All About Shiraz, Iran: History and Things to See and Do

I’m pretty sure that I’ve never met a Shirazi I’ve disliked. They and the city of Shiraz are two of the best things about Iran.

About the City of Shiraz

Photo by Mohammad Ahangar (@mohammad.ahangar)
Ok, so now we’re going to take a look at Shiraz, one of the most culturally and historically significant cities of Iran. Shiraz is in the heartland of the Iranian province of Fars. Some say that this province encompasses the true essence of all that is Persian or Iranian. After all, it is from this province that the founder of the first great empire of the Persians, Cyrus II, was from. Before he was called Cyrus the Great, he ruled from the city of Anshan and later built his capital at Pasargadae. Both of of these sites along with Persepolis are in modern-day Fars and close to the city of Shiraz. Shiraz is also the birth and resting place of two of Iran’s greatest poets, Hafez and Sa’adi.

Vakil Bazaar of Shiraz as seen by Jane Dieulafoy in 1881.

History of Shiraz

“Shiraz” by Jean Struys, 1681

Early History

Art from the Elamite period; photo courtesy of the Louvre
Shiraz’s history is technically older than that of Iran itself. It existed long before the Medes and the Persians came onto the scene. In fact, the earliest written reference to the city comes from Elamite cuneiform tablets written around 2000 BCE. The Elamites called it Tirazish (TiraziÅ¡) and it remained a minor town up until just over 2,000 years later under the Sasanian dynasty of Iran. It is around this time that the city became known by it’s current name, Shiraz. One legend has it that the name is derived from Tahmuras, one of the legendary kings in Firdausi’s Shahnameh.
Tahmuras from the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp
Shiraz became the preeminent city of Fars province after the destruction of Istakhr and the massacre of its citizens by the Arabs. It became the provincial capital of Fars in 693 under the Arabs and also about 200 years later during the rule of the Shia Buyid dynasty. The Buyids built many mosques, palaces, religious schools, libraries and extended the defensive walls of the city. Shiraz was said to have become so prosperous that it even rivaled Baghdad, the seat of the Sunni Caliphate and possibly the wealthiest city of that time. After the Buyids, Shiraz was ruled for brief periods by the Saffarids, Seljuk Turks and the Khwarezmids until the arrival of the Mongols.

The Mongols and Medieval Times

Mongols with Persian captives; photo source unknown
If you know anything about medieval Iranian history, then you know that the Mongols devastated Iran. However, Shiraz was spared the massacres that others suffered because when the Mongols arrived at the city’s gates, it governor chose to surrender and pay tribute to the Mongol leader, Genghis Khan. The same thing happened roughly 150 years later in 1382 the city under Shah Shoja surrendered to Tamerlane, avoiding another massacre.

From the 13th century onward, Shiraz became a great artistic and literary center of Iran. This is in great part due to two of the city’s most famous poets, Hafez (or Hafiz) and Sa’adi (a.k.a. Saadi). By the 14th century, the artists of Shiraz had developed their own style of painting as well.

Shiraz in 1671; by Andre Daulier
Shiraz further prospered under the rule of the Safavids, especially during the reign of Shah Abbas. His governor, Emam Qoli Khan, who was of Georgian descent, implemented many public works programs during his tenure. Under his direction, large avenues were built to ease congestion in the streets, the latter which were further beautified by the many pavilions, palaces and schools. In fact, it is possible that Shiraz would have become another Isfahan
(the beautiful Safavid capital) had it not suffered destructive invasions by Afghans in 1729 and Nader Shah in 1744.

The Zand Era

Karim Khan Zand
The Afghan invasions and the rule of Nader Shah were a tumultuous time for Iran. The once powerful Safavid Dynasty had ended with Afghan invaders and local tribal chieftains fighting for power. In addition, the Russians and the Ottomans were both seizing Iranian territories and incorporating them into their own empires. A civil war went on with alliances between various tribes and their chieftains constantly being forged and then broken. Finally, one of these leaders emerged victorious. This man was Karim Khan Zand, a member from an Iranian group known as the Laks. Karim Khan founded a new dynasty that bore his name, the Zand Dynasty. Interestingly enough, Zand never crowned himself as shah or king of Iran. Instead, he took the title of Vakil e-Ra’aayaa which means something like “the people’s regent.”

Karim Khan Zand’s Shiraz

Karim Khan Zand
Zand emerged as the ruler of all of Iran with the exception of the province of Khorasan. Though his reign was relatively short, Zand brought about a period of peace, security and prosperity that Iran hadn’t witnessed in decades. Wanting to make Shiraz the next Isfahan, Zand went on a building spree that created many of the historic buildings that we see in Shiraz today. These include the Vakil Mosque and the grand bazaar (see below).
Tang and Allah-o-Akbar Gate in 1888; photo source
It is unfortunate that Zand only ruled from 1751 – 1779; had he lived longer, Shiraz may have yet again become the next Baghdad. Unfortunately his decedents, who didn’t rule for very long after his death, were defeated by a tribe known as the Qajars. Once they established their rule over all of Iran, their leader Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar crowned himself shah and moved the capital to Tehran. Khan Qajar also destroyed Shiraz’s city walls and other fortifications, probably so that Zand sympathizers wouldn’t be able to stage and maintain a successful revolt. Regardless, Shiraz continued to prosper, both economically and artistically.

Shiraz Today

View of Shiraz; photographer unknown
Shiraz today is the sixth largest city in Iran and a hot spot for both local and international tourists. It is known as one of Iran’s main cultural centers due to it being in the Persian heartland of Fars as well as the home and final resting place of famous poets such as Hafez and Sa’adi. The city is also considered one of Iran’s university towns and intellectual centers.

Things to See and Do in Shiraz

Shiraz’s old Qur’an Gate; art by Harold Weston

Alright, so now that we know a bit about the history of Shiraz, it’s time to see what one can actually see and do here. With regard to this, the city does not disappoint. Due to earthquakes and some neglect, most of the buildings are from the 18th century onward. Many of the main historical sites of interest are in the older part of town along Zand Street. Shiraz is also used as a base for tourists visiting the nearby ruins of Persepolis, Pasargadae and Naqsh-e Rustam.

Below are a few of the more noteworthy things to see in Shiraz.

Aramgah-i Hafez

Hafez’s final resting place; photographer unknown
So Shiraz has many attractions, but I’m starting with probably my favorite, the tomb of the poet Hafez (also spelled “Hafiz”). Hafez is more of a Persian rock star than simply a poet. Just like Brits can quote lyrics from the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, practically every Iranian, old or young, can quote Hafez. He is many things to many people. For example, some quote Hafez to defend their libertine way of life while others their religiosity. Some see him as the greatest Sufi mystic while others use him as a nationalist literary hero. The poet is considered to be a saint by many who come to his earthly resting place to ask for his advice and guidance.
The cupola over Hafez’s head; photographer unknown
Regardless, everyone in Iran, from the village mullah to the hedonistic rock star loves Hafez. Though Hafez died in the 14th century, his current resting place was constructed relatively recently. Above his remains lies a large marble slab with some of this verses. This was commissioned by Karim Khan Zand. In 1935, the now recognizable octagonal pavilion and cuploa was added.

Even if you don’t understand or have no interest in Persian poetry, you should still visit the tomb of Hafez.

Aramgah-i Sa’adi

Tomb of Sa’adi in Shiraz, Iran
Sa’adi is probably Shiraz’s (and Iran’s) second most popular poet. His most famous works are the Bustan and the Gulestan, both works of moralistic poetry. Like Hafez, many Iranians look to his words for advice and he is also considered to be one of the greatest Persian poets of the classical literary tradition.
A little girl takes selfie at the tomb of Sa’adi; photo by Amir Sadeghian (@sadeghianamir)
Sa’adi lived during the 13th century and though he became one of the most popular poets throughout the Muslim world since them, his original tomb was quite modest. The current one was built only in the 20th century by Reza Shah Pahlavi. Like Hafez, Sa’adi’s tomb is also sort of pilgrimage site.

Arg-i Karim Khan

Arg-i Karim Khan in Shiraz, Iran; photographer unknown
This is the great citadel built during the time of Karim Khan Zand. It’s pretty hard to miss if you’re in the old city. Though a relatively simple structure, it has massive brick walls flanked by four gigantic circular towers at each corner. that are just under 15 meters tall. Inside the citadel is a courtyard containing fruit trees and an iwan, the latter which contains a small museum featuring exhibits on Zand history.

Vakil and other Bazaars

Vakil Bazaar, Shiraz, Iran; photographer unknown
Like in most Iranian cities, Shiraz’s Vakil Bazaar is the center of economic life for Shirazis. It was built by Karim Khan Zand in his quest to make Shiraz one of the world’s great commercial centers. The complex actually is made up of several bazaars and contains over 200 stores and stalls selling everything from clothing, carpets, food, spices, electronics and household items. Some nearby bazaars to explore include the Seray-e Moshir caravanserai, the Bazaar-i Ruhollah and the Bazaar-i Nou (New Bazaar).
Father and son selling jewelry in Vakil Bazaar; photo by Mohammad Sadegh Zarjooyan
Another really interesting part of the bazaar area is the section called Shamshirgarha where you can buy various traditional handicrafts. It’s also a good place to hone in on your haggling skills.

Vakil Mosque (Masjid-i Vakil)

Next to the Shamshirgarha section of the bazaar is the Vakil Mosque. It is famous for its 48-columned prayer hall and marble minbar that was carved in and brought over from Azerbaijan. Most of the mosques original tiles were replaced during the Qajar era, with the newer ones containing beautiful floral motifs and designs.

Hammam-i Vakil

This is an old bathhouse built during the Zand Dynasty. Of course, one look at the intricately-decorated walls and ceilings and you’ll easily realize that it was for the more well-to-do citizens of 18th century Shiraz. Currently, the museum is host to a sort of museum mostly focused on Persian carpets. Just outside the hammam are local artisans working on traditional metalwork and other objects that are for sale.

Aramgah-i Shah-i Cheragh

This beautifully-domed building flanked by golden minarets is the mausoleum of Seyyid Mir Ahmed, one of the 17 brothers of Imam Reza. Seyyid Mir Ahmed was killed by assassins of the Abbasid Caliphate in 835 and buried at this site. Thus, it is one of the holiest sites for Shia Muslims in Iran.

The name of his shrine, Aramgah-i Shah-i Cheragh, means “mausoleum of the king of light.” 1 It’s not just a clever name. One step inside and you’ll be nearly blinded by the innumerable mirrored tiles that make up the mausoleum’s interior. Though the shrine was first erected in the 12th century, it has been renovated and expanded several times.

Shooing away pigeons at the shrine of Shah Cheragh; photo by Amir Sadeghian (@sadeghianamir)

Bagh-i Eram

Bagh-i Eram garden, Shiraz, Iran; photo courtesy of wikimedia commons
Historically, Persians have always been known for their love of gardens. Bagh-i Eram, literally meaning “garden of paradise,” is probably what the Qajars were aiming for when they built it. The garden is well known for it’s tall cypress trees, flower arrangements, reflection pool and palace. It’s the place where Shirazis go to escape the calamity and heat of the city.

Nasir al-Mulk Mosque

Inside the Nasir al-Mulk mosque; photographer unknown
This is probably one of the most famous mosques in Iran, and not because someone is buried here. The colorful Nasir al-Mulk mosque has some of the most beautiful stained glass and colored tile designs that I’ve ever seen. And the way that the sun shines through the windows…

Totally awesome! They say that the best time to come is early in the morning. This is when the shadows created by the sunlight shining through the stained glass are the best.

For more amazing photos and a better description of this mosque, check out this article that the Huntington Post did on it.

Naranjestan & Khan-e Zinat

Narenjestan gardens and pavilion.
Bagh-e Naranjestan is essentially a garden filled with orange and palm trees. But what a garden it is! Along with the opulent house/palace and exquisitely-tiled pavilion, the garden was built for the extremely wealthy family of Mohammad Ali Khan Qavam al-Mulk between the years 1879 – 1886.

Madrasseh-i Khan

Just next to the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque is the Madrasseh-i Khan. This was once a religious school built in 1615 by the then governor of Fars province, Imam Gholi Ali. Most of the building has pretty much been destroyed but you can still see the intricately-tiled main portal and the complexes inner courtyard and gardens.

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