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.
places!” his face lit up. “It’s like chasing shadows and light when you go
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
everything I needed – hideouts, tea beds and an old-world charm – but I was
eager to venture further into the desert.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.