Kerman is a beautiful desert oasis city surrounded by the vast desert and drug smugglers. Nice!
Introduction to Kerman, Iran
Kerman was once Iran’s gateway to the east. With the exception of the desert, there’s not too much separating the city from the Indian subcontinent and the southern steppes of Central Asia. This actually made the city one of the main stops for caravans on their way to the trade routes of the fabled “Silk Road. My main interest in the city is that along with Yazd, Kerman is a regional center of Zoroastrianism. At one time, the number of Zoroastrians in the city was quite sizeable. However at the end of the 17th century, many of them were forcibly relocated outside of the city. I heard that now there might be less than 150 Zoroastrian families left in Kerman, though I cannot confirm this for sure. I also remember visiting Kerman’s Zoroastrian temple (atash kadeh) over 20 years ago.
History of Kerman
The history of Kerman has been quite tumultuous over the centuries. The city is believed to have been founded by King Ardeshir I, the founder of Iran’s Sasanian Dynasty. At that time it was called Beh-i Ardeshir, though the name changed to Kerman during the Safavid era. Kerman was initially a military and trading outpost, but it’s location along the trade routes the Strait of Hormuz, Central Iran and Khorasan enabled it to grow into a moderately sized city.
After the Arab conquest of Iran in 642, Kerman became a refuge for Zoroastrians and other persecuted religions and sects. Though technically part of the Ummayad and later the Abbasid Caliphates, Kerman’s remoteness from their capitals, Damascus and Baghdad respectively, allowed it to remain relatively autonomous for centuries.
From the 10th century onward, Kerman was ruled by several dynasties including the Buyids and later the Seljuk Turks in 1041. During this time the city prospered and was a regional trade hub, something that Marco Polo observed when he passed through in 1271. However by the 14th century, the tide had turned and Kerman was subject to several devastating invasions. Turkoman and later Mongol invasions came and went, followed by the Muzaffarid and Timurid dynasties. While being technically part of the jurisdiction of these rulers, in reality the areas around Kerman were quite lawless. It really was only during the 16th-century when the Safavids came that countryside (desert actually) began to calm down, and even then not for very long. Ismaili groups ruled the city from 1750 until 1792, after which the Qajars took over in the 18th century.
The capital of the province with the same name, the city of Kerman today is home to about a quarter million people. Located in a relatively poor, mountainous desert region of Iran, Kerman is a bit isolated from the rest of the country. What has helped Kerman to survive in this region is an irrigation network made up of qanats. If you’re wondering what a qanat is, don’t worry as they really only exist in Iran and a few other parts of the Middle East. Qanats are gently sloping underground channels that bring water to a well or the surface for drinking. Due to Kerman’s extensive qanat system, the city has been able to not only survive but thrive. Qanats allow the people of Kerman to grow many crops such as dates, oranges, wheat and pistachios. In fact, the pistachios from the Kerman province are said to be some of the best in the world. Textile production is also a major industry here, as is carpet weaving. Persian carpets from Kerman are world famous.
Ok, now let’s take a look at what Kerman has to offer.
Things to See in Kerman
Due to its location, tourists do not generally frequent Kerman. Most who do come pass through it on their way to see the ancient citadel of Bam, about a couple hundred kilometers away. This is unfortunate because Kerman can show visitors a side of Iran that is not seen in places like Tehran, Shiraz or Isfahan. Below are several places to see in Kerman should you be passing through.
Grand Bazaar/Sartasari and Ganj Ali Khan Complex
This is Kerman’s central bazaar area. It is also one of the oldest bazaar complexes in Iran. It’s a bit confusing as some people refer to it as Bazaar Bozorg. In reality, Sartasari is actually a conglomerate of several bazaars, sections of which have their own separate names.
The main entrance to Sartasari starts at Tohid Square and the Bazar-i Ganj Ali Khan. Ganj Ali Khan was a governor of the city in the 17th century. The bazaar and square that now bear his name once contained Kerman’s main public bathhouse, or hammam. Today what’s left of the hammam has been transformed into a museum that shows what the place was like when it was in use.
Next to Ganj Ali Khan is the Bazar-i Mesgari Shomali, also known as the “Coppersmith’s Bazar.” There is a nicely decorated mosque here that was built by Ganj Ali Khan. A short distance from this is the Bazaar-i Zargaran, or the “Gold Bazaar.” This is because they sell, you guessed it, objects and jewelry made of gold. There is also an outdoor bazaar, the Bazaar-i Mosaffari, where fruits and vegetables can be can be bought.
Even if one has no plans to buy anything, they should still visit this area.
Masjid-i Imam (Imam Mosque)
The next great mosque in Kerman is the Masjid-i Imam. It’s actually older than the Masjid-i Jameh by a few hundred years (see above). Built in the 11th century by the Seljuks when the ruled the city, the mosque was later renovated by both the Safavids and the Qajars, essentially making its current construction a conglomerate of multiple Islamic periods and styles. One of the highlights of the mosque is an old mihrab, the object that points the direction to Mecca. I couldn’t find anywhere that states exactly how old it is. Many though believe that it to be from the early period of Islam. It’s possible that the mihrab might even be older than the mosque itself.
Sanati Museum of Contemporary Art
Being seemingly away from civilization, one wouldn’t think that Kerman would have a great modern art museum. However, this happens to be the case with the Sanati Museum of Contemporary art. Named after the Iranian artist Ali Akbar Sanati, the museum contains many of his works as well as those by other contemporary Iranian artists. While the artwork and sculptures inside may be modern, the building itself is old and was once an orphanage.
Once the governor’s mansion, the Harandi museum is a small but interesting museum for learning more about Iran’s ancient and traditional culture. The building’s ground floor displays all sorts of traditional Persian musical instruments.
The floor above is an archaeology museum. The latter contains metalwork and other artifacts that were mostly found around the ancient and nearby archaeological sites of Jiroft and Shahdad.
Tomb of Moshtaq Ali Shah
East of the Friday mosque (Masjid-i Jameh, see above) is the tomb of the Sufi mystic Moshtaq Ali Shah, an interesting local figure. Moshtaq Ali Shah was known to be a Sufi mystic as well as a renowned musician and singer. He apparently fell out of favor with the local clerics of the time and was stoned to death at the nearby mosque. He however is remembered with this intricately decorated mausoleum that’s covered with two beautiful turquoise domes built during the Qajar period.
Most historians aren’t too sure about the origins of this octagonal building and just what exactly its original purpose was. Some believe that it was an astronomical observatory that was used in the 2nd century while others think it was a mausoleum built for a person of importance. It could even have been an old Zoroastrian fire temple. It’s hard to say as no written description has ever been found stating its purpose. Today though it’s just an interesting stone structure (the dome is more recent and made of brick) that contains a small museum featuring old and intricately decorated tombstones. Yeah, sounds creepy but now that you’re intrigued, you might as well check it out. It definitely is a mysterious place.
Kerman National Library
While it has a great collection of books and other research materials, the main attraction of the Kerman National Library is its architecture. Built 1929, the library was originally built to house textiles. Today though it contains shelves of books, old manuscripts, computer terminals, beautiful artwork and some stunning tiles that adorn its walls. Like most Persian buildings of significance, the library is also surrounded by a nice garden.
Built during the Safavid period, the Yakhchal Moayedi or ice house was used to store ice during Kerman’s blazingly hot summers. Thanks to refrigerators, Yakhchal Moayedi’s original use is no longer needed. Today it is a tourism office that occasionally is used as a theater. Surrounding Yakhchal are some lovely gardens (by now you must understand that Persians love gardens).
On the outskirts of Kerman are the ruins of an old Sasanian fortress called Qaleh Dokhtar, meaning “maiden’s castle.” There’s really not much there now but one can climb up to the top of the ruins for some good views of Kerman and the surrounding areas.
Areas around Kerman
In the past, the areas outside of Kerman were known to be quite rough. The border areas of the province next to Pakistan still are due to drug smugglers importing opium into Iran from Afghanistan.
Also outside cities close to the Pakistani border are tribes of Baluchi nomads. They speak their own language, Baluchi, and generally look more like Indians than Persians. Many wear traditional Pakistani/Indian clothes such as the salwar kameez. Though they’re a hospitable people, many Iranians are weary of them due to their (probably unjustified) reputation as smugglers and being rather lawless.
Less than 40 kilometers from the city of Kerman is the town of Mahan. It’d be easy to dismiss it as an extended suburb of Kerman if not for the famous shrine of Shah Nematollah Vali, a Sufi saint who is buried here. Nematollah Vali was a mystic, poet and spiritual teacher originally from Aleppo, Syria (some believe he was a native of Kerman, but that hasn’t been definitively proven.) He traveled to many parts of the greater Islamic world and ended up in Samarkand while it was ruled by Tamerlane, a descendent of the Mongols and founder of the Timurid dynasty. There was some conflict between the two and eventually Shah Nematollah left the Samarkand and arrived in Mahan. By the time Shah Nematollah died in 1431, he was reportedly 104 years old and had amassed many followers of his spiritual teachings, especially in Iran and India. He is considered to be the founder of the Nimatollahi Sufi order.
The Shrine of Shah Nematollah Vali
Started shortly after his death, the shrine or Aramgah of Shah Nematollah Vali was built. What started as a modest homage to the man over the centuries turned into one eastern Iran’s most recognizable buildings. Many rulers, including the Safavids, Qajars and even those from India have added to it.
Construction started in 1436 when an Indian king who was one of the saint’s disciples sent funds to upgrade the shrine. During the reign of Shah Abbas I, the shrine received its famous turquoise-tiled dome with unique geometric and star patterns. The minarets were added during the Qajar period.
Inside the shrine is simple room where Shah Nematollah prayed and meditated. The walls and ceiling here are covered with calligraphy in an interesting spiral pattern.
It’s a peaceful respite in an otherwise extremely harsh environment.
Shahzadeh Garden (Bagh-i Shahzde)
Also in Mahan is the famous Shahzadeh garden. Built in 1873 by a Qajar prince, the garden is series of terraces descending down a hillside and irrigated by nearby qanats (underground water channels). It’s quite beautiful and should not be missed. The best time to visit is actually at dusk when the fountains, pavilion and small palace are lit up.
Shahdad and Surrounding Desert
For something a little different and literally off the beaten path, visit the oasis village of Shahdad. This is the best place to use as a base to see the Kaluts, a long stretch of desert dotted by rocky yardangs. About 6-10 stories high, yardangs formed over many thousands of years by wind erosion. Being on the edge of the arid Dasht-i Lut desert, Shahdad is scorching hot during the summer months. Surprisingly though, this area produces the best oranges in Iran. Due also to its remoteness and lack of clouds, the starry skies over Shahdad are unlike anything you could see in most western, light-polluted countries.
Other than a Safavid-era shrine to a holy man believed to be descended from one of the Shia Imams, Shahdad is surrounded by two archaeological sites, Tepe-i Kohne and Shahrak-i Kotuluha.
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