Constructed in 1465, the Blue Mosque was among the most glorious buildings of its era. Once built, artists took a further 25 years to cover every surface with the blue majolica tiles and intricate calligraphy for which it’s nicknamed. It survived One of history’s worst-ever earthquakes (1727), but collapsed in a later quake (1773). Devastated Tabriz had better things to do than mend it and it lay as a pile of rubble till 1951, when reconstruction finally started. The brick superstructure is now complete, but only on the rear (main) entrance portal (which survived 1773) is there any hint of the original blue exterior. Inside is more blue with missing patterns laboriously painted onto many lower sections around the few remaining patches of original tiles.
Tabriz has had a Christian community almost as long as there’ve been Christians. Near the bazaar, St Mary’s is a 12th-century church mentioned by Marco Polo and once the seat of the regional archbishop. Behind high gates, the curious Anglican Church has a tower of four diminishing cylinders. The relatively central Sarkis serves the Armenian community. It’s hidden in a basketball court behind high white gates.
The magnificent, labyrinthine covered bazaar covers some 7 sq km with 24 separate caravanserais and 22 impressive timches (domed halls). Construction began over a millennium ago, though much of the fine brick vaulting is 15th century. Upon entering one feels like a launched pinball, bouncing around through an extraordinary colourful maze, only emerging when chance or carelessness dictates. There are several carpet sections, according to knot-size and type. The spice bazaar has a few shops still selling herbal remedies and natural perfumes. A couple of hat shops sell traditional papakh made of tight curled astrakhan wool. The better the quality, the younger the lamb sacrificed to the milliner’s art. Other quarters specialise in gold, shoes and general household goods.
The Azarbayjan Museum is 50m west of the Blue Mosque. Enter through a great brick portal with big wooden doors guarded by two stone rams. Ground-floor exhibits include finds from Hasanlu, a superb 3000-year-old copper helmet and curious stone ‘handbags’ from the 3rd millennium BC. Found near Kerman these were supposedly symbols of wealth once carried by provincial treasurers. The basement features Ahad Hossein’s powerful if disturbing sculptural allegories of life and war. The top floor displays a re-weave of the famous Chelsea carpet, reckoned to be one of the best ever made. The original is so-called because it was last sold on King’s Rd, Chelsea, some 50 years ago, ending up in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
The huge brick edifice, an unmissable landmark, is a chunky remnant of Tabriz’s early-14th- century citadel (known as ‘the Ark’). Criminals were once executed by being hurled from the top of the citadel walls. Far-fetched local legend tells of one woman so punished who was miraculously saved by the parachute-like effect of her chador.