Rapidly expanding Rasht is the capital of Gilan province and by far the largest city of the Shomal (Caspian littoral) region. Gilan has had extended periods of independence and the lispy local Gilaki dialect remains noticeably distinct from Farsi. The city has precious little in the way of historical buildings, but Rasht is a useful transport hub from which to visit the lush mountain forests, rice paddies and thatched-house villages of the emerald-green Gilan hinterland, most famously at Masuleh. It’s also a great place to taste the garlic-stoke, vegetable-rich Gilan cuisine.
Historically Lahijan and Fuman were Gilan’s main centres. Rasht (previously Resht) developed in the 14th century, but the population was massacred in 1668 by the forces of Cossack brigand Stepan ‘Stenka’ Razin who also sank Persia’s entire Caspian navy. The Russians, a constant factor in the region thereafter, were back in 1723 clearing spaces in the then-impenetrable forest to allow Resht’s growth. In 1899 a Russian company cut the road to Qazvin, diminishing Gilan’s isolation from the rest of Iran. By WWI the town boasted 60,000 inhabitants and four international consulates. From 1917 it was the centre of Kuchuk Khan’s Jangali (‘Forest’) Movement, an Islamic, Robin Hood–style rebellion. Among their grievances with collapsing Qajar Iran was the shah’s perceived sell-out to oil-hungry Britain. Courting the Bolsheviks who’d just taken control of Russia, Kuchuk Khan joined forces with communist-agitators and, on 4 June 1920, set up Gilan as the ‘Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran’. However, radical leftists and land-owning Muslim nationalists made very prickly bedfellows. Once Kuchuk Khan had ejected the infidel communists from his ‘government’, his Russian backers slipped away leaving Gilan prey to the ef ficient new regime of Reza Khan (later Shah Reza Pahlavi) who’d taken over Persia in a February 1921 coup. Reza Khan first dealt with Azadistan (temporarily independent Tabriz/Azarbayjan) then attacked Gilan. Most of Rasht’s pretty wooden houses were burnt, Kuchuk Khan was executed and his severed head was brought to Tehran for public display. These days any enemy of the Pahlavis has become a friend of the current Islamic Republic. Thus Kuchuk Khan has ridden back into favour on many a horseback statue across Gilan.