“Land of the Ayatollahs”
Iran? Did I hear you correctly? Are you mad? These are just a few of the comments I received when I announced where my next holiday destination would be. In fact Iran is not quite as crazy a destination as it might appear. Having said that, had I gone there six or so weeks later I would have been caught up in the massive protests that followed the declaration of the presidential election results. In general the public perception of the country in no way matches what I actually encountered on the ground. Iran is a magical country on many different levels, Islamic architecture, beautiful scenery, great food, Exotic bazaars (souq) and without doubt the friendliest people I have ever encountered on my travels. Obtaining a visa is unquestionably a pretty frustrating business; it appears from the outside that the authorities make it as difficult as possible to obtain one. It is likely that this situation is a tit-for-tat reprisal against Britain’s visa attitude towards Iranians. This adventure would once again take me along the ancient Great Silk Road and follow in the footsteps of three of the world’s most formidable conquerors, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Alexander the Great.
A Brief History
Iran’s earliest documented settlements date back to the 3rd millennium BC. By around the 12th century BC Indo-European Aryan tribes migrated down into Iran from the north. These tribes were Persians and Medes. The Medes were to become a formidable fighting force, and in 612 BC they captured the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and consigned this once mighty empire to the pages of the history books. Around about the same time the Persians established a unified state in the south of the country: this was eventually to become the First Persian Empire. Under subsequent rulers such as Cyrus the Great, Cambyses, Darius the Great, and Xerxes, these Persian rulers established the greatest empire the world had known: the world’s first global empire. At its zenith it encompassed Egypt and Libya in North Africa, through the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, and as far west into Europe as the Danube. To the east the Persian influence extended as far as India. Paved roads extended to the extremities of the empire, as well as the introduction of the worlds very first postal service. The defeat of the Persian army at Salamis in Greece in the year 480 BC sounded the beginning of the end of this first glorious Persian Empire. The final nail in this empires coffin was the arrival of Alexander the Great in the year 330 BC, where upon in the ultimate act of power he raised the Persian capital of Persepolis - once the seat of the known world’s mightiest power – to the ground.
The second Persian Empire had its fledgling beginnings in around 224 AD, challenging the then mighty Roman Empire. It was in this period that the most notable of Persian victories was achieved in defeating the Roman armies, and taking the Roman Emperor, Valerian, prisoner. Over the next few hundred years various local dynasties were to rule over the country until the Arabs swept across Persia in the year 633. Down the years numerous dynasties assumed power: none of them long lasting, until in the early 13th century amid bloody carnage, devastation and mass destruction, the Mongol hoards swept across the land and Genghis Khan entered the pages of Persian history. It was during this period that the Mongols obliterated much of the indigenous Persian history. Towards the end of the 14th century it was Tamerlane who was the next in line to conquer the region. Tamerlane ruled over an expansive Central Asian empire, and upon his death in 1405 the empire rapidly fragmented. There then followed a period of internal squabbling for power which initiated the country’s inevitable decline.
The early 16th century ushered in the beginning of the Third Persian Empire which reached its apogee under Shah Abbas 1 – Abbas the Great – who ruled from 1587 to 1629. This period saw an unrivalled flowering of Persian art and architecture. Upon the death of Abbas, the inevitable power struggles ensued, once again initiating a long period of decline. Down the years numerous rulers and dynasties came and went, culminating in 1943 in the installation under British influence of Mohammad Reza, who was ultimately to be the final Shah of Persia. In 1971 the Shah held an elaborate and costly celebratory tribute for the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. The reaction to this extravagant celebration was to set in motion events that would ultimately culminate in 1979 in the so called Islamic Revolution. On 16th January 1979, amid chaos and turmoil Shah Mohammad Reza fled the country, and a 77 year old cleric named Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini filled the power vacuum and initiated the world first Islamic Republic and the only Shiite Muslim state. This seismic event was viewed with deep suspicion and foreboding by the west, an attitude that still prevails today. A pariah state, one of the Axis of Evil states, call it what you will, Iran appears deliberately provocative. Images of government organised mass rallies, flag burning crowds, chador-clad women, men beating their chests chanting ‘down with America’ and ‘death to Israel’, not to mention President Ahmadinejad’s frequent pronouncements on nuclear power, Holocaust denial, and the wiping off from the map of the State of Israel. Having said this, these xenophobic viewpoints are pretty much out of step with the average Iranian on the street, but it is these viewpoints that fuel the media frenzy that is presented to the rest of the world. But, as the old adage goes, if it is in the newspapers or on the television, it must be true. The effects of international sanctions on Iran are such, that in this oil rich country where petrol is subsidised by the government, the Iranian population is subject to petrol rationing: ration cards are issued, and long queues form at the petrol stations. A litre of petrol costs 7p, less than a litre of water which costs 20p. Diesel costs ... wait for it ... $1 for 55 litres!
It’s a normal April day in London, it’s raining for a change, and it’s a six-hour flight to Tehran on board an Iran Air jumbo jet. I have never seen so many nationals on an aircraft. There were just a handful of foreigners who were almost exclusively my tour group. We arrive at our hotel at five o’clock in the morning, and after catching three hour sleep it’s straight into the city tour of Tehran. The first stop on our tour is the National Museum, it is a repository of mainly pre-Islamic artefacts: the undoubted highlights of which are the finds excavated from Persepolis. The next stop was the Golestan Palace complex. Set amidst gardens and decorative water pools, this group of palaces are decorated in a cross between Islamic and European styles. In the main the rooms are decorated with mirror mosaics including the hanging muqarnas. The style is reminiscent of the grand palaces in Russia. Next on the list was the must visit Carpet Museum: Persia being irrefutably world famous for its history in this industry. No doubt at some point on this trip we will be treated to a formidable sales pitch from a carpet salesman.
The next morning we leave the congested, traffic strewn and heavily polluted Tehran and head to the north of the country. Our destination is the small town of Soltaniyeh, famous for a most spectacular building: the Oljeitu Mausoleum. This World Heritage site is the world’s tallest brick dome at almost 25 metres in diameter and 45 metres high. The building has been enveloped in scaffolding almost in perpetuity: such is the enormity of the task of renovation. The interior of the mausoleum is immense. The view from the top is just spectacular. Whilst most of the group were having lunch I strolled off and was privileged to experience the wonderful hospitality of the Iranian people. Whilst walking past some locals who were having lunch by the side of the road I was invited to sit down and join in their repast: via some broken English and some sign language it was a fantastic exchange. A little later whilst standing outside a building I was invited inside by the caretaker who proudly showed me around his brand new school. Everything inside was still covered in plastic wrapping as the school term had not yet started. He proudly showed me the new television and the new DVD player. Before I was allowed to leave I was served tea and biscuits. These two encounters were the first of many such paradigms that were typical of the hospitality and friendliness shown everywhere I went. A short drive brought us to our next stop of Zanjan, a walk through the narrow vaulted bazaar and a stop in a local teahouse made a welcome break. In this country of the hijab, the chador, and where the morality police still arrest women for improper dress, the teahouses are the clandestine places where young couples come to court and flirt.
Next morning I woke up and looked out the window. Surprise ... it was snowing! We drove up into the mountains, just the most fantastic scenery, snow on the mountains, everything just so picturesque. By mid morning the sun was out and the weather once again very warm. The mountain road from Zanjan to Takab is just the most spectacular drive with snow-covered mountains and fabulous scenery all the way. We broke the journey at a small village called Gharawol Khaneh, the people here are ethnically Turkish. The village is made up of adobe brick houses and we were fortunate enough to be invited into a house for tea. The owners of the house consisted of parents, six daughters and one son, and like most people here they all weave carpets on their home loom.
Our next stop was the World Heritage site of Takht-e-Soleiman. Sitting in a location high up in the snow covered mountains, this Zoroastrian fire temple is one of the must see sites of Iran. In the 3rd century AD Zoroastrianism was the country’s state religion and Takht-e-Soleiman was its spiritual centre. Zoroastrianism is still practised today in modern Iran, and can trace its roots back prior to the introduction of Islam. The centre of the site is a beautiful crater lake surrounded by 1500 year old fortress walls and fragmentary ruins scattered around add to the impressive atmosphere of this site. A short distance away is Zendan-e-Soleiman, once a religious site enclosed by fortified walls, but today there are just the remains of an extinct volcano. A short fifteen minute walk up the rim of the crater, then wow ... what a view over the edge and a massive drop into oblivion. A walk around the crater edge is a real adrenaline rush with sheer drops on either side.
The following day we got an early start for the long drive back to Tehran, we re-traced our journey back through the awesome mountains of northern Iran. After an eight hour drive we arrive at Tehran airport to catch an internal flight to Shiraz in the south of the country. Our first stop in Shiraz was just a short distance from the hotel: this was the Immamzadeh-Ye-Ali Ebn-E-Hamze shrine. Built in the 19th century this building displays a striking blue bulbous dome with dazzling mirror tile work and mirrored hanging muqarnas. Next up was the Nasir-Ol-Molk mosque. Built in the 19th century the real highlights of this mosque are the stained glass windows that cast magical colours across the pillars of the winter prayer hall. Next on the agenda was the tomb of the poet Sa’di who lived from around 1207 to 1291. Poetry has always played a seminal role in the cultural makeup of Iran and most houses will contain the books of these poets. Sa’di’s tomb is set amidst gardens, awash with the fragrant smell of flowers, the sound of birdsong, which all make for the most restful and atmospheric of settings. Families will visit for the day. Many people will be reading the poet’s works and drawing inspiration, hope, or even seeking solutions to their everyday problems in the poet’s words. Sa’di’s tomb along with that of other poets have become popular pilgrimage sites. The Arg-E-Karim Khan is a big citadel cum castle that dominates the city skyline. The most interesting facet of this building is the exhibition of old photographs of Shiraz dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The final visit of the day was to the bazaar for some retail therapy , superb textiles, the heady smell of exotic spices wafting through the air, the many offers to taste the foodstuffs prior to buying, and a heavenly atmosphere. The day concluded with an evening meal near the town centre: a three course meal including fillet mignon and musical entertainment, all for the grand sum of £5.
The next day we drove about an hour outside Shiraz to Persepolis, the grandiose extravagant showpiece capital of the mighty ancient Persian Empire. Building of the city began around 500 BC and continued to be added to over the next one hundred and fifty years. Its final demise came in the year 330 BC at the hands of Alexander the Great. This empire was the first world superpower. Today the sizeable and impressive ruins require an imaginative mind in order to picture what once stood here when Persia was at the zenith of its powers. The monumental staircases, the gateways, and the exquisitely carved reliefs leave you in no doubt that this once would have been a truly magnificent city. The undoubted highlights of the site are the Grand Stairway and Xerxes’ Gateway: these monuments were designed to overawe visitors with their sheer scale and beauty. It was to this ceremonial city that dignitaries from all across the vast Persian Empire would travel in order to pay their tributes and taxes. This was the first and really only site on the whole trip where we encountered the tourist hoards: it was very efficiently set up to deal with the obviously large number of visitors attending. Our next stop was to see the rock cut tombs at Raqsh-E-Rostam. This site was reminiscent of the tombs at Petra in Jordan. There are four tombs cut high up into the cliffs. They are believed to be the final resting places of Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I and Xerxes I. We then drove back to Shiraz. With the rest of the day free I headed off into the city to explore many of the sights on offer. The Masjed-E-Vakil is a beautiful mosque with an enormous vaulted prayer hall and two massive iwans on the north and south sides. My next stop was the utterly incredible Aramgah-E-Shah-E-Cheragh. This was without doubt the most sublime mosque I have ever seen: a resplendently patterned onion dome flanked by two dazzling gold topped minarets. The entire interior of the building is covered in countless mosaic mirror tiles, with golden mirror tiled stalactites. Around an expansive internal courtyard there are buildings containing tombs of revered Imams as well as a small museum. This example of Islamic architecture is one of the holiest Shiite sights in Iran. After visiting another couple of mosques the heavens opened - I splashed my way back to the hotel via the bazaar and a scrumptious cake shop.
The next morning started with a visit to Aramgah-E Hafez, the tomb of Hafez, probably the most renowned and revered of the Iranian poets. It is said that every home will have firstly a Quran then the works of Hafez. Almost every Iranian will be able to quote from his works. Similar to the tomb of Sa’di, there are restful gardens and tranquil pools around which the locals sit and contemplate. Families come with their children and the faithful seek solace in Hafez’s words, and an insight into their future. We drove out of Shiraz to Pasargadae which is the ancient capital of Cyrus the Great. Begun around 546 BC, it preceded Darius’ city of Persepolis. Grand palaces, pavilions and fantastic gardens once stood here, but today Pasargadae is rather passé: a bit of a sorry collection of jumbled stones and the odd standing column. The site is yet to be properly excavated. Much building material has been plundered from the site down the years to build local houses and even a mosque: worth a visit merely as a footnote in history. A brief stop at Abarqu, an historic town on the road between Shiraz and Yadz revealed some real gems. A most unusual 19th century conical brick built ice house, supposedly the worlds’ oldest tree a four thousand year old cypress, and an exquisitely ornate mosque. The rest of the day was spent travelling to the city of Yadz, this journey was along a road of unspeakable beauty. Sensational scenery of the mountains and the desert illuminated by the amazing quality of the light as the mid to late afternoon sun bathed the landscape and softened the mountain hues. As we drove along this road the sunlight got softer, the mountains changed colour, dark clouds subsumed the sky turning the whole landscape into a dark and atmospherically moody setting: a truly mesmerising journey.
Our morning in Yadz started with a visit to two Zoroastrian sites, the first of which was the Towers of Silence. Built atop two adjacent rocky outcrops, the buildings here were used for Zoroastrian burial ceremonies. In accordance with their religious beliefs dead bodies were not buried as this would not keep the earth pure, instead they were left out in the open in these roofless stone towers in order that the vultures could eat the flesh leaving just the clean bones. The second site was the Zoroastrian Fire Temple, which contained the sacred eternal flame, believed to have been continuously burning since the year 470 AD. The afternoon was free to walk around the city. Yadz is a wonderful place to explore. It is a specious maze of adobe brick buildings, all sorts of hidden gems lurk around every corner, very reminiscent of Ghadames in Libya. A walk through the bazaar is always a wonderful assault on the senses, especially the aromas that hover in the spice bazaar. My obvious goal was the most famous sight in Yadz which stands proudly in the main square: the Amir Chakhmaq Complex. The three storey facade of this building is one of the iconic images of Iran. The building is a funeral monument and gathering place. It is here that the faithful celebrate the anniversary of the death of Imam Hossein - the 3rd Imam. On that special day the main square in front of the Amir Chakhmaq is overflowing with people beating their chests and whipping themselves with chains in supplication. This cathartic scene of lacerated and bloodied bodies amid extreme fanatical devotion is the a-typical one that colours the image through which the outside world views Iran.
The next morning we departed Yadz and headed for the town of Maybod. As a stopover point on the road this place has quite a lot to offer the visitor: an enormous mud brick citadel; a quirky postal museum; and a massive taguine shaped ice storage house. Our lunch stop was in the small town of Na’in: an atmospheric locale. The old town is a maze of tumbled down adobe houses and particularly picturesque. Walking down the deserted alleyways with the wind whistling and the dust blowing around it was like a scene from a spaghetti western and you could just imagine Clint Eastwood riding down the street. In the late afternoon we arrived at our destination for the next few days - Esfahan. On first impressions the atmosphere here in Esfahan is different from most of the other places we have so far visited. It consists of a vast array of modern western style shops and a far younger and far trendier populace. In terms of its architecture, Esfahan is one of the finest examples in the Islamic world, the pinnacle of Persian culture, and it is truly the jewel in the crown of modern Iran. The Zayandeh River flows through the middle of the city. The bridges that cross it are social gathering places as well as architectural gems in their own right. Our day started at the Khaju Bridge, built in 1650: a beautiful double story structure that gracefully straddles the river. Here the locals stroll, meet friends and family, eat their breakfasts, and generally absorb the atmosphere.
Next up was the Armenian Vank Church, built in the early 17th century. This church is an Islamic style structure decorated inside with beautiful Christian iconic paintings. There was also an evocative memorial to the 1915 Turkish genocide of the Armenian population. Our next location was probably the most unusual and certainly the most fascinating event of the entire trip. The Zurkhaneh is a unique and yet typically pithy Iranian institution and very much a major part of Iranian culture: a synthesis of sport and religion. In essence it is a gymnasium with a sunken circular pit where men work out to the beat of a drum and recite prayers. This all makes for a mesmerising and intoxicating atmosphere. Dating back thousands of years it draws influences from Sufism, Mithraism and Iranian nationalism. The afternoon was spent visiting the Imam Square, which contains probably the most fabulous collection of buildings anywhere in the Islamic world. Created in 1602, the square was the vision of Shah Abbas the Great. Its immense size of 512 metres long by 163 metres wide, make it the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The visual beauty of the buildings defies description. No matter how much time you spend here it is probably never long enough. The highlight, amongst many, is probably the elegant Sheikh Loftollah Mosque which was built between 1602 and 1619. The exterior is covered in beautiful arabesques and exquisite floral patterns. The mosque is unusual in that it has no courtyard and no minaret - the mosaics are a feast for the eyes. Imam Square also boasts the sumptuous blue tile domed Imam or ‘Friday Mosque”: the lavish Ali Qapu Palace built at the end of the 16th century as a residence for Shah Abbas the Great; as well as numerous shops and a covered bazaar.
The majestic Jameh Mosque was our first stop today. This was the old Friday Mosque prior to the construction of the current one in Imam Square. Originally built in the 11th century, the mosque was partially destroyed by fire at the beginning of the 12th. It was then rebuilt in 1121 with subsequent additions down the years. This piecemeal work has resulted in a wonderful variation of architectural styles on a large scale, making it the largest mosque in Iran. Mid morning on the hour it was time to view the surreal spectacle of the Shaking Minarets. This 14th century tomb of Abu Abdullah has become a bizarre attraction: the custodians of the tomb climb up one of the minarets, pushing hard against it. The minaret will start it swaying back and forth, and in sympathy the other minaret will do likewise. How the minarets have not collapsed is a matter of fierce debate. The nearby Hasht Behesht Palace is a wonderful old building. It is un-restored and set in the middle of a quiet and peaceful park: a welcome antithesis from the crowds and the traffic. Once one of the most beautiful buildings in Esfahan: it now grows old gracefully. The afternoon was free so I returned to Imam Square to further indulge in the mosque-scape and appreciate the realms of its aesthetic magnificence.
The following day we left Esfahan on the last leg of this glorious adventure. Apparent everywhere we travelled, Iran appears to have no traffic rules at all, or if there are any, no one is obeying them. Red lights and zebra crossings are ignored and drivers park or stop anywhere that takes their fancy. Crossing the road is a life threatening experience as cars and bikes just weave around you – you learn pretty early on to just follow the locals and make sure you have some bodies between you and the oncoming traffic. The journey today was along the most scenic of roads flanked by 4000 metre snow covered peaks. To break the journey we made a stop in Abyaneh: a picturesque little town nestling in the shadow of the mountains. The narrow alleyways wind around red mud-brick houses with delicate lattice work windows and wooden balconies. The surrounding area is a highly sensitive security zone situated in the middle of the desert encircled by barren mountains. This is the highly controversial and esoteric Iranian nuclear facility. Our overnight stop was in Kashan, quite a sizeable conurbation, with a large bazaar and some beautifully restored merchant’s mansion houses. Oral tradition has it that the Three Wise Men started their journey to the Holy Land from Kashan.
Sadly, we head back towards Tehran on the final leg of this adventure. On the outskirts of Tehran we stop at the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini: a vast complex that resembles an aircraft hangar. Situated within this rather austere building is a large steel cage containing the Ayatollah’s tomb. The inside of the cage is littered with money donated by the faithful. Adjacent to this complex is a cemetery dedicated to the victims of the Iran-Iraq war and like all such places it is extremely moving and sombre. During the war that lasted from 1980 to 1988 up to one million people died. Soldiers engaged in trench warfare and were subject to poison gas attacks, the like of which had not been seen since the First World War. Photographs of the dead stare out from the glass boxes that are attached to the almost never ending field of gravestones. We arrived in Tehran mid afternoon so time for a final bit of exploration. Just a fifteen minute walk down from the hotel is the former American Embassy - scene of the infamous 1979 hostage crisis. Today the building is inhabited by government officials and has been renamed the ‘US Den of Espionage’. The main reason to visit today is to see the photogenic murals along the main wall. The murals proclaim the evil of the Great Satan (the USA). They denounce the Zionist claim to world domination, and declare death to the State of Israel. There remains just a little time for some last minute retail therapy before heading off to the airport.
So what was Iran really like then? Well, if you are prepared to look beyond the scaremongering and the propaganda and find the adventurous spirit within yourself, you will experience the real nuances that are Iran. Through its friendly people, the beautiful architecture, the scenery, and cultural heritage, you will be rewarded with an adventure that will shatter your preconceptions: that all Iranians are fundamentalist haters of the west, and all Iranian women are covered head to toe in the black chador. You will also elevate Iran right up near the top of your best ever holiday list.