Stage 6 – Iran: Great Iranian Empires [1/2]

Iran is a country of staggering historic depth and a cultural keystone of Western and Central Asia. Lying at a crossroads between historical empires in Europe, Arabia and Central Asia, Iran has been invaded innumerable times but the Iranian nation, today a mix of Persians, Turks and many other minorities has endured, absorbing the bloodlines and ideas of these invaders and exporting their advanced culture through three historical, regional empires.

The fortunes of Iran have waxed and waned over the millennia and since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when hardline ayatollahs (clerics) overthrew the last shah, finally ending the ancient Iranian dynasties, the country has found itself a pariah state, maligned and subject to punitive sanctions from the American-led international community. In addition to this external pressure, the Iranian people currently endure an authoritarian, regressively theocratic regime whose leaders chase romantic ideals of medieval Islamic piety.

Through ignorance and propaganda, many Westerners have very skewed or plainly incorrect notions of Iranian society and this is perhaps the greatest pain of the deeply troubled Iranian soul. It gives Iranians great joy and reassurance to see foreigners’ stereotypes dissolve as they encounter a modern, sophisticated and overwhelmingly friendly nation with a rich culture, both ancient and (despite the efforts of the ayatollahs) modern. But the Iranian character is a deeply puzzling one and is not easily understood. I would spend nearly one year in the country during the Odyssey over several visits; time I used not just to cover the country’s considerable size, but to gain a little understanding of the complex, often contradictory, or even bipolar persona of the Iranians.

On this first, ten-week long journey around Iran, I would delve deeply into Iranian history, starting with the Islamic period then heading for the south where Iran’s earliest civilisations came to bear. Through the famed Iranian hospitality, I would also find myself invited into various homes, often staying with families for a week or more, in order to start understanding the culture of a people who can trace their customs back more than two-and-a-half millennia.

Khomeini Mural, Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan Province, Iran

On the 8th November 2007, I cross the Kopet Dag mountains from Turkmenistan and, after exasperating Iranian customs procedures, drive down in the afternoon to the city of Quchan and onto Highway 22, heading east towards Iran’s second largest city, Mashhad. This is my second visit to Iran (the first was in 2003), but my first time driving here and after the generally quiet roads of Central Asia, the level of traffic and standard of driving are shocking. Iran has a horrific road accident death toll and almost every Iranian I have ever asked knows somebody who has been killed in a road traffic accident. The total disregard for road safety would be a continuing source of frustration on every visit to Iran.

I stop well after dark in the teeming city of Mashhad, location of the country’s holiest site, the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza. Islam was brought to Iran by the invading Arabs of the Rashidun Caliphate (immediate successors of the Prophet Muhammad), who took advantage of a Sassanian Empire severely weakened by wars with the Byzantines. Already the schism in Islam had divided the Muslims into majority Sunnis, who believed in hereditary succession of the caliphs and the Shi’ite sect, followers of Muhammad’s cousin Ali, the first of the twelve imams who most Shias believe to be just, exemplary, perfect human beings and rightful leaders of Islam. By the late eighth century CE, the Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate was facing Shia uprisings in its large empire and the Sunni caliph Al-Ma’mun hoped to quell rebellion by appointing the Shia Imam Ali al-Ridha, known as Reza to Iranians, as his successor. This however merely encouraged the Shias and on the return journey to Baghdad from Khorasan, Reza was apparently poisoned by Al-Ma’mun and his body laid to rest near the city of Tus, in a spot which would be come known as Mashhad, the place of martyrdom.

Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan Province, Iran

Modern Mashhad radiates from the ever-growing shrine complex and views down the city’s main streets end in the gleaming golden dome and minaret of the shrine. The streets and bazaars around the shrine buzz with pilgrims from across the Islamic world; Iraqis and Syrians; immaculately dressed Gulf Arabs; darked-skinned Indians and Pakistanis; Mongol-featured Hazaras from Afghanistan and of course many Iranians. Pilgrims come to visit the grave of the revered man, housed in a glass cabinet covered by brass trellis-work in a large room lit with fluorescent green and white lights white lights which reflect in the thousands of mirror-tiles covering the walls and domed ceiling. The atmosphere is charged with emotion; even a non-believer such as myself can pick up on a feeling in the shrine; of reverence, of hope, of piety, of despair. Pilgrims queue, push and shove to file past the tomb, rubbing and kissing the brass, weeping, shouting the name of Ali and hoisting children to kiss it; sometimes those further back from the shrine pass their children through a sea of arms above the crowd to have them kiss the tomb. Others are simply absorbed in thought or prayer. Most people come here to ask for something and often this can be very specific: that a relative might recover from a grave illness or conceive a child, that they may find a spouse, get a good job, or pass their exams.

There is a strong culture of shrine visiting in the more spiritual and mystical sects of Islam (which is looked down upon most pointedly by more fundamental Sunni Muslims) and the Shias, with a love of grief, mourning and martyrdom, are fervent shrine visitors. It has become part of the Persian culture, even among some secular-minded Iranians who otherwise shun the orthodox religious lifestyle which the Iranian state imposes upon them. In times of difficulty or need, families will travel from across the country to Mashhad to have a few moments in the shrine, asking for their needs to be fulfilled by the long-dead Imam.

Private Party, Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan Province, Iran

I am mostly hosted in Mashhad by Pouria, a student my own age originally from Tehran, son of a general of the Iranian Air Force. Pouria is an intelligent and sensitive young man, presently questioning his faith, and through him I get a cherished insight into the lives of the young, liberal, educated Iranian middle class. Pouria introduces me to a number of his friends; Alireza, a chubby, ebullient manic-depressive; Hamid, a handsome womaniser and rather poor student of architecture; Mohammad, impeccably well spoken but self-destructive, and brothers Ali and Mehdi who run a small restaurant White Food where we often congregate in the evenings. We sit in Hamid’s apartment around a traditional Iranian korsi, a charcoal brazier under a large blanket into which we all tuck our legs, whilst drinking sweet tea and smoking a qelyan (water pipe), whilst Hamid tells us of his back-seat trysts with various women in the hills outside town. We meet strikingly beautiful young women who rip-off their concealing exterior garments (required of women in public by law), the moment they come indoors, to reveal far skimpier attire. We go to private parties attended by both sexes (illegal), where young men and women dance freely together. We drink home-made alcohol which the Iranians call arak saagi or ‘dog liquor’. I spend roughly ten days with Pouria and his cohorts and am treated at every moment like an old friend, immediately welcomed into his inner circle. These young students will go on to become highly qualified engineers, doctors and academics but sadly almost all will leave Iran over the coming years, driven out by social and economic realities; a great loss for the country and its future.

Mausoleum of Ferdowsi, Tus, Razavi Khorasan Province, Iran

Aside from the joys of Mashhad’s underground night-life, Pouria and his friends demonstrate a side to their culture beyond the hedonism which they share with the youth of the West. In the nearby village of Tus, now almost part of the sprawling suburbs of Mashhad, they take me to a place which they hold in some reverence; the tomb of the poet Ferdowsi. By the ninth century, Abbasid control of eastern Iran had given way to the Samanid Empire, ruled from Samarkand and Bukhara. This was a time of transformation of the Persian language, with much Arabic having crept in as a means of spreading Islam across the empire. Ferdowsi was commissioned by the Samanids (who claimed descent from the pre-Islamic Sassanians) to write a Persian epic poem in order for the Persians not to forget their language and identity, and escape the Arabisation which befell, for example, Egypt. Ferdowsi’s epic Shahnameh, which he completed in 1010, is something like a Persian mix of Shakespeare and Homer, in which real historical figures such as Alexander the Great and the Achaemenid shah Darius play part-real, part-mythical roles, along with the wholly mythical brothers of the heroic legend Rustam and Sohrab.

Today, Iranians still hold their classical poets in great esteem; every Iranian household has copies of beloved laureates such as Hafez or Saadi on their shelves and the shrines of these figures are visited by both religious and secular-leaning Iranians. Ferdowsi’s mausoleum was restored by the secular- minded Reza Shah Pahlavi (father of the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) who also launched an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to rid the Persian language of Arabic loanwords. For many young, educated Iranians, driven away from Islam by the dour, politicised theology of the ruling ayatollahs, visiting the shrine of, for example, Ferdowsi is a chance to connect with their non-Islamic, Iranian identity.

Mausoleum of Arslan Jadhib, Sang Bast, Razavi Khorasan Province, Iran

I leave Pouria and Mashhad having glimpsed a very interesting side of Iranian society and having made a life-long friend. I drive south out of the city, embarking upon a nine-hundred kilometre journey to the modern capital, Tehran. Today, the contrast between Iran and the newly-independent Central Asian republics of the Former USSR, struggling to assert their identity after having unexpectedly become nation states for the first time in history, is rather clear. Before the Russian conquest of Central Asia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries however, Iran was often a far larger entity and this north-easterly region, still known today as Khorasan and my favourite part of the country, was home to successive arrivals from the interior of Asia, each of whom shaped Iranian history but would ultimately assimilate into the Persian-dominated civilisation. Very soon after leaving Mashhad, I am out into barren desert and I make my first stop near the village of Sang Bast, less than thirty kilometres out of Mashhad. Here, lying unguarded in the desert is a beautiful mausoleum of a regional official of the Ghaznavid Empire named Arslan Jadhib.

Khosrogerd Minaret, Sabzevar, Razavi Khorasan Province, Iran

The Ghaznavids were a Turkic dynasty who came from Ghazni in present-day Afghanistan and established an empire covering much of what is now eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even parts of north-eastern India, where they are widely credited with introducing Islam. The Ghaznavids would become Persianised in their culture and their architecture, where it has survived the wrath of the Mongols, is some of the earliest extant Islamic architecture in Iran. Jadhib’s lonely mausoleum which dates from the early eleventh century is a simple, square-based, domed structure and has a fine, free-standing brick minaret which I ascend by its narrow internal spiral staircase. From the top of the minaret I have an enchanting view of the khaki desert plains of Khorasan undulating towards a low, distant mountain range sweeping towards the tantalising border of Afghanistan to the south-east; a view which stirs something deep inside me.

From Sang Bast I join Highway 44 and begin the long eastward journey, stopping at a sacred spring in a beautiful garden oasis known as Qadamgah, where pilgrims heading towards Mashhad stop in droves to collect water from a spring said to have been used by Imam Reza, then continue to the ancient city of Nishapur. Nishapur was once a city of great cultural importance, famed for its turquoise and pottery, but rather like the other great cities of Khorasan; Merv and Balkh, it was utterly razed by the Mongols in the thirteenth century and never recovered. It’s also famous worldwide as the birthplace in 1048 of Omar Khayyam, a Persian polymath renowned for his contribution to mathematics and poetry in what became known as the Islamic Golden Age. Khayyam and other contemporary intellectuals such as physicians Razi and Avicenna, fellow mathematician Khwarizmi and the geographer Biruni were all of Iranian origin and made a huge contribution not just to the Islamic world, but to the twelfth century Renaissance in medieval Europe.

Mausoleum of Bayazid Bastami, Bastam, Semnan Province, Iran

Despite its illustrious history and contributions to the world, present-day Nishapur is nothing more than a provincial town and I’m soon back on the road. Highway 44 follows an ancient trade route which would have connected Constantinople and Baghdad with the cities of Khorasan and Transoxiana. It’s still an important modern transport artery and between cities, old fortified caravanserais and mud-brick settlements slowly crumble away and fill with wind-blown dust and sand. On the one hand they appear dejected remnants of the pre-modern age but as I pass these silent monuments I get the feeling of being on a living, historic trade route. Nowhere in Central Asia, with all its over-restored monuments have I felt so much to be travelling on the Silk Road itself. One of the most beautiful of these monuments lies just outside the city of Sabzevar; the Khosrogerd Minaret, built in the early twelfth century by the Seljuks, another Persianised Turkic dynasty which grew up in Khorasan conquering territory from the Ghaznavids. The minaret is almost thirty metres high and covered in bands of beautiful brick strapwork, and is all that remains of a settlement destroyed by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. It is free-standing, in the pre-Mongol style, and is thought to have been a marker post for travellers on the Silk Road; giving me visions of weary camel caravans sighting the distant needle and looking forward to resting in one of the long-gone caravanserais.

Pir-e Alamdar Tomb, Damghan, Semnan Province, Iran

I spend a cold night at the roadside and in the morning explore the tranquil small town of Bastam, home to the shrine of Bayazid Bastami. The Silk Road was a conduit not just for the transfer of goods, but also of ideas and individuals. Bayazid Bastami was a mystic Sufi wanderer who developed the doctrine of sukr or religious ecstasy in Islam; bodily annihilation in the presence of the divine, not dissimilar from certain ascetic Hindus of the Indian Subcontinent. In fact, later Sufi mystics such as Bastami were instrumental in spreading Islam in India where it gelled and hybridised with existing Hindu beliefs.

As Seljuk control in Khorasan weakened in the mid twelfth century, their vassals the Khwarazmians, another Persianised Turkic dynasty based in the Khwarezm Oasis took control of Khorasan. It was this fateful dynasty however who provoked the ire of Chinggis Khan, leading to his Mongol hordes sweeping across civilised Asia, killing and destroying very nearly all before them between 1219 and 1221. Chinggis Khan’s grandson Hulagu came to inherit a subdued Iran and his Ilkhanate, part of the Greater Mongol Empire would like so many other invaders before, become Persianised and oversee a period of religious tolerance, a flowering of the arts and a facilitation of communication along the Silk Road which would foster the first contact between China and Europe, through figures such as Marco Polo.

Dasht-e Kavir, Semnan Province, Iran

The Ilkhans converted to Islam in 1295 and in 1300 Öljaitü, great-grandson of Hulagu was initiated as a Sufi here in Bastam. Öljaitü later became leader of the Ilkhanid Empire and rebuilt the shrine of Bayazid into a beautiful architectural complex which survives to this day, distinctive for its conical tiled minarets and richly decorated portals with gorgeous turquoise-glazed brick strapwork.

I spend the afternoon in the ancient, pistachio-growing town of Damghan which has several finely banded Seljuk-era brick minarets and the rather plain Tarikhaneh Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the country. The scenery east of Damghan is particularly beautiful in the late afternoon light with plains dotted by saxauls rolling towards distant desert hills to the south and the bulk of the Alborz Mountains off to the north. After another cold night I stop briefly the following morning in Semnan, the largest town I have passed through since leaving Mashhad, then push on west. Slowly, the settlements become more frequent; more of the caravanserais have been restored, and the road loses some of its Silk Road atmosphere until it reaches the ugly industrial satellite towns and sprawl of the capital.

North Tehran, Tehran Province, Iran

Tehran is a deceptive and on first sight rather unlovable city; fittingly contradictory, like so much in modern Iran. Located at the foot of the Alborz Mountains, the site which Tehran occupies was once ancient Rhages, capital of the Medes (predecessors of the Achaemenids) and in medieval times was known as Rey, one of the capitals of the Seljuks. Rey was razed by the Mongols and was of no importance until, bearing the name Tehran, it was made the Iranian capital in the late eighteenth century by the Qajar king Agha Mohammad Khan. Visually, the city looks like little more than a modern sprawl of hastily built, buff-coloured city blocks and for a country with such a rich history of architecture, Tehran comes as a surprise for having barely a single architectural landmark. Yet it plays a vital part in recent Iranian history; it was here that the Pahlavis came to power in the early twentieth century, largely rebuilding Qajar Tehran and ushering in uncontrolled urban expansion following the Second World War. This was the seat of the last shah of Iran, who commissioned the huge Shahyad Tower (later to be called the Azadi Tower) to commemorate the 2500th year of the Imperial State of Iran. And it was here that furious masses, angered by the corruption, ‘Westoxification’ and religious repression of the last Shah rose up in 1979, ending that imperial state, only for it to be replaced by a (some would say equally corrupt) regime of hardline clerics. The one time Embassy of the United States is now something of a monument in central Tehran, standing in testimony to the 444-day hostage crisis which has soured relations between the present regime and the US.

Former US Embassy, Tehran, Tehran Province, Iran

Today’s Tehran continues to grow endlessly but is very roughly divided between north and south with the wealthy living in the steep streets of the north, in districts which edge ever further up the flanks of the Alborz, overlooking the centre; and the working class south, a sprawling sea of housing which sits for many months of the year under a pall of photochemical smog. Through my host Reza, a forty year-old bachelor who lives in a smart suburb of North Tehran and runs his own software business, I am introduced to the underground, secular private life of Tehran. A large number of similar, moneyed North Tehranis live private lives little different from those of urban Westerners and at the house-parties to which I am taken I see Western clothes, Western music and smuggled Western alcohol, though the strikingly beautiful women are of course fully Iranian. Tens of thousands of such Tehranis are happily westoxified in the privacy of their own homes. But as is always the case in Iran, one is never far from seeing another, totally opposite side to the country and its people.

Bazaaris, Tehran, Tehran Province, Iran

Throughout Western Asia, the bazaar, or market, is usually the centre of public city life. In contrast to Western supermarkets or shopping malls, the bazaar is more than a place simply to purchase goods. In Iran, it is a particularly tight-knit mix of the marketplace, mosque and the state. Tehran’s bazaar is vast; the commercial heart of the city and a district in itself. Though most bazaaris (traders) appear piously conservative, modest and humble, many are very wealthy and, more importantly, politically influential. So from a visit to the bazaar one may equally judge the price of basic commodities or the political and economic mood of the entire country. Kilometres of timeworn passageways are lined with every conceivable commodity, and one must push through crowds and avoid trolleys, piled high with goods and being pushed and pulled by boys who shout to part the seething crowds. In a rueful corner I stop to look at some Iranian pistachios, probably the finest in the world, and am immediately invited to pause for a cup of tea and a chat.

Martyrs Cemetery, Qom, Qom Province, Iran

I make a side-trip to nearby Qom, Iran’s most conservative city, built around the shrine of Fatima Masumeh, sister of Imam Reza, which seems rather less busy with pilgrims than the shrine in Mashhad. Qom is the world’s largest centre of Shia scholarship and it was here that Ruholla Khomeini studied theology and later led resistance against the reforms of the last Shah, until his exile in 1964.

I stay a few more days in Tehran but leave failing to have warmed to the city very much, beyond the generous, intellectual and entertaining company of Reza. On my way out of Tehran, I make a brief stop in the country’s largest cemetery, Behesht-e Zahra (Paradise of Zahra, a daughter of the Prophet Muhammad) on the city’s southern outskirts. Together with the strangely shabby yet unfinished nearby mausoleum of Khomeini, this seems to constitute something of a day out for South Tehranis; plainly-dressed families with unruly children pace around the grounds with no particular aim and I’m left wondering if they are here simply to enjoy the tranquil surroundings (a rare treat in Tehran), or whether there is really some deeper fondness of grief, mourning and martyrdom. A small souvenir booth sells postcards; not of the manicured rosebushes and pine trees, or of the impressive polished stone monuments, but of hideously mutilated bodies on battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War; headless cadavers slumped over wrecked vehicles, severed limbs and broken skulls.

Imam Mosque, Isfahan, Isfahan Province, Iran

I continue south crossing barren plains and passing salt lakes towards the beautiful former capital city of Isfahan. The Ilkhanate was ravaged by the Black Plague in the early fourteenth century and, after a time of rival Mongol factions, was conquered by Tamerlane at the end of the same century. When Timurid power weakened, Iran splintered into multiple regional dynasties until, in 1501 Shah Ismail I, a descendent of the Kurdish mystic Sheikh Safi-ad Din of the Safaviyya Sufi order, seized power and rapidly established the Safavid Empire. The Safavids marked a turning point in Iranian history; a native dynasty who forged a unified Iranian empire, the first since the Sassanians. The Safavids also promoted Shia Islam from a minority sect into the official religion in the state, a landmark event in Muslim history. The Safavid Empire may indeed be seen as the start of Iran’s modern history; progenitors of the culture landscape of modern Iran.

The Safavids were great patrons of architecture and art and it is little surprise that Isfahan, their longest-serving capital, is almost certainly modern Iran’s finest and most celebrated city. The city’s centrepiece is the seventeenth century Naqsh-e Jahan (Image of the World) Square, with a huge manicured central park of grass and fountains, surrounded by a perimeter of countless arches in two tiers; the lower giving access to shops and workshops of the city’s merchants and artisans and the upper, neat white portals leading to simple dormitory cells.

Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan, Isfahan Province, Iran

At the southern end of the square is the stunning Imam Mosque, one of the greatest achievements in architecture of the Islamic World, which the Safavids designed drawing on the rich architectural legacy of Iran; a four iwan (portal) open courtyard design taken from early Seljuk mosques and stunning, multicoloured tiles in the style of Timurid Samarkand. Unlike modern Samarkand however, the courtyard of the Imam Mosque is still very much in use, part of the fabric of Isfahani life. At the square’s western edge is the small Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, a private mosque for the Safavid court, unusual for having no courtyard and no minarets but, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful mosques in the world for its neat dome of mostly beige and turquoise faïence. Through an outer portal one enters a vaulted passageway covered entirely in turquoise and lapis mosaic tiles, curving to the right and leading into the domed, windowless main chamber of the mosque where one is left in awe of the dazzling magnificence and intricacy of geometric designs which climb the walls onto the interior of the dome.

Dome of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan, Isfahan Province, Iran

Overlooking the square from its eastern side is the Ali Qapu Palace, an open-fronted pavilion with carved wooden columns in the style of a Bukharan Mosque, where the Safavid shahs would entertain guests with the magnificent view of the imperial capital as a backdrop. At the square’s northern edge is the entrance to Isfahan’s, warren-like network of bazaars which, in the typical Iranian style incorporate not just shop-stalls, but also caravanserais, mosques and shrines. While some of the bazaar is bland and modern, in other parts its an evocative walk through beautiful vaulted passageways deeply pleasing to the senses; bright colours of cloth and confectionery, the murmur of business transactions and, most evocatively, the smell of spice stalls. Here, sacks of spices, dried seeds and pods, leaves and flowers create an unmistakable melange of aromas; a smell one could never encounter in a western shopping mall or supermarket, indescribably complex with hints of clove, dried lime, saffron and nutmeg. To me it is the smell of Iran.

Painting of Chaharshanbe Suri, Chehel Sotoun Palace, Isfahan, Isfahan Province, Iran

Off to the east of the square is the Chehel Sotoun, a pleasure palace set in a tranquil Persian garden, notable for its fine interior artwork with epic paintings of Safavid battles such the 1510 Battle of Taher Abad where Shah Ismail I defeated the Shaybanid Uzbeks or Nader Shah engaging the Moghuls (complete with elephants) in the 1739 Battle of Karnal. Other paintings in the miniature style depict fanciful scenes of comely dancing girls, scantily clad or even half-nude, thankfully preserved from the hands of zealous vandals during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. It’s a good example of how the world seems to be returning to conservatism, something which has its roots in no small part in the 1979 Iranian Revolution and almost simultaneous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the same year.

In a country consisting almost entirely of arid high plains, mountains and deserts, water is particularly pleasing to the Iranian eye and the thrashing blue waters of the Zeyandeh River, which flows through the heart of the city, south of the square and palaces, gives Isfahan a second focus. Here too the Safavids indulged their love of architecture with long, graceful footbridges across the river. The finest of these are the seventeenth century, two-tiered Si-o Se (Thirty Three) Bridge, which has the tables of a tea house set out just above the water level under its thirty-three arches, and the Khaju Bridge under whose lower arches locals congregate in the evening to sit and chat, smoke a qelyan, or in a peculiarly Isfahani tradition, sing together, using the acoustic properties of the arches to great effect.

Khaju Bridge, Isfahan, Isfahan Province, Iran

On Friday afternoon I return to the square and listen to a cleric giving an anti-American sermon at the Imam Mosque, then watch as hundreds of women in chadors (black, unsewn capes), men in plain clothes and a few junior clerics in flowing beige robes move out of the mosque and disperse into the bazaar and the snarling mass of small motorcycles which pervade every single thoroughfare in every single city in Iran. I wonder at the divisions in a country where in one week I can dance and drink vodka with model-beautiful, professional women in salubrious North Tehran and see crowds of hundreds in medieval costume leaving a polished seventeenth century mosque having taken in a sermon demonising Western influences. I am beginning to realise however that Iranian society is deeply contradictory.

After the sermon, I meet Rae, a pretty thirty year-old Singaporean who is struggling with her chador. I immediately hit it off with Rae; she has a genuinely impressive set of travel tales; living in forbidden parts of Burma, sleeping out alone in freezing Tibetan villages where locals were afraid she was Chinese, and making an illegal trip by donkey from Egypt into Libya.

Amin od-Dowleh Caravanserai, Kashan, Isfahan Province, Iran

Rae and I drive to Kashan the following day, stopping in beautiful Abyaneh, a village of mud-walled houses made from local red clay, set in a dramatic valley of now-leafless poplars. We reach Kashan in the evening and decide to stay in a mosaferkhaneh (basic hostel), a place I would usually take pains to avoid staying at. The place is run by a scruffy and bad tempered man who tells me there is an additional charge to use a locked shower in a bathroom which reeks of urine. More spurious charges appear in the morning, which I refuse to pay, causing the screaming owner to nearly chase us down the street. This echoes experiences I’d had as a backpacker in Iran in 2003 and still leaves me wondering why, in a nation of friendly and welcoming people, hotel owners are often the most unpleasant individuals.

Kashan, nestled between the eastern ridges of the Zagros Mountains and the deserts of central Iran, was a retreat for the Safavid shahs, but the city was largely destroyed by an earthquake in the late eighteenth century. Today it has a fine bazaar whose highlight is the beautiful nineteenth century Amin od-Dowleh Caravanserai, with an ocular skylight which reflects light from a central pool to illuminate the portals of various shops, a beautiful piece of civic architecture. Kashan is however most famous for its fine merchants’ houses which date from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the time of the Qajar Dynasty.

Tabatabaei House, Kashan, Isfahan Province, Iran

The Safavids were succeeded by the short-lived Zand Dynasty, who in turn were succeeded by the Qajars; yet another Persianised Turkic dynasty who would rule Iran from the late eighteenth century until 1925. The Qajars however are often not remembered very fondly in modern Iran; it was under the Qajars that Iran lost territory to the Russian Empire, losing the Caucasus and Transoxiana. The scheming Qajar old-guard also assassinated Amir Kabir, the nineteenth century reformist prime minister of Iran, after sending him into exile here in Kashan. The Qajars would eventually descend into the very picture of decadent, pompous, wastrel kings, squandering state funds on private adventures to the point of bankruptcy and opening the country to malign foreign intervention and occupation, not least of all by the British, and it is in the nineteenth century Qajar-era that the deeply-held Iranian mistrust of the British begins.

We visit two separate houses in the city; both fine pieces of architecture with opulent courtyards containing pools and trees, but one feels the vanity of the Qajars in them; heavy on external plasterwork ornamentation but lacking the genius of so many earlier Iranian architects.

Rae and I are unfortunately travelling in separate directions across the country and so after dropping her off at the bus station in the evening, I continue alone, missing her company, climbing up into the freezing Zagros Mountains of western Iran to continue a journey even deeper into the history of this fascinating country.

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3 thoughts on “Stage 6 – Iran: Great Iranian Empires [1/2]

  1. I’m finding these absolutely fascinating to read so thank you for recounting them, I’m very jealous! Somewhat of a selfish question, and one that you may not be able to answer, but a large part of the reason I’m uncomfortable about following through and doing this myself is that I am a (fairly obviously) gay man and a lot of these countries (Iran in particular) have extreme punishments for homosexuals. Did you ever get a sense of public opinion on this, or gender roles in general? Do ordinary people in these countries give the impression that people deviating from standard gender roles should be punished? I fully understand that you may not even have been aware as a straight male but I thought I’d ask. Fascinating reading in any case!

    • Hi Ian

      Thanks for your kind comments.

      I can only speak from observations, but I don’t think being gay is a barrier to visiting these countries, unless you insist on making people aware of your preferences. Yes, people in Iran or Pakistan would find homosexuality objectionable (though to be honest, the most homophobic countries I have encountered are Russia, Kazakhstan etc), but that does not mean you can’t visit. Men here are far more ‘close’ to each other than they are in the West, and even holding hands between men is quite normal in Pakistan, far less so in Iran. Behaviour we would consider effeminate in men is not considered so in these countries. Homosexual activity is also, I suspect, fairly widespread in such countries where sex with a woman before marriage is mostly impossible. I know a few gay men who have had a great time in these countries 😀

      I very much doubt anyone would ever suspect from you way of speaking, walking and so on. There are also gay communities here (of course), though you would be wise to be very cautious when enquiring about them.

      So in summary, I don’t think it is a barrier at all to visiting, just be very careful to whom you disclose your sexual orientation. As for extreme punishments, if you were somehow caught engaging in homosexual activity, I very much doubt such rules would apply to a foreigner. At worst you might be deported I imagine.

      I hope this helps

      • Thanks for your response 🙂 I’ve actually spent 2 years living in Russia and never encountered any issues, although this was in the mid 00s before it become such a big political issue. You’ve certainly encouraged me further to make a trip to Iran and Pakistan at some point in the future, they seem like fascinating countries. I noticed you once planned to travel through Africa, is that still a possibility?

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