From its beginnings in about 600 BC, the Persian Empire rapidly ascended to become one of the most powerful and advanced empires to ever rule. In addition to its military might, the Persian Empire fostered literature, culture and science.
One of the topics which Persian scholars devoted much time to was astronomy, the study of our skies and the stars, planets and other objects within them. By 200 AD, the Persians were importing and translating countless astronomical texts from Greek and Sanskrit to add to their body of research.
It was no surprise, then, that some of the world’s greatest historical astronomers hailed from modern-day Iran. Two of the most famous were Al-Biruni and Omar Khayyam, who both lived in the 11th Century.
Al-Biruni was considered one of history’s most brilliant minds, contributing hugely to the fields of science, poetry, philosophy and mathematics. He spoke at least 7 languages and is considered “the father of geodesy”, or the study of the earth’s fundamental properties.
Omar Khayyam is still revered around the world, most famously for his poetic work The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which remains one of the most acclaimed poetical works in history. However, fewer know that Omar Khayyam was also an incredibly accomplished astronomer, who contributed hugely to the early research that forms the basis for much of what we know today.
Astronomy in modern-day Iran developed so rapidly that one of the world’s first and best astronomy observatories was built under the watchful eye of Nasir Al-Din Al-Tusi, another of history’s great astronomers, in 1259. Much of the research from the Maragha Observatory contributed to the ‘astronomical revolution’ in the 16th Century.
Today, visitors to Iran can follow in the footsteps of these great minds and do their own stargazing. Even if you do not make any ground-breaking discoveries, viewing the blanket of stars in the night sky is an amazing travel experience, as I learnt on my own stargazing tour.
Starting from the bustling town of Shiraz, the first place we got a glimpse of Iran’s dazzling skies was at the Aboreyhan Observatory, which is part of the Shiraz University. Here, you can stand where many up and coming new astronomers do, looking up at the vast night sky in search of answers.
As stargazing is a night-time only activity, there is also the opportunity to spend more time in beautiful Shiraz during the day. This historical city is packed full of attractions, from historic monuments to bustling bazaars.
From Shiraz, we travel north towards Isfahan, ancient Persia’s capital. In the 12th Century, Isfahan was larger than the London and the observatory was under the watchful eye of Omar Khayyam. Today, it remains a culturally important place, with a number of attractions such as the UNESCO world heritage site Persepolis.
Within Isfahan lies the Adib Astronomy Teaching Centre, where visitors can learn about the study of astronomy and what to look out for in the night sky. This is the perfect introduction before heading to Matin Abad, which lies about 2 hours away from Isfahan.
Situated within an expansive desert, Matin Abad has little to no light pollution which makes it the perfect place for stargazing. As the light dims as dusk, before disappearing altogether, visitors are treated as the night sky reveals itself – slowly at first, until the entire horizon is covered in shining stars and visitors are offered a look at the Milky Way itself.
While Matin Abad is a stargazer’s paradise, it is also a fun destination in the daytime. Not content just to offer astronomy, there is also a great array of activities provided here, such as camel riding and 4×4 tours.
After enjoying the spectacular night skies and other activities, we continue north some 3.5 hours until we reach the modern capital of Tehran. Within Tehran, visitors can gain an insight into life in modern day Iran. Here, there is a seemingly endless array of bazaars, restaurants, cafes and museums. Visitors can also enjoy the friendly hospitality that is so common in Iran.
From Tehran, the last great spot for stargazing is perhaps the jewel in Iran’s astronomical crown. About four hours away from Tehran lies the Alamut Castle, which has stood since 602 AD. Hundreds of years ago, the Castle was home to one of the most impressive collections of literary works anywhere in Persia. Many of these books were about astronomy, and between this and the expansive night skies, it became a hub for astronomical research.
Today, the library is long gone but the partially ruined castle remains open for visitors to see. However, it is the stunning night skies – unchanged, of course – which attract eager tourists. There is arguably no better place on earth to gaze up into the skies, noticing constellations and on the look-out for shooting stars or other natural phenomena.
While the atmosphere of Alamut Castle cannot be entirely replicated, those who enjoy night photography can do their best to capture a moment forever.
All in all, to join the many thousands of astronomers who have gazed up at Iran’s night skies is to truly enjoy and appreciate both modern day and historical Iran.