Zanjan, the capital of Zanjan Province, is famous for manufacturing penknives. Hidden in tiny alleys behind its modern facade, Zanjan retains some attractive mosques, a fantastic bazaar, a plethora of knife-grinders and some delightful teahouse restaurants. The city is a logical base for visiting the impressive Soltaniyeh mausoleum and a good staging point to reach Takht-e Soleiman via the scenic Dandy road.
Hamdollah Mostowfi, the Iranian traveler and historian, in his book claims that Zanjan was built by Ardashir I, the first king of the Sassanid Empire and named as "Shahin". One important moment in the history of the city was in 1851 when the city became a center for the Babi uprisings, along with Neyriz and a fortress known as Shaykh Tabarsi. The forces of the central government captured the Babi fort in Zanjan after a long siege on the orders of Grand Vizier (Prime Minister of Iran) Amir Kabir and killed or expelled the Bab's followers. The resulting massacre was part of the relatively successful campaign to crush the nascent Bahai religion. Bahaism had only broken away from Islam three years before, but was spreading much too rapidly for Tehran's liking. According to Bosworth, who quotes Hamdollah Mostfowsi, the inhabitants during the Ilkhanid era spoke "pure Pahlawi", a Median or northern form of Persian
Zanjan is known for its beautiful handcrafts such as knives, traditional sandals, called charoogh, and malileh, a handcraft made with silver wires. Zanjani artists make many things like various decorative dishes and their special covers as well as silver jewelry. In ancient times, Zanjan was known for its stainless and sharp knives. But this tradition is gradually becoming extinct by introduction of Chinese-made knives into the market which are far cheaper, more abundant and of course less artistic. Many villagers today are traditional carpet weavers, perhaps Zanjan's most popular handcraft.
Built in 1926 but looking considerably older, the unique, unmarked Rakhatshor-Khaneh (Rakhatshorkhaneh Alley; 8am-5.30pm Tue-Sun) is a dome-and-column subterranean hall whose waterchannels were originally constructed as a public laundry-place. It's dotted with wax washerwomen to remind you how life was before Electrolux and Zanussi. There is also a calm garden courtyard.
The long, narrow, mostly brick-vaulted bazaar is inspiring and surrounding alleys hide half-a-dozen historic mosques. Entered between copper shops off Enqelab St at the bazaar's ungentrified eastern end is the delightfully decrepit yet still-active Dokhtar Caravanserai. Grandly tiled, the dome and minarets of the Rasul-Ullah (Sai-ini) Mosque peep above central Enqelab Sq. Madraseh cells line the inner courtyard of the sizable 1826 Masjed-e Jameh (Jameh Mosque), accessed through a spired portal on Imam St. Seyid Ibrahim (Imamzadeh) Mosque is similarly extensive. The dinky Khanum (Women's) Mosque has a commonly photographed pair of squat pepper-pot minarets but its 1940s architecture is of little artistic merit. The 1851 Bahai massacres were perpetrated in lanes behind where you now see philosopher Soravardi's bust (Saadi St) on a library wall. Pol-e-Sardar, an attractive Safavid bridge to the southwest of the town centre, is visible west of the Bijar road.
Getting There & Away
Buses to Esfahan, Rasht and Tehran use the big but eerily empty terminal, five minutes' walk south of Shilat Sq. Savaris and some buses for Tehran, Qazvin and Tabriz pick up at the Behesti (Khayyam)/Ferdosi St junction. If arriving on a Tehran-Tabriz bus that's bypassing Zanjan on the motorway, get off at the junction marked 'Bijar' (an easy, obvious 2km walk from central Zanjan) NOT at the 'Zanjan' exit, which is around 10km out to the east.
Savaris and occasional minibuses to Soltaniyeh leave from Honarestan Sq. The train station is beyond a Dali-esque gateway of winged wheels. Tickets are hard to find for the sleepers to Tabriz (7.5 hours) via Maraqeh (5 hours).
Useful shuttle-taxis run from Enqelab Sq to Honarestan Sq passing near the terminal. Others go from Sabz Sq to Esteqlal Sq.