Iran squats like a sleek cat slotted into a slice of the Middle East surrounded by Iraq, Turkey, Armenia
My pull to explore Iran traces back to high school ancient history classes and a teacher who fitted the classic “inspirational” mould. I may not have become an archaeologist but Middle Eastern destinations and their antiquities have long been a drawcard and Iran is a treasure trove. Add to that its current pivotal role in the muddled politics of the Middle East and a fascinating destination is guaranteed, despite having to wear a headscarf and forgo a cold sav blanc.
Classic Iranian mosque with its rich ceramic tile work.
Classic Persian rug at Shiraz dealer.
My just-spent two weeks in Iran exceeded expectations and dispelled assumptions. Iran is much more than its western image of mullahs, religious fervour, anti-American fanatics and black-cloaked women. Despite international sanctions, which impact noticeably, Iranians appear proud Persians who celebrate their rich heritage and take satisfaction in their self-sufficiency. The tourist is made to feel genuinely welcome with constant requests for group photographs and to practice English, and good-hearted cross-examinations about what you think of Iran.
Despite Western pre-conceptions Iran puts forward a mostly modern face, one not nearly so overtly Islamic as imagined. Although covering the hair is mandatory for women, the degree of cover appears optional, with many young women really pushing the envelope with scarves way back revealing lots of hair. The black, all-encompassing chador seems non-compulsory with many women, especially the young, choosing colourful coats, or long shirts and scarves. Calls to prayer were not regularly heard, unlike in some other Islamic countries. And the tolerance for the imagery and places of worship of other religions surprised me. Christian scenes such as the Last Supper could be seen in carpets and paintings, souvenir items in bazaars included Buddha likenesses and Zoroastrian temples and representations were commonplace. We even visited tombs of the legendary Jewish Esther and and Mordechai in Hamadan.
Zoroastrian fire temple, Yazd; inscription at Ether and Mordechai tomb, Hamadan.
In the current climate it’s easy to forget what Iran and their ancestors bequeathed to civilisation. It’s substantial. To name some: the introduction of metals, pottery, glass, weaving, agriculture, and dairy products; early monotheism including Zoroastrianism; science, the foundations of modern medicine, writing, weights, money and measurements, banking; and artistic gifts like carpets, ceramic tiles, paintings, poetry and garden design. On top of that Cyrus the Great, ruler of the Persian Archaemenid Empire from 559–530 BC among many other accomplishments freed the Jews from Babylon and rebuilt their temple in Jerusalem.
Persepolis wall frieze.
Scarves are a best seller in the bazaar.
Pomegranates and Iran go together.
Stand-outs of a visit to Iran include fresh tomatoes and cucumbers to die for, fresh dates that taste like caramel, newly picked pistachios, walnuts, saffron rice, the creamiest of feta cheeses, pomegranates; hand-knotted carpet shops in renowned centres like Shiraz; brilliantly-tiled mosques and bazaars in Esfahan’s Naghsh-e-jahan Square; rich antiquities; the wonders of Persepolis; spectacular mountains; sparse deserts; hidden green valleys; tree-lined streets; friendly people; the most confusing currency in the world; the scariest pedestrian experiences. And much, much more.
And no, you can’t get a shiraz in Shiraz!
3500-plus-metre mountains in Kermanshah; desert greenery, Pasagardae.
Close encounters of the vehicular kind.
Daily staples..fresh dates, cucumber and tomatoes with creamy feta.