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

The second part of my ten week journey around Iran would take me from the centre of the country high into the rugged Zagros Mountains, then down to the plains of ancient Khuzestan and the Persian Gulf coast. Here, amongst the ruins and relics of Iran’s earliest, pre-Islamic empires; the Elamites, Achaemenids and Sassanians, I would witness a different side to Iran. Away from the country’s main axis, I would meet Sunni minorities of Kurds and Arabs and experience the more relaxed ‘Bandari’ culture of the Persian Gulf ports, before heading across the desert wastes of Baluchistan towards the Pakistani frontier.

Do Ab Bridge, Shahzand, Markazi Province, Iran

On the evening of the 9th December 2007 I leave Kashan and after a night sleeping just outside the city of Qom, turn westwards and climb into the undulating plateaus of the Zagros Mountains; a cold, dry land of brown-streaked fields and distant, snow-capped mountains. In the province of Lorestan, I spend a few hours in the city of Borujerd which still shows signs of damage from a devastating earthquake which occurred eighteen months earlier, before turning north and stopping for a cold night sleeping on the edge of Hamadan, where temperatures plunge well below freezing. Hamadan is thought to be the location of ancient Ecbatana, capital of the Medes, an ancient Iranian people. Located at an elevation of around 1850 metres above sea level, Hamadan was one of the capitals of the Achaemenids and was the location of the summer palaces of the Parthians and Sassanians. Any remains from these periods however are buried below the modern city, which gives little impression of its great age.

Tomb of Esther and Mordecai, Hamadan, Hamadan Province, Iran

One intriguing site close to the central square is a relatively modern brick shrine, attributed to Esther (Hadassah), Jewish wife and queen of an Achaemenid Persian king, and her cousin Mordecai. Through the ages, Jews in Iran have, as in Europe, made up a significant minority and have experienced times of freedom, times of life as second-class citizens and times of outright persecution. As described in the Old Testament, it was the Achaemenid king Cyrus II (Cyrus The Great) who conquered Babylon and freed the Jews from captivity in the sixth century BCE, allowing them to return to Judea and build the Second Temple. Today, ‘Zionists’ are portrayed as the country’s greatest enemy in the propaganda of the Iranian regime and despite making a distinction between Zionists and Jews in general, most Iranian Jews have long-since emigrated to Israel or the US, and those that do remain keep a very low profile. A little further from the centre is the stout fourteenth century Seljuk-era Alavian Dome with fine interior stucco plasterwork that deeply impressed Robert Byron in my favourite travel book, The Road To Oxiana. Lastly I have a look at the modernist mausoleum of Avicenna, the medieval physician whose eleventh century Book of Healing remained in use in Europe until the seventeenth century.

Behistun Inscription, Bistoun, Kermanshah Province, Iran

I leave Hamadan in its bowl of snow-capped mountains and press deeper into the Zagros, crossing high ridges on the ancient road connecting the interior of the Iranian Plateau with the lowlands of Babylonia. Today the road is a significant pilgrim route for Iranian Shias making the journey to the holy cities of southern Iraq, and there are road signs counting down the distance to Karbala. The road passes under the cliffs on which is carved the magnificent Behistun Inscription; a huge relief from around 500 BCE showing King Darius I (Darius the Great) proclaiming his victory over various subject peoples of the ancient Achaemenid Empire. It also has hundreds of lines of cuneiform script in three languages; Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, and was therefore crucial to the deciphering of cuneiform script.

I stop for the day in the Kurdish city of Kermanshah, which is large but feels like something of a backwater, clearly less economically prosperous than the cities of central Iran. My Kurdish host here is Abdollah, the youngest of ten children, whose family are exceptionally generous and welcoming. More traditional and less westernised than other families I have stayed with so far in Iran, the warm family home is largely free from furniture with meals being taken on the floor in traditional Iranian style, and most of the family sleeping on the carpeted floor on a rolled-out mattress with a blanket; a clear cultural inheritance from the days when Iranians lived nomadic lives. Though they clearly identify themselves as being Kurdish Iranians, the family seem culturally very similar to Persians and hold no ambitions of an independent Kurdish state. For many members of Abdollah’s extended family who I meet at his brother Mojtaba’s house, I am the first foreigner with whom they have had contact and I’m asked whether I am a Christian, about my views of the current Iranian president, and my views of Palestine and Israel; a major topic promoted by the propaganda of the current Iranian regime, though Palestine is physically and culturally rather remote from Iran.

Investiture of Ardeshir II, Taq-e Bostan, Kermanshah Province, Iran

At the the foot of the mountains on the very northern edge of Kermanshah lies one of the finest carvings from the time of the Sassanian Empire. The Sassanians ruled Iran from 224 to 641 CE and oversaw the establishment of the second great Iranian empire, taking over the land of the loose confederacy of the earlier Parthian Empire. The Sassanians, whose capital was Ctesiphon, near Baghdad in modern-day Iraq, were in some ways the culmination of many centuries of Persian culture, and oversaw a golden age which lasted until the conquest of the Arabs. The Sassanians bequeathed a huge cultural inheritance to the invaders from the deserts of Arabia and greatly influenced the medieval Islamic world, particularly in the fields of architecture, art and governance.

The series of carvings, known as Taq-e Bostan, show the investiture of the fourth century king Ardeshir II, whose hair is tied up in a curious ball, by his predecessor and brother Shapur II, standing on the dead body of Roman Emperor Julianus Apostata and overlooked by what is thought to be Ahuramazda, the god of Zoroastrianism, which the Sassanians at times made the state religion of Iran. In a nearby archway carved from the native rock, overlooked by angels holding diadems are fantastically detailed hunting scenes from King Khosrow II, who reigned from the late sixth to early seventh century, and who remains perhaps the most celebrated Sassanian king. Khosrow expanded the Sassanian Empire to its greatest extent, very nearly matching that of the Achaemenids more than a millennium earlier, but he would also be the last to have more than a fleeting reign, as the Sassanian Empire, exhausted from wars with Byzantium, was rapidly overrun by the Arabs in the middle of the seventh century.

Landscape, Ilam Province, Iran

I leave Kermanshah driving westwards once more, through a sprawl of shabby and unplanned buildings on the city’s edge which look as if they will be levelled by the next earthquake. I crest the final passes of the Zagros, some penetrated by tunnels, and wind down from the freezing highlands through a beautiful landscape of rolling, dry hills covered in bare scrub oaks and chestnuts and separated by crenelated ridgelines, entering the south-western province of Ilam, named after the ancient civilization of Elam. As I delve deeper into Iran, further from the lightly-touristed central axis of the country I am subject to ever-more attention from the police; sometimes friendly, sometimes suspicious but usually a frustrating and time-consuming encounter with rather incompetent and sometimes unprofessional young conscripts. This (together with the appalling standard of driving throughout the country) would be a minor but ever-present annoyance when travelling in Iran, and a small insight into the the authoritarianism which so many Iranians complain about.

Chogha Zanbil Ziggurat, Khuzestan Province, Iran

South of the city of Ilam, the road drops down the last foothills and leaves the Iranian Plateau into a lowland area contiguous with Mesopotamia; a wide, open landscape of small dry hills, deeply incised river valleys and badlands. I stop in the evening in the small, calm border town of Mehran, where full Iranian oil tankers wait in long lines to enter Iraq. The air is warm and damp, and the streets are lined with palm trees and eucalypts. Mixed in with the soft tones of Persian are the harder, guttural notes of Arabic. I’m on the edge of the Arab world, just ten kilometres from the Iraqi frontier and the chaos unleashed by the Americans in much of the country beyond. In the morning I continue southwards, passing the occasional black-tent camps of Luri nomads which dot a landscape more reminiscent of Palestine than anywhere I have yet seen in Iran. After weeks in the freezing highlands and plains of the interior, the temperature is a balmy twenty degrees as I cross into the province of Khuzestan: a wide, sweltering alluvial plain watered by rivers which may be among the Biblical Rivers of Eden and which nurtured some of the world’s earliest civilisations.

Arab Man, near Shush, Khuzestan Province, Iran

I stop in the sleepy provincial town of Shush, better known as ancient Susa, which is among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements. Shush was at one time capital of what the Greeks called Susiana, but is known now as Elam, the name used historically in neighbouring Mesopotamia. The Elamites were a pre-Iranian people of the Ancient Near East, contemporaries of the Sumerians and Akkadians who from around 3200 BCE built up a rich and long-lasting culture in these fertile plains. Just outside Shush lies their finest surviving monument, the ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil, which was known as Dur Untash to the Elamites, named for the Middle Elamite king Untash. Dating from around 1250 BCE, the ziggurat preserves three of its original five tiers and among its huge brick walls are individual bricks bearing remarkably well-preserved Elamite cuneiform inscriptions.

The rich culture of the Elamites was adopted by the earliest arriving Iranian tribes, who are thought to have migrated into the Zagros sometime in the early first millennium BCE and who would go on to found the Achaemenid Empire, which retained Elamite as a court language. The Achaemenids, having conquered Elam, made Susa one of their capitals and the scant remains of the palace complex built by Cyrus The Great in the sixth century BCE lie next to the modern town, devastated by time, invading Arabs and Mongols and, more recently, plundering by Western archaeologists.

Destroyed Tank, Fath ol-Mobin, Khuzestan Province, Iran

The highlight of my stay in Shush however is Reza, a seventeen year-old budding musician whom I meet by chance in an internet café, and who invites me on the spot to come and stay with his family. This turns into a wonderful eight-day stay with his family, who seem genuinely thrilled to have a foreign guest. We spend days relaxing in the mild winter warmth (in summer Shush can reach an unbearable fifty degrees), exploring Shush and its surroundings, while evenings are often spent at the homes of extended family members being fed chicken, kebabs and stews, with fine rice from the Caspian region, fruit and endless rounds of tea until I’m absolutely full and ready to sleep.

Reza and his family are Persians, but much of the population of Shush are Arabs and Reza takes me to meet Saeed, an Arab teacher of his. Saeed explains how he feels a second class citizen in his own country, and makes it clear that he wants nothing but to leave Iran with his young family, even if it means being split from them for years.

Water Buffalo in the Karkheh River, Khuzestan Province, Iran

Together with Reza and his uncle Mehdi, we drive with Saeed out into the countryside just beyond Shush to the Karkheh River and a spot littered with wrecked tanks, trenches and barbed wire, named for the key Battle of Fath ol-Mobin which saw Iranian forces drive the Iraqis back from the edge of Shush in March 1982, with the battle raging on the exact day that I was born. The horrors of the Iran-Iraq War, which saw trench warfare, waves of infantry attacks by teenage conscripts mowed down by machine gun fire, and the use of chemical weapons still traumatises many Iranians. Shohada (martyrs) from the Iran-Iraq War are commemorated in all Iranian cities with moving plaques bearing portraits of boys as young as fourteen who were sent to war. Beyond simple grief however, the death of these young men plays very much into the Shia identity, drawing strong parallels with the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE, one of the most important events in the history of Shia Islam. For Saeed however, a Sunni Arab, there is a more immediately personal note. He tells me that his uncle and grandfather, whilst fighting for the Iranian side during the war, were accused of espionage by fellow soldiers and were later executed. Whilst the welcome from the Iranian people is exceptionally warm, the brutality of the Iranian regime is chilling.

Hawizeh Marshes, Khuzestan Province, Iran

Sadly, the time comes to depart from my adopted family in Shush and as I leave the family home, Reza’s mother holds a copy of the Qur’an in the air, under which I pass whilst she says a prayer to wish me a safe onward journey. I stop in the ancient town of Shushtar to look briefly at the Sassanian-era dam on the Karun River, built by captured Roman soldiers in the third century CE, then continue southwards towards the provincial capital Ahvaz. In the outskirts of the city I stop in a car parts shop and after haggling over the price of my purchase, the two Arab brothers running the shop, Razi and Nasser, immediately invite me to the family home for a lunch of kebabs. They live in what appears to be a standard Iranian home, but the dynamic of the family is slightly different; less European with the men eating separately, reclining and shouting for the women to bring food, drink and all other accoutrements to the meal. South of Ahvaz the road becomes arrow-straight as it tracks the Iraqi border, with spiny acacia trees on one side and eucalypts on the other. The air becomes thicker as I near the Persian Gulf; a white haze at midday which turns to a warm, pale blue in the afternoon as the sun softens. To the west, an expanse of beautiful deep-blue water appears, and to the east is a sea of lush green reeds, chattering with birds. I am driving through the eastern edge of the Hawizeh Marshes, part of the great wetlands around the Lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers, on the Iraqi side home to the Marsh Arabs who continue a way of life not dissimilar from the ancient Sumerians.

Shatt al-Arab River, Abadan, Iran

In the evening I reach Abadan, which has none of the ancient atmosphere of many Iranian cities, but is a clean and pleasant place, made affluent by the proceeds from nearby oil fields and refineries. Arabic seems to be the language on the street and the city feels more cosmopolitan than any other I’ve visited so far in Iran. Large American cars stand out against the normal background of Iranian-made Kias and Peugeots, and some of the affluent suburbs of the city look startlingly like suburban America, with spacious detached houses surrounded by lawns. There is even a well-kept Armenian church in the city centre. With this cosmopolitanism come a cast of eccentric characters, beautiful girls and a far less authoritarian atmosphere than the cities further inland. The focus of the city is the Shatt al-Arab, the sum of the Tigris and Euphrates which the Iranians call the Arvand, which leads down to the Persian Gulf around sixty kilometres away. The details of the demarcation of the Iran – Iraq border on the bed of the river were a long-standing point of contention between the two countries and one of the main causes of the outbreak of war in 1980, which devastated Abadan and saw the adjacent city of Khorramshahr occupied by Iraqi forces. The remains of shelled city blocks can still be seen in Abadan as a poignant reminder of a war which ended less than twenty years ago. Today of course the city is tranquil and the river buzzes with traffic; simple wooden lanj vessels, motorised versions of the ancient dhow whose crews shuttle goods between Iran and the Gulf States. Beyond the far shore stretch the palm-dotted plains of Iraq, ancient Mesopotamia, embroiled in war and sadly off-limits.

Persian Gulf Coast, Bushehr, Bushehr Province, Iran

From Abadan my journey takes a new direction; since leaving Siberia almost six months ago I have been gradually making my way south-westwards but Abadan marks the point from which I will begin a long journey eastwards to the Indian Subcontinent. Leaving the environs of the city, the road immediately enters a rank, salinated plain of drained and cleared marshland which reflects a blinding white in the sunlight. There is nothing on which the eye may settle, except for the straight road and a line of electricity pylons stretching in a perfect line into hazy infinity, and I settle into an almost meditative state. I pass a huge petrochemical plant in the city of Bandar Imam Khomeini, which fills the air with noxious-looking brownish-white fumes, then later enter a scrubby landscape of squalid-looking villages and goatherds, catching my first glimpse of the sea off to the south since leaving the UK on the very first day of the trip.

Bandari House, Bushehr, Bushehr Province, Iran

I stop in Bushehr, an ancient port picturesquely situated on the northern edge of a curving headland which juts out into the Persian Gulf. Like Abadan, Bushehr has a more relaxed and worldly air than most Iranian cities. In the twentieth century Bandar Abbas, off down the coast to the east, became Iran’s premier port, leaving Bushehr in an air of gentle decay. A crumbling old city still holds glimpses of once-elegant mansions in the Bandari style of the Persian Gulf Coast and a neglected British cemetery is a reminder that Bushehr was the location of the British Persian Gulf Residency for almost two hundred years.

I’m hosted in Bushehr by Pedram and his beautiful young wife Zahra who doesn’t cover her hair in front of me, and neither are religious. Once out of the house, Pedram is very much a bachelor, cruising around town and stopping by his various businesses, some of which I see, and others of which I don’t. After a hot-dog from Pedram’s own fast food restaurant, we head off to a pool hall and meet his friend Reza, whom I meet again the following day in his family house. Reza’s family are clearly wealthy, with a comfortable, well-equipped house and a big, luxury car. They are Old Rich; before the revolution, Reza’s father was a high-ranking engineer in the Imperial Iranian Navy, a well-respected and well-paid job.

In the evening we go out on a foray to purchase black-market petrol (to circumvent recent fuel rationing) from some boys in a shabby house in the harbour, then return to Reza’s own comfortable apartment. As we are talking in the evening, Reza brings out a pair of handguns and tells me of the story of a three-million dollar illegal deal with two friends to sell some unspecified ancient artefacts they had uncovered to British art dealers. Unfortunately, the trio had been caught in the act and were jailed, with only Reza escaping thanks to a bribe of several hundred thousand dollars while his accomplices still languish in jail.

Apadana Palace, Persepolis, Marvdasht, Fars Province, Iran

Drawing myself away from the slightly iniquitous underbelly of this charming port city, I drive north-eastwards back up to the deep-blue skies of the Iranian Plateau in Iran’s southern Fars Province, the cultural heartland of the ancient Iranian Achaemenid and Sassanian Empires and arguably also the Elamites. This area is littered with the remains of past empires but its undoubted highlight is the ancient Achaemenid city of Persepolis, located on the plain of modern Marvdasht. Persepolis appears to have been a largely ceremonial capital in the Zagros, a remote and inaccessible location, but of importance as the ancestral heartland of the Persians. Thought to have been built by Darius The Great in the sixth century BCE, the ruins of the great city are hugely impressive; comparable to Palmyra in the Syrian Desert, with clear remains of ancient imperial palaces; punctuated against the winter sky by old columns; some still standing, some toppled, some truncated to mere stumps, which would have supported long-gone roofs of Lebanese cedar and Indian teak.

Apadana Staircase, Persepolis, Marvdasht, Fars Province, Iran

Darius oversaw the expansion of the Achaemenid Empire to its greatest extent; connecting the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt to the Mediterranean in the west and the Indus Valley in the east, by far the largest empire the world had ever seen at the time. Persepolis was the cultural centre of this and it is thought that on the Iranian New Year Nowruz, still widely celebrated today in Iran and many surrounding countries, delegates would come from across the vast land empire to pay tribute to the great Shahanshah, the king of kings, and be thoroughly awed and humbled by the grandeur of the palaces of the imperial capital. It is the surviving bas-reliefs depicting such scenes which make Persepolis so much more compelling than other ancient ruins in the region, for their crisp depiction and detail, thankfully still on show in the open rather than being museum pieces. One experiences these scenes when passing through the tall doorways of the palaces and, most spectacularly, on the Apadana Staircase, a long walkway leading to the royal audience hall. The sides of the Apadana show supplicants in brilliant detail of their distinctive dress, bearing gifts, having made journeys from across the empire; from what is now Iran, Afghanistan, Armenia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, plus parts of Greece, the Black Sea Region, Arabia and Ethiopia.

Naqsh-e Rustam, Fars Province, Iran

The Greeks, once they had come into contact with the Achaemenid Persians became sworn enemies, regarding them as eastern Barbarians and making the distinction between Europe and Asia based on this prejudice, a distinction which lasts until today, splitting Eurasia through the straits of the Dardanelles across which Xerxes I, son of Darius the Great, attacked the Greeks and burnt Athens to the ground in 480 BCE. When Alexander The Great came east into Achaemenid Persia in 331 BCE he was unaware of the existence of Persepolis, such was the obscurity of the ceremonial capital. Perhaps in vengeance for the burning of Athens, or perhaps by mistake in an orgy of drunken revelry, Alexander’s forces burned Persepolis to the ground, and it has remained an enigmatic ruin ever since. Alexander marked the end for the Achaemenid Empire, chasing the last Achaemenid King Bessus (Artaxerxes V) into Bactria, then returning him to Iran for trial and gruesome execution.

Tomb Of Cyrus The Great, Pasargadae, Fars Province, Iran

The following day, I return to the plain just north of Persepolis, to a site known as Naqsh-e Rustam, most famous for the striking rock-cut tombs of four Achaemenid kings, including Darius The Great and Xerxes I. The site is though to have been of significance to the Elamites, who left a now-faint carving from around 1000 BCE. Below the Achaemenid tombs are third and fourth century CE Sassanian reliefs, similar to those at Taq-e Bostan. It’s quite amazing to think that the Achaemenid tombs were already seven to eight hundred years old when the Sassanians left their mark. This area was clearly also of cultural importance to the Sassanians and their early capital of Estakhir lies just across the road, though like the Achaemenids they soon moved their capital west to modern-day Iraq. Crossing a ridge to the north of the Marvdasht Plain lies Pasargadae, the Achaemenid capital of Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) prior to the construction of Persepolis. Here lies the simple yet imposing tomb of Cyrus the Great, on a tall, stepped plinth; the great founder of the Achaemenid Empire, a king renowned for his respect for all subjugated nations and declaration of human rights, liberator of the Jews from Babylon and the only non-Jewish messiah in the Old Testament. In a country so overwhelmed with intransigent theocratic rhetoric, this elegant tomb of the founder of a great empire who lived long before any revelation had come to the Bedu of the Arabian Peninsula, is perhaps the most common national and cultural emblem for the non-religious portion of Iranian society. It’s a portion of society whose existence the ruling clerics don’t like to acknowledge, and a history whose pre-Islamic nature the government are not keen to promote.

Vakil Bazaar, Shiraz, Fars Province, Iran

The modern capital of Fars Province, Shiraz lies around fifty kilometres south of Persepolis, and is the favourite city of many Iranians, a city known for its poets, literature and fine gardens and flowers. Shiraz was capital of Iran in the second half of the eighteenth century under the short-lived Zand Dynasty, and though it lacks the exotic architecture of Isfahan’s centre, it strikes me as a slightly nicer place to wander. For me, the highlight is the magnificent, vaulted Vakil Bazaar whose passageways lead to fine mosques, caravanserais and madrasas (seminaries), all well integrated into the cultural fabric of the city.

Among more religious-leaning Iranians Shiraz is also a place of pilgrimage, to places such as the Safavid-era shrine of Shah Cheragh, brother of Imam Reza. However, I am beginning to see such places as much as mouthpieces of the government’s propaganda machine as they are places of genuine religious piety, and am starting to lose my admiration of them. Instead, on my final evening in the area, I go to the shrine of the fourteenth century poet Hafez, perhaps the most popular of all poets in Iran and whose tomb is located in a pleasant small park, covered by a simple eight-columned pavilion. Hafez seems to be a great uniting figure in modern Iran, almost universally loved by all strata of Iranian society. It’s a rare chance to see young and old, liberal and conservative, secular and religious come and enjoy the very same place, and I watch as a small gathering of people come to sing and recite poetry above his marble tombstone, admiring the richness of Iranian culture.

Zagros Mountains, near Lar, Fars Province, Iran

The next day is New Year’s Day in the Western calendar, but I’m barely aware of the fact. I leave my base in the town of Zarghan and begin a circuitous route southwards towards the southern edge of the Zagros and the Persian Gulf. I pass the huge salt pan of Lake Bakhtegan, driving on small county roads until, well after dark, I get lost and end up on a dead-end road in a dusty village in the middle of the desert. Retracing my steps I find the correct road but am almost out of fuel when I’m stopped and detained by the police in the small town of Lar, where I sleep in the police station’s mosque. The next day everything is better; the matter with the police is sorted and I find that a curious noise from one of the rear wheels is just loose wheel nuts from a tyre changer in Shush who failed to re-tighten them. Leaving Lar, the scenery is striking as I enter the folded ridges of the southern Zagros, where the high plains turn into waterless desert; a huge arid region which extends all the way east from here to the Indus River in Pakistan. The road passes through sweeping, dry valleys punctuated with domed water cisterns and sparse acacias, then crosses a low pass to the south in order to enter the next valley on its the way down to the sea. People here look different; darker skinned and poorer as I wind down through villages of shabby hovels, goats and camels, onto the barren coastal plains of Hormozgan Province.

Camel Herder, near Bandar Abbas, Hormozgan Province, Iran

I stop in the evening in the port city of Bandar Abbas, known to locals simply as Bandar (port). Architecturally a characterless modern sprawl even worse than Tehran, Bandar has the slightly seedy air of a major port and a population whose faces show influences of Arabs and Africans. Indeed, even more than other port cities of Iran, these cultural contacts with the outside world together with, perhaps, the proximity to the neutrality of the ocean mean that Bandar feels even more remote from the joyless theocracy based in Tehran. I’m hosted in Bandar by Mehdi, a Bandari student who seems to embody the city’s easy-going atmosphere. Whilst the rest of Iran is experiencing one of its coldest and snowiest winters in decades, with temperatures plunging to twenty below zero, here the temperature is a balmy twenty to twenty five degrees, another factor which encourages me into staying for eleven days in the city.

Masked Women, Minab, Hormozgan Province, Iran

Mehdi and I make a trip to the nearby city of Minab, famed for its colourful Thursday market that takes place on a large, dry riverbed, with stalls spilling out quite haphazardly on the gravelly surface. Amid the stalls, a crowd gathers around one young man who wrestles a viper, then wraps himself in chains and appears to break free by his own strength, all in the hope of some donations from entertained shoppers. There’s also a slight air of corruption, and in the backrooms of the city there is a flourishing trade in illegal, smuggled alcohol. Most striking by far however, are the masks which some Bandari women wear here. These colourful embroidered masks, most commonly in rich shades of burgundy or vermilion, cover that small par of a woman’s face which is exposed by their chador and is a traditional fashion peculiar to this region of the Gulf coast. They seem hugely impractical, with a central vertical ridge dividing the sight of left and right eyes, but they are a striking dash of colour and novelty in a country where people generally dress in plain clothes.

Salt Dome, Hormuz Island, Hormozgan Province, Iran

On another day, Mehdi and I make the short journey from Bandar by motor launch to the island of Hormuz, at the northern edge of the politically sensitive Straits of Hormuz. All across southern Iran, salt domes appear amongst the folds of the Zagros, pushed to the surface by their own buoyancy compared to surrounding rock. Hormuz Island has formed by the actions of one such salt dome, and parts of the island’s surface are pure salt. Despite being tiny and waterless, the island has a long history owing to its strategic position on maritime trade routes, though it was the Portuguese who left the most enduring mark, in the form of a fortress with an underground church and water cistern hewn out of the native red rock. Whilst enjoying the warm sea breeze we meet an Iranian woman with her daughter and friend, and the five of us hire a taxi to drive us around the island. On a beautiful beach on the south coast, where soft, salty red rocks dissolve into the lapping seawater causing it to take on a blood-like colour, we paddle with the girls, who even go so far as to remove their headscarves. In a country where it is technically illegal for unmarried or unrelated men and women have any kind of social interaction, this feels like a rare treat indeed. In more than two months in Iran, it is the first time I have seen a women’s hair in public and the only time where a young woman has felt comfortable enough to open up to any degree in public without continually looking over her shoulder.

Highway 91, Kerman Province, Iran

The time comes to leave Mehdi and his welcoming family, and the warmth of the coast, and head inland to make the journey of just over eight hundred kilometres to the Pakistani frontier. The road climbs through cold, purple-tinged mountains, crossing a high pass back onto the Iranian Plateau, now lashed by damp, freezing winds. It’s a scene of marvellous desolation where dark, barren mountains float on the endless gravelly plain as I head north on Highway 91, then east onto Highway 84. Shortly beyond Bam I slip through a security checkpoint unnoticed and enter wild Sistan and Baluchistan Province, which every Iranian has warned me is unsafe. While I know this is rather over-hyped, I am nevertheless glad to reach the capital Zahedan without incident, well after dark. I remember Zahedan as a wild, swelteringly hot frontier town where I was struck down with heat exhaustion and dysentery in July 2003, but tonight I stop only long enough to have dinner. I continue alone towards the border but am finally stopped at a police checkpost around fifty kilometres short of the border crossing at Mirjaveh. In the morning I am given a gormless, unarmed teenage conscript as a ‘guard’ and before long am processed at the customs hall and ready to leave the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I leave Iran with many very positive experiences, but I am glad to leave. My greatest impression has been of the people; deeply welcoming, cultured and sensitive, products of a glorious history stretching thousands of years, made rich by the influences brought by countless invaders. This, together with the ability to find relics from all historic epochs makes Iran for me one of the most rewarding countries in which to travel, and one which I would return to many times more in subsequent years. But along with all these joys is a slight feeling of unease; the pressure of being in a police state which seeks to control almost every aspect of the lives of the Iranian populace; a regime which, together with crippling foreign sanctions, holds back the country’s potential, drives many of its greatest minds into exile and seeks to replace Iranian culture with its own joyless, regressive theocracy, which seems so at odds with the richness of Iran’s dynamic history. However, Iraniyat, the concept of Iranian-ness, is far older than the current regime, and indeed older than Islam itself, and it seems inevitable that the country will one day regain its place on the world stage.

Now however is the time to reacquaint myself with the marvellous country of Pakistan.

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