The Most luxurious book of poetry


In 1909, two London bookbinders were commissioned to create a book that would become one of the most bedazzling the world had beheld. Joobin Bekhrad reveals how it ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic – and how it still influences today.

“When the Titanic went down on the night of April 14 1912 in the sea off the New World, its most eminent victim was a book…” French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf may have been stretching it a bit in his 1988 historical novel Samarkand. Or not, depending on whom you were to ask at the time.

The book in question was a fictional manuscript of the Rubáiyát (Quatrains) by the 11th-Century Iranian polymath Omár Khayyám, prized because it was the only one in existence.

In fact, a plethora of copies of the volume of Persian poems existed. There was, however, at the time the Titanic made its ill-fated voyage, one that outshone them all – not in terms of what was written within, but rather, its almost otherworldly appearance. It was this very real manuscript that served as the inspiration for Maalouf’s acclaimed novel.

“At the bottom of the Atlantic there is a book,” he writes in its introduction. “I am going to tell you its history.”

‘Whoso desireth a peacock must endure the trials of Hindustan’, says a popular Persian proverb. While this particular one refers to the Iranian monarch Nader Shah Afshar’s sacking of Delhi and looting of the famed Peacock Throne (amongst other things) in the mid-18th Century, it might just as well have been coined a few centuries later in London.

With a desire to revive medieval traditions of bejewelled bookbinding, George Sutcliffe and Francis Sangorski were renowned throughout the city in the early 1900s for their opulent and over-the-top designs. Accordingly, it was to them that Henry Sotheran’s, a bookstore on Sackville Street, went to commission a book like no other.

Cost, according to Sotheran’s, was to be no object; the bookbinders were given carte blanche to let their imagination go wild and conjure the most bedazzling book the world would ever behold. Completed in 1911 after two years of intensive labour, the book – of Edward FitzGerald’s loose Victorian interpretations of Omar Khayyám’s poems, illustrated by Elihu Vedder – came to be known as ‘The Great Omar’, as well as ‘The Book Wonderful’, on account of its sheer splendour.


Gracing its gilded cover were three peacocks with bejewelled tails, surrounded by intricate patterns and floral sprays typical of medieval Persian manuscripts, while a Greek bouzouki could be seen on the back.

Over 1000 precious and semi-precious stones – rubies, turquoises, emeralds, and others – were used in its making, as well as nearly 5000 pieces of leather, silver, ivory, and ebony inlays, and 600 sheets of 22-karat gold leaf.

The Great Omar

Although intended to be shipped to New York by Sotheran’s, the booksellers declined to pay the heavy duty imposed on it at US customs. It was returned to England, where it was bought by Gabriel Wells at a Sotheby’s auction for £450 – less than half its reserve price of £1,000. Wells, like Sotheran’s before him, intended to have the masterpiece shipped to America. Unluckily for him – and the world – it couldn’t be taken aboard the ship originally chosen.

The Titanic was next in line, and the rest needs no explanation. The story, however, didn’t end with the sinking of the Titanic, or even Sangorski’s strange death by drowning some weeks afterwards. Sutcliffe’s nephew Stanley Bray was determined to revive not only the memory of the Great Omar, but also the book itself. Using Sangorski’s original drawings, he managed – after a gruelling six years – to replicate the book, which was placed in a bank vault.

The Great Omar, it seemed, had been born under a bad sign, for, during the London Blitz of World War Two, it was – not unlike the poet’s wine jugs, symbolic of human frailty – dashed to pieces. Shaken, but not shattered, Bray once again rolled up his sleeves to produce yet another version of his uncle’s swan song.

This time, however, its making wasn’t a matter of years, but decades. Completed after 40 years of on-and-off work, Bray’s tribulations were realised in another stunning reproduction, which he loaned to the British Library, and which his estate bequeathed to the institution following his death, where it can be seen today. “I am not in the least bit superstitious,” Bray remarked shortly before his demise, “even though they do say that the peacock is a symbol of disaster”.


What was the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and who was this enigmatic personage with whom Sotheran’s, as well as innumerable others, were fascinated? An 11th-Century polymath from eastern Iran, Khayyám was revered in his lifetime for his groundbreaking work in astronomy and mathematics. As with other Iranian polymaths like Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Khayyám was also a poet.

That said, his poetry was unlike that of any other Persian poet before him, and he has occupied, for centuries, a place wholly unique in the grand corpus of classical Persian literature.

Owing to his inquisitive nature, Khayyám questioned things most around him took for granted: faith, the hereafter, and the meaning of life itself. He had little confidence in the promises of religion, with its talk of Heaven and Hell, and even expressed doubts regarding the logic of God. There was only one thing Khayyám was certain about, and which he cherished: this life.



He well understood – perhaps owing to the turbulent times during which he lived (Iran, then under Turkic occupation, had recently been invaded by Arabs, and the Mongol hordes would soon raze his homeland to the ground) – the transience of life and the inevitability of death, and the importance of seizing the all-too-brief moment we are allotted on earth. Any talk of the afterlife or religion he deemed hot air. As he wrote:

No one has seen Heaven or Hell, O heart of mine;
Who, say you, has come from that realm, O heart of mine?
Our hopes and fears are pinned to that to which,
Save a name and notion, we can naught else assign.

Although he often lamented the ephemerality of life, he also resolved to enjoy himself – with copious amounts of wine (and a few sweethearts, too).

If Goethe had been enamoured of Hafez, and Voltaire Sa’di, the Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald found a kindred Iranian spirit in Khayyám, ‘The Old Tentmaker’. When he turned his attention to Khayyám, he had already translated from the Persian Jami’s Salaman and Absal, as well as an abridged version of Attar’s Conference of the Birds. It was the Rubáiyát, however, that was to prove his magnum opus.

Although not exactly a translation of the original Persian poems, FitzGerald’s very loose interpretation captured, to no small degree, the spirit of the Rubáiyát and the poet’s Weltanschauung – hence the reference to the author as ‘FitzOmar’.

While it enjoyed little popularity upon its release, the slim yet profound volume soon came to enjoy a popularity FitzGerald could never have imagined. In the late 19th Century, an elite literary salon in London – the still-active Omar Khayyám Club – was named after Khayyám. FitzGerald’s rendition of the Rubáiyát also served as a source of inspiration for Pre-Raphaelite artists such as William Morris, who produced two illuminated manuscripts of it, the second of which also contained illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones.

Countless other editions were also produced, with every manner of illustration, by artists such as Edmund Dulac and Edmund Joseph Sullivan. One illustration by the latter, in fact, later came to grace the Grateful Dead’s self-titled 1971 album. Elsewhere, the acclaimed short story writer Hector Hugh Munro chose the nom de plume ‘Saki’ (the title Khayyám used to address his cupbearer), while Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel The Moving Fingerhad a FitzOmar poem as its namesake.

That’s not to mention the 1957 Hollywood film made about Khayyám, US actor Alfred Drake’s 1960 recitation of the entire Rubáiyát, and Martin Luther King’s quotation of him in a 1967 anti-war speech (he beat Bill Clinton to it by a few decades), amongst many other instances. In the 1950s, the Rubáiyát was so popular that more than half of it could be found in the compendiums Bartlett’s Quotations and The Oxford Book of Quotations.


The Not-so-Old Tentmaker

Khayyám’s poetry has, undeniably, stood the test of time. In his native Iran, he is a towering figure whose book of verse, like that of Hafez’s, is very much a household staple. FitzGerald’s rendition of the Rubáiyát is still, in spite of the prodigious liberties he took, the most well-known English version of it by far, and an English classic in its own right. Elsewhere around the world, his poems can be read in virtually every language imaginable.

As such, it’s perhaps no mystery why Sotheran’s chose the Rubáiyát as the raison d’être of Sutcliffe and Sangorski’s bound marvel. But why? How could the words of an 11th-Century polymath have any relevance not only in the Victorian era and the mid-20th Century, but also today?

The answer lies in the timelessness of the Rubáiyát, and its universal truths that know not culture, religion, or creed. Indeed, in today’s uncertain times, the Rubáiyát may be even more relevant than during the tumultuous times in which it was originally written. What would the author of the most luxurious book of poetry ever made have to say about our mad, mad world, were he around today? Perhaps, to quote the sage:

How swiftly does this caravan of life pass;
Seek thou the moment that with joy does lapse.
Saghi, why lament tomorrow’s misfortunes today?
Bring forth the chalice, for the night shall pass.

By Joobin Bekhrad
11 January 2018

Makhunik – Iran ancient village


In the first part of Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels, Lemuel Gulliver washes ashore on the island country of Lilliput, where he encounters the Lilliputians, who stand barely taller than 15cm.

While Swift’s Lilliput is merely a fantasy, a comparable village exists in the eastern extremities of Iran. Up until around a century ago, some of the residents of Makhunik, a 1,500-year-old village roughly 75km west of the Afghan border, measured a mere metre in height – approximately 50cm shorter than the average height at the time.

In 2005, a mummified body measuring 25cm in length was found in the region. The discovery fuelled the belief that this remote corner of Iran, which consists of 13 villages, including Makhunik, was once home to an ancient ‘City of Dwarfs’. Although experts have determined that the mummy was actually a premature baby who died roughly 400 years ago, they contend that previous generations of Makhunik residents were indeed shorter than usual.

iran-village Makhunik

Malnutrition significantly contributed to Makhunik residents’ height deficiency.

Raising animals was difficult in this dry, desolate region, and turnips, grain, barley and a date-like fruit called jujube constituted the only farming. Makhunik residents subsisted on simple vegetarian dishes such as kashk-beneh (made from whey and a type of pistachio that is grown in the mountains), and pokhteek (a mixture of dried whey and turnip).

“When I was a kid no-one drank tea. If someone drank tea, they’d joke and say he was an addict,” recalled Ahmad Rahnama, referring the stereotype that opium addicts drink a lot of tea. The 61-year-old Makhunik resident runs a museum dedicated to Makhunik’s historic architecture and traditional lifestyle.

In the mid-20th Century, the construction of roads and the proliferation of vehicles allowed Makhunik residents access to ingredients found in other parts of Iran, such as rice and chicken.

“When the vehicles came, people could bring food from nearby towns so there was more to eat than just kashk-beneh and bread,” Rahnam said.

iran-village Makhunik

Although most of Makhunik’s 700 residents are now of average height, reminders of their ancestors’ shorter statures still persist. Of the roughly 200 stone and clay houses that make up the ancient village, 70 or 80 are exceptionally low, ranging between 1.5 to 2m – with the ceilings of some as low as 1.4m.

Stooping down, I followed Rahnama into one of Makhunik’s ‘Lilliputian’ homes, ducking through the wooden door that was located on the house’s southern side to let in more light and protect the home’s single room from strong northerly winds.

I found myself in a small living quarters known as the ‘sitting room’ – aptly named as I was forced to sit due to the low ceiling. This roughly 10- to 14-sq-m space consisted of the kandik (place for storing grain and wheat), a karshak (a clay stove for cooking) and a sleeping space.

Constructing these tiny homes was no easy feat, Rahnama said, and residents’ short stature wasn’t the only reason to build smaller houses. Domestic animals large enough to pull wagons were scarce and proper roads were limited, meaning locals had to carry building supplies by hand for kilometres at a time. Smaller homes required fewer materials, and thus less effort.

Additionally, although cramped, smaller houses were easier to heat and cool than larger ones, and blended in more easily with the landscape, making them harder for potential invaders to spot.

“Nowadays young people go to nearby cities for work and bring back money and food. The women do some weaving, but aside from that there is no work,” Rahnama said. Meanwhile, older residents have had to rely heavily on government subsidies.

Despite the difficult circumstances, Rahnama is hopeful that interest in the village’s unique architecture will lure visitors and that tourism will create more jobs and business. For now, though, “it is what it is,” he told me with a resigned smile.

“But,” he added, chuckling, “things are better now than they used to be before. Before people were short and stocky, and now they’re tall and lean.”

By Shervin Abdolhamidi
10 January 2018
Source BBC



Camilla Smith is our  eagle eyed, friendly,  efficient  and thoughtful  powerhouse  in the office, ready  to answer all  travel  queries  and to  deal  with the smooth  running of our tours and the extensive administration (visa process) involved when travelling to  Iran.  She is a keen traveller and is fascinated by Iran and its culture.

Satellite image – Shadegan, Iran


The Shadegan wetlands of south-west Iran cover about 400,000 hectares, making this the largest wetland area in the country. The wetlands are composed of a system of ponds, shallow lagoons and marshes, some of which form drainage patterns that resemble tree branches extending from cerulean stems.

Located in a fertile crescent of Iran, the Shadegan wetlands are surrounded by date palm orchards famed for their sweet dates, livestock farms and sugar plantations. Shadegan is also known for its biodiversity; the Shadegan Wildlife Refuge provides sanctuary to animals such as the marbled teal, a diving duck classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.


Iran’s ancient cave village

iran village

An ancient cave villageIran’s ancient village of Maymand, located around 900km south of the capital Tehran, is littered with troglodytic dwellings ‒ cavernous, underground homes carved out of soft rock. Stone engravings found at the site are estimated to be more than 10,000 years old.

A Unesco World Heritage Site, Maymand is said to have been inhabited continuously for more than 2,000 years, which makes it one of Iran’s oldest surviving villages.

Seasonal housing

Tucked away in a valley within the arid mountains of central Iran, Maymand experiences extremely hot summers and severely cold winters. To adapt to these harsh conditions, villagers switch homes according to the season.

In the summer and early autumn, they live in homes with grass thatch roofs which help protect them from the oppressive heat. When temperatures plummet and bone-chilling winds sweep the valley, Maymand residents move underground.

Iran's ancient cave village


Winter caves

Of the 400 caves built more than 10,000 years ago, 90 remain intact. These cave homes can contain up to seven rooms, each about 2m tall and 20m squared, although size varies from cave to cave.

Modern living

Residents have updated the caves to suit their lifestyle: they have electricity, which allows for refrigeration, and even televisions. However, there is no running water, and ventilation is minimal. The dark film that covers some of the walls is a result of the soot from the fires used to cook or heat the rooms.

Remnants of an ancient past

The village once followed the ancient mystical religion of Zoroastrianism, which prospered under Persian rule. Vestiges of Maymand’s spiritual past remain, like the Kicheh Dobandi, a cave that is said to have once been a temple (and is now a small museum).

In the 7th Century, Islam overtook Zoroastrianism as the primary religion in Maymand, and today, the caves are home to one of the few cave mosques in the world (pictured).

Nomadic shepherds

The majority of the villagers are agro-pastoralists, raising cattle on mountain pastures and bringing the animals with them when they migrate to the caves, which feature underground stables. Residents also collect medicinal plants, which they claim help them achieve good health and long lives.

A disappearing lifestyle

Today, fewer people are choosing to live in the caves, instead moving to neighbouring towns in the winter and returning in the summer. Only an estimated 150 people populate the village throughout the year.

Preserving a legacy

The dwindling year-round population poses a threat to the survival of Maymand’s unique lifestyle. In 2001, the Iranian Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization has worked to raise awareness of Maymand. Since then, the village has received more visitors; today Maymand even has caves where tourists can stay the night to experience a way of life that has persisted for millennia. (Credit: Rodolfo Contreras)

The Silk Road Tour | 15 days – £2245


This is an exciting new tour, offering an authentic trip around the timeless sights of the Silk Road.

We can’t wait to travel with you from the vibrant, modern city of Tehran through to the windswept deserts of Yazd, the legendary city of Persepolis and the tranquil gardens in Isfahan. Come with us as we explore  Zoroastrian fire temples, Nomadic life and royal palaces as we travel through the glorious, picturesque sights of Iran.

Our groups attract well travelled open minded individuals, who are naturally curious, keen to learn and to make their own minds up about Iran. Our guests are a mixed combination of couples, single travellers and also families with grown up offspring.

Tour dates:  2018 Outbound – Return

  • Sun. April 29th – Sun. May 13th
  • Sun. Oct 21st – Sun. Nov 4th
  • Sun. Nov 4th – Sun. Nov 18th

Tour itinerary

Day 1 London – Tehran
Depart from London Heathrow on an evening flight.

Day 2 Tehran
Arrive early morning and transfer to hotel. After breakfast visit Golestan Palace, one of the Royal court’s former residences. On to the Contemporary Art Museum.

Day 3 Tehran
Visit the Archaeological and Glass Museums with their fine collection of antiques. Lunch at a traditional tea house. Visit the stunning Crown Jewels held in the vaults of the Central Bank of Iran.

Day 4 Tehran – Yazd
Morning drive to Yazd. This desert town, famous for its wind towers, is the Zoroastrian centre of Iran. Visit the ‘Atashkadeh’ Fire Temple. Although the temple is modern (1940), the sacred fire has been burning since 470 AD. On to Alexander’s Prison and Jame’h Mosque.

Day 5 Yazd – Shiraz
Morning visit to the Towers of Silence, ancient Zoroastrian burial grounds. Afternoon drive to Shiraz.

Day 6 Shiraz
In Shiraz visit Narenjestan Palace, Eram Gardens and the mausoleums of the Persian mystics and poets Hafez and Saa’di.

Day 7 Shiraz – Persepolis
Excursion to the wind swept ruins Persepolis and Naghsh-e-Rostam, the tomb of the three powerful Achaemenian Kings carved into huge rocks, overlooking one of the oldest Zoroastrian fire temples in Iran.

Day 8 Shiraz – Firuzabad
Drive to Firuzabad near Shiraz, winter quarters of the Qashqaii nomads. Visit the fire temple and Palace of Artaxeres. Dinner and overnight with Qashqaiis. Overnight in tents.

Day 9 Firuzabad – Yasuj
Breakfast with the Qashqaiis. Drive to Kazerun, home to many of the settled Qashqaiis tribespeople. Visit the silent ruins of the old city of Shapour and its rock carvings dating back to the Sassanian period. Drive to Yasuj, the main nomadic centre of Iran, a region with vast vineyards producing some of the finest grapes in Iran.

Day 10 Yasuj – Isfahan
Drive to Isfahan. This route rarely taken by tourists offers stunning scenery. Land of Waterfalls, as this region is referred to, offers the traveller a most memorable image.

Day 11 Isfahan
Tour of Isfahan’s magnificent buildings, some of the greatest examples of Islamic architecture, including the Royal (Imam) Square, the Shah and Seikh Lotf-Allah Mosques, Ali-Qapu Palace. After dinner evening tour of Isfahan including Si-o-Se and Khaju Bridges.

Day 12 Isfahan
Visit Chehel Sotun (Forty Columns), and then onto Jolfa, the Armenian quarters south west of the city, to see Vank Cathedral. In the evening, visit a Zoorkhaneh (House of Strength) to watch this traditional Iranian sport: a combination of physical and spiritual aerobics, with participants chanting to the powerful drums of their master.

Day 13 Isfahan
No trip to Isfahan would be complete without a visit to its famous bazaar, spanning 5km. Free time to shop.

Day 14 Isfahan – Abyaneh – Kashan – Tehran
Drive to Kashan via Abyaneh, a picturesque village dating back 1600 years to the Sassanian period, it is protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Kashan is an oasis town famous for its beautiful Fin Garden, Agha-Bozorg Mosque and House of Borujerdi. Evening arrival in Tehran.

Day 15 Tehran – London
Depart early morning from Tehran to London Heathrow.

The itinerary is an indication of the visits we propose to undertake each day, however please bear in mind that changes are possible due to public holidays, weather etc, at the time of your visit. Your guide will confirm the final itinerary each day.

Tour map

London – Tehran – Yazd – Shiraz – Firuzabad – Yasuj – Isfahan – Abyaneh – Kashan – Tehran – London

Tour accommodation

We aim to provide an ‘authentic’ Iranian experience, offering accommodation that is traditional, where possible.

We opt for the best available hotels at the Iranian three star level, to ensure our guests have a comfortable stay in traditionally decorated and simply furnished double or twin rooms. Where possible we also arrange overnight stay in a nomad tent or home stay.

Tour cost – 15 days

    £2245 per person based on two people sharing a twin bedded room

  • Single room supplement: £430
  • Visa stamp fees for UK passports: £165

The cost includes:

  • Obtaining tourist visa permit (excluding visa stamp fees)
  • All internal travel including:
    • Airport Transfers
    • Internal flights on Iran Air
    • Air conditioned vehicles and refreshments
  • An experienced, English speaking Iranian guide throughout the trip
  • 14 nights  in three star hotels in twin bedded standard rooms on  bed and breakfast basis
  • Sightseeing visits and all entrance fees as per the itinerary

The cost excludes:

  • International flights to Iran – British Airways London-Tehran economy around £400 per person
  • Lunch and dinner
  • Travel insurance

More testimonials


Contact us
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American State Department changes of regulation


As of January 2016, the American State Department changed their regulation in relation to Iran. Currently any individual who has visited Iran in the last three years, can no longer qualify for the USA ’visa waiver’ program.

Such individuals will now have to apply for visa, at their local American  Embassy. They will usually be interviewed by the resident U.S. immigration officer,  so they can decide if the applicant is acceptable, so they can obtain  a visa for the USA. If a decision is made to grant  the visa, it is likely to be a ten  year multiple entry visa.

2016 Testimonial | B.M & M.M

I don’t normally do much with feedback after trips (I take so many) but I do want to say that Mimi and I really did enjoy our brief visit to Iran at the end of March. The people there were so friendly … We got invited to dinner, shared food and picnics and had many photos taken with the locals. Wonderful people !

On my return, In the interests of my relations with the USA, I confessed to my “crime” of visiting Iran and I had my ESTA revoked in order to embark on the full US non-immigrant visa trail. It took exactly five weeks from the ESTA being revoked to getting my full non-immigrant visa. A lot of hoops to jump through with form filling, photographs and the like plus, of course visa fees !

The big delay was getting the necessary appointment for a face to face interview at the US Embassy in London (they do also offer interviews in Belfast). The earliest date was just over 4 weeks from the date that all the forms were originally submitted.

I tried to expedite the interview but all this did was bring it one day earlier ! I had to take a whole host of supporting documents to the interview … A lot were standard things like proof I was going to return the UK, bank statements to show that I could support myself while I was there, your tour itinerary to show why I had been to Iran, etc., etc.

At the interview they took a set of fingerprints and simply asked the purpose of my visit to Iran to which I replied “tourism”. They did not ask where I had been or any other details and they did not ask to see the tour itinerary or any of the other documents I had taken along. My passport was returned to me five days later and I now have a new 10-year visa for the USA. On the positive side, it will save me having to renew the ESTA every two years !

It was a pain having to do all the form filling and having to visit the US Embassy but I do want to stress that it was all fairly straightforward and potential visitors to Iran from the UK and EU areas should not be put off by it all. It took time because of the interview delay but otherwise it was probably no worse than getting the Iranian visa !

If you have interested UK or EU travellers going to Iran, you should tell them to allow 6-8 weeks between returning from Iran to arranging any travel to the USA to allow a comfortable margin to get a full US visa

In a nutshell, the experience of visiting Iran was well worth the inconvenience of applying for the full US Visa !

Best regards

B.M & M.M

Nick Middleton – guest lecturer on a new Magic Carpet Travel tour to south-eastern Iran


Off-limits to tourists for decades, Iran is at last opening up, offering the chance to visit fairy-tale cities, ancient historic sites — and the hottest place on earth.
By Nick Middleton

Unsurprisingly, Amir Shafi Abadi lived in the village of Shafi Abad. He had done all his life, herding sheep and growing dates on the edge of the Lut Desert. But change was in the air and Amir sensed an opportunity. We were sitting cross-legged on a carpet drinking black tea in his newly built courtyard. He was preparing for a surge of foreign visitors.

Amir’s village is the last settlement before a 190km stretch of desert, an area under consideration as a Unesco World Heritage Site thanks to its unique landscape. It also happens to be where the hottest temperature ever recorded on the Earth’s surface was logged. In 2005, a global satellite survey registered a ground temperature of 70.7C.

This is why I’d come. I’m attracted to extreme locations. Having already trekked in the world’s hottest place in terms of average air temperature (Ethiopia’s Danakil Desert), I was eager to add the Lut to my list. I had long known about this region but never dared to imagine I’d actually be here.

towers of silence in Yazd
towers of silence in Yazd

Now, the opening of Iran to westerners, following last year’s nuclear deal, had given me the chance. The UK Foreign Office has dropped its warning against visiting the country; British Airways, Air France and KLM are all restarting flights; tour operators are competing to launch new itineraries and the sense of opportunity has even reached little Shafi Abad, on the edge of the Lut Desert.

The skywas cerulean blue; the sunshine intense. There was not a breath of wind to leaven its fierce heat

Accommodation at Amir’s was arranged along two sides of his compound: simple sleeping spaces divided by traditional palm-frond partitions. He was certainly well located for the desert, while simultaneously close enough to the snow-capped Sirch Mountains for them to peep over the high mud-brick walls.

But his secret weapon was his wife Zahra’s cooking. We were reclining after a lunch of kashk-e bademjan, a thick aubergine dip with fried onions and whey, scooped up with flatbread. Zahra had baked the bread in the outdoor clay oven next to their small kitchen garden, the source of the bowls full of fresh herbs to sprinkle over our meal.

Whey, a thick byproduct of milk, is a popular ingredient in Persian cooking, Amir explained as we lounged on plump cushions. There was some discussion before — with the aid of his iPhone’s bilingual dictionary app—I understood what he was referring to. Instantly I thought of Little Miss Muffet, the nursery rhyme character, perched on her tuffet. It was not an image I’d expected to encounter on the edge of the Lut Desert.

South-east Iran is full of dramatic imagery, both real and surreal. Midway between the two lies Bam, home of the world’s largest adobe citadel, where my journey to the Lut had begun after an internal flight from Tehran.

Bam’s ancient for tress was devastated by an earthquake in 2003, and the local authorities have been rebuilding ever since. Today, much of it has risen again out of the desert, like a giant’s sandcastle on the beach.

Bam dates back at least to 500BCandsits at a junction of Silk Road trade routes threaded through the surrounding desert. Following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, I traced one of these routes westward. The highway leading out of town was lined with cartoon-style tiled hoardings of local characters martyred in the Iran-Iraq war, a terrible encounter that resulted in up to a million casualties In the 1980s.

Fortification walls of ancient citadel of Bam
Fortification walls of ancient citadel of Bam

An hour or so of arid, feature less plain later, I saw men standing on walls to pick almonds from skeletal trees on the outskirts of Mahan, a small town known for its shrine to a renowned Persian scholar, mystic and poet. Shah Nematollah Vali died in 1431, aged 101, and his mausoleum complex was a maze of shimmering blue tiles topped by a turquoise dome.

Kerman, another ancient trading hub just down the road, is the provincial capital. Its mud-brick core boasts the country’s longest bazaar, stretching for more than a kilometer beneath an endless series of shady domes that echo to the tapping of coppersmiths.

This is Iran’s second largest province, famed for its pistachios and spices. “Taking cumin to Kerman” is an Iranian way of describing a pointless course of action, akin to the British idiom concerning coals and Newcastle. I stocked upon pistachios for the drive across the Sirch Mountains.

Bewildered by the range on offer, I chose the recommended akbari nuts, long and extra tasty, so my guide assured me, and not because they coincidentally bore his family name.

Mohammad Reza Akbari drove a car assembled in Tehran, a hybrid model called “Horse”, made of Peugeot and Chinese parts, with an engine possibly from Italy, so he thought. It laboured up The highway that wound its way through scenery put together in prehistoric times: spectacular displays of gigantic rock strata that had been folded, crumpled and left to bake for eternity in the desert sun.

alleys were pockmarked with squat, biscuit-coloured dwellings, many dug into the hillsides to provide relief from the summer heat. In front of the houses were small groves of apricot  and apple trees, some struggling into bloom, tiny pink spots in the dun-coloured landscape.

Spring is one of the best times to visit the Lut. Granted, I didn’t experience the heat at its most ferocious, but it was oven-hot, even in late February. Summer is when the mercury peaks but this is also the time of the Wind of 120Days.

This north-easterly can blow for days on end, reaches hurricane force, and whips up great billowing clouds of hot sand and dust. Further east, this gritty gale strips trees of their leaves and causes structural damage to buildings due to sandblasting. The Wind of 120 Days is also responsible for the Lut’s dramatic terrain.

Millions of years of sand blasting have produced thousands of streamlined ridges known locally as kaluts, wind-carved grooves in the landscape on a huge scale. Some of these ridges are tens of meters high and several kilometers long. They occupy an area of nearly 8,000squarekilometres.

Mohammad Reza and I arrived in mid-afternoon, after our lunch with Amir. We left the car and marched into the hyper-arid sculpture park, set on climbing the highest ridge we could find. The sky was cerulean blue; the sunshine intense. There was not a breath of wind to leaven its fierce heat.

We trudged across the otherworldly topography, along wind-scoured mini ravines loaded with dunes, past gnarled rock fingers pointing towards the heavens.

A couple of hours into the kaluts we selected the highest ridge and began to clamber upwards. Exhausting cascades of sand thankfully made way for firmer surfaces, some like walking on crunchy breadcrumbs, others cemented hard and sound less with salt.

Approaching the top, I was sucking the warm air into my lungs. Mohammad Reza was there already, just smiling at the vista. I felt my jaws lowly drop, as if by some means it had become unusually heavy. This was followed by a sharp and in voluntary intake of breath. Spread out in front of where I stood, a good 60 meters above the landscape, was an unobstructed, 360-degree, cliff-edge panorama of the kaluts.

As the sun slowly descended, the colours that had shifted from sandy yellows through a spectrum of terracotta now approached rose-pink. Nearing the car once more, I encountered the first buzzing fly, but it was listless and didn’t stay long to spoil the show.

Yazd, a ‘very fine and noble’ settlement, according to Marco Polo, is a city like no other. It was also an appropriate place in which to round off my desert trip after a day’s driving from the kaluts.

Yazd’s historic adobe centre is one of the oldest towns on Earth, with a skyline dominated by wind-catchers, traditional vented tower structures designed to channel winds from the rooftops down inside buildings to cool the rooms below. Like Bam, Mahan, Kerman, and even Amir’s kitchen garden, Yazd has thrived in the arid desert thanks to an ingenious ancient Persian technology.

Panoramic view of badgirs and mosques of Yazd, Iran
Panoramic view of badgirs and mosques of Yazd, Iran

All are nourished by underground canals, or qanats, a secret irrigation system that has been flowing since the earliest of times. Many Iranian qanats have been channelling water from aquifers for 5,000 years. One in Bam may be 8,000 years old. Yazd has probably the largest network of qanats anywhere in Iran, and includes the longest of them all, the Zarch qanat, more than 80 km in length.

Its long history as a desert trading centre has left Yazd with an assortment of elderly merchants’ buildings, some of which now serve as hotels. I stayed in one, reached via a warren of narrow, covered walkways that scurry through the bazaar, dipping left into a still narrower alley just after a carpet shop.

The passageways must have been imbued with some sort of magical properties because they had transported me back in time. I emerged into a courtyard fit for a sultan, a Persian dreamland with a trickling fountain and white lilies sprouting from improbable flower beds.

A group of young women were enjoying a hubble-bubble pipe on one of the many carpet-covered day beds, a couple were eating dinner on another. There were ornately carved window-frames and lavish balconies lit by oil lamps.

I felt like Alice after following the white rabbit down the hole, only I’d emerged into the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. South-east Iran had been full of the unexpected, from the five types of pistachio to boiled beetroot served with scrambled eggs at breakfast, to the un-mistakable scent of saffron that wafted from one of my bath towels.

Yardangs Dasht-e Lut
Yardangs Dasht-e Lut

Tucking into a dinner of juicy Yazdi meat balls in the hotel’s fairytale courtyard, Mohammad Reza hit me with one last revelation. We were reminiscing about the Lut, and he mentioned its sand dunes. “The biggest in the world,” he said in passing. “Beyond the kaluts they are 500 metres high.”

My brow furrowed. A number of places lay claim to the world’s highest dunes, including Namibia and the Badain Jaran Desert in China. I had climbed one in the Badain Jaran and it was well over 400metres, but I’d never heard of such whoppers in Iran. It struck me that, to western minds, this corner of Asia remains almost as mysterious as it was during Marco Polo’s time.

It gave me a very good reason to plan another visit someday. Nick Middleton is a fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford, and specialises in desertification. His books include ‘Going to Extremes’ (2001) and most recently ‘An Atlas of Countries that Don’t Exist’ (2015)