We have listened and listen a lot about Iran; and what not. From the legends of the untold riches of Ancient Persia, to this day, when the country’s name is heard every day in the world media.

That's why when in February I got the incredible opportunity to visit the country at the invitation of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization of Iran in Sofia, I was very happy. And the closer the date of our departure was, the more my impatience and curiosity grew.

And here we are - three women journalists, in the late afternoon of the 5th of February 2017, at the Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. There a charming young lady, Pour Ali, was waiting for us; a representative of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization that was our host, with a colleague of hers and a interpreter. She introduced herself and welcomed us. I looked at her with curiosity. So what have we not heard about the situation of women in Iran?! Around 35 years old, the beautiful Pour Ali immediately impressed us with the elegance of her manners and the warmth of her smile. On the ends of her black silk chador, along her face, a colourful elegant scarf that brightened it could be seen. She works at the "Europe and America" directorate of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization.

One of the first things that surrounded us at the very airport was the softness and melodiousness of the Persian language. It is like a caress for the senses. The Iranians do not sound as if to speak - they sing. Our hostess explained the details of the program she had prepared for us in advance. We were going to travel to Isfahan late that evening, but from their other airport – Mehrabad. Since we had enough time, Pour Ali had organized a visit to

the Mausoleum of Imam Khomeini

I knew that the Iranians highly honor their spiritual leader and leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran from 1978-1979. When Imam Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini died in 1989, at the age of 87, more than 10 million people went to his funeral. It is a well-known fact that those willing to show their respect and touch his body were so many that they broke through the cordon and literally tore the hearse-cloth apart. The police had to intervene. They used water cannons to scatter the crowd and then took his body with a helicopter. Five hours later, the ceremony began again.

In memory of Khomeini, the Iranians have been building a huge memorial complex for over 25 years, in which there is who-knows-what. However, the mausoleum has long been ready and has been open to visitors. Outside, it looks like a mosque with a brilliant golden dome and four minarets, each 91 meters high - the life of the Imam according to the lunar calendar. It is impressive and it is not a coincidence that one can find it in the Forbes list of the 14 tombs of the world worth visiting, along with those of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang, Ulysses S. Grant in New York, Kemal Ataturk in Ankara, Mao Zedong in Beijing and others.

Inside we were welcomed by its director - an intelligent man with a lot of knowledge and sophistication. He first showed us the large sparkling green cube - something like a room in the center of the mosque, surrounded by metal grilles, where the covered with green velvet tomb of Imam Khomeini is situated. Next to it is the tomb of his late son Ahmad who died in 1995. Nearby is the tomb of the Shiite cleric and politician, chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council of the System- Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died on the 8th of January 2017, at the age of 82.

Some visitors were throwing banknotes through the grille, either to pray for something or for donation. Millions of Muslims from Iran and from all over the world come to the tomb of Imam Khomeini to pay respect. Important statements are made here by the Iranian government officials, including the supreme leader. The place is visited by state leaders, foreign guests and ambassadors. Military parades are performed on the huge square in front of the mausoleum.

The director called out attention to the construction of the building, to the natural stones from which the pillars inside the special ventilation system are made. Finally, thanking us for the visit, he said, "Greet the people of Bulgaria, and greet Sofia! Prosperity to you and your families! ... I was in Bulgaria. It is very beautiful, your country; you are good and hospitable people". We were surprised by this revelation. But we were even more surprised by what we saw outside. In front of us the guard of honour was formed up. The company saluted us. We were told that they only do this for their official guests.

We continued to Liberty Square, at the center of which is one of Tehran's largest modern architectural landmarks –

"Azadi" Tower

They say the first impression is the strongest. And so it was. The unique facility emerged in front of us, shining in the darkness of the night - white, lofty, cosmic. The endless streams of cars on the boulevards around it enveloped it like lighted garlands. We hardly managed to cross over to get closer. Here we were under the "Azadi" tower, 50 meters high, built of 8,000 blocks of white Isfahan marble. A sophisticated blend of Persian and modern architectural solutions, it is the work of the architect Hossein Amanat. The Tower was officially opened in 1971 for the celebrations of the 2500th anniversary of the creation of the Persian Kingdom. The name "Azadi", which translates into "freedom", was given to it after the 1979 Revolution, and not only this tower is named like that, but also the square around it and the world-famous football stadium located just around the corner. They call it the Tower of Tehran as well, as it is the first thing people see coming or going like us from/to the Mehrabad airport.

Pour Ali offered us to drink a glass of Iranian tea. We agreed with pleasure. The February Wind in Tehran was like that in Sofia - sharp and cold. We went into a café under the tower. And we indulged ourselves to the warmth of pleasure, accompanied by cookies and sticks, with crystal sugar clinging at one end. You mix the tea with them and they melt as much as you like... The owners of the establishment, like all the Iranians we met during these 7 days, were warm and hospitable, they enjoyed welcoming Bulgarians and made us a gift - a plastic transparent model of The Tower, full of small flowers and a heart saying "We love you". A small big gesture - from those that warm us and stay in our hearts forever.

The time to go to the airport came.

The once capital of the Persian Empire

was waiting for us. Isfahan is half of the world - says a Persian proverb. And it is only 340 kilometers south of Tehran and about half an hour with a Qeshm Air flight.
The hosts housed us in a traditional Persian style hotel - unpretentious but a real architectural jewel. In the evening, tired, we could not enjoy it. But in the morning we were woken up by the pleasant rumble of the water in the fountain of the square courtyard and by the sunlight on the curtains of the windows. I asked how can half the world be seen in a day? But there was no time for reflection. We had to have breakfast in a hurry and go on the tour. In the lobby of our hotel, our local guide was waiting for us.

As we moved to the first tourist site, he gave us some data about Isfahan. The city is at the center of Iran, in the fertile valley of the Zayangerud River, in the middle of the Iranian plateau, at 1,574 meters above sea level. Over its 2500 years of existence, it has always been an important trade and military center since it was at the intersection of roads that once connected China with the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Gulf with Russia. Its historical heritage comes from various historical periods - from Zoroastrianism, during the years of Islamic admission /many experts believe that this has lasted for 200 years, as the Iranian tribes resisted/ to our days. Here Turks, Arabs, Indians and others, and of course, mostly Persians left their traces.

In 1598, Shah Abbas I the Great, the most successful ruler of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722, 1729-1736), moved the capital of the Persian Empire to Isfahan. For the city a period of turbulent construction and rise begun. Isfahan remained the capital of Persia until the 18th century. Today, with a population of over 1.5 million, it is the third largest city in the country after Tehran and Mashhad and continues to be an important administrative center - the second largest province in Iran.

And here we come to reach

the Chehel Sotun Palace

We walked through the gate and saw a beautiful pavilion, at the end of a long water pool sinking into the greenery of a huge park. We went to it, and our guide decided to joke and asked how many columns support the building. We quickly became aware of why he was asking this question. Twenty columns support the pavilion, but by the water’s reflection in front, they look like they are 40. That's why its name is "Chehel Sotun", which means "Forty Columns". We approached one of them - at its base we were impressed by the marble sculptures of three lions that seem to hold it on their backs. In fact, Iran is considered the home of the sun and the lion. That's why ornaments and drawings are sculptured everywhere.

The guide began telling us eloquently the stories related to this place, and they are countless. In this palace, Shah Abbas I the Great, who ruled Persia from 1587 to 1629, made the receptions for ambassadors and high aristocrats. He took power only at the age of 16, and the enemy of the Empire hoped he would fail. He inherited from his father an unstable country, but the young shah soon succeeded in raising it with his far-sighted and flexible policy. He dealt with the enemies of Persia at that time - the Ottoman Empire and the Uzbeks, and later preserved it from the attacks of the Indians and the Portuguese. During his reign, the country thrived and experienced a real construction boom. The monuments of culture left from this period are still unsurpassed in their magnitude and splendor. It is no coincidence that this ruler remains known in history as Abbas I the Great.

Moments of historical events from that time, before and after, are told by the amazing frescoes on the walls of the grand hall in the palace. Drawn entirely with natural paints and purely Persian style, they depict scenes from both peaceful life and feasts, as well as, from the battles with the Uzbeks, the Indians and others. Here is the battle of Shah Ismail with the Uzbek in 1510, Shah Nadir with the Indians in 1747. But we also see a reception for the Uzbek ruler in 1646, and a banquet in honor of the Turkic in 1611, and others feasts.

The ceramic panels of the interior are also unique. Some of them were scattered around the world over the years and are owned by large museums in the west. Stunned by what we saw and heard, we headed for the exit. The sounds of traditional Iranian music embraced us. Warm and gentle, unobtrusive, it came out of the hands of an unknown virtuoso musician who we saw sitting in a chair in the small foyer next to the door. His music captivated us with its glamor and set us up for the enjoyment of another art that we would get touched by, that of the park.

The garden of the Chehel Sоtun palace is an earthly paradise. It is among the 9 Iranian gardens located in different cities of the country, collectively included in the UNESCO World Heritage List under the name

Persian gardens

In fact, we only saw a small part of the Chehel Sоtun Park - the one around the palace. But it is the most important because it embodies the classical concept of a Persian garden as it was when it was built in the time of King Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Dynasty - VI BC. Here the four Zoroastrian elements - heaven, earth, water and vegetation - play an important role. The water pool is not only a unique engineering facility capable of reacting to extreme weather conditions, but it has a very beautiful design. Human knowledge from various fields - water management, architecture, botany and agriculture is combined here. A perfect harmony between natural and artificial elements is reached.

The music again gently embraced us. Near the water pool a girl was drawing. Girls in a small pavilion nearby incrusted various objects. The Persian Garden seems to have been created for literature, poetry, music, calligraphy... It was no coincidence that it was the source of inspiration for the wonderful literary and poetic works of Sa'di, Hafez and Ferdowsi, for the creators of the fine Persian miniature painting, for the musicians. And its concept of being an "earthly paradise" spreads through Persian literature around the world, influencing the construction of the Seleucid and Ptolemy gardens in Alexandria, and later those in West Asia, the Arab countries and Europe.

The idea of ​​the Persian Garden pierces the lives of the Iranians today, 2,500 years after its creation. For them, it is a place for relaxation, but also for the enjoyment of artistic performances and cultural events. And their concern for the gardens and the parks is like a priestly act.
Leaving the Chehel Sоtun, we passed a poster that did not surprise us - the 17th International Convention of the World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations was soon to be held in Isfahan.

The Armenian Quarter

We went down the streets of Isfahan. We gave an eye to the Honar bazar, we passed by a café, we stopped in front of the Statue of the Archbishop. Our guide spoke about cultural and religious tolerance, and in a few minutes we understood why - we were at the Armenian Quarter, in front of the famous Vank Cathedral - the main temple of the Armenian Church in Iran. The name of the neighborhood is New Julfa. For here, on the west bank of the Zayandeh River, Shah Abbas I the Great placed more than 150,000 Armenians from the Julfa district in order to be protected from the systemic invasions of the Ottoman Empire. Armenian school and 12 churches were built for them, the most famous of which is this cathedral. For Shah Abbas I the Great, this was also a diplomatic move. Through it, he relied on the Christians in their struggle against the Ottoman Empire, benefiting from their cooperation in establishing good diplomatic ties with the Christian world - Western Europe and Russia. He had another motive - he knew Armenian traders and craftsmen in the city would contribute to his prosperity.

The official name of the church is "The Cathedral of the Holy Sisters", but they all call it "Vank", since the word in Armenian means a temple and it has become a common name. Some specialists define its style as eclectic. It is a brilliant combination of Islamic and Christian architecture. The interior has rich and bright frescoes depicting biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments. And its vaults - in Isfahan blue - are remarkable. It is perfectly maintained and this is normal,  many Armenians live here today. Through a beautiful arch we entered its inner courtyard. On the opposite side of us was the museum to the church.

Here we must note that not only Isfahan has an Armenian cultural heritage. The Armenian monastery complexes in north-western Iran, including three Christian monasteries, the oldest dating back to the 7th century, are on the Unesco World Heritage List. Apart from examples of Armenian architecture and decorative art, they are also evidence of the active cultural exchange between Byzantine, Orthodox and Persian civilizations.

The Square Naqsh-e Jahan – The Face of the World

The incredible beauty in blue and gold that opened before our eyes shook us aesthetically - generous, exquisite, and serene throughout the centuries. The ensemble radiates imperial grandeur, harmony of spirit and space, elegance of shapes, from the largest to the smallest.

The guide welcomed our admiration and proudly declared that this is the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Its dimensions are 560 by 160 meters; its surface is 9 hectares. In translation its name Naqsh-e Jahan means "The Face of the World". But it is also known as the Meidan-e Shah or the Meidan-е Emam. Built by Shah Abbas I the Great, this masterpiece of Persian and Islamic architecture is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The square is encircled by all sides with fascinating two-story arcades that connect the magnificent buildings located one in each of the four corners of the world. Our gaze was dazzled first by the beauty of the Mosque of Sheykh Lotfollah, located just opposite us to the east. On the left - to the north, there was the Portico of Qaysariyyeh and the 15th century Timurid palace. And to the right - to the south, the famous Imam Mosque Masjed-e Shah /the Royal Mosque. Right above us, we entered from the west, was the palace Ali Qapu Pavilion. The Pavilion is a gateway to the palaces and gardens of the Shah.

We bravely climbed its stairs. Once, he used to come here to decide on important matters, something like a ministerial council. Each of the five floors of Ali Qapu is distinguished by its own style and decoration. The miniatures of the famous Persian artist Ali Reza Abbasi, head of the pictorial school in Isfahan during the time of Abbas I the Great, are eye-catching. But I personally got impressed by the music hall. Its works are of extraordinary wood-carving, the knots of which are fine sculpted musical instruments. It is designed so that the music performed in it is echoed throughout the square, meaning, half a kilometer away.

Here we were on the veranda of Ali Qapu. From here the view of the square, the once beating heart of the capital of the Safavians, is wonderful. Below it was lively. Workers repaired part of the slabs near the water basin in the middle of the square. Others were building a scene, in a few days, the national holiday of Iran was coming and they were building the facility for it. There were parts of sites in restoration. Tourists were crossing the huge space. Some of them preferred the carriage ride on the huge square. Beneath the two-story arches innumerable shops were hidden. Everything could not be captured with one look; as it was not possible to take a picture of the whole square too. That's why we filmed it.

When we left Ali Qapu, we crossed the square first in width. The mosque of Sheikh Lotfolah was attracting us as a magnet. The Mosque of Sheykh Lotfollah, Built for the personal use of chess, it amazes with the blue and gold decorations. We looked this beauty bewitched. It was stunning. Through many small windows, the sunlight was raining, and it played a wonderful dance in the center of the floor. And there, the Iranian youth - a boy and a girl were making a photo shoot. Something mystical, but also futuristic was in this fascinating picture.

We head towards the famous Masjed-e Shah, also known as

the Imam Mosque

It is considered to be the most famous and beautiful model of Persian architecture since the time of the Safavians dynasty. Its construction began in 1612 and lasted for 18 years. Its height is 30 m, the side minarets are 40 m and the main ones 54 m. Its entrance from the square impresses with the unique mosaics, made of faience tiles, dominated by the blue color and the floral ornaments. The figurative compositions both inside and outside are in the style of Ali Reza Abbasi. That is what the inscription in the 1616 mosaic speaks. We entered and found ourselves in an octagonal antechamber. It was necessary for the architects, as the gate, as we said, is in the southern part of the square and  looks to the north. While the entrance of each mosque has to look at Mecca, that is, to the northeast. That is why the porch serves as a passage to the second gate built according to the rules of Islam. The whole ensemble has beautiful architecture and clever design.

On the floor in the eastern part of the mosque, we saw several specially marked black tiles. The guide told us that the echoes are unique here, you can hear it seven times. That's why the tourists were gathered here. Everyone wanted to slap their hands to witness for themselves the miracle. We also got convinced in this.

We went to the inner courtyard of the mosque. The February sun was gently lighting it in gold. Some unexplainable calm was inherent, which prompted the mind to contemplate and the spirit tobe deeply absorbed. It is no coincidence that there is a place where one can come and sit and speak with a specialist for the religious affairs that matter to him. We also sat. We asked questions. Several Frenchmen, curious to hear the explanation for the difference between Shi'a and Sunnis, approached us.

And then we saw the Masjed-е Mosque /Friday mosque/, the oldest building of this type in Iran. Situated on an area of ​​20,000 square meters, it has a huge patio with four ayvan - an architectural solution taken from the palaces of the Safavians. The cupolas of the Friday Mosque, however, are an innovative solution that inspired the construction of religious buildings throughout the region of Central Asia. They are also, not by coincidence, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

We crossed the Imam's Square again - this time in length, and through the Keysarieh portico we dived into the... covered Bazar of Isfahan.

Creative City of UNESCO

Even before we left Sofia, our countrymen who had visited Iran, told that the souvenirs must be bought in this city. And we understood why. The market building, 2 km long, full of shops, enchanted us. Here one can find beautifully crafted objects, but also see how they are being made. Beautiful pictures ranged in front of our eyes - a young man making pictures out of thin metal floral figurines, a woman making ornaments on a silver tray, girls patiently drawing galaxies - colorfoul paintings on various metal objects, especially on plates. There were also shops for honey, ceramic, carpets... Here were the famous Iranians turquoises. Everything was so exquisite and aesthetically pleasing, as if it has not been touched by a human hand. And everything was immersed in the splendor of the "Isfahan blue"...

It is obvious why Isfahan is declared a creative city of UNESCO. For this incredible center of crafts and folk art we read in the organization's website: "Its creative sector comprises the country’s best craftsmen in 67 different disciplines, including carpet weaving, metalwork, woodwork, ceramics, painting, and incrust on various forms. According to Isfahan Territorial Planning, in the town there are at least 9,000 craft and folk art workshops and enterprises that contribute to the Isfahan economy, and the products of the majority of which can be found on the historical Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Every year the International Cultural Heritage Festival, which attracts the annual participation of 26 countries worldwide is held here. 

And I have been wondering how the two men - the guide and the translator - endured our trip in the bazar. At one point tired, but pleased with the souvenirs we chose, we set out for a short break to a cafe on the market. I went in and curiously observed the situation. There were all types of coffee and tea. The two women who held the establishment were friendly, we even talked. Behind them, on the wall, there were hanging notes with wishes from tourists visiting the cafeteria, written in dozens of languages. Right in the center I saw our Cyrillic: "From Bulgaria to Iran with lots of love! Plamen - Varna ". Well, we were not the first Bulgarians here. Neither were we in the traditional restaurant we had lunch in the middle of our sightseeing.
We left with the feeling that more beauty cannot be tolerated. But we were wrong. For in the darkness before us shone with all their glamour

the Isfahan's covered bridges

The view of them in the evening is indescribable. From afar you are grabbed by their lights, which, reflected in the waters of the Zayandeh River, look like golden strings connecting the two shores. We approached one of them. There was liveliness around it. I thought this might be the romantic meeting place for young people in the city - couples, friends, students /the Isfahan University is famous all over the world/.

On the platform in front of the bridge we noticed a statue of a lion. We exchanged thoughts with our guide - it is a symbol of Iran but also of Bulgaria. We talked about the theory of the origin of the Proto-Bulgarians coming from these lands. There might be something true, who knows... The scientific missions in Iran after 2010 with experts from both sides gathered a lot of evidence and photo material, but the work is yet to come.

We walked through the arch and headed for the bridge. The acoustics in the niches is especially resonant. Groups of young people have settled there. Some sang, others talked, and there were families who were eating. One of the companies invited us to join them. They were students - hearty and open to contacts. We listened to their songs, talked, we took photos. And I thought - with the ban on disco clubs in Iran, this is an option for young people to have fun in the evening, to communicate. This celestial sight and the meeting with the youth at the bridge will stay with me for ever.

As well as the taste of the eastern sweets without which we could not leave this town. According to our hosts, before we took the plane back to Tehran, we had to try the famous Isfahan gaz, a nougat halva with pistachios and other nuts.

Now, three months later, when I write these lines I can say - man has only a few such days in his life, in which the perception of such a huge amount of beauty makes him both happy and tired, enriched and overwhelmed. Personally, I have only experienced it a few times...

/to be continued/

The material was realized thanks to the co-operation and support of the Cultural Representation of the IR Iran Embassy in Sofia and its head and adviser on cultural affairs Mr. Mohammad Ali Kiani and the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization in Tehran.

Photos: "Diplomatic Spectrum"

First row: The Chehel Sotun Palace
row: traditional hotel in Isfahan, Honar Bazar, street in the Armenian Quarter, Statue of the Archbishop.
Third row: the Armenian Cathedral and the Meidan-е Emam 
Fourth row: Ali QapuPavilion
Fifth row: Mosque of Sheykh Lotfollah
Sixth row: The Imam Mosque with its inner courtyard
Seventh row: The Bazar of Isfahan
Eighth row: the cafe on the market, the Friday Mosque, bridges of the Zayandeh River