Stage 6 – Iran: Classical Persia [1/3]
Where does one really start in order to try to give an introduction to a country which has the depth of history and breadth of culture as Iran? Although not quite a cradle of civilisation, modern Iranians have far more in common with their classical forebears than the modern populations of Greece, Egypt, Iraq, or China have with theirs. Persia has had not one, but three world empires, with the Achaemenid shah (king) Cyrus II being credited as the world’s first empire-builder, just over 2,500 years ago. Despite numerous invasions and internal upheavals throughout history, from Alexander the Great to the current crop of hardline clerics, the Persians have managed to preserve their culture to a remarkable degree.
The near-universal first impression of Iran for the foreign visitor is simply one of surprise when one sees something very different from one’s preconceptions. Through ignorance, many simply associate Iran with Iraq as the two neighbours have such (coincidentally) similar names, and imagine Iran to be a chaotic Arab state wracked with internal strife. Others see only the highly selective coverage of the country in the western media (compare the quantity of programming given over to the history of Iran with that of ancient Egypt for instance), and imagine it to be a hotbed of anti-Western and anti-Semitic feelings. But few are prepared for the impressions which the country soon makes upon them; a modern, sophisticated and overwhelmingly friendly nation of people who are neither European, nor Middle Eastern, but simply Persian.
The Iranians of course, are fully aware of their achievements as a nation, and it is perhaps the greatest pain of the troubled Persian soul that their nation is a pariah-state maligned and sanctioned by the international community. It gives Iranians great joy and reassurance to see foreigners’ stereotypes dissolve as they encounter Iranian culture; both classical and modern. But the Iranian character is a deeply puzzling one, and is not easily understood. I would spend nearly nine months in the country during this trip; 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 Persians.
The current regime of Iran, which finds both supporters and opponents within the population, is the latest chapter in a long history of despotic and wastrel leaders, and of intervention by foreign powers. This is the price one pays perhaps, for being at the centre of the classical world, surrounded by neighbours with which one has been vying for control of the area for millennia. My first journey into Iran in this trip (it was in fact my second; the very first was in 2003) would concentrate on the great cities and classical sites of the country, from North to South.
I am making a major transition from the former Soviet states of Central Asia, into Iran. Although the areas have often been contiguous in history (as neighbouring regions of various Persian empires), today, they are very different. From some of the world’s newest countries, with cultures of nomads, or settled pastoralists of marginal lands, beginning to make contact with the outside world, to one of the world’s oldest states, a nation of great cultural richness and sophistication held tightly under a clerical regime bent on imposing a regressive Islamic state and isolating its citizens from the outside world.
On the 8th November 2007, six months into my trip, I cross the Kopet Dag mountains which mark the end of the Kara Kum Desert and the beginning of the Iranian Plateau, and enter the ancient region of Khorasan. The greatest shock upon entering the country is the traffic, which compared even to the busiest cities of Central, is truly horrendous, omnipresent, and constant. High rates of car ownership, a dislike of walking even short distances, cheap petrol and universally good roads creates an abundance of honking, speeding, jostling traffic which can horrify at first. Iran has a shocking road accident and death rate – one of the highest in the world – which comes as a shock in a country otherwise so civilised. I would sometimes ask Iranians whom I met if they knew anyone who had been killed in a road accident; the answer was without exception ‘yes’.
Mashhad was my first port of call in Iran. It is one of my favourite Iranian cities; large, bustling and cosmopolitan, with most of the facilities of Tehran, though without the capital’s totally unmanageable size. And it has character. At the city’s heart is the Holy Shrine of Emam Reza, a 9th century Arab who was the eighth Emam to succeed the prophet Muhammad (in the Shi’a tradition, an Emam is a perfect human being, selected by God to lead mankind). Shi’a Muslims flock from across the Islamic world; from Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Pakistan, India, and of course Iran, to pay homage to the fallen Emam who lies interred here. The shrine complex is huge, and ever-expanding thanks to the unending donations of visiting pilgrims. At its centre lies the silk-covered tomb of the revered man, in a glass cabinet covered by brass trellis-work, housed in a large room lit with fluorescent green and white lights, reflected in the thousands of mirror-tiles which cover the walls and domed ceiling. The atmosphere is charged with emotion; even a non-believe like one’s-self 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 (the first Emam), 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 – deeply 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, pass their exams and so on.
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 Shi’as, who celebrate grief, mourning and martyrdom, are fervent shrine visitors. It has become part of the Persian culture, perhaps more even than Islam itself. I know plenty of secular-minded Iranians who would not go near a mosque, who may not pray at all, who drink, womanise and who care little for the orthodox lifestyle which the Iranian state imposes upon them, who still hold the shrine in the greatest reverence. In times of difficulty or need, their 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 Emam. Stories abound of miracle cures taking place here; of the long-wheelchair-bound getting up and walking out, of cancers cured, of pregnancies in barren women. The power of belief is strong.
Guidebooks will tell you that Mashhad is Iran’s holiest city, but this is only partly true. While the Holy Shrine of Emam Reza is the holiest single site in the country, and the area around it bustles with pilgrim traffic in a way reminiscent of Jerusalem, there is another side to Mashhad. During the brutal Iran/ Iraq war, which most Iranians remember with terror, many flocked from the country’s western provinces and the capital to the safety of this far-removed city in the Iranian north-east, thousands of kilometres from the fighting. Mashhad has grown to be Iran’s second largest city. My guide through the hidden and private culture of the city’s far-from-pious youth would be Pouria, a Tehrani, and a son of what may be considered a privileged family. His father, an airforce general during the reign of the last Shah, was abroad at the time of the revolution, choosing to return in 1981 after being given the choice to return then, or not at all (after initial purges of the Shah’s old military, Khomeini’s regime soon realised they needed experienced military staff in the war with Iraq). The fact that Pouria had been given a traditional Persian name, rather than an Islamic (i.e. Arabic) name, is an indication of which identity his parents associate with more. Pouria, and a group of his friends, would show me a side to modern Iran which looked quite familiar to most westerners of a similar age. We chatted with strikingly beautiful girls who would rip-off their concealing exterior garments (required of women in public, by law), the moment they came indoors, to reveal far skimpier attire. We went to private parties attended by both sexes (illegal), where young men and women mixed freely. We drank home-made alcohol which the Iranians call arak saagi or ‘dog liquor’, though each of us realised that this was a poor substitute for a decent whisky or vodka. I spent roughly ten days with Pouria, and was treated at every moment like an old friend, immediately welcomed into his inner circle. This vivacious, though secretive (and often illegal) private life of the city, of a proportion of its richer, more westernised inhabitants, is a world away from the piety of the shrine at its traditional heart.
But in case I was beginning to think of Pouria and his cohorts as simply sharing the same hedonistic values of youth in the west, they took me to a site for which they clearly felt some reverence. In the village of Tus, now pretty much a suburb of sprawling Mashhad, lies the tomb complex of the revered Persian poet Firdausi. Iranians hold their classical poets in great esteem (I have rarely entered an Iranian home and not seen their works shelved next to the Qur’an), and unlike the shrines and mosques which the regime greatly supports, these places, associated with such secular figures are enjoyed by both religious and secular-leaning Iranians. Firdausi lived at the turn of the 11th century, at a time during which Persian culture seemed to be under threat of total assimilation into the empire of the Arabs, who in the 7th century had swept into a weak Sassanid Persia and brought their religion and associated culture, and their language. Firdausi is regarded as having ‘reminded’ Iranians of their history, culture and language at this critical time, and greatly contributed to Persian culture escaping a fate similar to classical Egyptian culture; comprehensive Arabisation. Firdausi’s seminal work, the Shahnama, is the Iranian national epic, something of a Persian mix of Shakespeare and Homer, in which real historical figures such as Alexander the Great and the Achaemenid Persian king Darius play part-real, part-mythical roles, along with the wholly mythical brothers Rustam and Sohrab.
Forgetting all the pleasures, religious and secular, and new-found friendships of Mashhad, I immerse myself once more in the rich ancient fabric of Iran. The route between Mashhad and Tehran follows a corridor between the flat but desolate terrain of the Dasht-e Kavir, a huge waterless waste of salt flats and barren land, and the deeply incised and stark geography of the Kopet Dag Mountains. It is the old caravan route from Constantinople to Balkh and Herat, passing through desert cities which owe their prosperity to the centuries of passing trade: Sang Bast, Neishapur (birthplace of the great Iranian poet Omar Khayyam), Bastam and Damghan with their fine Ghaznavid tomb towers, Semnan and Varamin with their elaborate Mongol mosques and tombs, before reaching the far less enchanting suburbs of modern Tehran.
All along this ancient and modern-day highway, one can see relics from the past; deserted caravanserais, long-abandoned mud-brick villages, towers and mausolea of local leaders and holy men. It’s one of my favourite roads in Iran, on which one is part of an east-west migration which is centuries old, and the unbroken patina of what was the world’s first great trade route, the first contact between people of the far east and the west, lies unguarded, unattended at the roadsides, in the irrigated fields of pistachios and the scorched earth of the desert. Nowhere else – not in Samarkand or Khiva, Kashgar or Kokand, which are often vaunted as being on the ‘Silk Road’ – have I ever actually felt I was traveling on the Silk Road itself. It remains a major artery today; the direct route between Iran’s capital and second city. The Silk Road lives on.
Tehran is not an obviously interesting place. I don’t recall exactly why I visited; perhaps I felt some duty to visit the country’s capital (I had skipped it on my first visit to Iran in 2003) for a sense of completeness. Tehran, an endlessly sprawling city of over eight million, is not old; the Qajar dynasty moved the capital here from Esfahan at the end of the 18th century, giving it just over 200 years of history. Tehran was previously a nondescript village, living in the shadow of the far greater city of Rey, which was, along with Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), one of the capitals of the Medes, a Persian tribe who ruled a large part of Iran before the Achaemenids (Cyrus, Darius etc) founded the first great Persian Empire. Rey was said to be a glorious city, but was utterly razed by the Mongols in the 13th century. Today it is a working-class suburb of Tehran, lost in the cancerous sprawl of southern Tehran as it swelled uncontrollably in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Whilst Tehran feels rather brash and charmless compared with many other Iranian cities, it is here that one sees modern Iran; change and reform, however nascent, starts here. With my host Reza, a 40 year-old bachelor who lives in a very smart suburb of northern Tehran and runs his own software business, I am introduced to the underground, secular private life of north Tehran. South Tehran is typically conservative, low-rent, bland and sometimes shambolic, north Tehran, where the city spreads gently into the cool foothills of the Alborz mountains, is elegant, clean, orderly and stylish, with a generally liberal, worldly population who seem far removed from the clerical politics of post-revolutionary Iran. A large number of similar north-Tehranis live private lives little different from those of urban westerners and at the house-parties to which I am taken by Reza, I see western clothes, western music and smuggled western alcohol. Hardliners following Khomeini’s repulsion of ‘westoxication’ in Iran may have banned all these things in public, but thousands of Tehranis are happily westoxicated in the privacy of their own homes; at these parties I might have been in Brighton or Budapest, save perhaps for the concentration of jaw-droppingly beautiful women; another surprise many first-time visitors find in Iran.
But as is always the case in Iran, one is never far from seeing another, totally opposite side to the country and her people.
Throughout urban Asia, the bazaar, or market, is usually the centre of public city life. Coming from an age and a society where everything is bought from supermarkets, it is difficult initially to understand how much more the bazaar is than just a place to buy 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 country, and a city-district in itself. Though most bazaaris (traders) appear modest and humble, many are extremely wealthy, and, more importantly, politically influential. So from a visit to the bazaar one may equally judge the price of basic commodities and the political mood of the entire country. Kilometres of time-worn passageways are lined with every conceivable commodity, and one must push through crowds and avoid trolleys piled high with goods being pushed and pulled briskly 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.
Before leaving the clutches of Tehran entirely, I stop by the Behesht-e Zahra, the ‘Paradise of Zahra’, Iran’s largest cemetery. It spreads out behind the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, a large, characterless complex which is still under construction some eighteen years after the controversial man’s death. But within the acres of peaceful lanes, one begins to notice that Iranians seem to come here almost as a family outing; morosely dressed adults 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 some deeper fondness of grief. A small souvenir booth sells postcards; not of the manicured rose bushes and pine trees, or of the impressive marble monuments, but of hideously mutilated bodies on battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war; headless cadavers slumped over wrecked vehicles, severed limbs, and broken skulls. It is an insight into the curious censorship laws of the regime; pictures of women in trousers and low-cut tops would, of course, be obscene.
Leaving Tehran, the landscape becomes bleak, bland desert, passing huge salt flats and leading to the city of Qom. Mashhad may house the holiest single site within Iran, but it is undoubtably Qom which is the country’s holiest city. It is, in fact, renowned for three things; religion, halva (a delicious sugary pistachio brittle) and bad drivers. There are no slipped-back headscarves on the women here; most wear the chador (meaning ‘tent’), a black sheet covering them from head to toe, revealing only face and hands. It was here that Ruholla Khomeini studied theology to become an Ayatollah, the highest rank of Shi’ite cleric, and lead the clerical opposition to the last Shah’s westernisation, corruption and repression of Islam until his exile in 1964. It is here that tentative reforms are most opposed by the populace. Families from across the Shi’a world send their sons here to study the Qur’an and become clerics.
The religious fervour of the city revolves, predictably, around a shrine, that of Bibi Fatima Masumeh, sister of Emam Reza. While it lacks the prestige of her brother’s shrine, foreign pilgrims inevitably include it on their visit. I am met at the shrine by a mullah (cleric), dressed in distinctive tan and grey robes, with a white turban. He speaks good English, and asks the usual questions, though I’m caught off-guard when he asks me about my religion. I am an atheist, but I sometimes tell certain people – those who are very traditional or fundamentalist – that I am a Christian, something in truth I most certainly am not. ‘You are a Christian?’ asks the cleric. ‘Yes’, I reply. ‘Catholic or Protestant?’ he counters. I’ve never had to think about this really. But I suppose I’d probably be a protestant, and I tell him this, perhaps looking a little unsure. Thankfully, his religious questions ended here; I’m fairly sure he saw through my lie.
When the rare article or image of Iran which does not relate to angry anti-western crowds, or sabre-rattling politicians, reaches western audiences, it is not usually of the capital, or the country’s holy shrines, or of private parties in north Tehran apartments, but of Esfahan, probably the finest and most iconic of Iran’s cities. Esfahanis, who are known to other Iranians as being sly and cunning, boast that ‘Esfahan, nesfe jahan’ or ‘Esfahan is half the world’. Located in the middle of the country, it was the capital from the 16th to 18th century under the Safavids, who as renowned patrons of the arts and sciences, beautified their capital with a dazzling array of architecture.
The centrepiece, undoubtedly, is Maidan Naqsh-e Jahan (Map of the World Square) renamed Emam Khomeini Square after the 1979 revolution. A manicured central square of grass and fountains is 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.
At its eastern end is the beautiful Emam Mosque, with its elaborate arches and huge dome flanking a large open courtyard where, unlike Central Asia’s mosques, a crowd of faithful still gather each evening. On the northern side is the small Sheikh Lutfullah Mosque, unusual for having no courtyard and no minarets, but, in my view one of the most beautiful mosques in the world for its neat dome of beige and turquoise faience. Through an outer portal one enters a vaulted passageway covered entirely in turquoise and lapis mosaic tiles, curving to the right and abruptly transporting one into the domed main chamber of the mosque where one is left in gasping awe of the sheer magnificence and intricacy of Islamic art which towers above one’s head in every direction.
On the southern side is the Ali Qapu Palace, where the Safavid shahs could sit above the general populace and observe the square, and at the western end is the entrance to Esfahan’s rambling old bazaar. It’s the sort of place where one can sit for hours on the lawn, just looking at the surrounding splendour, but eventually I tear myself away for a stroll. Esfahan’s bazaar is magnificent in parts, covered in old vaulted ceilings and pleasing the senses; bright colours of cloth and confectionery, the murmur of business transactions, and, most evocatively, the smell of spice stalls. Here, bags of spices, dried seeds and pods, leaves and flowers create a melange of aromas which is so quintessentially and unmistakably middle-eastern, a smell one could never encounter in a western shopping mall or supermarket. It’s impossibly complex, with hints of clove, dried lime, saffron and nutmeg. To me it is the smell of Persia.
Esfahan is also famous for its bridges, which span the blue waters of the Zeyandeh River. They are masterpieces of simple, elegant design, crossing the river in a series of identical arches. The most famous perhaps is the Si-o Se (thirty-three) Bridge, which spans the river in thirty-three beautiful arches. Interestingly, one can walk either on top of the bridge, or underneath it, just above river level, going through each of the arches. Locals come out in the evening to sit and chat under the arches, smoking the qailyun (water pipe), or in a particularly Esfahani tradition, singing together, using the acoustic properties of the arches to great effect.
Also near to the centre lies another monument of the rule of the Safavids, the Chehel Sotoun (forty columns), a royal pavilion set in lavish gardens. Its interior is covered in frescos showing scenes of battles and royal receptions between the Persians and their neighbours in Central Asia, Turkey and India. Other frescoes show the opulence of court life; musicians, dancing-girls and servants, drinking, revelry and fornication. Such scenes naturally rankled with the zeal of revolutionaries in 1979, though thankfully the curators of the palace managed to save the frescoes from vandalism. The sensuality and indulgence of the frescoes, and their near destruction by zealots seems a fitting analogue to the situation of modern, socially divided Iran. After all the piety of the mosques and shrines of Mashhad and Qom, the Chehel Sotoun is a welcome change of atmosphere, and a glimpse of the more earthly tastes of the Safavids, who created this great city.
One Friday afternoon I sit in the city’s main square and listen to a mullah giving an anti-American sermon at the Emam mosque, then watch as hundreds of women in chadors, men in plain clothes and the odd junior cleric 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, and wonder at the divisions in a country where in one week I can dance and drink vodka with model-beautiful kept-women in salubrious northern Tehran, and see crowds of hundreds in medieval costume leaving a polished Safavid-era mosque having taken in a sermon demonising western influences. But then this is absolutely typical of any assessment of Iranian society.
After the sermon, I meet Rae, an attractive 30-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 Myanmar (Burma), sleeping out alone in freezing Tibetan villages at over 4000m when locals were afraid she was Chinese, and making an illegal trip by donkey from Egypt into Libya. We make a trip to Kashan the following day, arriving in the evening to a grotty and less-than-welcoming mosaferkhune (traveller’s hotel), which Ali, a helpful local brings us to. There is only a double room, no twin, and even though we explain that we are simply friends, he, of course, disbelieves it. ‘We know what you people are like!’ he tells me with a smile. Here we witness another side to the Iranian persona. Despite the near-universal warmth and hospitality, in some people there runs a good degree of mistrust of foreigners and even xenophobia. In the morning the screaming hotel owner almost chases us down the steps for refusing to pay for a number of ‘extras’ which had appeared on the bill. I very rarely stayed in hotels in Iran, but found hotel owners to be the most unpleasant people in the country.
Despite these antics, Kashan is an enjoyable desert town with a particularly fine bazaar. Its long, winding passageways intersect at grand, domed khans where two storeys of shop-fronts look down onto a central pool. The city, whose roofscape of pale mud-brick buildings stretches out towards snowcapped mountains, has clearly been a centre of trade for quite sometime, as the collection of exquisite merchants’ houses attests to. Long courtyards filled with elegant pools and manicured gardens are surrounded by colonnaded passageways in a uniquely Persian celebration of nature and art. In a country which is largely desert, pools of water, fountains and greenery are always appreciated.
In the evening I say goodbye to Rae at the bus station, and immediately miss her. I take myself off for the lonely drive into the cold night, heading for the mountains of western Iran.