Discovering Iran’s… architecture & archaeology
The first reaction I received when speaking about my upcoming holiday to Iran was, ‘What do you want to go there for?’ With the current political situation between ‘the West’ and Iran, this is not surprising. However, it was a country I had wanted to visit for a long time, both for its archaeology and architecture. A good offer came through, and I thought, if I don’t go now, I never will.
I was surprised by the warm welcome from Iranians on the street. I did not once get a hint of dislike; people were unfailingly polite and welcomed us. We were asked if we would sit with their family for photographs and were offered slices of their fruit.
Something to bear in mind is that, in Muslim culture, a man must not touch a woman. Although there were some quite elderly people in the group and three male staff members on the coach, everyone had to get on and off without a helping hand. They’re not being rude, they just can’t do it. Women must wear a loose, long top and a headscarf at all times, though they are often worn very loosely. Although, ordinary Iranians don’t seem to go to ridiculous lengths, there were religious people around. If you saw a school girl, she seemed enveloped in black. Some local women can be seen wearing tight decorated jeans with attractive tops and they don’t seem to worry about bare ankles or painted nails. We also didn’t see anyone being stopped.
The cuisine consists of lamb and chicken kebabs, some fish and shell-fish, heaps of rice sprinkled with a variety of spices, nuts, fruit – pomegranate is a given – and often flavoured with saffron. Iranians seem to have large appetites and an incredibly sweet tooth! There was always a large box of biscuits being passed around the bus: nougat, pistachio, sesame, sugar-coated nuts, dates, baklava-like pastries and delicious ice cream. Of course, alcohol is banned, something my father would have called ‘near beer’ was available and in the end most of us succumbed, but it was pretty windy!
We were told that we would be unable to use credit or debit cards in Iran and that any purchases would need to be paid for in cash (dollars, euros or pounds, in that order). This proved to be true in hotels and at many market stalls. At the higher end however, demonstrations of the goods were made with little pressure to buy them and it was possible to pay by card. In one case, I really wanted to buy but had no card. I was told to take the goods and to transfer the money when I got home. How is that for trust? The value of the rial is incredibly low; the highest value note – half a million – is worth about £10. So food and goods were cheap for us, but those friendly citizens must be struggling.
Iran’s capital, Tehran
Arriving into Tehran, we unfortunately only had half a day’s sightseeing. We visited the Golestan Palace, which is the former seat of government for the Qajar family and has beautiful architecture, paintings, mirrored rooms, marble and tile work, wood carvings and lattice windows. The throne that was used for the coronation of the Shah was made of yellow marble from Yazd. Next was the National Archaeology Museum, which was full of treasures – some dating back as far as 6-7000BC. There is a great deal more to see in Teheran including the Jewel Museum and the old US embassy, now the US Den of Espionage, and much else. I would’ve happily stayed another day.
On our way to the domestic airport, we stopped at the beautiful octagonal Azadi Tower, which is part of the Azadi Cultural Complex. Commissioned by the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, it was intended to showcase Iran and impress visitors. Surprisingly, on the avenue leading to it there was a modern statue of a young man taking a selfie.
How can a place be called Shiraz and not be allowed to sell wine?
Shiraz is 1,600 metres above sea level and was very pleasant. It is an impressive city, famous for its two medieval poets, Saadi and Hafez, whose tombs we visited. We visited Hafez’s tomb at night. It was situated in a beautiful, serene garden that was flood lit and full of local families relaxing and enjoying themselves. We were told that if we met any rich, well-educated Iranians that they would be from Shiraz. The pink Nasir ol Molk mosque was remarkable, with amazing tile work and colourful reflections of the stained glass windows on the ground inside. Apparently the conservatives in society do not like some of the tile work because it shows western castles and buildings.
Nasir ol Molk Mosque, Shiraz
Even if you are not interested in archaeology, Persepolis is not to be missed.
The ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire is an impressive 120,000 sq km, built by Darius the Great in 515BC. It was used to welcome and impress ambassadors, for religious ceremonies and for the great to be buried. There are lots of major buildings, columns with bases and capitals, and wonderful stone reliefs. Darius established a universal standard coinage and set up a postal system. We continued on to the tombs of Darius II and Xerxes.
Tomb of Darius the Great, Persepolis
The centre of the Zoroastrian faith, Yazd
We saw a lot of the countryside on the drive to Yazd – rolling sand mountains and groups of nomads with their camels and sheep. As we were all wondering about lunch, we pulled off the road through an unprepossessing concrete wall into a modern caravanserai – a roadside inn for travellers. There was fresh water flowing and tables on which we had our picnic lunch of salad, beans, tuna, cheese, flat bread and the dreaded ‘near beer’ or Coke. Some nomads with their goats wandered through and the host was more than welcoming.
In the middle of the desert, Yazd is surrounded by mountains whose waters feed the city by ancient canals. There is a fascinating water museum, as well as a fire museum. Yazd is 5,000 years old and 10% of its population is Zoroastrian. The old houses are made of sun-dried mud bricks with tall wind towers that act as cooling systems and high walls to provide shade. A lot of these old houses also have canals running through their basements.
Towers of Silence, Yazd
We visited the Zoroastrian funeral centre. It could not be called a ‘burial centre’ because after families washed the bodies, priests took them to specific hill tops for the vultures. This practice was banned by the last Shah, who gave them land for a cemetery. We pottered about the Jameh Mosque of Yazd, the Yazd Atash Behram fire temple, the old Jewish quarter and Tsitsernakaberd, the memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Our guide agreed that people of other faiths could convert to Islam, but not the other way round.
On the drive to Isfahan, our guide answered questions on average salaries, living costs, pensions and unemployment. In 1979, 1 US dollar was equivalent to 72 Iranian rial. In 2016, the rate was 40,550 rial. We stopped at a Post Museum – the postal service was set up by Darius, a pigeon-house where the birds are kept for their fertiliser rather than their eggs or meat and a large caravanserai for tea and biscuits, where handicrafts and weaving products could be bought.
Jameh Mosque of Yazd
My highlight, Isfahan
The market square of this beautiful city is surrounded by shops of upmarket crafts, carpets, tablecloths and miniature paintings. All the mosques we visited had beautiful arches and tile work. Built in 1600AD, Si-o-se-pol Bridge is beautiful with 33 arches in two layers. Young people were relaxing and chatting in the arches, and there was an impromptu reading group and choir. A group of women then gave us fruit while a university student told us about the history of the bridge – it was a memorable occasion.
In the evening, we were taken to see zoorkhaneh – an ancient form of Persian wrestling that is part martial art, part strength training and is combined with music, concentration and meditation. Women don’t normally attend, but for tourists the ladies are deemed ‘honorary men’. Inside was a domed structure with a sunken circular pit, half a dozen men of varying ages and a musician – the morshed – setting the pace using a drum. The training consisted of ritual gymnastic movements, many using heavy wooden clubs, which explains the strong upper body and Iran’s success in wrestling and weight lifting at the Olympics. Archery also seemed to be involved, as well as there was an element of Sufism and ‘whirling dervish’.
Adrienne Finch joined Cox & Kings’ Iran: Treasures of Persia group tour. To find out more about holidays to Iran, please speak to one of our Middle East experts.