The detailed itinerary provides an outline of the proposed daily program. Participants should note that the daily activities described in this itinerary may be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate changes in museum opening hours, flight schedules etc. Meals will be taken in hotels, in restaurants with a historical or local flavour, or picnic lunches will be provided. All meals are included in the tour price and are indicated in the itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch and D=evening meal.
Tehran - 2 nights
Day 1: Wednesday 30 October, Arrive Tehran
- Carpet Museum
- Welcome Dinner
We arrive in Tehran on flight EK971 in the early morning. After transferring to our hotel there will be time to rest before we visit Tehran’s magnificent Carpet Museum. This collection documents carpets from all regions of the country and many periods in its history. Here you may begin to build in your mind a vocabulary of Persian motifs which will recur throughout your tour in miniatures, architectural decoration and garden design. Tonight we dine together at the hotel’s restaurant. (Overnight Tehran) LD
Day 2: Thursday 31 October, Tehran
- National Museum of Iran
- Glassware and Ceramics Museum
- Coach orientation tour of Tehran
This morning we shall visit the National Museum of Iran which is the combination of two museums, the old Archaeological Museum and the modernistic white travertine museum of the Islamic period*. In the former you will be introduced to the prehistory of Iran and the cultures of the Elamites, Achaemenians, Seleucids, Parthians and Sassanians in small artefacts as well as monumental sculpture. In the Islamic Museum*, on the other hand, you will encounter the Persian contribution to Islam in a huge collection of metalwork, calligraphy, ceramics, brickwork and textiles, glass and especially miniature paintings. Highlights include the beautiful Paradise Door, a 14th-century lustre-painted mihrab (niche in a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca) from Qom, and a 19th-century inlaid door from Esfahan. In the afternoon we shall tour the city and visit its excellent glass museum which holds a very fine collection from the medieval period to the present. (Overnight Tehran) BLD
* The Islamic section of the National Museum is currently closed.
Zanjan - 2 nights
Day 3: Friday 1 November, Tehran – Qazvin – Soltaniyeh – Zanjan
- Imamzadeh-ye Hussein, Qazvin
- Jami’ Mosque, Qazvin
- ‘Ali Qapu, Qazvin (exterior)
- Mausoleum of Soltaniyeh
This morning we drive to Qazvin which is claimed to have been founded by the Sassanian King Sapur I (3rd c. BC) and, being situated on the route to north-western Iran, rose to prosperity under the Seljuks. They built fine buildings many of which were, however, destroyed by earthquakes. Qazvin again rose to prominence under the Safavid Shah Tahmasp but was eclipsed when Shah ‘Abbas moved his capital to Isfahan. It was also favoured by the Qajars, especially Fath ‘Ali Shah, who repaired much earthquake damage in the 19th century. The city’s four-iwan Jami’ Mosque has many later accretions but its great dome chamber is very early (1115 AD). Decorative wall surfaces in parts of this mosque such as the prayer hall iwan are of an intricate brick pattern, or plaster work mimicking brick construction. The revelation of the structural nature of a wall or other element is a typical Seljuk feature.
The only major surviving structure of the early Safavid period is the ‘Ali Qapu, which, like its namesake in Isfahan, was the entrance to Qazvin’s royal palace (which was destroyed by earthquakes). Built by Shah Tahmasp, it was enlarged by Shah ‘Abbas, the creator of Isfahan.
The Imamzadeh-ye Hussein is the shrine of the son of the 8th Imam. Built to the order of the daughter of Shah Tahmasp (1501), it was considerably enlarged in 1630 and then was heavily renovated by the Qajars (1779-1924) who added the façade of the central dome chamber.
After lunch in Qazvin, we drive to the Mongol city of Soltaniyeh (‘Town of the Sultans’). Here we shall visit the Gonbad Soltaniyeh the great mausoleum of the Mongol Sultan Oljeitu Khodabande, which has one of the largest domes in the world. This mausoleum was originally intended for the earthly remains of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet, but this never eventuated and so became the sultan’s own tomb (c.1317). This is a masterpiece of Islamic tomb construction that looks forward to the monuments of Mughal India, especially the Taj Mahal. It consists of an immense octagon surmounted by a gallery that hides the springing of its great dome. At each corner of the octagon were constructed high minarets, an instance of how this architectural form, ostensibly serving the call to prayer, became a decorative feature used to monumentalise an important edifice. After thoroughly exploring this great tomb we continue to the city of Zanjan. (Overnight Zanjan) BLD
Day 4: Saturday 2 November, Zanjan – Takht-e Soleyman – Zanjan
- Takht-e Soleyman, Takab (‘Throne of Solomon’)
Today we make an excursion from Zanjan to the remote archaeological site of Takht-e Soleyman, in a volcanic region (altitude 2400 metres) of the great Zagros mountains. Takht-e-Soleyman, surrounded by a great battlemented wall, centres on a volcanic crater filled by a hidden spring to form a deep, blue lake; in deep antiquity it was considered a ‘portal’ to the underworld, and it became one of the most important Zoroastrian sanctuaries in Persia. Surrounding this lake are an extremely important Zoroastrian sanctuary that was partly rebuilt in the Ilkhanid (Mongol) period (13th century) and a Sassanian fire temple (6th and 7th centuries) dedicated to Anahita, as well as a Sassanian palace. When the Arabs invaded Sassanian Persia in the 7th century the site was given a new, biblical, meaning as the ‘Throne of Solomon'; the Zoroastrians may have done this to save it from destruction by the invaders. The fire temple, palace and the general layout of the complex strongly influenced the development of Islamic architecture. From this extraordinary site you will also see another volcanic crater, Zendan-e Soleyman (the Prison of Solomon), where the biblical king was believed to have imprisoned monsters. (Overnight Zanjan) BLD
Hamadan - 1 night
Day 5: Sunday 3 November, Zanjan – Hamadan
- Archaeological Site of Ecbatana
- Tomb of Esther and Mordechai
- Alavian Tomb Tower (Gombad-e Alavian)
- Tomb of Ibn Sina (Avicenna)
- Stone Lion
- Ganjnameh (inscriptions of Darius I and Xerxes)
This morning we drive from Zanjan to the city of Hamadan, where we spend the rest of the day visiting major sites. Ecbatana, also known as Hegmatana, was the capital of the Median Empire (7th c. BC) and after the 6th century triumph of the Achaemenids, in the 5th century it became a summer capital of the Achaemenid kings. It later became a Seljuk capital, was sacked by the Timurids, and revived by the Safavids.
We shall explore the extensive archaeological site of Ecbatana, and visit the tomb of the great medieval philosopher Ibn Sina (c. 980-1037), known in the West as Avicenna, whose philosophy influenced such great thinkers as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Born near Bukhara, he found patrons among the Samanids of Bukhara and Buyids of Qazvin, Esfahan and Hamadan. Ibn Sina is considered the greatest polymath of the Islamic Golden Age, which revived and interpreted Greek philosophy, particularly the work of Aristotle, transmitting it to later ages. He wrote on philosophy, logic astronomy, alchemy, geology, psychology, Islamic ‘theology’, physics and mathematics, and was a poet.
We shall also visit the tomb of Esther and her cousin Mordechai. Esther, of the Biblical Book of Esther, was purportedly the wife of Xerxes I, and saved her people from genocide. Jews consequently revere her and make pilgrimage to her tomb. The Alavian Tomb, which we also visit, was the Seljuk (12th century) mausoleum of the Alavian family. We shall also view the stone sculpture of a lion that was carved, it is believed, to honour one of Alexander the Great’s fallen generals.
Five kilometres to the southwest of Hamadan, we shall view the Ganjnameh (‘Treasure Epistle’), consisting of two great inscriptions carved in granite on the side of the Alvand Mountain. Darius the Great (521-485 BC) ordered one inscription and his son Xerxes (485-465 BC) the other. Both inscriptions, carved in three ancient languages (Old Persian, Neo-Babylonian and Neo-Elamite begin with praise of Ahura Mazda and then describe the lineage and deeds of these two kings. (Overnight Hamadan) BLD
Kermanshah - 1 night
Day 6: Monday 4 November, Hamadan – Kangavar – Bisotun – Kermanshah
- Temple of Anahita, Kangavar
- Achaemenid Relief and Inscriptions, Bisotun
Today we drive west from Hamadan to the beautiful mountain ringed Kurdish city of Kermanshah. Our itinerary follows the ancient caravan route, a southwestern extension of the Silk Route from China. Our first stop along the way is in the small city of Kangavar, originally a Parthian centre, with a temple to the Aryan goddess of water, fertility, healing and wisdom, Anahita. The Greek geographer Isidore of Charax mentioned a ‘temple to Artemis’ in this region in his Parthian Stations (c. 29 AD), describing the overland route from the Levant to India; in antiquity Artemis was associated with Anahita. Whether or not this is the temple mentioned by Isidore, it is an imposing structure on a high plinth with monumental columns, with Achaemenid and Sassanian sections.
Our next stop is at Bisotun to see the grand bas-relief and cuneiform inscription ordered by Darius I on his accession to the throne of the Persian Empire (521 BC). It portrays Darius holding a bow, a sign of sovereignty, standing on the chest of Gaumata, the Median Magus and pretender to the throne whose assassination led to Darius’s rise to power. Below and around the bas-reliefs are inscriptions in three languages recounting the battles Darius waged in 521-520 BC against the governors who attempted to dismember Cyrus the Great’s Empire. Of the accompanying inscriptions the oldest is in Neo-Elamite, the second in Neo-Babylonian and the last in Old Persian. This is the earliest of such Achaemenid inscriptions, and the first in which inscriptions describing great deeds are associated with monumental relief carving. (Overnight Kermanshah) BLD
Ahvaz - 2 nights
Day 7: Tuesday 5 November, Kermanshah – Taq-e-Bostan – Pol-e Dokhtar – Ahvaz
- Sassanian Reliefs, Taq-e-Bostan
- Sassanian Bridge, Pol-e Dokhtar
Today we drive down from the Zagros Mountains to Ahvaz near the Persian Gulf. Our first visit is to the magnificent Sassanian rock cut reliefs at Taq-e-Bostan, some of the finest of all monumental Sassanian relief sculptures. Set within rock-cut iwans, the reliefs depict the coronation ceremonies of Ardashir I and his son Shapur I, Shapur II and Khosrau II. The monumental reliefs are set at the back of these iwans, and on both sides of one iwan there are monumental reliefs depicting a boar and deer hunt. In the vivid boar-hunting scene, five elephants flush out the fleeing boars from a marshy lake for the king who stands poised with bow and arrow in hand whilst being serenaded by female musicians. In the next scene, a second boat carries female harpists and the king who has killed two large boars. In a third boat the king, stands with a semicircular halo carrying a loose bow signifying the end of the hunt. Below, elephants retrieve the dead boar and sling them onto their backs. This is truly one of the masterpieces of ancient art.
Next, at Pol-e Dokhtar, we shall encounter the remains of a grand Sassanian bridge. Late in the day we drive through an extraordinary long valley carved by an ancient glacier that etched vast ‘surreal’ curved veins into the bare rocks of the valley’s walls. (Overnight Ahvaz) BLD
Day 8: Wednesday 6 November, Ahvaz – Susa – Chogha Zanbil – Shushtar – Ahvaz
- Achaemenian capital of Shush, Susa
- Tomb of Daniel, Susa
- Elamite Ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil
- Sassanian Bridges: Shardovan and Band-e Kaisar, Shushtar
- Shushtar watermills
- 9th century Masjid-e Jami, Shushtar
We are now in ancient Elam, the kingdom of the Achaemenians’ forerunners. From the 3rd millennium BC until the rise of Cyrus the Great, south-western Iran was referred to in Mesopotamian sources as ‘the Land of Elam’ and the name persisted as late as 1300 AD in the records of the local Nestorian Church. ‘Elam’ covers a variety of mini-regions and a multiplicity of communities who seem to have been swallowed up by the Achaemenian Empire yet were powerful enough to attack Babylon in the centuries before the coming of Christ.
Shush (Susa) was originally an Elamite city. It was burnt by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (c.640 BC) and replaced by Darius I, who built the Achaemenian city whose remains now occupy the site. It was his winter residence and must have rivalled Persepolis – which it would have resembled – in its heyday. We shall visit the site which has the impressive foundations of Darius’ Palace and a number of beautiful sculptural fragments – including capitals and some animal figures. Nearby is a fortress built by the French Archaeological Survey in the 19th century to fend off Arab attacks.
We shall also visit the great Elamite Ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil which in scale and grandeur equals the early step pyramids of the Egyptians and the ziggurats of Ancient Mesopotamia.
Susa was sacked by Alexander the Great but survived to become an important centre of Christianity under the Sassanids (224-642 AD). At the centre of the modern town of Susa, below the ancient city, is the Tomb of Daniel, which remains an extremely important Muslim shrine. Architecturally, this shrine (14th-19th century) is significant for its conical muqarnas dome, similar to those of Iraq and Syria; its tile-work and sparkling mirror mosaic also parallel those of nearby Iraq.
In the afternoon we shall drive to the nearby city of Shushtar, which has the substantial remains of two Sassanian bridges, the Shardovan and Band-e Kaisar, and a group of fascinating functioning Sassanian watermills. If possible, we shall also see the 9th-century Masjid-e Jami (Friday Mosque), which is particularly notable as one of the very few pre-Seljuk mosques to be found in Iran. It follows the Middle Eastern trabeated form, the iwan mosque being a later development. (Overnight Ahvaz) BLD
Shiraz - 4 nights
Day 9: Thursday 7 November, Ahvaz – Bishapur – Shiraz
- Bishapur (Bas Reliefs & Sassanian City)
We drive today westwards to Shiraz and on the way stop at the ruined Sassanian city of Bishapur. Here we shall visit a number of buildings, including the Zoroastrian fire temple of the type which was to influence the development of the Iranian iwan mosque, and the Palace of Shapur. There are also the remains of one of the earliest mosques in Iran which, like that of Shushtar, is of the Middle Eastern trabeated form. There is also a prison used to house Romans defeated by the Sassanians. These captives laboured to build the city and assemble floor mosaics which are obviously of the Roman type. The ruins are overlooked by extraordinary rock formations. Adjacent, in a small river valley, are a number of huge Sassanian reliefs cut into the living rock of towering, sheer cliffs. Carved in emulation of their Achaemenid predecessors, they depict the Victory of Shapur over Valerian, Philip the Arab and Gordianus, the Coronation of Bahram, the Victory of Bahram over the Arabs, and the Bringing of Camels to Bahram. In the afternoon we continue to Shiraz. (Overnight Shiraz) BLD
Day 10: Friday 8 November, Shiraz
- Eram Garden
- Tomb of Saadi
- Pars Museum, Nazar Garden
- Arg-e Karim Khan (exterior only)
- Aramgah-e Hafez (tomb of Hafez)
- Shah Cheragh
Shiraz is capital of the south Iranian region of Fars, originally the core of the Achaemenian Empire. It is located on a narrow basin high (c. 2500m) in the Southern Zagros, in the shadow of yet higher mountains. It is approached through very dramatic, narrow gorges which have been used as trade routes for millennia. Its agricultural hinterland, for which it serves as the market, is home to the Qashgha’i and Khamseh peoples. It gave its name to the grape (Syrah) for which it is justly famous. Shiraz is probably of Achaemenian foundation like its two great neighbours, Pasargadae and Persepolis, but is not mentioned in sources until the Islamic period (c.693). It benefitted from trade (and its strategic position) between the cities of inner Iran (eg. Isfahan) and the south coast, and avoided destruction by the Mongols and Timur. On the contrary, it prospered under the Il Khanids (1256-1353) and Timurids (1370 -1506), becoming a great centre of the arts and learning, the birthplace of two of Iran’s most famous poets, Sa’di (c.1207-1291) and Hafis (1324-1389). It suffered great vicissitudes, however, such as major earthquakes, (from which Isfahan has been spared), and was eclipsed somewhat under the Safavids (1501-1732). Nevertheless, its architectural culture was still vibrant enough to produce Ostad Isa, architect of the Taj Mahal. It became capital of Iran for a short time under the Zand dynasty (1750-1794) which was from this region. Under Zandian rulers such as Karim Khan (Regent: 1750-1779) it gained many beautiful buildings and the gardens for which it was famous.
We shall spend the day visiting major monuments in Shiraz. We begin with a visit to one of the gardens for which Shiraz was renowned, the Eram Garden, graced by avenues of large trees, a 19th century pavilion, and a rose garden. Nearby is the Tomb of Saadi. Abu-Muhammad Muslih al-Din bin Abdallah Shirazi, better known by his pen-name as Saadi, was one of the major Persian poets of the medieval period. He is not only famous in Persian-speaking countries, but he has also been quoted in western sources. He is recognised for the quality of his writings, and for the depth of his social and moral thoughts.
The old Nazar Garden was one of the largest formal gardens in Shiraz during Safavid rule (1501–1722). During the Zand dynasty (1750–1794) Karim Khan built an octagonal structure which was called Kolah Farangi or ‘Foreigner’s Hat’. It was used to receive and entertain foreign guests and ambassadors and hold official ceremonies. Today the pavilion houses the Pars Museum and is the final burial place of Karim Khan Zand. The pavilion features exquisite brick designs, tiling, pictures and carved stone dadoes. Nearby we also visit the Aramgah-e Hafez (tomb of the Persian poet, Hafez) who’s legacy in modern Iranian literary culture is as significant as Chaucer, Shakespeare and William Blake’s in the English speaking world.
Our day concludes with a visit to the Shah Cheragh, a funerary monument and mosque housing the tomb of the brothers Ahmad and Muhammad, sons of Musa al-Kadhim and brothers of ‘Ali ar-Ridha. The tombs became celebrated pilgrimage centres in the 14th century when Queen Tashi Khatun erected a mosque and theological school in the vicinity.
Shah-é-Chéragh is Persian for ‘King of the Light’. The site was given this name due to the discovery of the site by Ayatullah Dastgha’ib. He saw light glowing from a distance and decided to investigate, discovering sunshine emanating from a grave. The grave was excavated, and a body wearing armour was discovered. The body also wore a ring saying al-‘Izzatu Lillah, Ahmad bin Musa, meaning “The Pride belongs to God, Ahmad son of Musa”. This was the burial site of the sons of Musa al-Kadhim. (Overnight Shiraz) BLD
Day 11: Saturday 9 November, Shiraz – Pasargadae – Persepolis – Naqsh-e Rustam – Shiraz
- Achaemenian dynastic tombs, Naqsh-e Rustam
- ‘Ka’bah-i Zardust (‘Cube of Zoroaster’), Naqsh-e Rustam
Today we drive to the heartland of Ancient Persia and visit two great Achaemenian capitals, Pasargadae and Persepolis. The former was the city of Cyrus the Great; his massive tomb remains intact among its evocative ruins. Standing upon a high, square plinth, this grand, simple gabled stone structure is silhouetted against the mountains. With the Islamisation of Iran, this tomb came to be reinterpreted as the resting place of Mader-i-Suleiman, Solomon’s mother.
Most of the day will be spent exploring Pasargadae’s magnificent successor, Persepolis, the ceremonial city of Darius I, ‘the Great’ (522-485 BC). The city rests upon a massive three-tiered platform, the back of which is cut into a spur of the mountain, Kuh-i Rahmat. It was at this huge ritual city – it comprises a series of palaces, throne and audience halls and has no residences other than those of its kings – that the various peoples of the Achaemenian Empire gathered to pay homage and offer tribute to the King of Kings. This probably occurred each spring, at the time of the ancient Now Ruz (New Year). The climax of your visit will be the superb sculpted friezes lining the base of the Great Audience Hall, which depict processions of representatives of the subject states. Here, among others, are to be seen Ethiopians, Libyans, Drangians, Arabians, Sogdians, Indians, Parthians, Gandarians, Bactrians, Egyptians, Scythians and Greeks, all in their national dress, sporting characteristic coiffure, and carrying products of their various lands. Although Persepolis is said to have been burned by Alexander the Great, (possibly in revenge for the firing of the Athenian Acropolis), much of it remains and it has been carefully restored. We shall visit such areas as the Great Audience Hall (Apadana); the Hall of One Hundred Columns; the Palace of Xerxes; the Palace of Darius; the Tripylon, and the Royal Treasury.
After Persepolis, we shall drive to the nearby tombs at Naqsh-e Rustam, believed to be those of the Achaemenian rulers Darius I (522-485 BC), Xerxes (486-465 BC), Artaxerxes (465-424 BC), and Darius II (423-404 BC). The compositions of the majestic façades of these tombs, which are cut into the living rock of the cliff face, echo the façades of Achaemenian palaces. Bas-reliefs adorning them depict representatives of vassal nations supporting the king’s platform on which he stands in worship before a fire altar, facing Ahura Mazda, whose winged symbol floats above. Nearby are earlier Elamite reliefs obscured by the later works, and Sasanian examples. These demonstrate the perseverance of the sacred status of the site which in its power, grandeur and majesty parallels Petra in Jordan. At Naqsh-e Rustam, in front of the tombs, we shall explore the great cuboid structure which has variously been described as a Zoroastrian fire temple, a provisional tomb used whilst the rock hewn sepulchres were being prepared, and a repository for royal standards and sacred texts. The composition of this building’s façades suggests three storeys, but this is not the case. The façades are graced with inscriptions in Pahlavi, Sassanian, Parthian and Greek. (Overnight Shiraz) BLD
Day 12: Sunday 10 November, Shiraz
- Madrasa-ye Khan
- Masjid-e Atigh (with Khodakhune)
- Masjid-e Nasir al-Molk (Pink Mosque)
- Narenjenstan (Orangery)
- Masjid-e Vakil (Regent’s Mosque)
- The Vakeel Bazaar of Shiraz
The citadel walls built by Karim Khan dominate the city centre, being part of a complex intended to rival the Safavid palaces of Isfahan. In 1627 Imam Gholi Khan founded a great madrasa (Madrasa-ye Khan) and invited Sadr-al-Din Šhirazi (Molla Sadra) to teach there. This theological school features exquisite tiles with calligraphy and floral motifs.
Shiraz has a number of very important mosques and shrines including the Masjid-e Atigh, of early foundation (894 AD) but mainly of Safavid construction, which houses the beautiful mid-14th century Khodakhune (House of God), originally a repository for precious Qu’rans. We shall also visit the Masjid-e Nasir-al-Molk, or Pink Mosque named for its highly decorated tiles of which the dominant colour is pink.
In order to gain a feel for the domestic life of Shiraz’s merchant class we shall also visit the 19th century Narenjenstan (Orangery), a very beautiful house and garden originally belonging to the Ghavam family. Its courtyard is lined with colourful painted friezes and its main porch fronts a room covered with scintillating mirror mosaic.
After lunch we visit the Masjid-e Vakil (the Regent’s Mosque) built by Karim Khan (1773) which has vast north and south iwans, a fine mihrab and grand minbar.
Our day ends with some time at leisure to explore the Vakeel Bazaar of Shiraz, located in the historical center of the city. The market was originally established by the Buwayhids in the 11th century AD, completed mainly by the Atabaks of Fars, and renamed after Karim Khan Zand in the 18th century. The bazaar has beautiful courtyards, caravansarais, bath houses, and old shops which are deemed among the best places in Shiraz to buy all kinds of Persian rugs, spices, copper handicrafts and antiques. (Overnight Shiraz) BLD
Kerman - 2 nights
Day 13: Monday 11 November, Shiraz – Sarvestan – Kerman
- Sassanian Palace, Sarvestan
Today we drive to Kerman, which is one of a number of oasis trading centers which border the great desert region of Iran, the Shahr-i-Lut. In the morning we shall stop at the small Sassanian palace, built by Bahram V (420-440 AD), at Sarvestan. This building presages much in Iranian Islamic architecture. For example, it has triple iwans on its façade and squinches support its domes. One unique feature is the brick pillars upon which one of its domes rests. Oleg Grabar has argued that this building may be a type of shrine modelled upon a palace. As we drive east we approach the most arid part of Iran. You will see great salt lakes like those of Central Australia, set in massive tracts of desert with a backdrop of high mountains. Every now and then you may see caravanserais, which were crucial to the abundance of trade across this forbidding landscape. (Overnight Kerman) BLD
Day 14: Tuesday 12 November, Kerman – Mahan – Rayan – Kerman
- Gunbad-e Jabalye, Kerman
- Aramgah-e Shah Ne’matollah Vali (Sufi shrine), Mahan
- Bagh-e Shahzade gardens, Mahan
- Rayan Citadel
Today we drive south-west to the Sufi shrine of Aramgah-e Shah Ne’matollah Vali in Mahan. On the outskirts of Kerman we first encounter the Gunbad-e Jabalye (Jabal-i Sang) or ‘Mountain of Stone’. This domed octagon is one of the most majestic buildings of Iran. Neither its exact date nor purpose are known; it is probably from the late 12th century. At Mahan we visit the lovely 15th-19th century shrine complex of Nur ad-Din Ne’matollah, famous poet and mystic, who died here in 1431. Members of the Sufi order he founded visited the shrine which was begun in the 15th century with courts added by the Qajars in whose reign he was particularly venerated. Its magnificent tiled dome was begun by Sha ‘Abbas in the late 16th century. Before leaving Mahan we shall visit a particularly large and beautiful walled garden, the Bagh-e Shahzade, with characteristic water courses and pavilions; its layout echoes that of a Persian carpet and foreshadows your visit to the palace precinct of Isfahan.
We then drive out from Mahan to the ancient citadel of Rayan. Founded in the in the Sassanian period, it is square in plan and has sixteen watch-towers and very high walls. Like so many citadel cities in the Persian and Central Asian tradition, it is divided into three different sections. The first is an urban area, in which merchants and artisans lived. The second was for the military and the third, the royal palace. Iran’s unique religious history is reflected in the fact that there are a mosque, madrasa and Zoroastrian fire temple in the urban precinct. There is also an old cemetery (Early Islamic period) outside the citadel with the ruins of an early caravanserai next to it. (Overnight Kerman) BLD
Yazd - 2 nights
Day 15: Wednesday 13 November, Kerman – Yazd
- Moayedi Ice House
- Mushtagh Ali Shah
- Masjid-e Jami
- Masjid-e Imam
- Hammum-e Ganj ‘Ali Khan
- Chaykhune-ye Vakil Teahouse in the Bazar-e Vaikl
- Caravansarais between Kerman and Yazd
Kerman is located 1722 metres above sea level in the lee of the Zagros, which nearby rises to an altitude of 3962 metres. Reputedly founded by Ardashir I in the 3rd century, Kerman was an important station on the trade routes between Central Asia and Khurasan in the north, and the Gulf of Persia to the south. When Marco Polo visited the city in 1271, it was supplementing its activity as a major emporium with the manufacture of harnesses, armour, and turquoise jewellery. Kerman, however, suffered from its remote location in south-western Iran. It was sacked by Timur and constantly threatened by the armies of neighbouring Afghanistan, as well as by dynasties like the Qajars. It nevertheless became an important centre of the Muzafarids (1314-1393) and its Masjid-e Jami, which has changed little since its construction, best demonstrates their introduction of overall tile decoration of an expanded colour range; they added green, brown and golden yellow to the spare use of light and dark blue, white and black that characterised Il Khanid buildings.
We also visit the unusual Moayedi Ice House with its high wall in the shadow of which ice formed, and the Mushtagh Ali Shah, a Qajar shrine for two saints whose double domes have fine tiles modelled upon the dome of the nearby Aramgah-e Shah Ne’matollah Vali complex in Mahan. Kerman also boasts a fine 19th century caravanserai which reflects the wealth garnered by the city. It has colourful tilework and two very distinctive badgirs (wind-towers).
The 17th-century Ganj ‘Ali Khan complex in Kerman comprises a mosque, madrasa, hammam and caravanserai with exquisite tile mosaics; the floral designs, flying cranes and swooping phoenixes of its iwan arch spandrels echo carpet designs of the time. The Masjid-e Imam was constructed in the Seljuk period (1051-1220) but has been much altered since. Here we shall visit the interesting Hammum-e Ganj ‘Ali Khan which has fine vaulting, and lunch in the distinctive Chaykhune-ye Vakil Teahouse in the Bazar-e Vaikl. The trade which coursed through the region led to the construction of many caravanserais in the desert. We shall visit two particularly noteworthy examples on our way to Yazd. (Overnight Yazd) BLD
Day 16: Thursday 14 November, Yazd
- Towers of Silence
- Ateshkade (Zoroastrian Temple)
- Masjid-e Jami
- Mausoleum of Sayyed Rokne-e-Din
- Alexander’s Prison
- Tomb of the Twelve Imams
- Mahmoudi House
- Amir Chakhmagh Complex (Bazaar and Masjid-e Takyeh)
- Baq-e Doulat
- Khan Hammam
We begin our program in Yazd with a visit to the Zoroastrian so-called ‘Towers of Silence’ where until recently the Zoroastrians exposed the corpses of their dead to be picked clean by the vultures to avoid defiling the earth. This custom is still practiced in India by the Parsi sect who migrated there from Persia in the 8th century to avoid Islamic hegemony.
We next visit the functioning Zoroastrian Temple of Yazd (Ateshkade) in which an eternal flame, said to have burned continuously since antiquity, still glows.
The Masjid-e Jami (Friday Mosque) of Yazd gained its basic form under the Muzaffarids (1324-1365), but many elements of its decoration such as the main iwan façade date from the Timurid period (1442). Its entrance iwan, reconstructed in the 15th century, is covered with fine tiles, has high, slender proportions, and is flanked by two towering minarets. The main iwan façade is one of the glories of Yazd, its rich mosaic tile decoration culminates in a magnificent canopy of tiled muqarnas. Either side of the qibla dome are found innovative side oratories; although some believe they derive from Sassanian palaces. They are well-lit by high windows, are a brilliant white, and therefore make the central domed hall much lighter than those of most Iranian mosques.
Nearby is the small mausoleum of the scientist Sayyed Rokne-e-Din which may be entered by men and women on consecutive days. The interior of this small shrine of the 14th and 15th centuries has exquisite calligraphy.
We walk on to the prison purportedly built by Alexander the Great which has an interesting display showing the history of Yazd and then visit the Tomb of the Twelve (Shi’ite) Imams, none of whom are actually buried here. The building is from the Seljuk period (1038-1194) and is adorned with remnants of fine examples of Kufic calligraphy.
We then visit the 19th-century Mahmoudi House and the Amir Chakhmagh Complex, said to have been designed by the wife of Chakhmagh. It has a small bazaar and mosque (Masjid-e Takyeh). Nearby is a large wooden palm nakhl, used during passion plays (ta’ziyeh: mourning of the dead) which re-enact the murder of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet. These plays may, however, be based upon pre-Islamic festivals.
We shall also visit 17th-century Bah-e Doulat, residence of the former ruler Karim Khan Zand, which is renowned for having the highest badgir (wind-tower) in the city, and the Khan Hammam, originally the bath house of the main caravanserai, now functioning as a teahouse. (Overnight Yazd) BLD
Isfahan - 3 nights
Day 17: Friday 15 November, Yazd – Na’in – Ardestan – Isfahan
- Three caravanserais (25km south of Na’in)
- Sassanian Castle, Na’in (exterior only)
- Masjid-e Jami, Na’in
- Pirniya House & Kavir Museum, Na’in
- Masjid-e Jami, Ardestan
Today we drive northwest to Isfahan via Na’in. On the way, we shall stop at three old caravanserais. These inns for wayfarers, like those we visited near Yazd, served the trade route from Isfahan to the south.
In Na’in we visit one of Iran’s oldest mosques. Na’in is an ancient city dominated by its Sassanian citadel. Its Masjid-e Jami was begun in the middle of the 10th century. It originally followed the Middle Eastern schema of a trabeated mosque but unlike its Syrian, Egyptian and North African counterparts, its roof was carried by piers and arches. Iran lacked the antique columns found everywhere in the Mediterranean world after the collapse of the Roman Empire, which were used by early mosque builders. Its courtyard façade is decorated with magnificent simple brick patterns. Another distinctive element in the complex is the underground mosque beneath the ablutions courtyard. This sheltered those in prayer from the heat of summer days. Nearby is the Pirniya House, a small palace which holds an interesting ethnographic museum displaying such arts as the weaving of camel hair.
After lunch in Na’in, we drive north to Ardestan to visit one of Iran’s earliest four-iwan mosques. We then drive east to Isfahan and check in to Iran’s most magnificent hotel, situated in a converted Safavid caravanserai. (Overnight Isfahan) BLD
Day 18 & 19: Saturday 16 & Sunday 17 November, Isfahan
- Imam Khomeini Square
- ‘Ali Qapu Palace
- Masjid-e Sheikh Lotfollah
- Masjid-e Imam
- Masjid-e Jami (Friday Mosque)
- Shahrestan, Khaju & Si-o-Se Bridge
- Vank Cathedral
- Chehel Sotun Museum & Park
- Pigeon Houses
- Chube Bridge
Isfahan (‘troop assembly point’) occupies a strategic node at an altitude of over 2000 metres on the Zayandeh Rud (river) between the Zagros and the central desert. It stands on the main communication routes south from Tehran and Qom and southwestward to the head of the Persian Gulf. Known as Gabal by the Achaemenians and Jay by the Sassanians, who made it a garrison town, it became two settlements under the Arabs. The Buyids united both communities with new walls in the 10th century. Some of its earliest monuments are Seljuk (11th century). It suffered little destruction from Chingiz Khan (1235). Timur, after punishing it for revolting, then added to its fine architectural patrimony in the 14th century. From a regional centre of government with an international reputation in trade and industry it was elevated to the status of royal capital by the Safavid Shah ‘Abbas I (1591). It suffered eclipse when the Zands (1750-1794) moved their capital to Shiraz and the Qajars established theirs in Tehran. Isfahan’s historical importance and location in an earthquake-free zone have bequeathed it a fine architectural heritage. Its labyrinthine Friday Mosque is of particular importance because it incorporates elements from nearly all major periods and is therefore a veritable text book of Iranian architectural history. The great urbanistic and architectural enterprises of the early Safavids, on the other hand, demonstrate a magnificent unity of purpose and planning. The Meydan Square, mosques, palace pavilions and bridges of this enterprise constitute the apogee of Islamic architectural design and urbanism.
We spend two days visiting monuments from all periods with special emphasis upon the Friday mosque and the Meydan (Imam Khomeini Square), which incorporates on one side the grand entrance to the bazaar; on another the beautiful Masjid-e Sheikh Lotfollah, the private oratory of Shah ‘Abbas I; on the third the splendid Masjid-e Imam, the pinnacle of the development of the Persian mosque, and on the fourth the ‘Ali Qapu. The last of these served both as a triumphal entrance to the Royal Palace and a pavilion from which the court could watch military parades and polo games taking place in the massive square below.
We shall see how Shah ‘Abbas I drew the centre of the city from the Friday Mosque which is at the other end of the bazaar to this great ensemble and how he and his successors flanked it with a magnificent palace precinct in which we shall visit such lovely pavilions as the Chehel Sotun. Its great porch is, like the ‘Ali Qapu, supported by tall wooden columns (a rarity in Iran) and its interior is graced with fine wall paintings. The Chehel Sotun stands in a magnificent garden area which is laid out in the plan of a great carpet.
We also visit a number of Isfahan’s beautiful bridges, designed as places of recreation as well as corridors linking city precincts, and the Christian quarter, a specialised precinct developed by the Safavids for Isfahan’s Armenian minority. It centres on the magnificently decorated Vank Cathedral. We shall spend much time exploring Isfahan’s rich bazaar and look at the city’s vernacular architecture, including its distinctive pigeon houses. (Overnight Isfahan) BLD
Tehran - 1 night
Day 20: Monday 18 November, Isfahan – Natanz – Abyaneh – Kashan – Tehran
- Masjid-e Jami, Natanz
- Village of Abyaneh
- Bagh-e-Fin (Fin Garden), Kashan
We depart early this morning for Tehran. Our first stop is the city of Natanz, where we visit the Masjid-e Jami. We then drive into the mountains to the foot of Mount Karkas, to the tiny unchanged village of Abyaneh, with its distinctive red hued walls, which was purportedly the last place in Iran to convert to Islam. We shall walk through the main street, destitute of young people (who have all left for the big cities), possibly encountering old people in traditional dress and viewing the distinctive vernacular architecture. We shall also visit Imamzade-ye Yaha and Zeyaratgah shrines. An Imamzade is a descendent of the Prophet and this name is also applied to his or her tomb. This small complex has a lovely pool at its centre.
From Abyaneh we continue our journey north to Kashan to visit the Bagh-e-Fin, a palace that combines the architectural features of the Safavid, Zandiyeh and Qajar periods. It is famous for its abundant water-supply (Cheshmeh Sulaimani), a garden thick with trees, a pool with numerous spouts, and an old historical bathing-house (where Amir Kabir was murdered).
On our way to Tehran we shall also drive past Qom which, with Mashad, is the holiest shrine city of Iran. In 816 Fatima, sister of Imam Riza who is buried at Mashad, died in Qom, and ever since this has been a great centre of pilgrimage. The great shrine complex which we cannot, unfortunately, visit, was built between the 16th and 19th centuries. One dome was decorated by Shah ‘Abbas I, builder of Isfahan. The other was clothed in gold in the 19th century by the Qajars, as was their practice. (Overnight Tehran) BLD
Day 21: Tuesday 19 November, Depart Tehran
- Reza Abbasi Museum
- The Treasury of National Jewels
- Airport transfer for participants departing on the ASA ‘designated’ flight
This morning we will visit one of Tehran’s greatest museums, with arguably one of the finest collections of Persian miniature paintings in the world. It is named after a great painter of the Safavid period and contains exquisitely beautiful jewellery, pottery and paintings from as early as the 14th century.
In the late afternoon we visit the great Treasury of National Jewels, which contains Imperial crown jewels of Iran, the centrepiece of which is the Peacock Throne. The extraordinary display of jewellery, bejewelled clothes and furniture is almost overwhelming.
The tour ends in Tehran. In the evening participants travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flight will transfer to the airport to take their flight home to Australia. Alternatively, you may wish to extend your stay in Iran. Please contact ASA if you require further assistance. BL