Travel
Moving mountains

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 55

Travel
Moving mountains

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 55

Over the centuries, Iran has bridged civilisations. Barnaby Rogerson guides us through its many kingdoms

I knew about the indigo fields of a Safavid carpet, the lustreware tiles, the jewel-like intensity of Ilkhanid court illuminations, the improbable length of Fatih Ali Shah's beard and how the eyebrows of a beloved youth etch a bow on the forehead. But after 40 years reading about Persia, there was a danger I would find 21st-century Iran a rude awakening.

But neither the asthmatic gray globe that surrounds Tehran, nor its traffic jams, nor the complete lack of wine at dinner produced any significant diminuation. Iran is quantifiably more magnificent than anything I had imagined.

I put this down, first, to the mountains. They were a revelation throughout our fortnight's journey, whether we flew, were driven or walked. They break Iran up into hundreds of magical kingdoms. Each city is essentially an oasis, ringed by an improbable gothic frenzy of peaks. These appear threatening, but they are a blessing, funneling water into garden-fields. We got a childish delight from spotting old lines of human molehills snaking their way from the foothills towards the city – an indication of underground water channels called qanat.

The second point of infatuation was the walled gardens. Iranians have an obsessive relationship with gardens, whether in their poetry and art, or as a spiritual metaphor, but you only begin to understand their compulsion after you have traveled across several hundred miles of bleak and austere mountainous desert and then stumble across one of their walled enclosures. Inside, everything will be rare and pleasing: trilling with rills; bathed in leaf shadow, cool breezes and scent. All our most memorable lunches were taken within walled gardens, perched cross-legged on takht, little raised wooden platform thrones.

The mountains and gardens taught us Iranian history on the ground. One could at last understand how dynasties coexisted in different corners of Iran; how conquerors (be they Macedonian, Arab or Turk) would gallop through, seizing city after city, yet never hold the land; how different provinces could be shaved off to become a separate kingdom one century, then become the seed of a brand new empire in the next. This is also why you have to travel so much to see the quintessential Iran: there is no Iranian London or Paris, a city that has endured for millennia as the national capital.

Instead, dozens of beautiful historic cities have briefly blazed, before receding into retirement with most of their monuments intact.
So a first-time traveler to Iran must visit Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd, Shiraz, Persepolis and Kerman. Each of these cities has half a dozen transfixingly beautiful things (palaces, covered bazaars, ancient mosques) and something unique: Isfahan's Maidan Square, the towers of silence at Yazd, the 40-night meditation room in the shrine of Nematallah Vali at Kerman, the royal rock-cut tombs outside Persepolis and the Fin garden above Kashan. One might even consider skipping the smog and traffic of Tehran were it not for the city's fantastic museums.

It makes Iran a splendid place to travel through, for you spend a couple of days in each gem-like ancient capital, interwoven with more restful days on the road, before you arrive at the next. The trick is to ensure your travel agent (you need a travel agent – and a planned itinerary – to get a visa) adds elegant stop-offs on your journey: a forgotten caravanserai, perhaps, or a mud-brick citadel, the ruins of an ancient fire temple or a simple picnic tea with Iranian friends.

My recent trip was an intellectual caravan, chock-a-block with historians, writers and artists who would otherwise never dream of traveling as a coach party. Some of us were keen to meet the remaining Zoroastrians, Jews and Armenians, but we were 30 years too late: only elderly representatives and some touching monuments are left. But Iran remains a commonwealth of peoples, with full-blooded Iranians equalled in number by Azeri, Baluch, Khuzestani Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen and Afghan minorities, not to mention Shiite refugees. Beyond these frontiers a Greater Cultural Iran exists, whose artistic and literary influence washes over Mughal India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and the Caucasus, not to mention Kensington and California.

It helps to be armed with some knowledge, as you are entering one of the world's great cultural epicenters. You will need to be able to nod at the adjectival dynasties – Achaemenid (the ancient Persian Empire of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes), Sassanid (the Zoroastrian Empire that stood beside Byzantium), Seljuk (early medieval), Ilkhanid (medieval heirs of the Mongols), Safavid (16th- and 17th-century artistic apogee) and Qajar (overblown 19th century). You should also be aware of Iran's unmatched passion for her writers and poets. Some knowledge of these heroes (rather than dead Shahs) will go a long way, at either a tea stop or a dinner table. I have three friends who are currently the most sought-after dragomen for any discerning group of travelers in Iran. But if you cannot get hold of Sylvie Franquet, Bruce Wannell or Antony Wynn, travel with David Blow's Persia, a compendium of writing on the country. Then unfold the map, cast off the bowlines, voyage, dream, travel, discover.

Barnaby Rogerson is an author and publisher. He has written travel guides and biographies of the Prophet Muhammad and the Caliphs.

When in Iran ...

In Tehran, the National Archeological Museum, Reza Abbasi Museum, Glass Museum and newly opened Museum of Islamic Art alone make a flight to Iran worthwhile. Visit the 19th-century Qajar Golestan Palace, Carpet Museum and Museum of Modern Art to easily fill three days. The Crown Jewel Museum is very popular, but can be safely missed. If pausing between flights, use the airport's serviceable Novotel/Ibis. My dragoman friends recommend Espinas, Gilane and Divan as restaurant stops.

Kashan is celebrated for its bazaar, with the Timcheh ye Amin od-Dowleh dome the proper reward for a morning's shopping. The city's enterprising merchants are well represented by rose-water distilleries and the Abbasi, Borujerdi, Ameri and Tabatabaei historic mansions. Private palace hotels include the Manoucheri, Saraye Ameriha and Mahinestan Raheb – bliss in mood and food, but don't expect perfect plumbing. The Fin garden is superb.

Isfahan has one of the world's most successful public spaces: Imam Square is fringed by an arcaded and domed covered bazaar, and punctuated by three extraordinary monuments: the Abbasi Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace and Lotfollah Mosque. Jolfa, the old Armenian district, is on the other side of the river: cross Khaju Bridge to visit the Vank Cathedral and Armenian Museum, and take in the relaxed atmosphere the Armenian cafés. Shah Abbas I's pavilion palace, Chechel Sotun (the Hall of Forty Columns), and, at the heart of the ancient city, the Friday mosque preserve 1,000 years of Islamic architecture. Hasht Behesht ('eight heavens') is an aristocratic survival from the Safavid era. Stay in Abbasi for its lovely courtyard and palatial breakfast. You might lunch one day in Shahrzad off Imam Square, in the Armenian quarter the next (perhaps at Khan Gostar), or in Arca, a restored caravanserai.

Yazd is an oasis city. The Zoroastrian towers of silence (pictured above) are at their best at dusk; prepare yourself by visiting the Zoroastrian fire temple. The old city is dominated by the Jameh Mosque and the Husseineyeh of Amir Chaqmaq, balanced by the domestic serenity of the Bagh i-Dowlat garden and the unexpected interest of the water museum, a town palace in whose deep cellar you can see a qanat.

A destination in its own right, Shiraz is also the natural base from which to see Persepolis, ancient cult-centre of Xerxes and Darius. A fascinating ruin, its extant carvings and architecture are full of spiritual and historical allusions, and it is surrounded by royal tombs (the so-called Naqsh-e-Rustam) cut into the cliff faces during the Elamite, Achaemenid and Sassanian dynasties. Pasargadae is earlier but of less interest, except for the simple tomb of Cyrus, the great founder of empire, at which Alexander wept.

Shiraz (pictured below) has the world's best living memorial to a poet, the tomb garden to Hafiz. It is at its best in the evening. On the edge of the old city, there is the Nasir al Mulk madrasa and mosque, while the center is still dominated by the Vakil mosque and bazaar. Finish with the Pars Museum, the remnant of an old walled garden. Try the traditional Persian section of the Haft Khvan restaurant complex for dinner; the Shapor Garden café is perfect at teatime.

Kerman concludes our tour, its old city center dominated by the Jameh mosque wrapped in a complex bazaar with caravanserai, 17th-century Ganjali bathhouse and teahouses. On the city edge are the gaunt remains of the Gonbad Jabiliyeh, an ancient Sassanid dome, while the 14th-century mausoleum of Shah Nematollah is 30 miles beyond. A self-contained day trip is out to the ancient fortress of Rayen Citadel, which watches the snow-capped border mountains of Baluchistan; pause on your way back to explore the 19th-century Qajar Shahzadeh walled garden.

Travelers used to fly back to Tehran from Kerman, in order to catch flights back to Istanbul, but Turkish Airways has been impressively expansionist in the last year, adding direct flights to Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad, Kermanshah and Tabriz. B.R.

Related auctions