Rising from the sands between two deserts, the Dasht-e Kavir and the Dasht-e Lut, Yazd could easily be a set for a sci-fi film about Mars. The city's tall windcatcher towers and curved cisterns add to its otherworldliness.
Yazd has, however, been known for very earthly pleasures: silk and sweets. Fabrics have been produced in Yazd from before the time of Marco Polo, who described the city as a "splendid city and centre of commerce". Yazdi confectionery, a wide range of treats made from nuts, cardamom, nutmeg, rose water, pistachio and more, is sinfully sweet and delicious.
The city has also long been associated with Zoroastrianism, the main religion across the Iranian plateau until the Arab invasion in the 7th century. The Towers of Silence just next to the city are a powerful symbol of this most ancient of monotheistic religions. It takes a strong heart to remain unmoved when gazing on the fire in the Atash Bahram temple, which has been kept burning for 1,500 years.
What to see
Towers of Silence
Pollution is an important concept in Zoroastrianism. So that the dead would not contaminate the earth, bodies were wrapped in white shrouds and carried to the top of specially built towers for vultures to dispose of. The Towers of Silence in Yazd were used till a few decades ago. They are a moving symbol of the our own mortality.
An hour from Yazd, the small town of Meybod is packed full of interesting sites. The ingenious ice house, which kept ice frozen late into the desert summer, the perfectly maintained pigeon house, and Nagin Castle are most certainly worth a visit. The town is known for its pottery, and some shops will let you have a turn on the wheel; you can take home whatever you create.
Dolat Abad Garden
One of nine Persian gardens on the Unesco World Heritage list, this wonderful garden was built somewhere around 1750 as the home of regent Karim Khan Zand. Light in the pavilion is filtered kaleidoscopically through intricate latticework and exquisite stained glass and air kept refreshingly cool by Iran's loftiest badgir (windcatcher tower) at more than 33 metres.
Atash Bahram temple
The Atash Bahram, or 'Victorious Fire', in the Zoroastrian temple in Yazd has been burning since 470AD. It is the highest grade of fire, consecrated with 16 different sources of fire, including lightning. The fire has been moved around Persia over the centuries, finally being consecrated in this temple in 1943. It's an affecting sight.
Yazd's beautiful Jameh Mosque was built in the 12th century on what historians believe was an earlier fire temple. The mosque was then largely rebuilt between 1324 and 1365. Its double minarets are two of Iran's highest at 48 metres. The tile work inside the dome and on the mihrab (prayer niche) is particularly exquisite in shades of turquoise, royal blue and white.
The harsh climate, where rain is scarce and summer temperatures hit the mid-40 degree Celsius range, has made Yazd's inhabitants extremely resourceful when it comes to water management. The fascinating Water Museum explains how a sophisticated system of ancient qanats, or gently sloping water tunnels, brought life to the desert.