Laura Millar finds a much-misunderstood country that’s a fascinating mix of ancient and modern
CONTRARY TO WHAT THE MEDIA MIGHT INSINUATE, THE COUNTRY IS MORE PROGRESSIVE THAN YOU WOULD THINK
It’s Thursday night in Tehran, Iran’s teeming capital, and inside the Azari teahouse, one of the oldest in the city, the weekend – literally – starts here. Garrulous groups of friends and families are sitting, cross-legged, on raised divans lined with colourful carpets, crowding around tables groaning with food: freshly baked flatbreads, bunches of herbs, skewers of grilled lamb and chicken, whole crispy fish, and massive platters of rice studded with tart, ruby-coloured barberries.
In the corner, a live band are playing, one musician beating on a daf, a drum which looks like large, flat tambourine, while another plucks at a setar, a long-necked, bulbous-bodied string instrument. People at a neighbouring table see us looking blankly at the menu, written in Farsi, and offer to help me and my travel companions navigate it in their impeccable English (well, better than our Farsi, anyway).
The atmosphere is lively, and wreathed in fragrant smoke; like most teahouses in the country, shisha pipes are part of the furniture, and provide the equivalent hit of an after-dinner liqueur. We end the night stuffing our faces with sticky, honey-covered pastries, downing delicate glasses of strong, sweet tea, and smoking ourselves silly with apple, orange blossom, and blueberry flavoured tobacco. With this kind of sugar high, who needs booze, anyway?
It’s my first proper night in a country which, before I arrived, I had only a hazy knowledge of. In the run up to my departure for a two-week group tour of Iran, I’m torn between excitement and curiosity, but also a good deal of apprehension and nerves. Even if you’re well-travelled, Iran is properly ‘other’; with a controversial, and globally worrying, nuclear programme, it’s viewed as suspicious, closed, and secretive – or at least it has been, up until recently.
A theocracy, it’s currently ruled by the Supreme Leader, a powerful Muslim cleric called Ali Khamenei. He assumed the role on the death of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 after spearheading a bloody revolution which overthrew the ruling royal family, and what the religious minority feared were their increasingly decadent, oil-funded, pro-western ways.
You can kind of understand why, when you see the deposed Shah, Mohammad Pahlavi’s, White Palace in Tehran – it’s rammed to the rafters with expensive European paintings and furniture – or the ridiculously OTT, Liberace-like, diamond and ruby-encrusted Peacock Throne which now sits in the capital’s National Jewellery Museum.
Funny at the time, but how much of a sense of humour did Iran actually have in the aftermath of its revolution, which was followed by a traumatic, eight-year war with Iraq?
What kind of people would I find there? Repressed and unhappy, or stoically going about their business? As it turned out, the people were perhaps the most amazing part of the whole journey.
Over half of the country’s population of around 80 million are under 35, and have no experience of pre-revolutionary life, unlike their parents or grandparents. They are incredibly well-educated, articulate, and many speak English.
My guide, Mohammad, is no exception; a laid-back 33 year old, he is endlessly knowledgeable, and, over the fortnight, gives our group a comprehensive – and well-balanced – overview of Iran’s often complex religious and political history. During a drive through Tehran, for example, he points out the old American embassy, which was shut down in 1979 and covered in anti-US graffiti, including a picture of the Statue of Liberty with a skull for a face. “Most people do not think like that now,” he explains – which reassures the two Americans in our party no end.
But it doesn’t take long to see that people here are fascinated by visitors, wherever they’re from, and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. It’s not often that I’ve been moved to tears while wandering around a market (although the sight of the freshly decapitated goat heads for sale may have contributed to my emotional state), but at the buzzing bazaar in the small, elegant desert city of Yazd, our group was so mobbed by curious, delighted citizens eager to ask us for our impressions of Iran, welcome us to the country, and thank us for being there, that it felt a bit like being hailed as some kind of saint.
In a way, we might be; through various conversations with people, I get the sense they hope that the more tourists come and visit, the greater the chance that some of the rules might eventually be relaxed. Though, contrary to what the media might insinuate, the country is more progressive than you would think.
Women are fully entitled to education – I observe a few mixed groups of students celebrating their graduation on the steps of the tomb of the 14th-century poet Hafez, in the vibrant university city of Shiraz, and meet several who have jobs as biologists, engineers and lawyers – and they are very conscious about how they look.
This goes beyond fashion, though I absolutely loved the way women, particularly in the larger cities, push the boundaries of hijab to the limit. Colourful silk scarves are worn right at the back of the head, designer sunglasses propped up on top, teamed with slim, cigarette-style trousers and elegant belted jackets.
The ultimate accessory is a strip of bandage across the bridge of the nose: this signals its wearer has had rhinoplasty, the most popular cosmetic surgery in Iran, which itself has the highest rate of rhinoplasty in the world.
As one woman sweetly explained, “We can’t show our beauty through our hair or clothes, so we do it through our face.” I confess I am surprised; the women here are beautiful as they are, but it’s a small rebellion, and a way of trying to be more western. Despite not having access to Facebook or Twitter, people do have Instagram, and while TV is largely state controlled, you can watch international films and shows.
But while Iran’s status as a modern, potential power-player on the international stage is hopefully underway, thanks to the lifting of economic sanctions in January 2016, and due to its vast oil reserves and relative political stability (compared to most of the Middle East), it’s the country’s past that most visitors will be keen to explore.
Iran is overflowing with history. It has 19 Unesco heritage sites, many of which are centuries old and hark back to the origins of the Persian Empire, which was established by Cyrus the Great in 550BC. The most famous of these is Persepolis; around 560 miles south of Tehran, it’s a sprawling, ancient city complex which was largely built by Cyrus’ successor, Darius I. An impressive, large-scale citadel, with a huge entrance gate, a central palace, vast terraces, elaborate columns, and more, unfortunately most of it was burned down in 330BC by Alexander the Great – as revenge for the burning of a Greek temple in Athens by Persian king, Xerxes. Whoops. Thankfully, plenty remains, which was successfully excavated in the 1930s.
IRAN HAS 19 UNESCO HERITAGE SITES, MANY OF WHICH HARK BACK TO THE PERSIAN EMPIRE
Arriving on a hot, dusty morning, having travelled along sandy desert roads lined with pistachio trees, we’re faced with hordes of tourists keen to use their selfie sticks. We pass through the imposing Gate of All Nations, its huge columns carved with creatures with the bodies of winged bulls and the heads of bearded men.
Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of Persia, where Darius would receive his important visitors; Mohammad points out incredible carved bas-reliefs depicting Darius receiving gifts from foreign leaders. Although I’m nearly left behind, thanks to a friendly group of Iranian schoolgirls who want me to describe life in London when I should be boarding the coach, I make it to the nearby site of Naqsh-e Rustam, where Darius and three of his ancestors are buried in awe-inspiring giant tombs, cut high into rock.
Some history is more unusual; on the outskirts of Yazd, the first town we head to after Tehran, are the Game of Thrones-sounding Towers of Silence. These are two wide, flat, circular structures each built on a hill in the 17th century by the followers of the Zoroastrian religion.
Need to know
You will need a visa to visit Iran. These can be obtained from the consulate in London. The visa application will generally be made via your tour operator, and you will then be provided with an authorisation code which you can use to apply for the visa. As this has to come from the embassy in Tehran, however, it can take several weeks, so it’s wise to book your trip as far in advance as possible. It is compulsory for all women to wear a hijab in public; this means covering your hair, and wearing loose-fitting clothing which reaches your wrists and ankles. Open sandals are allowed, but closed shoes are preferable. Men should wear long trousers although they can wear short sleeved shirts. Iran is a dry country. There is nowhere to buy alcohol, and it is forbidden to bring it into the country.
Zoroastrians believed when one of their members died, they should not be buried in the ground, in case the decomposing bodies contaminated it, but placed high up, in the open air, so that birds and other predators could consume the corpses’ flesh. “They only stopped doing this 40 years ago,” says Mohammad blithely, which is perhaps still a bit too recent…
And, of course, you can’t go anywhere without encountering a fantastically tiled mosque. Around 95% of Iran’s Muslims are Shi’a (who believe that the prophet Muhammad appointed his son-in-law as his successor), the rest Sunni or Sufi. Regardless, they all pray in the same mosques, which are a tribute to the craftsmen who elaborately carved the lintels above their towering, arched doors, and painted the beautiful, clay tiles which cover their exteriors and interiors with graphic designs – often including quotes from the Koran – in turquoises and blues, whites and greens, yellows and pinks.
One of my favourites is located in what swiftly becomes my favourite city in Iran: the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque in Isfahan, the country’s cultural capital. Inside, on the very top of its domed roof, there is a miniscule painting of the body of a peacock. When the light streams through the latticed windows at the bottom of the dome, and hits the top, it makes the shape of a tail. Clever.
Situated on one side of Isfahan’s sprawling, pedestrianised main square, Meidan Emam (claimed to be second in size only to Tiananmen, Beijing, and formerly used as a polo field by past royal families – now used as a pitch for kickabouts by Beckham-mad teens), there are equally impressive buildings to be found. These include the Ali Qapu palace, which was built by Shah Abbas I in the 17th century. On the sixth floor is a beautiful music hall, where musicians would play; the walls are carved with the shapes of instruments, which helped with acoustics, as well as providing decoration.
The square is lined by the city’s bazaar, in whose cool, stone cloisters I spend several happy hours browsing the endless stores peddling saffron and other spices; elegant miniature scenes from Persia’s past painted on camel bone with a cats’ hair paintbrush; colourful ceramic plates; silver jewellery; and, of course, the ubiquitous Persian carpets. These can cost several thousand pounds, due to the time it takes to make one (sometimes over three years) and the sheer skill involved in weaving them.
YOUNG PEOPLE DO FIND WAYS TO HAVE FUN, AND HOUSE PARTIES ARE COMMON
That evening, we stop by one of Isfahan’s many bridges, Si-o-seh pol, which is atmospherically illuminated. Groups of people are picnicking in the heat (temperatures in May/June reach around 35°C by day, and stay at around 20°C at night), good naturedly offering to share their snacks or tea with us.
As Mohammad explains, “this is what people do for recreation at night as there are no bars or clubs any more.” Despite that, young people do find ways to have fun, he confides. House parties are common, often gloriously unsupervised by parents, and, while sex before marriage is illegal, it can, and does happen, and in bigger cities, like Tehran and Shiraz, despite it being frowned upon, more and more couples co-habit before marriage.
I really hope things do change here. This is a magnificent, beautiful country, a land of gardens and fountains, pomegranates and pistachios, art and artistry. It deserves to be seen, and heard. Their people are reaching out to us – and we should reach out back.