The only way to properly describe Iran is that it’s full of surprises. The country triggers associations with Islamic fundamentalists, oppressed women and nuclear weapons but what I came across while travelling there was none of the above. Instead, I discovered that there are islands in the South where the sun never ceases to shine, that people are endlessly generous and very open-minded and that it is full of architectural highlights and astonishing landscapes.
In general, the memories that impact me the most while travelling are memories of people. This was definitely the case in Iran. Almost all Iranians I met are like youthful extroverts, refined by a social sophistication: curious but not nosy, open but not overwhelming and generous but not demanding. It’ll be hard for me to come up with a country where I was met with such generosity and hospitality. Sometimes it even felt like everyone you meet has conspired against you to make your stay as comfortable as possible, which isn’t far from the truth given that Iranians want to distance themselves of the negative image they’ve been given by Western media.
I visited Iran for 2 weeks and getting a 14-day visa through a tour operator was easy. My itinerary started in the north, in Tehran, then south by bus to Isfahan, from Isfahan to Yazd, Yazd to Shiraz, Shiraz to Qeshm and finally from Qeshm back to Tehran by plane.
Isfahan is all about royalty and that’s exactly the impression you get when walking around Naghsh-e Jahan Square, crossing one of the three ancient bridges or seeing the Shah Mosque from inside. It used to be the capital of the Persian Empire in the 16th century and was once one of the largest cities in the world.
Walking around the main attraction of the city, Naghsh-e Jahan Square, one of the biggest public squares in the world (after Tiananmen in Beijing), and its surrounding bazaar will take up half a day. It was constructed between 1598 and 1629 during the Safavid era. Facing the square are the Shah mosque, the Lotfollah mosque and the Ali Qupa palace. When I was there the Ali Qupa palace was under construction and the Lotfollah mosque was closed but the Shah mosque is definitely worth a visit. Especially its ceilings, made of colorful ceramic tiles, keep you looking upwards until your neck starts to hurt.
Shah Mosque by French painter Pascal Coste
Not far from the main square in a lush park is the Chehel Sotoun palace made in 1647. The exterior is not that mind-blowing because part of it is being renovated but the inside is very nice. The ceilings are covered by paintings depicting scenes of war, peace-making and banquets. What I found most interesting is that a mixture of gold and gum was used to emphasize certain parts of the painting. When looking at the painting from the side, with the sunlight falling on it from the opposite side, these parts illuminate and add a lively vibe to the painting.
Another important part of Isfahan are its ancient bridges; Si-o-seh Pol, Marnan Bridge and Khaju Bridge. Definitely visit them during the night. All of them are lit up when it gets dark, which makes for some postcard-worthy photos. Another reason to go at night is that you might run into some Iranians practicing their singing skills underneath the Khaju Bridge. The ceiling underneath here makes for good acoustics and so the more musical-minded Isfahanians, whether they are singers or listeners, gather there.
Take a desert town in which it takes little effort to imagine carpets hovering above the yellow-brown clay houses, impressive temples built in name of the first monotheistic religion, settlements that are millennia old and 15th century Timurid architecture. Now put them all in a blender. What you get is Yazd. Yazd is a small city situated in the middle of the desert. Just getting lost in the old town’s maze of narrow alleyways is an easy way to fill up half a day. Among its architectural highlights are the Amir Chakmak complex and the Grand Mosque, both built respectively in the 15th and 14th century.
Settlements made out of clay
Another place of interest is the Zoroastrian fire temple, slightly outside of the city center. Inside one can learn more about the religion, such as their principles and history. Apart from that there is nothing much to see. An interesting fact is that Zoroastrianism is the first monotheistic religion in the world, preceding Judaism. It used to be the main religion in Iran but now there are only 25,000 Zoroastrians left, out of a population of 78 million. Most of them live in and around Yazd, making Yazd the Zoroastrian capital.
There is also a lot to see around Yazd. There are plenty of tour operators in the city center that offer tour packages. Most of them go past Kharanaq, Chak-Chak and Narin Qal’eh castle. Kharanaq is a village that’s at least a 1000 years old and was first inhabited 4000 years ago. The village has been abandoned for 30 years and walking around the shabby ruins literally takes you back into time. Chak-chak is an important pilgrimage site for Zoroastrians and is located on a hill in the desert. Inside there is a bowl which catches the water that drips out of the hill, which is remarkable since the surroundings are very dry, but other than that there is nothing much to see here. More interesting is the view over the surrounding valley, which becomes even more fascinating when you take a climb up the hill to the left of the pilgrimage complex. Narin Qal is a very old castle which wasn’t that interesting compared to the other two.
Ancient village of Kharanaq
What you also shouldn’t miss are the sand dunes. They are like a miniature Sahara and arise in the middle of nowhere. Best time to visit is just before the sun starts to set when an orange glow casts over the dunes.
Chilling on top of the sand dunes while the sun is setting
Yazd, with its wide range of quality restaurants and cafes, mystique old town and laid-back atmosphere, is definitely a city where you will stay longer than you planned to.
Once famous for growing grapes that were used to brew the infamous wine that Rumi and Hafez were so fond of, these days there is no more wine to be found in Shiraz. Nowadays Shiraz is a medium-sized city filled with bustling streets behind which lie atmospheric parks and Persian architecture. One of my travel-mates said that if he were to write a book, it would be in one of Shiraz’ parks. Just walking around there and soaking up the beauty of the place gets you in a state of mind of calmness and mindfulness,which are the perfect circumstances to be creative. Thus it comes as no surprise that Shiraz is abundant with creativity as it also happens to be the capital of poetry. The epicenter of poetry is the tomb of Hafez. It is here, in a dim lit plaza surrounded by palm trees, where people randomly recite poetry to each other and everyone seems to know Hafez by heart.
A bit hard to find but definitely worth the visit is the Nasir ol Molk Mosque. Between 8 and 11 the sun shines through its colored glass, leaving behind a mosaic of colors on the floor and pillars. Then there is the Vakil Mosque which is also nice. It has been renovated recently and the ceilings are covered with tiny mirrors, which gives it a disorienting vibe. Another plus is that you’ll get a free tour guide when you’re a foreigner.
Reflection of the colored windows in Nasir ol Molk Mosque
Forty kilometers outside of Shiraz are the ruins of the once glorious Persepolis. The city is located against a hill and some parts of it have been carved out of the hill (how they did it without technology is still a mystery). Walking around the ruins gives you a good impression of the former glory of the Persian Empire. It is said that Alexander the Great brought the city down by burning most of it (in some of the ruins one can still see firemarks) and, when looking out over the valley, it is not hard to imagine what the Persians saw when the army of Alexander the Great approached.
Persepolis complex and backdrop (courtesy of Robin Schimko )
Who would have ever expected that it is in Iran, where one can swim in emerald-green water while camels graze in the scorching sun in the middle of winter? But that’s not the only thing that Qeshm has to offer. The western part of the island is the first UN-designated geo-park and is a wet dream for geologists; stone sediments raising out of the earth like shark-teeth, canyons of clay that look like they are melting and the largest salt cave in the world.
Tourism has not really developed yet, which gives the island a raw, unexplored vibe. There is no public transportation but hitchhiking is super easy with loads of pick-ups crisscrossing the island. If you have a sense of adventure, make sure to bring a tent with you or buy one in Shiraz/ Tehran and sleep on the beach. Wild camping is common here and you’ll see lots of locals sleeping in tents, especially around Qeshm Town.
After wild camping on the beach
Also, the people who live here, the Bandari, are different than people from the mainland. Their culture is more traditional and family-oriented. They dress differently too; the men wear long, white robes and cover their heads with a turban while women wear batman-like masks that come in black, gold or red. Shops are closed during the day and life begins when the sun sets and temperatures become comfortable.
Bumming at the beach in Qeshm and visiting some traditional Bandari villages is an excellent way to end a trip to Iran. During winter temperatures here are perfect although it might be a bit too hot during summer.
Many who travel to Tehran describe it as an Ankara 2.0; more smog, more boring architecture and more traffic. But Tehran, just like Ankara, is way more than that. I have stayed here for 2 days only but I would have liked to stay longer. Tehran is the epicenter of contemporary Iranian culture. It is where an underground art scene is flourishing, most of Iran’s universities are here and it has a lot of worthwhile museums and art galleries. Hopefully I’ll be able to write more about Tehran somewhere in the future when I’m more knowledgeable about the city.
Thus, Iran is a country that pleasantly surprised me. It exceeded all the expectations I had beforehand and made me see the gap between how some media portray it and reality. There wasn’t a single moment where I felt unsafe or uncomfortable and it won’t be easy to forget some of the amazing people that I met. I’ll definitely be back!