Iranians are not Arabs – don’t ever tell them you think they are, it will be the greatest insults.
Iranians are some of the most friendly people on earth and they enjoyed a sophisticated literally life.
Beneath the black veils and chador, Iranian women do enjoy life.
Before my trip to Iran, 3 reactions form the majority – “huh, are you sure?”, “can go meh?” or “why?”. The extreme minority who are enlightened shares valuable insights such as above which help me to go with an open mind and the book “Persian Mirror” by Elaine Sciolini was also a wonderful pre-trip read. It explores many contradiction of the Persian society and debunks many myths that most have about Iran.
“We are now entering Iranian Air Space…..” Suddenly, all alcoholic services stop and many Iranian women start putting on their head scarves and chador. I have to admit that these make me land in Iran with some apprehension.
But all concerns quickly dissipated when I stepped out of the airport into the crisp spring air that morning in Iran’s southern cultural city Shiraz.
Before Alexander The Great
The highlight of Shiraz or probably the whole country is the world class archaeological site of Persepolis. It puts Acropolis to shame and awe the most jaded ruins explorer. As I stood under the Xerxes gate staring at the vast plain dotted with remnants of a great palace, I could almost still see & feel those Great Persian Kings striding around.
Persepolis was the capital of the Persian Empire during its first golden age, the Archaemenid Empire. It was the base of great kings like Darius and Xerxes when they were harassing the Greeks. From its impressive columns and gates, it is not hard to imagine what it must have been like at its zenith. The most impressive was the Aapdana Stair Case at the Gate of All Nations with its carvings showing kings of almost all nations in the ancient world paying tributes to the Persian Emperors – Sogdian, Phoenicians, Syrians…
Our guide Pechman was an walking encyclopaedia. He truly made this 2,500 years’ old ruin even greater with his vivid stories from the past. As we found out later throughout the rest of the trip, he brought the whole Persian civilization alive.
Persian poets, mirrors, gardens and bazaars
Pechman was at his best at the tomb of Hafez and Saadi, the Persian equivalent of Li Bai and Du Fu. We returned from Persopolis and spent our time as the day wane in the lovely garden of the 2 tombs. He narrated beautiful poems and translate instantaneously all the love verses into English. Some of us literally were moved to tears!
As if all these are not enough, the great day continues into a wonderful night. We explored bazaars and drank in local tea shops. Being an avid traveller, I have to claim that I have been to numerous bazaars, markets and souks the world over. For a real culture shock, this one is hard to beat with not a single other tourist in sight.
The highlight was in a teahouse. Just intending to rest our tired feet, we set down in a non-descript “café”, Iranian style. All eyes were on us especially when we had to gesture our simple orders of tea or coffee. Suddenly, 3 veiled and chador clad ladies approached us and we were literally afraid! This was only our second night in Iran, have we broken some social norm or infringed on some long held local taboo?
“May we sit down?” The sweet voice in English was the greatest surprise of the trip. As it turned out, they were Iranian student wishing to practice their English or perhaps they are just genuinely curious about us like we were about them. What follows were exchanges of each other lifestyle which in many parts were similar to us and in as many, completely different. Yes, they are concerned of school grades and friends but they party very differently and a big “no”, they do not feel oppressed.
The night culminated with a surprise. As we thought we were strolling back to our hotels, Pechman made a detour and went through a small door. Inside was one of the most stunning interior architecture I have experienced! It was the mausoleum of Ali Ebne Hamzeh. The unassuming experience concealed the beautiful room which has all walls and ceiling covered literally with thousands of mirrors reflecting against each other creating a surreal effect. The unworldly ambience was further accentuated by almost a hundred faithful crowding into the small room paying respect to the great Imam at this time of the night.
The world’s first monotheistic religion in the world is actually Zoroastrian founded by Zoroaster some 5000 to 6000 years before Christianity. Leaving Shiraz, we drove 6 hours across the vast desert to its origin, the historical township of Yazd, which some historian consider it to be the world’s oldest continually liveable city.
Here, we visited some of the most important Zoroastrian historical, Zoroastrian Towers of Silence and Ateshkade (Fire Temple), which is said to have a fire continually burning for some 4,000 years.
Facts about Zoroastrian religion are amazing. Its god is Ahura Mazda and some say the founder of one of the leading car manufacturer in Japan Mazda names its company after Him.
Only a Parsi, the original Persian race can be a Zoroastrian. This means you can only be borne a Zoroastrian and not converted into it. The immediate question everyone has will be wouldn’t the following just keep diminishing and die out. I guess the best answers are like any animal species, they just have to reproduce enough to continue.
And indeed, the Parsi are more like panda with very few in the world. However, they like Armenians and Jews though few in numbers dominate in the highest echelon of the societies in professional, managerial and business community. In Iran itself where they originate, the religion was actually banned by Islam after Ayatollah Khomeini revolution. However, the Iranian New Year No Ruz is a Zoroastrian tradition continues after some 1500 years of Islamic rule.
“Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast” which means Esfahan is Half the World to describe its grandeur is perhaps the most famous quote in Iran. Personally, I have rated 5 Islamic cities as the greatest in terms of Islamic architecture – Istanbul, Cairo, Damascus, Samarkand and Esfahan. Istanbul is perhaps the grandest of them all but I would rate Esfahan top in terms of delicate beauty.
Chehel Sotun Palace has been listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is set in a lovely Persian Garden with a perfect reflecting pool. Many fresco and painting in ceramics adorned the walls and ceilings of the palace.
The reception hall is particularly impressive. And it is from here the Shah Abbas, the greatest ruler of the Safavid Empire and the 3rd golden age of Persia in 16th century ruled and received his guests. Before Europe dominated the world, 4 medieval empires were at their respective golden ages which make Europe at that time seem like barbarians. They are the Ottoman Turks, Indian Moghul, Persian Safavid and of course Ming China.
By the way, the 2nd Golden age of Persia was Sassanid from 1st to 5th century longer than Han Dynasty ruled China. Unfortunately, we do not see much of the sites related to this period as they are mainly in the remote western part of the country.
There are 4 squares in the world that travellers rated as the most grand & gorgeous – our very own Tiananmen, St Peters Square in Vatican, Red Square in Moscow and Naghsh-i Jahan Square right here in Esfahan.
Naghsh-i Jahan Square or more commonly known as Imam Square is an UNESCO World Heritage site and is surrounded by 4 impressive edifices, Imam Mosque, Sheik Lotfollh Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace and Bozorg Bazaar.
Imam Mosque, also known as the Shah Mosque is the main Mosque of the Safavid and one of the best examples of the architectural genius of the time. Its stalactite entrance is covered with turquois ornaments and impressive tileworks and there is even inscription by the master calligrapher Reza Abbasi. Another masterpiece is Sheik Lotfollah Mosque. It is the private mosque for the royal court and much smaller but to many more delicate and beautiful. Few outsiders have laid eyes on it till this century. Ali Qapu is the living palace of the Safavid while Chehel Sotun was the working palace.
Hotels, Shopping & food
Iran is certainly not the destination of indulgence.
Most hotels are just adequate to say the list but the one we stayed in in Esfahan is just spectacular – Hotel Abassi. It was converted from a former caravanserai (客栈). The historical architecture is superbly preserved. 4 rectangular 3 storied building each with its rows arched balconies surround the beautifully landscaped garden and courtyard. Get one of those mini-suites on the second floor and as you gazed out from your room to the garden & courtyard, you feel like a Persian royalty. The dining room is also palatial and the simple indoor swimming pool has different timing for the 2 genders.
Food, while unable to satisfy the gourmet specialists is like other aspect of Persian culture unique and an adventure by itself. I particular loved the yoghurt chicken and beef stew.
For shopping, carpets take centre stage. Indeed, who do not wish to have a beautiful Persian Carpet in their home? And once we arrive at Esfahan, the centre of Persian carpets all of us make endless request about making appointments to see some of best carpet dealers. To this, Pechman laughingly goes “Even if you are interested in buying a carpet at 2 a.m. Saturday morning, the shop will be opened for you!”
He is probably right. The carpet sellers are some of the most enthusiastic salesmen you can come across and a visit to one of the shops is a must.
“This one is weaved by 100 women over 2 years!” “This one has 100 knots within 1 cm square”, “The more you walked on this one, the newer it appears”…. The art of carpet weaving is another pride of the Persians. The shopkeepers literally threw more than 50 carpets on the floor each with a pleasing slapping sound as it hit the floor followed by all the “oo” & “wah” from us. To me this shopping experience outdid Champ Elyse and so did the amount it extracts from my wallet.
Each carpet costs anything from US$ 500/- for a small one for a stool to tens of thousands for a very good quality one for the sitting room. The quality depends on the number of knots, artistic genius and if it is weaved out of wool or silk. The cheapest is wool knots on wool base; followed by Silk knots on wool base; and the best will be silk knots on silk base.
And accepting payments for these huge purchases is another genius of the carpet dealers. Relationship with US means no US banks issued credit cards are not accepted in Iran. But, these dealers are not going to let such mundane administrative details hinder their sales. Faxing the credit card details to Dubai or HK easily does the trick!
The Smoggy Capital
Our final stop was Tehran, the capital which ranks among the most populated city in the world. Traffic practically comes to a standstill during the peak hours of this 10 million people. It makes our 3rd ring road seem traffic free. This sounds like a terrible place to end the trip but it was the reverse. Tehran is home to the country’s best museums, many world class of its kind and here are also palaces that tell the dramatic stories of the decadent Shah before being exiled by the Islamic revolution, not unlike the Qing Emperor in our Forbidden City in their dying years.
The climax was unfolded in Green and White Palaces in Saadabad Complex. This was the palace of the Pahlavi Dynasty whose Shahs led an extravagant lifestyle bankrolled by the west while the millions lived in poverty, a recipe for success by any revolution led alone one led by the charming Islamic spiritual leader Ayatollah Khoemeni. In 1979, he led the successful revolution from Paris forcing the last Shah Mohammed Reza to flee in panic & humiliation from the Green Palace in Saadabad.
Most travellers to Iran are not museum buff but explorer in spirit. But several museums are very worth visiting. The National Museum of Archaeology for its detailed chronological account of Iranian history and Reza Abbasi for its Persian fine arts. But 2 specialty museums are most interesting to most. The National Jewels Museum houses the largest diamond in the world – the pink Darya-I Nur (Sea of Light).
And the Carpet Museum houses the most extensive collection of the Persian carpets. Unfortunately, the world’s oldest only has its replica here. The original is in London’s British Museum for which Pechman lamented that when he visited, he could not even see it because it was in the storeroom, not deserving of a place in the exhibition among other collection of the museum. It would have been the centrepiece here. This brought back the familiar argument of shouldn’t all the top international museum in New York, London and Paris return all the treasures to their deserving home?
Our last stop ended our historical journey through the country well – the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini. Revolution means big changes, but the one he led in 1979 certainly ranks among the most dramatic in the world. His passing was equally moving. Millions poured onto the streets to grieve. It happened on 3 Jun 1989, the death before our own Tiananmen incidence and thus perhaps escaped most of our notice.
Iran certainly starts opening up after his death, albeit slower than most outsiders would like. Our journey truly revealed a beautiful country behind the dark veil of negative international media coverage of Islamic extremism and nuclear crisis. The Persian culture is as long and as sophisticated as ours and its people are not anti-outsider at all and in fact some of the most friendly and welcoming.
Chang Theng Hwee is the Managing Director of Country Holidays Travel and an expert on family travel. He and his wife have been taking their three children (now aged 10, 12 and 15 years) on travel adventures since they were 5 years old. To find out more about what destinations are ideal for families, visit www.countryholidays.com.cn