Kashan is a sleepy, not-so-hidden gem. The town encapsulates all of what Iran has to offer, albeit at a smaller and less-impressive scale than the country’s main tourist destinations. But being between Tehran and Isfahan means that this town is not to be missed. The centrepiece is the old town, a checkerboard of flat rooftops and tight laneways.
Aside from exemplary Qajari aesthetics, from the mansions to the bazaar, Kashan is also home to several unique instances of desert ingenuity. For centuries, ice was stored in underground conical structures. Homes, too, typically feature subterranean courtyards to escape the scorchingly hot days. And when the town was threatened by invasion, the residents themselves fled underground.
Kashan was the first of several historic towns I visited, where laneways and high-walled buildings form a literal labyrinth. Here, the smell of rosewater permeates from the suburban distilleries of Kashan’s laneways. The laneways join at intersections, which are covered by domes. At these intersections there are typically several staple businesses: a baker, a smith and a butcher.
As I visited during Ramazan, the streets were empty during the day. Walking around felt like racing from one covered intersection to another to escape the heat. It’s a slightly eerie environment, but at least there’s noone around to see me drinking water before sunset.
Speaking of sunset, one afternoon I was looking for something to eat. I followed an amazing smell wafting through the air back to a restaurant. The tables were empty but the pots were boiling loudly. The elderly man was making sirabi, a mutton tripe broth, to sell to families who would bring the soup home to eat after sunset. But as soon as I stuck my head in, Iranian hospitality took over.
When I instinctively smiled and turned away after realising he wasn’t open to diners, the man quite literally pulled me inside. He showed me around the kitchen and I totally geeked out over the food. Before I knew it, he was showing me the raw meat and other ingredients.
He then served me, even though the sun hadn’t set yet. I tried to refuse, but he insisted. He sat me at a table, and sat with me, showing me how to eat the soup and periodically bringing out other condiments. Occasionally customers would pop in and give me a strange look for eating; the man would then explain, he would serve them, and there’d be smiles all around.
This man hadn’t eaten since sunrise yet here he was feeding me beautiful, fresh food. Although I spoke no Farsi beyond a few basic phrases, and he spoke no English, we managed to communicate the whole time. He was genuinely happy to be welcoming to me, and I was so genuinely humbled by it. When I was done, and it was time to say goodbye, we shook hands and he gave me a kiss on the cheek–a typical greeting for older Iranian men.
When I left the restaurant at this golden hour, I was met with hordes of people queuing outside bakeries. Everyone needed fresh bread for their iftar dinner. It’s amazing how such dead streets could become packed for one single reason, before becoming dead again in the blink of an eye.
Continuing to wander through the laneways, I stumbled upon a big mud wall. Here I met two young Iranian women who appeared to be domestic tourists. Without hesitation, they and their guide absorbed me into their group despite the fact they spoke no English and I spoke no Farsi. I was a bit confused and suspicious, but I followed along hesitantly.
The guide led us to climb onto the wall itself, which turned out to contain fields! We were walking on the 11th century Ghal’eh Jalali fortress, built by Sultan Malik-Shah I. Eventually the tour continued through more laneways seeing more cute spots I wouldn’t have found on my own. When it was over, the girls and their guide simply said a lovely goodbye and went on their way. I was half expecting to have to pay for my share of the tour. How could I forget Iranian hospitality?
By the edge of the fortress is one of several yakhchāls around Kashan. A yakhchāl is a traditional method for storing ice dating back millennia. While the dome is above ground, the ice is stored in a cool subterranean pit, similar to how many of Kashan’s buildings have their main courtyards and living spaces below ground. While no longer in use, its still possible to stick your head in the door and it definitely feels much cooler than the ambient temperature.
Several merchants built grand homes in Kashan, which are now tourist attractions in their own right. They’re beautiful examples of Iranian architecture, with each containing several elements that reflect the local vernacular: subterranean courtyards, stained glass, intricate mirror work, water features and intricate plasterwork.
Another feature of Kashani homes–and not just the large historical houses mentioned above–are dual door knockers. One knocker is long and the other is round to signify if the visitor is male of female. This was important once upon a time when a woman would veil or even answer the door at all if the guest was an unrelated male. The different shapes, aside from resembling their respective genders, also make different sounds. A local described the distinction to me as “tak” versus “taku”, although I don’t remember which is which. While this architectural tradition is not specific to Kashan, Kashan is where they’ve been most widely preserved nowadays and they have since come to symbolise the area.
The central bazaar is an essential tourist attraction of every Iranian city and town. After a while, you’ll realise that tourists love to compare notes to see which bazaars are worthwhile and which are not worth visiting if you’ve seen plenty already. In my experience, both talking to fellow tourists and visiting the bazaar itself, Kashan’s seems to be the pick of the crop. It, along with that of Tabriz, is widely regarded as one of the most interesting small-town bazaars in the country.
Its size certainly exceeds what one might expect of a bazaar in a small town like Kashan. Each wing is an extension from a different era, and its fascinating to follow the changes in architecture. As always, you’ll find everything from spices to gold to everyday homewares.
Enclosed within this labyrinth of stalls are caravanserais, tombs, mosques and even a hamam that has been converted into a restaurant. I actually found myself getting lost more often than in any other Iranian bazaar I visited. This a testament not only to the appeal of wandering endlessly here, but also to the sheer scale of this free-form maze.
The strangest attraction of Kashan lies beneath the surface. 1,500 years ago, residents of the town of Nushabad, just north of Kashan, began to excavate underground chambers to hide in, in the event of a foreign (read: Mongol) invasion. These chambers became increasingly complex, incorporating ducts for breathing air and water pipes. Eventually these excavations amalgamated into an entire underground city large enough to house every family.
The underground city has three levels ranging from 4-18m deep. The corridors are often curved and there are also plenty of hidden pits–all of which were to act as a kind of booby trap against potential intruders. I was most taken aback by the ventilation. Despite being so cramped so deep underground, I was never short of breath. There was even an ingenious mechanism to regulate the flow of air between the levels. At times it felt as strong as an air conditioner.
As with any Iranian town, the place really comes alive after dark. Myself and a few other the other guests at my hostel were chatting with the manager who was around the same age as us. He said he planned to go to a venue on the southern outskirts of town later in the night with a friend, and asked if we’d like to join him. Without hesitation we all said yes.
The venue turned out to be a horse riding track! Amir, the hotel’s manager, did slow laps moving his arms up, down, left and right for practice. The rest of us watched on from the courtyard, smoking qalyân and drinking tea among the families who had come here to spend the evening. It was a space unlike anywhere I had been; the closest Western equivalent I can think of would maybe be a bowling alley, but this space was much more relaxed and, importantly in this weather, outdoors.
Afterwards me and the other hostel guests went back to the old town and wandered through the laneways again. It was well after midnight but that’s not so late for Iranians who nap during the day. We stumbled upon a well-decorated door which was ajar, and we decided to head on in.
Up a staircase and around a few corners turned out to be a bar! In rural Iran! Except here, the menu was strictly limited to mocktails (if you could even call them that). We were basically drinking soft drinks in fancy glasses with curly straws, but that’s besides the point. What was so special we were on this beautiful historic rooftop, looking out across the illuminated minarets and qubbas which pierced through the darkness.
Two-and-a-half years later I’ve visited many more countries and even landed a job here in Sydney reviewing bars for a well-known nightlife publication. Yet I can safely say that this bar, Cafe Baam, despite its barely-passable mocktails, is one of the most memorable ones I’ve ever visited. The soft chatter of guests scattered across the tiered, flat rooftops was completely uninterrupted by any background noises. We were in the old town, after all. We eventually struck up a conversation with a woman sitting near us who happened to speak excellent English. She was middle-aged, single and had come alone to enjoy a drink and pray in her self-described unorthodox manner. She absolutely radiated bad bitch energy and I’m so glad to have met her.
There is no single drawcard to make Kashan a must-see for tourists. Instead, tapestry of historical sites create an overarching atmosphere that is an enticing microcosm of all Iran has to offer. A touch of trendy nightlife makes the town fun after dark, too. That’s more than enough to make it a worthwhile stopover between Tehran and Isfahan.