In contradiction to the hostile coverage it gets in the media, Iran turned out to be one of the safest and most welcoming countries I’d visited with a vibrant artistic tradition going back thousands of years.
One of the reasons I was tempted to go to Iran was its rich history and the episodic overlaps its history shared with that of India. In fact, some historians believe Indo-Aryan tribes migrated from Iran to India 3,500 years ago and brought with them mythologies and rituals which eventually evolved into the Vedic scriptures. The Vedic religion founded in India and the Zoroastrian religion founded in Iran had many similarities such as the emphasis on the ritual of fire sacrifice.
Over the millennia India, the fabled land of untold riches, often tempted Iranian empire builders from the Achaemenid King Darius back in 500 BC to the Safavid king Nadir Shah who marched into Delhi in the 18th century AD. After the Islamic Arab invasion of Persia, many Iranian adherents of Zoroastrianism fled to India. The descendants of these refugees form the tiny but resilient and prolific community of “Parsis” in Western India. Their spring festival of Nowroz is celebrated in both countries to this day.
Culturally the ties are manifold as well. There are many common words in the Hindi and Urdu spoken in India today and Farsi, not surprising, given they both evolved from Old Persian. For example words like azadi (freedom), zindagi (life), khuda (god), shahid (martyr), musafir (traveller), aashiqui (love)…Once upon a time the traditions of Persian mysticism and romantic poetry found their way into the Indian consciousness via much loved poets like Amir Khusro and Mirza Ghalib, and now Bollywood musicals (with Farsi subtitles) are wildly popular among Iranians old and young.
Another reason for wanting to visit Iran, which admittedly gave me pause as well, was the air of mystery shrouding modern Iran, as cut-off as it has been from the rest of the world since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and subsequent US imposed sanctions. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I knew that my debit and credit cards wouldn’t work there and I would need to cover my head. But what would it be like to walk the streets? Would there be bearded, gun-toting “Guardians of the Revolution” arresting women for being improperly covered or hobnobbing with men they were not married to? Would I inadvertently commit some sort of cultural snafu and cause offence, in which case how bad would the consequences be?
As it turned out, these misgivings were unfounded. The traffic-clogged ochre-coloured Iranian capital of Tehran, framed by the Alborz mountains in the north, could pretty much pass for any modern metropolis except for the fact the shop signs and billboards are in Farsi. I was fascinated by Tehrani women who really push the envelope when it comes to the Government imposed dress code. The streets and cafes were overrun by these beautifully made-up fashionistas often wearing sharp pantsuits and stilettos with brightly patterned scarves lightly tossed over their coiffed hair. My Indian salwar-kameez and colourful dupattas served me just fine in the scorching summer heat.
And everywhere I went I received a warm, effusive welcome as a Hindustani. I was plied with cups of sweet tea and sherbet and excitedly shown clips of the 1970s Bollywood swashbuckler Sholay on cellphones. When there were long lines at the gate of the poet Hafez’s tomb in Shiraz my guide marched me to the front of the queue, declared that I was a mehman (guest) from Hindustan and I was waved through with a broad smile. And in the courtyard of the Imam mosque in Isfahan, pig-tailed schoolgirls and their families asked to take selfies with me and were most disappointed when I confessed I didn’t have an Instagram account!
I found the people to be frank, curious and good-natured. They still observe little courtesies and social niceties which harken back to the patience of a bygone era. And as my guide reminded me, they are of a hardy and resilient stock which has lived through the turbulence of revolution, war and the privations caused by international sanctions for decades. Inflation and the weakness of their currency are probably the biggest problems facing Iranians today, along with the difficulty of getting visas for travel or doing business abroad. White Peugeot cars and Chinese-made android phones are ubiquitous and the supermarkets are flooded with Iranian versions of international brands like Oreos and Pringles. The internet is restricted though locals have found ingenious ways of using VPNs to access blocked sites and apps like Facebook.
The geopolitical turmoil amongst its neighbouring countries seemed to have little impact on the day-to-day bustle of life in the cities I visited. The only visible reminders of the war with Iraq were posters of handsome young Iranian soldiers (shahids or martyrs) which pop up intermittently on road dividers or on murals painted on the sides of buildings.
Iran Travel Diary Part 1: Tehran
Iran lived under an unbroken tradition of monarchy for thousands of years until as recently as 1979 and the main sights in Tehran revolve around palaces built during the reign of the Qajar (1794-1925 AD) and Pahlavi (1925-1979 AD) dynasties.
The first day I visited Sa’d Aabad – a sprawling complex of erstwhile palaces spread over a hundred hectares of forested land. Two of these buildings are now museums dedicated to Iranian artists – the miniaturist Master Behzad and the painter Farshchian. The latter had a penchant for blonde pastel-robed angels and birds of paradise rendered in fantastical swirls and flourishes.
Then there is the Mir Emad Calligraphy Museum – calligraphy has been considered an art form in itself for centuries in Persia and some of the examples here are beautifully embellished with floral patterns and gold leaf. One curiosity revealed upon a closer look, designs depicting flowers, tigers, people and even scripture inside the larger lettering – words within words so to speak.
My final stop was the Mellat Palace or White Palace which was the summer residence of the Pahlavi dynasty before they were overthrown and exiled during the Islamic Revolution. Its interesting that remnants of their lavish lifestyle have been carefully preserved and exhibited rather than destroyed. They certainly lived in style and on display are magnificent furnishings, carpets, chandeliers, even the dresses and perfumes of the last Empress Farah, and the sixties style television set and record players belonging to her eldest son.
The Qajar dynasty is not very well regarded in Iran. They hold the ignominious distinction of presiding over the loss of large parts of Iranian territory in the Caucasus (like modern day Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) to the Russians. Their legacy is at least partly redeemed however by the brilliance of the dazzling mirrored halls they built in the Golestan Palace complex. There are other mirrored halls in Iran most notably the Shah-e-Chirag shrine and Qavam House in Shiraz but the one in Golestan inside the Emarat e Badgir (Building of Windcatchers) is by far the prettiest.The stained glass windows on one wall are so delicately cut they look like shimmering lace. Mirrors and cut glass cover every inch of the walls and ceilings and the infinite prismatic flashes of light made my head spin. Its like walking around inside a cut diamond!
Amongst the many museums in Tehran, the National Carpet Museum is well worth a visit, especially the second floor. Persian carpets are gorgeous but expensive souvenirs. The museum is a relatively cheaper option to marvel at the artistry without the heartburn of price tags. Along with the usual floral and leaf motifs, there are intricate tapestries depicting various Iranian rulers and dynasties, scenes of historical legend like Nadir Shah’s campaign in India and Cyrus the Great freeing Jewish slaves in Babylon, as well as charming scenes from royal life – hunting, polo games and the courtship of beautiful women.
The National Museum deserves a half day dedicated to it, it is a vast complex divided into two sections: pre-Islamic Iranian history and post. The post Islamic section has some beautiful carved doorways like these ones decorated with inlaid ivory and mother-of-pearl.
And more exquisite examples of books embellished with gold leaf, miniature painting and calligraphy.
Iran Travel Diary Part 2: Shiraz
“I used to dream of a Persia where bulbuls made love to the roses, where in dreamland gardens poets sat around their wine cups and invoked visions of ineffable meanings.” – Rabindranath Tagore
The Persia Tagore dreamed of is alive and well and no where is its essence captured better than in Shiraz. One of the most enchanting spots in the city is Eram Garden with its tinkling fountains, pomegranate trees, cypress lined walkways, and ornamental fish ponds. The atmosphere is further sweetened by traditional Persian music playing out of hidden speakers – a delicate harmony of flutes, violins and stringed lutes (familiar to Indians as sitars).
Shiraz was the birthplace of two of Iran’s most beloved poets Hafez and Sa’adi. Poetry in Iran is not confined to the highbrow salons of the urban elite. Hafez’s verses are as familiar in Iranian households as the tales of Mahabharata are in India. They are carved onto monuments up and down the country, have been set to popular music time and again, and are often quoted in the course of everyday conversation. Over 600 years after his death, crowds throng his memorial in Shiraz daily. Its most charming at night with families cheerfully jostling with each other to rub his alabaster tomb for good luck, some reading or singing his verses aloud, others quietly walking amidst the moonlit pools and breathing in the tangy fragrance of orange trees. Besides love and mysticism, Hafez often indulged in caustic satire aimed at the hypocrisy of the orthodox clergy in his time and this maybe partly why he continues to be relevant in present day Iran…
Naser ul Mulk or the Pink Mosque is one of the most photographed buildings in Iran. The piece de resistance is the prayer hall to the right of the central courtyard. Rays of sunlight filtering through its stained glass windows are transformed into a gorgeous kaleidoscope of colour. The arches and niches are decorated with impossibly pretty pink and blue mosaic tiling.
It was in this mosque I first came across the “muqarna” a honeycomb like design used to decorate half domes in entrance gateways across Persia. They look like stalactites on the ceiling of a cave. Also curious are the little churches painted within floral medallions on the wall tiling – this was courtesy Naseer-ud-din Shah of the Qajar dynasty who was the first Persian king to visit Europe and encouraged his court artists to imbibe a little European influence in their designs.
Vakil Mosque is larger than Naser ul Mulk but has similar features – both lack the large domes and minarets which feature prominently in Islamic architecture, apparently a precautionary measure as Shiraz lies in a seismic zone. It has a large prayer hall marked by vaulted arcades. The leaf designs on the capitals of the spiral pillars in this hall reminded me of the papyrus pillars in Egypt. The Vakil bazaar nearby has very similar architecture to this hall.
The Shah e Chirag shrine is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Shia Muslims in Iran. The huge complex is built over the tombs of the brothers of the 8th Imam. The interior is ridiculously blinged out, every inch covered with mirrors and glass. However this was the only place I visited which felt overwhelmingly like a place of worship rather than a tourist attraction. There is a separate hall for women and several were kneeling and praying with touching fervour. Amusingly there were many younger girls flouting the signs prohibiting photography to sneak selfies and quite a few kids looking bored and playing games on their tablets and smartphones!
Iran Travel Diary Part 3: Persepolis
Persepolis used to be the capital of the Achaemenid Empire, until it was plundered and burned down by Alexander the Great. The 2,500 year old complex boasts an impressive gateway known as the Gate of All Nations, guarded by colossal statues of lamassus, mythical creatures with the body of a bull and the head of a bearded Persian man.
Not much remains of the grand palace built by Darius I or the Hundred Columns Palace built by his son Xerxes I (yes, the same one the Spartans fought in the cult movie “300”). But the size of the mammoth pillars and doorways still standing give an inkling of the size and splendour of the buildings that must have stood here. The doorways are decorated with stone reliefs depicting the king battling a lion-like monster, or the king walking in the shade of a parasol held up by servants. A common scene carved on the walls is of a lion locked in combat with a bull. This was meant to signify the defeat of winter at the hands of the spring equinox – spring being an auspicious occasion in Zoroastrian religion when the New Year festivities were held. Other recurring decorative motifs are lotus flowers and pillar capitals with sculptures of two-headed horses, bulls and griffins (creatures which had the body of a lion and head of an eagle).
Perhaps the most impressive parts of the Persepolis complex are the grand stone staircases in the main reception hall of the palace. These are covered with stunningly detailed stone bas reliefs which depict people from all parts of the Achaemenid Empire lining up to pay tribute to the king. By the facial hair, headgear and clothes we can make out Egyptians, Indians, Arabs, Greeks, Babylonians, Afghanis and many other nationalities. Some are bearing plates of food and amphorae of wine, some are bringing camels, cows, horned rams, even lionesses as tribute. Some are holding hands and smiling and chatting amongst themselves, signifying the harmony among the many diverse subjects under the King. There is a conspicuous absence of female figures, though the hub of a chariot’s wheel has a tiny figure which some have interpreted to be a pregnant woman!
Another partially damaged relief shows Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian God, atop a spread-eagle and flanked by Persian sphinxes. In his hands he holds a ring which symbolises the divine favour which he confers upon the King.
Iran Travel Diary Part 4: Necropolis
A short drive from Persepolis is Necropolis or Naqsh-e-Rustom where four tombs of Achaemenid Kings are carved into the sheer rock face of a cliff. Each tomb doorway is set at the heart of a giant cross, and is too far above the ground to be accessible. On the cliff face below are carved reliefs dating to the Sassanid Era – the Sassanids were the last dynasty to rule Persia before the Islamic Arab invasion. One of these shows the founder of the dynasty being given the diving ring of kingship by Ahura Mazda. Another shows the Roman Emperor Valerian bowing down in deference to the Sassanid king Shapur I. A third relief is a rare instance of a depiction of the female form. King Narseh is shown receiving the divine ring from a woman thought to be the Goddess Anahita.
Facing these tombs is an odd cuboid windowless building known as the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht or Cube of Zoroaster. No one is quite sure what purpose this building met. It couldn’t have been a fire temple as there isnt any ventilation to let air in which would allow a flame to burn. Some people have speculated it was a library for sacred documents or a mausoleum.
Iran Travel Diary Part 5: Yazd
The dusty city of Yazd set amidst an arid desert landscape used to be an important centre for Zoroastrian pilgrimage and is still home to a sizeable Zoroastrian population. Its also known as the City of Windcatchers, so named for the many windtowers dotting the skyline. These rectangular chimney-like structures were built to provide natural ventilation into the houses. The Old Town part of Yazd is very unusual – its almost entirely built out of adobe, a kind of clay. Arched alleyways wind away in different directions some barely wide enough to squeeze through single file. Most of the houses have domed skylights and wind towers designed to let natural light in while at the same time affording protection from the heat in the harsh summers.
Zoroastrians leave their dead atop towers to be eaten by scavenging birds. They don’t bury or burn their dead to avoid polluting the earth or fire (which they consider to be sacred). Two large Towers of Silence still stand on the outskirts of Yazd, they were built by a wealthy Indian Parsi gentleman in the 19th century. Scattered in the foreground are several small fire temples. Ancient Zoroastrians would have worshipped in buildings like these. Their semi circular domes and arched doorways likely inspired later Islamic and Christian architecture, not to mention the buildings are shaped in the form of a cross! The temples have four open entrances with no doors and the domes often have a skylight – these features were likely designed to increase ventilation and help keep the sacred fires within burning.
There is a modern version of the fire temple in the city which also serves as a museum with exhibits explaining various aspects of Zoroastrianism. I was struck by the similarities both with Vedic Brahmanism and Islam (a prophet who proclaimed monotheism and wrote a book with the messages revealed to him by God). The ancient spring festival of Nowroz is still celebrated with great fanfare in Iran. It lasts for 13 days and is when families vigorously scrub down their houses in a bout of spring cleaning, throw parties, exchange gifts with friends and families and feast on sweets, pastries and dry fruits. The thirteenth day is meant to be spent outdoors and is when families go on nature hikes or picnics.
The 12th century Jame Mosque is still used for Friday prayers and is worth visiting at night when twinkling fairy lights strung across it come to life.
The mosque is decorated with blue tiling and boasts the highest minarets in Iran. Especially striking are the starry designs on the dome, turquoise honeycomb tiling on walls, and an unusual geometric maze-like pattern in cerulean blue and white which is actually the name of Ali written in Kufic script!
Also worth a visit at night is Amir Chakhmaq square where coloured fountains spring to life in the foreground of a facade of arched alcoves which glows like burnished gold. In the corner of the square is a nakhl, a huge wooden structure shaped like a palm tree, which symbolises the coffin of Hussein the martyred grandson of the Prophet. During Ashura celebrations hundreds of men gather here and carry the nakhl on their shoulders around the square.
Iran Travel Diary Part 6: Isfahan
Persians have a saying about the city of Isfahan – “Esfahan nesf-e-jahan” – which translates to “Isfahan is half of the world”. The city experienced its golden age as the capital of the Safavid empire in the 16th and 17th century. The heart of Isfahan is the Naqshejahan square – said to be the second largest public square in the world. Royal polo matches used to be held here once and are commemorated in miniature paintings made on camel bone which are one of the more popular souvenirs on display in the arched arcades of Qesariye bazaar which line the square. I found this to be the best place for souvenir shopping in terms of quality and variety, albeit it is more expensive than Shiraz and Yazd. You are truly spoilt for choice amidst the miniature paintings, carpets, painted tiles, blue pottery and ivory chess sets. The vast neatly landscaped square is always buzzing with families picnicking in the gardens. Lovers stroll hand in hand, grandfathers chase after grandkids on roller blades and bicycles, tourists snap selfies and families queue up to be driven around the square in horse drawn chariots.
Amongst the buildings framing the square the jewel is Sheikh Lotf Allah mosque which, in my opinion, ties for the honour of the prettiest building in Iran with Naser ul Mulk of Shiraz. This was the private mosque for the royal family. At the base of the domed ceiling are stone grilled windows with arabesque patterns. Sunlight comes flooding in through these grilles bathing the cream and blue interior in a gauzy glow.
Next comes the Shah Mosque, now called the Imam Mosque post revolution. Its known for the haft rangi (seven coloured) glazed tiles used to cover the buildings. The colours which stand out the most are blue and yellow. Interestingly, tucked away in a quiet corner amidst the hypnotising and endlessly repeating geometric, arabesque, floral patterns and calligraphy, is a wall decorated as a paradisical garden complete with plants, flowers, birds and animals. Quite bold considering living creatures are generally forbidden from being depicted in Islamic art!
The third building framing the square is Ali Qapu palace. It has six floors accessed by steep spiral staircases. The third floor has a large open verandah which affords great panoramic views across Naqshejahan square. It is well worth the climb all the way up to the sixth floor to see the gorgeous Music Hall. The Hall is covered from floor to ceiling with muqarna style niches which have cut-out shapes of musical instruments. This enhanced the acoustics of the Hall and it is here court musicians performed private concerts for the King.
Moving away from Naqshejahan my next stop was the Chehel Sotoun or Palace of Forty Columns. The main reception hall of this palace has huge, wonderfully detailed murals painted around it with smaller more traditional miniature paintings around the lower walls. The murals show scenes of battle and scenes of kings holding receptions for guests with tables laden with fruits and wine and dancing girls providing the entertainment. The two battle murals depict the Chaldoran war between the Safavids and the Ottomans and the battle of Karnal – a key moment in Nadir Shah’s invasion of India. One of the royal receptions depicted is actually in honour of the Indian Mughal king in exile, Humayun.
My last stops in Isfahan were Khajou Bridge and the Armenian Vank cathedral. The latter was built in the early 17th century when the Safavid king Shah Abbas I invited thousands of Armenian refugees to settle in Isfahan. The plain exterior of the cathedral belies the elaborate gold flecked frescoes which decorate its gilded interior. The museum nearby has some lovely examples of illustrated Armenian bibles from the 15th-17th centuries.