Day 160 – 26.10.2016
Lankaran (Azerbaijan) to Tehran (Iran)

It was raining heavily in Lankaran. We got our breakfast packed by the hotel staff and we left early from our hotel in Lankaran towards Iran border.

After a drive of about 45 kms, we arrived at Astara Customs border control early. We were informed that the border would open only at 9.00 am so we were asked to park the car on one side and wait. Once the senior official arrived he invited us to his office and offered a cup of black tea. He was happy to find out that we were travelling through so many countries. While he did not speak any English, we spent about half an hour with him. Reluctantly he let us go as we were getting restless. We had a long way to go after crossing the border. Finally they put an exit stamp and let us out.

We then drove to Iran side and found lot of trucks already queued up to cross the border. We had just arrived near the control gate when one person approached us and asked for our car documents. He then took our passports, ATA Carnet and disappeared for a few minutes. We were not sure who this person was and why he had taken our documents, until after he returned and started guiding our vehicle to the gate. One officer from Iran Customs came along and requested to inspect the goods in our vehicle. We were then asked to move ahead with the vehicle to the customs. After completing the paperwork, we were again approached by the customs official who again checked the car and we were granted permission to enter Iran as the formalities were over. The person who had taken our documents was still in possession of our documents and said we required to take an Insurance for the car and that we had to pay his charges for helping us clear the formalities. We then paid him some amount equivalent to USD 100 for both the insurance as well as his fees and left from the border happily for completing the procedure in less than 30 minutes.

We were now on our way to Tehran and we had more than 8 hours drive. The road for a few kilometres near the border wasn’t very good, with lot of traffic, narrow roads, etc. As we were nearing Tehran the roads were good and we arrived in Tehran almost after sunset. We had to negotiate the heavy traffic to locate our hotel booked by the tour agent who was requested by us to provide his services for hotel bookings with safe parking for our car, providing a guide to show us around various important cities of Iran.

We were told by a lot of people to miss Tehran as it did not have much to offer besides the congestion and pollution. We however decided to still explore Tehran and its relatively short history, ugly mask of concrete, sometimes choking smog and manic streets flowing hot with machines. If we would have taken their advice, we would have missed out this wonderful city of  Tehran – it’s indisputably big, ugly, chaotic and dynamic beating heart.

We observed Tehran to be Iran’s most secular and liberal city packed onto the lower slopes of the Alborz Mountains, with relatively bold fashion, a range of ethnic and international restaurants, chic cafes and plenty of art galleries. While Tehran lacked history, it made up for it with impressive museums.

Our guide Naam var from Iran Journey came and met us at the hotel, Persian Enquilab Hotel, after we had checked in, to discuss about the next days programme. We had to surrender our passports at the hotel reception as per the practice. Also we were informed that we would not be able to use our credit card.

Tehran, as we all know is the capital of Iran with a population of around 9 million in the city and 16 million in the wider metropolitan area and is considered to be the most populous city of Iran and ranked 29th in the world by the population of its metropolitan area.

Majority of the people of Tehran are Persian-speaking people, and roughly 99% of the population understand and speak Persian; but there were also large populations of other Iranian ethnicities in the city such as Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Armenians and Lurs who speak Persian as their second language.

After exchanging some cash at the bank and purchasing a SIM card with the help of our guide we took a local taxi to the Malik National Museum & Library of Iran.

It was an institution formed of two complexes, including the Museum of Ancient Iran and the Museum of the (post) Islamic Era. It hosts historical monuments dating back through preserved ancient and medieval Iranian antiquities, including pottery vessels, metal objects, textile remains, and some rare books and coins, the tens of thousands of Islamic manuscripts, many of which are rare and some unique, make the library one of the largest depositories of its kind in Iran.

We then visited the Golestan Palace made up of several grand buildings set around a carefully manicured garden. We had to buy a separate ticket for each building.

Nasser al-Din Shah (r 1848–96), impressed by what he’d seen of European palaces, built the ‘Palace of Flowers’. Originally it was much bigger, with inner and outer sections to encompass offices, ministries and private living quarters, but several surrounding buildings were pulled down under the Pahlavis.

Next we visited the Ivan-e Takht-e Marmar Audience hall, (Marble Throne Verandah), a mirrored, open-fronted audience hall dominated by a magnificent throne. The throne was supported by human figures and constructed from 65 pieces of yellow alabaster mined in Yazd. It was made in the early 1800s for Fatheh Ali Shah (r 1797–1834), a monarch who managed a staggering (and quite likely very tiring) 200-odd wives and 170 offspring. This hall was used on ceremonial occasions, including the Napoleon-style self-coronation of Reza Shah in 1925.

After leaving the Ivan-e Takht-e Marmar we came to an open sided corner known as Khalvat-e Karim Khani (Karim Khan Nook), all that remained of a 1759 building that served as Karim Khan Zand’s (r 1750–79) Tehran residence. But it was Nasser al-Din Shah who enjoyed this elevated terrace most, smoking qalyan (water pipe) and perhaps contemplating his next asset sale as qanat (underground channel) water bubbled out of the marble fountain nearby. His marble tombstone now stands on the terrace.

Negar Khane Art museum displayed a fine collection of Qajar-era art. It was the brainchild of Nasser al-Din Shah, who had been particularly captivated by European museums.

After being closed for almost 30 years the dazzling Talar-e Ayaheh (Hall of Mirrors) is now open to the public. Built between 1874 and 1877 the hall was dedicated to the Peacock Throne before it was moved to the National Jewels Museum. More recently it was used for the coronation of Mohammad Reza Shah in 1967 (25 years after he came to power) and royal weddings. Today the two adjoining halls house gifts including a large green malachite vase from Russia and 13 huge chandeliers.

Other historic buildings we visited was the Howze Khaneh (Pond Room), named for the small pool and fountain in its centre. It houses a collection of paintings and sculptures of 19th-century European royalty – generously given to their Qajar counterparts by the same European monarchs.

At the east end of the garden was the imposing Shams-Al Emarat (Edifice of the Sun) which blend European and Persian architectural traditions. Born of Nasser al-Din Shah’s desire to have a palace that afforded him a panoramic view of the city, it was designed by master architect Moayer al-Mamalek and built between 1865 and 1867. Inside is a sequence of mirrored and tiled rooms and houses a collection of photographs, together with yet more furniture and vases gifted by European monarchs.

The Azadi Tower formerly known as the Shahyad Tower “King’s Memorial Tower”, is a monument located at Azadi Square. It is one of the symbols of Tehran, and marks the west entrance to the city. It was commissioned to mark 2,500 years of the Persian Empire

After a lovely Iranian lunch of Kebabs we walked to the Grand Bazaar. The maze of bustling alleys and the shopkeepers that filled the Grand Bazaar made a fascinating, somewhat daunting, place to explore. Despite being known as the Grand Bazaar, we were told that most of the architecture was less than 200 years old.

Most lanes specialised in a particular commodity: copper, paper, gold, spices, and carpets, among others.

The guide then took us to see the smallest tea house of the world – Haj Ali Darvish’s tea-house and nearly a hundred years old, located in the middle of the Tehran bazaar among hundreds of others.

We spent some time to listen to the stories of the old owner who inherited this job from his father, and has since maintained its history and identity, never allowing it to be destroyed by ideas of profit. This tea-house is in a very small space, hardly two square meters, with tons of love and kindness awaiting the customers. He talks about many things, about himself and his feeling of loneliness, his memories of his father, the war, hiking in Darakeh mountains, about his sports shop next to Darakeh cultural house, about his good financial status and his fortune to not have to rely on the tea-house for his income, while he made our favourite flavoured tea. He also played old Raj Kapoor songs from his phone for us.

We do not know of his education and he did not mention it, but he knows Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and even Michel Foucault very well. It’s very obvious that he is also very well-travelled both in Iran and abroad, but he insists on introducing himself simply as a tea server.

He has his own way of giving bills to customers. If it is your first time at his tea-house, then the first couple of glasses are on him. He asks all the customers whether it’s their first time or not.

100 years of loneliness and kindness, and a hot cup of tea and the sweet smell of coffee, tea or other herbal infusions really excited us

We then took a cab to see the Tabiat Bridge, the largest multi level, sculptural pedestrian overpass built in Tehran. The word tabiat which means “nature” in the Persian language was designed by Leila Araghian. The 270m long walkway connects Park-e Taleghani and Park-e Abo-Atash over the busy Modarres Expressway. From the bridge we could get a superb view of the north Tehran skyline against the Alborz Mountains and down below the expressway.

Also on one of the level there was a decent food court, a restaurant as well as plenty of places to sit and socialise. Lot of locals seemed to use it as a popular place to hang out in the evenings.

After spending sometime on the bridge, we took a cab to Moghadam Museum, which is considered to be one of the most valuable houses in the world. Beyond the hubbub surroundings of central Tehran stands a scenic old house recently renewed into a splendid museum. As soon as we stepped inside the entrance vestibule of the house, suddenly the daily mechanical life fades away. The walls do not allow the surrounding commotion to enter the private enclosure of this house known as one of the most valuable houses in the world.

The house once belonged to Mohsen Moghadam, the youngest son of Ehtesab-ol-Molk, Tehran’s mayor during Nassereddin Shah’s rule. Moghadam loved painting since childhood. Together with his French wife, they decided to dedicate their lives to set up a museum of all the valuable objects they could collect, as their legacy for the next generations. It was one of the luxurious houses of the Qajar period and has two sections called Birouni (public wing) and Andarouni (private wing). Along with all the other splendid parts of this majestic house, we could also see beautiful golden tiles installed on the walls. Some of these tiles are unique in the world. There is also a small room next to the entrance of the basement with all its doors and walls decorated with valuable and semi-valuable gems and corals.

Moghadam bequeathed his family house to Tehran University in 1972 and died in 1982. After his death, the house was in the custodianship of his wife until 1990 when she handed it to Tehran University. The museum was opened to the public in August 2009 after undergoing restoration.

That was the end of our day in Tehran. We were dropped to our hotel by our guide, who then bid us farewell. The next day we had to leave for Eshfahan.

Day 161 – 28.10.2016
Tehran to Esfahan

Today we were driving from Tehran to Esfahan. To avoid the traffic, we decided to leave early. We had about 5 hours drive before we could reach our hotel at Esfahan.

Esfahan the capital of Isfahan Province in Iran is located about 340 kilometres south of Tehran, with a population of 3,793,104 in the 2011 Census, the second most populous metropolitan area in Iran after Tehran.

Esfahan was once one of the largest cities in the world. It flourished from 1050 to 1722, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries under the Safavid dynasty, when it became the capital of Persia for the second time in its history.

Our guide Ms. Nafiseh had travelled from Shiraz and was waiting for us at Malek Hotel, where we were supposed to be staying for the night. It was one of the rare times that was unable to guide us to our hotel. After spending almost 45mins, searching for the place, we contacted the hotel and our guide came and picked us up from the place where we were waiting.

After checking into the hotel, which appeared to be very nice from the outside had very ordinary rooms. Anyway since it was only for a night we did not bother much as long as we had a good parking space for our Car. We later took a cab and went sight seeing, first to the Naghsh-e Jahan Square also known as Emam Square, one of the largest city squares in the world and an outstanding example of Iranian and Islamic architecture, designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The Sheikh Lutfallah Mosque is also located on the square Meidan Emam. Although the entrance is parallel to the square, the mosque stands oblique angles to the square, in the direction of Mecca.

Although the building is called a mosque, it is not sure if it was also intended that way. The building differs from the other Safavid mosques of that time as it has no iwan, courtyard or minarets. The floor plan resembles the long Iranian tradition of domed mausoleums , but there is no one buried. The well on the square situated mosque Shah completed and performs the function of the mosque.

The multicoloured tiles, with flowers and plants, was one of the most beautiful, awesome and unmissable! The interiors of this Mosque were magnificent and one could never be tired of gazing them. It was highest point of Persian Islamic architecture

We then drove to the Khaju Bridge which was built by the Persian Safavid king, Shah Abbas II around 1650, on the foundations of an older bridge. Serving as both a bridge and a dam, it linked the Khaju quarter on the north bank with the Zoroastrian quarter across the Zayandeh River.

Khaju Bridge was unique and had 23 arches. The bridge was 133 metres long and 12 metres wide. The pass way of the bridge is 7.5 meters wide, made of bricks and stones with 21 larger and 26 smaller inlet and outlet channels. The pieces of stone used in this bridge were over 2 meters long and the distance between every channel and the ceiling base is 21 meters. The existing inscriptions suggest that the bridge was repaired in 1873.

Khaju is one of the bridges that regulate the water flow in the river because there are sluice gates under the archways over the river. When the sluice gates are closed, the water level behind the bridge is raised to facilitate the irrigation of the many gardens along the river upstream of this bridge.

On the upper level of the bridge, the main central aisle was utilised by horses and carts and the vaulted paths on either side by pedestrians. Octagonal pavilions in the centre of the bridge on both the down and the upstream sides provide vantage points for the remarkable views. The lower level of the bridge was accessed by pedestrians and remains a popular shady place for relaxing.

We were informed that the Mausoleum of Arthur Pope and his wife Phyllis Ackerman was situated nearby.

Next we visited the Siosepol bridge with 33 arches, known as the Allah-Verdi Khan Bridge. The stone arch bridge crosses the river Zayandeh and is a familiar example of bridge design of the dynasty of Safavids . The bridge consists of two rows of 33 arches. At the start of the bridge, it has a wider base and supports a tea house. The bridge is about 298 meters long, 14 m wide and the longest span is 5.6 meters.

We then visited The Vank (Cathedral) an Armenian Apostolic Church in Isfahan. The cathedral is officially called Holy Savior Cathedral, built in the early 17th century .

Abbas in order to promote trade in his new capital, mainly the silk trade, he built a new neighbourhood, New Julfa, and enabled them to build their own churches. In 1606 they built their first cathedral, later between 1655 and 1664 was replaced by the present building. To date, the church is still used for religious services. In the altar are the relics of St. Joseph of Arimathea.

Besides the cathedral, we understand that there are 12 Armenian churches in Isfahan. Some of these churches are the Bethlehem Church, the Church of Mary in Isfahan and the St. George Church.

Next to the cathedral was a museum with several artifacts from the history of Armenians in Isfahan and the first printed Armenian Bible, in the year 1665 in Amsterdam .

The Shah Mosque (Masjid-i-Shah), or the King Mosque also called the Mosque of the Imam Ayatollah Khomenei.

We then visited the Shah Mosque, the construction of which had begun in 1611 by the order of Shah Abbas I the Great. Around the courtyard were smaller prayer rooms and spaces for the madrassa. The dome of the mosque was 52m high and light blue in colour. Some parts of the building are covered with beautiful mosaics. The rest of the building is covered with seven-color glazed tiles, which were cheaper than mosaic. The building has a band with white letters with religious texts, executed in thuluth-kalligrafie.

We also visited Ali Qapu a palace in Isfahan located on the west side of the square Meidan Emam built around 1595. Construction proceeded in several stages, by Shah Abbas I the Great of the dynasty of Safavid.

The building had the paintings of the nature of Reza Abbasi, the court painter, and his disciples. There were both flowers, birds depicted as other animals and people painted around.

We then visited the grand bazaar of Isfahan located on the north side of the main square Meidan Emam. The bazaar was built at the end of the 16th century, by Shah Abbas I the Great. Abbas I drew thousands of people to his new capital Isfahan, including many merchants.

We then went back to our hotel after dinner and retired for the night.

Day 162 – 29.10.2016 
Esfahan to Shiraz via Persepolis

On our way to Shiraz, we had lunch and then we stopped over at Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire founded by Darius I in 518 B.C., Persepolis was built on an immense half-artificial, half-natural terrace, where the king of kings created an impressive palace complex inspired by Mesopotamian models.

The magnificent ruins of the Royal City of Persepolis which bears an unique witness to a most ancient civilization, rest at the foot of Kuh-e Rahmat (Mountain of Mercy) in south-western Iran, and is among the world’s greatest archaeological sites, renowned as the gem of Achaemenid (Persian) ensembles in the fields of architecture, urban planning, construction technology, and art. The construction of city’s immense terrace was started about 518 BC by Darius the Great, the Achaemenid Empire’s king. On this terrace, successive kings erected a series of architecturally stunning palatial buildings, among them, was the massive Apadana palace and the Throne Hall (“Hundred-Column Hall”).

Persepolis was the seat of government of the Achaemenid Empire, though it was designed primarily to be a showplace and spectacular centre for the receptions and festivals of the kings and their empire. The terrace of Persepolis continues to be, as its founder Darius would have wished, the image of the Achaemenid monarchy itself, the summit where likenesses of the king reappear unceasingly, here as the conqueror of a monster, there carried on his throne by the downtrodden enemy, and where lengthy cohorts of sculpted warriors and guards, dignitaries, and tribute bearers paraded endlessly.

The archaeological ruins at Persepolis are authentic in terms of their locations and setting, materials and substance, and forms and design. The present location of the Persepolis terrace and its related buildings had not changed over the course of time. Restoration work was being carefully carried out keeping in mind the authenticity of the monuments, utilising traditional techniques and materials in harmony with the ensemble. No changes have been made to the general plan of Persepolis. Moreover, there are no modern reconstructions at Persepolis; the remains of all the monuments are authentic.

We spent almost 3 hours at the site and there was so much to see and understand that we could have easily spent a whole day, but with very little time on hand, we had to proceed on our journey to Shiraz.

After arriving at Shiraz we checked in at Park Saadi hotel near the city centre.

After a small break, we went for a city tour with our guide, Nafiseh.

Shiraz was one of the most important cities in the medieval Islamic world and was the Iranian capital during the Zand dynasty (AD 1747–79) when many of its most beautiful buildings were built or restored, has become synonymous with education, nightingales, poetry and wine.

Shiraz is the sixth largest city in Iran with a population of 1.5 million is the capital of the province of Fārs and one of the oldest commercial cities of Iran. The city is nicknamed “the city of roses and nightingales” and is known as the city of poets, literature, wine and flowers.

The city is located in the mid zuiden Iran and in the north-west of Fars Province, 919 kilometres south of Tehran. Shiraz is a green plain at the foot of the Zagros Mountains, at an altitude of about 1500 meters above sea level. The north of the city flows the river Roodkhane Ye Khoshk, which is dry for part of the year and empties into the Maharloomeer.

The town lies in an area with a temperate climate with regular seasons, and many gardens and fruit trees.

A city of poets, Shiraz is home to the graves of Hafez and Sa’di, both major pilgrimage sites for Iranians. It’s also home to splendid gardens, exquisite mosques and whispered echoes of ancient sophistication that reward those who linger longer than it takes to visit nearby Persepolis, the area’s major tourist drawcard.

We then visited the Tomb of Hafez and its associated memorial hall, the Hāfezieh which are two memorial structures erected on the northern edge of Shiraz, Iran, in memory of the celebrated Persian poet Hafez, who lived in the 14th century in the city and is considered one of the greatest poets in the world.

Hafez was born in 1315 in Shiraz and died there in 1390. He knew his verses by heart and was also a court poet. During his life he was a popular figure among the Iranian people. After his death, he was buried in the cemetery in Musalla Tuinen, which he described in his poems. In 1452 governor Babur set up in memory of him a small domed building and built a pond near his grave, with gardens around with different paths, streams, flower beds and rectangular ponds landscaped and planted orange trees, which makes it a pleasant place for tourists. Also, there is a traditional tea house. The dome of the tomb is illuminated at night and also the best time to visit.

We then walked towards the Qur’an Gate, which is a detached historic gate in the Iranian city of Shiraz at the northeastern entrance of the city, on the way to Marvdasht and Isfahan, between the mountains Baba Kouhi and Chehel Maqam and near the Allah-O-Akbar Gorge. The gate is now part of a park where the Shirazi’s normally come to relax during their leisure hours.

The gate was built in the 10th century in which two handgeschreven Korans of Sultan Ibrahim (grandson of Tamerlane) were kept. Travellers who thus permeated by the gate would receive the blessing of the holy book when they started their journey from Shiraz. In 1937 the two Korans were removed from the gate and moved to the Pars Museum in Shiraz, where they are still kept.

We also visited Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque also known as the Pink Mosque, a traditional mosque in Shiraz located near Shāh Chérāgh Mosque. Extensive coloured glass is used in its facade, and considerable pink colour tiles are used for its interior design, from where it got its name. It was really beautiful.

The guide, Nafiseh along with her friend then took us to an Iranian restaurant which served Indian food for dinner. We had lovely Indian food after which she took us to have Indian Masala Chai at a small tea shop.

After dropping us back at the hotel, they bid us goodbye as we were not meeting her the next day.