Falling for the most beautiful blue city of all

When I google “beautiful blue tile city” two names come up every time – The city of Esfahan in Iran, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Sorry Google, you are wrong – the Blue Mosque is gorgeous but it’s no city!

My feelings for Esfahan were short and sweet. The city did no wrong, I would love to have spent more time in Esfahan but instead I ended up having a whirlwind sightseeing dash in a rented taxi. Why? On entering Iran we were given 7 day visas, and at the time it was conventional wisdom that it was easy to get visas extended in Esfahan. Not that day though, our request for an extension was denied, and we had four days left to cross the country and depart into Pakistan.

Did we want to test what would happen if we overstayed our visa’s in Iran? No! So we decided to spend the rest of the day in Esfahan, dash to Persepolis the following day and then drive in shifts for the remaining days to make sure we got through the Baluchistan desert to the border in time. Our nice slow overland trip had suddenly become a race.

But in spite of that mad dash it was impossible not to notice the historic but modern city centre of beautiful blue tiled buildings, enhanced with graceful squares, wide tree-lined boulevards and stunning bridges. It seems everything old and beautiful in Iran is known by many names. We headed straight to Naghsh-i Jahan square, (also known as Imam square) to see the Friday Mosque, (or Masjed-e-Jameh) with it’s many gates, halls and domes.

The Grand Bazaar is right next to the mosque, very handy. There are few things that will excite me more than a grand bazaar, souk or medina, but I did have one big constraint. In 1990, it was illegal to take a persian carpet out of Iran if you were a foreigner, so I could only look, not buy. As a carpet lover, and frequent buyer in my travels, that was hard, really really hard. And I did have money to spend. Not my usual state of affairs as a backpacker but it happened like this.

On entry to Iran, we were required to catch US$100 at the official exchange rate. On reaching Esfahan the previous evening, we had gone to the bazaar to exchange money at the real rate. I changed another $50, at about 20 times the “official” rate. And then I had a problem, the wad of notes they handed over was about 4 cm thick and was really difficult to stuff discretely into my money belt. I thought it would last me another 10 days and some market shopping.

Now without the visa extension I pretty much needed to spend it all in one day – Thomas Cook were not going to exchange it back in London!. And I couldn’t buy a carpet. Ah, the agony. So we scurried around the beautiful Grand Bazaar, and I ended up buying a huge pile of locally printed table clothes and napkins (I know, what every backpacker needs!), lots of hand made leather accessories, and a few souvenir blue and white tiles.

Martyrs Cemetery, Esfahan, Iran
Martyrs Cemetery, Esfahan, Iran

A much more sobering stop was at the Martyrs Cemetery,  a huge symbol of the devastation of the Iran/Iraq ten year war. Row upon hundreds of rows of tombstones with pictures of the young men of Iran who had fallen. When the family hadn’t been able to supply a photo, there was a picture of the Ayatollah instead. It was ironic that the reminder of the Iran/Iraq hatred made us feel relatively safe to be in Iran while the first Gulf war was being waged next door in Iraq.

Khaju Bridge, Esfahan, Iran
Khaju Bridge, Esfahan, Iran

And we watched the sunset behind Khaju Bridge, with it’s rush of water and it’s beautiful repetitive arches, I really really wished I could stay in Esfahan longer – damn that visa.

Persepolis – the most amazing ruins most people will never see

The unique 2500 year old ruin of the capital of the Achaemenid Empire? The site of the 1971 extravagant celebrations of 2500 years of monarchy which provoked a backlash that grew into the  1979 Islamic revolution? Are you with me yet? Possibly not, as the spectacular old Iranian city of Persepolis is not a site visited by many tourists, with Iran still seen as an unlikely holiday destination for most westerners.

The spectacular ruins of Persepolis, Iran.

First built circa 550 BC, and often rebuilt after being razed to the ground over the centuries by such luminaries as Alexander the Great, I found the ruins of Persepolis spectacular, with a style different to anything I saw in neighbouring countries. I particularly liked the strange animals like the griffions and the “push-me-pull-you” horse. The name Persepolis literally means “Persian City”. I stayed in the alluringly named nearby town of Shiraz, becoming somewhat disappointed when I remembered that Iran is a non-alcohol country.

The party of 25 centuries in Persepolis, Iran.

I think I might’ve enjoyed being at the (reputedly) $200 million party thrown by the Shah of Iran at Persepolis in 1971, celebrating 2500 years of the Persian monarchy. Who wouldn’t enjoy a guest list of A-list royalty, 5000 bottles of champagne, meals courtesy of Maxim’s de Paris, and a luxurious air-conditioned “tent” city fitted out with marble bathrooms, the finest French bed linens and exquisite Persian carpets? Well, possibly the ordinary Iranians who were banned from going anywhere near the festivities.

The party that changed Iran.

Many experts credit this over-the-top party as the “beginning of the end’ for the Shah, proving how out of touch he was with ordinary Iranians and their beliefs. The festivities ignored centuries of Islamic rule in Iran, provoking scorn from a certain Ayatollah Khomeini, and added momentum to the groundswell of discontent that led to the revolution in 1979.

After the revolution Persepolis was initially despised by the regime for its association with the former excesses, and it was left to fall into disrepair, much as I saw it when I visited 11 years later in 1990. But recently Iran has begun to promote Persepolis as a tourism destination again, and is even promoting plans to rebuild the famed “tent city”, this time as a tourism centre and accommodation for tourists – may be worth a visit after all these years.

#fridayfaces – how to spot the Kiwi’s in Iran 1990

taxi girls Esfahan, Iran
taxi girls Esfahan, Iran

How to spot Kiwi girls going through Iran on an overland truck (or sitting in the back seat of a taxi) in 1990? – “Raybans and Reeboks” gave us away every time, even though we were covered in the full black chador and headscarf.

Photos of the faces of people I come across in my travels (and sometimes me too) take me right back to that time and place.


Bam, Iran, the world’s oldest mud fortress

Twenty years ago, while racing across country to get out of Iran before our visas expired (now there’s a story for another day), we came across the world’s oldest mud fortress, the Citadel of Bam, just as the last of the afternoon sun was hanging over the horizon.

Glowing red in the sunset light as we drove up, and quickly falling into the gloom of dusk, we sprinted through it’s 2000 year old streets and wound our way up to the very top of the citadel. The view was like something Hollywood might dream up, falling away beneath me in all directions were the streets and buildings of a city made entirely of mud bricks, clay, straw and the trunks of palm trees.

A city had stood there almost two thousand years, and the citadel and surrounds that I was looking at had been built 400-600 years previously – all in mud, surrounded by desert. It was a fleeting visit to somewhere so unique that I would never forget it.

In 2003 Bam was hit by a large earthquake, which killed 25,000 people and destroyed 80% of the citadel and old fortified town, as well as much of the new town that had grown around it.  A horribly sad, tragic event.

The experts say there is some optimism that an international effort to excavate the site and slowly rebuild parts of the Citadel will one day restore at least part of its former glory. In the meantime the earthquake exposed the older layers of mud brick structures which is extremely useful for archaeologists. I have a sad feeling that travellers now will never have the opportunity for the same awe and wonder that we felt when we first spied Bam.