15 December 2015
There has never been a better time to visit Iran. With the reopening of the British embassy in Tehran the Foreign Office has changed its advice and the country is regarded as safe to visit, except the border region understandably.
On a recent trip I travelled from Tehran to Shiraz – through the cultural heart of this fascinating country. Tehran, Iran’s bustling capital, is the gateway for most visitors to the country. It is a relatively new city, being founded as Iran’s capital as little as 200 years ago. Despite this, and its appalling traffic, it certainly warrants at least half a day’s sightseeing. Highlights include the Golestan Palace and the National Museum with its stunning range of artefacts from across Iran’s long history. Perhaps the most stunning place to visit in Tehran is the Jewellery Museum where one can view the Crown Jewels of Iran – truly the treasures of ancient Persia!
Travelling south from Tehran there are two very interesting stops worth making. The first is at Kashan to visit Bagh-e Fin or Fin Garden, located just past the ruins of a caravanserai. The ‘Persian Garden’ is recognised on the UNESCO World Heritage list and Fin Garden is an excellent example. It was also here that the reforming minister Amir Kabir was assassinated in 1852 by jealous fellow ministers pushing back vitally needed reforms for generations. Close by there are there a number of very well preserved traditional houses from the 19th century which bring home the wealth of the local merchants during this period.
Continuing on the road to Isfahan it is well worth taking the 15kms detour from the main road up into the Zagros mountains to visit the village of Abyaneh with its unique architecture of mud brick houses and wooden balconies set on winding alleyways. The residents of the village, thought to date from at least the 13th century also wear unique and colourful clothing which can be seen as they sit chatting in their doorways passing the time. The village is absolutely charming and makes for an excellent wander around.
Leaving Abyaneh one travels onto Isfahan – perhaps one of the jewels in the crown of Iran. Isfahan is known by the proverb of ‘Isfahan is half the world’ and with a wealth of spectacular places to visit it certainly seems to live up to that! It is easily possible to spend half a day around the Imam Square complex, one of the largest public squares in the world and home to some outstanding Iranian and Islamic architecture. The square was laid out by the Safavid Shah Abbas I and is surrounded by the Masjid-i Imam, Masjid-i Shaykh Lotfallah, Ali Qapu and Qaisariyeh Bazaar. The Masjid-i Imam has a majestic entrance of fine tile work flanked by two soaring minarets and fronted by silver doors, interestingly the mosque itself then sits at a 45 degree angle to maintain it facing towards mecca but still allowing the north-south orientation of the square itself. Along the square from the Masjid-i Imam is the Ali Qapu or entrance to the Royal Compound. This was where the Shah would view parades and celebrations in the square, which was its original purpose now lost with the fountains and manicured bushes. Opposite the main mosque sits the bazaar, one of the best in Iran and the perfect place to purchase the famous Persian carpets.
Further afield from Imam Square there is the Chehel Sultan or pavilion of ‘many columns’ due to the reflection of the columns on the pond in front which was where the Safavid rulers would receive foreign envoys. Rivalling and some would say surpassing the Masjid-i Imam is the Masjid-i Jami which is rightly regarded as an architectural treasure in its own right which was built on the remains of a fire temple. Aside from the Islamic architecture the visitor is well advised the cross the river to the Julfa area where the Armenian community is centred. This area has a different feel to it from the rest of Isfahan and a visit the Vank cathedral is well recommended. Finally no visit to Isfahan would be complete without seeing its famous bridges with multiple arches – perhaps best viewed at night when all lit and groups of older men gather under the arches to sing traditional songs.