Intent on exploring ancient Persia, Cecilia Yee falls in love with one of the most misunderstood countries in the world.
Situated on the Persian Gulf, with historical sites dating back to the mighty Persian Empire, Iran has plenty to offer the adventurous tourist but very few of us put it on our personal map of destinations to visit. For me, having grown up on an endless diet of images depicting Iran as a dark, dangerous place, discovering the real Iran was the most wonderful surprise. During my visit I was able to dispel a lot of misconceptions about the modern- day republic, while realising a lot of my dreams of its ancient Persian past.
A wholly exotic destination, where I felt surprisingly comfortable, here are some quick facts about the Islamic Republic of Iran. The majority of Iranians associate themselves with the Shi’a branch of Islam but minority religions (Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians) are officially recognised, and have one seat each in parliament. Women are not required to wear a chador, though they are expected to dress conservatively and wear headscarves in public. Iran is not at war, and it is populated by some of the most welcoming people you could hope to encounter.
Centre of Zoroastrianism
While Tehran is your entry into Iran’s buzzing present, there’s no better place to start a historical tour than the desert city of Yazd in the central plateau. Built on an oasis and surrounded by a mountain range, Yazd has a history of over 5,000 years and it really is the city that time forgot. The houses are still built with mud bricks and straw, keeping the interiors cool. The rooftops are dotted with badgirs, or wind towers – ancient air-conditioning systems designed to catch even the lightest breeze and direct it to the rooms below.
Yazd is also the centre of Zoroastrianism, considered the oldest monotheistic religion in the world. Pilgrims flock to the Zoroastrian Fire Temple to see the sacred eternal flame, which is said to have been burning for over 1,500 years. In the eerie, echoing 9th century Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, to the south, the bodies of believers were once left to the vultures after death.
Zein-o-din, situated on the Silk Road, which was until 1500 the main trade route between Europe and Asia, lies just 60 kilometres from Yazd. To get a glimpse of the life of travelling tradesmen back then, stay the night in this beautiful and romantic caravanserai. It’s the perfect spot for star-gazing.
Poetic capital of Persia
There’s an undertone of romance in the ancient Persian city of Shiraz – home to stunning rose gardens and a pink mosque, it’s the birthplace of both Hafez (1324- 1391) and Sa’di (1209-1291), the big names of Persian lyrical poetry.
There’s a saying that all Iranians have a copy of Hafez’s poems, as well as the Koran, in their homes. To fully understand the importance of poetry and Hafez in the lives of Iranians, visit his 1935-completed tomb, which positively hums with devotees – and young lovers. Shiraz’s shrine of Syed Amir Ahmed (850- 780 BC) is another must see. It boasts a dazzling interior of mirror tiles, plus displays of fine china and glassware and exquisitely inscribed Korans.
Mosques are another highlight of Shiraz, notably Vakil Mosque (1773) and Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque (1888), known as the Pink Mosque. Visit the latter early in the morning when the sun shines through its stained glass, enriches its delicate pink tiles and showcases its intricately carved pillars.
Summer capital of Darius 1
Situated on a vast platform above the plains just outside Shiraz, Persepolis is an imposing monument built by Darius 1 (522-486 BC), then ruler of the largest empire the world had ever seen. Originally built as a summer capital, subsequent kings, including Xerxes I, added their own palaces over the next 150 years.
Take advantage of the guided tour, which brings to life the history of this magnificent ruin. The Great Porch of Xerxes, flanked by winged bulls of stone, is a highpoint as is the Apadana (audience hall). Check out the detailed bas-reliefs, which depict envoys from as far away as Ethiopia, India and Turkey, bearing gifts to their esteemed ruler.
A short drive away, the hauntingly beautiful Naqsh-e Rostam features four rock-cut burial tombs, the final resting places of Darius 1 and his successors.
Capital of Abbas 1
The tree-lined boulevards, bridges crossing Zayandeh River, expansive gardens and proliferation of teahouses are just some of the major draws of the city of Isfahan. You could easily spend over a week drinking in the beauty of this pastoral city.
Isfahan was the capital of Persia during the rule of Abbas 1 (1571 to 1629), the greatest of the Safavid kings. His legacies include the majestic Imam (Naqsh-e Jahan) Square, still the centrepiece of the city. Encircling a lake and framed by two mosques, a palace and the entrance to the bazaar, it’s one of the biggest and most delightful squares in the world.
Construction of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, on the eastern side of the square, began in 1603. A small, private mosque, featuring exquisite tile work, it was built for the ladies of Abbas 1’s harem. The design is comparatively simple and there are no minarets but the detailing is out of this world. If you stand at the entrance gate of the inner hall and look up at the centre of the dome, you’ll see a peacock, whose tail is defined by sunrays coming in from a hole in the ceiling.
Just across the square, Shah Mosque, known as Imam Mosque since 1979, is an equally impressive testimony to the imagination of Abbas I. Opened in 1629, it is depicted on the reverse of the Iranian 20,000 rials banknote. The foundation stones are of white marble and the 30-metre entrance is decorated with magnificent mosaics, featuring geometric designs, floral motifs and calligraphy. You will revel in the beauty of its seven- colour mosaic tiles and complex honeycomb mouldings.
Ali Qapu, The Great Persian Palace, is the final highpoint of Imam Square. Designed as a vast portal to the palace complex of Shah Abbas 1, it is an imposing, seven- floor citadel, some 48-metres high. While the balcony on the third floor affords an unparalleled view of the entire square, the top floor music room is a destination in itself. Many consider the distinctive craftsmanship, in which the ceiling and walls are cut with ornamental niches to enhance the acoustics, to be one of the finest existing examples of secular Persian art.
It’s clear that Iran’s ancient past is a delight to discover. What I wasn’t prepared for was the friendliness of the people. But as I was soon to discover for myself, Iranian hospitality is in fact legendary – you’ll find the locals you chat with end up inviting you to their homes, a lot.
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