As the remnants of an empire that once covered almost the entire area from Greece to China, Iran is full of historic wonders. Due to the country's current political situation, it is not exactly a top tourist destination and as such many of these wonders are kept a secret from the rest of the world. As with any historical building, the ten sites listed below each contain a rich history within their spaces. However, Iran’s history is exceptionally complex, layered with dynasties and rulers whose influence extended way beyond modern-day Iran. These sites, therefore, are physical memories of the rich culture that underpins Iranian people today, despite the radical change in the country’s political sphere after the 1979 Revolution. Sacred sites for the Zoroastrians, for example, are still visited and remembered, despite the restrictions placed upon them by the Iranian government. The essences of these sites provide opportunities to learn about and empathize with the history of Iran, beyond what we hear in the news.
1. Shah Mosque, Isfahan
The one architectural site that shows up in the vast majority of Iran travel guides is a space covered in beautiful blue and yellow mosaics—known as Shah Mosque, but officially renamed Imam Mosque after the 1979 Revolution. It is famous for a reason of course, which is why it’s starting off our list. You could spend an entire day walking around the mosque, taking in its details, finding its hidden secrets. One thing you must not miss is the experience of standing under the center of the main dome, on a small square singled out by the fact that it is made of a different kind of stone. Stand there and speak. The echoes that are created by your voice are indescribable, and that experience is worth a visit in itself.
2. Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan
The Ali Qapu Palace is filled with layers of architecture and time, quite literally. The building was built in stages, starting with the compact cubic entrance, then expanding with an "upper hall," adding two stories above the entrance. On top of this came the Music Hall and later the large eastern veranda opening up towards the square. Finally the veranda was adorned with 18 wooden columns supporting a wooden ceiling. Shah Abbas used the palace as a place to entertain his guests during the Safavid Dynasty, explaining the great details contained in every single room to create complex and beautiful decorative forms.
3. Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque, Shiraz
If you get up extra early for one thing in Iran, let it be the Nasir-ol-Molk (or “Pink”) Mosque in Shiraz. Experiencing the quiet room as the sun rises and washes through the coloured glass is a tranquil, humbling experience. Although the room quickly fills up with tourists snapping their cameras, zipping their sweaters and coughing in the dry air, having a few moments to yourself in the early hours of the morning are what makes the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque worth visiting. It allows one to sense the personal, inner space it was meant to create. If Shiraz seems too far out of reach, you can experience the space through a virtual 360-degree perspective here for the time being.
4. Golestan Palace, Tehran
The Golestan Palace is a collection 17 structures in the form of gardens, Iranian craftwork and old royal buildings that were once contained within the "arg" or citadel walls of Tehran. Almost all the structures were built during the Qajar Dynasty, from 1797-1834. Unfortunately, a large number of the buildings were destroyed during the rule of Reza Shah from 1925-1945, due to his belief that the old architecture of the city should not hinder its modern growth.
5. Persepolis, Shiraz
Situated 60 kilometers northeast of Shiraz, Persepolis (literally “the city of Persians” in Greek) was the ceremonial capital of Persia during the Achaemenid Empire around 550-330 BC. The archeological ruins cover a total of 1.6 square kilometers with remnants of enormous columns, two royal palaces and gardens, and what is believed to be the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great. One enters through the Gate of All Nations, where international explorers from hundreds of years ago have carved their names into the walls, now protected by glass barriers. Persepolis’ history is what makes it so powerful, despite the number of tourists that can now be found there.
6. Earth City of Yazd
Yazd is filled with old single-storey mud-brick buildings that are hidden around narrow alleys, creating a maze-like city structure that was initially meant to confuse potential attackers. Most homes contain an inner courtyard, often with a small pond, in order to cool down the buildings and improve air circulation. Some more fortunate residents could afford to build "badgir" or "wind-catchers" that drag fresh air down into the rooms and courtyards, maximizing airflow. Climbing up to a rooftop will open up another world; the earthen landscape that is created by the organic domes and magnificent "badgir" will give you an entirely different perspective on the old architecture of Yazd.
7. Naqsh-e Rustam Necropolis, Shiraz
Located around 12 kilometers northwest of Persepolis are enormous monuments carved into the mountains, housing the final resting places of the Achaemenid kings. Unfortunately the tombs were raided by Alexander the Great, however this does not affect the majestic appearance of their exteriors in any way. The sheer size of the the stone carvings are difficult to grasp, let alone the thought of people laboring under the hot sun to produce them.
8. Qavam House, Shiraz
When the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque begins to get too crowded, you can take a walk to the Qavam House just a short distance away. It was constructed between 1879-1886, and contains a spectacular display of mirrors and reflective mosaics.
9. Tower of Silence, Yazd
Zoroastrians believed that the dead body would "pollute" the earth if buried in it; in order to combat this problem, they built the Towers of Silence close to the sky, where special caretakers would carry up the dead. In these large and exposed circular spaces, the sun and birds left behind nothing but bones, that were later collected and finally disintegrated by lime and water. The Towers haven’t been used since the 1960s, as the Iranian government has banned this practice. At the bottom of the Towers lie the ruins of a small village, almost entirely camouflaged by the desert.
10. Khaju Bridge, Isfahan
Built by the Persian Shah Abbas during the Safavid Dynasty around 1650, Khaju is not only a bridge, but also served as a dam and a popular public meeting space. It boasts 23 arches spanning over 133 meters, though unfortunately little water runs under them today; the Zayanderud is dried out for most of the year, due to the Chadegan Reservoir dam built in 1972 for a large hydroelectric project. Unfortunately, this has dampened much of the life that was once at the center of the city.