Iran is a hidden gem that many people stay away from. I only decided on this destination due to having a couple Iranian friends who had come to India (my home) to pursue their education. Many of my family and friends had cautioned me about going here as they thought it to be an unsafe country, but they were soon surprised with the outcome of my visit.
On my way from the International airport of Tehran to the city of religion – Qom, I noticed the highway was tucked between plateaus and mountains. It was a common sight throughout the whole of Iran, and it justified something I had read on Google about Iran being one of the world’s most mountainous countries.
Qom is one of the holy cities in Iran which is flocked by Shia Muslims from all over the world that come to pay their respects to the famed shrine of Hazrat – e- Masumeh also known as Haram. The shrine of Hazrat – e –Masumeh is a magnificent structure adorned with a golden dome and comprises of a burial chamber, three courtyards and three prayer halls. The interior of the mosque is mirrored and precisely decorated with the famous blue Iranian tiles and large hanging chandeliers. What you can’t miss is the energy in this beautiful mosque brought in by the people who come in their thousands every day to witness this spectacle.
The Jamkaran Mosque is dedicated to the Imam Mahdi, who is believed to be hidden and would appear before the judgement day and redeem the world of all evil. It is another splendid piece of architecture embellished with Persian artwork on blue tiles. There is a ‘well of requests’ here, where people tie their wishes in small knots, around the grids of the holy well in the hope that it will be received by the twelfth Imam. At night, under the night sky and the lights, this mosque is a sight to behold.
Another main attraction in Qom is the Mosque of Prophet Khizr resting on the top of a mountain called Kuhe Khizr. At the foot of the hill, is an architectural structure dedicated to the soldiers martyred during the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s. The locals flock to this sacred place to pay their respects and to witness a panoramic view of the city of Qom. At night, this place comes alive with corn sellers and chai shops catering to the young people who hang around here into the early hours of the morning.
Other places to check out in Qom are the bazaar, and the most famous sweet of Qom called Sohan is not to be missed. You can also drive 40 km from Qom to the valley of Kahak.
Next, I landed in the city of Kashan, where ancient architecture has been restored and can be witnessed in the streets and the bazaars of the city. The Fin Garden in Kashan is a historical Persian garden which also houses an ancient Persian Hammam (Fin Bath). This garden was made in 1590 and is still a sight that is a must see. It has mesmerising architectural quality dating back to the Safavi period. The walls of this hammam hold numerous tales of history and culture of Iran. To reach the depths of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, I strongly suggest hiring a guide as they will be able to tell you more information to ensure the full experience is had.
Kashan is also a city to many historical houses of wealthy merchants. One of them is the Borujerdies House. It’s a spectacle for the eyes with its ancient architecture and intricate artwork. It has a central dome and wind catchers keeping in mind the summer season of the land. Herein too, lie many tales of love, betrayal, separation and longing.
The most essential item of Kashan is Rosewater, and it is the world’s best! You can even go to a shop and see the distillation of the water from the rose. If you want to see where these unique roses come from, then you only have to drive 30kms from Kashan to Qamsar where large fields are filled with roses all used to create this water.
The bazaar of Kashan offers a wide range of carpets, silk, textiles and pottery items, mostly in the famous Persian blue colour. Interestingly, the government has decided against the building of any high rises in this city to preserve its ancient notes.
Other places to see, if you have time, in Kashan are Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse, Tabatabaei House, Abbasi House and Agha Bozorg Mosque.
The next city that caught my interest was Isfahan – one of the world’s oldest cities. This city was quite precisely coined as ‘Isfahan nasf-e-jahan’ meaning ‘Isfahan is half the world’, as it is one of the largest cities in the world. The city still retains its past glory which can be seen in the various palaces, tiled mosques, minarets, Perso-Islamic architecture, covered bridges and grand boulevards.
The Nagsh-e-Jahan Square in Isfahan is one of the largest city squares in the world and also a World Heritage Site. Nagsh-e-jahan houses the Ali Qapu Palace, which is rich in naturalistic wall paintings and design. From the upper galleries of this palace, the rulers watched horse races and Chowgan. Opposite to the palace lies the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque – an architectural masterpiece of Iran.
Nagsh-e-jahan is lined with shops selling the famous handicrafts of Iran – carpets, miniature paintings, copper artwork, silk, textile, pottery, jewellery, dry fruits etc. The bazaar is always bustling with locals eating Ice cream with falooda, which is deeply relished by the Iranians. The famous foods of Isfahan include Beryani, Ab Gusht and Chelo Kabab and the famous sweets of Isfahan, which can also be found in many of these markets, are Khoresht Mast and Gaz. These are some of the foods that are a must if travelling here.
The other iconic feature of Isfahan is the See-o-se-pol meaning the 33 arch bridge. It is built over the river Zayanderud. It has 33 arch’s and each arch has different designs on its tiles. I visited this bridge at night and was pleasantly surprised to see the locals playing musical instruments, singing and rejoicing together. The bridge has been lit thoughtfully so that it transforms into a glistening jewel at night.
Isfahan is kind of fusion as it has the vibe of the past in its architecture and streets while staying alive and relevant in the times of today. This great city also boasts of many churches and the famous Abbasi Hotel. If you travel to Iran and miss Isfahan, the Iranians will not forgive you!
My next stop was Hamedan – another one of the oldest cities of the Persian Empire. It rests peacefully under the Alvand range of mountains. The climate here is cold most of the year, and the mountains usually sit under a layer of ice.
I reached Hamedan at night and headed for dinner to a traditional Persian restaurant. We split the tea, which is a tradition in Iran to have, and went straight to the food as we were famished. The sitting arrangement in the restaurant consisted of a wide carpeted ‘takht’ (bed like diwan) with cushions. We stretched ourselves out and enjoyed the sumptuous Shishlik kabab cooked in tandoor, Ab gusht (completely different from the one in Isfahan), Noon (Iranian Nan) and rice with Tahdeek (A delicious Iranian rice preparation). As for drinks, we chose Dugh (Iranian buttermilk) which was made with mint leaves. Then we headed back to my friend’s for a much needed sleep. There I met her parents and we ended up chatting over numerous cups of Iranian tea and sweets up till the early hours of the next day.
By noon we were awake and drove 100kms from Hamedan to Ali Sadr Cave, which is the largest water cave in the world. It was the most adventurous part of my travel to Iran since I had never seen stalagmites and stalactites rock formations in my life. These rocks take thousands of years to grow just 10cms.
We were taken by a boat until we reached ‘the island’ where we walked up to the centre atrium and witnessed a large stalagmite rock dating back millions of years. It was a sight to behold.
The other major sights to visit in Hamedan are the Ganj Nameh inscription, the Avicenna monument, The Stone Lion, Saint Marcy Church and Baba Taher monument. Do not miss the view of the city from the mountains at night with the city being redesigned in 1928 to resemble the spokes of a hexagram.
Next and last place on my list was Tehran – the capital. I visited the Nature Bridge that lay parallel to the Alborz mountain range. The bridge was inside a huge beautiful park. I shopped for some Persian trinkets from a store in the shopping area, walked through the sculptures of many Persian poets and scholars and witnessed girls with hijab skating through a rink. For dinner, I went to the Firdausi garden and ate some ‘Aash’ with ‘Halim’ for dinner.
Next day, as I was heading to the Bird Garden in Tehran, I saw artworks of the martyrs on various houses and buildings in Tehran. To see them being celebrated in such an artistic form made me feel that Iranians really love their past.
While en route, I saw the Ershaad Hoseiniela Mosque. It was a small mosque but it was designed so precisely and didn’t look any lesser than the big mosques of Tehran like Shah Mosque or the Imam Khomeini mosque.
When visiting keep in mind the Azadi Tower, Milad Tower and Golestan Palace amongst others.
On this trip, I also had an opportunity to go with an Iranian family on a picnic between the infinite plateaus and almond trees. We plucked fresh almond before it became dry fruit and cooked on a stove we made with wood, drank tea, ate food and rested by the fresh spring alongside us. The small children of the family found a hole where the children of a fox were living. We sang songs and played games and I felt loved and accepted by these generous and loving people.
On my way to the airport from Qom, our car slowed down in the streets and I saw people serving cookies and juice to the passers-by. I later found out that it was a festival which the Iranians celebrate by serving food to the people.
To sum it up; the people in Iran are extremely hospitable and polite. They are kind and generous and curious about other cultures and the world in general. Their language sounds like music to me. The food is heavenly and the variety of Nun (Iranian bread) is inexhaustible, each one being really mouth-watering. The country is simply drop-dead gorgeous. Also, it is one of the safest countries to travel in.
However, there are things you should know about:
Thanks to filmmaker/writer: Rohina Singh for writing this article and taking the amazing images.
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