iran 10: tehran … politics, shrines, and martyrs

tehranamericaIran has a complicated relationship with the rest of the world. Whilst on one hand it has been labeled as an “axis of evil” by the West, the war with Iraq lasted for eight years and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives as trench warfare and poison gas were used for the first time since the First World War. Yet Iran’s only retaliation to it all is a couple of banners and a handful of painted wall murals outside the now ex-United States of America embassy in Tehran, and a Martyrs Cemetery where young, impish school children sing songs and pay homage to their country’s dead heroes. It makes you wonder.

As the world ostracizes this ancient nation nestled between Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran itself carries about its own business as usual. It has a largely flawless infrastructure throughout its vast expanse, a wonderfully rich heritage, and an educated and graceful people with ready smiles and laughter. “Iran good?” is the question asked by everyone you meet. There is such an eagerness to be accepted. To be liked. To be understood. Continue reading

iran 9: nain, abyaneh, kashan—travelling through the desert

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I’ll be leaving in a couple of days; I have been in Iran for two weeks now. How easily we are able to change our habits. Two weeks and I now feel uncomfortable going out in public without my hejab, kebabs have become my staple diet, and salams and merci come easily. One more week here and I would be all chadored, going na na every time someone wanted to take a picture of me.

Travelling through miles of desert is an extraordinary experience. It also teaches you not to be fussy. Bathrooms are invariably behind a sand dune, at a little booth in a caravanserai, or in a thicket. So when you emerge you learn to check your front and backside as well so that there are no twigs sticking out of your hejab. It gives a whole new angle to the “going to the ladies” ritual.

There are two main deserts in Iran—Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut—and they are both dotted with tiny little towns built around ancient mosques. Nain is the most charming with its carpets and 9th Century Jameh mosque decorated with stunning yet simple stucco-work. Continue reading

iran 8: esfahan nesf-e Jahan, esfahan is half the world

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Esfahan is like a fabled town straight out of a medieval story with its ethereal mosques, opulent palaces, picturesque bridges and fabulous bazaars, all set around the most beautiful square in the world, the Maidaan Naqsh-e Jahan.

Naqsh-e Jahan meaning “pattern of the world” owes its splendour to the vision of Shah Abbas the Great. Began in 1602 as the centerpiece of the Shah’s new capital, the square was designed to house the finest architectural jewels of the Safavid Empire. Measuring 512 meters long and 163 meters wide, it is the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Royal equestrian arts and polo games were once put on show here for the Shah and his court. Continue reading

iran 7: the desert city of yazd

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I am nearing Yazd. The landscape is stunning. Towering, barren, sedimentary mountains streaked with iron oxides flank both sides of the road. It has been a long day, driving through hundreds of miles of arid wilderness. As I wind my way through the burgeoning city, millions of street lights twinkle in the darkness in warm welcome.

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Yazd is one of those not-to-be missed, no-matter-what, highlights of Iran. Wedged between two desolate deserts, it has long been a prosperous staging post on the caravan route between Esfahan and Central Asia. The city was an important center for Iran’s pre-Islamic religion, Zoroastrianism, and still has the largest Zoroastrian population in the country at 12,000. Continue reading

iran 6: shiraz, the heartland of persian culture

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Drink until the turbans are all unbound,
Drink until the house like the world turns around.
~ Hafez, Sufi poet (14th Century)

I’m in Shiraz, the heartland of Persian culture. Shiraz was one of the most important cities in the medieval Islamic world and the capital of the Zand Dynasty from 1747 to 1779. Through its many artists and scholars the city earned a reputation for being the “House of Learning” and was synonymous with education, nightingales, poetry, roses. and at one time, red wine. It is home to one of the oldest universities dating to the 7th Century AD. Two of the world’s greatest poets, Hafez and Saadi are buried here. Continue reading

iran 5: the city of darius I, esther and avicenna—hamedan

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Hamedan (also spelt Hamadan) is one of those cities where you can stroll through 2,500 years of history in a single afternoon. Cuneiform tablets of Darius I and Xerxes I proclaiming their kingship, Esther’s tomb, Avicenna’s 11th Century mausoleum, and a European style street plan with elegant squares designed in 1929 by German engineer Karl Frisch make up the Hamedan of today. And amidst this eclectic mix of history live a people with a traditionally deep-seated respect for knowledge and the sciences. Education is very highly regarded in Iran and literacy is around 80 percent. More than 60 percent of university students are women. Continue reading