Many travellers opt to bypass Kashan on their journeys between Tehran, Esfahan and Yazd, but this delightful oasis city on the edge of the Dasht-e Kavir is one of Iran’s most alluring destinations. It not only boasts a cluster of architectural wonders, an atmospheric covered bazaar and a Unesco recognised garden, but it also offers some of central Iran’s best traditional hotels.During the Seljuk period (AD 1051–1220) Kashan became famous for its textiles, pottery and tiles, reaching high levels of accomplishment in each of these cottage industries. Currently local textile artisans are enjoying something of a renaissance of interest in their work, but mechanisation has largely led to the demise of this ancient craft. Today the town is more widely known as a major centre for the production of rose water, which is sold at outlets around the main tourist attractions and at dedicated stores in the bazaar.
Designed for Shah Abbas I in the 16th century, this delightful garden with its symmetrical proportions, old cedars, spring-fed pools and fountains is renowned as being the very epitome of the Persian garden and its evocation of heaven. Given its influence in the planning of gardens as far afield as India and Spain, Fin Garden, which lies in the suburb of Fin, 9km southwest of central Kashan, has justly earned a place on the Unesco World Heritage list.
Kashan’s historic bazaar is one of the best in Iran. Busy but not manic, traditional but with a nod at modern goods, large enough to surprise but not to get lost in, it’s a great place to wander for a couple of hours, especially in the late afternoon when the lanes are full of shoppers. The multi-domed roof of the bazaar dates from the 19th century, but the site has been the centre of trade in Kashan for almost 800 years.
This 500-year-old hammam is a superb example of an Iranian bathhouse. A recent restoration has stripped away 17 layers of plaster (note the wall inside the second room) to reveal the original sarough, a type of plaster made of milk, egg white, soy flour and lime that is said to be stronger than cement. Richly coloured tiles and delicate painting feature throughout, and a further highlight is the panorama of the town’s minarets and badgirs viewed from the roof.
Historic Building in Kashan Legend has it that when Sayyed Jafar Natanzi, a samovar merchant known as Boroujerdi, met with carpet merchant Sayyed Jafar Tabatabaei to discuss taking his daughter’s hand in marriage, Mr Tabatabaei set one condition: his daughter must be able to live in a home at least as lovely as his own. The result – finished some 18 years later – was the Khan-e Boroujerdi. Made distinctive by its six-sided, domed badgirs, the house boasts frescoes painted by Kamal al-Molk, the foremost Iranian artist of the time.
Historic Building in Kashan Built around 1880, Seyyed Jafar Tabatabei’s house is renowned for its intricate stone reliefs, including finely carved cypress trees, delicate stucco, and striking mirror and glass work. The seven elaborate windows of the main courtyard (most houses sport only three or five) are a particular wonder, designed to illustrate the high social status of the owner. The house is arranged around four courtyards, the largest of which boasts a large pond with fountains, helping to keep the courtyard cool. From mid-afternoon (depending on the month), sunlight and stained glass combine to bathe some rooms in brilliant colour.
Historic Building in Kashan Hiding behind the town’s high mud-brick walls are hundreds of large traditional houses built by wealthy merchants, monuments to the importance of Kashan as a Qajar-era commercial hub. Built during the 19th century, most have long since been divided into smaller homes and many are literally turning to dust. A few, however, have been restored and are open to the public as museums or as Kashan's most desirable places to stay.
This remarkable complex of tunnels, 8km north of Kashan, originally grew up around a freshwater spring, credited with supplying delicious, crystal-clear water. Only part of the tunnel system is open to visitors today, and those parts are often subject to flooding (note the two-colour tone of the walls showing the flood level), but even a quick descent to the first level gives an idea of the complexity of this ancient engineering project.
Historic Building in Kashan Built by a wealthy glass merchant, this handsome set of six buildings (signposted from the hammam) is spread over several levels. The numerous courtyards, which are subterranean – excavated from the soil, not built on top of it – are designed to enhance the sense of space by increasing in size and depth as the complex unfolds. As a result and despite illusion, the multistorey buildings are no higher than neighbouring properties in the old district.
Even those with minimal interest in textiles will find this working museum a fascinating place to visit. Opened to ensure that the traditional craft of producing Kashani textiles is kept alive, masters work at elaborate hand looms to create intricate wonders of weaving, such as embossed velvet and zarbaft (silk brocade).
Comprising four storeys, including a large sunken courtyard with ablutions pool, an austere dome, tiled minarets and unusually lofty badgirs (windtowers), this decommissioned 19th-century mosque complex is famous for the symmetry of its design. The wooden front door is said to have as many studs as there are verses in the Quran, and the mud-brick walls are covered with Quranic inscriptions and mosaics. A fine portal and mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca) at the rear is particularly noteworthy.