I covered my hair with a scarf, pulled down my sleeves, and put on a long dress. This was the moment we had been waiting for — landing in Tehran, the capital of Iran.
We still felt a bit unsettled about our journey. So many of our friends and family had expressed their concern and we didn’t know what to expect from a place with an obligatory dress code and intense internet censorship.
But Tehran showed us we had nothing to be afraid of and that Iran is a country where so many things are not how they first seem.
Strolling through the cities doesn’t provide well-known landmarks or stunning buildings; Iran isn’t Paris or Amsterdam. Iran is a place where one is rewarded only if they explore and merge into the chaotic city life.
We discovered Iran in that way. The redness of their national spice — saffron — the ivory pink of dried rose petals, the greenness of pistachios and cardamom, and the rainbow patterns of famous Persian carpets. Everywhere from Isfahan to Kerman we saw extraordinary, colorful bazaars in which we could feast our eyes, noses, and ears.
At the bazaar in Kerman, surrounded by vivid tilework of an old, traditional bathhouse, we sipped tea and sat on eye-catching carpets. With time on our hands, we had the luxury of trying more than just the typical black tea with cardamom. We drank an extraordinary combination with saffron we nicknamed ‘liquid gold’ because of its color and the price of the spice back home. But it was the addition of rose buds that we enjoyed the most and ended up buying to take along on our journey around the globe.
With every turn we were overwhelmed by what we saw before us. The most stunning sights we saw were the mosques — they leave other countries’ far behind in terms of color and originality. Each one was better than the previous and left us wanting to see more. The details, work, designs, and variety made us feel like children discovering the world for the first time.
In the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque in Isfahan we noticed bright sun rays coming from one of the windows. Ignoring the few onlooking people, I laid on the ground to get a shot of Jandirk’s silhouette against the light. Once the light faded, I started noticing the colors surrounding us especially the contrast between the ceiling and yellow-purple dome above it. The tones reminded me of a sunset and left me wondering if it was intentional.
In Shiraz, we visited the most popular mosque in Iran, commonly known as, the Pink Mosque. Famous for the rainbow of light creeping in through the windows, it has become the most prominent sight in the country. More than by the light, we were astonished by the beauty of the carpet inside and by the courtyard perfectly reflected in the pond.
We tried to see each mosque during the day and night. One of the most rewarding parts of our exploration was seeing some of the less impressive daytime sights, like Aqa-bozorg mosque in Kashan, turn into vivid places of play and conversation for children and adults.
But the splendid architecture went beyond places of worship. In Kashan, hidden behind thick walls, we found many adobe villas. They can’t be spotted from the street as they don’t have any windows to the outside and were built lower than the street level to remain private. Thankfully, some were turned into museums and hotels so they are available for visiting and we didn’t deny ourselves the chance to visit every single one of them. It was fascinating to see the finesse with which each adobe mansion was constructed. We wouldn’t have expected such careful designs for such buildings. Most were built by wealthy merchants in 18th and 19th centuries with numerous chambers and courtyards, refined patterns on ceilings and walls, and even ceilings created with small pieces of mirrors to imitate the stars with a bit of help from candlelight.
The Persian Empire is still part of Iranian identity and its ceremonial capital, Persepolis, is one of the greatest remaining monuments. Looking at it, we couldn’t believe it was built over 2,500 years ago. Every stone was polished and perfectly shaped for a specific purpose and some remained completely intact. But even more impressive were the massive tombs of Persian rulers in nearby Necropolis. They were expertly carved into the mountain, with extensive reliefs showcasing the power of the Empire and its battles.
After Persepolis it was high time we spent time with nature. Contrary to what many think, Iran is not just an empty desert. It has so much more than sand.
Maharloo Lake near Shiraz was supposed to be pink but, because of several dry years, it turned out to be a salt flat covered with a bit of water that offered breathtaking reflections at sunset.
But it was the Kalout Desert close to Kerman that was a real surprise. There weren’t the massive sand dunes one would expect in such an environment, but rather a different kind of landscape. The rock formation there created moon-like scenery that became a UNESCO heritage site last year.
The sunset and sunrise in the following morning were our favorite moments from Iran. We felt utterly relaxed, peaceful and glad we discovered a place that magical before mass tourism did.
Iran is not a typical travel choice — it can be difficult and challenging. It gave us an idea of how traveling must have been in the past, when you couldn’t just withdraw your money or check everything online. There were so many things that genuinely surprised us — and that’s what travelling is all about, discovering a new land for yourself rather than following the path set up by so many others.
In Iran, we were able to discover for ourselves.