It has been given the historical title of being “half of world” for a reason. To see it was to see half the world. To miss Esfahan would be missing a big part of modern Iran.
It was named the capital of Persian twice under two different ruling powers and is a place that has both vastly prospered and suffered at the hand of Arab and Mongol conquers through the centuries. It divided by the great Zayanderood River and historically was a central stop along the ancient Silk road. Its trade status ended when the shipping giants like those found in the Netherlands took over with their faster transport and water routes.
This city dates back to the hunter gatherer Paleolithic Era still remains Iran’s cultural and agricultural center. It’s been sacked a number of times and rebuilt. Most of what is seen today was built during the Safavid times. Shah Abbas I united Persia and made Esfahan its capital once again during this period and built an elegant city that was all the envy of the east as well as the west.
Many of its neighborhoods found here in a way shows how diverse this city was due to its importance in trade along the Silk Road. There is a large Armenian Quarter called New Julfa in Esfahan. Here there are many churches still open for Christian worshipers including the large Vank cathedral. Many remain but the numbers are dwindling and many are leaving for cities outside of Iran including Marseilles and Los Angeles.
Esfahan is amazing at night so hang out as much and as long as you can during your visit; No going to bed early:
Late day arrivals still have plenty to see after the sunsets. Esfahan lights up like a stage at night. The bridges of the Zayanderood River offer coffee houses, evening picnic areas and entertainment. It is common to hear local men singing beneath the arches of the Khaju bridge. The Iman square, once a polo field, is now a place where kids on bikes raise alongside the horse-drawn carriages. The posts found on either side of the square were once goal markers. Photographers get some of their best chances to capture Esfahan under the stars and in all of its illuminating splendor well into the evening.
Esfahan is a city that is full of things to see and one which needs at least three full days to a few months if you really want to experience it. Getting a visa for such a long stay is another question. With that said, three full days is perfect. I would almost say stay less in Tehran and spend more time here since it’s a better walking city and much less polluted. Keep a fair amount of your shopping budget available for here. There’s a great deal of things to choose from. There’s plenty of postcards and are it’s the place to splurge on a carpet or miniature painting. By the way, stamps to the US and elsewhere are expensive, so when the shop keeper is saying you need to put over $1 USD on a postcard believe him/her – it’s expensive. Big surprise, right?
What does a typical day on a guided tour in Iran look like?
Curious on what actually goes down when you are an American on a mandatory guided tour in Iran? It’s not as bad as it sounds and there’s no choice in the matter since we are Americans. My husband and I, like many travelers, usually prefer to go at my own speed when we take a trip. We get typically get by with help from good pre-trip research, a guidebook with a good map, on site pointers from other travelers we meet along the way and the occasional internet search at the local internet cafe/hostel.
Many who are considering a trip to Iran wonder simply what a day is like when you need to be escorted around by a local guide. I found plenty of videos; pictures; blog posts about traveling in Iran but little information about how a typical day went down. I understand it may not be very exciting material but I hope it gives others a little more insight on how things roll along during a typical day. I travel independently so tours aren’t usually a part of my travels except for the occasional organized day trip to a protected area which requires a guide.
My typical day:
7am: Get up and wait for our guide to do the same. The first few days the time was more like 3am but it worked its way eventually to 7am. I like early starts even if it means chilling out for a couple of hours waiting for our fixer.
9am: Meet our sleepy-eyed guide for breakfast which hopefully includes eggs, fresh bread, cheese, butter, jam (hopefully not of the carrot variety) and of course cups and cups of tea. I’m excited when things like hot soup, real coffee and pastries are there as well. This happened a couple of times.
10am ish: Or somewhere around that time…Check out the sites until it gets really hot which usually coincides with lunch hour at high noon.
12pm – 1pm: Many things that require an entrance fee close at this time anyways. It’s a good time to have lunch when everyone else does. Lunch usually is the biggest meal of the day and the choices are very much like dinner. The vegetarian menu typically has been limited to rice, bread, yogurt/Doogh and the usual plate of Kookoo Zabzi – sometimes the cook has other choices but usually it means meat dishes where the meat is literally picked out of the plate. I decided I had enough Kookoo Zabzi and alternated with kebab.
12pm-late afternoon: Our guide goes to the gym and lets us have some time to ourselves. This is when I have a few minutes out of the sun and let my hijab down. It was hot that day but no complaints. The hijab kept my head safe from the suns rays.
3-4pm: We take off again to see sites in the best light and before evening prayer time.
Around Sundown: We have dinner and check out what goes on after the sun sets. This is when I hope to find something sweet like Saffron Ice cream and get some good night shots. The evenings are when most cities typically come alive.
Yazd is oldest city in the world and to get to know it a visitor needs to see it from all angles
The adobe alleyways in the old city keep the dwellings protected from the sun, large vehicles out and water fresh and cool below. My visit started on a thursday after noon and ended a couple of days afterwards. It is considered the weekend here and it was quiet for the most part. The doorway found along the alleyways are modest entrances to the beautiful homes which lie behind. They traditionally contain a courtyard filled with plants and a pool of water and have rooms circulating around it.
Plenty was open and available to see since the weekends are times when families spend time together and also visit tourist sites. We arrived in the late afternoon on thursday. We got to see a couple of sites before getting a bite to eat at the Silk Road Hotel. The food was pretty good there. The standard menu of kebab, Kookoo Zabzi, Rice, salad and Doogh. Fridays get pretty quiet here. Most activity ceases until after the evening prayer. At least we can find a place to get a cold drink as we explore the empty bazaar.
We left Sunday and found out that this was a good choice since most shops are closed in this conservative town. This includes the famous Haj Khalife Ali Rahbar Confectionary Shop near the Amir Chakhmaq square. I luckily got to it on Saturday and bought my 1/2 kilo of Qottab – it’s sort of like Mexican Wedding cookies with cardamom.
Our days were filled with visiting mosques in town; visiting Zoroastrian landmarks; taking day trips to the UNESCO sites of Chak-Chak and Kharanaq; and eating and sleeping in between. Yazd is definitely on the list of places to come back to when revisiting again in the future.
The next stop was a short one to see a flame that burns in the honor of the highest deity in the Zoroastrian religion Ahura Mazda – the lord of Light and Wisdom
The fire found inside this temple in Yazd has been burning continuously since 470 AD. It came to this simple building in 1932. The fire is of the highest grade and is referred to as the Atash Behram or Fire of victory. The flame is composed of fire from 16 different sources which have been collected from various flames. This massive flame continues to burn behind the glass for us all to see.
When visiting this site it is more for seeing the modern-day impact of Zoroastrian faith in Iran. There is nothing more here then a simple building with signage only in Persian – this is where Mahmoud – our wonderful guide- came in very handy. The purpose of our visit was to both pay homage to those who still practice this ancient faith and show support for the community. Of course, this encouraged me to learn more about something I knew little about before our visit to Iran. Yazd has many of the few surviving followers of the ancient religious practices of Zoroastrianism in a country dominated by Islam. I wish them well and hope their faith continues to prosper in the days ahead.
Caravanserai’s were the hostels of the Silk Road hundreds of years ago.
The Zein-o-din Caravanserai is a special place in the middle of the desert in Yazd Province. This one was one of two which is circular since most were square. Some visitors take day trips here and others treat themselves to an overnight stay. My husband, Mahmoud, his friend and I were surprisingly the only occupants that night. We were joined for dinner by a group of Spanish women and their guide who were staying in Yazd. They had only come to enjoy a fabulous meal, watch some traditional Baluchi martial arts performance and talk about where they were going to go shopping the next day. They didn’t realize my husband speaks spanish.
When they took off, it was just us. The moon was full that night and the stars were the brightest I had seen in weeks. We don’t get much stargazing opportunities at home in NYC. We had the run of the place and it was such a beautiful night. We all ended up sitting on the roof, enjoying the views, tea and a few hits of shisha. Life was good.
There were once 999 working caravanserai or khan along the royal road which extended 2500 km from the ancient capital Susa to Sardis. Shah Abbasi the Great wanted to provide travelers in Persia a safe route of passage and resting places along the way. Each stop is 30-50 km from the next which allowed them to only have to travel a day between each. The Shah chose 999 because it was a number that could simply be remembered. There construction spanned over 10 decades are still found along the highways and desert plans of the Silk Road territories. Some caravanserai in Iran are still in use in some way or another and many have been neglected. Some function as storage houses for farmers and other lucky ones are once again resting places for travelers like the Zein-o-din.
It took the current owners took 3 years to renovate and they did a fine job. The rooms are separated by heavy curtains and simply furnished with soft sleeping mattresses on top of wool rugs. I had the most restful sleep here and the bathrooms were fabulous. I wish I could have spent one more night but the visa clock was ticking. Still much to see ahead to see and no time to dilly dally. There’s always next time.
This was our first day on the road since my husband and I landed in Shiraz just four days prior. We had visited Persepolis and now we were heading to Cyrus the Great’s burial site and his capital Pasargadae. After that, we continued on to see the Beehive Ice House structure that was once a common fixture to the landscape in this area. Very few still remain intact today given that they are pretty fragile. The last stop of the day is to see the 4000 year old Cypress tree. It’s located behind the Ice House so if you are in the hood stop by for a look. Try to make a donation to the nice people who are looking after it’s well-being. I say quick stops not because I don’t want to spend more time looking around but the visa time is ticking.
It’s a place not to be missed. Pasargadae is an amazing site. The Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization (ICHO) the UN and a number of individuals recently saved it and Persepolis from being submerged under water. The work on the Sivand Dam has been delayed for the time being. This has given some skilled archeologists and scientist time to explore the area. Some amazing things like a cave believed to be occupied 7000 years ago and 9-mile dirt road believed to be the Royal Passage of the Achaemenids – to name a couple – have been discovered. More clues on what the
The garden of gravel was once a true Persian garden called the Chaharbagh. Modern examples of this four-sided style is seen at the Taj Mahal, the Fin Garden in Kashan and Amir Chakmaq Complex in Yazd – to name a few. Cyrus’ tomb was once surrounded with streams of running water, tall cypress trees and flowering plants like those seen in those gardens today. Many other travelers say that it’s not worth the visit but my visit gave me inspiration to learn more about Cyrus the Great. The site itself is more than a pile of cut rock but a place where huge amounts of history took place. Here’s more information about early excavations of the site.
Abrkouh: Beehive Ice House
The Beehive-shaped tall abobe Ice Houses for desert climates like those found in Iran around 400 BC. Water collects in the shallow trenches that collect water over time. The ice was later broken up before spring and stored deep inside the interior of the dome. The Ice House is then sealed off until the hot summer months when the ice was needed to make a drink cold, preserve food or make rosewater flavored faloodeh.
. For further explanation about these structures and others like them in the Middle East, check out this link.
These were used through out the middle east and today are used for storage or living quarters like these smaller Beehive houses in Syria.
The 4000 year old Cypress Tree
The cypress tree plays a significant role in Persian culture and influenced the design of famous Persian Gardens in both the past and present. It’s likeness is carved on the walls of Persepolis, referred to in many Persian poems, woven into carpets and common motif found in decorative tile works inside mosques and homes of Iran. It stands for many things including longevity, strength, freedom and the state of mourning.
I began noticing the presence of the cypress tree everywhere in my travels. In the center of miniature paintings, woven in countless rugs in shops and in about every garden visited. This tree today is in danger of being destroyed by modern man. The root system of this 33 meter tall tree extends as much as a mile from it’s center – local undertaker mentioned this when we visited. This means many roots lie underneath some near by farms and newly built roads.
The local Department of Environment of Yazd Province is trying to raise money to buy land near by so that they can ensure the future safety to the oldest living Persian. It is also listed on the UNESCO world heritage, so please visit have a look if you are near.
The stay and Shiraz was a great one but it was time to hit the road and get a change of scenery. We passed by the Qur’an Gate and headed North out of the city. It would have been great if we could have driven though it like our guide Mahmoud used to when he and his family would go on a road trip. There are prayers which followers believe will give them good luck in the journey ahead written in the arches of the passageway. Just passing by it hopefully does the trick.
We had a great driver along with us this time. He was a friend of Mahmoud, just as friendly and a great driver. We headed out early so we could pack in a several stops along the way to our night at the Zein-o-din. This included a stop in Pasargadae, the city of Abrkouh to see the ancient beehive shaped adobe icehouse, the city’s ancient 4000 year old cypress tree, and then finally to one night at the Zein-o-din Caravanserai. This is what I mean about there being too much to do in a limited amount of visa time. It was great to have Mahmoud there to sort out the details.
The fortress known as Karim Khani Citadel today shows signs of age. There’s a tilting tower, missing columns and a Qu’ran missing. It’s almost 300 years old so all of this isn’t unexpected. The structure was the main residential palace of Karim Khan-e-Zand and his dynasty and later in the mid 20th century home to prisoners beginning in 1936. It closed in 1971 and is slowly getting much needed repairs after centuries of misuse and vandalism.
The Citadel was looks like a medieval castle complete with a dry mount surrounding the tall thick outer walls. The outside is simple but the inside contains traditional Persian gardens and rooms enclosed with colorful red, blue, yellow and green pained windows. Karim Khan-e-Zand made Persia’s capital Shiraz and built this complex for himself and his militia in 1766-7 AD. The humble leader decided to loose the title of king and decided to be known as a regent or Vakil in Farsi. He hired the best designers and builders to make his fortress and they used the highest quality materials.
When the Qajars gained power over the weaken Zand dynasty the capital and most of it’s Notice the columns made of wood that support one end of the inside pavilion. The originals were made of marble and were stolen. They were at least replaced with the simple wooden ones that remain here today.
The elephant in the room of this castle is the noticeable leaning in the tower at the far southeastern corner. The Khan constructed an underground septic system and his bathhouse resided inside this 14 meters tall tower.
The water table has lowered substantially over the decades and hopefully something will be done about the obvious separation of it and the supporting walls attached to it. It will probably just take a minor earthquake to release the tower from the rest of the fortress. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen before it’s given a proper patch job. Right now, it looks as if someone just took a bit of gum and filled in the open wedge.
Inside the Arg of Karim Khan is simple because much of its treasures were stolen or removed after the Zand Dynasty was conquered by the Qajar. The marble pillars were removed by the Qajar conquers and brought to Tehran where they made the new capital of Persia.
The floor of the inner courtyard is made of large stones brought in from the surrounding mountains of Shiraz. The workers were paid for the amount of stone they laid down. The way that they kept track of which stones the individual brought in was by a symbol that was carved into the top of the stone. These can still be seen today if you look at the stones on the near right corner of the main entrance. This information can’t be confirmed online and is something our guide pointed out to us when we entered the courtyard. I was too much in awe of the interior that I forgot to get a picture of it. I guess you’ll have to see for yourselves.
After a long hot day on the Silk Road trail travelers like myself are looking for a comfortable seat, good company and a cold beverage to go along with it all. The there’s plenty of beer to choose from at the local packy. They usually come in flavors like pomegranate, lemon, lime, mango, peach and of course original Malt. Most get it right by being deep yellow in color and get that light foam action when poured into a glass. The most important thing is missing – alcohol. There’s 0% in each can or bottle. The only thing a consumer feels if they toss back a six-pack is a sugar buzz and a stomach ache and a hang over the next day. I don’t even think that they contain any caffeine? I guess you would need to chase it with a strong cup of tea and a hit off the Shesha pipe to feel any mental adjustment. I was kind of hoping to find something like Kvass – a beverage made from fermented yeast and grains. Children in Russia drink it like soda even if it is anywhere from 1-2% alcohol level. Still too little strong for the locals in Iran and other Muslim societies.
Gotta love their tag line – Go ahead “Drink & Drive” This one is imported from Malaysia where they love sweet beverages.
Hey Day from the makers of Zam Zam Cola:
Hey Day Malt flavored is the closest to the real thing minus the buzz of course. It’s got the color, the fizz level and not so sweet taste. It’s made in Mashhad and the parent company Zam Zam is very fashionable in Malaysia. Coke and Pepsi were banned in Iran for a period of time and Iran’s Zam Zam Co. stole developed their own version of the cool refreshing drink.
Rumors around the hostel common areas say that one can get some sort of clear alcoholic swill if anyone is up for the adventure. It requires talking to many local taxi drivers, some cash and luck. Luck on many sides. First is not getting caught by authorities, next is not getting robbed and lastly, not getting alcohol poisoning since most don’t know what they are getting. Much of the alcohol isn’t from duty-free in Dubai but home-brewed and possibly moonshine or gasoline?
I was happy with my choices of water, tea, malt beverage or Doogh – a yogurt drink similar to Ayran in Turkey. Add a little mint…some salt and I’m set. I stuck with the acceptable drinks which will most likely not give a hangover or send me to the nearest hospital or worse.
Naqsh-e Rostam doesn’t look like more than a few holes in the side of a hill of limestone. This hill is where four great leaders of Persia once laid to rest – Darius the Great, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I and Darius II. These men lived at a time where brother killed brother in order to gain the power they thought they rightfully deserved. It was survival of the strongest or the greediest perhaps. Murdering to gain position became a common practice in the Achaemenid household.
These cross-shaped tombs look as if they were constructed at the same time since they are all built to almost the same specifications. The first Darius the Great – said to be completed around 493 BC and the last was built for Darius II – great-great-grandson to Cyrus the Great – around 400 B.C. when he passed. So, these were all built in a span of 90 years – give or take a few years.
Tomb of Darius the Great (son-in-law of Cyrus the Great 522-486 BC)
A few scrappy puppies stand guard at the tombs of Naqsh-e Rustam. They couldn’t be bothered on this hot September day in southern Iran. This impressive but little visited site is a 20 minute drive from its more popular stepbrother Persepolis. Darius the Great – son-in-law of Cyrus the Great was the first occupant of this Necropolis. The cliff side cemetery was his idea. His tomb’s was built during his reign and was completed seven years before his death in 486 BC. He had many wives but the most important one was Astossa who is the daughter of Cyrus the Great and mother of Xerxes I was king after Darius. Darius became king after Cyrus’ son Cambyses II died of a leg wound that was either self-inflicted or happened during battle. Bardiya, younger brother to Cambyses II, succeeded him but later murdered by a group of seven nobles who then made Darius their king. Darius the Great was best known for completing many of the construction projects started by his father in law Cyrus the Great.
Tomb of Xerxes I (son of Darius the Great 486-465 BC)
Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes I, grave is found next to his father’s. Xerxes I wasn’t Darius’ eldest son, but the only one “born in the Purple” or of royal blood. Xerxes fought many battles and is best known for building the largest structures at Persepolis, the Gate of all Nations and the Hall of a Hundred Columns. He also completed the Apadana, the Palace of Darius and the Treasury all started by Darius. He added on his own palace which was twice the size of his father’s. Xerxes I and is young son Darius were both murdered by his royal guard Artabanus the Hyrcanian.
Tomb of Artaxerxes I (son of Xerxes I 465-424 BC)
Artaxerxes I came into power after the assassinations of his father Xerxes I and his young brother Darius. Artaxerxes I lived until he was 54 and all that is known about his death is that it happened sometime in between December 424 B.C. and March 423 BC. He is known as Artaxerxes Longimanus. He had the nickname Longimanus because his right hand was longer than his left. He fought battles against the Greeks. He continued to support the rebuilding of the Jewish community in Jerusalem which had begun under Cyrus the Great. He died by natural causes unlike most of the rulers of the Achaemenid Period.
Tomb of Darius II (son of Artaxerxes 423-404 BC)
Vahuka, letter becoming Darius II when king, came to power after the death of two of his elder brothers. Xerxes II was the only one “born in the purple”. He was the crown prince and son of the Queen. His other two half brothers, Vahuka – later known as Darius II – and Sogdianus were born out of the royal line. Xerxes II was next in line and was given the throne. His brother Sogdianus murdered him 45 days later. Sogdianus lasted only six months until he was also murdered by the commander of the cavalry who didn’t recognize his rule. Historians can’t agree about what really happened. It doesn’t help that Sogdianus married his half-sister and both murdered sons Xerxes II and Sogdianus declared themselves king before their father’s body was cold.
In the end, the next brother, Vahuka or Darius of Ochus became king. He was the son of Artaxerxes and a Babylonian concubine, hence the nickname of Nothos which means the child of unmarried parents. He had a lot of help from his wife and half-sister. He is said to have taken care of things and got rid of the rest of his relatives in secure his seat. Artaxerxes I had 18 children. There are very few details of Darius II life. He fought and survived many battles and held on to power much longer than Xerxes II and Sogdianus. Unlike the two, he does have a place at Naqsr-e Rustam and one must assume he was a great leader.
Is it a Zorastrian fire temple? Not a fire temple but an ancient flood light that eliminated the tombs at night? A royal tomb that was never occupied? What this building was except an uncanny Doppelganger to one found at Cyrus the Great’s Tomb at Pasargadae. Whether it was a depository for objects of dynastic or religious importance or tomb is a mystery that may be solved someday. Much of the area of the site still remains buried and there are many objects, carvings and perhaps larger segment waiting to be discovered. I’m looking forward to returning back – especially when it’s not over 100 degrees F.
side note: The sources I used to get information in this post was found from various places ranging from my guide Mahmoud to online sources to old-fashioned textbooks in the library. I have found the history about Naqshr-e Rustam or Naqshr-e Rostam has many versions. Please let me know if I have made any mistakes with the facts I have gathered. Many of the facts are ones consolidated by larger accounts found in Wikipedia.