Come with us to Iran! 1. In the historic cities on the feast of Ashura. 2. The centuries-old desert towns of Iran

After last year’s highly successful tour to Iran, and this June’s photo tour in Iranian Kurdistan, now we invite our readers on two new Iranian trips. Although they are two independent one-week tours, we announce them in one post, so that if you want, you can participate on both, and with a minimum of repetition see new things on each. The first route leads us through the historic cities of Iran in the festive week of Ashura, while the second tour is an expedition to the lesser known thousand-year-old towns of the Iranian desert.

We arrive to both tours by plane, through Istanbul to Tehran. The flight starts in the night preceding the program (on 9 and 16 October, respectively) from Istanbul, and arrives early the next morning (10 and 17 October) in Tehran. The flight back from Tehran is also at dawn, on 17 and 24. The price of the flight tickets, due to the uncertain conditions in Istanbul, is at a historic low point: it is only 120 euros from Istanbul and back from Tehran with the Turkish Pegasus Airlines company.

Whether you have already decided, or you need some further encouragement to make the right decision, here you can read our collected posts on our previous Iranian tours and on Iran.

• First journey. On the feast of Ashura in the historic cities (9-17 October)

The two consecutive days of Tasuʿa and Ashura are the largest celebration of Shiite Iran. Fifteen hundred years ago, on 10 October 680, or, according to the Islamic calendar, on the tenth day of the month of Muharram, the soldiers sent by the perfidious Sunni caliph Yazid clashed at the city of Kerbala in Irak with the army of the true Imam, Husayn. The battle ended with the murder of the Imam and his folowers. On this day, the whole Shiite world mourns that event, and that with the defeat, the complete Shiite trend went off the shoreline in the history of Islam. Nevertheless, most Iranians do not experience Ashura as a feast of mourning. In the celebrations organized on these two days and during the following week, they rather rejoice that the true faith has survived all trials, and that when the last Imam, the Mahdi, descendant of Husayn, will come back at the end of days together with the Christian Jesus to restore the rule of justice, the Shiites will regain their legitimate rights, and the Sunnis – particularly the despised Arabs – will finally sink to the bottom of hell. This is what they celebrate, this they re-enact in parades with the participation of hundreds of people and in bazaar theater plays, prior to which they organize free public dinners in every Iranian city, especially in the historic cities. Therefore, it is the best time to go through the historic cities and get acquainted with them, from Tehran through the wonderful merchant cities of Kashan and Isfahan, and the centers of ancient Persia, Pasargade and Persepolis, to Shiraz, the hometown of poets, roses and wine.

10 October: The feast of Tasuʿa in Kashan

Our flight leaving Istanbul on 9 October arrives at 10 in the early morning at the airport of Tehran. Here we are awaited by the but that will take us to Kashan, the thousand-year-old caravanserai-city. On halfway we stop in the town of Qom, in “the Shiite Vatican”, where the commemorative rites go on all night in the gorgeous mosques. Our Kashan accommodation will be in the four-century-old Kamal-ol-Molk guest house, and our Kurdish friends who run it will be with us throughout the course of the holiday, just as they did last year. In the morning we will make up for our backlog of sleep, and then starting at noon we immerse ourselves in the feasting city. Together with the locals we enjoy the lunch that the local mosques offer for free. We wander through the old clay town of Kashan, from the alleys of the bazaar to the Agha Bozorg Mosque. Late in the afternoon we take part in the festive parade, followed by a dinner in the mosque of our friends.

11 October: The feast of Ashura in Nushabad and Kashan

In the morning we go out to the nearby desert town of Nushabad, where on this day they commemorate the Battle of Kerbala with a great historic costume procession on camel and horseback. With the help of our friends, we try to penetrate into the famous underground city (World Heritage site), which is closed on the festival, but in Iran everything can be arranged through personal contacts. We visit the town’s mosque, and for the lunch we return to Kashan. In the afternoon we take part in the Ashura Day parade, and in the evening we will be hosted by the community of another mosque.

12 October: From Kashan through Abyaneh to Isfahan

In the morning we visit the historic merchant houses in Kashan, we go out to Shah Abbas’ five-century-old pleasure garden (World Heritage site), and then we set out to the Vulture Mountain, to Abyaneh, the Red Village, which was converted to Islam only a few hundred years ago, and still vividly preserves its ancient Persian Zoroastrian traditions. On the way we pass along the tanks guarding the Natanz uranium enrichment center (photographing is strictly prohibited, even from the bus, but looking is not), and we stop at the 13th-century Natanz mosque, built by the Mongol khans. Late in the afternoon we arrive in Isfahan.

13 October: Isfahan

Isfahan is the most beautiful city of Iran, which was also its capital for centuries. In this and the following day we tour the city. From our hotel in the center, through the huge bazaar, we reach the main square, which is considered by art historians to be among the world’s ten most beautiful squares. We visit the Imam Mosque, decorated with the blue tiles of Armenian craftsmen, the thousand-year-old Friday Mosque, we ramble in the eight-hundred-year old and still vivid Jewish quarter, the largest Jewish center in Iran, and we cross the five-hundred-year old Si-o-se, that is, the Thirty-three-hole Bridge, to see the Armenian quarter over the Zayande, that is, Life-giving river. We will visit Persian gardens and palaces, will begin the hopeless attempt of going through the entire bazaar, see nomadic carpets, have dinner in old tea houses, listen to traditional concerts.

14 October: From Isfahan through Persepolis to Shiraz

In the morning we go by bus to Shiraz. This is the longest track of our journey, 490 kilometers, but we do it on highway, and we stop at several beautiful views and historic sites, including Pasargade and Persepolis, the secular and sacred capitals of ancient Persia, impressive even in their ruins (both World Heritage sites). There I lead a detailed art historic tour at the well-preserved buildings, reliefs and king tombs. In the evening we arrive in Shiraz.

15 October: Shiraz and Tehran

In the morning we tour the old town of Shiraz, the bazaar, the beautiful mosques and merchant houses, we have a siesta in a traditional teahouse. In the afternoon we fly back with a domestic flight to Tehran.

16 October: Tehran

In our last day in Tehran we summarize our impressions. We tour the city’s pre-revolutionary center, established in the 1930s by Shah Reza Pahlavi in elegant art deco style, we walk along Lalehzar Street, a ghost street still preserving the spirit of the former “Moulin Rouge of Tehran”, we visit the magnificent ancient Persian exhibition of the National Museum. We picnic in Taʿbiat Park, at the largest pedestrian bridge of the world, opened just a year ago, and we have a farewell dinner in the bohemian Darband district, above the city, in a traditional teahouse. Whosoever at this point leaves us, will fly back in the early morning to Istanbul.

• Second journey. The centuries-old desert towns of Iran (16-24 October)

“The desert is beautiful, because it hides a well somewhere”, writes Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince. And the Iranian desert is but a network of wells. This network is the system of qanats, the vaulted underground aqueducts from the foot of the hill, above which a multitude of thousand-year-old towns are thriving, and whch were included in this year in the list of World Heritage Sites.

“In contrast to us Europeans, the Iranians do not consider the desert as a wilderness. The Indo-European names for this land, desert, Wüste, pustina, come from the Latin, Germanic or Slavic words for “abandoned, empty”, while the origin of Persian کویر kavir is the verb “surround, accept”, related to Latin capere. The Iranian city dwellers go on excursons and picnics to the desert with the same excitement and curiosity as we go to the mountains,” I wrote a year ago, in the introduction to the desert photo album of the renowned Iranian photographer Nasrollah Kasraian, whose images you should necessarily browse through if you want to see what the desert means to the Persians: the abundance stemming from nothing, the true value of life surrounded by devastation, the garden of paradise, whose image was born here, and which is still called by its original Old Persian name paradeis, a walled garden, irrigated with well water, wonderfully productive in the middle of the desert.

It is these gardens of paradise, the wonderful thousand-year-old clay towns built on the qanat system, that we will tour during this journey.

17 October: Arrival to Kashan

The Istanbul flight of 16 October will land on the 17th at dawn in the airport of Tehran; those remaining from the previous tour will meet the newcomers. We board our bus and travel to Kashan, where we arrive late in the morning. After a few hours we visit the old town of Kashan, as well as Shah Abbas’ five-century-old garden of delights (World Heritage site). In the evening we have dinner in a gorgeous traditional tea house next to the garden.

18 October: Karshahi Fortress, Matin Abad

In the morning we visit the historic merchant houses in Kashan, and then we set out to the south along the fringe of the desert. At Matin Abad we first penetrate into the desert, thirty kilometer deep, to visit the medieval clay fortress of Karshahi, which is the largest fortress of this kind at the foot of the Misty Mountains until the restoration of that of Bam (World Heritage site), which partly collapsed in the earthquake of 2003. We sleep in the eco village of Matin Abad.

19 October: Through Ardestan to Nain

From Matin Abad we continue our journey to the south. We stop in the ancient city of Ardestan, we visit the mosque converted from a Zoroastrian fire temple, we walk about in the pomegranate-producing town. In the afternoon we arrive in Nain, in the ancient trading town lying at the crossing of caravan routes at the edge of the desert. Here our friend Mohamad, the local museum director – an impressive perpetual motion, defender of the local traditions, as well as a poet and an excellent English-speaking guide – leads us around the city, the thousand-year-old mosque and in the traditional weaving village two kilometers away. We spend the night in the town, in a traditional hotel converted from a Qajar-era merchant house.

20-21 October: In the heart of the desert. Farahzad and Garmeh

This morning we penetrate eastward into the heart of the desert. The road passes through amazing lunar landscapes, at the foot of barren mountains. We stop at the little town of Anarak, which seems to be a Persian edition of the Tuscan hill towns, and elsewhere at the most beautiful mountain formations. By evening we arrive in the oasis town of Farahzad, where we stay in a family pension established in a centuries-old merchant house and caravanserai. The next morning we make a trip between the desert dunes, where we are taught to ride on the camels of the seventy-strong family herd. In the afternoon we arrive at Garmeh, the other oasis village, at the foot of majestic mountains, in the middle of a beautiful palm grove. Here we stay in another centuries-old family pension, similar to that of Farahzad, where our host, Maziyar, the widely known performer of Persian classical music, plays for us, provided he is not performing in Tehran or Isfahan.

Fine print: Both our pensions in Farahzad and in Garmeh are the most sought-after ones, listed in Lonely Planet among the ten top places to stay in Iran. Nevertheless, they are very traditional guest houses, with tiny rooms, with Persian carpets on the floors instead of beds, and with shared bathroom-toilets. This inconvenience must be taken if you venture this far in the desert, where tourists are still rare birds, and there is no other hotel. However, the inconvenience is abundantly counterbalanced by all the good impressions, and it even helps to experience how the inhabitants of these small towns, visited by us as outsiders, have lived for thousands of years.

22 October: From Garmeh to Yazd

On the way from Garmeh to the south, we stop at the clay town of Bayazeh, we wander around the thousand-year-old fortress, through the maze of the centuries-old houses we get to know the structure of the towns of the desert. Further along the way to Yazd, we go up between the mountains to visit the temple of Chak-Chak, the most important Zoroastrian pilgrimage site in Iran. In the evening we reach Yazd, where we again stay in a hotel converted from a traditional merchant house, but already provided with all the Western comforts, similar to that of Nain and Kashan.

23 October: Yazd and back to Tehran

In Yazd, the caravanserai town on the edge of the desert used to gather the caravans coming from north and west, before they crossed the desert. We submerge into the maze of the old town built of clay, visit still-working caravanserais, centuries-old mosques, merchant houses, sanctuaries. The Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia – which is tolerated by Islam as a “religion of the book” – has the most followers in Yazd, so we will visit Zoroastrian shrines and “towers of silence” outside the town, where the bodies of the dead were placed to decompose, so they may not contaminate the sacred elements of earth, water and fire. We will have our farewell dinner in a traditional caravanserai, and in the evening we fly back to Tehran, from where we return home the next morning.

We will do both journeys first class – according to Iranian categories, “VIP” buses (fine print again: if for the desert tour the bus is not full, then it will be more profitable to rent cars, but more about that later). The participation fee for each tour is € 790, which includes accommodation (half of a two-bed room) with breakfast, traditional Iranian dinner for all seven days, the rented bus, the domestic flight to Tehran from Shiraz (first journey) and Yazd (second journey), as well as the guide fluent in Persian and versed in Iranian history and culture, that is, me. Participation in both tours is only € 1480 instead of 1580. Add to this the price of the flight ticket (approx. € 250 there and back), and the Iranian visa (approx. € 85) to be purchased on arrival at the Tehran airport. Deadline for application: 11 September, Sunday at the usual address