Biblical clues point to the Ajichay River flowing out of the Garden of Eden, which places Tabriz at the gates of paradise. Long a buffer between empires, Tabriz’ historical heritage and Silk Road pedigree is no more evident than in its thriving bazaar, one of the world’s best. This sprawling city, rich in Azeri cul-ture, with its famous carpets, teahouse ham-mams, love of music and excellent transport links, makes a perfect introduction to Iran. Situated on a high plateau between Lake Orumiyeh and lofty Mt Sahand, and bound-ed by stark, eroded hills, Tabriz has milder summers than cities further east, though its winters can be formidable.
Tabriz was a Sassanian-period trade hub and came to eclipse Maraqeh as a later Ilkhanid Mongol capital of Azerbaijan.
It recovered remarkably rapidly from Ta-merlane’s 1392 ravages and, while the rest of Iran was vassal to the Timurids, Tabriz became the capital of a local Turkmen Qa-reh Koyunlu (Black Sheep) dynasty. That dynasty’s greatest monarch was Jahan Shah (no, not the Taj Mahal’s Shah Jahan), under whose rule (1439–67) the city saw a remark-able flowering of arts and architecture, cul-minating in the fabulous Blue Mosque.
Shah Ismail, the first Safavid ruler, briefly made Tabriz Persia’s national capi-tal. However, after the battle of Chaldoran against the advancing Ottomans, Tabriz suddenly seemed far too vulnerable to Otto-man attack, so Ismail’s successor, Tahmasp (1524–75), moved his capital to safer Qaz-vin. Fought over by Persians, Ottomans and (later) Russians, Tabriz went into a lengthy decline, exacerbated by disease and one of the world’s worst ever earthquakes, which killed 77,000 Tabrizis in November 1727.
The city recovered its prosperity during the 19th century. Shahgoli (now Elgoli) on Tabriz’ southeastern outskirts became the residence of the Qajar crown prince, but heavy-handed Qajar attempts to Per-sianise the Azeri region caused resentment. The 1906 constitutional revolution briefly allowed Azeri Turkish speakers to regain their linguistic rights (schools, newspapers etc) and Tabriz held out valiantly in 1908 when the liberal constitution was promptly revoked again. For its pains it was brutally besieged by Russian troops.
Russians popped up again during both world wars and built a railway line to Jolfa (then the Soviet border) before withdraw-ing in 1945. This left Tabriz as capital of Pisheveri’s short-lived separatist provincial government (of autonomous south Azerbai-jan), which tried to barter threats of seces-sion for better Azeri rights within Iran.
The provincial government was crushed in De-cember 1946 and, far from encouraging the Azeris, the shah did the opposite, restrict-ing the use of their mother tongue. Reaction against this discrimination put Tabriz at the forefront of the 1979 revolution well before the anti-shah struggle was railroaded by more fundamentalist Muslim clerics.
- Tabriz Bazaar
- Masjed-e Jameh
- Blue Mosque
- Azarbaijan Museum
- Arg-e Tabriz
This huge brick edifice off Imam Khomeini St is a chunky remnant of Tabriz’ early-14th-century citadel (known as ‘the Ark’). Criminals were once executed by being hurled from the top of the citadel walls. The Russians used it as a command post during their 1911 invasion. Unfortu-nately, it’s being dwarfed by the even more humongous Imam Khomeini Mosalla being built next door and the whole area is presently closed off.
- Municipal Hall
The iconic 1930s German-designed Municipal Hall, still the bastion of city pow-er, dominates Sa’at Sq. There’s a museum in the basement with various city-related col-lections, such as old maps, photos, carpets and even antique vehicles.
- Qajar Museum
The elegant Qajar Museum is with-in the palatial 1881 Amir Nezam House, Tabriz’ most impressive Qajar mansion, with a split-level façade.
- Architecture Faculty, Islamic Arts University
A trio of impressive 230-year-old mansions with two-storey colonnades, inner courtyards and decorative ponds makes up the Ar-chitecture Faculty of the Islamic Arts Uni-versity. You might be lucky enough to find someone willing to show you around, but be prepared to tip them.
- Shahriyar House Museum
Enter a time warp to late-’70s Tabriz in the preserved house of much-loved poet Ostad Shahriyar (1906–88). Sur-rounded by his everyday belongings, you almost expect the late poet to wander out of the bedroom. He is buried in the Poets’ Mausoleum.
- St Mary’s Church
Dating from the 12th century, St Mary’s is a still-functioning Armenian church that was mentioned by Marco Polo. It was once the seat of the regional archbishop. Ring the bell if you want to look inside.
- Poets’ Mausoleum
Poet Ostad Shahriyar is ostentatiously commemorated by the strikingly modernist Poets’ Mausoleum. Its angular, interlocking concrete arches are best viewed across the reflecting pool from the south. The complex also commemo-rates more than 400 other scholars whose tombs were lost in the city’s various earth-quakes.
- Elgoli Park
Elgoli Park, 8km south-east of the centre, is popular with sum-mer strollers and courting couples. Its fairground surrounds an artificial lake, in the middle of which a photogenic restaurant-pavilion occupies the reconstruction of a Qajar-era palace.
- Mt. Sahand
Mt Sahand (3707m) is the gigan-tic volcanic lump south of Tabriz; Kamal is its highest peak. Access is via Sahand Ski Resort, about 60km by road from down-town Tabriz. You should be able to see the summit from the resort: it’s 5km and a 900m ascent along a well-defined ridge. BYO taxi.