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What’s it like to… travel in Iran

| 27 Jan 2017

Tourism in Iran is on the rise, and fast. Hilary Smith, RA Art Tours expert lecturer and co-writer of the Bradt guide to Iran, explains why this rewarding country should be your next holiday destination.

Sheikh Lotfollah mosque at Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan

Iran is an exciting country teeming with people radiating warm curiosity and hospitality. Iranians want to welcome and meet people from the English-speaking world. Many strands have melded together to form this modern country – a country trampled and fertilised over millennia by diverse peoples. Most of us who visit – and I include myself here – are not Farsi speakers and many would be surprised to discover that Farsi, the language of modern Iran, is an Indo European language.

Different cultural and ethnic groups have crisscrossed Iran from the third millennium BC onwards, each depositing a different layer of tradition and providing related archaeological material. First, peoples from the Caucasus arrived, whose markers are the Achaemenid dynasty and Zoroastrianism, and whose ideas spread beyond the boundaries of today’s political state. Greater Iran was then invaded by the armies of Alexander the Great, following the Achaemenid Royal Road to Persepolis and onwards to the satrapies (Persian provinces) further to the east and south: Sogdia, Bactria and Arachosia. Even after Alexander’s death, contacts with the Mediterranean world continued with the Romans fighting first the successors of the Achaemenids, the Arsacids or Parthians and then their successors, the Sasanians. Many are the reliefs of the Sasanian period (224 – 651 BC) showing the Kings triumphant, their horses trampling Roman emperors or with the captive Romans subjugated. The Romans took from Iran a new occult religion in Mithraism, born from the Zoroastrian tradition and which, although eventually subsumed by Christianity, survives in the name of the Bishop’s hat, the mitre.

In the medieval period, ancient Iran and its traditions were challenged once more by the invasion of the Arabs with their religion, language and script. Islam and the Arabic script dominate to this day. To begin with, however, new coins partook of the existing traditions and bore portraits and other images and frequently a mixture of scripts while the famed zoomorphic and anthropomorphic metal work of the Sasanians continued to be manufactured well into the Islamic period. Ancient stories and myths survive to the present through versions, some lavishly illustrated, of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh or Book of Kings.

Rock carvings in Persepolis

Rock carvings in Persepolis

International trade was established early along that famed conduit for men, goods and ideas now known as the Silk Road. Not only were Iranian ideas contained in the Manichaean religion exported westwards to the Mediterranean and eastwards into China in the early Christian era, but goods came into Iran: from the west came glass technologies, from the east came ceramics and silk. These material gains were most notable at the courts in the medieval and early modern periods of the Mongols (1220 – 1340AD) and also at the Timurid and Safavid courts, whose rulers spoke Turkic languages.

Nasir Al-Mulk Mosque (Pink Mosque), Shiraz

The stained glass of Nasir Al-Mulk Mosque (the Pink Mosque), Shiraz

But where is the tangible evidence and what can we see? Iran has a wealth of exciting archaeological remains. In common with most countries, there are those sites depending on a skilled interpreter and a vivid imagination, but Iran has more. The incomparable National Museum in Tehran preserves many of the choicest finds from sites throughout this vast landmass and provides a very valuable introduction. In the southern region of Pars, the tomb of the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great, who had the inscribed cylinder containing the phrase confirming freedom of religious practice for all placed in his rebuilt Babylon, still stands in the midst of what are the vestiges of the oldest known ‘Persian garden’. The archaeological highlight, however, must be Persepolis, the Achaemenid complex of gateways and palaces covered with inscriptions and adorned with reliefs and statues. It was within the landscape of Persepolis that many of the Achaemenid rulers were buried; their tombs overlook the site.

The ruins of Persepolis

The ruins of Persepolis

The importance of this area for the Persians is enhanced by a visit to nearby Naqsh-i Rustam where further Achaemenid tombs high up on the cliff have traces of the Parthians on the lower register, with their last king trampled by the horse of the first Sasanian king Ardashir I. Traces of an even earlier relief belonging to the Elamite period (third – second millennia BC) are just visible on the relief depicting Bahram II.

Naqsh-e-Rostam, Iran

Naqsh-e-Rostam, Iran

In the south-east of Iran lies the extensive Unesco-listed Lut desert, crossed by important land-based trade routes made redundant both by maritime trade routes and ultimately by air travel. Vestiges of the trade routes and the necessity to protect men and goods are evidenced in the vast medieval mud-brick forts, such as Rayen and Bam, in a region where an important Bronze Age culture is gradually being revealed by archaeologists around the town of Jiroft. The region still uses age-old architectural devices that enable humans to endure the extreme summer heat: the badgirs (wind towers), qanats (underground water channels), a lack of windows, and thick walls penetrated by double wooden doors with separate knockers making separate sounds to herald female or male visitors. The city of Yazd is also in this region, one of the few places in Iran where you can engage with the living Zoroastrian world.

Historic cityscape, Yazd

Historic cityscape, Yazd

Dotted throughout Iran are nine gardens, which collectively make up a Unesco listing simply called The Persian Garden: one, the Dolat Abad garden, surrounds the tallest wind tower in Yazd while another on the desert edge is the Shahzadeh in Mahan. Others belong to the Safavid era and are to be found in two cities particularly associated with them: Isfahan and Kashan.

The thirst experienced in the desert can finally be slaked by a visit to the oasis city of Isfahan. The appetite for the glowing colours of the tiled domes and minarets will have been whetted in Yazd’s Timurid Friday Mosque and other buildings, but in Isfahan are numerous jewels to choose from: for me it is the coffee-coloured exterior of the dome of the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque. That said, Isfahan is so full of plums it is hard to have just one favourite. The whole of the central Safavid square, where polo was once played but now fountains, lights and horse carriages delight the eye and the ear, is a joy. More serious but equally breathtaking is the complex architecture of the old Friday Mosque, built like many early mosques on the site of an earlier fire temple and whose architecture in part provokes in me the same kind of shivers I experienced when I first entered Durham cathedral.

Ceiling detail of Sheik Lotfollah mosque, Isfahan

Ceiling detail of Sheik Lotfollah mosque, Isfahan

Isfahan’s principal central buildings date to the period when Shah Abbas, the Safavid ruler, sought a place of greater safety than that afforded by Ardabil (menaced by the Ottoman Turks) far to the west. It was the Safavids too who definitively established that the branch of Islam to be followed in Iran would be Shi’i rather than Sunni. Cosmopolitan, sophisticated, the Safavids were surrounded by a vibrant court and rich and elaborate decoration still visible in the highly decorated interiors of the Chehel Sotun pavilion and the Ali Qapu palace.

Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan

Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan

A flavour of Safavid court arts is more readily experienced in the decorative arts museums of today’s capital than in the Safavid buildings of Isfahan: the Carpet Museum in Tehran and the exquisite Reza Abbasi Museum for glassware, metal wares and ceramics. The Ardabil carpet in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum may well have been commissioned for the Safavid family tombs in Ardabil. If you know Petworth House in Sussex or have seen the pictures exhibited at the Royal Academy, you may know the portraits from the 1620s by Anthony van Dyck of Sir Robert Shirley and his wife Teresia, a Circassian he met and married while living at the Safavid court in Isfahan; it was as envoy of the shah in Rome that he met and was painted by van Dyck. He wears exotic figured cloth of gold with an elaborate turban, while the painter’s sketch of Teresia describes her attire as “Persian dress and style”. The pilgrimage route towards the tomb of the eighth Shi’i imam, Reza, in Mashhad (and we know Shah Abbas walked from Isfahan!) would probably have passed Natanz, with its 14th-century portal and dome, but also Kashan, probable burial place of this shah and then a hub for the manufacture of the luxury textiles on which the court depended.

Cityscape, Tehran

The cityscape of Tehran

What might we expect from a trip to Iran? It’s true, we women in particular must go ‘in disguise’ from the moment we land to the moment we take off, but it’s really not too daunting. We may wear discreet make up if we wish and may show a little hair at the front, but generally we must be shrouded and shapeless. Colour is certainly allowed and I wear Indian dress: loose long drawstring trousers, long-sleeved loose over shirt reaching down at least to mid-thigh and often longer, and the scarf, or dupatta, arranged over the head and neck. If you need a shady sun hat you may need to fit this over the scarf so that your neck is covered, or consider using an umbrella to provide shade. Men do not have to cover themselves as fully but shorts and very short sleeves are not acceptable. Sun hats or caps are acceptable as are sandals for both genders.

School children at Jameh Mosque, Isfahan

School children at Jameh Mosque, Isfahan

Iranians love to eat and meals are a shared family occasion. If evenings are warm in, say, Isfahan, you may expect to see families picnicking in the gardens by the river. And the food is tasty but not too spicy for our palates: rice with barberries, almonds or saffron with egg, and meat either cooked on skewers (kebabs) or in wonderfully spiced stews called khoresht. Into this category falls my favourite dish, which is rather rich: fasinjan, a stew including walnuts and pomegranate. In Yazd you might want to try abgoosht, literally meaning ‘water meat’, where you drink the liquid before mashing up the meat and vegetables and eating it with local bread. For something sweet, try faloodeh, an iced dessert with vermicelli and lime juice. Desserts in our sense are not always available at the end of meals in traditional restaurants. Mineral water is available everywhere while non-alcoholic beer is often available with meals. Otherwise there are soft drinks, fruit juices or doogh, a mixture of yoghurt and water.

Above all, you should expect genuine warmth and hospitality in any trip to this fascinating country: Iranians are friendly and curious, want to practice their English, want to communicate with you and test whether you are a ‘normal’ human being like them. Iran promises warmth, smells, sights and lasting memories.

Recommended Cox & Kings tours

Iran: Persian Palaces & Gardens
15 Days & 13 Nights from £4,495
Hilary Smith will lead Iran: Persian Palaces & Gardens, one of Cox & Kings’ expert-led art tours organised on behalf of the Royal Academy of Arts, on 3-17 April 2017 and 9-23 April 2018. Diana Driscoll will lead the same tour on 9-23 October 2017.

Treasures of Persia
11 days & 10 nights from £2,495 per person
This comprehensive tour of Iran includes stays in Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan and Yazd and visits the main cultural attractions including Pasargadae, Persepolis and Nagsh-e-Rostam.



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