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.
The city has a long and turbulent history although the early history of Tabriz is shrouded in legend and mystery, the town’s origin is believed to date back to distant antiquity, perhaps even before the Sassanian era (224 – 651 A.D.). The oldest stone tablet with a reference to Tabriz is that of Sargon the second, the Assyrian King. The tablet refers to a place called Tauri Castle and Tarmkis. The historians believe this castle was situated on the site of the present day Tabriz. It was the capital of Azarbaijan in the 3rd century A.D. and again under the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty (1256 – 1353), although for some time Maragheh supplanted it.
During the reign of Aqa Khan of the Ilkhanids, as well as under the reign of Ghazan Khan, Tabriz reached the peak of glory and importance. Many great artists and philosophers from all over the world traveled to Tabriz. In 1392, after the end of Mongol rule, the town was sacked by Tamerlane. It was soon restored under the Turkman tribe of the Qara Qoyunlu, who established a short-lived local dynasty. Under the Safavids it rose from regional to national capital for a short period, but the second of the Safavid kings, Shah Tahmasb, moved the capital to Qazvin because of the vulnerability of Tabriz to Ottoman attacks. The town then went into a period of decline, fought over by the Iranians, Ottomans and Russians and struck by earthquake.
Tabriz was the residence of the crown prince under the Qajar kings, but the town did not return to prosperity until the second half of the 19th century. The greatest boost to Tabriz came with the opening up of Iran to the West at the turn of this century, when it became the main staging post between the interior of Iran and the Black Sea and,for a short time, the economic capital. In 1908 it was the center of a revolt against Mohammad Ali Shah, which was only put down with the brutal intervention of the Russians. In the second Irano-Russian War the city was occupied by the Czar troops. However, it was returned to Iran following the signing of Turkmanchai Treaty, a peace and trade settlement that ended the Irano-Russian War of 1826-1828.
The Iranian Constitutional Revolution originated in Tabriz and culminated during the reign of Mohammad Ali Shah of Qajar dynasty (1779-1925). Sattar Khan and Baqer Khan were the two most prominent leading figures behind the movement. Tabriz was occupied by Russians several times in the first half of 20th century, including most of both world wars. A railway line to the border at Jolfa, built by the expansionist Russians, was of little importance until recently, but it has increased in significance in the ’90s as a result of Iran’s friendlier relations with its northern neighbors.
With a very rich history, Tabriz used to house many historical monuments. Unfortunately, many of them were destroyed in repeated invasions and attacks of foreign forces, negligence of the ruling governments, as well natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods. What remains now mostly dates back to the Ilkhanids, the Safavids, and the Qajars. Some of the monuments are unrivaled masterpieces of architecture.
It is a modern industrialized Iranian city with signs of old civilization of 2,500 years old. Having some of most famous museums, holding some of the cultural events, and harboring couple of most prestigious Iranian universities, the city is considered a major hub for science and culture in Iran. Known as the “city of firsts”, Tabriz is the capital of Iranian northern province of East Azerbaijan and hometown of many of the country’s pioneers. At about 1350 meters above sea level, Tabriz is usually cold in winter and cool-ish in summer, although when I went, just last May, the weather was already quite, and unexpectedly, hot.
Its moniker, city of firsts, was not just given randomly, but it’s been wholly deserved after a stormy past and a glorious, revolutionary history. Severe weather conditions, harsh geographical features and, last but far from being least, proneness to seismic events may have as well influenced the residents’ personality, tough, proud and creative.
What To See
- 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.
Scenic hamlet less than an hour drive from Tabriz, Kandovan slightly reminds of Turkey’s Cappadocia both for its geographical conformation and laid-back vibe, and just like Cappadocia, here houses are carved into the mountain, rather than built on it. I booked my hotel in Tabriz, but visitors who wish to have a little relax in a truly secluded space can book a fully furnished, all-comfort-included room right here. While external facades might mislead you to think you are going to find inadequate services and facilities, I managed to peep at a private interior when a tiny chador-clad woman was opening the door and all I could detect was no less than a spotless, gleaming, modern luxury. Narrow and winding stone staircases complete the magical scene, but if I were to make a suggestion to the local council, would be to try to hide the ever-present electrical wires and replace the shiny steel rooftops with something a little more traditional-looking.
- Tabriz Grand Bazaar
Tabriz has long been a trading centre and the first constructions of the bazaar begun over 1000 years ago. It is one of the oldest and largest in the Middle East. Of what you can see today much is from the 15th century. The bazaar is a labyrinth of passages and covers an area of 1 square km and has about 7000 shops. Besides shops there are caravanserais, mosques, schools, warehouses and workshops.
It is pleasant to walk around under the high vaulted brick ceilings and visit the different sections for carpets, spices, household goods, copperware etc. If you don’t know where the road is leading just take it and find out!
- El Goli Park
Last but not least, El Goli park (El-Gölü, formerly known as Shah Goli), pool and palace are definitely worth a stop, be it for lunch, dinner, afternoon tea or just a stroll. One of the country’s largest outdoor pools, the park is a cherished weekend leisure spot for Tabriz residents who love to walk along the water streams or simply chill out at one of the many cafes and restaurants lined up along its edge. Previously used as summer residence by the Qajar rulers, el-Goli palace hosts now a restaurant and on the slopes of the park is even possible to spend the night in tents equipped with electricity and comfortable camping beds. While I didn’t stay there overnight, I did have the chance to enjoy a delicious Ash-e Dough, thick yogurt soup, at a quaint and colorful restaurant cafe.
Where To Eat
- Haj Ali Chelo Kebab
After a morning of exploring the Tabriz bazaar – a beautiful, largely 15th-century covered market featuring brick vaulting, caravanserais, and domed halls – locals will doubtless point you in the direction of Haj Ali Chelo Kebab restaurant. Tabriz is famed for some of the finest chelo kebab in Iran, and the historic but simply furnished Haj Ali is celebrated citywide for living up to this reputation. Tabrizis ascribe the succulence of its kebabs to a special, locally produced butter.
Watch out for: the chelo kebab
A nautical theme runs through this high-end restaurant, where fish is the meal of the day, every day. With aquariums, aquamarine lighting, and furnishings constructed from wood and logs, the décor is quite unlike anything else you’re likely to experience in Iran. Baliq serves many varieties of fish, professionally prepared in a variety of ways, usually combined with delicious herb rice.
Watch out for: the fish cutlets
Address: Bolvare-e Fakuri,Elgoli, Tabriz
- Rahnama Dairy Café
Rahnama Dairy café is quite simply the place to have breakfast in Tabriz. Tucked away in the bazaar, this no-nonsense, unpretentious establishment is known throughout Iranian Azerbaijan as the serving the tastiest dairy products known to man. You will be in and out in 15 minutes, but your stomach will be full and our body energised. Yoghurt and honey is the most popular dish, but their bowl of clotted cream and honeycomb takes the biscuit.
Watch out for: the clotted cream and honeycomb surprise
Address: Tabriz Bazaar, Tabriz
Light and airy (if a little cramped) Reyhan restaurant serves up some of the best kebabs in Tabriz – although you will pay a premium for the pleasure. Koobideh (mince meat lamb),barg (barbecued lamb fillet), jujeh (grilled chicken), and the other staples from the Iranian kebab hall of fame are available in their most exemplary form here. Served with rice, or if you’re not in the mood – freshly made nan-e sangak (Iranian leavened flatbreak).
Watch out for: the exemplary range of kebabs
Address: 29 Bahman Boulevard,Southern Valiasr, Tabriz
- Talar Bozorg Elgoli
In centre of the lake in the beautifully verdant Elgoli park is the Talar Bozorg restaurant. Viewed from a distance, the restaurant seemingly floats on the water beneath it. Popular with local families as well as tourists, the building displays some traditional features of Iranian Azeri architecture (although it is in fact a modern construction). A cosy spot with scenic surrounds, and tasty local fare.
Watch out for: the scenic surrounds
Address: Elgoli Park, Tabriz