Kashan, a Lesson in Authenticity, Architecture

Kashan, a Lesson in  Authenticity, Architecture
Kashan, a Lesson in  Authenticity, Architecture

Passing through Kashan, Isfahan Province, during an organized tour in 2004 felt like a damp squib compared to Shiraz, Isfahan and Yazd. The expression hardly applies here, certainly not damp, more like a dusty furnace, a sorry excuse for a pit stop before heading back to Tehran via Qom.  Where we stopped for lunch left a lasting memory. It was in a dark basement.  Not the nice kind of desert basement that is chilled by traditional Persian wind-towers, the dismal modern kind. More astonishingly, the eatery was run by a woman from Manchester, and her two sons, so it had all the trappings of an English ‘caf’ or canteen; but they had homed in on what tourists on the tourist trail most craved, and had laid out a buffet-style lunch, with a variety of different ‘khoresh’ or Persian stews, with cucumber-yogurt and a salads.  Nothing else left an impression on me about Kashan, and after lunch most of us were only too pleased to pile back into our vans and coaches, and leave the heat behind.

Ten years on, Kashan has changed unrecognizably.  Only three hours away from Tehran, it has transformed into the trendy get-away for many urbanites, who yearn for the authenticity of traditional Iranian culture, desperate to escape the capital’s choked up, characterless sprawl. What has been achieved in the city today makes it among the most memorable of stops for tourists on the well-trodden tourist trail.

My favorite part about this happy story is that its protagonists are almost entirely entrepreneurial Iranian women, who were interested in preserving Iranian architecture, heritage, handicrafts and culture.  

  Manouchehri House

Saba Manouchehri, a woman in her forties, was approached by a local photographer from Kashan whose passion for his home city compelled him to capture the disappearing remains of 18th and 19th century, traditional mansions that had been laid to waste, inhabited by squatters, and progressively reclaimed by desert sands.  Manouchehri, moved by this story of loss and ruin, was inspired to help out, so she bought one of the remains with the idea of restoring it into a hotel-cum-cultural center.  She could hardly have envisaged taking this relatively small step to preserving Iranian cultural heritage, would be the catalyst that would eventually ignite the regeneration of an entire city.

The Manouchehri House structure whose primary architecture dates back to the Safavid era, about 240 years ago, was mostly destroyed after a series of earthquakes leveled the city of Kashan in the 18th century.  Parts of it were rebuilt 100 years later, but the building was left to ruin until 2007.

Manouchehri sought the help of Shahnaz Nader, an interior designer with a passion for restoration and preservation of Iranian culture, especially handicrafts.  The two women, using the skills of local architects, artisans and tradesmen, set out to restore the mansion back to its former glory, with added facilities and amenities that would meet with the world class standards of a modern hotel.  

Manouchehri House opened its doors to visitors in 2011, after a three-year restoration.  It originally started with nine lusciously decorated rooms, each with stunning, well equipped en suite bathrooms, enclosing a tranquil and picturesque central courtyard.  The rooms have recently been extended into an adjoining annex, and there is an additional master-suite.  The hotel houses one of the best restaurants in Kashan, it has an in-house cinema, and was recently rated 10 out of 10 on the Lonely Planet personal rating system.

The story does not end here, the success of the Manouchehri project has since its inception inspired many others, mainly women, to purchase and begin to renovate the many ruined mansions of Kashan.  To date, tens if not hundreds of mansions have been bought to be restored, mostly as private residences, but some have been turned into cultural houses and libraries, with plans to open others up as museums and art galleries.  The regeneration of the city has led to other big renovation projects, the most significant being the Ameri House.

  Ameris House

The Ameri House was originally a sprawling family residence built during the Zand era (1750-94).  It was built by Agha Ameri, the governor of Kashan, who made a fortune provisioning the state with weaponry and maintaining security on the route between Tehran and Kerman.

The house comprises seven courtyards and covers 9,000 square meters, including two bathhouses.

A similar plight to the Manouchehri house, much of it was destroyed by the earthquakes during the 18th century and rebuilt in the 19th century. The house was in a precarious state of neglect until when restoration work began.

A multimillion-dollar private-public initiative has recently seen a few of its many courtyards transformed into a high-end traditional hotel, with plans to open up the other wings in the near future.

Manouchehi House has raised the bar for the rest of Kashan.  Hotel Ehsan, one of the original traditional houses, turned into a guesthouse, is also up for expansion and renovation.  Its central courtyard has always been very charming, but the accommodation was somewhat shabby catering mainly to back-packers and students.  

It only takes driving down one Kashan’s main roads to see the transformation; tile shops, and bathroom fixture shops are mushrooming everywhere to cater to the renovation projects and new construction.

The city is still short of high-end, good quality restaurants, but I am sure in the next few years, many Tehran restaurateurs will be there to fill the gap.

  Museums, Mosque and Bazaar

When visiting Kashan, it is certainly worth seeing some of the other historic family homes, which have been turned into museums.  The Tabatabei House was built around 1880 and is renowned for its intricate stone reliefs.  It consists of the traditional ‘andaruni’ (internal area where family members lived) and a ‘biruni’ (external area used for entertaining and housing guests). Close by is also the spectacular Boroujerdi House.  Legend has it that when Boroujerdi a carpet merchant met with fellow carpet merchant Tabatabei to discuss taking his daughter’s hand in marriage, the latter set one condition; his daughter must live in a house at least as lovely as his own.  The Boroujerdi mansion was completed 18 years later.

The Kashan Bazaar is considered one of the best in Iran, and close by is Agha Bozorg mosque complex, famous for its symmetrical design.

Kashan is an oasis city on the edge of Dasht-e-Kavir and has a population of 253,500.