My next step was Kashan, however I did a brief detour via Natanz, on the lower slopes of Mount Karkwa. This tree-lined tree has two attractions: the central mosque Masjed-e Jameh, dating back from the 14th century. It was a lot more sober and simpler than previous mosques I had seen but it was beautiful nonetheless.
The greater area of Natanz has a further claim to fame as the country’s infamous underground uranium enrichment plan. As we drove past it I could see the anti-missile rockets but of course did not take any pictures as this is strictly prohibited, as was reminded to me more than once and I didn’t want any problems with the authorities for thinking I was a spy!!
My taxi then took me to this little picturesque village in the mountains called Abyaneh. Situated nearly 4000 metres up, the ancient village is a warren of steep, twisting lanes and crumbling red mud brick-houses. It is a testament to both the age and isolation of the Abyaneh that the elderly residents still speak Middle Persian, an early incarnation of Farsi that largely disappeared some centuries ago. Many men still dress in the traditional wide-bottomed trousers and black waistcoats. Women’s clothing features Hejabs that cover the shoulders and beautiful colourful dresses printed or embroidered with flowers. They were kind enough to let me take a picture of them!
I headed back to my taxi with my next destination being Kashan. Located between Isfahan and Tehran, Kashan is on the edge of the Dasht-e Kavir. Shah Abbas I was so enamoured with Kashan that he insisted on being buried here rather than in Isfahan. Other historical figures of note who are associated with the town include Abu Musa al-Ashari, a soldier and companion of the Prophet Mohammed whose army took the town in the 7th century AD. Legend has it that his troops tossed thousands of scorpions from the surrounding desert over the city walls causing the terrified Kashanis to capitulate.
During the Seljuk period (1051 – 1220 AD), Kashan became famous for its textiles, pottery and tiles, reaching high levels of accomplishment in each of these cottage industries. Currently local textile artisans are enjoying something of a renaissance of interest in their work, but mechanisation has largely led to the decrease of this ancient craft. Today the town is more widely known as a major centre for the production of rose water, which is sold at dedicated outlets and in the bazaar. I had heard so much of the multiple benefits of rose water I was intrigued to try some! I had already tasted rose water desserts and teas but I didn’t know about other uses yet.
After dropping my bags off at the hotel, I was desperate for something to drink as it was scorching – probably the hottest city since the beginning of my trip. Being Ramadan, not everything was open but I did find a hotel that served cold drinks. I stayed there for a while as I was waiting for the bazaar to reopen. I had noticed that quite a few shops close between 2 and 5pm, probably due to the heat! On my hunt for rose water, I found the seller who was recommended to me. Run by an elderly gentleman knowledgeable in the art of the production of rose water, he showed me the various types he had. The strength of the aroma depends on the point at which the distillation is captured. He was quite a character and had to mime for me the magical effects of rose water – for instance, if you put some on your face before going to bed, after sleeping and waking up everyone will want to kiss you! (All this being mimed!) He also must have thought I needed some refreshing as he kindly sprayed some rose water on me, my headscarf and in my wallet. After such a performance I couldn’t resist buying some rose water and test it to see the results!
I headed back to the hotel and went on the hunt to find a place to eat. Funnily enough I bumped into a french couple for the third time in the restaurant – I am starting to believe that they are following me!
I was up at 5.30 to be taken to the place where roses are picked up. My driver drove me up the mountains and explained that one of the reasons I had to go early was because the prime time for picking roses is between 6am and 10am where the smell is at it strongest. The views in the mountains were stunning and I couldn’t resist hiding in the rose bushes for a while! Our guide showed me the waterfall which irrigates the fields in such a dry environment – it is a little bit like an oasis in that sense. Then I was shown the production and distillation process – the amount of roses needed for rose water or oil is very impressive and it is still very much done in an artisanal manner.
In the afternoon I went to visit a complex of traditional houses not far from where I was staying. I started off with Khan-e Boroujerdi. Legend has it that Sayyed Jafar Natanzi, a samovar merchant known as Boroujerdi, met with carpet merchant Sayyed Jafar Tabatabei to discuss taking his daughter’s hand in marriage. Mr Tabatabei set one condition: his daughter must be able to live in a home at least as lovely as his own. The result – finished 18 years late – was the Khan-e Boroujerdi. Made distinctive by its six-sided, domed ‘badgirs’, the house boasts frescoes painted by Kamal al-Molk, the foremost Iranian artist of the time. I had to say the house is huge and I don’t know how they didn’t get lost! It felt like houses within an even bigger house.
Next I visited Mr Tabatabei’s house to compare if indeed Khan-e Boroujerdi’s was grander! I have to say they looked quite similar in style and were both grandiose. Tabatabei’s house is renowned for its intricate stone reliefs, delicate stucco, and striking mirror and window work. The house is arranged around four courtyards, the largest of which boasts a large pond with fountains, helping to keep the courtyard cool.
My next stop was the renowned Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmad. This 500 year old hammam is considered to be one of the most beautiful and best preserved bath house. A recent restauration has stripped away 17 layers of plaster to reveal the original ‘sarough’, a type of plaster made of milk, egg white, soy flour and lime that is said to be stronger than cement. I had a little sit down on the throne – not sure who would have sat there at the time but made me feel important!
My last stop before going out for dinner was visiting the mosque that was more or less across the street, called Masjed-e Agha Borzog. Compromising four floors, including a large sunken courtyard, an austere dome, tiles minarets and unusual lofty ‘badgirs, this decommissioned 19th century mosque is said to have as many studs as there are verses in the Quran. The mud-brick walls are covered with Quranic inscriptions and mosaics. I found it amusing that there was volleyball net at the back, but sadly there wasn’t anyone to play with me.
Off back to to the hotel as my last day is tomorrow in Tehran before flying back. I have an action packed day to visit the last attractions I didn’t last time and the loop will be complete. See you soon!