Exploring Persia & Iran

May 15, 2018

Persepolis, relief sculpture of Achaemenid era warriors

‘In the first place, they (the Persians) are not satisfied with not only having their couches upholstered with down, but they actually set the posts of their beds upon carpets, so that the floor may offer no resistance but that the carpets may yield.’

Thus the Greek writer Xenophon (431 – c.350 BC), commenting on what he and his contemporaries viewed as the ‘decadence’ of the Achaemenid Persians.

A year and more’s planning came to fruition three weeks ago when I escorted our first group tour to Iran, which was an experience full of hospitality, stimulation and not a little humour along the way. Like many of those who formed our group, I had been asked by friends many times ‘is Iran safe?’ Given the political situation in recent years, this is an understandable question. Hand on heart, I can truthfully say that we were greeted with smiles and friendliness from all those we met along the way, with a great desire on the part of Iranians to talk about Iran, the UK and much else too.

For those of you who may be thinking of visiting Iran, either independently in the next year or so, or by joining our third group tour later this year in October, I thought I would devote my May e-newsletter to a brief account of our recent experiences.

As some of you will know, one’s first encounter with Iran will be the somewhat tedious business of applying for a Visa. UK, US and Canadian citizens are required to provide more background information than other citizens, unlike those from the EU, Australia etc. This new Visa process was introduced earlier this year as a response to much tighter restrictions imposed by the Trump administration and, as usual, copied by both the UK and Canada. So, it is not entirely the Iranians who are at fault.

However once our office is provided with your background information we apply for a Visa Authorisation Code on your behalf. Our clients' experience in obtaining the Visa from Iran's London consulate has been straightforward. In a very few cases, applications for a Visa Authorisation Code can be refused and there appears to be no consistency behind these decisions – it seems they randomly refuse a few out of every twenty to thirty applications and all UK based groups travelling to Iran this year have encountered similar problems.

Arrival at Tehran Airport is a doddle as given the flight arrives early in the morning, queues at passport control are short and you are through the process far faster than if entering, for example the UK, US or Russia on a visa. Tehran is a very big city indeed and the first thing which strikes one is the endless traffic during the working week. There is no such thing as lane discipline and much amusement can be had by watching the antics of the local drivers. Here is one observer’s dryly amusing description:

‘During the argument (two drivers have grazed each other’s cars at a junction), the traffic lights at the intersection had turned green several times, at which cars had surged forward from all directions. Lots of them wanted to turn this way or that, but the Buick and the Paykan were blocking their way. The cars were revving, edging forward, kissing bumpers. Someone would have to reverse. Iranian drivers don’t like reversing. It’s a form of defeat. I felt sorry for the policeman.’

Christopher de Bellaigue, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, a penetrating account of Iran during recent times.

We spent one full day in Tehran on arrival and another day before we left to fly back to the UK. In reality, there are very few really interesting buildings to see, apart from the gaudy splendours of the Golestan Palace, pictured above, best described as “Persian Bling”; the creation of the Qajar dynasty which ruled from 1779 to 1924. The reason for spending some time in the city is the range of fine museums, which are a ‘must see’ grouping. These include the small but wonderful Archaeology Museum, a ravishing Islamic Art Museum full of treasures and the Persian Carpet Museum, all of which stand out. If I might make one suggestion to any intending traveller, it would be to visit the Archaeology Museum before exploring further afield, as this will give you useful context for the ancient and more recent sites you will encounter. Then, if returning to Tehran at the end of your visit, go back to this museum as a second visit will be so much more rewarding – we certainly found this to be the case. 

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Most tours leave Tehran and head south towards the lovely city of Yazd. If you have time, you might like to stop off at Kashan for it is here you will encounter the extraordinary and ancient manner of keeping houses cool in the hot summers, via their famous ‘wind towers’, as seen above in this view of a large merchant house. This is also a centre of rose water production and has for many centuries been known for its fine carpets and textiles.

On the outskirts of Kashan there is the lovely Bagh-e Fin Garden, a typical example of Persia’s historic interest in gardens. We need to be reminded that these are not planned and planted in the English manner and are really an oasis of green (trees, shrubs, rough grass and a limited number of flowering plants) all laid out around series of water fountains, descending cascades broken by formal ponds. They were designed to be a welcome contrast to the semi arid landscapes in which they sit, enclosed by their surrounding walls.

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Yazd needs a few nights, as here you will find one of the gorgeous early mosques which are such a feature of any visit to Iran. The Masjed-e Jameh Mosque has the tallest minarets in the country, seen here on the horizon and the tiled decoration is superb. However, the city is today associated with Zoroastrianism, the monotheistic faith which Islam almost supplanted in the seventh century. It is one of the few places now left where one can get a sense of this mysterious religion’s beliefs and rituals. If pressed for time, this is the moment to move on to Shiraz, followed by Isfahan.

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If you do have time, which we did, it is certainly worth considering a visit to Kerman, which lies on one of the ancient silk routes to and from the Far East. Though a long journey from Yazd, this is one of the best places where the tribal nature of south and east Iran can be appreciated. Costumes, dialects, cuisine – all have a hint of mysterious lands further east. The bazaar, though small by the standards of larger cities, is wonderfully atmospheric, with an emphasis on selling local goods to the locals and it’s not full of tourist tat. It also has one of the most entertaining tea houses, pictured above, which we patronised, much appreciated by our and other groups.

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From Kerman a bus journey through lovely scenery took us down to a truly remarkable pair of sites: first was the adobe mud citadel at Rayen, one of only a handful left intact from ancient Persia, seen above. Second was perhaps the most beautiful ancient garden to survive, Gagh-e Shahzadeh just outside Mahan. It was a lovely sunny day and as you will see from the photograph below, a very jolly lunch was had by all our party.

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Iran has some amazing mountain scenery and on our journey from Kerman to Shiraz we passed through some of the most spectacular: towering, snow-capped peaks, fertile valleys with pomegranate orchards and almond groves, lakes recently filled by the melting snows and winter rains and mysterious ruins. Undoubtedly, spring and autumn are the two seasons that show the varied landscape at its best.

Shiraz, fabled in myth and history, does not disappoint. It truly has a cosmopolitan atmosphere about it and there is none of the ‘busy, busy, busy’ air of Tehran. We were able to let our hair down a bit and with three nights there we could explore at leisure, taking in the citadel, the mosques and shrines and some of the gardens, not to mention a series of tempting shopping opportunities, grasped by most.

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One lasting memory for our group was the late afternoon walk we took through one of the many splendid public gardens which are such a feature of Shiraz. It had rained early in the day and we had had a very jolly lunch after our busy morning. Stopping at the Bagh-e Eram Garden on our way back to our hotel, we were enchanted by the massed ranks of roses, all just out, BUT, the real surprise was to hear some glorious birdsong on the air, identified by two of our enthusiasts as nightingales singing their hearts out – the perfect end to a perfect day as we all thought of Keats.

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However, I suspect the real reason everyone comes to Shiraz is to visit the nearby ancient site of Persepolis? Spectacularly sited atop a rock hewn platform, seen above, with a low backdrop of dramatic hills, it fully lives up to expectations. Here is the showcase of Persia’s first great empire, built up by the mighty Achaemenid rulers over several hundred years. Long abandoned, the receptions halls, palaces and colonnades stand in mute tribute to this remarkable chapter in Persia’s history. Despite the depredations of times past, there is still a great deal to see not only here, but also at the nearby royal tombs at Naqsh-e Rustam.

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Fast forward in (historic) time and our next stop was fabled Isfahan, the jewel in the crown of the Safavid rulers, built up as his capital by the legendary Shah Abbas the Great (1587 – 1629), seen below on the right. With two full days in the city we were able to see all the really important sites, starting with the city’s justly famed Friday mosque, the Masjad-e Jameh. A complex entity continuously built up over many centuries, no-where else in Iran can one see in one place the innovations which transformed these prayer halls from utilitarian structures to ingeniously vaulted and domed spaces, an example of which is seen above – a remarkable achievement.

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‘The New Year (the ancient Zoroastrian New Year festival of No Ruz, celebrated on or about March 21st) is announced to the people by salvos of artillery and musket fire in the capital… In Isfahan, every day of the festival music is played before the King’s gate with dances, fireworks and shows, as at a fair, and everyone spends the eighth day in an indescribable state of joy…

Sir John Chardin’s description, based on many years spent in Persia in the 1660s and ‘70s.

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Shah Abbas’s set-piece parade-cum-polo ground, the Naqsh-e Jahan, is dominated by three buildings: a high, balconied viewing platform and two mosques, both of incomparable beauty. The larger of the two is the ‘Royal’ mosque, the Masjed-e Shah, its almost perfect proportions deliberately altered to reflect man’s humility in the presence of God’s all encompassing perfection. Smaller, and even more impressive, is the nearby Masjed-e Sheikh Loftollah, built in honour of the Shah’s father-in-law - we were all reduced to silence in this mosque with its haunting play of light and shade, the dome of which is seen above, quite unlike anything we saw elsewhere.

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We left Isfahan for Tehran and made two stops along the way. First was Natanz with its small, unusual and evocative mosque, seen above, in the grounds of which we took tea and bought saffron from a local source. Then on to the pretty, traditional, village of Abyaneh, where all the locals were in their colourful costumes as we visited on Friday, the day of prayer and rest. Our return stop in Tehran was, as mentioned above, filled with visits to the three most important museums, a fitting end to a remarkable journey.

With regard to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of visiting Iran, I should add that the previous draconian dress regulations imposed on all women have been significantly relaxed in recent years. Elsewhere, while the ubiquitous headscarf is still required, it is easily worn, loosely draped and in many restaurants it can be temporarily discarded.

The food was delicious and again, not as limited in choice as in recent times. There has been a marked increase in the variety available, particularly fish, and the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables was delicious. Of course, alcohol is still forbidden though the local non-alcoholic beer satisfied most. I stopped longing for a glass of wine after two days and one of the undoubted benefits for me was the loss of almost six pounds over two weeks. The hotels were all comfortable, well run with courteous staff and all had either decent or excellent Wi-Fi so none of us felt isolated from friends at home.

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Enough, I hear you mutter?! I hope you have found my rapid overview of our recent visit of help, enlivened by my own photographs? It is a magnificent country and worth investigating, full of warmth, both in temperature and in welcome. It is both simpler and more complex than our ‘megaphone’ politicians would have us believe. Do please think about joining us this October when we return to Iran - my friends above would love to say hello!

I leave you with one final quote from Sir Anthony Parsons, Britain’s last ambassador to Iran under Muhammad Reza Shah, which in its combination of intelligence and reticence holds the key to understanding Iran, past and present, a transforming experience which awaits the curious and patient traveler:

‘I called on the Shah to say goodbye on January 8th. I found him calm and detached, talking about events as though they no longer had relevance to him as a person. It was for me a profoundly personal experience… We turned to the past. Why, the Shah asked, had the people turned against him after all that he had done for them? I said that we had discussed this many times before. I thought that the basic reason was that he had tried to turn the people of Iran into something which they were not, and they had at last rebelled under the leadership of the traditional authorities, the religious classes… He saw me to the door with his usual courtesy and I wished him luck whatever happened. He smiled and said nothing. I never saw him again.’

From Anthony Parsons, The Pride and The Fall, Iran 1974-1979.

All best wishes,

Tom Duncan

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