In Iran, Sites Unseen

Brian McKanna runs down six must-see Iranian destinations

By / August 2015

As the West warms to the idea of a codified relationship with The Islamic Republic of Iran, it may be time to reacquaint ourselves with a country often obscured by recent history. Beyond controversial nuclear agreements and a hostage crisis, Iran is a land of lavish rugs, poetry, beautiful gardens, and culinary delicacies such as saffron and luxurious caviar. While much of Iran’s natural landscape is arid, its vast geography traverses the verdant shores of the Caspian Sea through central snowy peaks descending to the sun-soaked beaches of the Persian Gulf. Our English word “paradise” actually originates from Old Iranian for a walled or enclosed garden. In some ways, the word describes Iran perfectly, a treasure secluded and removed.

Despite western presuppositions about them, many Iranians live an increasingly cosmopolitan lifestyle. There is a burgeoning pop culture complete with epicurean materialism—some have even called Iran the “nose job capital of the world.” More significantly, the people of the Islamic Republic, Muslim or otherwise, can be some of the friendliest and most hospitable you would ever meet. Their rich and diverse cultural heritage, including the great Persian Empire, easily rivals that of Greece or Rome. Throughout the country a collage of civilizations and religions is revealed in some of the world’s most spectacular monuments and architecture–sites, sadly, that most have never seen. But with the changing political climate, opportunities to explore these wonders could soon multiply.

1. Persepolis

Persepolis. Photograph by dynamosquito on Flickr Creative Commons

Spectacular ruins await at the ancient seat of the Achaemenid Empire, Persepolis. Located at the foot of the Mountain of Mercy in south-central Iran, the terraced city is a kind of stone menagerie with enduring sculptures of bulls, lions, and beastly four-legged and two-winged creatures. There are also plenty of chiseled reliefs of the ancient Persians themselves. Their beards are coiled. They wear stately hats. Inscriptions on the south wall name Darius the Great as founder of the city in 518 BC, though Artaxerxes I did not complete Persepolis until a century later. Here the Shah, or King of kings, created a spectacular complex to showcase the power and reach of his empire.

 

2. Tehran

Statue of Persian astronomer Abu Rayhan al-Biruni in Tehran. Phtotograph by David Stanley

The current capital of Iran is hazy and hurried Tehran. Its most recognizable monument is the futuristic Azadi (Freedom) Tower, a seemingly Star Trek-like interpretation of early Achaemenid architecture. However, the Golestan (Roseland) Palace is the true signet of the city and its oldest monument. Dating back to the 18th century, the vast palace grounds located in the center of Tehran feature courtyards, pools, grand halls, crystal chandeliers and mirrored rooms that were home to the Qajarian kings of Persia for 200 years.

 

3. Bam

Bam Citadel. Photograph by argonath1

The history of Bam, in southeastern Iran, stretches back more than 2000 years to the Parthian Empire. But the city’s window of economic prosperity opened from the 7th to the 11th centuries with important trade in silk and cotton. Today, within the modern city of Bam, the medieval mud structure Arg-e Bam is a stunning citadel, a sand castle on massive scale. In 2003, a devastating earthquake rocked Bam and its citadel, taking 30,000 lives and injuring as many more. Shortly thereafter UNESCO designated the fortress a world heritage site, simultaneously declaring it endangered. Only two years ago after extensive reconstruction the latter distinction was removed, and Bam is once again welcoming guests.

 

4. Esfahan

Esfahan

Located on the main north-south and east-west routes in central Iran, Esfahan is a true intersection of regional culture and trade. Home to a collection of incredible sites unmatched elsewhere in the country, Esfahan displays ornate mosques dating from the 8th century, arched bridges, ancient tombs, and churches such as the Armenian Vank Cathedral. The city also has a large Jewish population tracing its roots all the way back to the time of Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus the Great. Places of particular note are the vaulted Jameh Mosque, Khaju Bridge, the Palace of Forty Columns, and Naqsh-e Jahan Maidan, one of the largest public squares in the world, which opens onto the Esfahan Grand Bazaar.

 

5. Yazd

Zoastrian Fire Temple, Yazd. Photograph by David Stanley

The extremely hot and dry settlement of Yazd is the very bullseye of the Iranian map. Marco Polo once passed through this small, mud-brick town, though modern-day explorers could easily miss the isolated spot. With a history dating back some 5,000 years, Yazd is one of Iran’s most diverse places. Following the Islamic conquest, Yazd became the center of Zoroastrian faith and practice, and still today has Iran’s second largest population of Zoroastrians. Just two kilometers outside of town, the now-unused Towers of Silence speaks to the ancient Zoroastrian practice of excarnation. On top of these symmetrical and circular structures–which, from above, appear to be giant, raised crop circles–the dead were exposed to scavenging birds in accordance with a belief that prohibits contact with the sacred elements of earth (burial) and fire (cremation).

 

6. Shiraz

Cliffside necropolis, Shiraz.
Nestled in a fertile valley surrounded by vineyards, Shiraz is a romantic and vivacious city known for its poetry, wine, and gardens. Hafez and Saadi, two of Iran’s greatest poets, hail from Shiraz. Hafez’s poetry can still be found gracing the walls of the Qavam House within the Eram Garden in the city center. Among the many botanical sanctuaries of Shiraz, Baq-e Eram stands out in scope and splendor. Now also designated a world heritage site, its gentle canals, fragrant footpaths, and cedar shade attract every age, especially young couples. Also not far from Shiraz and just to the north of Persepolis lies one of Iran’s most spectacular sites, Naqsh-e Rustam. Here four tombs make up a cliff-side necropolis with the graves of Darius I and II, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes. Call this tomb of tombs the Persian Mount Rushmore.

 

Brian McKanna, a Turkey-based writer, is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.

 

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