Chasing shadows and light in Iran

Marian Reid explores the country’s desert towns, where 3,000 years of generations have adapted to the harsh environment to create a beautiful and timeless world.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Kashan had everything I needed – hideouts, tea beds and an old-world charm – but I was eager to venture further into the desert.

About 200km east, Na’in is a small city that spills into the Dasht-e Kavir, the old mud-brick houses crumbling and forgotten in the face of modernisation. I could still see the beautiful arched doorways and huge storage pots buried in the mounds of desert soil that once shaped the walls of these houses. Pomegranate trees that would have once been part of a beautiful garden still pushed through the earth to fruit amid all the rubble. It was only 40 years ago that this neighbourhood in the north of Na’in would have been lively and inhabited. But the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the more recent allure of new apartments led to the abandonment of these high-maintenance mud mansions.

The town’s life force is a 3,000 year-old water system comprised of subterranean qanats (aqueducts), which bring water from the distant mountains to the desert plains. You can see the path of the qanats by following the large mud-brick badgirs (wind-cooled reservoirs) that appear every few kilometres. The badgirs are one of Persia’s architectural feats – wind is captured in decorated chimneys and sent underground to cool a chamber, meaning that even in the hot desert summer, water can be kept cool underground.

Na’in is the only place in Iran where you can crawl under the earth and see the ancient workings for yourself. Local guide, Mahmood Mohammadipour, who can often be found in his internet café on Imam Khomeini Avenue, is the man with the key to this world, and the site of access was an ancient rigareh (water-powered grain mill) almost 30m under the desert floor.

“This mill is believed to have been in operation for perhaps 2,000 years, and only stopped being used 50 years go,” Mohammadipour explained as we entered the underground space. I couldn’t help be excited about crawling through a tiny tunnel on my knees to taste mountain water, here in the desert. He pointed out the smooth grooves on the old wooden door to the mill. “This is where the donkeys passed carrying their bags of grain underground, over and over again.”

It was strange to me that this ancient way of life was still going only a few decades ago, and yet the magnificent traditional houses and Na’in’s bazaar – carefully rebuilt throughout so many generations – were so quickly abandoned for modern, smaller homes. “People are beginning to understand how special these old houses are,” said the curator at Na’in’s fascinating Pirnia Ethnology Museum opposite the Jame Mosque. “They are coming back. I will move back into my mothers’ old house again soon.”

On my way through the bazaar I was cornered by a friendly man, dressed in white and covered in sugar. He invited me into his shop and filled my hands with gaz (pistachio and rosewater nougat) before sending me on my way.

My next stop was 300km east, in Garmeh at the 400-year-old Ateshooni House, a beautiful ancestral three-storey structure restored to its original form by local artist Maziyar Ale Davood. Built from raw mud bricks, even the chimneys and decorated balconies were from the earth.

Large and rambling, I had the choice of sleeping in one of the large, communal carpeted rooms or having a rooftop cubby-hole where the sunset was all mine. At night all the guests ate together, Ale Davood’s father directing the kitchen to produce traditional dishes such as khoresht-e ghormeh sabzi – a fresh herb stew with lamb and dried limes. Ale Davood and his brother were both musicians and spent the evening jamming with guests on traditional Persian percussion instruments, including two green clay jugs that were played like drums.

Garmeh is a true oasis. Set deep in the desert, a nearby spring has nurtured a lush system of walled gardens where villagers have been growing their food for centuries. Some of the gardens were abandoned, but the trees still flourished and I picked and ate my fill of figs, sweet dates and blood red pomegranates. This was the place to stop for a while and wash in the silence and light of the desert in the company of a camel and a few goats.

The desert kept me for a few more days but eventually I waved goodbye to Ateshooni’s resident camel and rumbled away from Garmeh in an old yellow taxi. The open plains took me 276km southwest to Yazd: the city of wind catchers, and my final stop on this desert jaunt.

Yazd’s old city was built on the promise of good air-conditioning – the natural way. The skyline featured a sprawling forest of tall, decorated mud-brick wind catchers, just like the badgirs of Na’in. Each carries the hot desert wind under the earth to meet with a small water reservoir. This cools the air before funnelling it into the traditional homes, mosques and markets.

Yazd is the biggest city in Iran built in this style, and by far the best preserved. Here, the architectural adaptations have been carefully refined over thousands of years to suit modern life, and although ancient, Yazd feels very much lived in. The city’s real charm can be found by wandering the historic neighbourhoods and getting lost in the winding lanes. Smooth walls led through archways, deep into the maze of the old city, the sunlight playing with the architecture to create rounded shapes and distinct lines. Soon I was deep in the shadows of a forgotten market, flanked by magnificent Persian mud architecture.

I followed the lanes to the 14th-century Masjid-e Jame (Friday Mosque) to view some of Iran’s most intricate turquoise tile-work in the Islamic style, rich with symmetry and symbolism. Down another lane near Khan Square I retreated once again to a hammam-style teahouse. Also called the Hammam-e Khan Teahouse, this one was more ornate than Kashan’s version, with an interior of tranquil pools, arched ceilings and tile work.

Yazd is where Iran’s ancient Zoroastrian religion, founded in Persia 3,500 years ago, is still the most prominent. Because I was chasing shadows and light I ended my journey at the Atashkadeh Zoroastrian fire temple on Kashani Street. The temple is relatively new, built in the 1930s. But inside is the fire at the heart of all Zoroastorians – a flame that’s said to have been burning continuously for 1,500 years.

A well-functioning bus network makes it easy to get around Iran. A bus runs between Kashan and Na’in daily. To get to Garmeh from Na’in, wait at the eastern roundabout on Valiasr Avenue and flag down a bus to Khur. From Khur there are yellow taxis waiting at the town square that will take you to Garmeh. From Garmeh, Ale Davood at Ateshooni house will connect you with a bus to Yazd. Alternatively you can rent a private taxi.