The southern region of Iran is rich in historic architecture, ruins of ancient civilizations, fortresses and citadels, deserts with salt flats and oases, nomadic people, and great food. The cities of Shiraz and Kerman have interesting mosques, bazaars, and great restaurants.
Spent a day in the life of the nomadic Qashqai people and learn how to live off goats and sheep for almost everything you need to live your life. Get lost in the ancient city ruins of Persepolis, but be careful not to really get lost in the desert among the Kaluts as the 55 degree Celsius sun will scorch you to death. It is perfectly fine to get lost in the ancient citadels of Bam and Rayen, but watch out for the earthquakes.
To travel between Esfahan to Shiraz in the south (500 km) you need a car or bus as there is no train connection. Shiraz, with a population of over 1.5 million people, has been a regional trade Shiraz but not, formally at least, fermented into wine.
Other than wine, Shiraz is also known as the city of rose gardens, nightingales and poets. Two of Iran’s greatest ancient national poets, Hafez and Saadi, lay buried here. The well-maintained gardens at the mausoleum of Hafez have orange trees, paths, streams, and beautiful flower beds. Families come here to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings. A teahouse on the grounds provides refreshments in a traditional Iranian setting. Saadi Shirazi (Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī, born in 1184 and died in 1283) was one of the major Persian poets of the medieval period and is known for the depth of his social and moral thoughts.
Shiraz is home to the mausoleum of Shah-e Cheragh (the shrine of the lord of the light, or “King of the Light”) which houses the tombs of the brothers Sayyed Ahmad and Muhammad, sons of Mūsá ibn Ja‘far al-Kādhim the seventh (of twelve) Emams. Their tombs became a pilgrimage shrine in the 14th century and is now the most venerated pilgrimage destination in Iran after the shrines of Imam Reza in the northeastern town of Mashhad and Fatima in the town of Qom just south of Tehran.
Shiraz also has some of the most impressive mosques such as the Atigh Jame Mosque, Vakil Mosque, and the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque.
A famous landmark in Shiraz is Arg-e Karim Khani (fort Karim Khani), a citadel which is impressive during the day and night. Arg-e Karim Khani is located in the north-east of town. It was built in 1766-7 to serve as a safe home for Karim Khan Zand, the Kurdish hero, during the Zandieh dynasty that ruled southern and central Iran in the 18th century. As it resembles a medieval fortress, it was also used as a prison at which time all the valuable wall paintings were plastered over! It has four 12 m high walls connected by four 14 m round brick towers at a 90-degree angle. These outer walls are 3 m thick at the base and 2.8 m at the top, which made it a super safe home for Karim!
Qavam House (also referred to as the Eram Palace or Narenjestan e-Ghavam) is a private palace built for the wealthy Qavam family between 1879 and 1886. The garden is home to impressive cypress trees with some dating back 300 years ago.
Shiraz’s Qur’an Gate is located at the northeastern entrance of the city. The Gate was first built in the first century during the reign of Adud ad-Dawla, then partly destroyed and neglected, and then rebuilt in the 18th century during the Zandieh dynasty. Earthquakes severely damaged it during the Qajar dynasty (1785 to 1925).
THE QASHQAI PEOPLE OF FARS PROVINCE
While in Shiraz, take a day-trip south towards the town of Firuzabad which is about 115 km south of Shiraz. With a population of about 62,000 people, Firuzabad is known for being surrounded by a mud wall and ditch. However, of more interest to some visitors is the amazing Qashqai nomadic people who live in the fields around town.
The Qashqai people (also spelled as Ghashghai and other variants) are a semi-nomadic Turkic people who generally speak the Persian language of Farsi as well as their own Qashqai (type of Turkic) language. They are not a Qaracheh, Rahimi and the Safi -Khani people.
They are mostly nomadic pastoralists although families are increasingly settling down in the towns and villages. The traditional nomadic Qashqai people live in tents made of goats’ hair and almost entirely live off their sheep and goats. They frequently move their herds of sheep and goats to new pastures.
THE LOST CITY OF PERSEPOLIS
About 70 km northeast of Shiraz lies the ancient tombs of Naqsh-e Rustam and the lost city of Persepolis.
The First Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, lasted from about 550 to 330 BC and was founded by Cyrus the Great (559–530 BC). The ancient capital city of Cyrus is called Pasargadae, located another 80 km northeast of Persepolis. The tomb of Cyrus can also be seen here in Pasargadae.
During the time of the Achaemenid Empire, the city of Persepolis was their “ceremonial capital”. Some of the earliest remains of the city dates back to 515 BC. Historians found that Cyrus is the guy who chose the site while it was really Darius the Great who should get the credit for building most of the terraces and the great palaces of Persepolis. Whatever old Darius could not complete, his willing son, King Xerxes the Great, completed for his dad. Construction here continued until the downfall of the Achaemenid Empire.
Then came Alexander III, also referred to as Alexander the Great. Alex was a king of Macedon, a state in northern ancient Greece, and he and his forces invaded Persia in the year 330 BC. They captured the city before its treasury could be is to blame though it is not exactly clear if the fire was set intentionally or if it was by accident. Today we don’t have much left to look at, but with some wild imagination, we can imagine the splendour of the city.
The impressive “Gate of All Nations” at Persepolis refers to thy King named it! A pair of Lamassus bulls (a protective deity) with the heads of bearded men guard the gates, although long ago they sadly lost their heads to looters.
The Throne Hall or the Imperial Army’s Hall of Honour (also descriptively referred to as the “Hundred-Columns Palace”) measures 70 x 70 square meter making it the second largest building at Persepolis. He apparently proudly killed his own brother ‘Cyrus the Younger’ and executed several other people whom he didn’t like. He is reported to have had a number of wives and also married several of his own daughters.
Cuneiform inscriptions are clearly visible on window frames at the Palace of Darius I (also called “Tachara Palace” or “Mirror Hall”) which was the exclusive palace of Darius I although only a small portion of the palace was finished under his 36-year rule (522 BC to 486 BC). His son and successor, Xerxes I, completed the palace after his dad died and called the house a Taçara which means ‘winter palace’. This is one of the few places that the fire by Alexander the Great did not destroy.
Darius I (550 BC to 486 BC) was the third king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire and built in all the way from the hills of Lebanon.
KERMAN, HOME OF THE KERMANI PEOPLE
Head back to Yazd and get on the 360 km train ride in a southeast direction to the town of Kerman. Here you will find the lovely Kermani people known for their hospitality and their great talents pateh.
The Ganj Ali Khan Square in Kerman was built between 1596 and 1621 and measures 99 m by 54 m. The Bazar-e Ganj Ali Khan is a Safavid-era market building complex located in the old centre of the city of Kerman. The complex consists of a large square, school, caravanserai, a now non-active bathhouse, an ‘Safavid-era ruler Shah Abbas I.
Also built in the Safavid-era, the Hamam-e Ganjali-khan (bathhouse) is located inside the Bazar-e Ganj Ali Khan. It is now restored as a museum and has mummies showing what the daily bathing routine must have looked like.
Fancy an atmospheric meal? Head over to the Hamam-santoor is a trapezoid-shaped box often made of walnut wood and has 72 strings in 18 sets of four.
Nearby Mahan (37 km from Kerman) is home to the tomb of poet Shāh Ni’matullāh Wali (1330–1431). The Aramgah-e Shāh Ni’matullāh Wali mausoleum of this great Sufi leader dates back to the 15th century when it was partly built by an Indian king who was an adherent of Ahmad Shah Kani’s teaching. Some beautiful wooden doors brought from India still adorn the mausoleum. Shāh Ni’matullāh Wali was an Aleppo-born Syrian poet who settled in the Baloch region of Kerman province and is considered to be the founder of the Sufi order of Nimatullahi.
The nearby Shazdeh Garden (meaning Prince’s Garden) is a historical Persian garden located 6 km from Mahan on the road back to Kerman.
West of Mahan (23 km) is the village and farming community of Joopar (Jupar) with the impressive Imamzadeh-ye Shahzade Hossein mosque. Get a glimpse of rural and village life in and around Joopar.
ANCIENT CITADELS OF BAM AND RAYEN
Back to Kerman, a 3-hour train ride (190 km) goes south to the oasis town of Bam which is most famous for the Arg-e Bam, an ancient citadel dating back around 2,000 years ago to the Parthian Empire (248 BC–224 AD). Most of the current buildings (or ruins) were built during the Safavid dynasty (1501 to 1722 AD). Sadly, a shallow 6.6 earthquake on December 26, 2003 leveled much of Arg-e Bam and killed at least 30,000 people (half the residents of Bam) and injuring an additional 30,000. Since the earthquake parts of the citadel has been rebuilt but some estimate the rebuilding won’t be completed until the year 2040.
Other sights in Bam are the mausoleum of Imam Zade Zeyd, the Mosalla Mosque (Friday Mosque), and the interesting bazaar.
A much better preserved citadel in similar design as the damaged Bam is a beautiful backdrop to the old citadel of Rayen.
From Kerman drive north and then swerve in an eastern direction towards the Afghanistan border. A drive of about 150 km northeast of Kerman past the Zagros mountains (4,000 m) into the vast Dasht-e Lut desert and you could be wondering if you have stumbled into a lost city with miles of eroded towers, walls, and fortresses.
Welcome to “The Kaluts” which is among the hottest places on earth where the temperature easily rises well above 50ºC. Camping (not during the cold winters) is possible though discouraged by some locals who fear the “desert pirates”
The Kaluts, Kerman province, Iran
The Kaluts is the largest expanse of erosion which removes the soft rock while the hard rock remains. While the Dasht-e Lut desert is vast, the Kaluts is concentrated over a smaller area where you can roam on feet, 4WD, or with your scrambler bike. Get loose and feel the freedom!
Further Reading: Globerovers blog post on southern Iran