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.
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.
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.
The Shrine of Fatima Masumeh’s ceilings and surfaces are covered in intricate Arabic and mesmerising geometric patterns and designs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. In the past, when a Zoroastrian died, their body was placed atop a ‘Tower of Silence’ where this photograph was taken.
Over time, vultures ate the flesh of 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. 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.