Andrew Stone is bedazzled by Iran's ancient mosques
The best time to see one of the most beautiful mosques in Shiraz is early morning.
The rising sun creeps over a prayer hall and throws light through coloured glass windows.
A soft, fractured glow fills the room, casting red, blue and pale green light on the carpeted floor and around the base of thick stone columns. Visitors are bathed in a kaleidoscopic mix, and the hall, chilly at this early hour, is filled by the clicking of cameras.
The charming Nasir al-Mulk mosque also features soft pink rose tiles over its internal walls, and is a striking example of the cultural and religious footprint that makes the places of worship such an indelible aspect of Iran.
Mosques can be found in every village, town and city. Besides their primary role in the daily life of the Islamic nation, their distinctive architecture pays homage to a powerful faith through the arrangement of immense columns, soaring minarets, intricate tiles, huge domes, neck-craning geometric designs, stunning frescoes and vaulted ceilings.
They embrace the faithful, and reward the curious. It is something of a paradox that despite the barrage of propaganda against Islam in the West, Iran's great mosques teem with visitors from abroad, soaking up their beauty and history.
It helps greatly to be guided through the mosques, because their secrets and physical power can be revealed by a tutored eye.
Take the majestic Masjed-e Jame, a Unesco-listed gem in Esfahan. Work on the stunning Friday Mosque, as it is also known, started in the 10th century. Scholars have found that its architects achieved proportions in its construction that are close to perfect, which makes a visit such a pleasure. The designers had a deep knowledge of algebra, maths and geometry.
Away from the older part of Esfahan, the vast Imam Square hosts two mosques, a palace and a bazaar full of surprises. The visitor is spoiled for choice and the square, the world's second-biggest behind Tiananmen, needs at least half a day and an evening to do it justice.
Once a royal parade ground, the square hosted polo games for the enjoyment of the wealthy. Horses still trot along cobbled stones, taking families on brief rides in buggies and sounding air horns to warn the unwary.
At the southern end of the square, the exquisite Masjed-e Imam draws visitors through great silver doors before the mosque unfolds at 45 degrees to align with Mecca. Two lofty minarets covered in turquoise tiles flank the entrance where peacocks created from mosaic tiles serve as emblems of power and beauty. The prayer hall features a double dome, a design trick that allows the outer dome to achieve a pleasing shape while the inner dome bears the weight.
The acoustics are astonishing: if it is not too noisy you can hear paper being torn 25m away.
Halfway along the square, a palace and a mosque face off on either side. Ali Qapu Palace has five highly decorated doors and a large balcony with pink plaster friezes in the ceiling. Music rooms with intricate plasterwork helped court musicians make the purest sounds.
From the palace, women from the royal harem were said to make their way 150m across the square to Sheikh Lotfallah mosque. The 500-year-old building has beautiful tiles and ceramics.
If you get mosqued out, head for the bazaar. Camel-bone trinket boxes cost just a few dollars but you're feeling flush, silk carpets are worth seeking out. There will be a bit of hard selling but purchases are straightforward and fair.
Not far from Imam Square, the old Armenian quarter is a rewarding detour. The community, under cruel Ottoman rule, was resettled in the neighbourhood 500 years ago by the Persian ruler Shah Abbas and given religious freedom. Two dozen prayer halls and churches sprang up in the district. One of the finest survives as Vank Cathedral. Inside, stunning frescoes depicting Old and New Testament stories in the style of Italian and Dutch masters hang from walls.
A small museum in the church grounds is a must-see. Its collection includes some of the earliest books published in Esfahan, royal decrees with instructions that the torture of Armenians must cease, and chilling evidence of genocide by the Ottoman Turks.
If you need a breather after exposure to that unsettling episode, the famous bridges across the Zayandeh River provide a tonic. The symmetry of their design is best seen at night, when lighting captures their gorgeous beauty. The Si-o-se-Pol Bridge (which translates in Persian as 33 and refers to its 33 identical arches) is 300m long with covered corridors designed by its builders 500 years ago to protect camel trains from being buffeted by winds.
A little east is the equally magnificent Khaju Bridge, where families gather for evening feasts and groups sing Irani tunes, which echo beneath the stone arches.
The Zayandeh was dry when I crossed the bridges, but you can make out grooves in the foundations, which held wooden slats to regulate water flow in times of flood.
A large gathering at the end of one bridge caught my eye. A long queue of men were lined up at a big tent, waiting patiently for sweetened drinks. They were celebrating, I learned, the birthday of a religious figure. The crowd was good-natured and one of the organisers approached with a tray, handed us a filled tumbler and was curious about our origins. Music blared from loudspeakers and smaller groups sang with gusto.
We circled the tent and bumped into another queue. This time it was women, using a different entrance to collect their drinks.
The setting captured the Iran I encountered. A people tied fiercely to their faith, which is at once conservative and, from a Western perspective, challenging for women. But there was also immediate generosity without demands. And there we were, standing on a bank of history, where humanity had flowed for hundreds of years.
flies from Auckland to Tehran, via Doha, with Economy Class flights starting from $1609.
NZ Travel & Tour hosts small group trips to the republic. Costs depend on duration of tour but a 15-day trip starts at $5390.
Far left: The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque; top: The Imam Square in Esfahan, laid out in 1602; above: A man repairs shoes and bags in Esfahan city market.