iran 9: nain, abyaneh, kashan—travelling through the desert


I’ll be leaving in a couple of days; I have been in Iran for two weeks now. How easily we are able to change our habits. Two weeks and I now feel uncomfortable going out in public without my hejab, kebabs have become my staple diet, and salams and merci come easily. One more week here and I would be all chadored, going na na every time someone wanted to take a picture of me.

Travelling through miles of desert is an extraordinary experience. It also teaches you not to be fussy. Bathrooms are invariably behind a sand dune, at a little booth in a caravanserai, or in a thicket. So when you emerge you learn to check your front and backside as well so that there are no twigs sticking out of your hejab. It gives a whole new angle to the “going to the ladies” ritual.

There are two main deserts in Iran—Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut—and they are both dotted with tiny little towns built around ancient mosques. Nain is the most charming with its carpets and 9th Century Jameh mosque decorated with stunning yet simple stucco-work.

Iran is the only Shiite Muslim regime in the world with 89 percent of its population Shiite. Freedom of worship is, however, guaranteed in the constitution. A popular part of the Shiite religion is the representation of its Imams (religious leaders), with images of the Imam Ali and Hossein, in particular, appearing nearly everywhere, in shrines and homes, and on fridge magnets and calendars.

The 9th Century Jameh mosque in Nain.

A stop en-route at an age-old caravanserai.

Abyaneh is on the way to Kashan, my destination for today. Nestled at a height of 2,500 meters on the slopes of Mount Karas, this ancient compact red mud village is recognized by UNESCO for its antiquity and uniqueness. It is populated by angelic children offering biscuits, rickety old women with grizzly beards who scold and wave me away because I have no money on me to buy their home-made snacks, and old men going about the business of earning a living. Most of the original structures date back 500 years to the Safavid period. The villagers still wear distinctive floral scarves and speak Middle Persian, a dialect long since disappeared elsewhere. The village is actually very pretty. And the grizzly old women remind me of my grandmother. I think it is the nose.

Historic Kashan on the other hand is sprawling both in time and scale, spread out over a dusty expanse in the middle of nowhere. It was from Kashan that the Three Wise Men are believed to have started their journey to Bethlehem. Both, the 5,000 BC Sialk ziggurat with millennia-old skeletons and the serene Fin gardens with tree-lined fountains, are worth a visit. The oasis town’s main attraction, though, are its beautifully restored Qajar-era mansions. I visited Khan-e Tabatabai, the home of a 19th Century carpet merchant  famous for its carved reliefs and mirror-work. It is always wonderful to be rich. In any century.

Like all Iranian towns, Kashan too has its heart and soul in its bazaar. I am, moreover, getting pretty good at passing myself off as an Iranian by now. When people stop me and chat with me in Farsi, I instantly nod, and smile and go bale (yes) and na, though at times I wonder what am I agreeing to and what am I disagreeing to. But then they look at my heavy duty boots, my SLR, and my grin, and they start laughing. “No Irani?” “Na.” And I get a big smile and free pistachios for that.

It has been such a wonderful two weeks. As I sit and have my last chai at a local chaikhana down the road from Kashan’s only hotel where three beds are cramped into my single room, I feel kind of sad. And happy. Happy that I had listened to my heart and made this journey. Sad, that there are so many walls between my world and theirs, and that once I left, if and when I would be able to return again.

At Abyaneh, a red brick mountain village populated with old people in flowered scarves and doe-eyed children …

And on to Kashan with its beautiful 19th Century merchant houses …

… serene gardens …

And ancient ziggurats … But the best is the tea-house down the road from the hotel; awesome, awesome chai. Left: Self-portrait.

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Note: I travelled to Iran in October 2007 for two weeks. Iran has been one of my most memorable travels to date. I am republishing the series comprising 10 posts till this mid-June. Refreshing my personal memories. This is the ninth post in the series—on Nain, Abyaneh and Kashan—my stops en-route as I travelled from Esfahan to Tehran through its deserts. Enjoy the read. 🙂

iran 8: esfahan nesf-e Jahan, esfahan is half the world


Esfahan is like a fabled town straight out of a medieval story with its ethereal mosques, opulent palaces, picturesque bridges and fabulous bazaars, all set around the most beautiful square in the world, the Maidaan Naqsh-e Jahan.

Naqsh-e Jahan meaning “pattern of the world” owes its splendour to the vision of Shah Abbas the Great. Began in 1602 as the centerpiece of the Shah’s new capital, the square was designed to house the finest architectural jewels of the Safavid Empire. Measuring 512 meters long and 163 meters wide, it is the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Royal equestrian arts and polo games were once put on show here for the Shah and his court. Continue reading

iran 7: the desert city of yazd


I am nearing Yazd. The landscape is stunning. Towering, barren, sedimentary mountains streaked with iron oxides flank both sides of the road. It has been a long day, driving through hundreds of miles of arid wilderness. As I wind my way through the burgeoning city, millions of street lights twinkle in the darkness in warm welcome.

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Yazd is one of those not-to-be missed, no-matter-what, highlights of Iran. Wedged between two desolate deserts, it has long been a prosperous staging post on the caravan route between Esfahan and Central Asia. The city was an important center for Iran’s pre-Islamic religion, Zoroastrianism, and still has the largest Zoroastrian population in the country at 12,000. Continue reading

iran 6: shiraz, the heartland of persian culture


Drink until the turbans are all unbound,
Drink until the house like the world turns around.
~ Hafez, Sufi poet (14th Century)

I’m in Shiraz, the heartland of Persian culture. Shiraz was one of the most important cities in the medieval Islamic world and the capital of the Zand Dynasty from 1747 to 1779. Through its many artists and scholars the city earned a reputation for being the “House of Learning” and was synonymous with education, nightingales, poetry, roses. and at one time, red wine. It is home to one of the oldest universities dating to the 7th Century AD. Two of the world’s greatest poets, Hafez and Saadi are buried here. Continue reading

iran 5: the city of darius I, esther and avicenna—hamedan


Hamedan (also spelt Hamadan) is one of those cities where you can stroll through 2,500 years of history in a single afternoon. Cuneiform tablets of Darius I and Xerxes I proclaiming their kingship, Esther’s tomb, Avicenna’s 11th Century mausoleum, and a European style street plan with elegant squares designed in 1929 by German engineer Karl Frisch make up the Hamedan of today. And amidst this eclectic mix of history live a people with a traditionally deep-seated respect for knowledge and the sciences. Education is very highly regarded in Iran and literacy is around 80 percent. More than 60 percent of university students are women. Continue reading

iran 4: the story of persepolis

“Passer-by, I am Cyrus the Great, I have given the Persians an empire and I have ruled over Asia. So do not envy me for this tomb.”
~ Inscription on the tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pasargade, 6th Century BC

I love rambling through archaeological sites, running my fingers over millennia old ruins, walking down worn out paths where before me countless souls had also passed along. Where history was made and destinies defined. Sites like these are humbling, making us realize how small we are in the bigger picture. And yet such sites also fill us with a deep sense of pride in humanity’s political achievements and artistic endeavors which are a legacy belonging to all mankind.

persepolis_rama Continue reading