Today was mainly a driving day. Iran is huge and getting between destinations takes time. As I said, I like watching the landscape changing and as we leave Kashan and the crumbly cement buildings give way to a desert scrub landscape. We drive along the valley tracing the foothills of a chain of mountains that rise in small pyramidal peaks above us.
Unfortunately for our guide—who thought he could take us for a quick stretch of the legs to break up the journey—he is dealing with a group of people that are so curious and keen to learn that showing us an early mosque or a Sassanid castle is not a quick affair at all. We all shuffle in places and immediately disperse to discuss the decoration, take photographs, talk about the influence of architecture, debate religion, confer about water systems, ask pertinent questions about the history and generally mill about in awe.
The stops are fabulous and from the brief description in the itinerary we have no real sense of just how stunning some of the sites that we descend upon are going to be.
We visit the 12th century Seljuk Masjed-Jame (congressional) mosque in Ardestan which may boast the first two minarets in Iran but only one of which survives. Inside, the courtyard is expansive but the standing architecture stands tall enough to keep the sense of proportion. The warm caramel colour of the brickwork is very pleasing against the blue sky and there is a sense of tranquility in the covered passageways. Each elevation had a series of arches on two levels and the main arches were in the shape of a meringue peak or, as my learned travel companion tells me on good authority they are called Ogee arches.
Back in the bus and the mountains rise a little higher above our us. The next stop is in Na’in. Another early congressional mosque with decorations dating to the 10th century in the form of plasterwork applied to the wall and columns in the Ivan room (three-sided room that opens to the courtyard) that faces Mecca. I entertain myself by looking at the graffiti.
A stroll up the hill took us to the Sassanid (224-658 BC) castle. Looking, from certain angles more like melted chocolate or a sand castle, its contorted ruins are impressive. The bulk of its mudbrick walls rise 10s of metres above us.
A couple of bastion towers bulge pleasingly from its walls and the ditch that surrounds it worked both a quarry for the construction material and to protect the position of the building with a moat. The fortified core of the castle with its spindly remnants of its towering walls takes on the appearance of a birth cake with candles stuck in it. It’s thoroughly delightful and unbelievably no one has ever studied it.
A short drive brings us to the Rigareh watermill in Mohammediyeh. The entrance is via the local cemetery and visiting a watermill doesn’t sound too remarkable until you start the descent of the steep rock-cut passage into the cool bowels of the earth. Knowing this was all cut by hand can’t fail to impress. 22 metres below the surface the tunnel stops and there is a small room with a hole in the ground and within the hole there is a small wooden paddle mill. The mill is turned by water that flows through man-made underground channels (qanats) that run for 10s for miles: all part of an irrigation system of the landscape. The sheer labour involved to create these narrow channels and the inconceivably tough conditions of work during their construction is something to wonder at.
Back on the bus we are treated to tremendous storm clouds passing over the Kaltut desert. The golden colour of the land and the slate grey-black of the sky are the colours synonymous with Middle Eastern dress.
The downpour has subsided by the time we arrived in Meybod and drew up outside the Sassanid Narin fortress. The mudbrick citadel is the shape of a squashed jelly baby and it soon becomes apparent that it hugs the highest contours of the land. The fortified walls encompass a huge open space which would have been the public area with the royal quarters are further protected behind yet more mudbrick ramparts.
Once on the top of the citadel the view over the town reveals the clash between the styles of the old and new towns. The historic centre is an organic web of mudbrick with green tufts of trees poking up above the walls. The new town, by contrast, is a sea of cement and rusting metal. Beyond the town and across the plain the snow capped mountains are shrouded in a haze.
Descending back down through the wobbly mudbrick walls we leave the fortress and pop our heads into an ice house. Having seen snow on the mountains I am reassured that ice does can exist in these parts but had no idea it was such a precious commodity. The ice house has the most terrific shape. From the outside you see a dome rising from the ground and you enter at this level. Once inside there is a narrow gallery that follows the edge of the circular dome. In the middle the ground plunges away to form a huge conical vat. Above it the delicate brickwork of the domed hat funnels upwards to a small hole at the top.
It’s one of the most pleasing buildings to experience as you feel like you’re standing in a bubble. The insulation provided by the building meant that the ice could have been preserved in here for over a year. I marvel at the ingenuity of using architecture to naturally refrigerate ice and ponder over my own freezer – a machine that simply produces such quantities of ice, so much so, that there is no room to store food. It’s not really what I define as progress.
We drive the short distance to Yazd where we spend the next entire day.