The place looked so plain from the outside. It took us a few minutes to find the gate as it was no different from neighboring houses. But once we stepped through the doors and descended a flight of stairs, we saw the courtyard and our jaws just dropped. We had never stayed in such a beautiful hotel! Welcome to Manouchehri House!

An oasis in the middle of the Dasht-e Kavir desert, Kashan is famous for its traditional houses. They used to be lavish villas of wealthy merchants. However, many of them share the same plight. Once a leisure vacation spot for Safavi Kings, the city was razed to the ground in a series of massive earthquakes in the 18th century. Parts of it were rebuilt during the Qajar period in the 19th century, but over time, the city was left to ruins, its villas turned to dust. Until a few years ago, Kashan was still largely overlooked by tourists, most of whom chose to skip it for bigger and more attractive destinations further south such as Isfahan and Shiraz. But all have changed thanks to none other than a woman called Saba Manouchehri, a jeweler by trade, whose efforts to renovate Manouchehri House catalyzed the rebirth of Kashan as a tourist attraction. Thanks to her and an army of passionate local architects, interior designers, conservationists, and other investors, numerous traditional houses in the city have been restored to their former glory and turned into private residences, boutique hotels, and cultural centers, while others are planned to be opened up as libraries, museums and galleries.

For thousands of years, Iranian history, culture, and religion have manifested in the body of its traditional houses. The stark contrast between plain exterior and elegantly decorated interior exemplifies the concept of ‘introverted architecture’. Functionality and sustainability play a significant role in the design of residential houses and urban designs in Iran. High walls not only serve as a shell to protect the buildings from sun lights, desert sands, and harsh winds but also provide cool shades for internal courtyards as well as for narrow allies. Natural thermal insulation materials such as mud bricks and chaff help reduce temperature fluctuation during day and night, summer and winter. North-south orientation and strategic location of central courtyards, wind catchers, underground cellars, sun-facing doors and windows create a balance between water, air, and light around the year and give a comfortable and aesthetic atmosphere for inhabitants. The hierarchy of spaces in historical houses, with their distinct public, semi-public, semi-private, and private spaces, is a practical response to the need for both privacy and hospitality, two key features of Islamic culture. Even knocking on the doors of a traditional Iranian house can give you a sneak peek into its Islamic customs. The shapes of door-knockers are different for the two genders – hammers for males and rings for females. Each produces a distinct sound, giving hints about the visitor and preparing the household, especially its women, for welcoming their guest.

Nowadays, Iran is undergoing a housing transformation. Outward-looking apartment complexes gradually replace inward-looking courtyard houses. Cheap, locally available, and natural materials give way to industrial steel and concrete. Spatial configuration and diversity of traditional houses now change to private balconies and closed living spaces. This housing transformation reflects the social and economic transformation in modern Iran. But it comes at a price. Some valuable traditions and indigenous designs may be lost forever. As a matter of fact, Iranian door knockers have already became relics of the past. Blacksmiths in the country no longer make them. Their deep cultural value is now retained in a few restored traditional houses such as Manouchehri or in ancient villages such as Abyaneh. So the question for contemporary architects is how to identify relevant elements from traditional houses and incorporate them into modern designs that respond to the modern lifestyle and demands, but still preserve Iran’s unique cultural identities.

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Driving to Kashan

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Manouchehri House

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 The hammer design of this door knocker means it’s for male visitors. The females’ door knockers have a ring shape.

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Manouchehri House’s northern wing, its central courtyard and garden as viewed from the reception area.

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Art display

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Dining room is located on the east wing

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Inside the dining room

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Breakfast – everyday we also had boiled eggs, flat bread, and fresh fruits.

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The southern wing of the house

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The southern wing and central courtyard as seen from our room

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The ceiling of our bathroom

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Reading lamp in our room

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Manouchehri House at night

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The communal room in the south wing

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Ameri House

Ameri House was built by Agha America, the governor of Kashan, during the Zand era. It’s a sprawling 9,000 m2 complex comprising of 7 courtyards and 2 bathhouses. It has recently been  turned into a high-end hotel through a multi-million dollar public-private partnership. The Ameri House is probably one of the biggest restoration projects in Kashan to date.

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The Tabatabei House

This traditional house was built around 1880. It is famous for its intricate stonework.

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Abbasian restaurant and Abbasi House

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The restaurant is very spacious and serves delicious foods at reasonable prices.

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Boroujerdi House

This house has a magnificent central dome. Legend has it that when Boroujerdi, a carpet merchant, wanted to merry Tabatabei’s daughter, Tabatabei gave him one condition – his daughter must live in a house as beautiful as his own. That’s how construction of Bouroujerdi House started.

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The magnificent central dome

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The central dome’s exterior as seen from the nearby Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse

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Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse

This is probably one of the most beautiful bath houses in Iran. It has two main parts – a dressing area, and a bathing hall.

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The dressing area is a large octagonal hall lavishly decorated with turquoise and yellow tile works, and plaster carvings.

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The ceiling of the dressing hall

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Seats covered with beautiful carpets

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The dressing hall is truly amazing

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The bathing area

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This area is less well-preserved, and more simple in design.

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Multiple domes make up the roof of the bathhouse. Colored glass dishes are installed to provide lighting to the dressing and bathing areas below.

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A mosque near Kashan Bazaar

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Agha Bozogh Mosque

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The Holy Shrine of Hilal ibn Ali

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Locals relaxing and having a picnic outside the holy shrine

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Pictures of war martyrs outside the holy shrine

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The shrine has two separate entrances for men (on the left) and women (on the right). Two huge photos of Supreme Leaders Khomeini and Khamenei decorate the walls of the shrine.

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The entrance for women. Above it is the portrait of the current Supreme Leader Khamenei.

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A man praying under the mirror dome

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The spectacular mirror dome

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Fin Garden

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On the streets of Kashan

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Mud brick and chaff – main construction materials in Kashan

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Two old friends greeting each other on the street

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A fountain in the city center

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Light and shades in the desert city

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An old man walking near our hotel

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