Hidden in tiny alleys behind its modern façade, Zanjan retains some attractive mosques, a fantastic bazaar, a plethora of knife-grinders and some delightful teahouse restaurants. The city is a logical base for visiting the impressive Soltaniyeh mausoleum and a good staging point to reach Takht-e Soleiman via the scenic Dandy road.
With its winding lanes, forest of badgirs, mud-brick old town and charismatic accommodation, Yazd is one of the highlights of any trip to Iran. Wedged between the northern Dasht-e Kavir and southern Dasht-e Lut, it doesn’t have the big-ticket sights of Esfahan or Persepolis, but as a whole, and in the context of its relationship with the desert, it is at least as enchanting. It is a place to wander and get lost in the maze of historic streets and lanes.
Yazd is said to be the ‘oldest living city on Earth’. This might be a difficult claim to verify, but it is widely believed the site has been continually inhabited for about 7000 years. Its position on important trading routes and a tendency towards diplomacy go some way to explaining Yazd’s longevity. The fact that commercial prosperity never really translated into real political power is probably another reason. When Marco Polo passed this way in the 13th century, he described Yazd as ‘a very fine and splendid city and a centre of commerce’. It was spared destruction by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, and flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries, with silk, textile and carpet production the main home-grown industry. Like most of Iran, Yazd fell into decline when the Safavids were defeated and remained little more than a provincial outpost until the last shah extended the railway line to Yazd.
Tehran is a city of contrasts that play out on geographic lines. It is modern and traditional, secular and religious, rich and poor – north and south. Most of the spark comes from the affluent north, but wander through southern Tehran and you’ll see a contrastingly conservative, religious and poor city with little of the north’s brashness. At a practical level, Tehran has a decent choice of hotels and the best range of restaurants in Iran. There are enough museums to keep you interested, and compared with residents of many capitals, Tehranis are surprisingly welcoming.
Archaeologists believe people have lived in this area since Neolithic times, but apart from 11th-century AD records suggesting the village produced high-quality pomegranates, little was written about Tehran until the 13th century. In his book Mo’jamol Boldan, writer Yaqoot Hamavi described Tehran as a village of Rey, then the major urban centre in the region, where ‘rebellious inhabitants’ lived in underground dwellings. He went on: ‘They not only disregard their governors, but are in constant clashes among themselves, to the extent that the inhabitants of its 12 quarters cannot visit each other’. In 1220 the Mongols sacked Rey as they swept across Persia executing thousands in the process. Most of those who escaped wound up in Tehran and the future capital’s first ever population explosion turned the village into a small, moderately prosperous trading centre. In the mid-16th century Tehran’s natural setting, many trees, clear rivers and good hunting brought it to the attention of the early Safavid king, Tahmasb I. Under his patronage, gardens were laid out, brick houses and caravanserais built and a wall with 114 towers erected to protect the town and its merchants. As it continued to grow under later Safavid kings, European visitors wrote of Tehran’s many enchanting vineyards and gardens.
A fascinating bazaar, a deeply human heart and passionately helpful freelance guides make this gigantic, sprawling city a surprisingly positive introduction to Iran. It had a spell as the Iranian capital and has proven extremely influential in the country’s recent history. it can be freezing cold in winter, but the Azari welcome is generally very warm any time of year.
Biblical clues point to the Ajichay River flowing out of the Garden of Eden, which would place Tabriz at the gates of paradise! More historically verifiable, Tabriz was a Sassanian-period trade hub and came to eclipse Maraqeh as a later Mongol Ilkhanid capital of Azerbaijan. It recovered remarkably rapidly from Tamerlane’s 1392 ravages and, while the rest of Iran was vassal to the Timurids, Tabriz became the capital of a local Turkmen dynasty curiously nicknamed the Qareh Koyunlu (Black Sheep). That dynasty’s greatest monarch was Jahan Shah (no, not the Taj Mahal’s Shah Jahan), under whose rule (1439–67) the city saw a remarkable flowering of arts and architecture culminat ing in the fabulous Blue Mosque. Shah Ismail, the first Safavid ruler, briefly made Tabriz Persia’s national capital. However, after the battle of Chaldoran Tabriz suddenly seemed far too vulnerable to Ottoman attack, so Ismail’s successor, Tahmasp (1524–75), moved his capital to safer Qazvin. Fought over by Persians, Ottomans and (later) Russians, Tabriz went into a lengthy decline exacerbated by disease and one of the world’s worst ever earthquakes that killed a phenomenal 77,000 Tabrizis in November 1727. The city recovered its prosperity during the 19th century. Shahgoli (now Elgoli) on Tabriz’ southeast outskirts became the residence of the Qajar crown prince, but heavy- handed Qajar attempts to Persianise the Azari region caused resentment. The 1906 constitutional revolution briefly allowed Azari Turkish speakers to regain their linguistic rights (schools, newspapers etc) and Tabriz held out most valiantly in 1908 when the liberal constitution was promptly revoked again. For its pains it was brutally besieged by Russian troops.
Shush (Susa) was once among the greatest cities of ancient Persia. Now it’s a pleas antly small, relatively new town with a vast archaeological site, splendid castle, enig matic Tomb of Daniel and bustling market.
An important Elamite city from about the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, Susa was burnt around 640 BC by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, but regained prominence in 521 BC when Darius I set it up as the Achaemenids’ fortified winter capital. At that time it was probably similar in grandeur to Persepolis. The palace survived the city’s fall to Alexander the Great in 331 BC, and indeed Alex ander married one of Darius III’s daughters here. Still prosperous in the Seleucid and Parthian eras, Susa re-emerged as a Sassanian capital. During Shapur II’s reign (AD 310–379) it regained renown as a Jewish pil grimage site and became a centre of Nestorian Christian study. Evacuated in the face of Mongol raids Shush disappeared into the sands of time, only re-emerging after 1852 when the British archaeologist WK Loftus became the first to survey the site. His work was continued by the French Archaeological Service from 1891 more or less continuously until the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Shiraz is a city of sophistication that has been celebrated as the heartland of Persian culture for more than 2000 years. Known as the Dar-ol-Elm (House of Learning), the City of Roses, City of Love and City of Gardens, Shiraz has become synonymous with education, nightingales & poetry. It was one of the most important cities in the medieval Islamic world and was the Iranian capital during the Zand dynasty (AD 1747–79), when many of its most beautiful buildings were built or restored.
Shiraz is mentioned in Elamite inscriptions from around 2000 BC and it was an important regional centre under the Sassanians. However, Shiraz did not become the provincial capital until about AD 693, following the Arab conquest of Estakhr, the last Sassanian capital (8km northeast of Persepolis, but now completely destroyed). By 1044 Shiraz was said to rival Baghdad in importance and grew further under the Atabaks of Fars in the 12th century, when it became an important artistic centre. Shiraz was spared destruction by the rampaging Mongols and Tamerlane because the city’s rulers wisely decided that paying tribute was preferable to mass slaughter. Having avoided calamity, Shiraz enjoyed the Mongol and Timurid periods, which became eras of development. The encouragement of enlightened rulers, and the presence of Hafez, Sa’di and many other brilliant artists and scholars, helped make it one of the greatest cities in the Islamic world throughout the 13th and 14th centuries.
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.
The largest island in the Persian Gulf at 1335 sq km, Qeshm boasts attractive beaches bounding an arid, sun-scorched interior of starkly beautiful hills and mountains. The coast is dotted with Bandari villages but the interior is largely deserted. Qeshm is a duty-free zone – a sort of poor person’s Kish – but in a Gulf increasingly full of gleaming skyscrapers it remains refreshingly attached to the traditional Bandari ways. Sure, Qeshm Town is developing pretty quickly.
Mashhad is Iran’s holiest and second biggest city. Its raison d’être and main sight is the beautiful, massive and ever-growing Haram (shrine complex) commemorating the AD 817 martyrdom of Shia Islam’s eighth Imam, Imam Reza. The pain of Imam Reza’s death is still felt very person ally over a millennium later and around 20 million pilgrims converge here each year to pay their respects to the Imam.
Following Imam Reza’s burial here, the small village of Sanabad began to attract Shiite pilgrims and soon became known as Mashhad (place of martyrdom). Tus remained a more significant town until 1389 when Timur sacked the whole area. But thereafter it was Mashhad that eventually limped back to life as the new capital of Khorasan. The shrine was enlarged in the early 15th century by Timur’s son, Shah Rokh, and his extraordinary wife, Gohar Shad, for whom the Haram’s main mosque is named. Once the Safavids had established Shiism as the state creed, Mashhad became Iran’s pre-eminent pilgrimage site and Shah Abbas I rebuilt the Holy Shrine’s new core around 1612. Politically, Mashhad reached its zenith under Nader Shah Abbas I rebuilt the Holy Shrine’s new core around 1612. Politically, Mashhad reached its zenith under Nader Shah whose empire was focused on Khorasan. Even though Nader was a Sunni of missionary zeal, he continued to sponsor the Haram. In 1928, nonreligious buildings within 180m of the Holy Shrine were flattened to make way for the Haram’s biggest enlargement to date. Prior to the 1979 revolution this religious ‘island’ was further expanded to 320m and construction has continued apace ever since. When historians look back on the era of the Islamic Republic, they will point to the Haram as its greatest architectural achievement.
‘Oh, but have you been to Kish? You absolutely must go.’ Travelling in Iran you’ll likely hear this more than once. And when you ask what is so special about Kish, you’re told: ‘But Kish is wonderful; everything works there. It is clean, shopping is cheap, you can swim…and there are no Paykans!’
Yes, all of this is true. Kish, the desert is land that the last shah started transforming into a playground for the rich and famous during the 1960s, is now seen by Iranians the way Americans view Hawaii. The island is both a novelty – for most Iranians this is the only beach resort they’ll ever be able to visit – and more liberated than the rest of Iran. Kish is a free-trade zone and, as one islander told us, many Iranians understand the ‘free’ to apply to social activities as well.
there are reasons to visit Kish. The resort water-sports make a pleasant diversion, there are a few ancient sights and cycling around the island on the coastal bike path is fun.
Kish Island is first recorded in the memoirs of Nearchus, the Greek sailor commissioned by Alexander the Great to explore the Per sian Gulf in 325 BC. In the Middle Ages Kish became an important trading centre under its own powerful Arab dynasty and at one time supported a population of 40,000. The main town was Harireh, which is believed to be the town referred to by poet Sa’di in his famous work, Golestan (Rose Garden).
Kish was known for the quality of its pearls; when Marco Polo was visiting the imperial court in China, he remarked on the beauty of the pearls worn by one of the emperor’s wives and was told they had come from Kish. In the 14th century Kish fell into decline and remained obscure until the 1970s, when it was developed as a semi private retreat for the shah and his guests – complete with international airport, luxury hotels and even a grand casino.
By far the largest and busiest city in central west Iran, Kermanshah developed in the 4th century AD astride the Royal Road to Baghdad. Its strategic position has brought both prosperity and attack. Most recently it suffered missile damage during the Iran–Iraq War. Briefly renamed Bakhtaran in the 1980s, the city is a melting pot of Kurds, Lori and other Iranians. its backdrop of glowing redrock mountains is impressive and, if you’re passing through, don’t miss Taq-e Bostan.
The desert trading city of Kerman has long been a staging point for people passing between Persia and the Indian subcontinent and today it remains the best place from which to explore southeastern region of the country. Sheltered from the vast Dasht-e Lut by the barren Payeh Mountains to the north, its position and elevation make the weather relatively mild in summer, but cold in winter. The city is something of a melting pot, blending Persians with the more subcontinental way of life of the Baluchis. This mixing is most evident in the historic and very lively bazaar, which is the highlight of any visit.
Kerman is one of Iran’s oldest cities and has always been an important centre on the trans-Asian trade routes. Believed to have been founded in the early-3rd-century AD by Ardashir I, founder of the Sassanian dynasty, its history is a tale of prosperity and plunder, but not that much in the way of peace. From the 7th century Kerman was ruled in turn by the Arabs, Buyids, Seljuks, Turkmen and Mongols, and then until the Qajar dynasty by a further succession of invaders and regional despots. Kerman only gained security under the central government in Tehran during the 19th century. Kerman’s continuity was its commerce, the evidence of which can still be seen in the many caravanserais around the bazaar. As trade moved more to the sea in the 16th century, so Kerman relied more on the production of carpets, a trade that remains important today.
Kashan and its surrounds have been home to human settlements since at least the 4th millennium BC. However, much of what is known of Kashan’s history is interwoven with legend. What is certain is that Kashan was twice destroyed by invading armies. The city walls were rebuilt, and during the Seljuk period (AD 1051–1220) it became famous for its textiles, pottery and tiles.
Shah Abbas I was so enamoured with this delightful oasis city on the edge of the Dasht-e Kavir that he insisted on being buried here rather than in Esfahan. Much of Kashan was destroyed by an earthquake in 1779 but the subsequent Qajar period saw building on a lavish scale. The most notable survivors are the fine covered bazaar and several meticulously restored mansions that have become synonymous with the city. The bazaar is deceptively large and has an enchantingly lethargic atmosphere that serves as the perfect counterfoil to the frantic bustle of Tehran and the sightseeing intensity of Esfahan.
Known in classical times as Ecbatana, Hamadan was once one of the ancient world’s greatest cities. significant parts of the city centre are given over to excavations and there is a scattering of historical curiosities. Sitting on a high plain, Hamadan is graciously cool in August, but snow-prone and freezing cold from December to March. In the summer the air is often hazy, but on a rare, clear spring day there are impressive glimpses of snow capped Mt Alvand (3580m) preening itself above the ragged neo-colonial cupolas of Imam Khomeini Sq. A popular summer retreat, Hamadan’s main draw card for Iranian visitors is its proximity to the Ali Sadr Caves, but these are vastly over-rated.
This appealing city has a colourful, ethnically mixed population and an attractive location where the green Alborz Mountains stoop to meet the northeastern steppe. The Turkoman tribes who inhabit the north of Gorgan are the largest tribe of Gorgan city.
Esfahan is Iran’s masterpiece, the jewel of ancient Persia and one of the finest cities in the Islamic world. The exquisite blue mosaic tiles of Esfahan’s Islamic buildings, its expansive bazaar and its gorgeous bridges demand as much of your time as you can spare. It is a city for walking, getting lost n the bazaar, dozing in beautiful gardens, and drinking tea and chatting to locals in the marvellous teahouses. More than anything else, though, Esfahan is a place for savouring the high refinements of Persian culture most evident in and around naqsh-e jahan Sq-the Imam Mosque, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace and Chehel Sotun Palace.
Little is known of Esfahan’s ancient history, but the Ateshkadeh-ye Esfahan and pillars of the Shahrestan Bridge, both from the Sassanid period, attest to its longevity. The Buyid period saw an explosion of construction and by the late 10th century the walled city of Esfahan was home to dozens of mosques and hundreds of wealthy homes. In 1047 the Seljuks made Esfahan their capital and during the next 180 years it was adorned with the magnificently geometric Seljuk style of architecture, several prominent parts of which remain. The Mongols put an end to that, and it wasn’t until the glorious reign of the Safavid Shah Abbas I (also revered as Shah Abbas the Great), which began in 1587, that Esfahan was again Iran’s premier city. After moving the capital from Qazvin to Esfahan, Abbas set about transforming it into a city worthy of an empire at its peak. His legacy is the incomparable naqsh-e-jahan Sq and artistic advances particularly in carpet weaving that were celebrated and envied as far away as Europe. Subsequent Safavid rulers also contributed to Esfahan’s skyline, but little more than a century after Abbas’ death the dynasty was finished and the capital transferred first to Shiraz and later Tehran.
This province lies in the southeast of Iran on the border with Pakistan, and covers an area of 178,431km2. It is surrounded by the Sea of Oman to its south, Pakistan and Afghanistan to its east, the provinces of Kerman and Hormozgan to its west and Khorasan to its north. This province is one of Iran’s warmest. Chabahar port with an area of 11 square kilometers is in the latitude of Port Miami in Florida peninsula of America. This area would be very effective and useful for the growth of coastal water sports.
Ardabil is a logical stopping point between Tabriz and the upper Caspian coast. Ardabil’s magnificent Sheikh Safi-od-Din Mausoleum is by far its greatest attraction. When the chilly smog clears, Mt Sabalan’s snow topped peak is dramatically visible from Ardabil’s Shurabil Lake. Driving to Alvares ski-slope from the nearby hot-springs resort of Sara’eyn gets you well up Sabalan’s slopes for some lovely summer trekking. Ardabil sits on a high plateau. The weather is pleasantly cool in summer, but terrifies brass monkeys in winter. Snow is probable from November.
A military outpost for millennia, Ardabil was declared a city around AD 470. It was capital of the Sajid dynasty Azarbayjan from AD 871 to 929, and saw independence as a khanate from 1747 to 1808. However, Ardabil is best remembered for spawning two great leaders: the Safavid patriarch and great dervish-Sufi mystic Sheikh Safi-od-Din (1253–1354), plus his later descendant Ismail Safavi. The latter expanded the clan domains so successfully that by 1502 Ismail had become Shah of all Persia. His glorious Safavid dynasty was to rule Iran for over two centuries.