We’ve got a remarkable week behind us in Iran, visiting the 16th-century historical center of Esfahan, the desert around little visited Varzaneh and the mud-brick city of Yazd and its surroundings. What was most astounding was that both in Varzaneh and Yazd we were offered free accommodation, just because our site and Instagram feed were appreciated.
World Heritage in Esfahan
But we started the week in Esfahan where we spent two days exploring most of the sights that have made Esfahan into the number one tourist destination in Iran. For the first time we saw many tour groups and felt we were on a tourist trail. Conveniently enough many of these sights – and way too many tourist shops – can be found around the Naqsh-e Jahan square. 512 meter long and 163 meter wide it’s the second largest square in the world. Only Tiananmen Square in Beijing is bigger.
The Unesco World Heritage listed square and the monuments surrounding it are the brainchild of Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I, who made Esfahan the capital of the Persian empire. Under his supervision the square was built in the beginning of the 17th century and subsequent rulers did their part to beautify the city. The reign of Esfahan was short-lived, only one hundred years, but its legacy lasts until today and is for many a highlight of a trip to Iran.
Much under renovation
To be honest, we were a little bit disappointed by Esfahan. Don’t get us wrong. We loved what we saw, but had expected more. Maybe it’s because the city is hyped a lot and because of that we had set our expectations a little bit too high (always risky). Another thing was that at no less than four of the major sights we visited renovation work was in progress, making them partially look like a construction site. That’s always a downer, especially for the impressive Imam Mosque, where two of the four iwans (three-sided vaulted halls) and the dome were being renovated.
We were also taken aback a little bit by the relatively high entrance fees for the sights, which all cost 200.000 rials (about 4,5 euro). The tickets for foreigners were almost seven times more expensive than for Iranians and some of the sights were particularly small, not really warranting such a price. Especially compared to the 3,5 euro we had to pay to see the majestic Registan in Samarkand, which was by far the most expensive sight in Uzbekistan, the prices seemed high.
River without water
Of course we not only stayed around the Naqsh-e Jahan. We walked the length of the busy bazaar, which we found less interesting than the bazaars in Tabriz and Kashan, admired the beautiful frescoes at the Vank cathedral in the Christian Armenian quarter Jolfa (where everything was closed because it was Sunday) and crossed the Pol-e Si-o-Seh (Bridge of 33 arches).
It’s the most famous and longest of several historical bridges spanning the Zayandeh river. It was a bit of a sad sight to see the more than 400 year old bridge crossing a dry river bed. Nowadays the river only flows a few months per year. This is partly due to drought, but in recent years it also falls dry because water is extracted from the river for irrigation before it reaches Esfahan.
Esfahanis are not happy with it. When we told an elder gentleman who had approached us for a chat that we liked Esfahan, he said he didn’t. He remembered the old days when the river was always flowing. What was a bridge without a river, he mused. Even without water flowing under it the bridge still offered some great opportunities for keen photographers, though.
Getting off the LP-track to Varzaneh
From Esfahan we took a ramshackle 1 euro local bus to the small town of Varzaneh at the edge of the Dasht-e Kavir desert. Though only 1,5 hours away, it was a completely different world. Because it’s not mentioned in the guide books (Lonely Planet in particular) it doesn’t get many visitors yet, which is remarkable because it has much to offer in its vicinity: one of the most accessible and beautiful desert landscapes in Iran, salt flats, wetlands, ancient mud brick architecture and a culture unique to this part of Iran.
Because of this still relative obscurity owner Mohammad of Negaar Traditional Guest House had invited us to come to Varzaneh so we could write about it. He offered a free two day stay at his place that had opened its doors only in March this year in a beautifully restored, almost one hundred year old house.
Sunset and sunrise in the desert
On two half day tours he showed us the touristic potential of the region. We first joined an afternoon tour to visit a Zoroastrian site, the salt flats, see the sun set in the desert from the sand dunes and stare at the milky way. Somehow we’ve had very few good sunsets in the past 5,5 months of travel, always being at the wrong place at the wrong time or the weather just not cooperating. This sunset made up for it though. We absolutely loved it.
The next morning we had to get up very early (4.45 AM, ouch) to see the sun rise from an old, abandoned caravanserai. In the old days a caravanserai was a roadside inn where travelers could rest from a days’ journey. They were everywhere on the Silk Road, usually about every thirty kilometers, the distance a camel could walk in a day. It is said that Shah Abbas I established 999 caravanserais in the Persian empire, one of which was near Varzaneh.
On the rest of the tour we saw examples of water management in the desert, climbed a black volcanic mountain, saw the Zayandeh river flow in the wetlands and watched the workings of an ox-mill, the ox only responding to the singing of his caretaker; very funny to see.
The rest of the day was spent walking around the small center of Varzaneh which had a few minor sights. Most striking was that many women in Varzaneh wear a white chador instead of the more usual black one. Late afternoon we took a taxi to the one thousand year old Ghoortan citadel, 12 kilometers west of Varzaneh. Inside the citadel were some well-preserved adobe mud-brick homes, most of them abandoned, but some of them still inhabited. Nice to wander around in.
Going to Yazd
After two great days in Varzaneh we moved deeper into the rocky desert heartland of Iran. First we shared a one hour taxi ride with Roland from Switzerland to Na’in from where we were supposed to catch a passing bus to the city of Yazd. But when after 45 minutes no bus had come by and a taxi driver made a good offer for the remaining two hours of straight driving to Yazd we quickly got moving again.
In Yazd we enjoyed the hospitality of Mr. Ali of the Silk Road Hotel, who graciously offered us to stay in a traditional room in the old city center. As Silk Road travelers we couldn’t say no to this invitation of course… Our room was in an annex on one of the narrow covered mud-brick alleyways that are so characteristic of Yazd. Just a minute walk from the main hotel building the rooms were located in an old renovated house around a small cozy courtyard. Really great.
Arba’een, a Shiite religious holiday
We never saw Mr. Ali, who was out of town, but even when we wanted to extend our stay from three to four days this was no problem. The reason we wanted to stay an extra day was that the day after we arrived the Shiite ceremony of Arba’een was held. Arba’een is one of the most important religious holidays on the Shiite calendar and because of that many sights in the city were closed.
But it was a special moment to be in Iran. Arba’een marks the fortieth day after Ashura, the day on which the martyrdom of Hussain, the third Shiite imam, in 680 AD is remembered. In Islam forty days is the normal period of grieve when someone has passed away. The 15th-century Masjed Jameh (Friday Mosque) in Yazd was packed with believers who came to show their respect to this much revered Shiite imam.
We were very much impressed by the religious passion shown at the mosque, especially the rhythmic beating on the chest by the men mourning imam Hussain’s death. People didn’t mind that we as western tourists joined the crowd in the mosque, but of course we couldn’t go in together at this time – men and women had to enter through separate entrances.
I could get close to where the men gathered and showed their grief while Eugénie had to stay with the women at the back. The women, however, were also allowed to go on the roof of the mosque to see the ceremony from above. Eugénie had a fantastic view from up here. Food that was distributed among the believers was also offered to us, again showing the kindness towards foreigners by the people of Iran.
Visiting Zoroastrian sites
In the old days Yazd was a center of Zoroastrianism, an ancient pre-islamic religion, in Iran. We visited two of the most important Zoroastrian sites in the city. We had a short look at the fire temple, where Zoroastrians from all over the world come to, to see the flame (fire is sacred in Zoroastrianism) that is said to have been burning for almost 2.500 years. To us it didn’t mean much though.
We found the two dakhma, often called Towers of Silence, located on two hills at the edge of the city more impressive. Dakhma are circular, raised structures built by Zoroastrians for what is called excarnation. Instead of burying or cremating their deceased Zoroastrians leave dead bodies exposed to carrion birds like vultures. This way they cannot come into contact with earth or fire, that are both considered sacred.
Mud-brick architecture in Iran
Through the Silk Road Hotel we also took a day tour to visit some of the sights around Yazd. It’s the most popular tour offered all over Yazd covering the beautiful, over 1.000 year old mud-brick ruins of Kharanaq village, the somewhat underwhelming Zoroastrian pilgrimage site at Chak-Chak and the impressive, crumbling Narin fortress in Meybod which is believed to be 2.000 years old, one of the oldest surviving mud-brick structures in Iran. All in all it was an interesting day tour.
The rest of the time we wandered around the many alleyways of the old mud-brick city center of Yazd and climbing on rooftops where this was possible to see the many ‘badgirs’ (wind-catchers) that keep the houses cool in the blazing heat of summer. Sometimes we stumbled upon interesting places not mentioned in the guidebooks, like a mausoleum that had so much bling-appeal that we thought we were in Las Vegas, when in reality it was a really sacred place.
We ended our stay in Yazd with a visit to a ‘zurkhaneh’, a mix of sport and religion. We found it mildly interesting to see this Iranian version of fitness on music and chanting, but being a surviving tradition in Iran is still not to be missed.
Last post: week 23 + 24