My journey took me from Teheran to the north west of Iran, along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea toward Mashad and beyond to the Turkmen-Khorasan mountain range in the east, south to Kerman and Mahan. I then travelled west “on the beaten track” to Shiraz, Persepolis and Isfahan.
Assassin’s castles, mosques, caravanserais, tomb towers, exquisite gardens and monuments to poets. This, and so much more awaits the traveller off the beaten track in Iran. On the beaten track the beautiful Isfahan and Shiraz, the treasures of Teheran, and the sites of Persepolis and Pasargadae will seduce the most jaded of travellers.
No matter where you travel in Iran, caravanserais in varying states of repair can be seen, and explored. They are so numerous that they are the subject of a book by Anousheh Pirbadian, titled Iranian Caravanserais. If, like me, Caravanserai capture your imagination, you will find this book a joy.
Oh, and of course the picnics. Picnic for lunch most days, sometimes in relatively lush spots, with streams and forests. Other times at the top of bare mountain passes or deserts or the remains of an old caravanserai. Flatbread, acquired that day, fetta cheese, nuts, pomegranates, olives, tomato, halva and nougat just a few of the food comprising the picnic.
Valley of the Alumut
Driving west from Teheran, we headed for the Valley of Alamut – the Valley of the Assassains, where, in the 12th century a heretical Ismaili sect took shelter. From their castles the Assassains were sent to kill and abduct christian and muslim rulers and religious figures by their leader, Hassan-i-Sabbah. It has been said that the followers of Hassan-i-Sabbah were called hashishin – meaning hashhish eaters. The word “assassain” is derived from the word “hashishin”. Hashishin were given hash, and were then sent out on their missions in a trance.
Nothing much has changed if two recently published books about the provision of drugs to the armed forces during WW2 are correct.
The assassains chose well. Spectacular mountains, making access by their enemies difficult. The forts are on the top of hills, so invaders were repelled with ease for around 2 centuries until it was surrendered to the invading Mongols.
Kandovan, a troglodyte village located in East Azerbaijan Province, Iran contains homes which have been carved into the rocks, over the past 800 years or so. From a distance, the homes resemble giant ant heaps. A lot of these homes are still inhabited, and the one I was invited into had several rooms, and looked very comfortable. Electricity must have been connected, unless the washing machine was for show. Donkeys, goats, hens and people were moving along the narrow pathways which lead up to the rock homes.
Kara Kelisa – Armenian Church and Monastery of St Thaddeus.
Known as the Black Church, Kara Kelisa is one of the oldest surviving christian monuments in Iran. It is in West Azerbaijan Province, Iran. Armenians believe that the original Church was constructed in the 1st century AD, and dedicated to St Thaddeus. The Church has been rebuilt from time to time, and is a fortified church. There are some interesting bas-relief sculptures, depicting various biblical scenes, mythical animals and saints. I did like the one of St Gregory being stoned to death.
A climb up the hill behind the church provides glorious views over the church and down the valley, with mountains on either side of the valley, some of which are in Azerbaijan.
Travelling East to Mashad and beyond.
Spectacular scenery awaits those who travel along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. Driving through the provinces of Gilan, Mazandaran and Golestan, all of which are on the southern shore, lush vegetation crowds onto the very edge of the road in places. There are sandy beaches, gorges with little streams bubbling along on one side, and the other side heavily forested hills rise above the road.
We were heading towards Gonbad-e Qabus, around 40 kilometres from the border with Turkmenistan, to view a tomb tower. I had been interested in this tower ever since I read Robert Byron’s book, Road to Oxiana. Byron ranked the tomb tower with the great buildings of the world. It captivated him, and it captivated me. The tower was built in 1006 constructed of bricks, and is approximately 51-53 metres high, with a pointed conical domed roof. It is said that the body of Qabus used to hang there, in a glass coffin, suspended from the roof. The one window, in the conical roof, allowed the morning sun to light up the coffin.
Picnics in Iran are quite a feature of daily life and so spreading out our carpet in the grounds of the tower was the perfect way to contemplate the simple beauty of the building and watch the shadows move and the colours change as the sun moved around the building.
Police Checks and Checkpoints
During the last part of the drive to Mashad, our bus stopped for numerous police checks, and then several more scary checkpoints. Soldiers came onto the bus, searching for refugees, drugs and alcohol and inspecting passports. As they can also demand to see images on cameras and phones I was hoping they would not – one of my fellow travellers delighted in photographing things he was warned not to. I will not be intimidated, no definitely not. I shall continue writing notes, with an occasional surreptitious glance up the bus. I casually handed over my bag and passport at each checkpoint and continued to write notes. I was not intimidated.
Fortress of Kalat-e Naderi
A 3 hour drive east of Mashad, near the border with Turkmenistan took us through dramatic scenery along a road containing a large number of rather fear inducing hairpin bends. We were heading for Kalat-e Naderi in the Turkmen-Khorasan mountain range. There we visited Nader Shah’s Khorshid Palace, which looked somewhat like a tomb tower. Built on the orders of Nader Shah in around 1729, it is constructed of rose-pink sandstone and the carved exterior panels are reminiscent of Mughal India. Picnicking in the garden, looking out over the blue dome of a mosque, I thought about this most unpleasant, avaricious and dangerous man, who had invaded, among other places, India and plundered Mughal Indian treasures, and massacred large numbers in Delhi and decided that he throughly deserved being assassinated.
A place of pilgrimage, Mashad is the holiest city in Iran. We were among the few non muslim tourists, and so seemed to be regarded as curiosities. We attracted crowds of young people whenever we stopped. To visit the shrine complex of Imam Reza women have to be fully covered. Foreign women are given what appears at first glance to be a floral bedsheet. Young Iranian women saw our puzzlement, and came over to show us how to wear this item. Very soon we were surrounded by young women, photographing us, and laughing hysterically. We were evidently the entertainment for the day. Once inside the complex it became apparent why we had floral bedsheets. Non muslims are forbidden to enter the inner sanctuary and tomb. If we had been wearing black, it would not have been possible to know whether we were muslim. The outer courtyards, where we could visit, contain incredibly beautiful mosaic tile work and calligraphy. In order to visit the inner sanctuary Robert Byron, my inspiration to visit Iran, covered his visible skin with brown boot polish, and managed to remain undetected.
Firdowsi has a modern memorial and tomb for the Persian poet, Firdowsi, who was born here. The mausoleum contains decorative friezes depicting various the story of the Shahnameh – Epic of the Persian Kings written by Firdowsi in around 1000AD. I was contemplating with revulsion a depiction of Zahhak, a bad king who had serpents growing out of his shoulders. To keep the serpents calm, they had to be fed children’s brains. The guide had been seriously describing what we were seeing, and then added “of course there was quite a brain drain during this period”. Quite.
Between Mashad and Zafaraniyeh, we were subjected to 8 police checks – the first only 5 minutes from Mashad. That check took 2 hours. Apparently a bus carrying tourists must be registered as a tourist bus. The police decided that ours was not. After much communication with Teheran, the police were convinced that actually our bus was so registered.
Arriving at Zafaraniyeh we picnicked beside an old Safavid period caravanserai, beside an irrigation channel in the company of numerous ducks, 4 big dogs with cowbells on their collars, 2 donkeys and a snake. Nothing like a snake to ruin a picnic.
Situated 800km south-east of Teheran, Kerman has very few ancient monuments. It does have plentiful pistachio nuts and dried mulberries. It is close to very interesting places though. Rayan Citadel, a fort city on a hill, with views in one direction to snow topped mountains is one of those places. The citadel consists of a vast walled complex of linked buildings constructed of sun-dried mud brick. The common people lived in one part of the city, government officials in another. A small hamam was still in suprisingly good condition. Various workshops were contained in an arcade where people were making knives and various metal objects, including a rather large tweezer type implements. Apparently they are used for putting charcoal on opium burners.
Leaving Rayan, we were stopped at a checkpoint. The first thing I noticed were a large number of men in long white gowns. From Baluchistan I was told, and the drivers of the numerous trucks from Baluchistan which had been pulled over and were being searched. Our driver just had to provide his GPS records to show where we had been, and so no search for us.
Driving through the featureless and barren Dasht-i Lut near Mahan, a large brick wall could be seen. Inside that wall lay the Shahzade Garden, a most beautiful and fertile area. The garden is apparently modelled a little on Peterhof, but as the water cascade was not cascading, nor were the fountains working, there seemed little resembling Peterhof. The gardens were well watered from an underground kanat and contained flower beds, pomegranate trees laden with fruit, and quince trees. Bougainvillea in pots and geraniums in pots lining the non cascading cascade were a riot of colour.
At one of the top levels, a row of inviting carpeted day beds were set out, each with its own nargileh at one of the top levels. No time to partake I am sorry to say.
Sarvistan is fairly close to Shiraz, but it was my last stop at the end of the off the beaten track journey before partaking of the joys of Shiraz and Isfahan so it is included. The ruins of the 5th century AD Sassanid palace complex are situated on a huge empty plain. The palace was once surrounded by forest, and it is thought that it may have been a royal hunting lodge and then possibly a Zoroastrian fire temple. The area around it is littered with pottery shards, but obviously not the remains of historical pottery, since no one seems to steal the shards. Watching a lovely pink sunset through an archway was a fitting end to my off the beaten track experience.
4 thoughts on “Off the beaten track in Iran”
Another fabulous travelogue in facinating parts of the world visited by a minority.
Written by a great observer and a cleaver lady with words😀
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thank you Alan. I appreciate your comment.
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Thank you for this interesting description and beautiful photos.
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Thank you – Iran was a very interesting place to visit.
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