Iran, where does one start – the Facebook status proclamation said it best; “It’s complicated“. And so is deciding where to start this blog post…
Iran has a long and complicated history – a history that includes invasion, oppression, glory, opulence and revolution. And not necessarily in that order. If the first thing that comes to your mind is Axis of Evil or “Allahua Akbar” and ISIS, you are in for a big surprise!
A fair question – particularly for Americans.
Firstly, I’ve wanted to go to Iran for over 10 years for photography reasons. As you will see in the proceeding photographs, it is an absolutely beautiful country with world class attractions (23 UNESCO World Heritage sites!).
Secondarily, Persians (As Iranians prefer to be referred to as), are legendary for their hospitality and accommodating nature, particularly for guests/tourists. This proved true everywhere we went…. People were extremely friendly – from people asking about Trump to just wanting to practice English, it was a real delight having people wanting to converse with us and getting to know their way of life.
Lastly, western media or more specifically American media has portrayed Iran in a very negative light for over 40 years. Some of that was earned and some of it due to external influence. (More on that later). but if you do a little bit of independent research, you’ll see that Europeans, Australians, Chinese, Russian and more folks have been touring Iran for decades. It’s like we didn’t get the memo that it was worthy to travel to… while the rest of the world is enjoying all it has to offer.
Wasn’t it scary?
Not one bit. As i mentioned above, people from other countries have been going there for years. It’s a popular destination for seemingly everyone but Americans. No police, no military on the streets, apparently little to no crime (Even in Tehran, their biggest city)… so what gives? Why are Americans so afraid of this place? I think it can be summed up in two words: Islam and Terrorism. Foreigners are treated very kindly in Iran and even more-so when they hear you are from America. I already knew this from watching Rick Steve’s Iran episode on PBS.
But wait, haven’t people been detained in Iran and sometimes even imprisoned? Yes – there have been cases of this. If your family history originally descends from Iranian heritage, even if you are an American citizen – sometimes the Iranian government likes to harass and/or detain folks of this background. There have been isolated cases of tourists without Iranian descent also being detained, but usually for reasons like taking photographs of embassies or military installations etc.
If you are not of Iranian descent and don’t take pictures or write journalism of sensitive subjects, you are likely pretty safe in Iran.
I’ve written a long and detailed page about my views and why i care about Iran which you can view by clicking this link.
The short version is that yes, Iran’s government is a bit… stubborn, blowhards, prideful and support terrorism in some forms. And ultimately, the regime needs an enemy to justify their existence in order to claim to be protecting the people from foreign adversaries. I don’t want to get too political on this page as to detract from the photographs i took there, so that’s why i created this second page to discuss these subjects without cluttering my main message through photography.
For all of Iran’s faults and let’s be honest, it has quite a few… it’s still an extremely worthwhile place to visit and my hope is to prove it by allowing my images to speak for themselves.
So with no further adieu;
We flew from Boston to Doha using Qatar Airways. Great airline but Doha is a new airport and it fails to hit its mark unlike the Emirates do in Dubai.
Doha, Qatar. No gates, you have to take a bus once off the plane to the terminal. I’m not bitter… it’s a freakin’ new airport!
The beautiful mountain ranges approaching Tehran.
Tehran is Iran’s largest city. Similar in many ways to NYC or London. However is it cradled by a snow-capped mountain range and has a great metro which can quickly scurry you out of the city and up towards the mountains to escape the noise and air pollution of the downtown area. Easy to navigate and get around, i personally think it’s best to travel by foot mostly to get a good feel for this city.
Tehran’s Golestan Palace built around the 1700’s. One of the many Unesco World Heritage sites we visited. This was an enclosed citadel right in the heart of Tehran.
One of the many ornate entrances we would see throughout the country…
The extensive use of mirrors was evident here and we would find prevalent elsewhere in the country as well.
We thought this may be one of the nicer walls we’d see, so i took Renu’s picture in front of it. Boy were we wrong…
Also, 5 and 7 color tile seem to be an Iranian specialty and you see it absolutely everywhere.
Extensive use of mirrors. We were told this sometimes helped during the time of candlelight to enhance the reach of light in the room. Seemed plausible.
Semi-translucent marble throne where king used to sit.
You’ll notice a lot of these geometric patterns which are quite common today, even in western styled things, but it all started in Iran.
Really detailed frescos of all the rulers of that time.
Fresh pomegranate juice, everywhere. My favorite.
The busy bazaar in Tehran. Probably the busiest in the whole country. Bazaars are more than just a shopping area…
They serve as a social fabric, people from all classes shop here, talk politics here, young kids hang out here. An awesome place to just sit and people watch.
In some stores you’ll see this over-the-top type stuff, which is borderline gaudy. A bit too much for my taste and kind of interesting that some people would find it acceptable. Maybe it’s a cultural difference, but i can’t imagine folks buying this extremely ornate stuff and feeling good about it. Maybe it’s just me…
Our hotel room in Tehran. Hotel Eskan
This image is very telling to me. So it’s a bunch of domestic brands which to me show that not only is commerce alive and well in Iran, but the sanctions do nothing here. If they can’t buy it (And they can buy everything….) they will find another way to either make or get it.
One of many art installations around Tehran.
This is what many people think of when they think Iran. Death to Israel, death to America! These are really old murals, which supporters of the regime and some student organizations that want to preserve the memory of intervention by foreign governments keep these murals alive. We went around the corner to find a mural that said “Down with the USA”, but it was replaced with a flower installation. To give you an idea of location, these are on the outer wall of the old American embassy, which is next to a bus stop right in the heart of Tehran. They say that foreigners give more importance to these murals than locals do. Most locals ignore it or are some are even embarrassed by it. You only see this stuff here and i think one other place in Esfahan if i remember correctly.
The Shah and his Opulence.
During the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a.k.a ‘The Shah’ in the 1960’s, he deposed Mosaddegh in a coup, which is largely acknowledged as a plot by British and American forces to take control of Iran’s oil/energy production capabilities. Mosaddegh wanted to nationalize oil and keep the money within Iran after all, it was their resource, but the British and Americans were having none of it. So what to do when someone wants to keep the profits of their natural resources? Overthrow them, of course…
The problem with the Shah, aside from essentially being a Western plant… was that he and his wife took their power a bit too seriously, they took acres of land in Tehran’s upper hillside, built lavish everything and the people revolted – as they should have. Just look at all of his digs, i’ve only photographed a very small portion of his estate…
This was the Shah’s green palace. We didn’t even get a chance to see the white palace, which is supposed to be even more spectacular.
Acres and acres of prized land… walled off the common man.
His beautiful old SL.
Several presidential vehicles, the guy traveled in style for his day.
Friendship Bridge in Tehran, designed by an 18 year old girl.
MMmmmm Street food. In this case, Baklava.
The country is crazy for Kebab, lamb, beef, chicken. Needless to say, i was in heaven. Renu was not.
Street food stalls, serving all sorts of delicious foods, sweets, falafel, kebabs, coffee, it was all here.
Tehran’s carpet museum.
Before i go into carpets, i just wanted to take a moment to mention the Jewelry Museum. The jewelry museum is in the basement of a bank. There is little signage, you just need to know where it is. It has the most stunning collection of jewelry, arts and crafts and all sorts of other ornate stuff. I’ve never seen a more amazing collection anywhere. We weren’t allowed to take photographs and the place was guarded extremely well. So you’ll have to take my word, if you find yourself in Tehran, go to the jewelry museum. It’s worth it.
ok back to carpets. Everyone knows Persian carpets. They are known as the best – the world over. These are photographs from the museum. They go through each region, Tabriz, Mashaad, Kerman, Shiraz, Esfahan etc and show the different styles and elements which identify each regions carpets. In this museum they have examples of really old historical carpets and how they’ve influenced designs to current day. And here’s a dirty little secret nobody will tell you about Persian carpets… 1) The young generation don’t want to make them anymore. So it’s a dying art, even in Iran. 2) Most carpets larger than say 6′ x 8′ aren’t made by hand anymore. They are made by machines. 3) The easiest way to tell if a Persian carpet is made by machines is that there will be a strip of material on the back of the carpet between the main area of the rug and the tassle ends. Also, if you feel anything other than rug material, like glue or epoxy, it’s machine made because they use it to hold the fibers together because it’s not hand-knotted. Lastly, a good quality carpet will show the design clearly on both sides. If the design isn’t clear on the back and front you aren’t dealing with a hand-made carpet.
Throughout Iran, we saw the most carpets for sale in the Kerman region. And apparently the largest number of people still making carpets by hand is also in the Kerman region. That’s what we were told at least.
Shhhh! The tree can’t hear itself think!
Azadi Tower in Tehran. A monument that can’t be missed. Great geometrical patterns and a nice place to hang out.
Milad tower, Tehran. Another icon of Tehran. We were going to go to the top on our last day, but it was foggy so we cancelled.
When most Americans hear ‘Shiraz’ i suspect their mind goes to the wine. While it’s true some roots of the wine took place here, the modern Syrah is what most people are tasting. No real connection to Iran these days.
We took a 13 hour sleeper train journey overnight into Shiraz. A nice, laid back and smaller city than Tehran with a world-class medical center. Lots of people get nose jobs done in Shiraz. In Iran, it’s a status symbol to have a nose job… go figure.
Pretty clean and tidy trains, a 4 bunk coach. Comes with lots of food and drinks.
The Karim Khan hotel in Shiraz.
Our hotel in Shiraz.
The Karim Khan citadel in Shiraz.
Old style Turkish bath…
You can take many types of tours in Iran. Including more modern tours where you experience all the more modern things that Iran has to offer. However, as a photographer, i wanted to visit more cultural places and that includes mosques and citadels. There will be lots of photographs of these types of places. You have been warned!
( Just as an aside, all mosque’s including the more sacred such as the one in Qom were all very welcoming. There was no negative sentiment anywhere. We were wholly welcomed everywhere we went.)
Vakil Mosque in Shiraz. Distinct for using quite of bit of pink in its tile. Also has ornate columns throughout.
Imam Shrine, known as Shah Cheragh. Here we met a nice man in the shrine that explained the differences between Shiite Island and Sunni Islam. He went through painstaking detail to ensure we didn’t associate the two because he wanted us to understand that shiite Islam is very tolerant and that many Jewish, Zoroastrian and Armenians among others are allowed to practice their faith in Iran without problems from religious or political leaders.
So this is a park that holds the tomb of Hafez, Iran’s most popular poet. It’s hard to explain how strongly Iranians feel about Hafez and poetry in general. Young men and women come here to cite ghazals of his poems at random to make connections =). I strongly underestimated how seriously Iranians take Hafez and his poetry. It’s like a mandatory national language.
Shiraz is another city with nice parks and lots of artwork in them. A cool example of tree-carving.
This kid had a canary which would pull out one of many folded Hafez poems. The one the bird picked was meant for me and me only. =)
Bazaars are more than just shopping centers in Iran. They are the equivalent of indoor malls and social gathering spaces, oftentimes where the people go to protest and serve as a bellwether to a cities economic prosperity.
You can get anything in a bazaar, clothes, jewelry, food, spices, pets, handicrafts, carpets, you name it, you can get it here.
In Shiraz there is a mosque which is well known for its stained glass windows. We got there when a large tourist contingent was present. I was bummed. But i got a few with less people in it.
Persepolis and Necropolis
This is where coming in the off-season really paid off. Persepolis and Necropolis are unquestionably amazing Unesco World Heritage sites. Outside of Rome it would be hard to find such well preserved ruins. The fact that aside from like 15 other people, we had the entire site to ourselves was absolutely amazing and awe-inspiring. They aren’t surrounded by trash (Like the pyramids in Egypt), there are clean functioning villages nearby and the sites heave been beautifully preserved. These were truly a treat.
Lots of script was clearly legible…
The detail in a lot of these ruins are clearly visible.
Persepolis complex is massive!
Necropolis was amazing in its own right. We shared the entire site with 2 other people. The inscriptions are really well-defined.
Here lies the tomb of Cyrus the great. Persians hold Cyrus in very strong regard due to his selflessness and his regard for the common man.
Our accommodations in a traditional guest house in Pasargadae. The owners were very nice and welcoming.
Breakfast… yummy, quince and carrot jam. Quince was a first for me and a very good one at that. Also provided were cheeses, bread, tea and all the standard fare.
Upon leaving the guest house, we encountered a class entering and were surrounded by lots of little students most of whom were excited to speak English and tell us about their projects. We ended up staying and extra half hour talking to them, their teachers and taking photographs with them.
As one would expect, Iran has a lot of desert. But not like the Emirates, Saudi Arabia or African deserts. There aren’t miles and miles of loose sand. In Iran, it’s more rocky and patchy. In the desert here you’ll see scattered villages, farmers, nomads, old abandoned Citadels and Caravansaries and even factories for copper and other precious metals. This place is a landscape photographers dream…
For those that know me well, you know i’m crazy for anything aviation.
A funny story about this aircraft…. We are in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We have driven for hours, in the desert. Without even a light in sight. Our guide is taking us to an outdoor excursion type place in the desert but we are starting to get worried that our guide is lost. Because we haven’t seen anything in a bit and we can’t find a sign to the place. So he calls the owner of the resort and the owner tells our guide to meet him behind the ‘plane’. I hear this word ‘plane’ and think i must have misunderstood their conversation in Farsi. Low and behold, like a mirage in the desert… a plane slowly appears ahead of us. Keep in mind, we are nowhere near an airport, an airstrip, anywhere you’d expect to see a plane of this size… my jaw drops. I’m so confused. Sure enough, they meet us behind the plane and take us to the place. Turns out the owner of the resort also owns the airline, and they are going to convert this aircraft into a restaurant on the resort. The story goes, they had to flatten out part of the field and the pilots knew they had only one shot to get it on the ground… i was intrigued to say the least.
Dasht-e Lut is Iran’s monument valley. Again, in winter, there was almost nobody here. I think the entire time we probably saw like 5 other people there. It was a truly amazing experience to have this space essentially to ourselves. We climbed and walked through large portions of the desert and it was really fun. I was told you can’t really do this in summer because it’s too hot. But we had a blast in December…
Renu loves to climb.
Random abandoned citadel in desert.
Beautiful unique landscape. Like i said, i can’t do it justice. But check out this link for folks that can…
Part of the allure of these long road trips was stopping at roadside shops and checking out the local fare. It was a lot of fun as these are all widely different and it broke the monotony of driving long distances.
Old abandoned citadel in Rayen. This adobe village inside is one of the oldest in Iran.
Another typical dinner, kebab and eggplant.
Persians are well known for their gardens, it’s right up there with the importance of things like Hafez and Cyrus. Shazdeh Garden is a great example of hardscape and gardens off to the sides. Less visible due to winter.
Yazd is a desert city with a vibrant downtown, an excellent bazaar and shopping area. Well known for its Termeh.
See, i knew Iran was oppressive to women! Look at how these women are dressed! No, actually we stumbled upon a movie set and got to snap off a few pictures of the old dress.
Meymand is believed to be a primary human residence in the Iranian Plateau, dating back to 12,000 years ago. Many of the residents live in the 350 hand-dug houses amid the rocks, some of which have been inhabited for as long as 3,000 years. Stone engravings nearly 10,000 years old are found around the village, and deposits of pottery nearly 6,000 years old attest to the long history of settlement at the village site.On 4 July 2015, the village was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list
Zein-o-din Caravanserai, the caravanserai is situated on the Silk Road which was, until 1500, the main trade route between Europe and Asia
Pretty cool having breakfast prepared the old fashioned way in a thousand year old castle.
A natural spring under a road…
This guy was collecting a bunch of natural spring water…
Yazd’s Towers of Silence. Which were fire temples for Zoroastrians.
Yazd’s Jameh (Friday) mosque.
Yazd’s Amir Chakmaq mosque complex.
Stored selling lots of gaudy silver stuff. Cool if that’s your thing, but jaw dropping for most westerners.
Amazing shishah store…
So we are driving along the desert and we notice some large birds off the side of the highway. But can’t make out exactly what they are. Turns out they are Steppe Eagles. And Iran is a major migration path for them and other large birds of prey. You could get relatively close to these birds, a longer lens would have been helpful here. I just had 200mm.
So we are on our way to Chak Chak from Yazd when we come upon a stranded car in the desert. He and his wife were extremely lucky we took this road, apparently. Our guide was saying nobody takes that road normally. Anyway, his throttle cable snapped and we had to do some McGuyvering to get it working again. I got him back on the road in 30 minutes.
Chak Chak, a Zoroastrian village, hidden in the middle of nowhere in Iran.
Some Iranian locals saw Renu and broke out some classic Bollywood songs. I have no idea how they knew them… but it was cool. They knew every word of several songs.
Another garden/hardscape example near Yazd.
Some pre-islamic workout rituals still performed in Iran.
A skilled craftsman shows making yarn, and weaving techniques.
So this place is a bit freaky… it’s a very very deep spring water well, under a cemetery! It goes very deep and at some point, you are below graves!
More random abandoned citadels or caravansary. I could spend a month just photographing these…. they are truly amazing and plentiful.
Probably our favorite city in Iran. It’s as busy as Tehran, but smaller. Has a more artistic vibe and while there was no water in the river in December, 2018, it had really cool bridges.
Under the bridges in Esfahan, it’s a popular place for young and old to break out into random song… this was a real treat to witness.
We kept seeing references to ‘Kentucky’ all of the place. Not ‘Kentucky Chicken’. Just ‘Kentucky’. When we saw this place, we figured it out….
This was cool, a bunch of old VW Vans were converted into rolling coffee shops.
The impressive Shah Mosque complex of Esfahan.
Fun fact – The Naqsh-e Jahan Square holds the largest square outside of Tianemen Square in China.
Traditional Persian restaurant.
The grand Chehel Sotoun palace in Esfahan.
Esfahan from above.
Some hikers headed up much higher for the best view of the city….
The Naqsh-e Jahan Square, at night.
We met a tile-maker and he invited us back to his studio where he showed us some mosaics and we ended up buying the round one pictured here as inlay for a table we are making….
Armenians have a long history in Iran. They worship Jesus and follow Christianity. They have their own quarter in Esfahan and this is the church there.
A small village near Natanz, it’s quaint, but mostly tainted by tourism. I was a bit saddened by this as this was a place i was looking forward to visiting. But once you are there, you immediately see the impact tourism has had on the town.
Trying Diz-e, a lamb stew in a ceramic cup….
I love really old door and Abyaneh had them in spades…
The court yard to our guest house.
A nice town known for its carpet work. We also encountered lots of people making metal goods such as copper plates, like below. It also houses the Karim Khan Bazaar, one of the most picturesque in Iran. As you’ll see, i had to revisit day and night to capture it in all light.
Wedding dresses? Yes, wedding dresses. This is a typical dress worn during Iranian weddings.
Peeking down at the shoppers from the roof hole.
A ‘traditional’ home in Iran back in the day. Legend has it, this house was built by a family to entice a girl to marry into that family.
A traditional bath-house in Kerman.
The roof of the bath-house.
All digital traffic lights with built-in countdown…. pretty cool.
Qom houses the second holiest of sites in Iran, the Jamkaran Mosque complex is huge and overwhelming… But absolutely stunning.
We only stayed in Qom for this complex, after this, we headed back to Tehran.
Pizza in Iran? Yes, it’s available everywhere. But they typically don’t put tomato sauce on the dough, instead they give ketchup packets and you put it on top. Sounds odd to westerners, but it actually was pretty good.
Me driving back to Tehran. The guide was concerned about my driving in Tehran where it’s quite dangerous. But once i explained to him that if you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere… and he saw my skills, he relented.
Tehran metro, headed to Darband.
Darband a tranquil mountainous suburb outside Tehran. People generally come here to escape the hustle and bustle of Tehran. Here you can see people enjoying lunch on a carpet platform directly over the river. Which was awesome.
Me performing feats of strength. Actually, just embarrassing myself. I hurt my wrist….
Our last day, enjoying shishah. (kind of, it was just for the picture, i don’t understand smoking anything. But it seemed peaceful enough…)
So what wasn’t so great in Iran?
Pollution is real in Iran. Crudely refined oil results in low quality gasoline. Low quality gasoline results in a higher pollution level and you really feel this in Tehran. I wouldn’t say much in other cities, but in Tehran, you feel it.
Good signage was a regular problem in Iran. Not so much in Tehran with walking. More like driving and getting around without GPS in more rural cities. It’s rather lacking.
Renu would kill me if i didn’t bring this up…. Vegetarian food. If you google vegetarian food in Iran you’ll get like 7-8 dishes which are common in Iran. The only problem is, most places only have 1-2 of those dishes. Only so many days you can have the same thing. So i appreciated my wife’s plight, but not much I could do about it. In most cities you could get falafel sandwiches or pizza. But this isn’t really an Iranian specialty… so they were, lacking.
Well that’s it, that’s all the photographs. I’d be remiss if i didn’t mention….
Tips for photographers!
- If you want to capture gardens in their lush green state, don’t go in winter. If you don’t really care about gardens, go in winter. So few tourists and things will be cheaper.
- Gardens make up a small amount of the sites which you will see, so really think that previous point through. We had huge sites to ourselves including the tour guide himself, because we went in winter.
- Bring a tripod. You’ll want it for nightscapes. Citadels and caravansaries are perfect for night shots. Don’t forget your remote timers.
- Have backups for just about everything. I didn’t see a truly modern camera shop just about anywhere there. There was one that seemed decent in Tehran, but not really anywhere else that i could spot. They certainly didn’t have anything Fuji specific.
- In places like Kerman in the Karim Khan bazaar, pay someone the 100,000 rials to take you to the roof. It’s just 1 dollar and they will know all the routes to the best positions for photographs. Same in other cities as well.
- Bring extra lens pens, 2-3 minimum. The dust in the desert is very fine, and once you use the first pen 2-3 times, it’s useless after that because you can’t get the fine dust out. They are cheap, so just take a few.
- Along the same lines, bring 2-3 pec pads to swipe the sensor. You will get dust on it, no matter how careful you are.
- You’ll read in many books about taking photographs of people and women in particular. I took plenty of everyone and nobody seemed to mind. Just smile and be a tourist and you’ll be fine.
- Don’t worry too much about your gear. Sure you may encounter a pickpocket somewhere, it’s always possible. But we never once felt unsafe in any city, including Tehran nor Esfahan… the largest.
- Do be careful about photographing sensitive sites. Rule of thumb – if there is barbed wire or a tall wrought iron fence around something…. don’t photograph it.
- You may want to consider a long lens if you really enjoy wildlife photography. We encountered Steppe Eagles and i really wish i had something 400mm or thereabouts. After talking to the guide, he said he’s seen Oryx, Desert Fox and other stuff out there too.
- If you want to capture mosque entrances in their entirety, bring something wider than 10mm. I had the 10-24 Fuji lens on my X-T3 and it wasn’t enough. I considered renting the 8-15mm but didn’t and now wish that i had.
Iran is truly a photographer’s paradise. I surely didn’t do it justice, but hopefully i captured enough to inspire someone to go there and do it right. If you want to see some more inspirational stuff check out: