Begun under Cyrus the great is about 546 BC, the city of Pasargadae was quickly superseded by Darius I s magnificent palace at Persepolis. Pasargadae is about 50km north of Persepolis and some travellers have questioned whether it s worth the effort of getting there. The austere and awesomely simple tomb of Cyrus stands proudly on the Morghab plain. It consists of six stone tiers with a modest rectangular burial chamber above, and it s unique architecture combines elements of all the major civilizations Cyrus had conquered.

Magnificent Persepolis embodies the greatest successes of the ancient Achaemenid Empire…and its final demise. The monumental staircases, exquisite reliefs and imposing gateways leave you in no doubt how grand this city was and how totally dominant the empire that built it. Equally, the broken and fallen columns attest that the end of empire was emphatic. Persepolis is a result of the vast body of skill and knowledge gathered from throughout the Achaemenids’ empire.

When French poet Renier described Esfahan as ‘half of the world’ in the 16th century, it was the myriad wonders of the square called Naqsh-e Jahan that inspired him. it remains home to arguably the most majestic collection of buildings in the Islamic world. Naqsh-e Jahan means ‘pattern of the world’, and it’s a world that owes much to the vision of Shah Abbas the Great. Begun in 1602 as the centrepiece of Abbas’ new capital, the square was designed as home to the finest jewels of the Safavid empire – the incomparable Imam Mosque, the supremely elegant Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and the indulgent and lavishly decorated Ali Qapu Palace and Qeysarieh Portal. At 512m long and 163m wide, this immense space is the second-largest square on earth – only Mao Zedong’s severe Tiananmen Sq in Beijing is bigger.

A study in harmonious understatement, this mosque is the perfect complement to the overwhelming richness of the larger Imam Mosque, and is arguably the most fabulous mosque in Iran. Built between 1602 and 1619, during the reign of Shah Abbas I, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is dedicated to the ruler’s father-in-law, Sheikh Lotfollah, a revered Lebanese scholar of Islam who was invited to Esfahan to oversee the king’s mosque (now the Imam Mosque) and theological school.

The mosque is a fine specimen of the Azari style of Persian architecture. The mosque is crowned by a pair of minarets, the highest in Iran, and the portal's facade is decorated from top to bottom in dazzling tile work, predominantly blue in colour. Within is a long arcaded courtyard where, behind a deep-set south-east iwan, is a sanctuary chamber (shabestan). This chamber, under a squat tiled dome, is exquisitely decorated with faience mosaic: its tall faience Mihrab, dated 1365, is one of the finest of its kind in existence.

In the Iranian Zoroastrian tradition, the towers were built atop hills or low mountains in desert locations distant from population centers. In the early twentieth century, the Iranian Zoroastrians gradually discontinued their use and began to favour burial or cremation.

The decision to change the system was accelerated by three considerations: The first problem arose with the establishment of the Dar ul-Funun medical school. Since Islam considers unnecessary dissection of corpses as a form of mutilation, thus forbidding it, there were no corpses for study available through official channels. The towers were repeatedly broken into, much to the dismay and humiliation of the Zoroastrian community. Secondly, while the towers had originally been built away from population centers, the growth of the towns led to the towers now being within city limits. Finally, many of the Zoroastrians themselves found the system outdated. Following extended negotiations between the anjuman societies of Yazd, Kerman, and Tehran, the latter gained a majority and established a cemetery some 10 km from Tehran at Ghassr-e Firouzeh (Firouzeh's Palace). The graves were lined with rocks and plastered with cement to prevent direct contact with the earth. In Yazd and Kerman, in addition to cemeteries, orthodox Zoroastrians continued to maintain a tower until the 1970s when ritual exposure was prohibited by law.