Kerman is another city in the Dasht-e Loot desert, but that’s where the similarities to my previous stop in Yazd ends. The city is quite developed, which goes hand in hand with being busier and less quaint; you won’t be finding any tiny mud brick lanes here. The main attraction in the city itself is watching the locals’ day to day lives and shopping ’til you drop in the main bazaar. Seeing as there isn’t much to do in Kerman, most visitors use it as a base for daytrips to Persian gardens, the desert or the Rayen citadel. There are direct busses (about 4 hours), trains and flights from most major cities to Kerman.
Unlike bazaars in other cities, the one in Kerman is *gasp* organized! To my relief the layout isn’t a crazy maze, for once it’s quite straight forward : in the form of a rectangle. Some people may say they prefer winding lanes, but I find that while all the other bazaars in Iran require at least a couple hours of wandering about (aka getting lost), it’s a breathe of fresh air to know where you’re headed when looking for something specific.
The Bazar-e Sartasari is one of the oldest trading centres in Iran (and my favourite!), measuring 1.2km end to end connecting 2 main squares. The names are slightly confusing as it actually contains several bazaars in a complex :
- Entering from Tohid Square heading east, you are immediately in the 16th century Safavid-era Bazar-e Ganj Ali Khan, selling everything from clothes to dried fruits… in a straight alleyway!! You’ll find the beautiful Hamam-e Ganj Ali Khan eventually on the right, it’s worth a visit but you have to pay to enter for a glimpse of a typical Safavid bath house.
- On the left there are no shops at the beginning as it opens onto an elegant public square that is part of the Ganj Ali Khan Complex, constructed in the 16th century under the rule of Shah Abbas I. I didn’t go in but it has mosque, caravanserai (inn for travellers) and a mint.
- Across this square to the north is the Bazar -e Mesgari Shomali selling copperware. It’s oh so shiny I just couldn’t resist picking some vases up! Remeber to haggle hard.
- If you need a bite to eat or a cup of tea, you’ll find the Hamam-e Vakil Chaykhaneh on the left of the main alley, immediately after the Ganj Ali Khan square. There is a staircase leading down to a stunning underground hamam converted teahouse. It’s the best dining option in the vicinity but sadly quite empty when I was there. I was told that this was due to the government banning shisha (smoke pollution), the main reason most patrons came. Otherwise there are grilled meat and pastry stands in the outdoors section towards Shohada Square.
- If you continue along the main stretch, the Bazar-e Ganj Ali Khan becomes the Bazar-e Ekhtiari then the Bazar-e Vakil with vendors selling more clothes and spices; then the Bazar-e Mossafri which is mainly outdoor stalls selling fruits.
- The impressive Friday mosque is on the left of this last bazaar and the large Shohada square straight ahead.
Simply put, the Bazaar complex is incredibly simple to navigate, it’s the section names that can often lead to confusion as there’s no real separation between them. The reason for it’s rectangular shape is the positionning around the Ganj Ali Khan complex.
The reason I prefer this bazaar to others in Iran is because of the atmosphere. Seeing as the alleys are quite large and easy to navigate, this is the only one where I saw Iranians mingling instead of rushing through. Groups of teens and couples are milling about, shocked to see tourists also walking around. Of couse I also got more uncomfortable stares, and friendly conversations too, than in other bazaars where there are more foreigners. However I still feel as though you get a better glimpse into their daily lives, mostly in the fresh produce section… so much haggling!
Within 2 hours of Kerman there are several sites accessible by hiring a driver for a day, the easiest way is to arrange it with your hotel. I imagine that you can also take busses but it wouldn’t be possible to do them all in one day.
The Rayen citadel was one of my favourite stops in Iran. It’s about 1h30 drive from Kerman (several busses a day) to get to this ancient mud brick citadel in the desert surrounded by a small village. Rising up on a hill, the citadel is thought to be at least 1000 years old, dating back to the Sassanid empire. It’s everything my imagination thought ancient Persia would look like and more (Prince of Persia anyone)? An even bigger plus was that we got it all to ourselves!
Another castle near Kerman is the Arg-e Bam castle, which was originally larger and more complex than Rayen. Unfortunately an earthquake in 2004 damaged most of the site, making Rayen a more worthwhile visit if you wish to see an intact citadel.
On the way back to Kerman from Rayen, we also made 2 stops in Mahan : the first a classic Persian garden, and the second the shrine of a famous sufi mystic.
- The Shazdeh Garden is located on the outskirts of Mahan, unexpectedly rising as a lush green man-made oasis out of the desert. Surrounded by rectangular walls, I couldn’t see much while driving towards it, which made my gasp even more dramatic as I stepped through the gates for the first time. The desert is a forgotten world in this romantic garden straight from the pages of Arabian Nights. Despite the medieval inspiration, it’s actual construction was much more recent: in 1850, during the Qajar era. There’s a fountain running down towards the entrance in a terraced fashion, lined by trees and a path leading down from the top of the garden on either side. The scent of pine, cedar, elm, exotic flowers and birds chirping surrounded all our senses as we followed the steps to the top. Once there, we found a delicious restaurant serving food on beds looking down over the garden, a perfect way to while away the afternoon.
- The shrine of Shah Nematollah Vali was recommended to me by several locals, but I’ll go ahead and be honest… I didn’t find it too impressive. Sure the history and the man himself are fascinating, but the building itself didn’t leave me gaping in amazement. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all the other archictectural wonders in Iran? Shah Nematollah Vali was a respected Iranian poet, mystic, and founder of a Dervish order. After he passed away in 1431, one of his disciples began the construction of the shrine in 1437, which is still standing to this day.
Last but not least, another incredibly unique experience near Kerman is an overnight stay at the Zein-O-Din Caravanserai built by Shah Abbas I. It dates back to the 16th century but has been fully restored and is still functional. The caravanserai’s location near Kerman and a 2 day camel ride from Yazd is strategic, as it’s traditionally an inn for merchants on the ancient Silk Road connecting Europe to Asia. The circular building is completely isolated in the Dasht-e Loot desert, with private rooms circling an open courtyard and 4 poster dorm beds in the outer hallways. From the rooftop, I had a perfect view of the Zagros mountain chain and the vast desert. I dropped by for some tea on my way from Kerman to Shiraz but didn’t get a chance to stay overnight… don’t make the same mistake as me! I would give anything to go back and spend a night pretending to be Marco Polo travelling through the sands of Persia.