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In the garden courtyard of Esfahan’s famous Abbasi Hotel, surrounded by 300-year-old caravanserai-style rooms, I was in the company of an Iranian architect. We were discussing my plan to travel to the desert towns of Kashan, Na’in, Garmeh and Yazd.

“Ah those places!” his face lit up. “It’s like chasing shadows and light when you go there.”

These words would stay with me during my journey to these towns, where 3,000 years of generations have adapted to the environment to create a unique style of desert living.

I started in the beautiful city of Kashan, which sits where Iran’s vast desert, Dasht-e Kavir, begins. Located just 250km southeast of Tehran, it’s often overlooked by travellers heading for the big attractions further south, such as Shiraz and Esfahan.  

Built from unbaked mud brick, the presence of shadow and light was evident from the very moment I stepped into the old city in search of Ehsan Hotel, one of the famous 19th-century traditional houses that were built by wealthy merchants at the height of the lucrative Qajar Dynasty when Kashan was a bustling commercial hub. Most houses have since disappeared but some have been repaired and are open to the public.

Kashani streets Iran
Kashani streets. (Marian Reid)

I walked down a passageway cut into the earth and entered the insulated, private space through a heavy wooden door with two different-sized knockers – traditionally one for women and one for men so the inhabitants could always tell who should answer the door. I emerged about 10m below street level into a large courtyard, lush with water gardens, pomegranate trees and tea beds made from raised wooden platforms, carpeted and laid with cushions.   

Ehsan Hotel was located almost at the entrance of the meandering Kashan bazaar. Once rested in my evocative surroundings, I climbed once more to street level, turned left and followed the narrow lanes directly to its cavernous entrance.

The bazaar is one of the most beautiful and authentic in all of Iran – a series of interconnected passages and covered domes, perfect for endless wandering. Shafts of sunlight entered through geometric skylights at the centre of each vault, creating a smoky haze in front of a bakery where thin slabs of bread were being baked on a bed of small pebbles in a domed oven. The air was heavy with the scent of spices mingling with rose water and dried apricots.

It was while wandering the bazaar that I stumbled across the soaring and heavenly dome of Kahn Amin al Dowleh Timche. This grand covered courtyard, built in 1868 as a caravanserai for camel trains, featured a patterned tiled vault rising high above the Kashani shopkeepers who were going about their regular business: making tea, dozing on chairs and carrying carpets.

In the corner where the antique sellers resided was a narrow staircase leading up to the bazaar’s roof. It was worth the climb to witness just how good the Persians were at building with mud. I clambered across the smooth, undulating mud-brick domes, marvelling at the design and shapes, and the fact that an entire market was in operation below me with just a few thick layers of earth between us.

Kashan bazaar Iran
The mud-brick ceiling of Kashan bazaar. (Marian Reid)

Back safely in the shadows, I descended a staircase into the depths of the bazaar, seeking out the Hammam-e Khan Teahouse – actually a 300-year-old bathhouse.

“There are many bathhouses left in Iran,” the owner said. “But they’ve all closed down. People don’t go to the bathhouse any more”. He explained that it’s too expensive to heat the water, and in modern Iran most people just use their home bathrooms.

He inherited the bathhouse from his father, but transformed it into a teahouse in order to make an income. It felt slightly hipster, decorated with 1950s furniture, old radios and sheepskin rugs, and was a popular place for hookah and strong, cinnamon-spiced coffee. His speciality dish is kashke bademjan, delicious sweet and spicy roasted eggplant stew served with fresh bread.

Hammam-e Khan Teahouse, Kashan bazaar.
Hammam-e Khan Teahouse, Kashan bazaar. (Marian Reid)

I easily passed a few hours in the cool sanctuary of the teahouse with my apple-flavoured hookah, listening to the gentle water fountain and chatting with the owner.

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