Wow. We felt like we had stepped back in time. This was how the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul must have been like a very long time ago, before the arrival of tourism.
The Tabriz Bazaar covers 7 km2, most of which is a covered labyrinth. Construction began over 1,000 years ago, and most of the brick vaulting was built in the 15th century. There are also 24 caravanserais within the bazaar – large open courtyards where in the olden days traders with their camels would have arrived.
We quickly got lost in the bazaar, and our first interaction was with a retired history professor who was now selling antiques in his little shop in the bazaar. He showed us many amazing things, including 18th century coins, Iraqi bank notes featuring Saddam Hussein, and a handmade necklace that could hold a miniature Qr’an.
Next, we discovered an amazing bakery. A local couple recommended some cakes for us to try, and we stocked up on muffins, cream profiteroles and cookies, all for the princely sum of 1 Euro.
In the carpet section, we came across a large hallway where men were sitting on the ground knotting carpets. We had never seen carpets like these: many were actually mounted on picture frames and showed images ranging from English country houses and nomads with donkeys to flower arrangements and carpets with Arabic writing. Surprisingly, there were quite a few Christian religious paintings like the Last Supper and Mary with baby Jesus. There were also carpets depicting a US 100 Dollar bill, and even one showing Lady Di!
Nobody was taking any notice of us. Obviously tourists were not the main customer base here – what a difference to the constant hassle of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul!
Walking around the carpet section we met an older man who spoke very good English. He was carrying a small carpet under his arm and invited us back to his carpet shop for tea. We accepted, expecting a sales pitch but thinking we might learn something. We walked up a small unmarked staircase and into a little office full of carpets. Several men were already there discussing business, and we were invited to sit down while our friend went to a tea shop. We never caught his name, but he showed us pictures of other foreigners he had met, and he was just genuinely interested in meeting us. The sales pitch never came, even when we asked some questions about the carpets. He explained that Tabriz is the main carpet centre in Iran, and many people come from Teheran, Esfahan and other places to buy carpets here. He is the one with the brown suit in the right hand picture.
Our Farsi language guide was useless as the people in this area are mostly Azeri. In fact, 25% of the population of Iran is Azeri, and they speak a mix of Azeri and Turkish. Most understand or speak Farsi as well, but not as a first language. Iran is an incredibly diverse country, and so far we haven’t met many Persians. We have met mainly Azeri, Turks, and Kurdish people so far, but expect this will change as we travel further south.
After tea, our new friend showed us around the bazaar. We walked with him through the herb and spice area, where many shops were displaying large bags of fragrant goods including saffron, mint and lavender. He explained that many people here use herbal medicine, and the herbs are used for all sorts of ailments.
We also walked past jewellery shops where we saw the jeweller creating rings, and we visited a shop selling handmade knifes with sheep bone handles. Our friend took us to the honey section where jars of local honeycomb and pots of honey were on sale, and we bought some to take with us. We also bought some juicy Iranian dates that were weighed and packaged into little boxes by a specialty shop.
This was shopping the old fashioned way, and we loved it. It was so authentic. Tabriz Bazaar is where we really started to fall in love with Iran.
We also went to visit a nearby mosque with a magnificent brick vaulted interior, and then it was time for lunch. We went to a small restaurant in the bazaar where many traders eat their lunch or drink tea and smoke the water pipe. Here, we were shown how to eat Dizi. Dizi is an Iranian stew made with lamb, chickpeas, potato and tomatoes. There is an art to eating it: first you place chunks of bread into your bowl, then you drain the liquid from your pot of Dizi into your bowl. The bread is soaked for a little while and then eaten. Next, you place the rest of your Dizi into your bowl and remove any bones. You are given a little masher and use this to mash up the stew before eating it. It was an unusual taste for Freddie who does not usually eat lamb, but it was delicious nonetheless.
The fruit and vegetable section was equally exotic, with bags of tiny yellow lemons that were scooped up with a large spoon, sweet mandarins with a bright green skin, and wooden carts piled high with pomegranates or roasted turnips.
We said goodbye to our new friend and made our way back to the hotel. Walking through a park, we passed men playing chess and a row of outdoor bookshops. The following day we visited the Blue Mosque and met lots of friendly people, including a very shy 13 year old girl and her dad who invited us to their home. In our first few days in Iran we have had so many invitations already that unfortunately it is impossible to accept them all. People here don’t see so many foreigners and are very keen to interact, making us feel so welcome. We could spend a lot of time here in Tabriz, but time on our visa is ticking and we will have to leave tomorrow to cycle towards our next destination, Zanjan.