My husband and I are both Iranian born. I left the country with my parents when I was 4, and only returned a couple of times to visit family. He left the country when he was 21.
Earlier this year, we decided to take some time to travel the world with our 2-year-old son. It only made sense for us to start with our homeland, that none of us really knew beyond the comfort of family homes.
So, at the beginning of summer 2017, during the month of Ramadan, we set off to visit the most historic parts of Iran: Shiraz, Yazd and Isfahan. We didn’t plan it purposely at that time of the year; things just fell into place like that. And it did add an extra dimension, somehow mystical.
We started our journey in Shiraz, the 6th biggest city in Iran, situated about a 1000kms south of Tehran. It is known, among other things, for being close to the ancient city of Persepolis, which was built under Darius I around 500 BC and was destroyed by Alexander the Great around 300 BC – it has been recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1979. Shiraz is also renowned for housing Hafez tomb, Iran’s most famous poet.
But that is not all you will find there, many other beautiful vestiges from the past await you in this magical city. You might first be a bit taken aback by its shabby shops, its little developed infrastructure, its rawness and dryness. However, if you keep on walking down its busy streets and very clean pavements, into its mosques and baths, if you open up to the warmth of its stone and the genuine goodness of its people, you will undoubtedly fall under its charm. And nowhere in the world will you be welcomed with such kindness and sincerity, equally towards adults and little ones.
After Shiraz, we headed north east, towards Yazd, which is also located close to the desert. Travelling by “luxury” bus (VIP bus) in Iran is quite a convenient way to get around – you avoid the long drive to get to the airports usually located far from the cities, you get a very comfortable large seat, and you end up saving time and energy. That’s how we travelled between the cities we visited and definitively recommend it.
Since it was summer and we were travelling with our son, we decided to skip the desert – we will definitively have to go back for that once he’s older. Instead, we spent more time in Yazd itself, whose old town has also been recognised as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2017. Because its people had to adapt living so close to the desert, it has a very unique architecture. The city displays many windcatchers (tower to create natural ventilation in buildings) and yakhchals (ancient evaporative cooler), Persian fine architecture and mosaics (a vivid example is the Jame Mosque), Persian handicrafts, and Zoroastrian monuments (it used to be a Zoroastrian centre during Sassanid times).
It is obvious that Yazd is wealthier than Shiraz. Its people are known among Iranians to be hard workers and savers, whereas people from Shiraz are said to be more epicurean. The cities’ respective infrastructures certainly concur in that sense. Yazd is also known to be among Iran’s most religious cities but we really didn’t get a feeling that codes were stricter here. People were more reserved than in Shiraz, it’s true, which gave the city a sterner look. But this was balanced by the warmth of its historic mud constructions and the proximity of the desert, which gave it a mystical and surreal atmosphere, especially during the dusk azan (public prayer).
After a few days in Yazd, we hopped on a bus again and headed north west, towards Isfahan, which is located very centrally in Iran and was once one of the largest cities in the world. It was designated as the capital of Persia twice and is famous namely for its Persian-Islamic architecture – which led to the proverb “Isfahan, nesfe jahan hast” – Isfahan is half of the world.
Isfahan is starting to look like Tehran nowadays. Many of its inhabitants sounded unhappy about this, as the city was becoming too busy, the traffic insane and the constructions too plenty. The most saddening fact for us though was the completely dry Zayanderud (Zayandeh River) that used to flow under the Si-o-se Pol Bridge. Iran and its outer region are among the first ones to be affected by our planet’s water shortage!
Isfahan has nonetheless retained much of its glory. The majestic Naqshe Jahan Square is among the biggest ones in the world, and has been declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Its gigantic fountain in the middle is where children cool off in hot summer days. The Armenian neighbourhood of Jolfa, the Si-o-se Pol Bridge and its sisters, and even the Abbasi Hotel are worth visiting. The latter is a monument and a little town all by itself – just sitting in its garden in the evening, sipping some ash (Iranian noodle soup) or black tea was the perfect relaxation after a long day of walking around in the heat.
Even if you can see how much Iran has suffered economically during the past years, you don’t get that feeling from the people themselves – their pride and hospitality would never let you guess it. They will make you feel welcome and special – and that is Iran’s true treasure: its people’s hospitality.
To learn more about Ronak and her stories you can visit her blog YouKanRok.