By Gulnaz Khan
Iran is home to one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, where turquoise-domed mosques, glittering palaces, and the tombs of long gone poets reveal the mysteries and intrigues of the ancients. Yet beneath the footprints of man lies an even lesser known, wilder Iran, brimming with remarkable geologic formations, ancient forests, and overgrown monuments that nature has reclaimed as its own.
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Nestled in the Iranian territory between East and West Azerbaijan, Lake Urmia was once the largest saltwater lake in the Middle East. Over the past 45 years the lake has shrunk at an alarming speed due to decreased rainfall, agriculture, and irresponsible environmental practices—it now holds less than 10 percent of its original volume, an issue that has prompted thousands of Iranian protestors to take to the streets in recent years. What remains of Urmia’s salt-caked shores continues to increase in salinity as more water evaporates, promoting a breeding ground for a specific type of algae that periodically turns the emerald lake bright red.
Bordering Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea, an endless tableau of rolling green hills announces Turkmen Sahra, a region of Golestan Province inhabited by seminomadic Iranian Turkmen. Notable landmarks are the Khalid Nabi cemetery, known for hundreds of mysterious genitalia-shaped tombstones, and Gonbad-e Qābus, an 11th-century Ziyriad tower and UNESCO World Heritage site. The structure is considered a testament of cross-cultural exchange, and “an outstanding example of early Islamic innovative structural design based on geometric formulae” that became a prototype for tomb towers across Iran, Anatolia, and Central Asia.
Off the southern coast of Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, Bandari villages, monumental forts, and ancient shrines dot the rocky coastline of Qeshm, whispering of a long, storied past. The significance of the island—the largest in the Persian Gulf—dates back to the pre-Islamic era, when it was a strategic trade and navigation center, and consequently a frequent target for invaders. Today the islanders are primarily fisherman, salt miners, and date and melon farmers. The biodiverse isle is also home to salt caves, mangroves, coral reefs, turtle hatching sites, and the Hara forests—features that earned its place as Iran’s first UNESCO Geopark
Shiraz will forever be the birth and resting place of Iran’s most beloved poet, Hafez, but just an hour west, the 197-foot (60-meter) Margoon Waterfall surges through the northwest Fars province. True to its name—which translates to “snake like” in Persian—water streams down its slopes in a serpentine fashion. The region is also home to several plant communities and wildlife, including eagles, bears, hyenas, and boars. Scientists have warned that unregulated tourism has led to the erosion of these ecosystems, and called for increased protections