Dawn found us walking up between fragrant herbs, under the majestic towering shape of Damavand, this time watching it from far distance. A perfectly clear day was commencing, so clear we could easily distinguish the white gas cloud venting off vertically into the atmosphere from Damavand’s top fumaroles.
Now we knew the mountain and it knew us, as we have trod its paths, breathed its air, and climbed its summit. Our souls and the mythical soul of the mountain have merged and we have emerged wiser and more experienced from this initiatory climb.
By this time, somewhere 3000m higher above us, many other eager climbers were struggling to make their way up to the fuming summit, including our cheerful Romanian friends. Will they rise to the challenge? Will they make it? It would be months till we would find out their story, as our paths had parted for now…
As we mesmerized over the rising sun beams embracing Damavand’s conical shape, we meditated over which mountain is harder to climb: Kilimanjaro or Damavand? Any answer would imply a dose of subjectivity, and is reserved only to those who have previously climbed both these big mountains…
With a feeling of accomplishment in our hearts and eager to discover new worlds, we bid Damavand farewell and “until next time”, and started the next leg of our journey through the poetic lands of Iran. It would be a loss to travel all the way to this part of the world only to climb Damavand and not allow a few extra days to explore one of the historically and culturally richest lands in the world. You can almost feel, touch and smell the atmosphere laden with history…
QOM – A HOLY CITY
Leaving behind Damavand hidden by the closing gates of the Alborz Mountains, we headed for our first stop of the day: Qom. Dubbed “the Vatican” of Iran, Qom is home to the second holiest and most significant pilgrimage sites in Iran, and the largest Shia Islam scholar center in the world – the magnificent Holy Shrine of Fatemeh Masumeh.
One of Iran‘s fastest-growing cities, Qom’s skyline is under continuous transformation as a huge suspended railway is currently under construction. Contrasting with this new modern makeover, the heart of the city boasts a traditional Persian architectural jewel: The Holy Shrine of Fatemeh Masumeh with its beautiful blue tiled minarets and golden domes shaping the skyline around it. Above ground the religious complex centers around a huge open square, flanked by several beautifully adorned mosques and the dominating shrine, while underground an equally huge multi-story parking is burrowed beneath the religious site, to accommodate the large influx of pilgrims and scholars coming from across the world to pray in the shrine, or study in the madrasahs (schools).
This magnificent shrine is the burial place of Imam Reza’s sister Fatemeh. Imam Reza was the eighth of the 12 imams who descended from Prophet Mohammed, and the only one of the 12 to be buried in Iran, in Mashhad. Several Safavid kings contributed to building the site during the XVI century, lavishing it with embellishments of brilliant tile work, and a distinguishable great golden cupola.
Making our way through the large square, fringed by shops selling souvenirs, glittering gold jewelry, and mouth-watering sweets made of pistachio, almond, saffron, and cardamom, we found ourselves magnetically attracted by the shrine’s exquisite glistering tile work. Even though Qom has remained conservative and traditional to maintain a pious environment for pilgrims, non-Muslims are allowed in the shrine’s courtyards, though they are prohibited from entering the actual shrine building. Women must wear a chador (a full-body-length cloth open down the front, wore over the woman’s head), which can be borrowed in exchange for a deposit (financial or an ID) from outside the shrine’s entrance. A security check, separate for males and females, delayed our passage into the shrine’s courtyards for a few minutes longer. As foreigners, we were accompanied by a local steward, a theological student, who shared with us brief information about the shrine.
At last, our first close up encounter with an old, authentic Persian architectural site! Like children in a candy shop, we didn’t know where to start exploring, overwhelmed by the richly decorated surroundings glittering in the midday sun in countless shades of blue, green, silver and gold. The various inner courtyards, surrounding arched walls, the shrine building, towering twin minarets and shining high domes are lavishly and intricately embellished in glazed tiles painted in blue, green, yellow, white and all the colors in between. Silver and gold mirror-work made of countless small pieces of looking-glass, carefully positioned to form a honeycomb of stalactites adorn the shrine’s vaulted entrances, sparkling like precious gems and diamonds in the strong sunlight. From permitted distance we tried to catch a forbidden glimpse inside the shrine, where crowds were gathering to pray under a green glittering ceiling covered in a mosaic of illuminating mirror-work, brought to brightly sparkle by green lamps. Legend has it that medieval Persians imported large mirrors from Venetian glass-makers, however, during the long voyage to Persia the mirrors shattered to small pieces. The Shah, not wanting to lay to waste the beautifully glittering pieces, commissioned them to be used as architectural decorations, and thus the Persian characteristic mirror-work known as Āina-kāri was born…
Time flies and Iran has more than plenty to offer to the inquisitive traveler, so with reluctance we had to leave the rest of the religious complex unexplored, and continued our journey towards Kashan. Driving through Iran, for an European, is an experience in its self, as the landscape and architecture is so different and unaccustomed compared to what we are used to. Each town has its own towering minarets or turquoise mosque domes rising from a sea of flat mud roofs, looking so alluring that you can hardly help yourself from making a short detour. However, the country is really wide and distances are long, so one must be selective of where it’s worth to make a stop.
KASHAN – A DELIGHTFUL OASIS CITY
Kashan, which locals describe as a “small town”, apparently by their standards, exceeded our expectations when it began to stretch out before our feet and stretch as far as our eyes could see. Kashan, a delightful, quiet oasis city on the edge of Dasht-e Kavir (Kavir Desert) best known for its traditional historical architecture, revealed itself to be an alluring destination, though many tourist, not knowing what they’re missing, opt to bypass it. Once a major commercial center, nowadays it’s still active producing textiles, rugs and rose water from the fragrant bushes growing outside town. Hiding behind its high, featureless mud-brick walls are hundreds of large lavishly decorated traditional houses built by wealthy carpet and glass merchants, monuments to the importance of Kashan as a commercial hub. While on the outskirts of town lays a lush garden, Bagh-e Fin (Fin Garden), renowned as being the very epitome of the Persian garden.
During the hot summer afternoon, the refreshing Fin Garden, enclosed from prying eyes within high walls, came as a welcomed escape from the hot sun. Rose scents enchanted our sense straight from the entrance, as a small shop selling rose water, perfume, and oil, lays right before the garden’s gate enticing passers-by. However, the chance to taste freshly ripped figs was more alluring to us than the shop’s goods on offer. Built in the XVIth century by Shah Abbas I, the Fin Garden was recently added to the World Heritage Sites list. Inside the garden water flows with superabundance, channeled from a spring by a series of turquoise-colored pools and fountains, in stark contrast to the scarcity of water in the surrounding desert areas. Gently flowing water together with the shade of 500-year-old tall cedar trees make up a cool haven to escape the summer’s heat. Somehow, though we were in mid-August, in dry, arid lands, and all covered up in clothing, the temperatures in Iran proved quite bearable and didn’t feel all that hot. At the rear end of the garden, a recreational pavilion draws attention with its aged, but still lively murals reflected into splendid green-turquoise waters springing from deep underground into a perfectly-even surfaced pool. From there water flows through a series of splashing fountains towards the center of the garden into a delightful and refreshing two-story pool house. Persian gardens are traditionally conceived to symbolize Paradise, the garden being divided into four sectors symbolizing the Zoroastrian elements of earth, water, fire and air.
As always in Iran you will inevitably bump into a friendly local, more than eager to talk with you, to learn how you find their country, what you visited and plan to see, and to invite you to visit their town or meet their family. This is how we met Hassan, a young man proficient in English, passionate about theater and acting, who we still keep in touch with.
Leaving the delightful haven of the Fin Garden behind, we moved on to explore the other highlight of Kashan: its traditional historical buildings. Kashan has plenty to offer to the inquisitive traveler, however, our time being limited we decided to leave its Agha Bozorg Mosque, Bazaar and Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmad for another time, and headed towards one of its famous traditional historical houses. Once belonging to wealthy merchants, nowadays several of them have opened their doors wide to visitors: Khan-e Tabatabei, Khan-e Boroujerdi, Khan-e Ameriha and Khan-e Abbasian. The houses are impressive in their elaborate layout and wonderful to visit in the warm afternoon light. From the outside the buildings look bare and stark, while their real beauty can only be discovered when inside.
Complexes made of a series of buildings spread over several levels, set around interlinked ornate courtyards with boastful fountain pools. Embellished with intricate stone reliefs, fine stucco panels, wonderful mirror-work and detailed stained-glass windows that bathe the rooms in brilliant colors, vaulted iwans (open reception hall opening onto the courtyard) sumptuously decorated with splendid motifs above the entrance, and towering badgirs (wind tunnels) to refresh the rooms with cool air. Wondering through the now empty rooms, halls, and courtyards, bathed in warm colors by the afternoon sunlight, feels like a travel back in time letting the mind drift off imagining how it must have been like to live in such a house…?
Vital in a society where women lived behind a veil, Kashan houses had two knockers: one round and fat, and the other long and thin, designed to give off different sounds for those inside the house to be able to tell whether a man or a woman was knocking and then decide who to open the door – round and fat for women, long and thin for male.
Kashan, pleasant and quiet, like a warm summer breeze, had proven to be a hidden gem few travelers stray to visit. As dusk began to cast highlights of pale gold we left Kashan and continued our journey through the ever-changing landscapes towards the once imperial capital of Esfahan. Sundown found us making our way through the Mid Zagros Mountains, casting its long shadows and last orange-crimson lights from behind the razor-like mountain ridges, which have started to close in around us. Many years ago, these mountains were home to the Bhaktiari nomad tribes. Now their numbers are dwindling, as their memory begins to fade in time. There is much magic and poetry in these lands…
Dusk had completely deepened into night by the time we reached Esfahan, a city witness to Persian history and culture. And the following day we would find out just how much…
If the day before found us on the top of Asia’s highest volcano, Mt. Damavand, we were now far away and deep in Iran’s historically rich lands, wondering about what marvels lay in wait for us to discover in the days to follow…?Tags: architecture, courtyard, damavand, dome, fatemeh, fin, garden, glazed, historical, holy, house, iwan, kashan, masumeh, minaret, persian, pilgrim, qom, shrine, tile, traditional