“If men had to wear these things, they’d be outlawed tomorrow,” sighs a foreign woman who’s dressed in an obligatory, full-length black chador. We’re in a cool vault in Iran’s National Jewelry Museum in Tehran, but the perspiration on her brow tells that it’s more than warm inside her modesty marquee.
We peer into a display cabinet, at the crown of Iran’s last Empress, that features an emerald the size of a tail light. The walls flicker with refractions from the gem trove known as the Iranian Crown Jewels, an astonishing swag of pendants, scimitars, scabbards and tiaras that might make the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London seem like baubles from a cut-rate kingdom.
I notice a number of Western faces among the museum visitors. The men are dressed in short sleeves while all women are obliged to shroud themselves, with only face and hands showing. A glimpse of stocking is still something shocking.
“You son-of-a-witch!” cackles our taxi driver as we career through the streets of the capital. He’s gesticulating at other cars while showing us that English of sorts is fondly remembered by some Iranians. Despite the program of mutual demonising that the West and Iran have conducted over decades, during my week in Iran almost no one treats me like one of the real Satan’s lesser pitchforks. Despite being governed by theocrats and thugs, ordinary Iranians are courteous, eager for foreigners to enjoy their country’s sights and friendships.
Tehran is gritty and far too big, a metropolis of over 25 million people. The snow-capped, 5000-metre Alborz Mountains overlook the city’s faceless, blockhouse architecture and its deltas of traffic that are awash with seemingly rudderless cars. Within the melee we find the National Carpet Museum, a temple of the weaver’s infinite art. Its cornucopia of story-telling rugs embodies the decorative genius of regions like Tabriz, Kerman, Qum and Kurdestan. These 135 masterpieces make my finest rug at home look like so much linoleum.
On the forested slopes above the capital is the Green Palace, used by the last, and unlamented Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi for receptions and, it is said, his love trysts. Its chandeliers drip like crystal stalactites; the interior walls are tiled with thousands of mirrors. Meant to resemble a Persian Versailles, its effect is more akin to being trapped inside a palace of hallucinations.
Foreign tourists are again rediscovering Iran, although the annual total is still small. Tourism disappeared overnight when the 1979 people’s revolution ousted the Shah (only to be swiftly stolen by the mullocracy). In need of cash, the country’s theocrats toy with the Faustian bargain: risking cultural contamination in exchange for tourist lucre.
Travelling around Iran by air is cheap and efficient. Foreign tourists can wander freely through Iran’s great cultural centres, the heartlands of classical Persia. Shiraz, 900 kilometres south of Tehran, was the 12th century literary capital of Persia and is still celebrated not only for its Farsi poets, but also for silver filigree, silk rugs and (until the junta decreed otherwise) its namesake wine.
Beyond the town, dense groves of fig, pomegranate and almond trees leaven the desert scenery. At the Shiraz tomb of the mystic poet Sa’di (1201-91) our little group is surrounded by schoolkids eager to be included in any photo that’s going and clambering for our autographs. Welcome to your ten minutes of personal Persian Beatlemania.
Shiraz’s star attraction is Persepolis (“city of the Persians”), one of the world’s great archaeological sites. Intended by the Achaemenid emperor Darius I (who ruled 521-486 BC) to be his grand capital, Persepolis was torched before it was completed by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. The surviving stone staircases, terraces, fire temples and pavilions, covering 12 hectares, show the Achaemenians’ artistic brilliance.
Delicate reliefs on the walls of the Apadana Palace depict Libyans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Turks and others bearing tributes to Darius. Less delicate is the graffiti carved on a plinth: “Stanley. New York Herald. 1870”. Henry Morton Stanley, I presume – the Welsh journalist-explorer who, one year later, waxed less destructively immortal in Africa with the words, “Dr Livingstone, I presume.”
Iran’s population, of 80 million, ranges from urban technocrats to traditional Bakhtiari nomads. While shopping in the bazaars, or over rich brews in coffee shops, and at all those grand monuments, we chat with many of them – strangers, exuberant schoolkids, proud parents, not to mention moderate clerics.
Esfahan, Iran’s second largest city, is 30 minutes’ flight from Tehran. This capital of the 17th century Safavid dynasty can keep a visitor in awe for days. One of its most picturesque structures is the two-storey Khaju or “Wooden Bridge” (that’s actually made of brick), stretching across the Zayandeh River. A tea-house tucked under it is described curiously in my guidebook as a place, “to sit and drink tea or smoke the hubble-bubble, surrounded by slumbering Esfahan manhood.”
We briefly visit Esfahan’s ornate Vank Cathedral, where Christian Armenians have worshipped since 1660. Several girls here have dropped their headscarves and after, less than a week in Iran, I find myself surprised by the sight of their lustrous (and allegedly lust-inducing) tresses. Equally “shocking” is the vision of men and women worshipping side-by-side, rather than segregated.
Our guide, Sassan, keeps Esfahan’s best until last, the grand Imam Square. Five hundred metres long and 165 metres wide, this grand maidan built by Shah Abbas in 1612 is hemmed by arcades, palaces and a pair of mosques whose domes and walls are covered in millions of blue faience tiles. UNESCO has rightly designated he area as “a masterpiece of the human hand”.
Dominating the square is the sumptuous dome and portal of Imam Mosque – as thrilling a structure as any on earth. Thirty-eight metres above my head, the dome’s blue ceiling might well be Heaven tiled. I clap softly, once – and seven echoes return in a volley of thunderclaps.
The turquoise and yellow calligraphies within the smaller Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque constitute yet another act of adoration in mosaics. This exquisite mosque honours a 17th century cleric whom my guidebook, in its inimitable way, describes as, “a sort of Islamic Billy Graham of his time”.
In a nearby bazaar I thumb through postcards of Persia-Iran’s passing parade of sometimes brutal rulers – sultans, shahs, mullahs and demagogues. In doing so, I recall the words of perhaps the most enduring Persian ever, the poet Omar Khayyam:
“Think, in this battered caravanserai
Whose doorways are alternate night and day,
How sultan after sultan with his pomp
Abode his hour or two, and went his way.”
Words and images ©2016 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be reproduced or reposted, in part or whole, without written permission.