Under the Persian carpet

Persian carpet
Are tourists welcome after the revolution? Is there fun after fundamentalism? Stephen Moss finds a country that cares for its ancient heritage and still celebrates the old rituals of politeness and hospitality

I had been warned to expect long bureaucratic delays at Tehran airport – a combination of dotty officialdom and anti-western feeling. So when the man in the glass booth glanced at my passport, waved me through and told me to have a nice day, I was mortified. I didn’t come all this way not to be confronted with the unbending forces of militant Islam. It has to be tougher than this.

Tehran was wet, noisy and traffic-ridden. Crossing the road is an art form: the secret is to look nonchalant, swaying to avoid trucks and scooters like a bullfighter.

Tourism to Iran is increasing: the Italians, Japanese and Germans have been coming for a while, and the Americans are now beginning to come, too. Despite the “Great Satan” stuff, they receive a warm welcome, and the Iranians hope they will take back a positive message to a country that still maintains a trade embargo.

There were plenty of tourists in the Alborz restaurant, where I had the first of many chelo kebabs . An Italian woman at the next table was wearing a black headscarf (obligatory for women, though the colour is optional) with a Calvin Klein logo. The waiters at the Alborz make a point of asking the nationality of tourists and putting their national flags on their tables. Except for Americans, who get an apology: their flag is banned in Iran. This is odd because, in the absence of alcohol, everyone drinks Coca-Cola (or the local equivalent Zam Zam) and, with credit cards and travellers’ cheques virtually useless, tourists are advised to bring dollars.

At the National Museum of Iran, I was given a tutorial in Iranian history, but still had trouble separating the Seleucids from the Sassanians. The Iranian revolution, unlike, say, the French, did not adopt a year-zero approach: Iran is proud of its heritage as one of the cradles of civilisation. The museum has ceramics dating back to the 5th millennium BC, seals and stylised sculptures from the 4th millennium BC. The collection is magnificent and illuminating: every pitcher tells a story.

In the afternoon, we flew to Yazd, 500 miles to the south, for 111,000 rials, or $14. The stewardess welcomed us “in the name of God the compassionate and the merciful”; I hoped for the best. We flew across the Dasht-e-Kavir, one of the two great deserts in Iran. It is not made of moving sand but of volcanic rock: mountainous, lifeless, almost lunar.

Having impressed with her greeting, and her immaculate black chador , the stewardess blew it when we landed by saying she hoped we had enjoyed the flight and that Iran Air looked forward to seeing us again soon.

Yazd is a desert city with a population of around 300,000. Marco Polo called in on his way to China and described it as “good and noble”. (My guide said that going to China via Yazd was batty, and doubted whether he had been here at all.) Anyway, good and noble is still a pretty accurate description of this flat, prosperous, timeless city.

Yazd is a centre of Zoroastrianism, a faith that began with Zoroaster in the 6th century BC and still has some 600,000 adherents worldwide. Zoroastrians believe corpses pollute the earth, and on the outskirts of the city are two Towers of Silence, the hills on which they used to leave their dead to be eaten by vultures. The practice survived until around 40 years ago.

According to the Zoroastrians, the sacred flame at the fire temple in Yazd has been kept burning for more than 1,500 years. You can’t help wondering what would happen if the priest charged with the task of stoking it accidentally let it go out. At the very least, he would be fired, presumably. The temple also doubles as a Zoroastrian museum, a wing-and-a-prayer place, run by an elderly man who sells me a pack of 10 postcards for 20,000 rials and turns the lights off so I can get a better photograph of the eternal flame.

After looking at the remnants of the 15th-century bazaar, we visited a mosque, where women were chatting and playing with their children (the mosque is a place of worship, social centre, nursery and alms house). As we approached, the attendant shouted “cover yourselves, I’m sending a man in” to the women, who giggled and took refuge behind the tomb in the centre of the mosque.

As we were leaving, the attendant offered us tea, which we politely refused, and pressed two large pieces of bread into our hands (hospitality is a prerequisite of Iranian life). The guide offered the attendant a 2,000-rial note, a contribution to mosque funds, and there followed an example of what Iranians call taa’rof (pronounced ta-roof). There is no word for it in English, which perhaps reflects ill on us. The outcome will be that the attendant, because the mosque needs the money, will accept the gift but he must first strenuously reject the offer – typically, three times, but perhaps as many as 10 times. The giver goes on offering until finally, with infinite regret, hand on heart, head bowed, the token is taken. Even taxi drivers engage in this delicate social pas de deux, but it is wise not to walk away without paying. Hospitality has limits; there is a ceiling to taa’rof .

We walked around the narrow alleyways of the old town, where houses are invisible behind the high, baked-brick walls. They are masterpieces of 10th-century ecology: sunk into the ground to stay warm in winter and cool in summer and topped by intricately designed wind towers.

The next day was Down with America Day, so I decided to pass on the hash browns and blueberry muffins at breakfast in favour of creamy cheese and hard-boiled eggs. We visited a caravanserai – a sort of medieval motel – about 30 miles outside the city. Though built in the 17th century and abandoned 60 years ago, it is still in very good shape. There were once thousands of caravanserais across Iran – stopping-off points for countless camel trains; now there are the remnants of 50, monuments to a tradition of roadside resting places that dates back more than 2,000 years.

The road to Shiraz twists 300 miles across the desert. The army are out in force to mark DWA day. But the little towns we pass through are quiet, unaffected by the histrionics of the capital.

We reach Shiraz in time for a dusk walk in the Eram (Paradise) gardens. Outside Paradise, the roads are hell. Shiraz is Iran’s third holiest city (after Mashad and Qom) because it is the burial place of the martyred brother of the eighth imam. We visit his mausoleum, Shah-é Cheragh, in the evening. The silver tomb is set in a mirrored room filled with mourners who are kept moving by attendants brandishing feather dusters. The adjoining prayer hall is packed, and the seductive sound of the mullah’s call to prayer echoes across the courtyard. It feels like real passion, unlike the ritualistic denunciations of the US playing at length on the night’s news broadcasts.

Ninety miles west of Shiraz, on a road that winds through the Zagros mountains, are the ruins of the 3rd-century city of Bishapur. Families are picnicking next to the river that runs through the fertile valley, and one little girl is throwing stones at the Sassanian bas-relief carved into the mountainside.

Much excavation remains to be done, but three palaces and a miraculously preserved temple have been uncovered. We are virtually the only visitors to the site, and enjoy the tranquillity – and the weather, 25C on this early November afternoon. Come in August and it could be 45C.

On the following day, Persepolis, Iran’s most famous archaeological site, beckoned. It is 40 miles north-east of Shiraz, at the end of a long, tree-lined avenue created by the doomed Shah in 1971 to mark 2,500 years of imperial history. The city was founded in 518BC by Darius the Great, and burned down by Alexander the Great in 331BC, but a remarkable amount remains intact. Judging from the early 19th-century graffiti, it has been a tourist attraction for at least two centuries.

After lunch at a roadside restaurant, we leave for Esfahan, 300 miles to the north. We arrive soon after 7pm and collapse into the embrace of the Abbasi hotel, a converted royal caravanserai that is generally reckoned to be Iran’s most charming hotel. “Faded elegance” is the usual description – which means that it’s wonderfully relaxing but has ferociously noisy plumbing.

A pianist plays the theme music from Dr Zhivago in the dining room, guests stroll in the evening in the delightful central courtyard or sip tea in the chayhouse. This hotel, which used to be called the Shah Abbas, may have been renamed by the revolution, but it was not remade. Empires may crumble, but dinner is still served at 8pm.

“Esfahan is half the world,” according to a Persian proverb, and foreign visitors certainly think so: this green, relaxed, cosmopolitan city of 2 million people is the country’s main tourist magnet. It was built largely by Shah Abbas at the beginning of the 17th century and much of the grandeur of his vision remains: the Royal (or Imam Khomeini) Square, said to be the largest in the world after Tiananmen; the beautiful bridges crossing the Zayandeh river; and the palace of 40 columns which Shah Abbas built to receive foreign dignitaries.

His empire was the place where East met West: his court entertained dispossessed Indian and Chinese monarchs, Dutch artists and Spanish merchants. Esfahan under Abbas was perhaps more than half the world.

Esfahan also has several splendid mosques. The Masjed-e Emam, a majestic blue-tiled building commissioned by Shah Abbas, and the Jamé mosque, a much plainer building dating from the 11th cen tury, are the best known. My favourite was the wonderfully peaceful Shikh Lotfollah. All three are beside the square, as is the six-storey palace from which Shah Abbas and his successors used to survey the city and watch the polo matches in the square (the original goalposts are still in place, though these days the only horses on show are pulling carriages for tourists).

At lunchtime, with the bazaar and the palaces closed for a long siesta, I took a walk by the river and was intrigued to see young Iranian couples canoodling – in theory, strictly forbidden. Young women in chadors were playing a vigorous game of volleyball in a nearby park, and students lounged around drinking tea and strumming guitars. It could have been Paris, Rome or Madrid.

This is a tightly controlled society, yet it is by no means oppressive, and, freed from the war of the 80s and the guerrilla activities that continued until the mid-90s, it is gradually opening up.

You can tell how liberated an Iranian woman is by the way she wears her headscarf. If the face is largely covered, she is conservative; if a little hair is showing, she is radical (one evening I saw a young woman whose ear was exposed – the temptress!). Iran is a society whose forehead is visible: it is now considering pushing its veil back a little further, to allow a glimpse of its hair.

We headed back to Tehran – 350 miles, first in driving rain across the mountains, then on a fast toll road from Kashan to the capital. Tehran was jammed, polluted and grim, though I spent a pleasant afternoon in the mountains to the north and saw the deposed Shah’s crown jewels at the National Bank.

As we left the bank, a boy was standing in the fume-filled street offering drivers verses from the Koran on laminated card. Our driver offered him a few coins but said he didn’t want a card. The boy looked disgusted and refused the money. “I’m not begging, I’m selling,” he said and stalked off. A useful metaphor. We in the West should remember that this is an old, proud nation – not begging but selling.

Iran: Dos and don’ts

* Most of the country is safe, but at present FO advice is to avoid the south-east, where drug-running and faction fighting are rife. The ancient city of Bam is on the edge of the region, and is currently excluded from some itineraries.
* Women must wear a headscarf and a loose-fitting coat or chador in public.
* Alcohol is forbidden.
* Be as polite as the locals: one of the great pleasures is standing next to a lift saying after you, no after you, please…
* Don’t go during Ramadan – Iran grinds to a halt.
* Take along some good, fat books. Once the sun goes down and you’ve had dinner, there isn’t a great deal to do unless you like football (a national obsession) and news about new gas plants.
* Beware carpet salesmen bearing cups of tea.
* Check likely temperatures: summers can be too hot, winters very cold.

The practicals

Arranging a visa can be difficult and time consuming without the support of a tour company. Stephen Moss travelled with Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000) and its agents in Iran, Parsagad Tours. A 10 day “Treasures of Persia”tour, as part of a group of between eight and 25 people, costs from £1295pp, including flights, full board and accomodation. The same itinerary for two people travelling with their own guide throughout costs from £1745pp.

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