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Bam

Bam is a pleasant town where the eucalypts are likely to make any Aussie homesick, and the date palms clearly indicate a desert oasis. But it's the incredible ancient city which makes Bam truly special. Although some of the surviving structures must have been built before the 12th century, most of what remains dates from the Safavid period (1502-1722). Up to 13,000 people once lived in this 6 sq km (2 sq mi) city until it was abandoned following an Afghan invasion in 1722. The city was abandoned again in about 1810 after bloodthirsty invaders from Shiraz popped in, and then was used as an army barracks until the 1930s. It is now completely deserted.Numerous steep and narrow stairways lead to the pinnacles of the outer clay wall which almost circles the entire city. From the wall you can see the curved ice house, which housed enormous chunks of ice in winter, melting to become drinking water in summer. The inner citadel dominated the town - the extraordinary echo in the garrison is thought to be a deliberate, ancient loudspeaker system.Bam is in south-eastern Iran. The bus from Tehran, 1260km (780mi) away, takes about 21 hours, so you might consider flying. There are two flights a week between Tehran and Bam, and more frequent flights between Tehran and Kerman, which is about three hours north-west of Bam by bus or shared taxi.

 
Esfahan

The cool blue tiles of Esfahan's Islamic buildings, and the city's majestic bridges, contrast perfectly with the hot, dry Iranian countryside around it: Esfahan is a sight you won't forget. Not only is the architecture superb and the climate pleasant, but there's a fairly relaxed atmosphere here, compared with many other Iranian towns. It's a city for walking, getting lost in the bazaar, dozing in beautiful gardens and meeting people.The famous half-rhyme Esfahan nesf-é jahan (Esfahan is half the world) was coined in the 16th century to express the city's grandeur. There's so much to see that you'll probably have to ration your time and concentrate on must-sees such as the Emam Mosque, a magnificent building completely covered in Esfahan's trademark pale blue tiles; Emam Khomeini Square, one of the largest town squares in the world; the Chehel Sotun Museum & Park, a marvellous 17th century pavilion and a great place for a picnic; and the Vank Cathedral, the historic focal point of the Armenian church in Iran. Taking tea in one of the teahouses under the bridges is also an essential part of the Esfahan experience.Esfahan is about 400km (250mi) south of Tehran. Several flights make the trip daily. There are buses, usually overnight, to Tehran, Shiraz and other domestic cities, as well as to Istanbul. The express train between Esfahan and Tehran might be a preferable alternative to sitting all night on the bus.

 
Persepolis

Persepolis, the Throne of Jamshid, was a massive and magnificent palace complex built from about 512 BC and completed over the next 150 years. Persepolis was burnt to the ground during Alexander the Great's time, in 331 BC, although historians are divided about whether it was accidental or in retaliation for the destruction of Athens by Xerxes. The ruins you see today are a mere shadow of Persepolis' former glory, but you can still get a great idea of its majesty if you carry a map and use a bit of imagination. Incredibly the whole site was covered with dust, earth and the sands of time before being rediscovered in the early 1930s.One of the first things you'll see is Xerxes' Gateway, covered with inscriptions and carvings in Elamite and other ancient languages. The gateway leads to the immense Apadana Palace complex where the kings received visitors and celebrations were held. Plenty of gold and silver was discovered in the palace, but it was predictably looted by Alexander the not-so-Great, and what he left behind is in the National Museum in Tehran. The largest hall in Persepolis was the Palace of 100 Columns, probably one of the biggest buildings constructed during the Achaemenian period, once used as a reception hall for Darius I. Persepolis is 57km (35mi) from Shiraz, just off the Esfahan road, accessible from Shiraz by bus and shared taxi.

 
Shiraz

Shiraz was one of the most important cities in the medieval Islamic world and was the Iranian capital during the Zand dynasty (1747-79), when many of its most beautiful buildings were built or restored. Through its many artists and scholars, Shiraz has been synonymous with learning, nightingales, poetry, roses and, at one time, wine.Today Shiraz is a relaxed, cultivated city, with wide tree-lined avenues and enough monuments, gardens and mosques to keep most visitors happy for several days. The university here is one of Iran's finest, and you'll come across lots of students eager to speak English. Highlights include the restful tomb and garden of Hafez, a celebrated poet; the Shah-Cheragh mausoleum, an important Shi'ite place of pilgrimage which attracts hordes of supplicants; the Pars Museum, which contains Zand dynasty relics; and the delightful Eram garden, where the 19th century Ghajar palace lies alongside a pretty pool.There are plenty of hotels to suit all budgets in Shiraz, most of them clustered near Zand, the main boulevard. This is also the area to nose out a good feed, from inexpensive kebabs and burgers to more swanky sitdown affairs. Shiraz is nearly 900km (560mi) south of Tehran. It's a great place to start or finish your trip to Iran and is well serviced by international and domestic flights. The airport lies 8km (5mi) south-east of the city centre. Buses run from Shiraz to Tehran and other major towns; shared taxis run occasionally to Esfahan.

 
Tehran

Iran is not blessed with one of the world's loveliest capitals. Pollution, traffic snarls, chronic overcrowding and a lack of responsible planning have all helped to make Tehran a metropolis that even the most effusive travel agent would have difficulty praising. If you're expecting an exotic crossroads steeped in oriental splendour, you'll be sadly disappointed. The main sights are spread out, but the hotels are good, the variety of restaurants is impressive, the facilities are far ahead of those anywhere in the provinces, and the Tehranis are friendly. The major attraction for visitors is the city's excellent museums.Human settlement of the region dates from Neolithic times, but the development of Tehran was very slow and its rise to prominence largely accidental. From the mid-16th century, Tehran's attractive natural setting and good hunting brought it into the favour of the Safavid kings. It developed from a moderately prosperous trading village into an elegant, if dusty, city, and European visitors wrote of its many enchanting vineyards and gardens. In 1789, Agha Muhammed Khan declared Tehran his capital, and six years later had himself crowned as Shah of all Persia. The town continued to grow slowly under later Ghajar rulers.From the early 1920s, the city was extensively modernised on a grid system, and this period marked the start of phenomenal population growth and uncontrolled urban development that continues to this day. Today Tehran is so vast that getting hopelessly lost at least once is a near certainty, no matter what form of transport you take. If you need landmarks, the Alborz mountains, known as the 'North Star' of Tehran, are to the north; and the huge telephone office at Emam Khomeini Square dominates inner southern Tehran.The National Museum of Iran houses a marvellous collection including ceramics, stone figures and carvings dating from around the 5th millenium BC. Many of the relics are taken from excavations at Persepolis, Shush, Rey and Turang Tappé and will probably mean more to you if you come here after you've visited the archaeological sites. The Glass & Ceramics Museum is one of the most impressive in Tehran, not only for its professionally organised exhibits, but also for the building itself. The Reza Abbasi Museum, another stunner, contains examples of Islamic painting, pottery and jewellery. The Sa'd Abad Museum Complex includes the last Shah's White Palace; the grounds are a superb place to have tea. The Jewels Museum houses incredible jewellery over which wars were waged.Tehran's best non-museum sight is the haphazard bazaar, so big it's practically a separate city. Also worth a look are the busy Emam Khomeini Mosque, the drab Armenian Sarkis Cathedral, and the city's parks and gardens.Just about every cheap place to stay in Tehran is in the southern part of the city, within about a 1km radius of Emam Khomeini Square. This is also the place to look for a good kebab. Four and five-star hotels are scattered through the city, most of them hopelessly inconvenient if you're hoping to use public transport. The airport is about 10km (6mi) south-west of central Tehran.


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