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Iran: Make love not war?

Published
July 27, 2019
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Iran in the World. Map data ©2019 GeoBasis-DK/BKG (©2009), Google, MapaGISrael, ORION-ME. Iranian land borders marked out in red for this post.

AFTER my adventures on Mount Ararat, I finally made it across the border into Iran — or Persia — the fabled land I’d so long wanted to visit, whatever its current unpopularity in the West. I spent three weeks in Iran in the September and October of 2018; and I’ve got lots of amazing photos and videos to share with you in a series of posts. This is the first post in my series, which I’m calling ‘Iran: Make love not war?’

But first, why go there in the first place? I’ll run through some of the things that are distinctive about Iran; setting the scene for my own accounts of travel a bit further on.

I read a blog about how to travel from Turkey to Tehran overland; and it inspired me to give it a go.

This is the route I followed, starting from the Turkish border-region town of Doğubeyazıt, close to Mount Ararat.

I first visited the northwestern city of Tabriz, where I got properly organised for the trip. And then I went on to the Alamut Valley, once home to a guild of Mediaeval assassins: rebels fighting for the poor and downtrodden, more or less, whose targets were the local equivalents of the Sheriff of Nottingham at the time. Their leader, Hassan-i Sabbah, dwelt on a spectacular crag. His castle is now being restored.

A romantic portrayal of Hassan-i Sabbah. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

From Alamut, I went on to Tehran, the capital of Iran, with its many attractions such as the fabulous Golestan (‘Rose Garden’) Palace.

The Hall of Mirrors in the Golestan Palace

From Tehran, I took a side trip to the Caspian Sea resort of Chalus. The land of Iran is sandwiched between the Persian Gulf to the south and the Caspian Sea to the north. In spite of its name, the Caspian Sea is actually a lake. It’s the world’s biggest lake, in fact: one and a half times as big as all of North America’s Great Lakes put together! Because it’s so big, and also because it’s slightly salty, it’s not called a lake but rather, the Caspian Sea.

The Caspian Sea. NASA public domain image (MODIS image from the Terra satellite, 11 June 2003), via Wikimedia Commons. North at top.

The Caspian Sea’s Iranian shore lies just north of a belt of mountains and green forests, which the mountains help to sustain by catching moisture from the Caspian Sea as mist and rain. About six million people live between the sea and the woodlands on a sort of riviera, which stretches for four hundred kilometres along the shore and can be seen from space, as somewhere that’s lit-up at night.

The southern shores of the Caspian Sea, looking northward. Three of the roads through the mountains, on the right, can be seen converging on Tehran, which is just off the photo's edge to the south. Photo by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, taken from the International Space Station on 27 July 2015. Public domain image, via NASA and Wikimedia Commons.

The Caspian riviera is where people from Tehran go on holiday. The great forest, which adds to the area’s attractions, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site on 5 July, 2019: the latest in what’s already a long list of World Heritage sites in Iran.

You can see the mountains, which are called the Alborz, in this photo of myself on a new pedestrian bridge in Tehran. From the city, it’s possible to climb to a lookout in the Alborz, visit a hillside summer palace complex called Sa’adabad, and even take a gondola up to skifields.

On the new Tabiat ('Nature') pedestrian bridge over a motorway trench in Tehran, with another bridge and the city centre in the background. In the far distance is the Alborz mountain range, with the Caspian Sea on the other side.

It’s because of the Alborz, and their forests, that Robin Hood types like Hassan-i Sabbah were able to flourish in this area. Although it’s where the capital is now, northern Iran has always had a bit of a wild-frontier reputation. The early civilisation of Persia was actually based in the south, and the capital was only shifted to Tehran as recently as 1796.

Which is very recent, by the standards of a country so ancient that it celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of its foundation in 1971.

After Tehran, I went south to the delightful, planned city of Isfahan, perhaps the first ‘garden city’. It has a famous boulevard, famous gardens, famous bridges, a famous town square and some of the most amazing mosques and palaces in all of Iran as well.

Part of a mosque complex in Isfahan
Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan

Everywhere south of the Caspian Sea and its belt of woodlands is quite dry. Isfahan depends on a river called the Zayandeh to keep it fresh and green.

A tourist map showing the Zayandeh River and its green embankment

Unfortunately, the Zayandeh had dried up completely when I was there.

By the embankment, guarded by a pair of statues of small and not-particularly-fearsome lions

21st-century Iran has huge water problems. This is partly because of global warming, and partly because of a combination of population growth and international sanctions that limit food imports, so that more water has to be taken to grow food in the desert.

A big lake west of Tabriz, Lake Urmia, which used to be a hundred and forty kilometres from end to end, has dried up quite dramatically since the early 1980s.

Lake Urmia in 1984. The lake is below its maximum level in this image, as the volcano in the middle has been an island from time to time. NASA public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.
Lake Urmia in 2014. The latest space photos on Google Satellite View show more water than in this map, but the level is still very low. Map by Atila Kagan, CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A hundred years ago, Iran’s population was only about 10 million. At the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it was about 40 million. Today, it is more than 80 million. In a mostly desert country, such population growth can’t help but put pressure on things.

From Isfahan and its dried-up river, apparently now flowing again (but perhaps not for long), I went on to Shiraz, after which a famous wine is named, even though the present Islamic Republic of Iran is ‘dry’. It turns out that they were a bit more tolerant in the old days. Shiraz is the home of the famous Mediaeval poets Sa’adi and Hafez, and I visited their tombs. Poets like these are to the Persian language what Shakespeare is to English.

Sa'adi in a Rose Garden. Mughal Dynasty image ca. 1645, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

While in Shiraz, I visited the ancient monument sites of Naqsh-e Rostam, where emperors such as Xerxes are buried inside a cliff. You might remember Xerxes as the evil, camped-up villain in the film 300, all dripping with rings and gold chains. Well, he wasn’t really like that.

And I went on to Persepolis, the ancient capital of Persia which was burned by the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great (or not-so-great if you are a Persian). And then to Pasargadae where the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the founder of Persia, still stands.

Here’s the Faravahar, ancient symbol of Iran’s indigenous Zoroastrian religion, at Persepolis.

The Faravahar, a symbol of the ancient Zoroastrian religion of Iran, at Persepolis

A modern sign at a Zoroastrian centre, in Yazd, explains the significance of the Faravahar, also spelt Frahvahar, said to be the origin of the wedding ring.

From Shiraz and its nearby ancient sites, I went finally to the incredible desert city of Yazd, where wind-catching towers pull cool, moist air out of caverns to air-condition the people’s homes, all without electricity. And to its satellite town of Yazd, also famous for its old quarter.

Windcatcher towers of Yazd

The area around Yazd is also a stronghold of the Zoroastrian religion, now largely displaced by Islam elsewhere in Iran. I visited a Zoroastrian shrine and school and the famous ‘towers of silence’ where the deceased used to be laid out for vultures to eat, the funeral custom of the Zoroastrians at the time they were built.

Along the way, I took lots of photos and videos of fabulous, sumptuous beauty: mosques, palaces, tapestries, bazaars, and modern art. For, it turns out that Iran is one of the most artistic countries in the world.

While I was in Iran I would also see smugglers, prostitutes working under the cover of a custom called temporary marriage (sanctioned by clerics), and be offered beer and all the drugs under the sun.

A cigarette smuggler on the Turkish-Iranian border, stuffing cigarettes down his trousers

I also learned about how the culture of the nation is not merely the ‘official’ one, but also one that has been shaped by its love of art and by the satirical quality of its most famous poets, who used their wit against arbitrary authority, religion carried to tiresome excess, and anyone who uses, abuses or bullies others.

I also discovered that in ethnic-minority regions in the north, the writ of the government hardly ran and that many people did what they liked.

It wasn’t like what you read in the Western media about Iran as this buttoned-down sort of a place: almost the opposite.

This is the first of several posts on Iran. Follow me if you would like to be notified when they come out. I’ll be turning them into a book, A Maverick Iranian Way, as well.

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