Inside Iran: The road to Esfahan

Frederik Pleitgen, CNNPublished 12th March 2015
Tehran, Iran (CNN) — It's not often that a CNN crew gets to take a road trip through Iran, so we decided to take the scenic route on our journey from Tehran to Esfahan in the center of the country. Esfahan is a beautiful city and we set out to film a story about the religious diversity there.

Here's the route we took:

The journey is about 460 km (280 miles) along the Persian Gulf Highway and the route passes by some of the most beautiful and important places in Iran.

A slow start in Tehran

Fred Pleitgen begins his journey to Esfahan, in Tehran, the Iranian capital city.
We started our trip in the capital Tehran, a gigantic sprawling metropolis with about 12 million inhabitants. Tehran is a fairly new town by Iranian standards. It was only really developed in the past few hundred years. It has great cafés and restaurants and some interesting landmarks, but none of the really ancient Persian sites that tell the story of this impressive civilization.
What Iran has a lot of is cars. There is heavy traffic almost any time of day, which is why it took us a very long time to actually leave the city and get on the highway. You know you are out of Tehran when you pass the Imam Khomeini shrine -- the main monument to Iran's first Supreme Leader, who came to power following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The shrine isn't quite finished yet, but even from the highway you can see the huge dome and four golden minarets that are still surrounded by scaffolding.

A sweet treat at Mahtab rest area

Fred Pleitgen continues his journey to Esfahan. He stops to sample some sweat treats at a rest area.
After driving a little less than a hundred miles through the pretty flat desert we arrived at the Mahtab rest area. Many people traveling this road stop here for gasoline, coffee, food and some sweets. Mahtab means "moonlight" in Farsi, and a crescent moon is also the symbol of one of the most well-known rest areas in the country.
Mahtab is almost like an American rest area, complete with a food court with a burger and fried chicken place. But its specialty is hand-made traditional Iranian sweets. Aside from gaz, a soft, nougat-like treat made with rose water and pistachios, the big hit here is sohan -- a brittle toffee made out of a lot of oil, butter, sugar and saffron, topped with pistachios and slivered almonds.
The workers turn the ingredients into dough and spin it in special machines. Then they form the dough into circles, pounding it with metal hammers until they have the right shape. Pistachios and almonds are sprinkled on top and then pounded into the sohan.
One thing became clear fast: Iranian road trips are no time to be on a diet.

The holy city of Qom

On his journey from Tehran to Esfahan, Fred Pleitgen stops at the holy city of Qom.
The holy city of Qom, with a population of about one million inhabitants, is one of the most important places for Shia pilgrimage in Iran and also the country's center for theological studies. It's a clean town that is dominated by mosques and shrines.
During our visit we were allowed to film the shrine for Fatimah Masumeh, one of the most important tombs in Iran. Masumeh was the sister of Imam Ali Reza, the eighth Imam in Shia Islam.
The shrine is huge and surrounded by high walls. It is highly frequented by religious travelers from all over Iran and other countries as well. They come to honor Masumeh and to ask for her blessings.
You can see the very religious nature of Qom when walking through its main square. Many of the people dress in distinctly religious clothing and are usually on their way or coming from one of the many religious schools or shrines.

An undiscovered pearl in Kashan

Fred Pleitgen takes a tour of the ancient city of Kashan, Iran.
A little over an hour down the Persian Gulf highway we entered the city of Kashan. It is an ancient place that shows off the rich history of Iran.
Kashan has a wealth of historic sites, but it is fairly underdeveloped when it comes to tourism. The area of Kashan was first populated between 9,000 and 6,000 years ago. There is still a ziggurat on a hill dating back around 6,000 years on the edge of the city.
One of the most beautiful places is Fin Garden, where many Persian kings used to come and relax. The garden in its current form was built during the reign of Abbas I of Persia between 1588 and 1629. Canals and fountains run through the greenery, keeping the many large trees fresh. It has many residential structures and also a famous bathhouse with a bloody history. In 1851, Nasser al-Din Shah ordered the well-known Iranian statesman Amir Kabir killed in the bathhouse after detractors had convinced the Shah that Kabir sought wider powers.
Kashan used to be a very wealthy city. That fact is underlined by the many mansions that belonged to local business people. Borujerdi House was built in the 19th century for the wife of the wealthy merchant Haji Mehdi Borujerdi. It has a wealth of beautiful gardens and wall paintings and is equipped with a local form of an old age air conditioner. Vents in the roof circulate the air and keep the buildings cool, which is very important since Kashan is at the edge of the desert and there is extreme heat in the summer.

Carpets for holy sites

Frederik Pleitgen/CNN
Kashan is also home to some of the most important carpet weaving in Iran. We were allowed to visit a carpetmaker who knits rugs for the most important Shia holy sites of Karbala and Najaf, in Iraq. When we arrived about 20 women were working on huge carpets that are going to be shipped to the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf. They knitted quickly and with a sure hand, clearly very experienced at the job. Each rug is eight by 12 meters in size. Twelve workers have to knit for more than a year to make a single one.
The head of the shop estimated each of the carpets would be sold for between $200,000 and $300,000 in stores, but this is a non-profit organization that specifically makes rugs for holy sites and only covers its own costs, mostly with donations.

Esfahan: The flair of imperial Persia

Fred Pleitgen concludes his journey from Tehran to Esfahan, known for it's beautiful bridges and mosques.
Esfahan is more than 2,500 years old. It was the capital of the Persian Empire twice in its history and has a large number of impressive historical buildings.
Most of the biggest and most lavish ones where constructed in the 17th century. Imam Square, the central point in town, used to be a polo field where the king would watch matches from a giant stand. Today it is mostly a lawn area where people come to walk, kids play sports, and students make sketches of the many impressive buildings and mosques.
The biggest one of the blue mosques here was completed in 1606. Covered in blue tiles, its minarets stand more than 40 meters tall. The towering mosque acted as a giant amplifier, ensuring that worshippers across this ancient city would be able to hear every word said during the Imam's sermon.
Imam square is also lined with a bazaar that offers many local handicrafts. International sanctions, however, have hit Esfahan's tourism industry hard, and the markets were nearly empty when we arrived.
Esfahan is also famous for the many bridges running over the Zayanderud -- the river that serves as a life line for this town. But unfortunately that is not always the case nowadays. The river is often nearly dry, as much of the water has been diverted to other cities along its path.
We were lucky when we arrived. The river flowed plentifully downstream, and many people came to the famous bridges to watch the water pass through.
One of the best-known is the Khaju Bridge, which also has its origins in the 17th century. It is closed to car traffic but bicycles and motorcycles pass over it. The best thing to do is to walk across the bridge and then stand at the edge of the river and just take in the architectural beauty. There are also sitting areas inside the arches that make up the structure, where many people sit and talk for hours.
Esfahan is the last stop on our trip through Iran. It is a vast, rugged and amazing country that offers surprises almost anywhere.