âYou have to know something,â a tall, lively Iranian told me. He has an intense expression and his prickly index finger is almost on my chest. âWe are not terrorists,â he said. He runs his pointed hand over his heart. âWe love your nation. We love all nations. The Iranian people love all the people of the world.
I’m in the middle of a conversation with the amiable Afshin in the pink shirt. We are in a corner of Imam Square in the city of Isfahan, in central Iran. As I find out, Iranians want to change the way their country is viewed and are fascinated by what you think about it. (âDo you like Iran?â Afshin asks me later.)
For a visitor, the most striking quality of the Iranian people is their hospitality. Random Iranians – in big cities – often say, âHello. How are you? âStart chatting with you and welcome you to their country. Tourists are such a novelty that foreigners often ask if they can have a photo with you. It gives Iran travel a surreal quality , Justin Bieberesque.
But as my exchange with Afshin also shows, Iran has had a troubled international relationship for the past four decades. After the Shah fled the country in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini established Iran as an Islamic republic. Since then it has been largely enveloped in the West.
I visited Iran with four friends in 2017, as the country slowly began to open up to tourists. After Iran reached an international agreement in 2015 to restrict its nuclear program, the UN lifted economic sanctions against the country. In 2018, Donald Trump controversially pulled the United States out of the historic pact, but President Biden wants to restore it.
Iran closed its borders to tourists in March 2020 due to the pandemic. It’s slowly reopening to vaccinated travelers, but due to an unstable security situation and the spread of Covid across the country, you’re unlikely to be going anytime soon.
So Isfahan, where I meet Afshin, is out of reach for now, but the city has exerted a magnetic pull on travelers for centuries. Indeed, “Isfahan is half the world” is an ancient Persian proverb. When I start to look around Imam Square, I get an idea of ââwhat this means. The place is enormous. After Tiananmen Square, it is the largest in the world and is surrounded by an almost unbroken perimeter of slat-colored brick buildings in a uniform two-story design.
It is around noon. Children play in the plaza’s fountains and teenagers cavort on bicycles near the black horse-drawn carriages that take tourists around manicured lawns and evergreen trees.
We walk from the splendor of the square through the dimly lit hallway of the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and into a striking prayer hall. It is a tapestry of sunlight filtering through tall stained glass windows under a domed ceiling engraved with exquisite lemon-shaped patterns. The ceiling tiles culminate in a glittering fan mount of a peacock’s tail.
This image comes to mind a little later. Trying to meet a potential partner in Iran must be tricky: by law, men and women who are not related to each other cannot socialize – or touch each other – in public, and dance, as this can be interpreted. as “indecent”, is in fact prohibited.
But at Si-o-se Pol Bridge, I see a group of male friends in their twenties, all wearing identikit skinny jeans and Bose headphones, stealing stares as they stroll past a group of young women wearing heels. repulsed tops and scarves. The air is heavy with the hints of Calvin Klein and Yves Saint Laurent.
In public, Iranian women must wear the headscarf. We sometimes stay with local families and the custom of women wearing headscarves in their own homes varies. On these occasions, Suzanne, the only woman in our group, follows the example of our hosts. Women should also cover their arms and legs. In cities, many women wear stylish, brightly colored tunics – called coats – over jeans. Men, on the other hand, are not allowed to wear shorts in public.
Sunset is approaching and along the 33 arches of the magnolia-colored Si-o-se Pol Bridge, couples and friends sit, chat and watch a luminous salmon-pink sky paint its reflection on the sparkling Zayandeh River.
Iran is a Muslim country, but it is not Arab. Farsi is the national language and Iran today was once home to the ancient Achaemenid Empire: in its heyday it stretched from India to Ethiopia – the largest empire the world has ever known. .
The city of Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Today, the city’s ruins – a vast sandy brown terrace carved out of a mountain – evoke its ancient imperial extravaganza. We follow the route taken by the foreign delegations on their arrival in the city: up the Grand Staircase and through the imposing pillars – defended by sculptures of bulls – of the Gate of All Nations. But unlike that, no trumpeter is there to greet us.
Looking from the site, it’s a jigsaw puzzle of risers (upright and collapsed) brilliantly vivid against the sunny haze of the surrounding mountains. In its pomp, the grandeur of Persepolis rivaled that of Rome and Athens.
In fact, it was Alexander the Great who in 330 BC destroyed Persepolis. Accounts claim that Alexander needed at least 3,000 camels to transport the city’s treasures. What is most surprising about Persepolis today is not the scale but the minutiae.
The meticulous detail of the bas-reliefs expresses a fascinating history: depicting the peoples of the empire – including Arabs, Egyptians and Ethiopians – and emphasizing the importance of the equinox to this culture by frequently showing a lion (representing the sun) killing a bull (the moon). The tradition continues: The Iranian New Year begins on March 21.
Outside the perimeter of the Unesco site, next to the toilets and half hidden by pine trees, we see a collection of metal frames in an abandoned field. When we walk there, we realize that we have come across another very different chapter in Iranian history.
If it looks like the forgotten structures of a monumental circus, it is in a way what it is. In 1971, the Shah built a sumptuous tent city there to mark the 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy for more than 600 international dignitaries at a big party. Guests were served quail eggs stuffed with caviar by French chefs. Ironically, the libertine celebrations planted the seeds of the Islamic revolution.
Today, every Iranian household is said to have at least two books: the Qur’an and the collected poems of Hafez, a 14th century poet who is to Iran what Shakespeare is to England.
In Hafez’s hometown of Shiraz, his memory is well marked. In a vast garden with swimming pools and orange trees, the marble tombstone of Hafez rests under an imposing pavilion with eight columns. Streams of visitors swirl around the tomb, but this site has an innate stillness.
It’s early evening when we get here. As we sit and watch the Iranians make their pilgrimage, I crave a glass of red wine. But alcohol is illegal in Iran. And that includes Shiraz, even though the city shares its name with one of the most famous wines in the world and is where wine was first produced over 7,000 years ago.
So, I take inspiration from Hafez. His poetry celebrated the pleasures of wine, but also the power of acceptance. “This place where you are right now,” Hafez wrote, “God has circled a map for you.”
- Brendan Daly flew from Dublin to Istanbul and from Istanbul to Tehran, the Iranian capital, with Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com). There are no direct flights between Ireland and Iran. Fly directly to Tehran from London with IranAir (iranair.com), from Frankfurt with Lufthansa (lufthansa.com) and from Doha with Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com).
- You will need a visa from the Iranian Embassy in Dublin (ireland.mfa.gov.ir).
- To get around, we used internal flights, tour operators and buses. After trekking in the Alborz mountains, we flew from Rasht to Shiraz. IranAir flies between most of the country’s major cities. Tour guide Massoud Jaladat ([email protected]) drove us from Shiraz to Persepolis and back. VIP buses run on major intercity routes.