 km to Tabriz in the northwestern province of East Azerbaijan. Tabriz is one of the historical capitals of Iran and currently the capital of East Azerbaijan province. While the predominant language spoken here is Azerbaijani Turkic, most people are fluent in Farsi, Iran’s official language which is also the sole language for education.  At an altitude of 1,350 m, Tabriz can get quite cold with ample snow in winter and rain in summer.

With a rich history, Tabriz has many historical monuments dating back to the eras of the Ilkhanids, the Safavids, and the Qajars. Among the most prominent are the Ark-e-Alishah (Arg-e Tabriz) which is a remnant of a fortress built in the Ilkhanate period. 

The Kabud Mosque (Blue Mosque), originally built in 1465 on the orders of Jahan Shah (who died in 1467), was severely damaged in the December 27, 1779 earthquake with a magnitude of 6.5 that killed about 10,000 people. Some reconstructed began in the early 1900s and again in 1973 but only a small part of the mosque has been restored by early 2013. At least the collapsed roof of the mausoleum and the main dome chamber have been restored. The large statue of Khaqani (born in 1121), a Persian poet who died in Tabriz in 1190, stands proudly outside this mosque.  

The bustling 13th century Tabriz Bazaar is one of the oldest in the Middle East and the largest covered bazaar in the world. It consists of a series of interconnected, covered brick structures and buildings and is one of the most impressive bazaars in the Middle East. Come here to buy your Persian carpets, dried fruits, nuts and everything else you need.


KANDOVAN

Just 38 km southwest of Tabriz, halfway towards the shores of the salty Lake Urmia, near the town of Osku, is an amazing village to visit.  Kandovan is a troglodytic village similar to those found at Göreme in Turkey’s Cappadocia region. Located on the northern slopes of a valley at the foothills of Mount Sahand, the village gets a fair amount of snow in winter.  

Most people here live in natural and carved caves embellished with wooden doors and glass windows, a living example of human adaptation to exceptionally unusual natural surroundings.  The lower sections of the cone-shaped natural structures are used as stables for sheep and goats while those above them are used as the family living quarters. 

The caves remain quite warm in winter and those that house the warm bodies of the goats and sheep get uncomfortably stuffy even on the coldest days. According to legend, the first people to settle in the Kandovan caves were soldiers involved in military operations about 700 or 800 years ago. 

Most people in the village still wear traditional clothes with women wearing printed chadors.


MASULEH

Back to Tabriz a 500 km trip, partly southwards along the Caspian Sea, leads to another interesting mountain village in Iran. Located in Iran’s northern Gilan Province, Masuleh was founded in the 10th century AD and nowadays has a population of about 500 which declines in winter and increases dramatically in summer. The village is located in the Alborz (or Elburz) mountain range and lies 1,050 m above the nearby Caspian Sea which results in a fair amount of snow during the harsh winter months. Historians found that the original village of Masuleh (now referred to as “Old-Masuleh”) was established around 1006 AD but due to consistent attacks from surrounding nasty neighbours the village moved about 6 km away to the current location. The village is built along the foot of the mountains with the Masouheh-Rood-Khan river flowing through the bottom of the valley. Fog is ever present here which adds a special atmosphere to the village. Buildings are mostly two stories with the lower level’s roof being the walkway for the upper level. Most of the kid’s playgrounds are the roofs of the homes directly below theirs. The Iranians have a popular description for Masuleh which in English literally means  “The yard of the above building is the roof of the below building”. Some buildings are painted in bight yellow which allows for better visibility in the fog.

While in Masuleh, join a few residents in one of the teahouses and enjoy some tea and qalyān.  Persian qalyān, also known as hubble-bubble, hookah, sheesha, and water-pipe, is popular across Iran. The qalyān is used for smoking flavoured tobacco called shisha. In Iran historians claim that the qalyān was first smoked by a Persian physician at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar I during the 16th century. Many Iranians love to smoke after lunch or dinner, especially in the traditional Persian restaurants.

From Masuleh an interesting 380 km road leads along the mountains back to Tehran. Remember to stock up on Iranian food, Persian carpets and leather goods before heading back to Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. 

Before disappearing into the high clouds, blow a kiss to the Iranian people who treated you so well, and promise yourself that you will be back. GR

For 440 colour pages of IRAN, take a look at the book published by Globerovers Studios in June 2012:



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