Iran Part 2: Vast Desserts – Famous Salt Lakes and a Myriad of Mosques

In my today’s article, I’m going to continue telling you about my unforgettable trip to Iran. Check out the first part here.

So the road was taking my Iranian guide Ali and me to Isfahan, the city in central Iran, mostly known for its grand Persian architecture. It takes around 3-4 hours to get there from Yazd. Yet we decided to make a stop at a picturesque spot called Varzaneh that was lying on our way to the destination point.

Endless sand hills in Varzaneh

Varzaneh is perhaps the most well-known desert town in Iran due to its spectacular sand hills. Since it is mostly a rocky country, seeing real dunes in the middle of nowhere is something that attracts crowds of tourists to this place. We had a lot of fun driving through the sandy desert, taking some pictures on our way. At some point, while we were driving along the sandy unpaved desert trail, my guide and I almost got stuck in the sand, but owing to his professional driving skills we ended up going over the sandy parts without getting into trouble. It wouldn’t be too nice to get stuck in the middle of a desert… even though it’s relatively close to other big cities (Varzaneh is located 105 km southeast of Isfahan and 240 km away from Yazd). So we really enjoyed the landscape and took some nice pictures there.

A lonely dune

But the magic points of this region are Gavkhouni wetland and its gem, the salt lake, located close to the desert. I heard that the wetland was more than 15km² in the area, and so I had to see it. A large amount of salt and a perfectly smooth surface create the impression of frozen water. And this white water spectacularly contrasts with the bright blue sky. We even managed to drive across the white ground because there was not much water left in the lake at that time. It consisted mostly of solid parts so one could easily drive across the “lake”.

Lots of workers were extracting salt there but we still managed to see some spaces where there was actually a lake with lots of nice different colors peculiar for the salt lakes. It was an interesting experience perhaps also due to the fact that I’ve never been to the salt lake before.

The famous salt lake

From there we continued straight to Isfahan, one of the biggest towns of Iran.

Isfahan is located four hundred kilometers south of Tehran. Having visited this place, you immediately understand why it is also called the “pearl of Persia”. Isfahan is a very picturesque city. In ancient times, this city was part of the Elamite Empire and was called Aspandana. It was considered one of the main Medes cities of that time. The city later became an important military region due to its powerful fortifications. After many years of struggle for power, the Arabs seized the city. Unfortunately, the new owners drove it into decline. And it was only in the tenth century that Isfahan began to regain its former significance.

Now the Iranian city has revived and is successfully developing, particularly owing to the many tourists who come here to see the sights of Isfahan. It can easily be called the most European city in this country and the one most developed both culturally and economically. Once in Isfahan, I immediately realized that this city is very different from everything I had seen in Iran before.

The Biggest Square in the world after Beijing

My hotel was pretty close to one of the tourist attractions called Naqsh-e Jahan Square.

It is an important historical place and one of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and it is actually a square.

Built between 1598 and 1629, it is 160 meters wide and 560 meters long (having an area 89,600 square meters). The territory of the square is encircled by buildings from the Safavid era.

You can see the Imam Mosque on the south side of the square, Ali Qapu stands opposite this mosque, and on the eastern side, there is another mosque known as Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. At the northern side of the square, Qeysarie Gate opens into the Isfahan Grand Bazaar.

The history of this place is quite amusing.

In 1598, when Safavid Abbas Shah decided to move the capital of his empire from Qazvin (north-west of the empire) to Isfahan (the center of the empire), he ordered to completely rebuild and re-plan the new capital. To make it happen he attracted about 50 thousand artists, artisans, and merchants from all over the country. The center of the new city, as well as its main part, were decided to be built on the right bank of the Zāyande roud (“The life-giving river”).

The project was supposed to turn the salt desert surrounding the Isfahan and the Zagros Mountains into an oasis that would embody the idea of Islamic paradise.

Another view of the renowned square

Thus, Abbas Shah distanced his capital from any future attacks of the Ottomans who rivaled the Safavids and other Turkic peoples. At the same time, Abbas Shah gained greater control over the Persian Gulf, which by that time had become an important trade route for Dutch and British East India Companies.

The main architect of the city plan was the famous mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet Shaykh Bahai, who focused the construction program on two key features of Shah Abbas’s master plan. It was the Chahar Bagh avenue (“four gardens”), flanked at either side by all the prominent state, religious and educational buildings, including the residences of all foreign dignitaries, and Naqsh-e Jahan Square (“Exemplar of the World”), around which the bulk of the architectural masterpieces of Isfahan was built.

It was an important step in centralizing power here. Shah Abbas gathered three main components of power in Isfahan: the spiritual power represented by the masjed-e-shah, the power of merchants, represented by the imperial bazaar, and, of course, the power of the shah himself, who lived in the Ali Gapu palace in the western part of the square.

Abbas also wanted to turn Isfahan into the richest city in the East, so he decided to create all the necessary infrastructure for trade activities in the center of the city, which, as I mentioned, was the square itself. The shah could see everything that happened at the bazaar from a special viewing platform, framed by 18 cedar columns and located in his palace. In case of any incident, the shah’s guard appeared on the square and imposed order.

By the way, the square is depicted on the back of a contemporary Iranian banknote of 20,000 riyals. Nowadays, the square is known under the names Naksh-e Jahan Square and as Imam Square. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the square was called Shah Square.

There is a large pool with fountains in the center of the square and lots of green spaces, shops, artisan shops, restaurants and tea houses around the promenade.

The Shah Mosque

Imam Mosque or Shah mosque on the south side of the square is considered a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and impresses with its sky-blue dome and rich mosaics on portals, minarets, arcades, and in prayer halls. It is surrounded by two thin minarets of turquoise color with a height of about 50 m. The construction of the mosque required almost 18 million bricks and about 473 thousand pieces of tiles. It started in 1611 and terminated in 1629, the last year of Shah Abbas’s reign when its high dome was finished.

Its portal was constructed to face the square, but the mosque’s orientation is toward Mecca.

It is one of the holiest in Iran, full of silver and gold inside. It was quite an experience to see the interior shrine (unfortunately, it’s not allowed to take pictures inside). I also went to other buildings in the area, saw the park with lots of Iranians strolling around. The place was full of carpet traders wanting to sell me their goods.

Having seen enough of the famous square, I headed to the Khaju Bridge, another popular site of the city. For over 300 years, the beautiful Khaju Bridge over the Zayandeh River has been one of the main symbols of Isfahan. It is considered to be one of the oldest and most beautiful bridges in the East. The Khaju Bridge was built in 1650, in those days the city of Isfahan was located on the Great Silk Road and was at its height. The very first bridge over the Zayandeh River was built much earlier than the mid-17th century and the new bridge was built by the order of Shah Abbas II.

So a new 4-story bridge was built within the shortest possible period of time. Its construction consisted of 23 arches. The Khaju Bridge is 105 meters long and 14 meters wide. Initially, the bridge was intended not only for crossing the river, but the galleries of its ground floor were also intended for the rest of the royal family. The locks were equipped under the bridge, thanks to which it was possible to regulate the water level in the river and use it for irrigation purposes.

The next day we left Isfahan to see Kashan. On our way, we decided to turn off the main road and drop into the picturesque village of Abyaneh. This is a mountain village that is widely advertised by tour guides and has one striking feature — its unusual color. It is all brown-red, due to the special composition of clay, used in the construction of all the buildings in this village.

The scenic red village of Abyaneh

Abyaneh is considered one of the oldest settlements in Iran and has existed for at least 2,000 years. People still live there. Sometimes their houses look desolate, but some people are renovating their dwellings.

We know that in the 7th century, Arabs invaded the territory of Persia, forcibly imposing the Islamic religion. They didn’t do it with the help of missionary sermons but by eradicating Zoroastrianism by torture and murder. To avoid forced conversion to Islam, many followers of the Zoroastrian religion went to live in the mountains and deserts. This is when in these places, in a narrow mountain valley, several small settlements appeared. Abyaneh is one of them, a village that has existed here for centuries.

The surrounding soil contains a large amount of iron, which gives the earth a red color. Everything around reminds some Martian landscape. All the buildings of the village have a similar color because the sand for them was collected here. It is quite a bit of a walk to see everything around.

The village was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage.

One of my favorite fruits

Abyaneh is also famous for its pomegranates, so I couldn’t but buy a few from a local.

The next point on our route was Kashan, where we were supposed to spend the night. Kashan isn’t that interesting but it does have one interesting site.

The Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse is a 16th-century public bathhouse built during the time of the Safavid era but was damaged in an earthquake in the 1770s and later renovated during the Qajar period. Having vaulted ceilings and exquisite mosaics and paintings, this gorgeous structure is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved historic bathhouses in Iran today.

The bath is decorated with amazing ornamental tiles, some of which are turquoise and gold. The bathhouse has the shape of a large octagonal hall with an octagonal pool in the middle and surrounded by eight pillars separating its outer sitting area. The roof of the bathhouse is made of multiple domes that contain convex glasses to provide sufficient lighting to the bathhouse while concealing it from the outside. Serving as a museum and having been declared a national heritage site, the bathhouse is named after Imamzadeh Sultan Amir Ahmad, whose mausoleum is nearby.

Borujerdi House in Kashan

Beside visiting the baths, I walked randomly around the town, exploring its old buildings and visiting the old mosques. Not too much activity going on there.

I also visited a nice green garden similar to the one in Yazd and Meybod.

Fin Garden is considered one of the most beautiful Persian gardens, surrounded by trees and shrubs planted along its pathways. The tall trees and the abundance of water are in contrast to the hot desert surrounding it. The history of the garden dates back to the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century and its restoration took place in the 19th century.

The next day we were already going to Tehran. Though, there was another interesting spot on our way we couldn’t miss. Being the seventh-largest metropolis in the country, the city of Qom is not visited by many foreigners owing to the fact that it is a holy place for Shia Islam.

The 2nd holiest shrine of Shia Islam

If Tehran is the official capital of Iran, then the city of Qom, located 150 km to the south of Tehran, is considered the country’s spiritual center. And although Qom lies on the way to Isfahan, only few foreign tourists visit it. The city of Qom is an uninteresting millionaire city, built up with ordinary box houses and not rich in tourist attractions. However, Qom is an unusual city. It is home to a shrine, where millions of pilgrims from all parts of Iran and other Muslim countries flock every year. Its gem is called the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh and it is considered by Shia Muslims to be the second most sacred city in Iran after Mashhad. It is truly a great and majestic place.

Imam Hasan al-Askari Mosque

By the way, it was in Qom where the first COVID-19 case in Iran was reported and at the moment the city has the highest COVID-19 infection and death rate in Iran. It doesn’t seem surprising because of all the crowds and no social distancing whatsoever one can see there.

Having visited the Shrine we went to the Teheran where I said goodbye to my guide Ali. I didn’t have much money left as well as I didn’t feel very comfortable being in Iran all by myself without having a guide, so I decided to dedicate the whole day to work and enjoy the Persian cuisine of the hotel where I was staying. My journey continued the next day when I had a flight to Kurdistan which I’m going to talk about in my following reports.