We were walking through the labyrinthine alleys making our way deeper into the maze. I was anxiously looking up at the sky. Our view of it was constantly obstructed; many alleys were covered, and each time the sky reappeared above us, it had deepened to a darker shade of blue. ”If we don’t hurry up we’re gonna miss it,” Thomas said. We started walking faster.
We were trying to find a rooftop from which to watch the sunset over Yazd, an ancient desert town in the middle of Iran. The city’s historic centre is one of the oldest towns on earth, made out of mud-brick houses shielded from the winding alleys by high walls of sand-coloured clay. We’d heard that the dusty town’s traditional windtowers were the most beautiful at sunset, but we’d gotten lost in the labyrinth, and it looked like we were going to miss it. All signs were in Farsi, and every path took an unexpected turn.
Finally the roofed streets gave way to an open square. A blue-tiled mosque rose above us. Below it, four kids were playing around a dried out fountain. They stopped to watch us as we passed. ”Fahadan Guesthouse?” I asked. The kids looked at us silently. ”Fahadan?” I tried again. An old man on a bench overheard us and pointed us in the direction of one of the many lanes leading out of the square. The sun was almost gone.
We ran down the alley , found the guesthouse, hastily made our way through two internal courtyards and ran up the stairs to the rooftop. When we reached it we came to an abrupt halt.
The sun was about to sink, a heavy ball of lava painting the scant clouds pink. The sand-coloured houses of Yazd were glowing, and I could feel the heat of the sun-warmed rooftop through the thin soles of my ballerina shoes. In the distance the mountains lay with their sharp, jagged peaks. And all around us the famed badgirs rose, the thousand-year-old wind catchers cooling down the houses and making the boiling desert town hospitable. Apart from a flock of doves circling the wind towers, we were all alone.
We stayed on the rooftop till the sky was almost black. Then we walked slowly back to our guesthouse through the winding alleys, hand in hand. The crisscross of lanes was almost black as well, illuminated by a few lampposts and the star-lit sky. We weren’t allowed to kiss or hold each other tight in public; instead Thomas stroked my hair, mostly covered by a white scarf. We stopped to buy Yazdi cakes – cupcakes sprinkled with pistachios and sweetened by rosewater and cardamom.
Our friends had laughed at us when they heard we were going on a romantic trip to Iran, but we weren’t the only ones who’d gotten that idea. The tables at the rooftop restaurant of our guesthouse were almost all full, many of them with young couples, others with families and groups of young people traveling together. We greeted a few familiar faces as we searched for a table of our own; we kept running into people at the small guesthouses on the main tourist track from Teheran over Isfahan to Yazd, Persepolis and Shiraz.
When traveling, we would usually stay clear of the beaten path in order to avoid excessive tourism, but in Iran that wasn’t necessary. Though the country has made it easier for tourists to visit by offering visas on arrival to most European citizens in the wake of the nuclear deal and the subsequently improved relations with the West, the tourists haven’t begun pouring in yet.
We saw no other travellers when walking through the Grand Bazaar of Teheran. At world-class ancient sites like Persepolis and the royal graves of Naqsh-e Rostam, we were able to take pictures without other camera-touting tourists in the frame. And in Isfahan we stood on Imam Square, the second-biggest and arguably the most beautiful square in the world, without being approached by a single tout trying to sell you something, without meeting anyone but local families picnicking on the lawns. We only met other travellers in the atmospheric guesthouses we stayed in, which were all centred around courtyards with fountains and clad in colourful tiles.
The mismatch between the number of attractions and the number of tourists was made even more magical by the fact that we knew those times were coming to an end. While we waddled through world-class tourist attractions without spotting a single tourist or tout, the government – as well as foreign investors – were betting on the number of tourists to go up, up, up. In 2016 Air France and British Airways began flying directly to Teheran again for the first time in years. Foreign hotel chains were building hotels in the country to accommodate the expected influx. The government expects to welcome 20 million yearly tourists by 2025. Only 5,2 million tourists visited in 2015.
At the rooftop of our hotel in Yazd we sat down on a carpet-clad daybed, the customary furniture in traditional Iranian restaurants, and ordered a stew with pomegranate, walnuts and camel meat. The biggest mosque in Yazd was behind us, the blueness of its tiles augmented by the synthetic illumination from below. The mud-brick houses surrounding it were almost impossible to make out in the darkness. The waiter arrived with our pomegranate juices. I was about to say something to Thomas when a call to prayer sounded from the mosque. It was loud, crackling and beautiful; it was the night-time prayer announcing that the sun had gone to bed.
All Images by Michelle Arrouas