Esfahan, Iran

The city of Esfahan (or Isfahan) is known as being one of the jewels of Iran and all the films and documentaries of Iran we had watched portrayed the historically rich city with such romantic notions. One of the famous Persian proverbs describes Esfahan as ‘half of the world’, as it once dominated as one of the world’s largest cities famous for its mosques, palaces, bridges and the beautiful Imam Square (Naqsh-e Jahan Square).

We arrived in Esfahan on a comfortable bus ride from Yazd and checked into the Amir Kabir Hotel in the evening. The trip took about four-and-a- half hours, and was about 100,000 Tumans (equivalent to five dollars) for both of us. We even received a snack box with a wide assortment of biscuits and juice (which we later found to be a standard part of any Iranian bus ride).

Naqsh-e Jahan Square (Imam Square)

Our first morning in Esfahan was spent familiarising ourselves with Imam Square. The Square was about a fifteen minute walk from our hotel. As it was Friday, we weren’t able to enter the main mosque – Imam Mosque as preparations for Friday prayers were taking place. We wandered around the square admiring its grandness (in size it is 160 by 508 meters and second biggest in the world after to Tiananmen Square in China). The perimeter surrounding the square is an under covered bazaar selling various Persian delights from gaz (the local Isfahahni speciality, a nougat-like sweet), rugs, handicraft to jewels made of Iranian turquoise.

Imam Square viewed from Ali Qapu Palace, Imam Mosque seen in backgroundImam Square with centre pond and fountainsGheysarieh Bazaar Entrance viewed from inside Imam Square

The highlights of our exploration of Imam Square were:

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque – located on the eastern side of imam Square this is a beautiful, perfectly architectured mosque built during reign of Shah Abbas I. We stood in the prayer hall dome of the mosque in absolute awe of its brilliant mosaic designs and architecture and found that no photos can do it justice.

The intricate Persian blue mosaics on the facade entrance of Sheikh Lotfollah MosqueThe interior hallway with intricate mosaicsSonya and some bright mosaics
The dome mosaics of Sheikh Lotfollah MosqueThe Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque Mihrab and domeThe Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque Mihrab
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque domeThe entrance to Sheikh Lotfollah MosqueThe wooden door of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and cream dome seen from Imam SquareSheikh Lotfollah Mosque entrance facade and cream dome seen from Imam SquareSheikh Lotfollah Mosque and cream dome seen from Imam Square

Ali Qapu Palace – on the western side opposite to Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is the Ali Qapu Palace. It was the entertainment palace for Shah Abbas the Great during the Safavid period and also a gateway to other palaces beyond the Square. The palace must have been quite impressive with its colourful motifs, however much of it is now damaged. The terrace provided great views of Imam Square.

The entrance facade to Ali Qapu PalaceOne of the many wall paintings on the open upper levelThe Ali Qapu Palace courtyard and mosque

Chehel Sotun Palace – we wandered across to this palace which is outside the Square. It started raining a little, however the site was still bustling with activity. It was still Noruz holidays, and everywhere we had been in Esfahan was unimaginably busy. The Palace is impressive (as with everything we’d seen so far!), but most enjoyable were the beautiful frescoes in the music room. Some depict battles between the Uzbeks and India… others show lavish banquets where the Shah entertained his guests.

Chehel Sotun PalaceLooking over the pond away from Chehel Sotun PalaceLooking over the pond at Chehel Sotun Palace
Beautiful floral wall paintingsLion head features on the corners of the outside water featureExterior paintings in the Chehel Sotun Palace open area
Frescoes in the music room of Chehel Sotun Palace a lavish banquets where the Shah entertained his guestsFrescoes in the music room of Chehel Sotun Palace depicting battles between the UzbeksFrescoes in the music room of Chehel Sotun Palace a lavish banquets where the Shah entertained his guests

Imam Mosque – Also known as Shah Mosque, this is one of the famous Isfahani icons (it’s even featured on the Iranian 20,000 Rials banknote). As you first walk into Imam Square it is impossible not to notice the beautiful iwan (entrance) to the mosque, the arch of the iwan decorated with blue stalactite tiles. The main courtyard also does not disappoint as each of the iwans to the prayer halls are truly breathtaking in their size, colour and mosaic designs.

Imam Mosque and turquoise mosaic dome viewed from Imam SquareEntrance to Imam Mosque with pair of minaretsThe inner outside courtyard facing the inner mosque
The inner outside courtyard with the entrance to inner mosqueThe inner outside courtyard with the entrance to inner mosqueThe inner mosque viewed from an arch
The intricate Persian blue mosaics of the mosque entranceThe mosaics of the mosques domeThe two-tiers of arches seen in the inner courtyard of the Imam Mosque
The two-tiers of arches and the entrance of the Imam MosqueLooking though an arch into a side courtyard at the Imam MosqueThe Imam Mosque with Turkish Blue (turquoise blue) dome slightly visible

We had lunch at a traditional Iranian restaurant in the square where we had some of the local Iranian cuisine – Dizi. This dish is particularly interesting as it comes in what looks like a handle-less clay pot with a pestle. It is served by draining the soup into a separate bowl and then mashing the contents of the pot (some kind of vegetable/meat stew) ferociously. You then place bite sized pieces of bread into the soup and eat the soup soaked bread, along with the solid remnants of the stew. It was actually quite tasty!

That evening we explored the surrounding bazaars in search of a carpet!

Jameh Mosque

Morning of the second day was spent wandering through the bazaars (again!). We then headed to the post office (which turned out to be closed due to Noruz), and then Jameh Mosque. This mosque is still operating and so we explored quietly. It is set on 20,000 square metres and is one of the biggest mosques in Iran.

Inner court of Jameh MosqueThe Persian blue mosaic facade of Jameh MosqueOne of the undercover spaces with circular column design
Looking through a hall of square columnsThe brick domes of Jameh MosqueOne of the undercover spaces with square column design

Bridges of Zayandeh River

We then walked to the Zayandeh River. It was a Saturday afternoon and the local Isfanhani as well as other local Iranian tourists were enjoying picnicking along the river with their extended families (we’d noticed Iranian’s loved picnicking!). We were there to look at the beautiful and famous covered bridges. We started at Si-o-Seh Bridge which contains thirty-three arches and walked all the way to Khaju Bridge (famous for its two-tiers of arches), passing by Chubi bridge along the way. In total, the bridge walk would have been about five kilometres in total and took a good hour!

Walking from Si-o-Seh Bridge to Khaju BridgeFerdosi Bridge looking eastFerdosi Bridge looking west
Approaching Khaju Bridge from the westKhaju Bridge two-tiers of archesKhaju Bridge two-tiers of arches

Chahar Bagh Madreseh

For the rest of the afternoon we visited Madraseh Ye Chahar Bagh, the Theological School of the Shah’s Mother. Usually closed, but opened for Noruz festivities, it is a pretty complex with a lovely courtyard filled with trees.

Looking over the empty pond at Chahar Bagh MadresehThe turquoise blue dome of Chahar Bagh MadresehThe mosque at Chahar Bagh Madreseh
The opposite side of Chahar Bagh MadresehThe Persian blue mosaics of Chahar Bagh MadresehThe colourful mosaics of Chahar Bagh Madreseh
The mosque with turquoise domes and minarets at Chahar Bagh MadresehTurkish blue (turquoise blue) and Persian blue (dark blue) mosaicsThe two mosque minarets at Chahar Bagh Madreseh

Hasht Behesht Palace

After we visited the Hasht Behesht Palace, which was once again another great palace but now very badly damaged.

The painted interior of Hasht Behesht PalacePainting of bird and flowers on walls of Hasht Behesht PalaceOverlooking the pond towards Hasht Behesht Palace

Our last evening in Esfahan was spent enjoying some gaz, falude (rice flour sorbet with rose water) and strawberries in our own little picnic at Imam Square and doing some more people watching and bazaar-wandering!

Yazd, Iran

Yazd is a city located roughly in the centre of Iran, surrounded by mostly deserts, producing hot dry summers. Due to this hot climate, Yadz is made up of distinctly Persian architecture, which includes Qanats (underground water systems),  windcatchers (protruding vents from buildings to catch and circulate air), Yakhchals (ancient evaporative coolers) and Adobe (the building material which included straw providing insulation).

We stayed at the centre of Yazd’s Old City, so everything was walking distance. Some of the highlights and experiences included;

Amir Chakhmaq square – featuring a beautiful Takieh (used during the commemoration ceremonies of the death of Imam Hussein) a three tiered facade with double minarets, best experienced at sunset.

Nakhl – usually at the site of the Takieh and used in conjunction with the commemoration ceremonies, the large wooden structure is carried by men on the first day of the ceremony.

Jameh Mosque – Yazd’s Congregational Mosque (Grand Mosque), amazing blue mosaics and has the highest minarets in Iran,  worth a visit at night when the minarets are alight.

Bogheh-ye Sayyed Roknaddin – a building housing the tomb of Sayyed Roknaddin Mohammed Qazi, a beautiful blue on beige mosaic dome, again must be seen at night when alight with blue.

Towers of Silence (Dakhma) – a Zoroastrian site where the dead were placed to allow vultures to eat the flesh, this prevented the decomposing body to pollute the environment.

Persian architecture – Yazd really does look like what one would imagine a Persian city to look like, the sandy coloured mud-brick walls, narrow alleys and bazaars, flat rooftops and abundant use of natural light.

Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar and Partners  (a Yazd sweet shop) – recommended by Morteza as we passed it while driving into Yazd from Shiraz, we purchased an assortment box for 140,000 Riyals ($7.50 USD). I have never tasted anything more extraordinary, each sweet had a distinctly different use of spices and flavours and a different texture, they were amazing.

Yazd clock towerHzyrh Mosque (Mohammadi Shrine)One of the halls inside the Hzyrh Mosque
One of the many bazaar alleysPersian metal-working, making a copper dishPale green door
One of the outer courtyard halls of the Jameh MosqueBlue honeycomb tiles, confused insects and kept them away from the prayersWooden door displaying the two different knockers used depending on gender
One of the many alleys in the old cityA Persian windcatcher (badgir)Machine used for carpet weaving
Water reservoir (Ab-anbar) with windcatchers used to cool the waterOne of the many alleys in the old cityLooking over Yazd old city, Jameh Mosque minarets stick out
Looking over Yazd old city, windcatchers protrudingTravis and Sonya with a large wooden doorOne of the two towers of Silence (Dakhma)
One of the two towers of Silence (Dakhma) Amir Chakhmaq Amir Chakhmaq square
Jameh Mosque at nightDome of Bogheh-ye Sayyed Roknaddin at nightSweets from Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar and Partners sweet shop

Yazd Walking Tour

  1. Amir Chakhmaq Complex
  2. Amir Chakhmaq Mosque
  3. Yazd Water Museum
  4. Hazireh Mosque
  5. Bogheh-ye Sayyed Roknaddin
  6. Orient Hotel
  7. Jameh Mosque
  8. water reservoir
  9. Heidarzadeh Coin Museum
  10. Khan-e Lari
  11. Alexander’s Prison
  12. Tomb of the 12 Imams
  13. tourist information office
  14. Hosseinieh
  15. takieh

Shiraz, our entry to Iran

Shiraz was our first stop in Iran. After a few hiccups with our flights (apparently Gulf Air doesn’t fly to Shiraz from Bahrain, despite having the option available on their website), we arrived via Qatar Airways early on Sunday morning.  We made a relatively smooth entry into the country, with a very short line at immigration – it seemed we were the only tourists entering into the country.

We found a taxi driver, willing to take us to our hotel, the lovely Niayesh Boutique Hotel located in the heart of Shiraz’s old city. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the early hour of 4:30am, the hotel was closed and after making a call, we were told to come back at 9am to discuss our booking. Due to our change in flight schedules, we had arrived early and had not informed the hotel of this change, so we patiently waited outside for a few hours. Thankfully, once the lovely reservation lady Nasrin arrived, we were shown the dorms where we were to stay (which were very comfortable, clean and barely occupied).  Our trip to Iran coincided with the Iranian New Year – Noruz, which lasts for two weeks and as such accommodation during this time was hard to find.

We rested for a few hours before wandering out to the main square to exchange some money and buy lunch.  One US dollar is equivalent to about 18,000 Iranian Riyal so after our money exchange our wallet was a little heavier!  Lunch was a simple kebab, which came to something like 70,000IR ($3.50).  We then continued exploring the old city area, checking out the following sites (which were all bustling with local tourists from other cities):

Arg-e-Karim Khan – An 18th century fort-like building in the middle of the city centre, which once formed part of the Zand dynasty’s royal court.

Narrow pond inside Arg of Karim KhanMosaic floral tiles with Farsi writingNorth building used in winter
Child sitting on the steps of the north buildingDecorated niche, the geometric pattern at the top mimic stalactites in a cavePainting of birds and flowers
Stained-glass windowBronze bust sculpture of Karim KhanSonya with the Arg of Karim Khan garden in the background
Mosaic of Rostam overcoming the DemonEast round brick tower of the Arg of Karim KhanIntricate brick mosaics cover the Arg of Karim Khan's exterior East tower
East round brick tower of the Arg of Karim KhanNorth walls of Arg of Karim Khan and North round towerNorth walls of Arg of Karim Khan and North round tower
Intricate brick mosaics cover the Arg of Karim Khan's exterior West wallOn the West wall of Arg of Karim Khan and North round towerOn the West wall of Arg of Karim Khan and West round tower
The leaning South round tower due to the underground water channelsThe leaning South round tower due to the underground water channelsTassels in Iranian colours

Masjed-e Vakil – A beautiful mosque from the Zand period.  It showcased the stunning mosaic blue tiles used during that period. Inside the prayer hall are forty-eight marble columns – truly impressive.

Walking towards the entrance of the Vakil MosqueMosaics on the entrance of Vakil MosqueOne of the two Minarets of Vakil Mosque seen from outside
Looking at the courtyard facade of Vakil MosqueThe courtyard facade of Vakil MosqueLooking at the courtyard facade of Vakil Mosque
Looking at the courtyard facade of Vakil MosqueThe entrance to the Vakil Mosque from the courtyardThe arches and columns in the Vakil Mosque
Travis inside the Vakil MosqueThe inner dome of the Vakil MosqueThe Vakil Mosque mihrab (direction of Kaaba), the geometric shapes mimic cave stalactites
Decorated mosaic column capitalRaised minbar for the Khatib at the Vakil MosqueLooking through the courtyard to the Vakil Mosque entry

Hamam-e Vakil – A classic old bathhouse now used as a museum exhibit, featuring wax figures from various periods.   It was here I was ‘spotted’ as being a non-Iranian and consequently asked to take a number of photos with families and ladies and trying to converse in sign language whilst Travis, who seemed to be getting mistaken for a local (being asked directions and questions in Farsi), looked on, amused.

Painted column capital of man on beast in Zand bathInside the Zand era bathPainted column capitals in Zand bath
The arched roof of the Zand bathCorner of the frame of a wall painting in the Zand bathPainting of water bird with flowers

Bazar-e Vakil – Shiraz’ main bazaar located in the main city precinct. The many stalls and shops in the bazaar offered spices, fruit, clothing, household items, souvenirs, much alike to the bazaars and souks we’d visited in cities like Istanbul and Cairo.  We picked up some green almond snacks which are served with salt from a young Iranian boy who practiced his English with us.

Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh – One of the holiest Shiite sites, this is one of the prettiest mosques I’ve seen. We were fortunate enough to be permitted to enter, I had to wear a chador before going inside – basically a huge piece of material which covered every inch of my body (the word chador literally translates into ‘tent’ in Farsi).  I was struggling for a bit to put it on properly, however a number of elderly Iranian ladies came to the rescue!  Photos were not allowed, instead we wandered around inside and marvelled at the intricacy and splendour of the mosque’s architecture.  An Iranian man offered us sweets inside and welcomed us to Iran. The courtyard of the mosque is filled with Persian rugs which pilgrims sit on and copies of the Quran are made available for all to read.

We headed back to Niayesh for a rest and shower. Later that evening we headed out for dinner – the Shahrez Traditional Restaurant was recommended in the Lonely Planet and we decided to give it a go.  The place was buzzing and full of life. Dinner was a unique experience – we tried quite a few different Iranian dishes, washed it down with doogh, a light yoghurt-like drink.

Our first day in Shiraz was a truly lovely experience. Perhaps because the city is not as well-travelled as other we have been to, there is a sense of genuine interest and curiosity from the local Shirazi, those of who we have met have been extremely friendly and kind.

Bahrain – a taste of the Kingdom of Bahrain

Keen to visit another Middle East country whilst in the region, and prior to our travels through Central Asia, we decided to have a two day stopover in Bahrain, a tiny little island to the north-west of Qatar. In addition, the local budget airlines Gulf Air conveniently flew to Shiraz in Iran, our entry to the Silk Road. It was only two days prior to our departure that we received a call from Gulf Air informing us that the capital Manama to Shiraz flights were no longer running for the past eighteen months. Luckily, Qatar Airways also flew to Shiraz, so we quickly booked the flight, it turned out we hadn’t quite left Qatar when we visited Bahrain.

We arrived in the evening and after checking into our hotel we headed to the Manama Souq. The souk is literally a functional market with many stalls and shops littered along narrow streets, contrasting the beautiful fairytale-like architecture that we were familiar with in Qatar. It was so plain, that as we walked around we wandered if we had reached the ‘souq’ yet.

The next day we spent visiting three main attractions, the National Museum, Al-Fatih Mosque and the Qal’at fort.

Bahrain National Museum

The Kingdom’s National Museum has a vast collection of archaeological finds on the ancient Dilmun civilisation, some of the interesting items were the vast amount of foreign artefacts found on the small island country (e.g porcelain from China), indicating the site of the city as a past trading hub.

Wooden Arabic door at Bahrain National MuseumSonya standing on a Bahrain aerial mapSonya sitting on a bench in the Bahrain National Museum
Some turquoise coins in a clay potStone with Arabic carvingsThe calligraphy and manuscripts section
One of the many beautiful QuransClay pot in the Bahrain National MuseumStone arrow heads in the Bahrain National Museum

Al-Fatih Mosque

The Al-Fatih Mosque, while not the most aesthetic of the mosques we had seen, though was enjoyable and eye-opening due to the very helpful guide that showed us around and answered all of our questions with respect to the Islamic faith, we finally learnt what was being said during the call-to-prayer, how the prayer times were calculated and how to form a tight line shoulder-to-shoulder when praying in the mosque.

Al-Fatih Mosque decorative windowsAl-Fatih Mosque internal courtyardSonya admiring the French lights, that resemble pearls

Qal’at al-Bahrain

The Bahrain Fort, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and located on a tell (layers of ancient sites). The location of the capital of the ancient Dilmun civilisation, the fort and tell are an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fort complex is quite large and is surrounded by a moat, it took  a little while to walk the circumference. We didn’t spend too much time inside as we were rushed for time.

Bahrain Fort lookout towerQal'at al-Bahrain (Bahrain Fort)Qal'at al-Bahrain (Bahrain Fort)
BeetleBahrain flag on the Bahrain FortArches in the Bahrain Fort
View of Bahrain from the Bahrain FortTravis in front of the Bahrain FortThe Till site of the ancient Dilmun civilisation

Saar Burial Chambers

Located close to the fort is a complex of Dilmun burial chambers, still being excavated and restored, the many chamber mud-brick walls and rooms are visible.