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Discover a true hidden gem

By Esra Alhamal

It is always bewildering for people when I tell them that I love travelling to Iran. One of the first questions is always “But how? Are Saudis even allowed there?”. My answer used to be “Yes!”, but since last year’s ongoing political drama the answer has changed to “It’s complicated.” Until last year, I could get a three-month visitor visa on arrival, although it is worth noting that the visa process differs from one country to the next. Politics have affected the tourism in Iran strongly, and the situation continues to change rapidly. When I was in Iran in 2015, I saw large numbers of Arab, European and Asian tourists. More and more people have finally realised that the portrayal of Iran on the media is not accurate. Everyone I know who has visited the country instantly fell in love with the beautiful nature, the breath taking architecture, the hospitable people and the mouth-watering cuisine.

“Politics have affected the tourism in Iran strongly,and the situation continuesto change rapidly.”

I visited Iran for the first time with my family when I was fifteen and was lucky enough to return several other times, but for many years I had hoped for the opportunity to explore the country’s art and architecture. In 2015, I was given the opportunity to join an art-study trip guided by Farkhondeh Ahmadzadeh, Shahriar Piroozram and Paul Marchant of The Turquoise Tour. We visited four main cities; Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan and Kashan. We also stopped by few places on the way including Persepolis, Natanz, Nain and Maybod. The trip lasted 14 days and although I was exhausted by day 13, I still didn’t want it to end! I took over five thousand photos but I still wish I could go back and take more.

We started our trip in Shiraz, which housesdozens of breath-taking architectural gems including Madrasa Khan, Nasir Almulk Mosque
and Hafiz Tomb. Nasir Almulk Mosque, also known as the Pink Mosque, is one of the mostphotographed mosques anywhere in the world and is known for its dancing pink lights thatare reflected on the stained glass doors. The lights were installed as a treat for believers who wake up early for morning prayers because the reflected patterns are most elegant at dawn. If you ever have the opportunity, I strongly recommend you visit for yourself. Once you’ve feasted your eyes, try Shiraz’s outstanding cuisine which is second to none. Hands down, Shiraz’s food was the best that I had ever eaten on my many visits to the country and elsewhere. It was not just the usual kebabs and rice; they had many specialty dishes with fresh ingredients and just the right amount of spice. Dining in restaurants is a “thing” in Shiraz, much more so than the rest of Iran, and the food was cooked with such care and heart.

From Shiraz we travelled north to Yazd, our second stop. Yazd is somewhat different to the rest of Iran and when I first arrived I wasn’t sure what to expect, but by the time I left I was totally in love with the city. The unique Jamea Mosque has become one of my favourite mosques ever. In fact, to give you an indication of just how much I loved it, I went to the same mosque three times in the space of two days and took pictures every single time! Built in the 12th century and renovated in the 14th century, the mosque is known for its Azari style and dominant Persian blue hues.

Yazd’s unique old town centre is reminiscent of Old Fez, with quaint passage-ways and domes peeking over the skyline. Four hours east of Yazd is the breathtaking city of Isfahan, and I was most excited for this stop as I had yearned for years to go back there. As they say “Esfahān nesf-e- jahān ast” (Isfahan is half of the world). Although this wasn’t my first visit to Isfahan, during the visit I took the time to appreciate its unique beauty and Islamic Persian architecture and patterns, despite all the tourists. There are many iconic sights to visit in Isfahan including the Jameh (Friday) Mosque, Shaykh Lutfallah Mosque, Shah (Imam-i) Mosque, Hakim Mosque, Chehal Sutton and Vank Cathedral. What makes Esfahan really interesting is the variety of adorned sites including schools, mosques, palaces and gardens.

“There are many iconic sights to visit in Isfahan including the Jameh (Friday) Mosque, Shaykh Lutfallah Mosque, Shah(Imam-i) Mosque, Hakim Mosque, Chehal Sutton and Vank Cathedral.”

Another must-see in Isfahan is Shaykh Lutfallah Mosque. From the moment I stepped inside, I was amazed at the scale and beauty of both the hallway and the main prayer hall. In fact, I was so awed by its beauty that I had to sit down to take it all in. I wish time allowed because I thought each place we went to needed two visits: one for enjoying the beauty and another for taking pictures!

Isfahan is also full of beautiful bazaars. As our time there was relatively short, I only had the opportunity to visit the bazaar near the main square which was very relaxed and full of fascinating goods from intricate carpets to hand-carved wooden trinket boxes. I wanted to buy everything!

The last stop of the trip was Kashan, and I really wish we could have stayed longer as it was the perfect spot to paint. Although only a two hour drive from Tehran airport, it also felt like the least touristy city, and was full of peace and beauty. During the two days we were there, we visited the Agha Bozorg Mosque which has become another favourite. It was constructed in the 18th century when Islamic design started to become undervalued and is therefore very minimalist compared to the ornate mosques elsewhere.

Every time I visit Iran I find something new to explore and admire. Next on my Iran bucket list are Mashhd in the far north for the hot natural springs and the skiing resorts. I can’t wait to tell you all about it!