Tourists have made it a habit of portraying Iran as an unbelievable miracle in the forbidding Middle Eastern desert — an ironic development for a country that has held a central position in the geography, history and politics of the region for millennia. Iranian hospitality and their loving nature can smother an unsuspecting traveller. Honed over centuries, the Persian language and culture speak directly to the heart, carrying over effortlessly across every known boundary.
A vast majority of the country is a raised plateau, hemmed in by mountains and bountiful water bodies. The highest peak in the entire region, Mt Damavand, is in Iran, and is a favourite among trekkers and Zoroastrian pilgrims who hold it sacred. Depending on geographical definitions, the world’s largest lake or its largest landlocked sea (and the exclusive source of the sought-after Caspian Caviar) is the Caspian Sea on the country’s northern boundary. The north-west, close to Azerbaijan, has its own unique music and language, and a stroll around Shah Goli or the numerous pastures around Tabriz will make your head spin. Among the islands in the Persian Gulf, one might find a virgin beach a paradise, if such a thing exists. However, the continued lure of Kish Island with tourists may be a testament that virginity is overrated. Khorasan, a province in the north-east, sounds like a word out of the One Thousand and One Nights, and in Nishapur, the home and final resting place of the great Omar Khayyam, located in Khorasan’s heart, your mind isn’t deluding you — you’re simply drunk on fine verse. With so much to cover, it’s wise to split the country into bite-sized portions. Our recommendations include three of the must-see regions on your maiden trip to Iran.
HALF THE WORLD
Naqsh-e-Jahan is the largest square in the city of Esfahan, and, by large, we mean putting Olympic-sized stadiums to shame. Its name means that it captures the essence of the world, which it would very likely have done when, at its zenith, travellers and merchants from as far as Portugal and China converged. Sitting pretty on this massive chessboard were the king, bishops, knights and pawnbrokers. The dust may have settled on the days of polo games dominating the scene, but the horses, now tugging ornate buggies, have remained. And, almost in reverence to this hallowed earth, not a drop of their faecal matter is allowed to fall on the ground — thanks to common sense and a simple innovation worth being replicated on our streets.
This city has a way of slowing you down, if not with its staggering architecture then with its sweet offerings. Gaz, the gooey white nougat candy infused with pistachios, features on most carry-back-home lists. Then, there is fesenjan, a thick poultry stew, combining the Persian dietary principles of warm and cool energies, in the form of walnuts and pomegranate molasses respectively. And, who says dessert can’t have meat in it? Khoresht mast esfahani is a sweetened yogurt made with shredded beef and often enjoyed at the end of a meal. Night-time brings the banks of Zayanderud to life. What under sunlight looks sublime reaches perfection when flooded with the flattering golden light fitted to illuminate the numerous bridges across the river. You have 33 arches on two levels to choose from. Owing to its acoustics, the ancient Khaju Bridge, with its central octagonal pavilion, is where locals often congregate on a Friday night to break into song.
The most astonishing sight in Shiraz arrives before your plane lands — when you fly over Lake Maharlou, which goes from pink to blood red. While practically every settlement in Iran boasts of gardens, the ones in the spring capital of Shiraz seem a notch above the rest, with the Baq-e-Eram being a fine example of the Paradise garden. Landscaping was just one of the tricks to transform the regular into the extraordinary in Iran; the use of stained glass being another. The morning light carpets the hallways of the Nasir al-Mulk mosque with a brilliant rainbow, and knees instinctively buckle. Two of the greatest poets in the Persian language are from Shiraz and are buried in magnificent mausoleums in the city. While Hafez’s Divan brings families together during festivals such as Yalda and Navruz, Sa’adi’s tomb aims to bring all of mankind closer. An hour away from the city is greater Persia’s most famous historical site, Persepolis. It’s a sprawling complex built to celebrate the prosperity of an empire that stretched from the Danube to the Indus, according to some accounts. And, not too far from this is Pasargadae, where Cyrus the Great was laid to rest. With unprecedented humility, the king, attributed with the earliest declaration of human rights, begs the passerby not to grudge him the piece of earth that covers his body.
LOST IN TIME
In Yazd, numerous shrines dot the arid landscape, since legends of princesses fleeing their enemies into the desert are rife, along with the idea that strong tale-carrying winds are caught by wind-catchers, ancient air-conditioning units and refrigerators all rolled into one. The tallest such shrine is located in Dowlat Abad Garden, which is worth visiting by itself, as the scores of architecture students will attest to while their pencils give finishing touches to their renditions. Along the same square, flanked by the Jãmeh Mosque of Yazd, is the Zoorkhaneh, the traditional gymnasium, where men flex, stretch and twirl to live music like dervishes on a sugar high. The adrenaline in the ring is fuelled by encouraging participants and visitors alike. For all those of who have always wondered what the inside of a Zoroastrian fire temple looks like, Yazd is the best, if not the only place to catch a glimpse. And, to complete your experience of the Zoroastrian way of life and death, you can also visit the abandoned Tower of Silence that overlooks the city.