The road connecting Tehran to Esfahan cuts through the arid Dasht-e Kavir. We drive for hours in silence absorbing its raw beauty. The contrast on entering Esfahan is enormous. The former capital under the Safavids instantly seduces with its delicate poetic charm, rich architectural heritage and leafy boulevards. As does neighbouring Kashan, the kings’ vacation spot, where we stop for lunch enjoying an unforgettable meal of tah-cheen, prepared in a very unique Kashani way, and enjoyed in the beautifully restored Ameri Ghajar home.
This is a trip to old Iran, an Iran of kings and castles, of elaborate palaces and mosques – a world so distant from contemporary Iran. A trip to Esfahan is on every tourist list. Yet it would be a shame for anyone here for the first time not to visit for it certainly helps put Iran today within a wider context. Besides, it is a visual feast.
Locally referred to as nesfeh jahan, half the world, Esfahan really is a city of incredible charm. The Safavid kings (1501-1722), and in particular Shah Abbas, ushered in a golden age of Iranian art and culture, and here is testimony to this. The city is almost an ode to its favourite king.
Shah Mosque and Ali-Ghapu Palace in the UNESCO World Heritage Naghsh-e Jahan Square are outstanding examples of Safavid architecture. And our favourite, Chehel Sotoun of 1646, is a pavilion of 20 slender wooden columns which, when reflected on the fountain, appear to be 40, hence the name which translates as 40 columns.
The paintings and frescos inside these walls are a glimpse into a distant world, and a small reminder of how artistically and culturally connected the world was even back then. There are wonderful scenes depicting the ghahveh khanehs (coffee shops which are incidentally a huge growing trend in modern Iran) and it is fascinating observing the dress code, hair and makeup, and customs of the time.
At night we stroll across Si-o-Seh Pol, a bridge of 33 columns that stretches the width of the Zayandeh river where young Esfahanis hang out, hiding under the dimly lit columns, chatting, laughing, smoking… we even spotted a solo artists humming away in one of the lone arches. The river is dry for much of the year now, the water, we are told, is being directed to nearby Yazd and Kashan, although we’re also offered plenty of other more elaborate theories as to the whereabouts of the once incredible flowing waters. Iranians do love a bit of conspiracy theory.
Tehran requires a particular appreciation for urban beauty, something that is even more noticeable on our return from Esfahan. The capital city, perched on the hills of the majestic Alborz mountains, is a jungle of high-rise apartment blocks, towering shopping malls, and an ocean of cars expertly navigating the expansive, intersecting roads.
Tehran almost relishes its somewhat brutal approach to architecture and town planning – yet it offers its own brand of urban charm thanks to the spirited and dynamic population. The men and women here are hugely interactive, animated, generous and rebellious (given some of the restrictions they have to live with)… and they love to share their opinions liberally.
It takes a few days to adjust to the sheer volume of traffic here though, and it is hard not to be in awe of local driving skills that would rival any rally driver. Here cars merge seamlessly from one lane to another; there is little stopping, no indicating and unlike similar large cities, a striking absence of the sound of the horn. The national Peykan car, with its classic square shape, is sadly no longer – although I suspect I’m the only one mourning its death. Instead Tehranis, who can afford the high prices, drive foreign imports of all shapes and sizes. We even spot one BMW i8 hybrid supercar here!
Tehran became the capital under the Qajar king Agha Mohammad Khan in 1796 and remained the seat of the Qajar and later the Pahlavi dynasty – so there are an impressive number of historical palaces to visit, most famously Golestan, Saadabad and Niavaran.
There are also some excellent examples of modernist architecture to be found mainly in affluent uptown neighbourhoods like Shemiran, and mostly initiated by the former Pahlavi queen Farah Diba, a huge patron of the arts. We particularly love the Niavaran Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art – the softly sculpted concrete building, by architect Kamran Diba. Designed in 1978 it fuses international modernism with a more traditional Persian vernacular. Strolling through the hilly roads here, we also spot some brilliant modernist residential buildings.
Yet it is the less obvious buildings of the time that we return to. Thanks to the relatively new metro system, the older dusty low-rise neighbourhoods south of the city are now within easy access and it is here where some of the neglected Qajar palaces have been discovered and restored.
In Baharestan, for instance, the enchanting Masoudiyeh Palace is now home to a restaurant serving the most delicious homemade delicacies, a lifestyle boutique promoting design by emerging artists, and an outdoor theatre. It is also a great spot to observe bohemian Tehranis sipping sharbats, non-alcoholic cold drinks infused with seasonal herbs and spices.
It hasn’t been easy for a contemporary art and design scene to fully establish itself here. Since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the monarchy and saw the beginning of the Islamic Republic, Iran has been isolated and its economy a mess, left with a culture struggling to redefine itself. This is all changing rapidly though, with the younger generation increasingly connected to the outside world through the internet and social media.
We have met with some outstanding designers, mainly working with jewellery and textiles, who are forging a unique modern Iranian vernacular with a narrative that takes in the country’s rich history. Zilwear, for instance, is a group of creatives who are utilising Persian architectural heritage in their collections, and Danial Zirak at Qeran Jewellery incorporate snippets of ancient Persian art in his decorative work.
People tell us a new art space opens every few month here, which is probably a bit of an exaggeration, yet the more successful galleries such as Aaron, Shirin, Etemad and Khak show contemporary work by local artists and are packed with enthusiasts and investors from the domestic market and elsewhere. It isn’t always easy locating these spaces though as we were to discover one hot afternoon trying to find Mohsen gallery, the address mentioned on the website seems to have vanished!
With the absence of bars and nightclubs, there is a flourishing coffee shop culture in Tehran, and there are plenty of restaurant dotted all over the city ranging from the more traditional to the cool earthy spaces on the foothills of the Alborz mountains in Darband and Evin Darakeh. Then there are a growing number of super chic venues, mainly uptown, catering for the (minor) Iranian elite. At Divan, for instance, meticulously groomed diners enjoy modern Persian cuisine surrounded by contemporary art and a soundtrack that could be heard on the beaches of Ibiza.
This is a hugely dynamic place, full of contrasts and contradictions… and plenty of surprises. It is warm, friendly, intelligent and exciting. The media image of Iran and the reality could not be further apart.
Words: Nargess Banks
Photography: Leigh Banks
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