Iran 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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
“Passer-by, I am Cyrus the Great, I have given the Persians an empire and I have ruled over Asia. So do not envy me for this tomb.”
~ Inscription on the tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pasargade, 6th Century BC
I love rambling through archaeological sites, running my fingers over millennia old ruins, walking down worn out paths where before me countless souls had also passed along. Where history was made and destinies defined. Sites like these are humbling, making us realize how small we are in the bigger picture. And yet such sites also fill us with a deep sense of pride in humanity’s political achievements and artistic endeavors which are a legacy belonging to all mankind.
The unspoilt expanse of Western Iran is desolate. Its people simple. Barren red mountains stretch as far as the eye can see, in sharp contrast with the clear blue skies above. Decade-old cars of forgotten makes and models plough highways punctuated with police checkpoints at rapid regularity. I’m on my way to Takht-e Soleyman, the spiritual center of Zoroastrianism, and on to Takab for the night, a minuscule town less than a hundred miles from the Iraqi border. Continue reading →
The adventure begins. I’m off to north-west Iran. There is something terribly exciting about visiting places away from the beaten path, meeting people who are not part of the global cloned collectivity. There is somehow always a heartwarming uniqueness in isolated individuality.
Western Iran is largely underdeveloped with a mixed history. Whilst it has enjoyed the spin-offs of being part of the famed Silk Road, it has also suffered the most in the Iran-Iraq war.
Note: I travelled to Iran in October 2007 for two weeks. Iran has been one of my most memorable travels to date. I am republishing the series comprising 10 posts till this mid-June. Refreshing my personal memories. This is the first post in the series—on Iran’s capital city Tehran and its museums, palaces, bazaars, and mosques. Hope you enjoy the reads. 🙂
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“Why are you going to Iran???” “Coz I want to.” “But why? You’ve really gone cuckoo. Just look at the current global political scenario!!!” “I’m going because I want to go that extra mile. Cross that extra river. Go beyond preconceptions and expectations. Learn for myself what really is out there.” “You’ve gone cuckoo, period!”
Salaam. I’m off to Iran. It was not an easy task explaining my choice of holiday for the year. 🙂 But, hey, who cares. I’m going where my heart wants me to go. I want to walk through the ruins of Xerxes’ Persepolis, wonder at the beauty of Esfahan, and smile and play with Kurdish children before it is all too late. Before it all becomes another Baghdad, Kabul or Libya. Come along with me? Continue reading →
One of my favorite travel images. Taken in Yazd, Central Iran in October 2007.
I was at the Ateshkadeh (Zoroastrian fire temple) in the new city when a group of five young girls placed themselves in front of me. Five girls, with five different personalities. Five different emotions. At the same place, same time, same age, validating the richness of human expression and thought.
Clockwise: The imp, the assured, the serious, the shy, the open laughter.