Saturday, 20 October, 2018

Modern Iran Delights

Iran riches for the traveler prepared to look past its reputation in the West, Sandip Hor writes. When somebody from Western countries steps inside Teheran’s new Imam Khomeini International Airport, all the propaganda will be evaporated. The immigration and customs formalities were much simpler than expected, we sensed a convivial environment and noticed that not every woman around us was hiding inside a black robe, or chador.

We were further relieved to find Arsalan, our English-speaking guide, who greeted us with ”Welcome to our country”. Visiting Iran, once known as Persia, had long been on my bucket list, its rich history and cultural heritage the key lure. So, as per Arsalan’s suggestion, we target the National Museum in Teheran as the starting point for our week-long stay. Arranged in chronological order, the assembly of exhibits, together with Arsalan’s running commentary grants us a fair knowledge of the land, which since its foundation in ages past has passed through phases of imperialism, foreign invasion, religious wars and revolution until arriving at the current Islamic era, founded in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Everywhere we go locals come forward to say ”Welcome to Iran, how do you like our country?”. Their friendliness towards visitors and the extent of their hospitality is touching. We are regularly offered ”chai” and food with the assurance that ”you are our guests”.

Arsalan invites us to his home to meet his wife and daughter, who is studying medicine. There are not many countries in which tour guides will do this. A lady in a mosque at lunch time will not eat her food unless we share some of it. At restaurants many sitting next to us don’t start eating unless food arrives on our table. These fascinating people make a lasting impression and their attitude towards outsiders makes our journey in Iran a priceless experience.

Ranking high on the itinerary of a first-time visitor are the Golestan Palace complex, which shows the glories and excesses of the 18th century Qajar rulers who first made Teheran a capital city; the National Jewels Museum and the Carpet Museum. Large marketplaces, traditionally referred to as grand bazaars, are an integral part of the Islamic lifestyle. We had browsed through a few of them on previous trips in Istanbul, Cairo, Amman, Dubai and Muscat, but none match the one in Teheran for scale, atmosphere or exuberance. It’s like a city within a city, where shops selling almost everything that you can think of, from clothes, shoes, jewelry and household items to tobacco, saffron, dates and rose water, flank a maze of alleyways jam-packed with people.

The quality of retail therapy is nothing special, but getting lost in the ocean of people provides a great opportunity to rub shoulders with the locals and learn about their traditional customs and practices, such as how they make and serve tea, grow and mix spices or weave carpets. But exploring Teheran is just touching the tip of an iceberg.

Full of World Heritage-listed sites, Iran has beauty to spare. Here you can admire the ancient structures of Persepolis, visit the natural wonders of the Harra sea forests, hike up the Alborz Mountain, swim in the Caspian Sea or explore the former capital cities of Tabriz, Mashhad, Shiraz and Esfahan.

It’s a lot to cover in one visit, so beyond Teheran our schedule included Esfahan, because it is touted as ”the destination in Iran” if you have time for only one. It’s located almost 450km south of Teheran and instead of flying for an hour, we opt to wheel through the desert countryside.

Thousand-year-old Esfahan lives up to its reputation. The exquisite blue mosaic tiles of myriad monuments, its tree-lined avenues, beautiful gardens, expansive market places and grandiose bridges that span a river with no water, demand as much of your time as you can spare. ”This is the crown jewel of ancient Middle East,” Arsalan tell us, while ushering us along the historic Chahar Bagh, the city’s main thoroughfare, flanked by gardens, towards the jaw-dropping Imam Square. Also known as Naqsh-e Jahan Square, it was built 400 years ago as the epicenter of a capital city. Ringed by an impressive line of architectural marvels, which includes two-story rows of shops, it was a busy arena of royalty, entertainment and business. Today the regal glitter is gone but the glamour remains.

It is not particularly large, but it is still fashionable to ride in a horse-drawn carriage, as the kings and nobles did during the heyday, to move from the grand Ali Qapu Palace to Imam Mosque or Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, each of which bears testimony to an inspiring architectural grandness. In the center lies a sprawling manicured garden adorned with rising fountains. Locals gather there after sundown and enjoy the illuminated setting while having a picnic dinner that generally finishes off with a scoop of saffron ice cream, a specialty of a shop in the square.

Not far from this domain are Chehel Sotun Palace and Jameh Mosque, both standing as fine examples of Islamic architecture. Time in Iran keeps rewarding us so much that when time comes to say ”khuda hafeez”, or goodbye, we feel we are leaving someone close to our heart.

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