Our November 2009 holiday
Introduction Iran Tehran Shiraz Persepolis Pasargadae Isfahan Kashan Observations Conclusion
"Ne're may that evil-omened day befall
When Iran shall become the stranger's thrall!
Ne'er may I see that virgin fair and pure
Fall victim to some Russian gallant's lure!
And ne're may Fate this angel-bride award
As serving-maiden to some English lord!"
Verses written in prison by Iranian literary critic Mirza Aqa Khan of Kirman shortly before his death in 1896
When we booked a holiday in Iran in the course of Spring 2009, many of our friends thought we were crazy and wondered why we would want to visit a country with such an appalling international image. We were very clear why we wanted to go: Iran historically was a cradle of civilisation and we wanted to see the remains of Persepolis and the more recent examples of Islamic architecture. However, when the disputed presidential election led to massive demonstrations and brutality in June 2009, the British Foreign Office advised against travel to Iran and we wondered whether the trip would actually go ahead. Fortunately the domestic situation became calmer and we were able to make the trip in the first week of November 2009 even though this coincided with fresh demonstrations around the 30th anniversary of the taking of the American Embassy hostages.
The holiday was organised by the travel company Cox & Kings [click here]. We had not travelled with them before but we were very happy with all the arrangements. The group comprised 21 persons varying from early 50s to late 70s with most – including ourselves - in their 60s. It was a very educated and well-travelled collection which included a psychiatrist, a retired psychiatrist, a nurse, a therapist, several former teachers and a one-time spy who once worked for Government Communications Headquarters and there were three Rogers, two Geoffs, and two Sues. We particularly enjoyed the company of John & Susanne Gray from Hampshire.
Our Roger had prepared for the trip by reading two history books: “Iran: Empire Of The Mind” [for review click here] and “”Khomeini's Ghost” [for review click here]. For him, it was the 53rd country that he had visited (but John & Suzanne Gray have clocked up 70 nations).
Travelling to Iran is different – and rather more complicated – than to most other countries on the tourist scene because of a number of prohibitions that one needs to know about in advance:
Ever since "the victory of the Islamic revolution" - a phrase we heard often on our holiday - in January 1979, Iran has been a theocratic state with a system of government unique in the world. The system is known as velayat-e faqih which translates as 'the regency of the theologian'. At the apex of this structure of power is the Supreme Leader who was the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from the revolution in 1979 to his death in 1989 and who has been the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei since then. Technically an 86-strong Assembly of Experts elects and dismisses the Supreme Leader and is responsible for supervising the Supreme Leader in the performance of legal duties under the Constitution, but it has never seriously challenged the Supreme Leader. The current Chairman is former President Hashemi Rafsanjani.
After the Supreme Leader, the Constitution defines the President of Iran as the highest state authority. He is elected by universal suffrage for a term of four years and can only be re-elected for one term. The current President is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose re-election in June 2009 was the subject of widespread allegations of fraud, resulting in massive demonstrations inspired by his main opponent Mir-Hossein Mousavi in a protest characterised as the 'Green movement'. The President appoints a cabinet of 21 members who are subject to approval by the unicameral Parliament of 290 known as the Majlis which is elected every four years.
Crucially there is then a Council of Guardians which comprises 12 jurists, six appointed by the Supreme Leader and six elected by the Parliament from among the jurists nominated by the Head of the Judiciary (who is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader). The Council of Guadrians vets rigidly all candidates for the Presidency and the Parliament and it interprets the constitution and may veto any law passed by the Parliament if it is deemed incompatible with the constitution or Sharia (Islamic law). For the Presidential election in 2009, out of 470 who sought to be candidates, it approved merely four.
As if all this was not complicated enough, there is a 28-member body called the Expediency Council which has the authority to mediate disputes between Parliament and the Council of Guardians, and serves as an advisory body to the Supreme Leader, making it one of the most powerful governing bodies in the country. The current Chairman is former President Hashemi Rafsanjani.
A fundamental feature of the system of velayat-e faqih is a structure of power which runs parallel to the regular police and army, based around the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a body created by Khomeini and now involving a domestic security force called the Basij and a force supporting overseas' operations called the Quds (Jerusalem), numbering in total some 125,000.
This unique, complicated and totalitarian system of government - which is both opaque and unpredictable - was explained to us in part by our official guide, but only on the last full day of the tour. As our coach headed for the airport for our return to London at the unearthly hour of 3.30 am, Roger caused much mirth among the tour members by asking our guide: “Could you just run through the Iranian power structure again?”
This system of power has put Iran in a special position of international opprobrium. This is partly because of its domestic policies which involve the application of much Sharia law, including covering up by women, and the development of nuclear installations which many fear is intended to create nuclear weapons. It is partly because of its international policies which include denial of the Holocaust, opposition to the existence of Israel, and the export of revolutionary Islam and terrorist techniques to southern Lebanon through Hizbollah, the Gaza through Hamas, and Iraq through the Badr Corps.
As for any visitor to Iran, there are several points to be borne in mind:
On an early Friday evening at 7 pm, we departed from London's Heathrow Airport on a British Midland Airbus A321, headed for a week's holiday in Iran. Roger and Vee were in aisles opposite each other and Vee immediately noticed that the young Iranian woman sitting next to her was in tears. She put her hand on the woman's hand and the Iranian then spilled out her story. Her name was Mahnoosh (which means 'sweet moon') and her older sister in Tehran, who had been seriously ill, had died that morning, so she was flying out for the funeral. Vee and Mahnoosh talked for almost the whole journey and clearly Vee was a comfort to the Iranian whom we might meet again since she lives in London.
We landed at Tehran's new Imam Khomeini International Airport after a flight of five and a half hours and, since Iran is three and a half hours ahead of British time, it was 4 am local time. It was immediately apparent that we were in a very different country: as we taxied to the terminal, all the women on the flight donned headscarves; at the airport, all the toilets – men's and women's – were squatting affairs with a hose; and soon we heard the first call to prayer. The signs were in Arabic script (and sometimes English) but Iranians are not Arabs (most are of Aryan descent) and do not speak Arabic (most speak Farsi).
We were met by our guide for the week, Rouin Ghahavati, who proved to be an excellent companion: attentive and friendly with enormous knowledge of everywhere that we visited and Iran as a whole. It was 6.10 am when we reached our hotel in central Tehran: the former Intercontinental, now the state-run Lahel [click here] which means 'tulip'. We were given the opportunity of an early breakfast and reached our rooms at 7 am which was a very odd time to go to bed but we all needed some rest.
Now for about a year, Roger had been corresponding by e-mail with a guy of 36 living in Tehran who had originally contacted him via his web site and who remained in touch even while participating in the June demonstrations against the re-election of President Ahmadinajad. They had agreed to meet even though Aziz (not his real name) confessed that he had been “in double mind” about doing so. At 11.30 am, Aziz was at the hotel where he drank tea with us for an hour, spoke cautiously about his life in Iran, and invited us to his apartment for dinner that evening.
At 12.30 pm on an overcast and rainy Saturday, our Cox & Kings tour officially commenced with a short tour of Tehran.
Tehran is located at the foot of the Alborz Mountain range and Mount Damavand – the highest mountain in Iran (18,550 feet or 5,650 metres) – is clearly visible from the city. At this time of year, there was snow on the highest peaks. Tehran dates from 1553 when ramparts were constructed around the village but it was made the Persian capital only at the end of the 18th century by Aghar Mohammed Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty. It is known as 'the city of 72 nations' and today it has a population of around 13 million – almost double that of London – which is nearly one-fifth of the whole population of Iran.
Tehran is built on a slope. The north of the city is the highest and it is more affluent; the south is the lowest and it is poorer and more conservative. The city is one of the most polluted on earth. Some 3 million cars, trucks and motorbikes are responsible for around 200 days a year of smog and the driving is simply crazy.
Wikipedia page click here
Official city site click here
Given that our holiday was essentially to see archaeological ruins and Islamic architecture in Iran, this tour of Tehran was necessarily short and focused on visits to two museums, although we did make a photograph stop at the National Gate, the only remaining (northern) one of four that use to exist in the city in the 1930s.
First was the National Museum [click here]. Designed by the French architect André Godard, this has an entrance in the form of a Sassanian (3rd-7th century) iwan (vaulted archway) and it is one of the more attractive modern buildings in Tehran. There is only one floor but this means that one can comfortably see all the exhibits in a couple of hours. The very oldest exhibits include a tooth from 50,000 years ago and stones from 30,000 years ago - inconsistent with the account of creation in the Koran, of course - plus pottery from 5,000 years ago and a white-bearded head from the 3rd or 4th century called the Salt Man. The most attractive exhibits come from the 5th century BC site of Persepolis including a wonderful frieze of glazed tiles from the central hall of the Apadana Palace featuring Darius I on his throne with Xerxes behind him.
Second was the National Jewels Museum [click here]. This is located in a cavernous vault underneath the central branch of Bank Melli. The exhibits here are jaw-droppingly luxurious. Outside the vault door is the vast Peacock Throne which looks more like a bed and is encrusted with no less than 26,733 gems. Inside the vault, glass case after glass case – protected by sensitive touch alarms and security cameras – contain breathtaking jewelled objects. To select just three, there is the Globe of Jewels, made in 1869 using 51,366 precious stones, the Sea of Light, a pink diamond weighing 182 carats and said to be the largest uncut diamond in the world, and Nader Shah's Shield, covered in diamonds (the largest 140 carats), emeralds, rubies and spinels. One is not allowed to take photographs in the National Jewels Museum, but the web site carries some excellent pictures of the prime exhibits.
In the evening, the group was taken out for dinner by our guide, but Roger & Vee slipped off to see our Iranian friend Aziz and his family. He had given us his address in Farsi and we used this to hire a taxi to take us right up to a location that we would never have found alone - in darkness, it was off a street and then off an alley and then across a yard and up to the top of a block of flats. Here we met Aziz's lovely 30-year old wife and their six-month old son. It was typical of the contradictions in Iranian society that even, in her own home, Aziz's wife kept on her headscarf (and therefore so did Vee) and yet she was happy to breastfeed her son in front of Roger whom she had never met before.
We were able to talk politics (they are strong supporters of the 'Green movement') and view their wedding video (the male dancing inspired Roger to a performance later in the holiday – read on!). Then we ate dinner Iranian-style: that is, no table or chairs but a plastic, patterned sheet on the living room floor and seated cross-legged around the food. We were served ghorme sabzi, which is a green mix of diced meat, beans and vegetables with rice, and kashk-e bademjan, which is eggplant fried and mashed and served with thick whey and mint, plus roasted chicken, washed down with dugh, a watery yoghurt drink. We felt very privileged to share their flat and their food and were very grateful for their warm hospitality. But we had obtained very little sleep in the last 24 hours and were ready for bed back at the hotel.
Our trip involved travelling to the south of Iran and it is a huge country, so the plan was to fly south from Tehran to Shiraz – a distance of 580 miles (935 kilometres) - and then return in stages overland. It was a morning flight so we had to set the alarm for 5 am, involving a second consecutive curtailed night's sleep. On the Sunday morning coach ride to the older and mainly domestic Tehran airport of Mehrabad, we stopped to view the Azadi Tower [click here]. This is a huge inverted Y-shaped structure built in 1971 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. It was designed by Hossein Amanat, consists of 8,000 blocks on white marble stone, and stands 148 feet (50 metres) high.
Our flight from Tehran to Shiraz was with a local airline called Iran Asseman Airways and the aircraft used was a Fokker 100. It took one and a quarter hours and we left the aircraft to find ourselves in a much sunnier and hotter environment. Instead of going straight to our hotel, we immediately commenced a coach tour of the city.
Shiraz has an altitude of 5,250 feet (1,600 metres) so it has a very pleasant climate. Surrounded by low, bare mountains, it is like an oasis in the south of Iran. It is an incredibly old city, first mentioned in Elamite inscriptions almost 4,000 years ago, but it initially flourished when captured by the Arabs in the 7th century, and it was the Iranian capital during the Zand dynasty (1747-1779) when many of its most beautiful buildings were constructed or restored.
Today Shiraz has a population of about 1.5 million. Locals regard themselves as more laid-back than other Iranians, while other Iranians believe Shirazis to be lazy. The city has many names including the city of nightingales, poetry and wine.
Link: Wikipedia page click here
Our first visit was to the Tomb of Emir Ali which locally goes by the official name of Imamzadeh-ye Ali Ebn-e Hamze. The existing shrine was built in the 19th century after early versions were destroyed by earthquakes. It has two outstanding features: externally it is topped by an eye-catchingly colourful and bulbous Shirazi dome and internally it is covered from floor to ceiling with thousands of small pieces of mirrored glass which create a dazzling display of light and reflections. For this visit, the women in our group had to wear the chador that was supplied to them - not heavy and black, but light and pretty. However, it was ironic that we were allowed to take photographs while local people were praying or studying. No one objected; in fact quite the opposite - they were happy to talk to us.
The other two locations we planned to visit were closed until the afternoon, so we crossed over the wide but totally dry river bed to check into the Homa Hotel [click here]. There was some time for lunch before our tour resumed, so Roger & Vee went out for a short walk and found a local café where he had salad, she had pizza, and the locals looked upon us with some amusement.
At 3 pm, our coach tour resumed and we took in a further three interesting locations.
First was the Eram Garden [click here] or Garden of Paradise which is centred around a pool set in front of a palace from the Qajar era (essentially 19th century). Iranians venerate their great poets and everyone can quote some classical poetry and here in the gardens Vee bought a beautiful book of translations of Persian poetry.
Next was the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque [click here] which was built between 1876-1888. Like all mosques, this has a central pool surrounded by a set of iwans (hall openings), but is it is rightly known as one of the most elegant mosques in southern Iran because of its beautiful deep blue tile-work and the brightly-coloured stained glass in the prayer room.
Our final visit was to the Vakil Bazaar ('vakil' means 'regent') [click here] which was originally built in the 18th century but has undergone several restorations and today houses almost 200 stores selling carpets, handicrafts, clothes and spices. What was striking was that, in total contrast to the bazaars in Cairo and Istanbul, here (and in the other Iranian bazaars we visited) there was absolutely no hassle.
Deep into the bazaar is is a restored two-storey caravanserai called Serai Mishir. Just off this small enclosure is a teahouse called “Saray-e Mehr” (“The Home of Friendship”) where the group enjoyed delicious tea and small pastries.
Our evening meal was dinner at a restaurant called “Shater Abbas”. For Roger & Vee, this was the first restaurant meal in Iran and proved to be a model for all of them. The first course was ash-e jo which is translated as soup of pearl barley with a dash of lemon. The second course was salad with thin, flat pitta-type bread. The third course was a choice but heavily dominated by various forms of kebab – typically chicken or lamb or chicken and lamb but not pork of course) served without adornment and with rice. The fourth and final course was crème caramel (essentially the Iranians do not do desserts as we understand them – to Roger's special disappointment).
Monday morning was another earlyish start - alarm at 7 am - because we were making a day trip outside Shiraz to visit the ruins of Persepolis. For a number of the group (including Vee), this was the highlight of the trip. For this segment of the tour, we had a local guide, a woman in her 30s called Fara. She welcomed us to "the city of wine" and several of the group cried out in response "Where's the wine?!?" She quipped in reply: "In the houses". The road journey took us past many military installations and there were regular checkpoints (allegedly to study our tachograph and ensure that we had not broken the speed limit). It took just over an hour to reach the site of the ruins.
It was in the reign of Darius I (522-484 BC) that the ancient Persian empire of the Archaemenid dynasty (550–330 BC) reached its peak. When Darius became king, he decided to build Persepolis as a new spring capital. Building commenced in about 518 BC and continued in the reigns of Darius' successors Xerxes I (486-466 BC) and Ataxerxes I (466-426 BC), taking around a century to construct. Our local guide was keen to emphasize that, unlike the pyramids, Persepolis was not built by slave labour, but by a paid workforce of 10,000 who had local housing, accident insurance and maternity leave.
Alexander the Great captured Persepolis in 330 BC and it was subsequently burnt down, apparently in revenge for Xerxes having sacked the Acropolis in Athens in 480 BC. One benefit of the burning was that the palace's clay records were turned to brick which preserved them for posterity. It was not until the period 1931-1939 that the site was excavated by archaeologists from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Today this 2,500 year old location is an UNESCO World Heritage site.
The terrace of Persepolis is a colossal platform of 1,476 feet by 984 feet (450 by 300 metres) formed partly from natural rock and partly from limestone blocks. It rises to a height of 66 feet (20 metres).
Wikipedia page click here
Persepolis 3D click here
The conditions for our visit were perfect. The weather was hot (but not unacceptably so) and there were very few other tourists (essentially just an Italian group and some Germans). On Iranian holidays, the site can be flooded with 25,000 visitors. There are several routes to walk around the ruins but this is the one taken by Fara:
At the end of the tour of the ruins, Roger & Vee found a little café where they could sip cold drinks and take in more of the wonder of this archaeological site. If one closed one's eyes, one could almost imagine, the richly-robed characters of two and a half millennia ago strolling around the palaces and halls of a city that in its day sat at the heart of a mighty empire that stretched from what today we call India all the way to Ethiopia.
After almost three hours at Perseoplis, we drove the short way to the site of Naqsh-e Rostam. Here, hewn out of a cliff high above the ground are the rock tombs of four Archaemenian kings, each in a cruciform design. From left to right, the tombs are believed to be those of Darius II (reigned 424-405 BC), Artaxerxes I (465-425 BC), Darius I (522-486 BC) and Xerxes I (486-465 BC). Below these four tombs are eight large bas-reliefs dating from the more recent Sassanian period (224-642 AD).
After this visit to Naqsh-e Rostam, we stopped for lunch at the nearby restaurant of “Laneh-Tavoos” where we ate outside in the bright sunshine. Then we travelled back to Shiraz, reaching the city about 4 pm.
Before we went to our hotel, we viewed one more sight of the city: the Tomb of Hafez [click here]. Now we have already noted how important poetry is to Iranians and Hafez [click here] is one of the very greatest of Iranian poets with most homes containing a book of his work. He was a native of Shiraz, having been born (c 1324) and died (1389) in the city.
The alabaster tombstone bears one of Hafez's poems inscribed upon it.The present buildings, including the pavilion over the tomb, were constructed in 1935 and designed by the French architect and archaeologist André Godard. They are set in attractive gardens and his sung poetry is broadcast through speakers, creating a wonderfully peaceful environment that attracts many Iranians. At the entrance, there are men with boxes containing folded slips inscribed with sayings from Hafez and one is invited to pay a sum and then a budgerigar picks out a slip at random – a sort of Iranian version of the Chinese fortune cookie.
It is the kind of place where one meets all kinds of people. Our guide Fara found a schoolfriend that she had not seen for 18 years and they exchanged news enthusiastically. Vee talked to a local girl in her late teens who told her that she had come to the park because she was sad about her life and angry with her family. Roger came across four girl friends celebrating the 18th birthday of one of them called Fatima and he was invited to join them for a slice of the birthday cake that they had brought along.
Dinner was down to us as individuals and Roger & Vee ate at the hotel with one of the other tour members. Liz Tym was a remarkable 77 year old, a retired psychiatrist of enormous energy travelling alone.
Next morning (Tuesday), at 8.30 am we left Shiraz to drive north to Isfahan – a distance of over 300 miles (almost 500 kilometres) – via the site of Pasargadae. The first leg of the journey from Shiraz to Pasargadae was 75 miles (120 kilometres). On the way, we passed groups of nomdas with their herds of sheep and goats and saw their tents made of goat hair. In fact, Iran still has some one million nomads. It took us two hours to reach Pasargadae so we arrived at 10.30 am.
This was the original capital of the ancient Persian empire of the Archaemenid dynasty before Persepolis became the capital. It is named after the chief tribe of the Persians and was the capital of Cyrus the Great who reigned from 559-530 BC. It is located 6,230 feet (1,900 metres) above sea level and surrounded by mountains and today it is a World Heritage site.
Link: Wikipedia page click here
There is nothing like as much to see at Pasargadae as at Persepolis and there were even fewer other tourists (that is, almost none), but we viewed the following remains:
The Palace of Cyrus: This H-shaped structure has 30 low stone columns that were originally topped with tall wooden columns.
After our look around the site, as we stood around our coach the drivers served an impromtu set of refreshments to keep us going: nuts, dates, grapes, plus tea & coffee. At 1.20 pm we set off on the second leg of the journey from Pasargadae to Isfahan: a distance of 230 miles miles (370 kilometres). It was a straight road through bleak terrain with little traffic and few signs of life. We stopped for an hour at a place called Abadeh to stretch our legs, have some refreshment, and visit the toilet.
Then we were off again. Soon it started to rain heavily and persistently and our progress became slower. When we reached the outskirts of Isfahan, there was so much traffic that our progress became slower still. So it was 8.20 pm - almost 12 hours after we had left Shiraz - before we rolled up to Isfahan's Abbassi Hotel [click here]. This has been created in the shell of a 16th century caravansary and has a reputation as one of the best hotels in Iran. This evening's dinner - a buffet affair - was in the hotel.
The next two days - Wednesday and Thursday - were devoted to the wonders of the city of Isfahan.
Located on the river Zayandeh Rood (life giving river), the site has been populated for more than 1,500 years and the city was founded in 1598 when Shah Abba I (reigned 1587-1629) made it his new capital. It is known by the rhyme 'Isfahan nesf-e-jahan' or 'Isfahan is half the world' because it held so many riches that allegedly to see it was to see half the world. Today it has a population of 2 million and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
When Roger & Vee visited Uzbekistan, everywhere Tamerlane was treated as a hero but, in Isfahan, he is recalled very differently. In 1387, Isfahan surrendered to the Turko-Mongol warlord. Initially treated with relative mercy, the city revolted against Tamerlane's punitive taxes by killing the tax collectors and some of the conqueror's soldiers. In retribution, he ordered the massacre of the city's residents and his soldiers killed a reported 70,000 citizens. An eye-witness counted more than 28 towers, each constructed of about 1,500 heads.
Link: Wikipedia page click here
According to our programme, we should have spent the first day of our two in the city in the famous Imam Square, but this was postponed to the second day because on Wednesday the square was the scene of a political demonstration.
In fact, nationwide it was “The Day of the Students” which commemorates the anniversary of the student occupation of the US Embassy - now rebrabded as the "US Den of Espionage" - and the taking of the American hostages. This particular anniversary was special, partly because it was the 30th but mainly because it came soon after the fraudulent Presidential election of June. The opposition movement now adopts the tactic of using official demonstrations as a cover to organise demonstrations protesting against the government. The demonstration in Isfahan involved some violence but the protests in Tehran were much larger and much more violent. This was not reported in the Iranian media and had disappointingly little coverage in the Western media.
Our tour of Isfahan was conducted by a local guide called Iraj – a man in his 60s with a full head of silver hair and an impressive silver moustache. He told us that the previous day's rain (over 8 hours of it) was the first for nine months and meant that the dam upstream had now been opened so that the river was flowing once more. He was thrilled because the city needed the water and we were delighted because it meant that we could see the famous bridges with water running under them. In fact, the weather was now beautiful: sunny and warm.
For our first visit, we walked through the Grand (or Qaysariya) Bazaar to reach the Jameh Mosque [click here]. What is so special about this mosque is the long history of worship on the site and the many variations of design that can still be seen. Religious activity on this site is believed to date back to the Sassanid Zoroastrians and the first sizable mosque was built by the Seljuks in the 11th century. We were shown remnants of mosques from different eras and probably the most outstanding feature was the Taj al-Molk Dome of 1088 which is widely considered to be the finest brick dome ever built and has survived dozens of earthquakes over more than 900 years.
Next we drove to the Armenian Quarter of New Jolfa which dates from the time of Shah Abbas I who transported a colony of Christians from the town of Jolfa (then on the border of the Ottoman Empire and now on Iran's northern border). Today there are still 13 Armenian churches in the quarter and we visited the most impressive: the Vank Cathedral [click here]. This was built between 1606-1655 and is noted for its magnificent frescoes, one of which is an especially gory version of the Last Judgement. The complex includes a museum which highlights the horror of the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians in 1915-1916 when it is alleged that some one and a half million were killed and a similar number made refugees [for more information on the massacre click here].
While still in the Armenian Quarter, we were given half an hour to have a drink and we found in the cobbled streets an excellent coffee shop called “Shant” which served the best coffee we tasted in Iran. Roger spoke to an Iranian woman sitting at the next table – she had emigrated to Toronto and was travelling with her sister who still lived in Iran.
The next stage of the city tour was a visit to a couple of Isfahan's famous bridges. The city has 11 in all: five of them old and six new.
The first one we looked at is called Si-o-Seh Bridge which translates as Bridge of 33 Arches. It was built by Allahverdi Khan, a favourite of Shah Abbas I, between 1599-1602. At 323 yards (295 metres), it is easily the longest bridge in the city. We could not go on the bridge because apparently we could not park the coach nearby but also there were many police and soldiers in evidence there today.
The next bridge we visited is called Khaju Bridge which was built by Shah Abbas II in about 1650. It is 136 yards (123 metres) long and has two levels of 24 terraced arcades. Now this bridge is noted as a meeting place as much as a river crossing and the acoustics of the arcades encourages singing and music especially in the evenings. Even though it was just after lunch time, in one of the arcades there was an old guy singing and those listening to him – a mixture of local Iranians and some members of our British group – clapped in rhythm with the song. It was a magic occasion and Roger was moved to commence dancing, making the sort of moves he had seen in the dancing on the video viewed in Aziz's Tehran apartment. People loved it and Vee encouraged Roger to give a second display. A young local guy joined him for a while and several of the group filmed it on their camcorders to the later amusement of our guide Rouin who had no idea that the British could be so spontaneous. When challenged about why he did it, Roger explained that he was an ambassador for his country which led one of the group to dub it "the dancing diplomat episode".
Today's city tour concluded with an optional visit to a local carpet shop called “Abassi” (part of our hotel complex). On these organised holidays, Roger & Vee always take up the 'optional' extras and went along for this display of stunning work with between 100-169 knots per square centimetre. We had already bought a Kashmir silk carpet in Delhi and a Turkish carpet in Istanbul, so we did not need another full-size carpet (or feel that we could afford one) but we were eventually tempted to buy a small silk carpet – 90 x 60 cm – to display on the wall in our hall. Interestingly, although the international embargo means that we could not use credit cards in Iran, we were able to pay for our carpet with a credit card thanks to the shop owners having an account in Dubai.
Back at the hotel, we rested for a while, but then Roger decided that he would like to make an attempt at finding the famous Imam Square. It was not easy in the dark – there is no lighting on the pavements, most people are dressed in black, there is a deep gully between the pavement and the road, and the traffic was crazy – but he managed to locate the huge square and found it glorious with the main buildings illuminated and the sounds from the water in the fountains and the bells on the horses.
The group went out together for dinner and were led by our guide Rouin down the busy Chahar Bagh Street to a restaurant called “Shahrzad”. This is decorated with Qajar-style wall-paintings, stained glass windows and mirror work. Roger & Vee decided to try something different than the usual kebab for the main course and each went for something called zereshk polo ba morgh which is chicken on rice made tangy with barberries. This black concoction tasted better than it looked.
Thursday was our second full day in Isfahan and mainly it was devoted to Imam Square but first we went to see the Chehel Sotun Palace [click here]. The name means 'forty pillars': 20 supporting a superb wooden ceiling and 20 being the reflections in the long pool in front of the palace. The building was completed in 1647 by Shah Abbas II and rebuilt after a fire in 1706. It is most famous for its six large frescoes, four dating from the mid 17th century and the other two being 19th century. Indeed one of older ones depicts Shah Abbas I with his huge moustache in a scene used by the British Museum earlier in the year to publicise an exhibition on the leader which Roger had visited. As we were leaving the palace grounds, Roger fell into conversation with a medical student from Shiraz who was visiting with his sister and their parents. In spite of the few minutes available for conversation, photographs were taken together and e-mail addresses were exchanged. A fortnight after our return, we had an e-mail from them inviting us to their home in Shiraz.
At last we were taken to what for some in the group (including Roger) was the highlight of the tour: what used to be called Naqsh-e Jahan Square (meaning 'pattern of the world') and since the revolution has been called Imam Square [click here]. The square was begun in 1602 as the centrepiece of the new capital of Shah Abbas I. At 1,700 feet (512 metres) long by 525 feet (163 metres) wide, it is the second largest square on earth, after Tiananmen Square in Beijing which – Roger & Vee can assert having been there – does not begin to compare in the elegance of its design or the beauty of its buildings. It is rightly a World Heritage site.
At the centre are the fountains added by the Pahlavis which, on the sunny day we visited, created gently arching rainbows. In the middle of the long west side is the Ali Qapu Palace, in the middle of the long east side is the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, on the south side is the Imam Mosque, on the north side is the entrance to the Grand Bazaar, and on all four sides arcades of shops (over 200 of them) – all in all, a simply sumptuous display of Islamic architecture, possibly unrivalled in the world.
We started with the Ali Qapu Palace (the name means 'Gate of Ali'). This was built at the very end of the 16th century as a residence for Shah Abbas I and named in honour of his hero the Imam Ali. The building has six storeys and stands 158 feet (48 metres) tall. A set of 48 steps takes you to the elevated terrace with its 18 slender columns from which one has a splendid view of the whole square. Another set of 48 steps leads to the music room where the stucco ceiling is riddled with the shapes of vases and other household utensils to enhance the acoustics.
Next we visited the Imam Mosque before it closed to visitors for midday prayers. The building of what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful mosques in the world took place from 1611-1629. A fascinating feature of the complex is that, while the portal flanked by two turquoise minarets faces into the main square, the mosque itself is orientated to Mecca and therefore a short angled corridor connects the portal to the inner courtyard. Each of the four iwans leads into a vaulted sanctuary with the south iwan taking you into the main sanctuary with its exquisite decoration and multiple arches.
As we left the mosque, the call to prayer was sounded and we drifted into the adjoining arcade of shops, visiting one that produced and sold delightfully coloured tapestries and cloths. Walking the whole length of the eastern side of the square, we left at the north-eastern corner and made several twists and turns before we found ourselves in the remarkable “Azadegan Teahouse”. This exotic place was like a version of Aladdin's Cave with literally hundreds of lamps of every shape and form hanging from every part of the ceiling and sitting in cases along the walls. The atmosphere was enhanced by locals smoking the traditional hubble-bubble. Here we rested, drank tea, and partook of a dish called dizi - a soup-stew affair that one enjoys with morsels of bread, chickpeas and pickles.
Suitably refreshed, we returned to Imam Square to see the wonder that is Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Whereas the Imam Mosque is public and very large, this one is private and much smaller and it is unusual in not having a minaret or a courtyard. It was built between 1602-1619 during the reign of Shah Abbas I and is dedicated to the ruler's father-in-law Sheikh Latofollah who was a revered Lebanese scholar. Inside the magnificent sanctuary, Roger found himself approached by a few teenage schoolboys who were then joined by more and more, until around 20 were thronged around him. One asked: “What do you think of our President Ahmadinejad?” Roger gave a thumbs-down and the boys roared with delight. Then he called out the name of the opposition leader “Musavi!” and the boys shrieked with enthusiasm, echoing round the dome. At this point, the boys' teacher came rushing up to lead them away from this trouble-making foreigner.
Our final destination was in a lane just off the Imam Square where we were taken to the shop of a word-famous miniaturist Hossein Fallahi who briefly spoke to us. His work is exquisite but very expensive. The tour of the square was over and Roger & Vee returned to the hotel for 3 pm. We rested and then did some shopping.
Dinner was a group affair again but in a different kind of venue, not so much a restaurant as a hotel with the unoriginal name “Isfahan Traditional Hotel”. We were shown the best of the rooms which rents for a breathtaking $250 a night and we ate in one of the courtyards. It was a pretty traditional set of choices but Vee & Roger tried something a little different for the main course: chicken in quince stew.
It was Friday – a holy day in Iran – and our last day in the country. At 8.40 am we left Isfahan to return north to Tehran – a distance of 280 miles (450 kilometres) – via the city of Kashan. On our journey, we passed by the underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, the one time on the trip that we were asked not to take photographs. Shortly after passing the plant, we stopped for a short rest break. In the car park, a local couple offered Vee & Roger grapes and nuts and we bought a banana from a young boy.
Pressing on, it was 11.40 am when we reached our intermediate stop. Kashan and its surroundings have been home to human settlements for at least four millennia and there is a credible case that the 'three wise men' set out from here. There are still some remains of the old city walls from the Seljuk times which we saw. Today the town has a population of about 320,000 and a reputation for conservatism.
We were not in Kashan long, just time to visit two locations.
The first was the Tabatabai House. This was built in 1834 as the former home of a wealthy carpet merchant called Seyyed Ja'far Tabatabei. It is a large 'house' with 40 rooms set around four courtyards. It is known for its intricate stone reliefs, fine stucco and wonderful mirror and stained glass work. There are even a couple of shops on the premises and Roger took the opportunity to buy some Iranian music: local musician and singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian [click here].
The second location was the Fin Garden. This is an 11th century affair originally designed for Shah Abbas I which is famous for its spring water which is channelled all around the garden. At the centre of the garden is a two-story pavilion and there is a teahouse where Roger & Vee enjoyed a drink with John & Sue Gray. A surreal flavour was added to the visit by some filming of a movie scene involving men dressed as cossacks riding through the trees.
At 2 pm, we were off again and, on this stretch of the journey, we passed the holy city of Qom. When we halted at a (rare) service station for a short comfort break, Roger found some ice cream for sale and bought cones with four flavours each for himself and Vee. What a treat! Onwards we went, passing a salt lake to the east. Then we could see the cloud of smog suspended above Tehran and, when we came off the motorway, the capital's traffic was a nightmare with Iranian drivers showing absolutely no sense of lane discipline.
Eventually we were back at the Laleh Hotel where we had started our holiday – it was 6.20 pm and we had been on the road almost 10 hours. Dinner was in the hotel and by now group members were chatting as if they were old friends, aware that next morning we would probably see each other for the last time.
In the course of the week-long trip, we had had some early starts but none as early as on the last day (Saturday). The alarm went at 2.15 am (!) so that we could leave the hotel at 3.30 am for our early morning flight home. No sooner were we on the aircraft than the women in our group – and indeed virtually all the females aboard – pulled off their headscarves and cumbersome tops. Many passengers looked forward to their first drink of alcohol for a week. It had been a great trip, but it was good once more to be enjoying freedoms that we so often take for granted.
The most striking feature of Iran is its people.
On the one hand, it is constantly apparent that one is in an Islamic republic because all the men are in long-sleeved shirts but no ties, while all the woman are completely covered in dark garb except for their face and hands. It is remarkable how striking the women's faces appear in these circumstances. They start with the benefit of clear brown eyes, but all the young women apply mascara to their eyelashes and mould their eyebrows into impressive arches which makes their faces all the more appealling. One young woman told us that attempts to make the most of the one part of their body on show represented “a mascara revolution”. On the buses, women have to sit at the back while the men sit at the front, an arrangement that Roger & Vee had only previously witnessed in Jerusalem. From time to time, we would see someone with a plaster on the nose. Apparently Tehran is the plastic surgery capital of the world and so many people pay a fortune for a nose job.
On the other hand, everyone was astonishingly friendly, more so that any other country that Roger & Vee had visited. We would greet passers-by with “Salam!” and they would unfailingly smile back. They would approach us constantly with combinations of the following phrases in broken English: “Hello. How are you? Where you from? How you like Iran?” They were so keen to meet us and talk with us and even to be photographed with us. They would explain that their Government told them that Westerns were enemies, but insisted that they were delighted that we were visiting Iran and always wished us a good trip.
If Iran's people are so warm, its traffic is crazy. There always seemed to be very few vehicles between the towns but, in the cities, it was madness. The roads were clogged with cars whose drivers simply ignored all lane signage and did their best to ignore all pedestrians. Traffic lights would count down the seconds before red or green would change, but we saw a wedding cortège of half a dozen cars speed through a succession of red lights. Crossing roads on foot was quite a thrill. This is a petrol-exporting nation that rations petrol to its own citizens. This is a traffic-clogged country whose President has a PhD in transportation engineering and planning.
Most of the time you could forget that you were inside a totalitarian and centralised state. In the cities at least, people seem comfortable and relaxed and everyone appears to have a mobile phone. The police presence was less visible that in Western countries (which is not to say that it was not present since many police are in plain clothes). The only exception to this was on “The Day of the Students” when we saw lots of police and soldiers, obviously intended to dissuade any anti-government protests.
However, the cameras operating at most traffic light intersections provide a routine and extensive method of surveillance. Also there were other visible signs that one has come to associate with totalitarian regimes. One was the ubiquitous presence of pictures of the similar-looking and similar-named Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei – not just on street hoardings but in hotels and shops. Another was the frequent pictures of martyrs of “the imposed war” between Iran and Iraq. Another was the relative lack of advertisements for commercial products and services.
A lot of what makes Iranian society what it is today is hidden to the visitor. You do not see the corruption which shapes so much of the bureaucracy of government and business at all levels in an economy where three-quarters of companies are state-controlled. You do not see the black market that exists for so many goods including alcohol and drugs. You do not see the inflation and the unemployment or the poverty of the rural areas and the affluence of the super rich. You do not see the lifestyle that people live privately in their homes where a much more liberal approach is often at work.
For Roger & Vee, there was a sense of being in a country seething with a desire for change – the sort of atmosphere we found in Czechoslovakia before the revolution of 1989 or in Cuba when we were there just after Fidel Castro stepped down in 2008. Change – whenever and however it comes – is likely to be driven by the young and by the women. Almost half of all Iranians are under the age of 30 due to the pro-child policies after the Islamic revolution, while over 60% of university students are now female.
In the meanwhile, perhaps as a result of millennia of invasions and conquests, Iranians have a remarkable facility for compromise and accommodation. A striking example of this was given to us when we visited the Hafez shrine in Shiraz and were told about the poetry of Hafez.
Now the poet was something of a hedonist and much given to metaphor and punning. So he wrote a lot about the attractions of wine and being drunk, he frequently described pretty women, and he even talked of burning the Koran – all ideas that sit uncomfortably with the values of the current Islamic republic. However, we were assured that much scholarly study and thought had made it clear that wine was a metaphor for the mercy of God and being drunk was being possessed by God. Being attracted to women was simply admiring God as the source of all beauty, while destruction of the Koran was rationalised as enabling one to communicate directly with God through the words in one's heart.
We loved Iran. It delivered all that we wanted in terms of fascinating ancient sites and fabulous Islamic architecture without presenting any administrative or political difficulties. Above all, the people were so welcoming and friendly.
The country has enormous potential as a tourist destination but, so long as it retains its current policies in relation to the development of nuclear weapons and the promotion of Middle Eastern terrorism, it will be the subject of international opprobrium and tourists will stay away.
That would be a shame. The country has so much to offer and its people want you to go there.