Robed to enter mosque in Shiraz, Iran. PHOTOS: CONTRIBUTED
Robed to enter mosque in Shiraz, Iran. PHOTOS: CONTRIBUTED

YOUR STORY: Iran’s ancient beauty

FLYING over the vast sandy desert of Saudi Arabia via Dubai to Tehran, the country, once full of thriving towns, now looks desolate. Amman is not so far from Tehran as the crow flies, but as the airspace over neighbouring Iraq and Syria is closed to commercial airlines, flights go via Dubai or another safe airport. My introduction to Iran was potentially terrifying, as the taxi driver from the airport to the Parsian Englehab Hotel acted like a racing car driver, cutting ten minutes from the thirty minute trip. I told myself that Iran was not going to be the place where my life ended and tried to relax. On safely arriving, he had the audacity to ask me for a tip!

The following day I joined a fourteen day tour around Iran run by G Adventures, led by Mahdi Jahanbaksh, a guide for eighteen years who, when not guiding around Iran, takes groups of Iranian travellers to far flung lands. He delights in introducing Iran to visitors in an interesting and truthful way and clearly loves his country. He is keen for his groups to discover that Iran is a peaceful and friendly country whose people are open and welcoming. Our group of fourteen from several different countries certainly found this to be true, as we were warmly welcomed everywhere we went. Women in chadors wanted their photos taken with us. The women in our group were expected to dress modestly and cover our hair with a scarf. We complied as it saved us from bad hair days in the heat and humidity of June.

Tehran is a bustling city of dilapidated grandeur, good but aging public transport, and hundreds of mobile phone and computer shops. Everyone seemed to have an iPhone or Android. Seen from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus expertly driven by Abbas, our group set forth to enjoy the highlights of this ancient country. The carpet museum and the museum of fabulous jewels collected by the Shah in his days of excessive spending, which he had to leave behind when he fled the country in 1979, were exquisite. Especially notable was the fabled Peacock Throne which is huge and completely studded with jewels of all shapes and sizes.

From Tehran the bus took several hours to reach the ancient city of Yazd, with its intriguing mud-brick buildings adorned with badgirs (wind-catcher towers), an original form of air-conditioning. On two barren hills above the town stand the round Towers of Silence where Zoroastrians, an ancient religious group, once buried their dead in a large pit. A Zoroastrian Fire Temple, said to have been burning since AD470, can be seen through a window from the entrance hall of the most recent building, completed in 1940. 

Persians and Medes on Palace stairway Persepolis.
Persians and Medes on Palace stairway Persepolis.


Kerman, a six hour drive across barren country dotted with huge flourishing orchards of pistachio nut trees, said to be the oldest city in Iran, was founded in the early third century AD. Shahzadek (Prince) Garden lay like an oasis in the desert a short distance from the town, with many colourful rose gardens and active fountains feeding water along channels. Nearby Bam was bypassed as it was nearly completely destroyed by a severe earthquake a few years ago, but the restored citadel at Rayen is a worthy substitute. After a ten hour drive through barren country, passing great salt lakes, we arrived in Shiraz, to be delighted by its wide, clean, tree-lined streets, well dressed people and the air of prosperity. Once home to Hafaz and Sa'ade, two of Persia's most famous poets of the 13th and 14th C. their ornate shrines and museums attract large numbers of Iranian visitors. Many new hotels are being built in anticipation of a tourist boom once the sanctions of the past years are eventually lifted, and Iran's banking system is no longer cut off from the rest of the world.

Our next stop, Persepolis, built on the slopes of Mt. Rahmat, and spread over 125 sq. kilometres, has long been on my shortlist of archaeological sites to visit and didn't disappoint. Begun in the Achaemenid period by Darius the Great in 518 BC, it was destroyed by Alexander the Great some two hundred years later in 330 BC. Apparently he needed 3,000 camels to carry away the spoils. Stone bas-reliefs carved by highly skilled artists adorn the walls and stairways of the ruined Apadana palace and public buildings. Kings Darius I, Darius II, Xerxes I, and Antaxerxes I are interred in decorated stone tombs carved into cliffs of living rock at nearby Nagsh-Rostam.

Esfahan, guarded by the restored Koran Gate, with its wide tree-lined boulevards, make wandering this ancient city a pleasant experience. The Bazar-e Bozorg, a huge spice-scented market surrounding the great Imam Square, is one of Iran's most famous and fascinating marketplaces. A complex maze of lanes, caravanserais, religious schools, shops, arcades and domed ceilings, it can be entered through several gates although the main entrance, the Qaysariah Portal, is worth seeing for its beautiful tiles and restored frescoes featuring Shah Abbas at war with the Uzbeks, as well as hunting and feasting scenes. Overlooking the square, once used as a polo field 400 years ago, stands the imposing six story Ali Qapu Palace built at the end of the 16th C as a residence for Shah Abbas I. At its very top a music and pleasure room, reached by a tight spiral staircase.

The ancient city of Parsgadae, begun by Cyrus the Great in 546 BC predated Persepolis. Now a haunting, windswept ruin, it is worth the effort of visiting although there is not much left to see. It awaits the skilled hands of archaeologists to reveal past glories. After four nights in Esfahan, our next stop was the 1500 year old hilltop town of Abyaneh. A relic from ancient times with mud-brick buildings, overhanging balconies, maze of narrow streets and intriguing wooden doors behind which hid small shops, this town is inhabited mainly by old people as most of its young have fled to cities. Toothless women, dressed not in chadors but brightly patterned shawls and men with pleated, wide-legged trousers and white shirts, sat on benches in the sun. A local lad aged about 12 appointed himself our guide to lead us out of town to a hidden Zoroastrian fire temple disguised as a mosque to save it from destruction.

Our last town on this circuitous route of over one thousand kilometres around Iran was delightful ancient Kashan. It was once full of mansions, home to merchants plying the Old Silk Road, some of which have recently been restored, along with beautiful tiled mosquesAn intriguing feature found on house doors in Kashan is two door knockers, one round and fat and the other long and thin, which make different sounds so that the household would know whether a woman or a man was at the door. Guess which was which.

The future of tourism in Iran will be influenced by the success of the current nuclear talks and a potential agreement to the lifting of the long imposed sanctions, which have had a real impact on the economy. For the entire month of my journey around the two ancient, arid lands of Jordan and Iran, I felt welcomed and safeWhat are you waiting for - visit Iran before it becomes the next popular place to visit.


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