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Persia's Great Empires - Ancient & Islamic Iran

A selection of the most interesting cities, major buildings and archaeological sites in this vast and varied country.

Three full days to explore Isfahan; three full days in Tehran; ample time in Shiraz and Yazd.

Suitable either for first-time visitors or for those with some familiarity already.

  • Low relief sculpture from Persepolis, engraving, 1803.
    Low relief sculpture from Persepolis, engraving, 1803.
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Overview

The successive civilizations of Persia were among the most potent and creative in Asia, and have provided the West with some of our most evocative images – of distant caravanserais and immense vaulted bazaars, of poets and rose gardens, of turquoise domes and priceless carpets. The very names of the cities breathe magic: Shiraz, Persepolis, Isfahan.

But the images are no mere symbols of a distant past. Historic Persian ways of life and the monuments which sheltered and articulated them are alive in Iran today. The fabulous mosques of Isfahan, the bustle of great bazaars, immense armies of nomads on the move or the magic of classical gardens bring Persia’s civilizations vividly to life.

But it was virtually hidden from foreigners for some years after the 1979 revolution. Iran underwent cataclysmic upheavals: a national uprising against one of the strongest rulers in the world, a revolution with repercussions that still reverberate to this day, and one of the most destructive wars of the twentieth century. From these trials and tragedies the Iranians have emerged changed, but they are eager to show their country to the traveller once more.

Visitors to Iran can see some of the greatest sights in all Asia, such as Shah Abbas’s astonishing royal city of Isfahan, one of the great monumental cities of the world, or the silent ruins of Pasargadae and Persepolis, still much as Alexander’s destructive fury left them thousands of years ago. But equally arresting are the lesser-known aspects of Iran’s immensely rich heritage revealed by exploration of old desert cities such as Yazd and Na’in, and by the great museums of Tehran.

12-day itinerary

Day 1

Fly c. 11.30am from London Heathrow via Istanbul to Shiraz with Turkish Airlines (a routing chosen to avoid domestic flights).

Day 2

Shiraz. Arrive Shiraz Airport c. 1.45am and drive to hotel (c. 20 mins) for the first of five nights here. Visits begin at 11.30am today and include the 17th-century secluded courtyard of the Madrassa Khan, still a theological college; the 18th-century. Citadel, a quadrangular fort with cylindrical towers; and the 19th-century Pink Mosque, the sobriquet arising from  the profuse revetment of Qajar tiles. Overnight Shiraz.

Day 3

Persepolis. One of the most spectacular sites of the ancient world, construction of the ceremonial city of Persepolis began under Darius I in 516 bc and continued under Xerxes and successive Achaemenid kings until it was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 300-bc. Much superstructure and many standing columns survive. The sculpture is particularly impressive, especially the low-reliefs depicting the 26 nationalities of the empire. Return to Shiraz mid-afternoon and visit the gardens around the tomb of Hafez, the Persian poet. Overnight Shiraz.

Day 4

Naqsh-i-Rustam, Pasargadae. The tombs of four Achaemenid kings were cut high up in the cliff at Naqsh-i-Rustam. Reliefs of Sassanian kings and their captive Roman emperors were added below 500 years later. On a remote plateau ringed by hills, Pasargadae was built by Cyrus the Great (d. 529 bc), the first of the Achaemenid emperors. His ziggurat-like tomb and remains of palaces survive. There follows a five-hour drive (with a refreshment break) through dramatic desert and mountain landscape, before dropping down to the ancient caravan city of Yazd (total km today: 470). First of two nights here.

Day 5

Yazd. Yazd has one of the largest surviving Zoroastrian communities in Iran; two funerary ‘Towers of Silence’ rise on hillocks on the edge of the city, and there is a fire temple in the centre. Of the Islamic architecture, the 11th-century Cenotaph of the Twelve Imams is impressive (entry not guaranteed), while the Friday Mosque is spectacularly clad in 14th-century tile mosaics. See also an area of traditional vernacular architecture and the beautiful Dolat Abad Garden and pavilion. Overnight Yazd.

Day 6

Meybod, Muhammadiyya, Nain. Another long drive (210km) through mountain-fringed desert, with three stops. In Meybod, visit the mud-brick citadel of Sassanian (5th century ad) origin, a caravanserai and a remarkable ice house. See traditional kilim-weaving at Muhammadiyya. In Nain, the splendid early mosque, with imposing arcades and stucco reliefs, dates to the 10th and 11th centuries. Visit also the fascinating 16th-century governor’s house with its precious sgraffito decoration. Spend the first of three nights in Isfahan.

Day 7

Isfahan. Shah Abass I, the greatest of the Safavid kings, chose Isfahan as his capital in 1598. He began the transformation of the city into one of the loveliest in the world. We begin with a pre-existing building, the vast Friday Mosque, whose many parts incorporate most periods and styles. To the Zayandeh River, straddled by two beautiful 17th-century bridges, and cross to the Armenian Quarter. The cathedral interior is covered in high-quality paintings of  the 1660s, stylistically a fascinating western-Persian hybrid. The day finishes with a private concert of traditional Iranian music. Overnight Isfahan.

Day 8

Isfahan. The immense Meydan, Imam (formerly Royal) Square, is 500m long and formed of a two-storey arcade and the façades of three architectural masterpieces: the Ali Qapu Pavilion, a palace with loggia and well-preserved interiors; the Imam Mosque, magnificent in scale and detail; and the private Shaikh Lutfollah Mosque, with a near perfect dome and unsurpassed tile work. Set in a garden a few minutes away, the exquisite Chehel Sotun pleasure pavilion has very fine 17th-century figurative wall paintings.

Day 9

Natanz, Kashan. An early start for the last of the long drives (483km to Tehran). At Natanz, the cobalt blue and turquoise façade of the Friday Mosque is one of the most exquisite sights in Iran. Kashan has a number of large and richly embellished 19th-century courtyard mansions; we visit Tabatabiyeh House. The Fin Garden is perhaps the most beautiful of classical Persian examples. First of three nights in Tehran.

Day 10

Tehran. The Qajar period surges to a crescendo of enrichment at the Golestan Palace, which also houses fine carpets and other objets d’art. The archaeological section of the National Museum of Iran is of international importance and includes items from places visited on the tour. Return to the hotel mid-afternoon, or extend the day with another visit. Overnight Tehran.

Day 11

Tehran. The Carpet Museum displays major examples of historic Persian carpet art. Return to the National Museum, which also has one of the world’s greatest collections of Islamic arts, from the earliest period to the end of Qajar, all Persian. In the hills to the north, the Reza Abbasi Museum shows precious Persian miniature paintings. Final night Tehran.

Day 12

Tehran. Free morning before flying to London Heathrow via Istanbul, arriving at c. 10.30pm.

 

15-day itinerary

An extended version of the regular tour with additional days in Isfahan and Shiraz and an excursion to Firuzabad.

More time to take in Iranian daily life and to walk through the bazaars in Shiraz and Isfahan.

This version of the tour will suit those seeking more time for independent exploration.

Days 1 to 3

Please see days 1–3 of the standard, 12-day version of this tour.

Day 4

Firuzabad. Full-day excursion beginning with the scenic drive past the large salt lake of Maharlu and the impressive Qaleh Dokhtar that is perched on a cliff top. Visit the large Sassanid palaces and the ancient city of Ardashir Khurreh, known as Gur. Overnight Shiraz.

Day 5

Shiraz. Between long days with a lot of travelling, today has a gentle programme of sightseeing with free time in the afternoon. Set in a citrus garden, the opulently decorated Naranjastan-e Qavam was the house of a wealthy 19th-century merchant, and now houses a small archaeological museum. The Vakil Mosque and contiguous Vakil Bazaar are products of the ambitious rule of Karim Khan in the mid-18th century. Final night in Shiraz.

Days 6–10

Please see days 4–8 of the standard, 12-day version of this tour.

Day 11

Isfahan. Walk through the Seljuk Square, another vast arcaded space, pass the Shrine of Harun and the 13th-century Ali Mosque Minaret, and enter the Great Bazaar (Bazar-e Bazorg). Parts are a thousand years old, but most was rebuilt during the reign of Shah Abbas I. See the Mosque of al-Hakim before emerging into the Maydan. The afternoon is free, with several options – carpet shop, Museum of Modern Art, Hasht Behesht Pavilion, or just relaxing in the hotel garden.

Days 12 to 15

Please see days 9–12 of the standard, 12-day version of this tour.

 

 

 

 

Price, per person 

September 2017 (12-day tour)

Two sharing: £4,240 or £3,700 without flights. Single occupancy: £4,810 or £4,270 without flights.

March & September 2018 (12-day tour)

Two sharing: £4,510 or £4,020 without flights. Single occupancy: £5,220 or £4,730 without flights.

April & October 2018 (15-day tour)

 Two sharing: £5,320 or £4,830 without flights. Single occupancy: £6,200 or £5,710 without flights.

Included

Air travel (economy class) with Turkish Airlines flights London to Shiraz (aircraft: A330-200) and Tehran to London (Boeing 737) via Istanbul (this avoids using domestic flights); travel by private air-conditioned coach; hotel accommodation. Breakfasts, 12 lunches (9 for the 12-day tour) and 13 dinners (10 for the 12-day tour, including 1 picnic), soft drinks (no alcohol is served in Iran), plus meals on flights. All admissions to museums and sites etc. visited with the group. All gratuities for restaurant staff and drivers. All state and airport taxes. The services of the lecturer, tour manager and local guide.

Visas

Visas are required for most foreign nationals and we will advise on obtaining these. At the time of print, the cost of an individual tourist visa through an agency is approximately £400 for British citizens. This is not included in the tour price.

Please note, from 21 January 2016 most people who have travelled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria since March 2011, or are dual nationals of these countries, will no longer qualify for entry to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. You will instead need to apply for a visa from the nearest US Embassy or Consulate. Please visit the FCO website for further information.

Accommodation

We seek to reserve rooms in the best available hotels, but it is the Iranian custom not to confirm rooms more than a few months – or weeks – in advance, and recent increase in demand has made the situation more unpredictable.

How strenuous?

This is quite a strenuous tour. Driving distances on two days exceed 400km, though the daily average is 100km, inter-city roads are good and coaches are comfortable and air-conditioned. While most days start at 9.00am, three start at 8.30am and one at 7.45am, but this is compensated for by five days on which the start is 9.30am or later, and some days finish at 3.00 or 4.00pm. There is quite a lot of walking, some of it over rough or badly paved ground, and sure-footedness is essential.

Group size

Between 10 and 22 participants.

Travel advice

Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.

'Both the lecturer and the tour manager were first class.'

'It was intensive but I wouldnt have missed a single item. It was excellent that we saw so much.'

'No praise too high for the lecturer. He is enthusiastic as he is erudite, and he made the ancient persian kingdoms come alive for me. The tour manger was totally devoted, always on the quivive, and a thoroughly delightful presence at all times. It was a wrench to say goodbye at the end.' 

'The itinerary covered the full gamut of venues and sites one would wish to see, plus a few welcome suprises.'