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A tour of Iran... and its Persian treasures

Cox & Kings’ Middle East expert Leah Reavley travelled to Iran on our Treasures of Persia group tour. She reports back on what makes this country so beautiful.

As we touch down in Tehran, I look around to see all the ladies gathering their headscarves and changing into more conservative clothing. I adjust my own headscarf, wary of showing too much hair. I pass through immigration and my visa is checked. There is no lengthy questioning as to why I am visiting Iran.

Upon meeting our transfer guide I remark upon the modern and clean airport. “Did you not expect us to have a good airport in Tehran?” he says with a smirk. Quite honestly, I am not sure. I don’t know what to expect on my visit to this ancient land, now a strict Islamic country, and it is hard to ignore the current political tensions so often in the news.

I am lucky enough to be travelling upon our Cox & Kings Treasures of Persia group tour with 12 other guests. Over the next 10 days we will visit the main highlights of this rich and varied land. We must put our judgements aside and remember that we are visiting Persia, a magical and ancient empire and home to one of the world’s very first civilisations.

Our tour begins with a journey from Tehran, the sprawling capital city, to Shiraz, famous for its exported wines, although now forbidden under Islamic law. This city of romantic poets and rose gardens is truly stunning and provides the perfect introduction to Persian architecture.

From Shiraz we make a day trip to the Unesco-listed site of Persepolis, a grand, ceremonial, capital city dating back to 515 BC. Sadly not a great deal is known about the site as much of the city was burnt and artefacts lost after Alexander the Great’s invasion. However the ruins still convey the magnitude of the buildings that once stood here.

Next we move on to Yazd, a desert city on a branch of the Silk Road, which made it an important trading post. The highlight here is an introduction to the Zoroastrians, one of the world’s oldest religions. We visit the fire temple, their modern-day place of worship in which a sacred fire has been burning since around 470 AD. Of particular interest are the Towers of Silence, located just outside the city. The dead used to be placed on these mounds where they were exposed to carrion birds.

From Yazd we travel via the charming town of Nain to Isfahan, perhaps Iran’s best-known city and the most splendid sight on our tour so far. Isfahan immediately strikes me as truly magnificent. Wide, tree-lined boulevards, modern housing alongside ancient buildings, 10 beautifully decorated bridges spanning the river leading into the city…I can just imagine the caravans crossing them and entering this grand city to trade their wares.

We have two full days to explore Isfahan with our guide, culminating in time spent in the Maidan Naqsh-e Jahan, the second largest square in the world. Don’t miss the views of the square from Ali Qapu palace, located on its west side. It’s a steep climb up four floors but the views from the top and the photo opportunities are certainly worth it.

The two mosques on the square are perhaps the most impressive of the whole trip. The imposing Friday Mosque watches over the square from the north end while the smaller Sheikh Lotfollah mosque is said to be the most beautifully decorated in all of Iran. Look out for the peacock at the centre of the domed roof.

Our tour is over all too soon. We head back to Tehran airport laden with Persian carpets, coloured headscarves, beautiful pottery and miniature paintings of Iranian scenes.

My lasting memory of the tour is of the Friday afternoon we spent at leisure in the maidan, wandering the bazaar for bargains, chatting to the traders and then walking through the square at dusk watching families picnicking and playing in the fountains. Everyone wanted to speak to us and ask where we were from. Did we like Isfahan? Could we have a picture together? It was an authentic insight into local life in this grand square, so often photographed without its people when it is the people that really bring this beautiful place to life.

Cox & Kings’ Treasures of Persia group tour explores the fascinating ancient ruins, exquisite gardens and impressive Islamic architecture of Iran. Alternatively, if you are interested in private travel, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.