Published on May 24th, 2013 | by Simon

The Islamic Republic of Iran

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The last time I visited was in the days of the Shah of Persia, about two years before the ayatollahs took over, and I have little recollection of anything that long ago! The Air Arabia flight left, appropriately, from Sharjah, one of the most strictly devout of the United Arab Emirates. Suitably enough, after the safety demonstration, there was an Islamic prayer – without translation so I am at a loss to know what was being requested, but it is a first for me on an airplane. As if to drive the point home, there was the standard ‘this is a non-smoking flight’, but in addition, we had ‘this is an alcohol-free flight’. Given the presence of smoke detectors in the toilets, I almost expected to be breath-tested on disembarking.

Mostly as a result of time constraints, I had elected to apply for my visa on arrival at Shiraz airport – an option open to many countries, though not to British or US citizens. I’d warned my friend in the UAE that she might see me back sooner than expected if I was denied a visa (I thought that my British birth and/or my visit pre the revolution might have caused problems). In the event I, and a New Zealander, a Japanese, and many Omanis navigated the application steps easily and without much delay. No questions at all were asked and I didn’t even have to show my hotel bookings or return air ticket. As subsequent discussions with other travellers revealed, this was much easier than applying at an Iranian embassy outside the country – one Swiss couple had to wait 6 hours in the embassy for the interview process to be completed, and another was taken down the road to a police station to be fingerprinted. And so I was in Iran – easily…

Shiraz is a city that gave the world a grape variety – and therefore wine – and roses. It is a liberal city with fine parks and a lively evening street scene – all without the benefit of alcohol as Iran is a strictly dry country. They do have drinks made from malt in what look like beer bottles but the taste is more akin to an energy drink than anything alcoholic. And arriving as I did on a Friday, everywhere was closed until after evening prayers. I took an exploratory walk with my new NZ friend, and we stumbled upon the main mosque/shrine. Hanging at the gate with worshippers streaming in, we were reluctant to intrude, but many gestures beckoned us in and we seemed totally welcome to sit on the edge of the courtyard while carpets were laid out and Friday prayers commenced. I must say, this is in marked contrast to many other moslem countries regarded as more liberal (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt), where entry to a mosque is forbidden at any time to non-moslems.

An excursion later in the evening took us to a street cafe. I tend to prefer cafes with lots of locals because they are usually rather reluctant to poison their repeat customers. Clearly not too many foreigners dine there and we did get a few cautious stares until asked what country we came from. Then it was all smiles to the point where the guy on the next table took a lot of convincing to prevent him buying our entire dinner for us. Iranians love kebabs in various forms, and this is the most universal menu choice. They are usually washed down with a thin yoghurt drink called Doog often flavoured with spearmint and tasting rather like sour toothpaste.

I had engaged a driver to take me from Shiraz to Yazd via Persepolis which was the 2500 year old seat of the Persian Empire of Xerxes, Darius, Cyrus, et al. This was a 500km trip but Iranian roads are exceptionally good and uncrowded. The biggest limiting factor is the 110kph speed limit which is monitored by cameras (where in the world is free of these), and the occasional police road blocks where you have to look respectable and turn off all music! My driver was a delight and quite willing to discuss his view of the Iranian political scene. Generally speaking, people want change and an end to sanctions which have seen the value of the Iranian rial fall like a stone to the point where US$1 now buys you around 40,000 rials. As a visitor, you have to get used to realising 100,000 rials is just $3 and to understanding the Iranian habit of quoting some things in Tomans (10 rial=1 Toman) or in rials. So things may be 10 times as expensive as you thought or 10 times less – quite randomly. Iranians are scrupulously honest in giving back the 9/10ths you didn’t need to offer!

Here is the 50,000 rial note with an atomic symbol watermark and the Persian Gulf marked in English, which fair enough is what the English probably named it. That may now justify Iran’s claim to many of the islands, much to the annoyance of the UAE just across the Gulf.

Persepolis is quite a stunning sight. Built some 2500 years ago on a small plateau slightly above a large plain, there is a surprising amount still standing – albeit that much was reconstructed from pieces discovered lying around in the 1930’s. People had known it was there but nobody had bothered to try to put the monster jigsaw back together. Today it is both vast and detailed at the same time. The friezes on the main stairs of supplicants bearing gifts really bring to life what being part of an ancient empire means. The few standing columns in the main audience hall only hint at the mighty scale of the place, but the Gate of All Nations gives the best impression of the majesty of the place. And that is where Xerxes, with suitable immodesty for a supreme ruler, had his name carved in three languages effectively saying “I built this”. Subsequent empire builders have chosen to visit and deface some of the walls such as this rather comprehensive effort by the General India Horse under Captain John Malcolm, who as the graffitti says was an envoy (I wouldn’t have thought carving your name was terribly good form, but he was part of the British Empire…). Some way from Persepolis, in Pasagardae, there are four huge tombs carved into the side of a hill in much the same style as Petra in Jordan.

It’s always been my understanding that the representation of any living being is strictly forbidden in a mosque which is why Islamic design became so highly dveloped. Yet in the oldest mosque in Isfahan the faces of Ayatollah Khomeini (the original Supreme Leader) and Ayatollah Khamenei (the current one) gaze down at you from two huge murals. The same is the case in every town – the current incumbent endeavouring, not quite successfully, to look like a kindly uncle with a slight smile and snow white beard, but I suspect nobody gets to be Supreme Leader with total veto powers over all laws without being made of stern stuff. It is from this source that come the fatwas offering rules and advice on many areas – and famously exorting the faithful to assassinate Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. But many are more basic – such as the edict against neckties, or teaching music and singing to anyone under 16, or betting on baseball (huh?). Some are surprising – condemning terrorism and Al Qaeda. And some cover very modern issues such as fertility treatments – approved!

Of course this is the Islamic Republic of Iran, so women are expected to cover everything except face, hands, and feet. But depending on the city, the head scarf can be pushed back as far as the hair tie on the crown of the head, pronounced eyeliner and lipstick are accepted, a raincoat style is widespread ending above the knee with jeans underneath, and full colour coordination or at least highlights are common. Women in their twenties and thirties make eye contact readily and sometimes utter a bold ‘salaam’. For men, long trousers are required, usually with a shirt – sleeves rolled up to varying degrees depending on the circumstances.

In Yazd (a ‘very moslem city’ as my driver announced) I did get soundly reprimanded by an old man who indicated with a repeated cutting gesture across the wrist that I should roll my sleaves down from the mid-forearm level. Yazd is a great desert city, visited by Marco Polo (who also liked it), famous for its sweets – but then so is most of Iran. Yazd impressed me for its wonderfully impressive minarets and its bazaar where bakers make flatbread as they must have for centuries. And with mud brick houses where the exterior walls are plastered with a mixture of mud and animal hair. All very expertly done.

And so I continued to Isfahan, a city described at its zenith as ‘half the world’. It certainly has one of the largest squares in the world. If this were Europe, there would be a cafe in every second storefront. If it was in America, it would be anchored by a major department store on each side. In Persia, it has sweet shop, carpet shop, miniature painting shop, and then repeat again (with just two restaurants in the entire complex). Oh and one metal working shop – I mean how does he afford the rent? And it’s anchored by the biggest mosque which back in the 1600’s took many years to finish and is totally covered by caligraphy and designs fired onto tiles.


It’s magnificent but by no means the only amazing mosque in Isfahan. Much smaller but undoubtedly finer is the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque which was built for the royal court. And then there is the Jameh Mosque which was the main place of worship for the city before the square was built. It contains very angular caligraphic representations of the Arabic for Imam Ali, Mohammed, and Allah.

Just when you think you have seen it all, you discover the three ancient bridges which had a double role as weirs and as a location for tea shops (now gone due to fears that a gas canister accident might demolish a heritage site), where locals gather every evening to chat, flirt, eye up foreigners, and wait for dusk and illuminations. The bridges were designed by Armenian Christians transported here by Shah Abbas, who then created their own suburb with their own vibrantly colourful place of worship, the Vank Cathedral.

Leading from the end of the main square, is one of the largest bazaars I’ve seen anywhere – and they are still building extensions in precisely the same style dating back centuries – so no big supermarkets; only small storefronts, some of them doing very unretail things like making iron hinges and hooks using frighteningly dangerous looking furnaces right next to a sweet shop… Isfahan is famous for Gaz. I bought and consumed lots – finding it very like nougat. Then I looked it up on Wikipedia…
The sweet, milky sap (gaz of Khunsar) a sticky white substance, is exuded from the anus of the last instar nymph of a small insect which lives on a plant. It is collected annually and is combined with other ingredients including pistachio or almond kernels, rosewater and egg white. Modern versions of gaz may not contain gaz of Khunsar and may use sugar and corn syrup as substitutes. This combination of ingredients gives gaz its distinctive flavour, rendering it unique when compared to European nougats. Yes, well…

The common perception of Iran is a country ruled with great rigidity by a group of severe looking black-cloaked and bearded ayatollahs. That perception may by extension imply that the country is underdeveloped and in some way backward, populated by suspicious people with extremist leanings. The truth is very very different. I can honestly say I have never met so many genuinely friendly, generous, and open-hearted people who truly would like the world to understand they are the successors to one of the world’s first great empires, living in a country blessed with many natural resources, with an advanced education system, and a sophisticated business economy simply dying to be given an opportunity.


Please view all the amazing images of Iran here.


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