Historic Iran off the beaten track - but a friendly welcome awaits

Jean O’Hanlon’s last minute tour of Iran introduced her to the fascinating treasures of the Persian Empire which stretches back more than nine thousand years.

A YEAR ago Iran wasn’t on my list of destinations. Well perhaps it was — but only in a bucket list kind of way — in, say, a moment of projecting forward to deathbed regrets.

It only grew into a plan about three months ago, and it wasn’t much of a plan even at that point. I knew next to nothing about the country. Omar Khayyam’s Rubbaiyat poem; rumi (wise); Cyrus the Great. Magnificent ceramics.

Ostentatious shahs and wet-blanket mullahs. Several initially interested travelling companions had dropped out since it first came up, for reasons of visa, cost — or Donald Trump. 

So this little piece was triggered by lovely surprise, and maybe by an urge to set a few records straight.

Nine thousand years ago, Persians were making elegant clay pots, and six thousand years ago the artistry of ritual and domestic ceramics had expanded to impressive monumental architecture.

By the first millennium BC the Persian Empire spanned three continents and governed almost 50% of the world’s population.

This was its time of greatest glory, when outgoing armies and incoming processions of gift-bearers passed one another on the giant network of roads that linked its far reaches, Egypt to India, with illustrious imperial cities at home — Susa, Pasargadae, Persepolis.

Zoroaster was introducing to Central Asia the revolutionary concept of a single all-powerful heavenly god, Ahura Mazda, soon co-opted by the very powerful earthly tribes that collaborated to establish the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, Xerxes.

It was Cyrus, apparently, who conquered King Croesus, of legendary wealth, and who created the world’s first human rights charter, establishing equality for all races, religions and languages.

Persian engineers at that time were already building a reputation as ingenious innovators in ventilation, cooling systems and refrigeration.

The lush, well-groomed gardens tended by the gardeners of the king of kings and which moderated somewhat the climate extremes of middle Asia, were known as ‘pairi-daeza’.

Nomads were bedding down on the first Persian knotted carpets around 500 BC.

So much history, and so much more in the packed centuries that follow.

But fast forward to today, where Iran has been reduced in the media to little more than cartoon status as a home of self-flagellating mullahs broadcasting hate. Is it true? Of course not. Do people know better?

Not for the most part. Not with all the fear-mongering. I was a bit concerned myself, but only that it might be dull, if all was forbidden, a land of silent women with heads down and angry young men.

I found the little internal travel agency online. It had positive reviews on TripAdvisor and the website was full of practical detail and enthusiasm about the various tours on offer. I chose the cheapest one — ‘A Glance of Persia’ because I would be paying a 20% single supplement, and I can honestly say I have never been so well served by an agent.

I booked my own very reasonably priced ticket to Tehran from Dublin with Turkish Airlines and the delights of that experience began at Dublin Airport, where the check-in official told me I was going to a magnificent place and that if I hadn’t already done so (I had), to throw out my TV set and see the wonderful world.

The online clothing guides recommend conservative attire for Iran, invisible ankles and a head and neck covering.

Over the coming days we saw all kinds of headwear, from nun-veils to fashion-conscious wraparounds. It could be a bit of a pain if the material was slippery, but not if, like the French tourists and young city ladies of Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz, you chose a little barely-there chiffon scarf that stuck to your hair.

Given its long history and vast artistic output, the Tehran History, Islamic and Glass and Ceramic museums are all laid out with an easy viewing emphasis on selective display, removing the exhausting effect of super-saturation.

This is a pleasant surprise that is magnified by the Trump effect of decimated visitor numbers.

The Fort Knox that is the Royal Jewels Museum is another matter, a heist-movie-in-the-making housing several hundredweight of egg-sized precious stones and the Peacock Throne.

The throne once resided at the Golestan Palace, itself an architectural statement of splendour and intimidation, with mirrored mosaic rooms designed to ‘break down the self before coming into the presence’ — a concept originally intended for the houses of God.

It would be pretentious to try even to list, never mind cover, the sights and sites visitable in eight days. Iran is a huge country and its major cities are spread to its extremities.

The historic cities of Mashhad and Tabriz are 1,500 km apart in the top eastern and western corners.

Antique Yazd, with its Zoroastrian fire temples, sitting at 1,200 metres between two baking deserts, is just 270km from well-watered Isfahan, yet a planet away in terms of urban sophistication.

Of these cities we saw only beautiful Isfahan, its architecture built on a monumental scale. And Shiraz, city of poets, literature, wine (yes, that wine, but not these days) and flowers. Shiraz is a two-hour flight south from the traffic bedlam that is Tehran, and has an air of calm.

Iranians worship the 14th century Shirazi poet, Hafez, whose anthology was viewed as second only in value to the Koran and whose tomb is besieged on a May Monday morning with enthusiastic picnicking families. “This sky where we live is no place to lose your wings, so love, love, love,” he wrote.

In the Zoroastrian Red Village of Abyaneh on May 12, the birthday as it happened of the Hidden Imam, or Mahdi, who is destined to return to save the world from itself, Tehranis were celebrating in full floral colour and taking selfies on sticks or picnicking under trees.

Carpet city Kashan, later that day, was serving up the last of the free celebratory street food from vast copper cauldrons along the roadside.

The little package was indeed a ‘glance’, not overly orchestrated and certainly not overbooked, just four tour companions travelling in a minibus with an intelligent driver and no guide. 

The very evocative site of Persepolis was serene on a sunny but not overheated morning and, as with everywhere we went, half of the visitors were Iranians — casually dressed, courteous, light-hearted, curious about their own history and curious to know who was visiting their country.

One of the things most memorable to me at the human level on this trip was the friendliness of Iranians wherever we encountered them, and that included the site of the Holy Shrine in Qom.

There was no sign of paranoia or hostility — on the contrary.

Absolutely no encroachment of the repressed male kind or pressure to buy in the bazaar, and absolutely no sense of danger or dishonesty. Anywhere.

We stayed in 2-star hotels and they were spotless, with character, but also with private bathrooms and air-conditioning if needed. There was no need to cover ankles. People willingly had their photos taken, if they weren’t already taking selfies in the park.

All entry tickets, to shrines, magnificent tiled mosques, palaces, gardens, museums, archaeological sites, cost 200,000 riyals, about €5.

The money is a crazy-house game of noughts, complicated by an alternation between two currencies, separated by a factor of ten.

The notes all look the same, and the smallest in value is worth about 25 cents.

We ate street food more often than not, including falafel sandwiches, saffron ice cream and the traditional noodle-and-greens soup, ‘ash’, and it was generally wholesome, if somewhat bland — but that was just our very limited experience. The bazaars were interesting because different and, in the case of Isfahan, enormous and interrupted by mosques and palaces of extraordinary beauty.

A final word on the weather. This goes up to seriously uncomfortable levels in summer, so the next opportune time to visit, temperature-wise, would be September. I was lucky to get aboard in early May.

Getting there

Tour operators: Key2Persia is a Shiraz-based agency operating out of tiny premises which plans budget tours of all kinds meticulously and generously.

Mine without the single supplement would have cost €590, including the internal Tehran-Shiraz flight, and with door-to-door collection and delivery for arrival and departure at Imam Khomeini Airport, where Iranians meet and greet arriving family and guests with enormous, wedding-style bunches of flowers.

Flights: The Dublin-Tehran flight cost around €350, booked just two weeks ahead of travel.

Money: You cannot use credit cards in Iran so you must bring large cash notes, which you can get from the bank without an interrogation if you just say ‘Iran’.

I was beyond delighted to have had the opportunity for this little visit, at a price cheaper and better value than my bottom-of-the-ladder health insurance policy.

And speaking of insurance, you have to arrive with travel insurance, because if you don’t you will have to queue to buy it in the airport before they will give you the visa and that will take the bones of two hours.

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