Gold, copper pots, spices and carpets, exotic fruits and nuts. As you know, I love bazaars, places filled with vibrant colour, people and movement. In Iran, the bazar, as it is known in Farsi, is part of the pulsing heart of every city, a place to meet, socialise and of course, shop!
Tehran Bazaar, with its history of more than a thousand years, is a vast labyrinth of elegantly vaulted archways, each leading to a section of the bazaar more intriguing and colourful than the last. Remember to look up as you explore, because some of the most beautiful architectural details are above you – elegant domes with sky lights, geometric brickwork, coloured tiles. Every alley yields its own delights and its own specialty – carpets, silks, gold jewellery, leather, kitchenware, sweets, and of course, spices.
The spice bazaar is filled with intoxicating fragrance of saffron, cumin, dried mint and verbena, and a precisely layered spice mixture known as advieh, used in meat and rice dishes. It contains layers of cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, dried rose petals, nutmeg and turmeric. You might also see decorative bowls filled with zereshk, the jewel of Persian cuisine. It’s a tart red berry known in English as barberry, giving a beautiful ruby-red colour and lemony flavour to many Persian rice dishes.
The Bazar-e Vakil in the city of Shiraz, a thousand kilometres south of Tehran, is just as beautiful, although a trifle less crowded. It dates to the time of Karim Khan, esteemed ruler of the Zand Dynasty who made Shiraz his capital in 1762. I spent hours trawling the north and south bazars, being offered fresh pistachios from a wheelbarrow, their delicate pink skins peeled away to reveal the soft-shelled nuts beneath, pale and mild-tasting and yet to develop their distinctive green colour. In the caravanserai of Saray-e Moshir inside the bazaar itself I found the most beautiful patterned and tiled ceilings above the maze of jewellery and Persian turquoise shops.
I just love wandering, getting lost, finding an alley filled with hidden treasures, and then getting lost once more. And imagine my delight when I came across a stall selling plump fresh dates, sweet as honey?
As an aside – in Shiraz, the area behind Bazar-e Vakil is where you’ll find some of the oldest traditional courtyard homes in Shiraz. If you look carefully you may find heavy wooden doors with a double doorknocker. The one on the left, for women, is slightly different in size and weight to the one on the right, for men. Each emits a different knock so that the owner of the house knows whether their visitor is a woman or a man.