Persia... Superlatives and Surprises

| April 7, 2017

The faces of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, a mural daubed vividly upon a tenement block in Tehran, gazed down upon our coach as our tour group crossed the nondescript modernity of Iran’s capital city en route to the former palace of the Peacock Throne.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque ceiling

Ceiling of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan © Nigel Purse

Multiple variations on those theocratic images were to prove an ubiquitous presence, their eyes seemingly following us from every square, mosque and public building during our stay. But, first impressions can be deceptive. We heard no muezzin calling in Tehran. A headscarf – often a fashion item among the almond-eyed ladies – and not the burqa was by far the most common means of complying with the hijab. We instantly encountered a thriving, cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial society in the traffic-clogged streets and, in due course, we saw plenty of evidence of high levels of investment in modern infrastructure to set aside the engaging allure of the traditions of an ancient society.  

Mural of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei © Nigel Purse

Thus began a most spectacular Persian odyssey. The throne room of the Golestan Palace, encased in a building of tiled splendour, and the timeless exhibits of Iran’s National Museum proved merely to be the hors d’oevre to an ensuing cultural feast of rare quality.

Straight off the flight to Shiraz we found ourselves in the Vakil bazaar, my wife determined to haggle for a gabbeh (traditional Persian carpet) for the kitchen floor amidst the press and huddle of a colourful commerce that has been going on since civilisation began. ‘Good price,’ was the verdict of the neighbouring stallholder on the subsequent purchase. We continued, via a walk around the half-restored citadel, to the Nasir-al-Molk mosque where we were confronted with a pink and yellow onslaught of what was to become in the course of the following week a familiar scene – the myriad tiles of the iwans. A short walk down the road and we found ourselves in the shade of the orange trees of the garden of Naranjestan, a former private house, where three businessmen who were holding a meeting invited my wife and me to share their tea, poured from a pot bearing the face of Shah Nasser al-Din, king of Persia during the latter half of the 19th century. This was the first of many examples of the exemplary Iranian hospitality. Shiraz is also the home of Persia’s poets and our days there ended at the peaceful tombs of Hafez, Iran’s most revered bard, and Sa’di, whose paean to the community of mankind is written above the entrance to the United Nations building in New York.

Pink Mosque, Shiraz

Pink Mosque, Shiraz © Nigel Purse

About 2,500 years ago the Achaemenid kings built Persepolis as an irrefutably awe-inspiring imperial statement where the 23 subject peoples of the first Persian empire would come, bearing gifts to demonstrate their fealty every New Year to their ruler. Put to the torch in a drunken frenzy by Alexander the Great (Alexander ‘the Accursed’ in the Persian version), the ruins still inspire the same awe today. Preserved on the grey friezes on the staircases, which remain among the vestiges of the columns, are images of Parthians, Elamites, Thracians, Cappadocians and men of all the nationalities of the empire carrying their offerings of obeisance. So vivid are the depictions of those characters that I stood in excited and barely containable exhilaration, feeling as if I were actually looking into the eyes of those historic people, the separation of the millennia of time seemingly eliminated.

Persepolis friezes

Persepolis friezes © Nigel Purse

Our journey continued, via the lonely tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae, the Zagros mountains and a curiously conical ice house in Abarqu, to the desert city of Yazd, home to the eternal Zoroastrian flame and the high towers of silence where the believers in Ahura Mazda, their supreme god, once laid out the dead, whose bones were then picked clean by vultures. Our party contained some present-day Zoroastrians who very graciously shared the tenets of their religion with us during what, for them, was a pilgrimage at this point. Our stay in Yazd included a walking tour through the mud-brick houses of the Old City, a visit to the Friday mosque and its magnificent dome and a chance to stock up on gaz, Iran’s delicious nougat, in the Amir Chakhmaq square (the only place on the entire trip where a policeman told me not to take a photograph).

Nothing our wonderful guide, Azar, could have said would have prepared us for Isfahan. This city of Shah Abbas, famed ruler of the Safavid dynasty, is rich beyond compare with some of the finest architecture ever built. It is a city in which one constantly looks up, mouth agape at the next visual feast.

Azar, Iran tour guide

Azur, Iran tour guide © Nigel Purse

The ceiling of the music room of the Ali Qapu palace is a masterpiece but is yet surpassed by the polychrome, tiled intricacies of the portal of the Shah mosque which, in its turn, casts envious glances at the interior dome of the Lotfollah, an exquisitely detailed and elegantly proportioned mosque, so beautiful that I would still be gazing at it now were it not for my flight home. Yet to come the following day was the austere majesty of the Friday mosque, the overwhelming artistry of the double-domed Armenian Vank cathedral, on whose walls are depicted an array of biblical scenes and a Last Judgement worthy in its horror of Hieronymus Bosch, and the symmetry of the Khaju bridge, now spanning an empty river. Our hotel, the Abbasi, was itself a delightful paradigm of a traditional caravanserai infused with sumptuous, old-world charm from which we essayed forth in our engaging group to sample the evening delights of Persia’s distinctive but subtle cuisine at of one of Iran’s most celebrated restaurants on our last night.

Music room of the Ali Qapu palace, Isfahan © Nigel Purse

As our plane thundered down the runway, bound for home, I reflected on a most hospitable land of (always pleasant) surprises and truly spectacular sights. In the words of Hafez, appropriately ironic for the Iran of the Ayatollahs, I knew that I had, indeed, in Persia been privileged to ‘drink the wine that flows from life’s bejewelled goblet’.

Nigel Purse travelled on the Iran: Treasures of Persia group tour >

All images taken by Nigel Purse.

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