The city of Tabriz is the capital of East Azerbaijan province and is one of the most important economic and political centres of modern Iran. Until the 1970s it was also Iran’s second largest city after Tehran. Modern Tabriz is known for being particularly welcoming to foreign travellers and its younger generation have a good a command of English. Tabriz is situated north of the beautiful Mt. Sahand at an altitude of 1340m on a plain surrounded on three sides by mountains.
The plain slopes gently down to the northern part of lake Orumieh which is approximately 60km to the West. A pleasantly mild summer climate makes it a popular getaway for Iranians living in the sun-baked interior and snowy winters bring large numbers of winter sports enthusiasts.
Though periodically plagued by earthquakes and war, the city of Tabriz has enjoyed times of great prosperity during Iran’s history. The oldest records mentioning Tabriz are Assyrian stone tablets dating back to the 3rd and 4th centuries BC. They name a castle town which historians believe occupied the same site as the modern city though it may well be that Tabriz has an even longer history than this suggests.
Tabriz was the capital of Azerbaijan in the 3rd century AD and also under the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty (1256-1353) when a great number of artists, craftsmen and philosophers migrated to the city. In 1392 the town was sacked by Tamerlane but was soon restored to its former glory under Turkman rule. Tabriz was also the capital of Iran from the beginning of the Safavid period until Shah Tahmasp I relocated to Qazvin in order to rule at a greater distance from Ottoman Turkey.
From this time until the modern period the city was fought over by Iranians, Ottomans and Russians and was even occupied by the Russians on several occasions in the 19th and 20th centuries. Tabriz began to re-establish itself as a major city when Iran opened up its relations with the West in the second half of the 20th century, once again becoming an important centre of trade and commerce.
Masjed-e Kabud (Blue Mosque)
Despite being heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1776, the Masjed-e Kabud (completed in 1465) remains one of Iran’s most celebrated mosques. The plan, unique in Iran, consists of a square central chamber topped with a dome and framed on three sides by nine domed bays making it more akin to the Ottoman mosques of Turkey than traditional Iranian constructions.
Extensive reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s has restored the mosque in form but it is the fragments of original tile work that really evoke its former grandeur. The deep blue colour of the tiles which gives the mosque its name was achieved with generous use of cobalt. On this lustrous background were painted delicate arabesques and calligraphic designs in gold and white. These tiles once covered the dome and all the interior walls.
Visitors throughout history have been amazed, delighted and shocked in equal numbers by the teeming splendour of the Bazaar of Tabriz and though its high vaulted ceilings do not ring with the raucous din that would have been heard in past centuries, its tarnished beauty is vivid testament to the importance of commerce in the history of this city.
This is one of the oldest and largest bazaars in the Middle East occupying an area of 1 square km with numerous caravanserais, mosques and schools accompanying the countless shops, warehouses and workshops that line the dusty concourses. The current bazaar dates from the late 18th century but its history goes back the 15th. Like all Iranian bazaars, the bazaar of Tabriz is divided into sections according to products and services, being particularly well known for silverware, jewellery, spices and, of course, carpets.
Kelisa Dare Sham (Church of St. Stephanos)
The Kelisa Darre Sham (Church of St. Stephanos) is situated near the city of Jolfa near the Azerbaijan border. Set in dramatic mountain scenery, this church and working monastery was founded by the Armenian King Ashot in the 9th century though it is said that a church occupied this site as early as the first century AD.
Its oldest parts date back to the 14th century with the main building having been rebuilt in the late 16th century after being destroyed by an earthquake. The church is built in the style of Armenian or Georgian architecture with a bell tower and a cylindrical tower with a conical roof though archways featuring stalactite work are reminiscent of Persian mosque architecture. The exquisitely preserved exterior reliefs feature religious imagery such as angels and Armenian crosses.
Urartu Bastam Palace
Situated 50km east of the Turkish border and some 50km north of the city of Khoy are the ruins of a mountaintop citadel constructed by the civilisation of Urartu who came to ascendancy in the area during the first millemium B.C. Clay tablets found at the site indicate that the ancient name of the citadel was Rusai Uru-Tur and that it was completed sometime between 685-645 B.C.
The palace was captured and destroyed sometime in the 6th century B.C. Excavations by German archaeologists conducted between 1967-1978 revealed the foundations and remains of a three-level construction including palaces, a large hall with many columns, a temple, storehouses, garrisons, stables and a defensive wall. All the constructions were built using sun-dried mud bricks on high stone foundations.
Qar-e Kelisa (The Black Church)
The Qar-e Kelisa (The Black Church), also known as the Church of St. Thaddaeus is situated in foothills near the city of Siyah Cheshme. It is said that the disciple Thaddaeus (also known as Jude) was allowed to preach in the Armenian city of Edessa after healing the local king.
The city of Edessa became the first Christian city and a church was constructed in 68 A.D. – only the second ever in the short history of Christianity. The dark stone domed sanctuary from which the church gets its name dates back to the 10th or 11th century while the main body of the church is a pale sandstone construction.
This larger section, consisting of a 12 sided drum supporting a tent dome, was rebuilt after the church was damaged by an earthquake in 1319. Further additions were made in the 19th century. Reliefs typical of early Armenian churches decorate the outer walls. Some depict religious imagery such as effigies of saints and angels while others show battle scenes, hunting scenes and floral, geometric and arabesque patterns.
The inscription over the entrance gate reads “Abbas Mirza” the name of the general sent to the region by Nasser Al-Din Shah to fight the Russians. Today, the church is a working convent and still attracts Armenian Christian pilgrims from all over Iran.
Takht-e Soleiman (Zendan-e Soleiman)
Takht-e Suleiman (Throne of Solomon) is one of Iran’s most important ancient holy sites and was added to the UNESCO list of World Cultural Heritage Sites in 2003. Some say that the prophet Zoroaster himself may have been born here.
Situated in a mountainous area 30km North of the town of Takab in West Azerbaijan province is a small lake 120m in depth fed by a spring deep in the underlying rock. Excavations around this lake revealed a the ruins of a religious complex with a history dating back to Achaemenid times. Since its foundation in about 500 B.C. the site was added to by Parthian, Sassanian and, later, Mongol rulers.
During Sassanian times, the square compound to the north of the lake contained extensive temple facilities to accommodate large numbers of pilgrims. These included a Zoroastrian fire temple reserved for the use of high ranking soldiers and members of the royal court and a temple dedicated to Anahita, the god of water, as well as a large hall for royal ceremonies. Much of the 13m high perimeter wall with its 38 towers can still be seen.
The site declined rapidly in importance after being destroyed by the Romans during the reign of Khosro II (590-628). After several centuries of neglect, the site was revived under Mongol occupation and the fire temple and Western Iwan were rebuilt. 3km to the west of Takht-e Suleiman is a hollow conical mountain some 100m high with an 80m deep hole in the centre. Known as Zendan-e Suleiman (Prison of Solomon), a number of shrines and temples dating back to the 1st millennium B.C. have been excavated around its peak.
City located to the south of Mt. Sahand with a history dating back to the late 8th-early 9th century. Currently the trade and transportation centre of a fertile fruit-growing region. The name Maragheh refers to the excellent grazing land of the surrounding area to which the Mongols brought their countless horses.
So important did the city become to the Mongols that it was made capital of Azerbaijan for a period before Hulagu Khan relocated it to Tabriz. The city is well known as the site of an astronomical observatory built in 1259 by the astrology-addicted Hulagu Khan at the behest of his minister, the astronomer, mathematician and poet, Nasir Al-Din Tusi. Earthquakes and neglect from the 14th century onwards have left little but ruined walls of this once famous construction.
Much better preserved are four brick tower tombs, the oldest of which is the Gombad-e Sorgh (“Red Tower”), dating from 1147. Built on a square plan with red bricks laid to create geometric patterns, this tower is the first building in Iran to use decorative blue tiles. The ceiling of the inner hall is octagonal in shape and topped with a dome. Holes and windows were placed with mathematical precision in order to catch sunlight and moonlight at equinoxes and at certain times of day.
The Gombad-e Kabud (“Blue Tower”) dates from 1196. This tower was once believed to be the resting place of the mother of Hulagu Khan but historians now doubt this. The tower has an octagonal base with stone foundations and brick walls. Each of its eights sides is decorated with elaborate geometric patterns as if it was a mehrab. The current roof is a somewhat makeshift replacement for a previously more elaborate design.
Tabriz has regular flights to Tehran and weekly departures to Mashhad.
There are buses to Tehran (10 hours), Esfahan (16 hours), Kermanshah (11 hours), Rasht (8 hours), and Shiraz (24 hours).
There are also international buses departing from Imam Khomeini Square for Yerevan in Armenia, Baku in Azerbaijan and Istanbul, Turkey.
There are trains from Tabriz’s train station behind Imam Khomeini Square in the west of the city. Overnight trains depart for Tehran, via Qazvin and Zanjan.