As Iran opens up to visitors its monuments top every travel hitlist. But bypass the city spectaculars and seek out its mountain nomads instead
Everywhere I went on my first visit to Iran surprised me. Shiraz and Yazd, Kerman and Kashan confounded my expectations, and not just with their immense age and extraordinary beauty. Iran conjures the idea of ayatollahs and women in black and yet I saw no one praying in mosques and young women seemed to flaunt the veil injunction by draping headscarves off the back of high beehives. The towns and cities exuded a surprisingly fresh energy, as though in the process of remaking themselves. Nowhere impressed me more than Esfahan.
A green oasis in the middle of a rocky desert, cut through by the modestly named River of Life and surrounded by mountains, Esfahan is a city of broad boulevards lined with shade-giving trees. It has some of the most beautiful buildings in Iran, as well as my favourite hotel, some very good restaurants and brilliant shopping. On my first night I went straight to the huge central square, where I stood in wonder as the moon glittered on the mosaic domes of those most beautiful mosques. I hadn’t felt that sort of excitement since I first laid eyes on Marrakech.
On that visit I spent a couple of days in and around the square – which is actually a 510-metre-long rectangle – dodging horse-drawn carriages on the outer path (no cars or scooters allowed). I ate kebabs, rice and yogurt and sipped zero-per-cent beer while stretched out shoeless on a raised bench in the Banqueting Hall, a traditional restaurant with a big window looking onto the dome of one of the grand mosques. I drank strong coffee in antique shops with some of the city’s smart young crowd, and managed to break my rule about not buying a carpet before I had even reached the bazaar. Then at sunset, I did what so many in this town do and headed to the river.
When Shah Abbas rebuilt Esfahan in 1598, he made it an essential stop on the Silk Road, but it was his great-grandson who built the white-stone, two-storey Khaju Bridge. My favourite crossing over the river, this is where poets and their admirers gather at the end of the day, taking turns to sing, their voices lifting towards the setting of the sun. What are they singing about, I asked the man nearest me. ‘About women,’ he told me, ‘and love. What else is there?’
To twist the punkish, geographical words of Dead Kennedys’ frontman Jello Biafra, it’s a holiday in Tehran. That’s right, add the Iranian capital to that list of places to explore in the coming year. While intrepid skiers have recently embraced the slopes here – lured by the altitude, affordability and lack of crowds – it’s now time for Tehran itself to shine. Luxury, foreign-owned hotels are either recently opened or in the process of being built – a first since the 1979 Islamic Revolution – with last year’s historic nuclear arms deal delivering a stronger sense of security across the region.
The city itself is chaotic, at times claustrophobic. The disparity between wealth and poverty is obvious – matched by an unusual mix of modernity and history. Travelling here is about adventure and excitement, about discovery and surprise. About not doing Cambodia, again. Given certain government policies, venturing here is also a moral choice, but the people are extremely welcoming and far removed from how the descendants of ancient Persia tend to be portrayed.
A Former Capital’s Visual and Architectural Legacy
With the finest concentration of Islamic monuments in the country, Isfahan is probably the most beautiful of Iranian cities. Shah Abbas the Great moved his capital here in 1598 and rebuilt an already thriving trade center as a showcase for the wealthy Safavid dynasty; even today, many of the city’s mosques, palaces, bazaars, bridges, wide avenues, and public parks reflect the glory days of his thirty-year supervision – one of the world’s great experiments in city planning.
The symbolic center of the Safavid dynasty and its Persian Empire was the immense Maidan-e-Imam (Imam Square, formerly known as Royal Square, and traditionally as Maidan-e-Naghsh-e-Jahan, the Square of the World’s Image), one of the largest and most stunning public spaces in the world. Colorful tiled mosques and other 17th-century buildings – considered by the shah to be his masterpieces – form a glorious perimeter. Nearby, the complex and magnificent Friday Mosque (Masjed-e Jomeh) was built over a period lasting from the 11th to the 18th centuries (which included a period of Mogul influence on Persian architecture brought on by Genghis Khan’s son, Olgedi, who lived here as a shah). Considered one of the world’s greatest mosques, it has 476 domes.
Today’s visitors can get a somewhat less lavish taste of the welcome granted to guests of the Safavid court by staying in the Abbasi Hotel, created in the shell of a 16th-century caravansary.