Unveiling Iran

It had been 3 or 4 years that Alan had talked about traveling to Iran and his suggestions were always met by a non-negotiable flat refusal on my side – such was the negative image I had of this country from the way it was depicted in the media.

When we were working on our itinerary, Iran was clearly on the way and the enthusiasm of Yang, my dear and trusted colleague who had just returned from a trip there, had the better of my reserves and we decided to go.

The more we read about the country, the more the excitement built; the remaining apprehension about venturing into a country that I had always perceived as hostile subsided as the date drew closer.

This trip turned out to be a revelation. Iran is a beautiful country, people are the most hospitable we have ever met, the culture and the history are fascinating. It was also for me a rewarding learning experience as I reflected on my misperceptions about the country, the culture and the government.

In the end, we were disappointed to have planned only 2 weeks; we wish we could have stayed twice as long. By the second day of our tour, Alan and I were definite that we will absolutely come back soon.

Here is why I am glad that we went and, in my opinion, why you should go to Iran, and go now:

1- The famous Persian hospitality is not a myth.

Alan and I have travelled a fair amount and have met amazing individuals along the way, but in Iran, the warm welcome of the locals redefine hospitality. People (most of them at least) are happy to meet foreigners and are kind and helpful – with no ulterior motive than just be welcoming to strangers in their country. Countless times, people would smile to us and say “welcome to Iran” – from the airport immigration staff onwards. Many are keen to strike a conversation: on the perception of Iran from abroad, our impression of the visit, thoughts on religion, or views on wearing the female head-dress, the hejab. Generally we found people extremely polite, well informed and most spoke English well. For a people with thousands years of history and an incredibly rich and proud heritage, they are highly self-aware and we did not detect any arrogance or aloofness – just very open and honest people, time after time.EOS 100D_06497

On several occasions, ladies who could be my mother were outwardly warm, hugging and holding my hands with genuine affection. A kind, random woman we met at a sweet shop in Yazd urged us to visit her town of Tabriz and invited us to come at her home (though unfortunately we didn’t have time to venture that far north on this visit).

Yang had introduced us to her guide, Faride, and we had been in touch for the organisation of our trip. Her parents hosted us in their home in Shiraz. Ten days later, we met up with her sister again in Tehran, along with her husband and daughter, and we had a superb evening together.

This human aspect of our trip made a huge impression on our children, and Alan and I. Those early friendships and those fleeting meetings will leave long last memories for us.

2- Magnificent, unspoiled tourism sites, yet few tourists

It is hard to know where to start when trying to describe the beauty and places of interest of Iran!

The country offers a wide variety of monuments and experiences. Every day took us from one high to the next: from the religious sites to ancient ruins to cultural institutions to desert towns – and we only had time to travel to the main cities through central Iran, without visiting the Red Sea coast, the mountains, the Caspian Sea coast or the true desert regions. We have every excuse to plan another visit!

In French, we use the expression dépaysement to describe the pleasant feeling of being in a completely unfamiliar land and environment. I am not sure if there is an English equivalent, but it describes precisely the feeling I have of Iran.

Partly because the governing Islamic regime views with an unfavourable eye Western cultural influences, partly because it is a thousands-years-old culture with its own values and priorities, but also clearly exacerbated by the economic sanctions which have been in effect in recent decades, Iran has remained (thankfully) saved from the homogenisation that inevitably comes with globalisation.

There are no international hotel chains or restaurants, no McDonalds, no Starbucks and few global brands present.

And interestingly, the country is also relatively free from advertising. Nowhere before we saw so few advertising billboards, leaflets or otherwise form of ads that are omni-present in our world.

Throughout the 13 countries we have travelled so far, we found Iran an incredibly refreshing oasis in a world that is becoming increasingly uniform.

In addition, foreign tourism in Iran is still very limited. It added to the charm of our trip as it felt that a “complete immersion” into a foreign land.

It also meant that even in incredible sites that in any other country would be swamped with tourists, you could often have the whole place to yourself.

One more reason to go there quickly, before the country further opens up and the economic sanctions relax.

3 – A fresh perspective on Islam and beautiful religious monuments.

Islam is being given a bad name by the extremists that dominate current world affairs and media headlines. But we were encouraged by the reminder that Muslim faithful are not the fanatical, crazed extremists wishing for the downfall of “the West”. Especially not in Iran.

The practice of Islam that we witnessed was a gentle religion. The quotes from the Quran etched into the walls of the mosques were common sense principles and rooted in values common to humanity, not owned by a specific religion nor preaching superiority over any other.

The people of Iran that we met throughout our travels were educated, sophisticated, warm and genuine. It made such an impact on us that it is worth repeating these qualities.

In cities such as Isfahan and Yazd, there was evidence of centuries of peaceful co-existence of many different religions: Jewish quarters, Armenian Catholic cathedrals, Zoroastrian communities and the Muslim majority alike. Perhaps there’s an alternative to fear and rivalry between religious denominations?

In terms of the tourism experience, the mosques of Iran are simply breathtaking. The first one we visited was the Nasir-al-Molk Mosque, or pink mosque, in Shiraz, with its stunning multi-coloured light effects on the floor in the winter praying room and its intricate wall mosaics. We were stunned by its beauty, but we didn’t know that even more amazing mosques awaited us!

EOS 100D_07136The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan is magnificent and unique. It was built early 17th century as a private mosque under the Shah Abbas I when Isfahan was the Persian Empire capital during the Safavid period. Small compared to the public mosques, it is covered in beautiful ceramics with Quran quotes. The rich colour palette is superb: blues and turquoises, yellows and golden tones, whites changing to creams and pinks depending on the light. Sixteen windows around the dome make wonderful, ever-changing light and shadow art depending on the time of the day.

EOS 100D_07040In contrast, the public Imam Mosque on the other side of Imam Square is grand and imposing. Also built in early 17th century, it is hard to describe the richness of its architecture, from the amazing hand-cut tile mosaics, the deep blues and rich turquoises, the intricate calligraphy, the massive double-layered dome (51m high outside x 36.3m inside) that offers an extraordinary echo.

 

But my favourite mosque in Isfahan was the 20,000m2 Jameh Mosque. Its architecture and development spans 800-years of Islam: the simple and austere first prayer halls dating back to the 11th century; the central courtyard onto which 4 iwans opened on the 4 the cardinal points, each with its own very distinct style; and various prayer halls built in different centuries with different construction techniques and for different purposes. I really liked sitting here late in the afternoon when the caretakers started to prepare for the faithful’s prayer but before the crowds actually arrived. It was very peaceful, the preparation works done quietly, with a few people here praying – and in the quiet atmosphere, there was a sense of spirituality emanating from the place.EOS 100D_07330 cropped

My personal highlight among the religious sites during this trip was not a mosque but a mausoleum. As the girls were resting with Alan at our hotel in the southern city of Shiraz, I went to visit the Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh, or the Mausoleum of the King of the Light. Usually closed to non-muslims, the rule is not applied too strictly and with the full chador (or really what is a bedsheet that one has to wear in order to hide the full body and cover the head), I was allowed to come in.IMG_2248

This is one of the holiest Shiite shrines in Iran, in honour of a brother of Imam Reza, the Shia Islam’s 8th Imam and most revered in Iran, killed by the caliphate in 835AD. The very large courtyard felt like a social gathering place for the pious but the atmosphere changed dramatically as I entered the mausoleum building. This large building is split in two with separate parts and entrances for men and women; the tomb itself sits in the middle, surrounded by a wider grill. I was speechless and deeply touched by the palpable, fervent devotion that exuded from faithful visitors, in a reverent silence apart from the quiet whispering of prayers and supplications. It was one of the most moving expressions of faith that I have ever witnessed. The room was pretty full, with a mix of women visiting the tomb itself, touching it with their foreheads and making money offerings, women praying fervently making this regular prostration movement touching a small stone on the floor with their heads, women quietly reading the Quran and some other groups that looked more social gatherings, talking in low voices, breastfeeding pretty openly their babies, with toddlers playing quietly next to them. I thought the contrast between the strict chador rule with the women breastfeeding in public was touching.

Top on our list for our next trip is Mash’had – said to be the most impressive and holiest place in Iran, the shrine of Imam Reza, the only one of the 12 Imams of the Shia faith to be buried in Iran.

4 – Yazd – a charming desert city.

Aside from the many religious monuments, another highlight of our visit was the city of Yazd. Against the geological and climatic odds, Yazd sprung from the desert and is a charming small city that still goes at a leisurely pace.

The old town is a maze of narrow streets and arcades outlining traditional cubic, brick, mud, and straw buildings dating back over 1,000 years. The city is the perfect size for exploring on foot and offers a wealth of cultural and architectural highlights, mosques, bazaars, traditional houses and guest houses.

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We learnt about the Zoroastrian religion, one of the most ancient religions, dating back around 3500 years. “Good thoughts, good words and good deeds” is the motto of the followers of the supreme being, Ahura Mazda. In this religion, there is no priest or mullah or holy book to tell you or judge what to do or not to do. Followers just behave according to their conscience and their motto. Ahura Mazda has no icon but followers pray in direction of light; as a result fire temples house carefully-tended fires that have been burning for centuries. In Yazd, the fire is said to be burning since the 5th century.

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Their former place of burial are the Towers of Silence, located in the desert area at the edge of town, where the dead were left at a top of hill in an open stone tower for vultures to eat. As Zoroastrians believe in the purity of the elements, they don’t bury the dead so as not to pollute the earth, nor cremate so as not to pollute the air.

We also visited the fascinating water museum. In a city built in the desert, water is the most precious commodity and the residents shed sweat and blood to bring it to the city. For more than 1,000 years, they have built qanats, an impressive subterranean network of water channels. Workers were often illiterate but developed an incredible knowledge of the land and the technique as they dug the underground tunnels by hand. Courageous, they wore white cotton clothes for their daily work: the rate of fatal accidents was so high that, should they die underground, they would be already wearing the traditional burial outfit.

One of my best evenings, not just in Iran but of the past four months on the road, was to watch the sunset on the roof of the Art House, a small gallery-café-boutique. The amazing evening light reflecting on the mud house roofs, the forest of badgirs (the characteristic wind towers featured in Persian desert architecture, which are actually an ingenious ancient air cooling system), the handful of mosques in the distance and the chants of azan at 7pm coming from different directions as if responding to one another. It was a magical moment, one of those that I wish I could bottle its essence.

Also in Yazd, we attended a session of the traditional sport of Zurkhaneh, a mix of strength sport and religion, the practice of which is accompanied by a male drummer singing verses from traditional writings. Add, as a finishing touch, the succulent Yazdi sweets made of almonds, pistachios, cardamom, coconut or rose water and copious amounts of sugar – and you have my favourite city in Iran.

We will certainly come back and spend more time exploring the remote desert settlements that sound fascinating.

5 – History that spans thousands of years, defining the present and shaping the future.

Another attraction of Iran is to witness its impressive historical heritage that goes way beyond today’s Iran: from the Ancient Persian Empires to the medieval emperors and Shahs, until the 1979 Revolution.

Like the famous dynasties of China, the Iranians refer to their history in named periods: the Archaemenid Empire; the Parthians; the Sassanid Empire; the Seljuks, Mongols, Timurids; the Safavid Empire; the Qajars; and the Pahlavis, the last of the Shahs, ousted by the Revolution.

It is a rich history, visible in the cities and monuments of Iran, and it gives rise to a rich and proud culture. It was clear to us that such an ancient and sophisticated culture, continuing into the present day, gives the Iranian people such a firm heritage and foundation that it’s no wonder they have the confidence to walk their own path and nurture their own values. They recognise significant differences in culture and world-view from their Middle Eastern and Arab neighbours. And they don’t feel any particular need to conform to the comparatively recent fads of western culture and consumerism.

At Pasargadae, we visited the tomb of Cyrus the Great – the first of the Archaemenid kings, the conqueror, the architect of the first Persian Empire, and its wise ruler. The Archaemenids were the Persian Empire that rivalled, and frequently battled, the Ancient Greeks for domination of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

This visit was the occasion to learn about the deeply rooted respect for other religions and cultures that was prevalent at the time. Cyrus the Great (6th century BC) reportedly declared that he would “respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of [his] empire and never let any of [his] governors and subordinates look down on or insult them”. By all accounts, Cyrus was a merciful conqueror and a wise, tolerant king, preferring his dominions to maintain their diverse cultures and identities in peaceful coexistence, rather than trying to subjugate them or impose his will and his culture upon them. Refreshing. Many centuries later, how history would have evolved differently if the colonial powers had taken a lesson from Cyrus.

EOS 100D_06108 editWe spent a day wandering around the ancient city of Persepolis. Simply spectacular, it was one of the four capitals during the Achaemenid Empire, from around 500 BC to its destruction by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. At that time, the empire extended from the Indus River to Ethiopia. I was impressed by the Gate of All Nations and the bas-reliefs of the Apadana Staircase, depicting a grand scene of the delegates of the 23 nations that formed the Persian Empire at its height, bringing tributes to the king: Ethiopians, Arabs, Cappadocians, Elamites, Egyptians etc.

EOS 100D_06144Next was the site of Naqsh-e Rostam where massive tombs of four great Achaemenid kings – Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes and Darius II – are carved directly into the cliff-side (recalling the monuments of Petra), with elaborate sculpted bas-reliefs underneath. Some of these carvings were added centuries later, during the Sassanid period. The Sassanids formed the Persian Empire that rivalled the Roman Empire at its height. One of the carvings depicts the infamous capture of the Roman Emperor Valerian by Sassanid king Shapur I almost two millennia ago.

Moving further forward in time, in Isfahan, we relived the glory of the Safavid dynasty (early 17th century) and its greatest emperor, Shah Abbas I. A builder-king, he made Isfahan the capital of the Empire, commissioned the design and construction of the grand Imam Square, its arcades, arches, iwans, mosques and palace – all of which today remains largely unchanged since the 17th century.

Shiraz was briefly the capital of the Persian Empire (late 18th century), under Karim Khan Zand, another builder-king and a patron of the arts. The palace and many monuments in Shiraz honour his legacy.

Following his demise, a new dynasty began, the Qajars, beginning with Aga Mohammed Khan. The capital was moved from Shiraz to Tehran at that point and it remained so through the final Pahlavi dynasty and until today. While Tehran, the last stop on our Iran itinerary, was the least attractive part of our trip as we found it less accessible and a little overwhelming, the visits of the Golestan palace and the national jewelry collection were interesting and I really enjoyed the modern art museum.

The Golestan palace was lacking charm but I thought it was interesting how the Islamic regime preserved it after coming to power in 1979 despite abhorring all that it represented. One can still see the impressive collection of state presents offered to the Persian heads of state over the centuries. One can also imagine how the lavish lifestyles of the Shahs led to discontent among the people of Iran and culminated in the uprising.

The National Jewelry Museum was actually the royal treasury of the former Shahs of Iran, prior to the Revolution. It houses a collection that defies reason: countless diamonds of every size, shape and cut; endless piles of other precious stones – emeralds, rubies, pearls –; bejeweled crowns, sceptres, ceremonial swords and royal decorative items; and the opulent Peacock Throne.

I spent our last morning at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Built under the supervision of Queen Farah Diba, the last Shah’s wife, the building is modern architecture of the 1970s. The collection accumulated under her watch is absolutely amazing: Picasso, Miró, Matisse, Bacon, Moore, Munch, Pollock, Warhol, to name only a few. Only a selection was on display while I was there, for a very well curated exhibition on Abstract Art.Rothko edited

In the quiet venue with only few visitors, mostly young locals, I had all the leisure to ponder the beauty of the pieces and how fortunate I was to have a chance to actually see them. Until recently, the museum was shut for years, the Ahmadinejad regime loathing all the Western corrupted values that it symbolised. And there is no chance those pieces would travel around the world in exchanges that are frequent with museums. I loved in particular the rich yet subtle tons of purple, yellow and grey/brown of Mark Rothko’s NO.2 (Yellow center), and the intricate Wassily Kandinsky’s Tensions claires with its soothing pastel palette.

While some of this pointed to the extravagance and privilege that led to the eventual downfall of the shahs, I think more to the point, it was an illustration of the complexity and sophistication of the modern Iranian culture.

Overall our walk through the visible and tangible history of Iran made me realise the depth of a culture than spans so many different periods of recorded history, and that is so much richer and more diverse that the religious regime that has governed since 1979. It seems to me that depth gives real perspective: the preconceptions of a closed society were completely misplaced; the last 36 years of fundamentalist rule (and friction with the US) are merely a recent blip in the long and diverse history of the people of Iran; and the future for the nation (and its international relations) looks bright if we take the long view and follow its historical trajectory, and not draw judgement based only on its most recent history.

6 – An opportunity to clarify misconceptions

It was a shock to me during these two weeks to realise how wrong I was about my preconceptions of Iran: I basically had believed the ‘demonised’ view of the country, which explained my initial reluctance to go.

Unless you research the country, culture and people of Iran for your own reasons (trip or personal interest), the overwhelming majority of us form an opinion based on the media and news reports. But this is flawed: the news reports pertain almost exclusively to the position of the Iranian regime on the nuclear issue; this single issue defines Iran’s foreign relations but that does not define a people or its culture. And the news I read are almost exclusively emanating from countries which oppose this regime, so it is debatable whether the picture they paint is a balanced one.

The extent of my misperception was a sobering lesson for me to be more alert to the media I get exposed to and how it affects my judgement, often unconsciously.

The other thing that struck me during our trip was that never before I felt so strongly that there was a lack of alignment between the government and its people. The discourse of antagonism with the Western world, at times even hatred, seems completely at odds with our experience with local people. As we were discussing the nuclear issue with a local, he was quick to remark that “Under a government like the (former) Ahmadinejad one, we wouldn’t want to have the nuclear bomb, no more that you want us to have it; it would be a threat to the people of Iran itself.”

One reason that came to mind as to why there is such a contrast between all that one hears about Iran is that the political system is two-pronged: on the one hand, the president and parliament (majlis), elected by the people; and on the other hand, the Supreme Leader – the head of state, previously Ayatollah Khomeini and succeeded after his death by Ayatollah Khamenei – and the Guardian Council, led and appointed by religious leaders. The head of judiciary is also appointed by the Supreme Leader. The president and government can be anything from moderate and reform-oriented to conservative. But the Supreme Leader and Guardian Council are really running the show and those aren’t elected by the people. In addition, the Supreme Leader controls a large private army which doesn’t report to the president at all. We met someone who was on the moderate, reformist side who summarised the issue like this: “on the political side, you have a good ones and the bad ones; on the religious side, you have the bad ones and the worse ones”.

As a result, the path to reforms is likely to be slow and chaotic in Iran: whatever is done by a moderate or reformist government can easily be undone under the influence of the religious leaders. For instance, despite being elected by an overwhelming 78% of the votes, more than a third of the laws that were passed under the reformist Khatami government were vetoed by the Guardian Council.

Because of the divergence with the regime we perceived in so many of our discussions with local people, it showed me how wrong it was to mistake with a broad brushstroke the regime and its people, and that while my demonised view of the regime was maybe justified, it should have been limited to a regime and not extended to a country.

7 – Safety, hygiene and other practical considerations

Finally, in case you had any doubt about going, I would add that it is safe, very safe. Hygiene standard are very high, you don’t have to worry about drinking tap water. Food is very good but it is somewhat limited in variety. For meat-lovers, it is pretty much chicken or lamb kebab of various nuances. For vegetarians, the main option seems to be rice and aubergines cooked in a variety of ways. The same choices apply at all meals.

Iran is definitely a dry country; we didn’t have a drop of alcohol in two weeks. We missed a good glass of wine/champagne at times, but we embraced the opportunity to detox.

 

To sum up, our travels through Iran were an eye- and mind-opening opportunity to discover a fascinating culture and to reflect on this country that is in quite a unique position, and at a potential turning point, in its long and storied history. But it is the people of Iran, the warm, welcoming and friendly Iranians, that left the most indelible impression on us and who are ultimately the main reason to visit.

 

We would like to take this opportunity to reiterate our heartfelt thanks to our excellent guides, Sahar, Sepideh, Mohammed, and Farbod, and our driver Reza, for helping us unveil and understand Iran.

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1 Comments:

  1. Alan Ng November 30, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for this detailed and thoughtful account. Iran was definitely one of the highlights (among many) of our trip, and certainly one of the truly unique destinations on our route. Let’s definitely plan a return visit to take in more of the country and culture!
    Look forward to your next blog posts and reflections on some other fascinating destinations!

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