Iran: Where two worlds are one

Mysterious, magnificent and so often misunderstood, modern Iran is bending rules and breaking traditions to welcome a new generation of curious travellers

By Emma Thomson
Published 22 Jan 2018, 08:00 GMT, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 15:58 BST
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Iran

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Iran

Photograph by Getty Images

"We love Americans!" exclaims Majeed, my taxi driver, as we whip along Tehran's highways. I try to tell him I'm from the UK, but he's on a roll.

"They are so open and friendly," he enthuses, so I go with it. "But doesn't your imam criticise America for trying to impose Western culture on other nations?" I question from the back seat. He swipes the air with his hand: "Pah, that's politics. Something separate. We're tired of politics," he says, rubbing his coarse black beard and already wanting to change the conversation. "Know what we call Los Angeles?" he asks, flashing me a cheeky glance in the rear-view mirror. "Tehran-Angeles!" he chuckles. "Over two million Iranians live in the States."

This is not the Iran I expected. Indeed, anyone over the age of 40, or who's seen the feature film Argo, will recall the events of 4 November 1979, when student supporters of the Iranian Revolution stormed the 'spy den' of the US Embassy in the capital and held 52 employees captive for 444 days — the longest hostage crisis in recorded history. For many, it marked the turning point of the revolution by undermining the recently overthrown Persian monarchy — headed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — and strengthening the prestige of Ayatollah Khomeini. A stricter interpretation of the Qur'an was ushered in and personal restrictions included a ban on miniskirts, alcohol and dancing. And it's here that many Westerners' impressions of Iran froze in time.

We're not the only ones. Today, the former US Embassy houses the headquarters of the Guardians of the Revolution. It's been preserved exactly as it was in the 1970s — only the US seal above the door has been scratched off. Later, while sitting on the pavement waiting for the museum to open, two men and a blonde woman arrive, looking expectantly at the gates. "They open in 15 minutes," I say, and their furrowed brows iron out. I notice the tendrils of grey hair at the men's temples and decide to risk a question: "Do you remember the hostage-taking?" The shorter of the two men, Farshaad, nods vigorously.

"I was a kid at the time. I was excited — anything to see some action!" His friend, Mede, is quieter. "I was a teenager and I was shocked — I don't believe in violence." Soon after they both emigrated to Canada. "I didn't come back for years and years because I was scared," explains Mede. "Now I return once a year to visit family. It turns out Iran is nothing like I thought it was."

So while politicians continue to tussle over Iran's nuclear programme and the debates about women's rights remain worthy, it's important not to overlook a crucial fact about Iran: Islam is but a millisecond on the clock of the country's history. So let's rewind…

On the outskirts of Yazd, in central Iran, two circular stone-and-mud structures crown a pair of hills. Bleached golden by the fierce sun, they are the Dakhma, or 'Towers of Silence', built by Zoroastrians — one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions. They believed a person's corpse shouldn't pollute the air with cremation, or the earth with burial, so they would leave their dead in these towers for the bones to be picked clean by vultures.

A 3,000 year-old practice that continued until it was banned in the 1970s.

I spy a lone traveller wandering among the ruins, so mosey over to say hello. He's a Swiss student named Loïc, who has spent the past month couch-surfing around the country. Iran is the first place he's explored solo. "I met two guys who had just come back from a two-year round-the-world trip and when I asked them which country was their favourite. They said Iran, so I came," he tells me, as we shelter in the shade of the buildings. "I expected it to be just a big desert, but there's so much to see. Plus everyone's very friendly — I've never been so well fed!"

The dry desert air claws at my headscarf as we pace across the parched earth, up the sweep of steps, and through the entrance. Inside, the towers live up to their name: it's utterly silent. Not a whisper of wind creeps over its high circular walls. I stand on the ring of stones, trying to picture the thousands of bodies laid to rest here: the men forming the outer circle, the women in the middle, and the children in the innermost ring. They've been named 'putrefaction plateaus', but looking up at the opal of azure sky above me it feels clean and free.

United Nations

Days later, I'm interpreting more ancient symbols on a bas-relief at UNESCO-listed Persepolis — the 2,500-year-old ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire built by Darius the Great. The blue eyes of our guide, Darioush Zareh, flash with excitement as he leads us past the famous Apadana staircase. "Notice the tight curly hair of these men? Where do you think they're from?" he asks the group. "Africa," I reply, quietly. "Yes! See how they're holding ivory and are leading an okapi [a species of giraffe now only found deep in the Congo]?"

We move along the row to the next relief. "Here are ambassadors from Libya with a gazelle, and here Afghans bringing a Bactrian camel, and here…" The relief continues with an Assyrian soldier leading each foreign official by the hand towards the palace. "You see Darius the Great hosted what was essentially the first United Nations here. Inviting ambassadors — Nabateans, Babylonians, Nubians, Armenians, Indians, etc — from across his empire to gather in the Palace of a Hundred Columns. It was here the first democratic discussions took place." I trace my hand over the cascading curls of a bearded Assyrian. "All the workers were paid in lamb and wine — our ban on alcohol is modern," he grins. "There was no slavery. In fact, Darius's uncle, Cyrus the Great, dictated the Cyrus Cylinder — the first human-rights charter."

I hike up to the rock-hewn tomb of Artaxerxes II that overlooks the site and imagine the beasts and men that passed through here. Among them was Italian Franciscan friar Odoric of Pordenone, a Silk Road traveller who visited on his way to China in 1320. Indeed, the Royal Road Darius the Great established to transport dispatches from one end of this Persian kingdom to the other became the main artery of the Silk Road. After passing through the great cities of old such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Merv, the road reached Persia and along it flowed silk, spices, jewels, ivory, porcelain, warhorses — and travellers. Journeyers that would rest at roadside inns called caravanserais posted every 20 miles along the trail.

More than a thousand are believed to exist in Iran and, of those, 400 have been surveyed. Among them is Zein-o-Din, a rare circular 17th-century caravanserai south-east of Yazd. It sits just off the main road, as it has for 400 years. The only chink in its restored defensive high walls is a great green wooden door. I knock boldly. Like a Russian doll, a smaller door opens inside the larger and a head pops out. "Ah, you're here," exclaims a young mustachioed man. Our group is ushered inside and shown into the stables. They've been separated into sleeping quarters using curtains and we're each allocated a mattress on the floor. Above us the brick cupolas are still blackened with ancient soot and rough strips of linen cloth serve as doors. I lever myself up steep stone steps that lead to a rooftop of domes. The ginger sun is settling behind the silhouetted hills and I find myself looking out over the expanse of dry dirt searching for the glimmer of a camel caravan.

Instead, I see a car approaching. It pulls up and three women clamber out and knock at the almighty door. No employees are in sight, so I scuttle down the stairs, pop open the peephole, and peer out. "Hello!" The young Iranian guide and her Swiss and Italian clients jump with surprise. "No room at the inn," I tease, getting into character. I notice the guide's dark-blue headscarf is hanging by a thread off the back of her bun, exposing her raven hair. Inside, once she's met the rest of the group, I ask her why. "My Iran is different to Amir's [our guide].

He belongs to the older generation, but we find ways to have fun. We drink, party and travel." In this old place, it's a glimpse of modern Iran.

'New' is emblazoned everywhere inside Kerman's bazaar, one of Iran's oldest trading centres, about 230 miles south-east of Yazd. For sale is butchered meat next to dates next to T-shirts branded 'Brooklyn', 'New York City' or 'Hello Kitty'. On the main Ganjali Khan Square, boys are performing wheelies on their bikes or selling balloons, while mothers cajole their crying babies backlit by the glint of copper pots. 'Hello' falls from the lips of everyone I pass. And while I'm bargaining, a young man wearing braces and a blue shirt sees I need help with translating prices and steps in to help. With the bargain struck, we stroll around the square. "Why choose Iran?" he asks me. "I wanted to see what the truth was," I reply. He nods solemnly. As a woman, that truth very occasionally includes a stray hand stroking your backside. I take the stranger firmly by the wrist, look him in the eye, and issue a stern "No!" His cheeks turn beetroot and apologies spill from his lips.

With the lights of the mosque minaret glowing against the lavender sky, I rejoin my group of fellow travellers to seek out somewhere to eat. Halfway through our chicken kebab, a flotilla of suited men, clapping and shouting, enter the restaurant. "A wedding!" smiles Amir. As the bride sweeps in, cloaked in a white floral chador, we stand to cheer her on. Women, trailing after her like fireworks, wave for the ladies in our group to join them. We follow them up to the second floor to a large room where the bride uncloaks to reveal a puffy meringue-white wedding gown embroidered with pink cherry blossoms. Her fake eyelashes bat seductively at her groom as they take to the dance floor. "Usually only women are allowed," shouts an aunt above the music, "but it's nicer to have her husband here." (At religious weddings, tradition dictates the sexes celebrate separately, like within a mosque, where men and women are segregated during prayer). The bride catches sight of us for the first time and waves us over. Her groom gallantly offers us his spot on the floor and we bop and dive to the Iranian beats being delivered by a female DJ wearing a red flat cap and a waistcoat. Another aunt appears at my side and, with a conspiratorial wink, presses a custard egg tart into my hand. Despite a net of strict Islamic laws it seems people do bend the rules and what has filtered through is fun in the shape of music, art and poetry.

Meenakari & melancholy

Journeying past salt lakes we enter Shiraz — city of wine, roses, nightingales and the birthplace of Persian poets Saadi and Hafez. The streets thrum with a zoom of scooters, trucks laden with golden melons long as missiles, and taxi drivers queuing with arms slung out of the window, their pinky fingers dusted with faux ruby and turquoise rings.

We pass a crowd of men gathered around a speakerphone. "Oh dear, what's happening?" queries one of our group, concerned. "They're handing out free food," replies Amir. "But why are there policemen there?" they ask. "They want to eat too!" smiles Amir.

We enter Narenjestan e Ghavam, an opulent 19th-century merchant's house famed for its mirrored porches, fountains and avenues of date palms. In the basement, sits jewellery-maker Hasam. He strums a three-string pear-shaped tambour and softly croons verses of Hafez. "His poetry lends itself to music wonderfully," he says, once finished. "Because music was always looked down on, our sounds are more melancholy and monotone."

The next morning, we delve into the Shiraz bazaar.

Its inner courtyards are abuzz with clouds of dragonflies that dart like fairies above the central fountains. Outside, we meet Menahim, a blue-eyed, bristle-brush mustachioed Jew. "For hundreds of years we had to live in secret, but now we can practise freely," he tells me in French, having studied it. "Did you know we have 5,000 Jews in Shiraz and 15 synagogues!" We're running late, so make a move to leave. "Wait, before you go, I want to sing you some Celine Dion." Hafez it's not, but music, it seems, is everywhere.

We hurry to the tomb of Saadi. Iranians swarm around the gardens like it's the start of a football match, with touts selling fortune-telling birds, scarves and glow sticks. Beneath an octagonal room sits the poet's marble tomb confettied with rose petals. Inscribed on the walls around it are lines of his poetry, and as Amir recites them and the hubbub ceases, the crowd calms quiet to listen in silence.

Our final stop is Esfahan — Iran's richest city renowned for its arts such as meenakari, miniature, silverwork and copper. By the time we arrive night has fallen. We drive past families picnicking in the dark on grassy knolls between motorway lanes; women vaulting a volleyball in the park; and a man praying on a rug between two parked cars, shoes neatly placed to one side.

At the city's heart stands UNESCO-listed Naqsh-e Jahan Square flanked by azure-tiled mosques, Ali Qapu palace and the entrance to a vast bazaar. Fountains dance where once polo players pranced to entertain Safavid ruler Shah Abbas. And round the circumference, patter horse-drawn carriages; the clip-clop of their hooves echoing off the shop-front awnings, drawn low to shield against the sun.

Four giggling schoolgirls approach. They're encased in black, but carry designer handbags. One of them, Maedeh, wears a slick of red lipstick. She is 16 years old and studying English. "Can I interview you for my class?" she asks. "Of course," I smile. Her friends whip out their smartphones and begin recording while she falteringly delivers her questions: 'Where are you from? Do you have brothers and sisters? What do you think of Iran? What's your favourite city? What's your job? How old are you? Are you married?' "No," I reply to the last question. They fall silent. "You're not married?" they repeat, slack jawed. "We've been together a long time, but we couldn't afford a wedding, so just decided not to do it." I can see their eyes grow wide — amazed but estranged at my freedom to choose. I worry I've lost them, but as I start to leave they call out in unison: "Selfie!" Teenagers seem the same where ever you go in the world.

This friendly urgency to engage is everywhere I go in Iran. Near the end of the trip, I meet Fatima whose English is impeccable. "Welcome to Iran," she beams, revealing two teeth as the sole tenants of her empty mouth. "Guests are so dear to us," she says, cradling my hand in hers. "And we're not like Saudi Arabia — there's none of this," she says, raising her black scarf to her eyes to mimic the burqa. "It's your Queen who's not free: always wearing those same outfits," she teases. Fatima has it in one: forget royal hats or black veils. In the words of 13th-century Persian poet Rumi: "I have seen that the two worlds are one."


Getting there & around

Direct flights from Heathrow are offered by Austrian Airlines, British Airways and Turkish Airlines with return airfares starting at around £340.

Iran's train network is reliable and services most major cities. Local bus services are plentiful. Most Iranians now use a taxi service called Snapp, similar to Uber.

When to go
March to May and September to October are the best times to visit when the searing 37C heat of summer has subsided. Bear in mind if you travel during Ramadan (dates vary) eating and drinking in public is banned from sunrise to sunset.

More information
Travellers can't use ATMs or local banks. Ensure you withdraw enough US dollars to use for the duration of your trip. — a blog written by a half-Iranian student aims to introduce travellers to a new version of Iran.
Iran: The Bradt Travel Guide. RRP: £17.99.

How to do it
G Adventures offers a 14-day Discover Persia tour from £1,999 per person including entrance to most sites, a guide and accommodation. Budget around US$500 (£375) extra for meals and airport transfers.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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