The best surprises found in Souks, Bazaars and Medinas across the Middle East and beyond

Much of what was the Persian Empire in the BC days were the bazaars which still remain to be the center of commerce in modern times in cities from Istanbul down to Yazd in southern Iran, and from Marrakesh to Xi’an.

Long dark covered alleyways with packed stalls staffed with smiling merchants waiting to make a deal or just share a cup of tea.  It’s the best place to visit upon arrival.  The protected wall of the bazaar give visitors relief from the outdoors and a glimpse of the cities past.

New visitors should take the time and see what they can find around each corner and inside open doorways of these ancient covered passageways.  Whether it be a mosque tucked away behind a small unassuming doorway or a foul smell that lets you know how close you are to the Tanners Souk in Fez Morocco.  The Tanners here have one of the oldest and worst jobs on earth.  The craftsmen are usually seen waist deep in vats of dye made of acid (aka pigeon droppings), pigments and cow urine used to dye raw leather.  It makes a nice picture if you can do it without passing out.  The traveler is lucky to be able to choose to take pictures or just keep on walking like I did.  Not all surprises are pleasant.

My personal favorite things about the central market of a middle eastern city whether it be called a Souk, Bazaar, or Medina is its hidden surprises and smells.

What the locals eat:

How much chicken costs in Marrekash Morroco
Price comparison of chicken Marrakech in 2008
The Pak Shuka in Yerevan
Local food in the Pak Shuka in Yerevan
Muslim Quarter in Xi'an
Muslim Quarter in X’ian

Local traditional tourist entertainment and souvenirs:

Local entertainers in Chefchaouen Morocco
These guys were very persistant..the shoes say it all
Bling in the Souq al-Hamiddiyyah Damascus
What I should have bought in ’08. Bling in the Souq al-Hamiddiyyah Damascus

Beautiful inner courtyard Mosques and architectural highlights:

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Bou Inania Medersa inside the Tanners Souk
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Rooftops of the Medina in Marrakech

Modern Life in an ancient place:

Walking home from school in Fez Morocco
Walking home from school in Fez Morocco
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Afternoon in the Souq al-Hamiddiyyah Damascus
Life inside the Medina in Marrakech
Life inside the Medina in Marrakech

These are the places where travelers can leave the guidebook behind and just get lost.  It’s nice to be able to do that once in a while.

Day 1 and 2: JFK to Shiraz via Ataturk International

Shiraz Airport during the day. That’s the entire tiny airport.

Our ride from JFK to Shiraz and here’s how it went down:

Airbus from Manhattan to JFK (1 hour)

JFK to Istanbul (10 hours + 6 hour layover + 7 hour time shift)

Istanbul to Shiraz (3.5 hours + 2 hour delay + 1.5 hour time shift)

Shiraz Airport to hotel (longer than normal half an hour) ahh…are we there yet Papa smurf?

Total Travel Hours: 31.5

Drink up

Our flight took off two hours later than scheduled.  We got on the plane, took off and enjoyed our last taste of the west.   The guy next to me literally enjoyed his last taste.  He was busy getting hammered on Wild Turkey compliments of Turkish Airlines.  A could use a drink at that point but thought it wouldn’t be wise,  so I kicked back and enjoyed the in-flight entertainment “Jump the Broom” starring Angela Bassett and Loretta Divine.  Nice choice Turkish Airlines…where’s my drink?.  I didn’t bother bringing bans most Western reading materials so at that point I just kicked back, enjoyed ride and the movie of course.

Where Cash is King and what do they do with our finger prints anyways?

After that trip I was just grateful that Mahmoud was still there to meet us outside.  Getting through immigration took even longer since Tehran gets most of the overseas guests.  We needed to get the respiratory finger stamp and the guys at the desk fumbled around with the machine and quickly figured out how to use the thing.  While we waited the locals had a chance to give us the curious look over.  They were just curious since it was a crazy hour and we were two weary looking unescorted Americans looking for “It’s Okay to come into our country” stamp in our passports.  The guys at immigration were very nice and welcomed us to Iran.


The airport terminal was tiny  and finding a place to get some Rials, Dinars, Toman or Khomeini’s – wasn’t difficult.  The only problem was that the largest Rial note Iran has is the 100,000 which is equal to $9.20.  We needed a lot of those bills since cash is king in Iran.  Our credit cards don’t work here.

We landed in the early hours of the day and I had a feeling that this information wouldn’t get to him in before he took off for the airport.  So it’s now 4am and we are heading to the hotel in our white Iranian Saipa 4-door as the sun comes up.   We’re in and the adventure begins.

Our Suite at the Niayesh Traditional Hotel

Our Suite at the Niayesh Traditional Hotel

The Skinny on the Iranian Travel Visa for U.S. Citizens

The process sort of reminds me of what it takes to get a Russian Travel Visa.  It involves some cash up front, a form of letter of invite, a detailed itinerary, and patience.  The Russian one seemed more to do with cash since it took a just few minutes to fill out the application, a few hours for a credit card transaction confirmation and later you have a letter of invite.    Iranian visas involve almost as much cash but require a little more patience.  In the end, a visa holder will be free to travel to a country full of hospitable people,  beautiful sights and see for themselves what goes on in a country who doesn’t get too much love from the mainstream media.

Here’s a breakdown of the Visa process:

Have plenty of patience because it can take some time to get your visa

Find a tour company that suits you and your budget.   Pars Tour Agency is our choice since they are based in Shiraz and came recommended..  Pars begins by providing the letter of invite aka Authorization Code for a small fee of 30 Euro.  It’s a requirement for U.S. citizens and the fees are different depending on who you use.

Wait for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran to fax the authorization code to the Consulate of your choice.

If not approved, the agency can resubmit the application again and hopefully it will go through this time.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will then fax the approval document on to your chosen consulate office.

If approved, send or bring the following within 3 business days to the chosen Iranian Consulate Office:

  1.  Application form (my case #101)
  2.  Money order of $112/ applicant and $20 return postage fee made out to the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran
  3. Single Passport picture (ladies this means one with hajib and remember…no smiling) and your passports (see below)

It’s longer to get the authorization code  from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran then it is to get the visa from the consulate.  Visas get issued by the consulate with a week of sending your passport, appropriate photo (women need to obey Islamic code which means donning a Hajib and remember…no smiling)

Ultimately, everything works out and the scramble to get everything done and the real fun begins.