Iran ایران

North-western Iran شمال غرب ایران

In the early 13th century, the Mongols swept westwards conquering northern Iran, then known as Persia. In Soltaniyeh, the Mongol general Oljaytu established the new capital of the Ilkhanid dynasty.

Then & now: The Mausoleum of Oljaytu

These 18th and 19th century lithographs and photographs of the magnificent mausoleum in Soltaniyeh near Tabriz in north western Iran recently came to my attention via an Instagram post by Fartash Tours.

The Fartash team kindly shared the historic images which I include alongside photos I took of Soltaniyeh in 2019.

After conquering this region, the Mongol general Oljaytu established the new capital of the Ilkhanid dynasty in the city of Soltaniyeh. After taking on the religion – Shia Islam – of those he now ruled over, he began constructed this mausoleum for himself which was completed in 1312.

It is the second largest mausoleum in the Islamic world. The peak of the dome is 51 metres in height and the walls are seven metres thick.

The turquoise dome and stylised Kufic calligraphy are very similar to those found in Central Asia, particularly from Uzbekistan. It seems reasonable to imagine that Oljaytu brought these influences with him as his military campaigns took him westward. I’m interested to know what others think.

While the passage of time has taken its toll, efforts are under way to conserve what remains of this beautiful monument and, where possible, to restore it to former glories. Painstaking restoration has been going on for 50 years and counting!

The Mausoleam of Oljaytu today
A bird’s eye view. I wish I could have taken this shot with my own drone but I didn’t think it was sensible to take one into Iran so this photo of a photo will have to suffice.
A view of the exterior
Interior design details
Interior design details
Restoration work
I believe these are Zoroastrian symbols, found on the interior brickwork
Ceiling details from Mausoleam of Oljaytu, Soltaniyeh
Ceiling details
Ceiling details
Ceiling details
Ceiling details
A view of the exterior
An exterior view
Details on the exterior
The mausoleum can be seen from quite a distance.

North-western Iran شمال غرب ایران

After converting to the religion of those general Oljaytu now ruled over — Shi’i Islam — he began constructing an enormous mausoleum for himself. To the local architectural style, Oljaytu blended elements from his own Central Asian heritage, such as the turquoise tiled dome and stylised Kufic calligraphy around its drum.

Then & now: The Mausoleum of Oljaytu

These 18th and 19th century lithographs and photographs of the magnificent mausoleum in Soltaniyeh near Tabriz in north western Iran recently came to my attention via an Instagram post by Fartash Tours.

The Fartash team kindly shared the historic images which I include alongside photos I took of Soltaniyeh in 2019.

After conquering this region, the Mongol general Oljaytu established the new capital of the Ilkhanid dynasty in the city of Soltaniyeh. After taking on the religion – Shia Islam – of those he now ruled over, he began constructed this mausoleum for himself which was completed in 1312.

It is the second largest mausoleum in the Islamic world. The peak of the dome is 51 metres in height and the walls are seven metres thick.

The turquoise dome and stylised Kufic calligraphy are very similar to those found in Central Asia, particularly from Uzbekistan. It seems reasonable to imagine that Oljaytu brought these influences with him as his military campaigns took him westward. I’m interested to know what others think.

While the passage of time has taken its toll, efforts are under way to conserve what remains of this beautiful monument and, where possible, to restore it to former glories. Painstaking restoration has been going on for 50 years and counting!

The Mausoleam of Oljaytu today
A bird’s eye view. I wish I could have taken this shot with my own drone but I didn’t think it was sensible to take one into Iran so this photo of a photo will have to suffice.
A view of the exterior
Interior design details
Interior design details
Restoration work
I believe these are Zoroastrian symbols, found on the interior brickwork
Ceiling details from Mausoleam of Oljaytu, Soltaniyeh
Ceiling details
Ceiling details
Ceiling details
Ceiling details
A view of the exterior
An exterior view
Details on the exterior
The mausoleum can be seen from quite a distance.

North-western Iran شمال غرب ایران

In the nearby city of Qom lies the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, considered by Shi’i Muslims to be the second most sacred site in Iran after Mashhad.

North-western Iran شمال غرب ایران

The Shrine of Fatima Masumeh’s ceilings and surfaces are covered in intricate Arabic and mesmerising geometric patterns and designs.

Ceilings of Iran

Images of the spectacular ceilings that can be found in Iran and the mosques, mausolea, madrasahs and palaces they belong to.

These photos were taken on my overland journey from London to Beijing in 2019.

 

Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom

This shrine is considered by Shia Muslims to be the second most sacred site in Iran after Mashhad. Fatima Masumeh was the sister of the eighth Imam after the Prophet Mohammed. In Shia Islam, women are often revered as saints if they are close relatives to one of the Twelver Imams.

Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
The Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
The Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom

Mausoleum of Oljaytu, Soltaniyeh

After conquering this region and converting to Islam, the Mongol general Oljaytu established a capital in the city of Soltaniyeh and constructed this massive mausoleum for himself in 1312. The turquoise dome and stylised Kufic calligraphy are similar to those found in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan.

Ceiling details from Mausoleum of Oljaytu, Soltaniyeh
Ceiling details from Mausoleum of Oljaytu, Soltaniyeh
The Mausoleum of Oljaytu, Soltaniyeh

The Blue Mosque, Tabriz

Interior of the Blue Mosque, Tabriz
Interior of the Blue Mosque, Tabriz
Interior of the Blue Mosque, Tabriz
Exterior of the Blue Mosque, Tabriz
Exterior of the Blue Mosque, Tabriz
A walk way leading to the Blue Mosque, Tabriz

Fin Garden, Kashan

The garden was built under the reign of Abbas I of Persia and completed in 1590. It is the oldest extant garden in Iran.

Ceiling details from the Fin Garden, Kashan
Ceiling details from the Fin Garden, Kashan
Ceiling details from the Fin Garden, Kashan
Fin Garden, Kashan

Agha Bozorg Mosque, Kashan

Ceiling from the Agha Bozorg Mosque, Kashan
The Agha Bozorg Mosque, Kashan
The Agha Bozorg Mosque, Kashan

Shah Mosque, Isfahan

In 1587, Shah Abbas became the ruler of the third great Persian empire and made Isfahan his capital constructing numerous palaces, mosques, gardens and bazaars soon after. The great Safavid ruler brought hundreds of Chinese artisans to Isfahan. The Shah (Royal) Mosque was perhaps the greatest architectural achievement of that period.

Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Surface design of the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
The Shah Mosque, Isfahan
The Shah Mosque, Isfahan
The Shah Mosque, Isfahan

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan

Built during the reign of Shah Abbas I, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was completed in 1619 and was for the exclusive use of the Royal family.

Details from the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
Details from the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
Interior of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
Interior of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan

Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan

Ali Qapu Palace served as the official residence of Persian Emperors of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736). It was here that the Shah Abbas I used to entertain noble visitors, and foreign ambassadors.

Ceiling details from the Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan
The Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan

Jameh Mosque, Isfahan

The origins of this mosque lie in the 8th century, but it burnt down and was rebuilt again in the 11th century during the Seljuk dynasty and went through remodelling many times. As a result, it has rooms built in different architectural styles, so now the mosque represents a condensed history of Iranian architecture.

 

Jameh Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Jameh Mosque, Isfahan

The Amir Chakhmaq Complex, Yazd

The complex, which was built during the Timurid period in 1438, contains a mosque, a caravanserai, a tekyeh, a bathhouse, a cold water well, and a confectionery. Ceiling and surface design only viewable from a distance here.

The Amir Chakhmaq Complex, Yazd

Jameh Mosque, Yazd

The Jameh Mosque dates back to the 12th century although it was largely rebuilt between 1324 and 1365. Its minarets are the highest in Iran measuring 52 metres in height and 6 metres in diameter.

 

Jameh Mosque, Yazd
Jameh Mosque, Yazd
Jameh Mosque, Yazd
Exterior of the Jameh Mosque, Yazd

Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz

This mosque is known popularly as ‘the pink mosque’ due to large number of pink coloured tiles used to decorate it. It was built during the Qajar dynasty and completed in 1888.

Ceiling details from the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
Ceiling details from the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
Ceiling details from the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
Ceiling details from the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
Ceiling details from the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz

North-western Iran شمال غرب ایران

Further along the road lies Tabriz, home to the largest covered market in the world through which Marco Polo reputedly passed en route to China in the 13th century.

Tabriz’s Grand Bazaar

Inside the bazaar, a UNESCO world heritage site

After crossing into Iran from Turkey, my first stop was the windy city of Tabriz, home to the largest roofed bazaar in the world.

In the 13th century Tabriz became the capital city of the Safavids; the greatest Iranian Empire established after the Muslim conquest of Persia. The bazaar soon became one of the most important international trade and cultural centres in the world. Whilst the city lost its status as capital in the 16th century, it remained important as a commercial hub until the end of the 18th century.

Arranged much like a department store, the bazaar contains approximately 8,000 shops and employs around 10,000 workers.

There are areas for carpets, gold jewellery, white goods, mens fashion, women’s fashion, food and produce and more. I saw very few computers or smart phones. Instead business is conducted the old-fashioned way on landlines and calculators. I even saw an abacus still in use.

Marco Polo claimed to have passed through it. Perhaps he stayed at one of its 22 caravanserai.

Somewhere deep within
One of the main carpet halls. Note the beautiful brick work.
A man about to measure the knots per square inch of a carpet, this denotes its quality
Measuring those knots
A carpet seller. Hanging on the walls are fiine silk carpets which command the highest prices. On the floor is a rougher woollen carpet that sells for less.
A carpet seller displaying a rug to potential buyers. He is showing off fine silk carpets.
Carpet sellers. Hanging on the back wall are photographs of previous generations of those in the business.
A spice seller cleaning up his display
A beautiful display of spices
A passageway leading to one of the bazaar’s 22 caravanserai
Tea break, Persian-style
This guy is rocking an abacus, dig that
This section sells rougher woollen carpets that are made by tribal people in rural areas. The designs tell the folk history of different tribes.
A detail shot of one of those carpets
The gold department of the bazaar
Gold sellers in the gold department of the bazaar
The gold department of the bazaar
A busy passageway full of shoppers
A bag seller tending to some shoppers
The fruit and veg department full of busy shoppers
The fruit and veg department
A fruit and veg seller with some shoppers
Rush hour in the fruit and veg department

Isfahan اصفهان

In 1598, the great Safavid ruler of Persia, Shah Abbas I, made Isfahan his capital and transformed it into one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Isfahan اصفهان

Shah Abbas I’s centrepiece was the Naqsh-e Jahan Square around which he built ornately decorated imperial mosques, a bazaar and a palace representing the three pillars of power in 16th century Persia: religion, the economy and royalty.

Isfahan اصفهان

To help design and decorate these buildings, such as the exquisite Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque (ceiling detail), Shah Abbas employed the expertise of hundreds of Chinese artisans.

Ceilings of Iran

Images of the spectacular ceilings that can be found in Iran and the mosques, mausolea, madrasahs and palaces they belong to.

These photos were taken on my overland journey from London to Beijing in 2019.

 

Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom

This shrine is considered by Shia Muslims to be the second most sacred site in Iran after Mashhad. Fatima Masumeh was the sister of the eighth Imam after the Prophet Mohammed. In Shia Islam, women are often revered as saints if they are close relatives to one of the Twelver Imams.

Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
Ceiling details from the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
The Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom
The Shrine of Fatima Masumeh, Qom

Mausoleum of Oljaytu, Soltaniyeh

After conquering this region and converting to Islam, the Mongol general Oljaytu established a capital in the city of Soltaniyeh and constructed this massive mausoleum for himself in 1312. The turquoise dome and stylised Kufic calligraphy are similar to those found in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan.

Ceiling details from Mausoleum of Oljaytu, Soltaniyeh
Ceiling details from Mausoleum of Oljaytu, Soltaniyeh
The Mausoleum of Oljaytu, Soltaniyeh

The Blue Mosque, Tabriz

Interior of the Blue Mosque, Tabriz
Interior of the Blue Mosque, Tabriz
Interior of the Blue Mosque, Tabriz
Exterior of the Blue Mosque, Tabriz
Exterior of the Blue Mosque, Tabriz
A walk way leading to the Blue Mosque, Tabriz

Fin Garden, Kashan

The garden was built under the reign of Abbas I of Persia and completed in 1590. It is the oldest extant garden in Iran.

Ceiling details from the Fin Garden, Kashan
Ceiling details from the Fin Garden, Kashan
Ceiling details from the Fin Garden, Kashan
Fin Garden, Kashan

Agha Bozorg Mosque, Kashan

Ceiling from the Agha Bozorg Mosque, Kashan
The Agha Bozorg Mosque, Kashan
The Agha Bozorg Mosque, Kashan

Shah Mosque, Isfahan

In 1587, Shah Abbas became the ruler of the third great Persian empire and made Isfahan his capital constructing numerous palaces, mosques, gardens and bazaars soon after. The great Safavid ruler brought hundreds of Chinese artisans to Isfahan. The Shah (Royal) Mosque was perhaps the greatest architectural achievement of that period.

Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Surface design of the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
The Shah Mosque, Isfahan
The Shah Mosque, Isfahan
The Shah Mosque, Isfahan

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan

Built during the reign of Shah Abbas I, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was completed in 1619 and was for the exclusive use of the Royal family.

Details from the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
Details from the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
Interior of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
Interior of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan

Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan

Ali Qapu Palace served as the official residence of Persian Emperors of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736). It was here that the Shah Abbas I used to entertain noble visitors, and foreign ambassadors.

Ceiling details from the Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan
The Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan

Jameh Mosque, Isfahan

The origins of this mosque lie in the 8th century, but it burnt down and was rebuilt again in the 11th century during the Seljuk dynasty and went through remodelling many times. As a result, it has rooms built in different architectural styles, so now the mosque represents a condensed history of Iranian architecture.

 

Jameh Mosque, Isfahan
Ceiling details from the Jameh Mosque, Isfahan

The Amir Chakhmaq Complex, Yazd

The complex, which was built during the Timurid period in 1438, contains a mosque, a caravanserai, a tekyeh, a bathhouse, a cold water well, and a confectionery. Ceiling and surface design only viewable from a distance here.

The Amir Chakhmaq Complex, Yazd

Jameh Mosque, Yazd

The Jameh Mosque dates back to the 12th century although it was largely rebuilt between 1324 and 1365. Its minarets are the highest in Iran measuring 52 metres in height and 6 metres in diameter.

 

Jameh Mosque, Yazd
Jameh Mosque, Yazd
Jameh Mosque, Yazd
Exterior of the Jameh Mosque, Yazd

Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz

This mosque is known popularly as ‘the pink mosque’ due to large number of pink coloured tiles used to decorate it. It was built during the Qajar dynasty and completed in 1888.

Ceiling details from the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
Ceiling details from the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
Ceiling details from the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
Ceiling details from the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
Ceiling details from the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz

Isfahan اصفهان

The city’s artisanal heritage is still very much alive today. The bazaar is full of metal workers, carpenters and textile-makers, young and old, plying their trade.

Isfahan اصفهان

This is a Zourkhaneh or ‘House of Strength’. Here, men give praise to Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, through a spiritual form of exercise that dates back over a thousand years. Participants perform individual and synchronised moves to demonstrate strength and prowess as well as humility — qualities championed by Ali. The practice combines martial arts, calisthenics, strength-training and music. It fuses elements of pre-Islamic Persian culture with the spirituality of Shi’i Islam and Sufism. At points the men whirl like dervishes. The competitive nature is clear, but so too is the camaraderie.

Yazd یزد

Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions and was Persia’s dominant religion before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century. Zoroastrians worship at fire temples where the flames have been kept burning for centuries, in some cases millennia.

Vestiges of Zoroastrianism in Iran

At the top of a Zoroastrian Tower of Silence near Yazd in southern Iran

Yazd is Iran’s unofficial capital of Zoroastrianism; one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions and Persia’s dominant religion before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

Zoroastrianism is a ‘multi-faceted faith centered on a dualistic cosmology of good and evil and an eschatology predicting the ultimate conquest of evil. Historical features of Zoroastrianism, such as messianism, judgment after death, heaven and hell, and free will may have influenced other religious and philosophical systems, including Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Greek philosophy, Christianity, Islam, the Baháʼí Faith, and Buddhism’ (Wikipedia).

Zoroastrians worship at fire temples where flames are kept burning for centuries. The flame in Yazd, seen below, has been burning continuously for 1500 years.

The Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd. The Faravahar, the symbol of Zoroastrianism, can be seen in blue above the entrance.
The flame at the Zoroastrian Temple in Yazd which has been burning continuously for 1500 years.

Historically, Zoroastrians took their dead out of the cities where their bodies were first prepared by a Zoroastrian priest and then placed at the top of a ‘Tower of Silence’. Here, the flesh of the body was picked off by vultures until only the purified bones remained. The doctrinal rationale for this exposure of the dead body is that it avoids contact with Earth, Water, or Fire, all three of which are considered sacred in the Zoroastrian religion.

The Tower of Silence near Yazd in southern Iran
Atop the Tower of Silence where the dead were placed by Zoroastrian priests for vultures to strip the flesh from the bones removing pollutants from the body
The nearby landscape
Zoroastrian priests would prepare the dead bodies here before taking them to the Tower of Silence
Buildings where the dead would be prepared
The tower from a distance
Another view of the tower

Today, this practice is forbidden in Iran. So to prevent polluting the earth, Zoroastrians bury their dead in a coffin of lime plaster so that the body of the dead never touches the soil.

Proselytism is forbidden for Zoroastrians so few remain. Their rituals, however, have influenced other religions and live on in those. Zoroastrians pray five times a day, for example, and in a specific direction; in their case, the sun.

Zoroastrian symbols can be found across Iran, perhaps most notably at the Naqsh-e Rostam necropolis of the Achaemenid (c. 550–330 BC) and Sassanid (c.224–691 AD) dynasties.

Here we see the Zoroastrian god – Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) – bestowing a ring of light to the Sassanian king Ardashir. A halo appears over his head; a device later appropriated by Christians, Buddhist and Muslims artists to denote the divine.

Achaemenid and Sassanid tombs at the the Naqsh-e Rostam necropolis
The Zoroastrian god – Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) – bestowing a ring of light to the Sassanian king Ardashir

Amongst the nearby ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid empire, we also see the use of the symbol in the city centre and on the nearby tombs of its kings.

The symbol of Zoroastrianism – the Faravahar – carved into one of the tombs at Persepolis
A close up of the Faravahar, the symbol of Zoroastrianism
The Faravahar – the Zoroastrian symbol – can be seen on one of the buildings in the centre of Persepolis

Yazd یزد

In the past, when a Zoroastrian died, their body was placed atop a ‘Tower of Silence’ out in the desert. Over time, vultures ate the flesh off the deceased leaving behind only the purified bones. This was to ensure the dead body avoided contact with earth, water or fire which are considered sacred by Zoroastrians.

Vestiges of Zoroastrianism in Iran

At the top of a Zoroastrian Tower of Silence near Yazd in southern Iran

Yazd is Iran’s unofficial capital of Zoroastrianism; one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions and Persia’s dominant religion before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

Zoroastrianism is a ‘multi-faceted faith centered on a dualistic cosmology of good and evil and an eschatology predicting the ultimate conquest of evil. Historical features of Zoroastrianism, such as messianism, judgment after death, heaven and hell, and free will may have influenced other religious and philosophical systems, including Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Greek philosophy, Christianity, Islam, the Baháʼí Faith, and Buddhism’ (Wikipedia).

Zoroastrians worship at fire temples where flames are kept burning for centuries. The flame in Yazd, seen below, has been burning continuously for 1500 years.

The Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd. The Faravahar, the symbol of Zoroastrianism, can be seen in blue above the entrance.
The flame at the Zoroastrian Temple in Yazd which has been burning continuously for 1500 years.

Historically, Zoroastrians took their dead out of the cities where their bodies were first prepared by a Zoroastrian priest and then placed at the top of a ‘Tower of Silence’. Here, the flesh of the body was picked off by vultures until only the purified bones remained. The doctrinal rationale for this exposure of the dead body is that it avoids contact with Earth, Water, or Fire, all three of which are considered sacred in the Zoroastrian religion.

The Tower of Silence near Yazd in southern Iran
Atop the Tower of Silence where the dead were placed by Zoroastrian priests for vultures to strip the flesh from the bones removing pollutants from the body
The nearby landscape
Zoroastrian priests would prepare the dead bodies here before taking them to the Tower of Silence
Buildings where the dead would be prepared
The tower from a distance
Another view of the tower

Today, this practice is forbidden in Iran. So to prevent polluting the earth, Zoroastrians bury their dead in a coffin of lime plaster so that the body of the dead never touches the soil.

Proselytism is forbidden for Zoroastrians so few remain. Their rituals, however, have influenced other religions and live on in those. Zoroastrians pray five times a day, for example, and in a specific direction; in their case, the sun.

Zoroastrian symbols can be found across Iran, perhaps most notably at the Naqsh-e Rostam necropolis of the Achaemenid (c. 550–330 BC) and Sassanid (c.224–691 AD) dynasties.

Here we see the Zoroastrian god – Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) – bestowing a ring of light to the Sassanian king Ardashir. A halo appears over his head; a device later appropriated by Christians, Buddhist and Muslims artists to denote the divine.

Achaemenid and Sassanid tombs at the the Naqsh-e Rostam necropolis
The Zoroastrian god – Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) – bestowing a ring of light to the Sassanian king Ardashir

Amongst the nearby ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid empire, we also see the use of the symbol in the city centre and on the nearby tombs of its kings.

The symbol of Zoroastrianism – the Faravahar – carved into one of the tombs at Persepolis
A close up of the Faravahar, the symbol of Zoroastrianism
The Faravahar – the Zoroastrian symbol – can be seen on one of the buildings in the centre of Persepolis

Yazd یزد

Today, this practice is forbidden so Zoroastrians bury their dead in a coffin of lime plaster so that the body does not touch the earth. Proselytism and conversion is not encouraged so few Zoroastrians remain. Their rituals, however, have influenced other religions and live on in those. Zoroastrians pray five times a day, for example, and in a specific direction; in their case, towards the sun. Seen here is the top of a Tower of Silence.

Vestiges of Zoroastrianism in Iran

At the top of a Zoroastrian Tower of Silence near Yazd in southern Iran

Yazd is Iran’s unofficial capital of Zoroastrianism; one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions and Persia’s dominant religion before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

Zoroastrianism is a ‘multi-faceted faith centered on a dualistic cosmology of good and evil and an eschatology predicting the ultimate conquest of evil. Historical features of Zoroastrianism, such as messianism, judgment after death, heaven and hell, and free will may have influenced other religious and philosophical systems, including Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Greek philosophy, Christianity, Islam, the Baháʼí Faith, and Buddhism’ (Wikipedia).

Zoroastrians worship at fire temples where flames are kept burning for centuries. The flame in Yazd, seen below, has been burning continuously for 1500 years.

The Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd. The Faravahar, the symbol of Zoroastrianism, can be seen in blue above the entrance.
The flame at the Zoroastrian Temple in Yazd which has been burning continuously for 1500 years.

Historically, Zoroastrians took their dead out of the cities where their bodies were first prepared by a Zoroastrian priest and then placed at the top of a ‘Tower of Silence’. Here, the flesh of the body was picked off by vultures until only the purified bones remained. The doctrinal rationale for this exposure of the dead body is that it avoids contact with Earth, Water, or Fire, all three of which are considered sacred in the Zoroastrian religion.

The Tower of Silence near Yazd in southern Iran
Atop the Tower of Silence where the dead were placed by Zoroastrian priests for vultures to strip the flesh from the bones removing pollutants from the body
The nearby landscape
Zoroastrian priests would prepare the dead bodies here before taking them to the Tower of Silence
Buildings where the dead would be prepared
The tower from a distance
Another view of the tower

Today, this practice is forbidden in Iran. So to prevent polluting the earth, Zoroastrians bury their dead in a coffin of lime plaster so that the body of the dead never touches the soil.

Proselytism is forbidden for Zoroastrians so few remain. Their rituals, however, have influenced other religions and live on in those. Zoroastrians pray five times a day, for example, and in a specific direction; in their case, the sun.

Zoroastrian symbols can be found across Iran, perhaps most notably at the Naqsh-e Rostam necropolis of the Achaemenid (c. 550–330 BC) and Sassanid (c.224–691 AD) dynasties.

Here we see the Zoroastrian god – Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) – bestowing a ring of light to the Sassanian king Ardashir. A halo appears over his head; a device later appropriated by Christians, Buddhist and Muslims artists to denote the divine.

Achaemenid and Sassanid tombs at the the Naqsh-e Rostam necropolis
The Zoroastrian god – Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) – bestowing a ring of light to the Sassanian king Ardashir

Amongst the nearby ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid empire, we also see the use of the symbol in the city centre and on the nearby tombs of its kings.

The symbol of Zoroastrianism – the Faravahar – carved into one of the tombs at Persepolis
A close up of the Faravahar, the symbol of Zoroastrianism
The Faravahar – the Zoroastrian symbol – can be seen on one of the buildings in the centre of Persepolis

The Silk Road

In 138 BCE, General Zhang Qian of China’s Han Dynasty was sent on a diplomatic mission to develop economic and cultural links with the peoples of Central Asia. In so doing, he set in motion the creation of a transcontinental trade route that would shape the world as we know it today.

The Silk Road, as it would later be called, is neither an actual road nor a single route. It refers to the historic network of trade routes that stretched thousands of miles across Eurasia connecting China with Europe. Grain, livestock, leather, precious stones, porcelain, wool, gold and, of course, silk were transported along its network of trading posts and markets. As a consequence, two thousand years ago affluent Romans could garb themselves in silk clothes made in China while gold coins bearing Caesar’s image were spent in spice markets in India.

It was not only goods that travelled these routes but knowledge, religions and people too. Gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the printing press, and advanced mathematics all came to Europe from China and the Islamic world. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam each found new converts in the lands that opened up to the East and West. Along these same routes, Mongol armies swept across Eurasia — as did bubonic plague, travelling with merchants and their animals.

These exchanges had a profound impact on the empires and civilisations through which they passed, giving them political, religious and cultural shape. Many of the more networked cities developed into hubs of culture and learning and, in some, the sparks of a golden age were ignited.

By the late 16th century, the Silk Road had lost its prominence to new maritime trade routes but the legacy of interconnectivity and exchange endured. Today, it is being reimagined on an unprecedented scale. Through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Eurasia is the focus of the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in history. If realised, a massive network of roads, railways, pipelines and ports could connect as much as 65% of the world’s population and radically alter the flow of global trade. It is already beginning to reshape Eurasia, focusing world attention once again on the exchange of goods and ideas running from East to West. While these investments will bring enormous opportunities, they come with many risks, especially for Central Asia. Regional insecurity, rising inequality, cultural dislocation, resource scarcity and climate change — all these must be mediated if the new Silk Road is to deliver prosperity to all of those who live along it.

The Aga Khan Foundation & The Silk Road

The Aga Khan Foundation and agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) have been active in countries along the Silk Road for decades. AKDN is a long-term partner in the development of Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

Alongside its partners, AKDN has channelled significant financial and human resources into economic, social and cultural development in these regions. Promoting pluralism, self-reliance and women’s empowerment have been central to those efforts. AKDN’s initiatives are wide-ranging and include agriculture and food security, climate resilience, education, energy, enterprise development, financial services, healthcare, infrastructure, telecommunications and promoting civil society. It has also restored hundreds of historical monuments, parks and gardens and supported some of Central Asia’s greatest musicians to transmit their knowledge and perform on the world’s stage. AKDN’s overarching aim is to improve the quality of life.

This exhibition

The Silk Road: A Living History invites you to take a journey from London to Beijing, encountering some of the people, places and cultures in-between. The exhibition aims to celebrate the diversity found along this route, explore how historical customs live on today, and reveal connections between what appear at first glance to be very different cultures. Ultimately, the exhibition aims to help build bridges of interest and understanding between distant places and challenge perceptions of less well-known or understood parts of the world. The exhibition was created by Christopher Wilton-Steer, a travel photographer and Head of Communications at the Aga Khan Foundation (UK).

This exhibition is not an exhaustive photographic documentation of Eurasia’s people and cultures. It is a record of some of those Christopher encountered over the course of an overland journey from London to Beijing that he undertook in 2019 and therefore reflects only a fraction of the realities of these places. It is one of an infinite number of stories that could be told.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank first and foremost the wonderful and kind people I met on my travels and who allowed me into their lives. I am grateful to Simon Norfolk, Gary Otte, Andrew Quilty, Sebastian Schutyser and Kapila Productions for allowing me to use some of their photographs of places or events I was unable to visit on my journey. I would like to acknowledge the invaluable travel advice I received from Wild Frontiers and Eastern Turkey Tours, and the support from King’s Cross Central General Partner Ltd. who have allowed for this exhibition to take place in this public space. Lastly, I would like to thank my colleagues across the Aga Khan Development Network for their support and especially the Aga Khan Foundation who shared in the vision for this exhibition.

Christopher Wilton-Steer