First idea of Iran
Bonhams Magazine, Winter 2016, Issue 49
I knew about the indigo fields that saturate a Safavid carpet, the curvaceous surfaces of lustre-ware tiles, the jewel-like intensity of illuminations drawn for the Ilkhanid court, the improbable length of Fatih Ali Shah’s beard and the way that the eyebrows of a beloved youth etch a question mark-bow across the forehead. But after forty years of reading about Persia, there was always a danger that I was going to find 21st century Iran a rude awakening from my aesthetic dream world.
But neither the asthmatic grey globe that holds Tehran in its maw, nor its traffic-jams, nor the complete lack of wine at dinner produced any significant diminuation. Iran is quantifiably, and continuously, more magnificent than anything I had imagined.
I put this down to the mountains. They were a continuous revelation throughout our fortnight’s journey, whether we flew, were driven or walked. They break Iran up into hundreds of magical kingdoms. Each city is essentially an oasis, squatting in a valley that is about to lose itself in the desert, but in the meanwhile is ringed by an improbable gothic frenzy of peaks, the crust of a deep craggy hinterland of mountain. These mountains appear threatening, but are a blessing, funneling water into garden-fields. We got a childish delight in spotting the old lines of human molehills snaking their way from the foothills towards the city – leading the spring-water by the hand, as it were, along underground qanat channels. So that although Iranian’s may be subdivided into either peasant farmers, urbane merchants of the bazaar or transient highland shepherds, they can also be all these things all at once and often are.
The second point of infatuation was the walled gardens. The obsessive Iranian relationship with the garden (in poetry, art and as a spiritual metaphor) has no bite when viewed from the green fields of the West. You only begin to understand this compulsion after you have travelled across several hundred miles of bleak and austere mountainous desert, and then stumble across one of these walled enclosures where everything is rare and pleasing: trilling with rills, bathed in leaf shadow, cool breezes and scent. All our most memorable, and simple, lunches were taken within walled gardens perched cross-legged on takht, little raised wooden platform thrones. This is also a possible way to approach understanding the beauty of a great mosque which is to see them as eternal, seasonless, walled gardens permanently set aside for contemplation and prayer.
The mountains and gardens taught us Iranian history on the ground. One could now at last understand how dynasties could co-exist in different corners of Iran. How conquerors could gallop through, seizing city after city (be they Macedonian, Arab or Turk) but yet never hold the land. How different provinces can shave off to become separate kingdoms one century, and then become the incubation of a brand new Empire in the next, which is also why you have to travel so much to see quintessential Iran. There is no London or Paris that has endured for millennia as the national capital. Instead there are dozens of beautiful historic cities that have briefly blazed as capitals, before reclining back into retirement with most of their monuments intact.
This also makes Iran a splendid place to travel through, for you spend a couple of days in each gem-like ancient capital, interwoven with more restful days on the road, driving across mountain passes and portions of desert, before you arrive at the next. So a first time traveller to Iran has to visit Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd, Shiraz, Persepolis and Kerman. Each of these cities has half a dozen transfixingly beautiful things (palaces, covered bazaars and ancient mosques) and something unique to itself: Isfahan’s Maidan Square, the towers of silence at Yazd, the forty-night meditation room inside the shrine of Nematallah Vali at Kerman, the royal rock-cut tombs outside Persepolis and the Fin garden above Kashan. One might think of missing out on the smog and traffic of Tehran, but you simply can’t turn your back on its four fantastic museums. The finesse, which will distinguish the more thoughtful travel agent, is to add elegant stop-offs on your journey between these cities. It might be a forgotten caravanserai, a mud-brick citadel, the scant ruins of an ancient fire-temple or a simple but memorable picnic tea with Iranian friends.
For the moment you still need a travel agent and a planned itinerary to get a visa. My recent trip was an intellectual caravan, choc-a-bloc with historians, travel-writers, art-workers and publishers who would otherwise never dream of travelling as group in a coach. Some of us were keen to meet the last remaining communities of Zoroastrians, Jews and Armenians but we were thirty years too late. There are elderly representatives and some touching monuments, but the breeding young have already emigrated to Austria or Canada. What turned out to be much more relevant was people spotting, as Iran is a Commonwealth of peoples. Full-blooded Iranians are equaled in numbers by Azeri, Baluch, Khuzestani Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen and Afghan minorities, not to mention Shiite refugees. Beyond these frontiers a Greater Cultural Iran exists, whose artistic and literary influence washes over Mughal India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and the Caucasus, not to mention Kensington and California.
It helps to be armed with some knowledge as you are enter one of the world’s great cultural epicenters. You will need to be able to nod at the adjectival dynasties – Achaemenid (the ancient Persian Empire of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes), Sassanid (the Zoroastrian Empire that stood beside Byzantium), Seljuk (early medieval), Ilkhanid (medieval heirs of the Mongols), Safavid (16-17th century artistic apogee) and Qajar (overblown 19th-century). You should also be aware of Iran’s unmatched heritage and passion for her writers and poets. Some knowledge of these heroes (rather than dead Shahs) will go a long way, at either a tea stop or a dinner table. I have three friends, with deep experience of Iran, who are currently the most sought-after dragomen for any discerning group of travellers. But if you cannot get hold of Sylvie Franquet, Bruce Wannell or Antony Wynn, do travel with David Blow’s Persia, a compendium of writing on the country from poets, historians and travel-writers. Then unfold the map, cast off the bow-lines, voyage, dream, travel, discover.
Iran Highlights Fact Box
Tehran’s National Archaelogical Museum, the Reza Abbasi Museum, the Glass Museum and newly opened Museum of Islamic Art are worth flying out to Iran alone. Which if backed up by the 19th century Qajar Golestan Palace, Carpet Museum, Museum of Modern Art can easily fill up three days. The Crown Jewel museum is very popular and can be safely missed. If pausing between flights, avoid city traffic and used the perfectly serviceable Novotel-Ibis. My dragoman friends have recommended Espinas ( near the carpet museum), Gilane (in centre of town) and Divan as restaurant stops.
Kashan is celebrated for its bazaar (with the Timcheh ye Amin od-Dowleh) dome as the proper punctuation point for a morning light shopping. The city’s famously enterprising dynasties of merchants are well represented by rose water distilleries and the Abbasi, Borujerdi, Ameri and Tabatabaei historic mansions . There are also an equal number of private palace hotels ( such as the Manoucheri, Saraye Ameriha, Mahinestan Raheb) in which you can stay the night. Bliss in mood and food but do not expect perfect plumbing. I adored the ancient Neolithic mound of Sialk (excavated in the 30’s) but it proved a minority taste unlike the superb Fin garden, a Safavid structure restored by the Qajar.
Isfahan house one of the world’s most successful public spaces: the Imam square fringed by an arcaded and domed covered bazaar. It is punctuated by three extraordinarily successful monuments; the Abbasi Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace, and Lotfollah Mosque opposite it. Jolfa, the old Armenian district, is on the other side of the river, giving an opportunity to cross Khaju Bridge, to visit the Vank Cathedral, the Armenian Museum and take in the more relaxed atmosphere of some of the Armenian cafes. Shah Abbas I’s pavilion palace, Chechel Sotun (the hall of forty columns) and at the heart of the ancient city, Isfahan’s Friday mosque preserves 1,000 years of Islamic architecture. Hasht Behesht ‘eight heavens’ is one of the few surviving aristocratic houses from the Safavid era. Stay in Abbasi for its lovely central courtyard and palatial breakfast buffet – best enjoyed at a table with a garden view. You might lunch one day in Shahrzad off main Imam square, in Armenian quarter the next day (such as Khan Gostar) or in Arca, a restored caravanserai.
Yazd is an oasis-city, surrounded by desert. The old Zoroastrian towers of silence are at their very best in the raking light of dusk. Prepare yourself by a visit to the Zoroastrian fire temple with its little museum on the left side of the modern courtyard. The old city is dominated by the Jameh mosque and the Husseineyeh of Amir Chaqmaq, balanced by the domestic serenity of the Bagh i-Dowlat garden and the unexpected interest of the water museum (actually a town-palace) but one where you can climb down into its deep (third floor) cellar to see the underground qanat irrigation channel.
Shiraz is a destination in its own right, but is also the natural base from which to visit Persepolis, the ancient cult-centre of the Acheamenid dynasty of Xerxes and Darius fused from an alliance between Persians and Medians. It is a triumphantly fascinating ruin set a superb mountainous landscape, with its extant carvings and architecture packed full of spiritual and historical allusions and metaphors. Surrounded by royal tombs (the so-called Naqsh-e-Rustam) cut into the cliff faces from the Elamite, Achmeanid and Sassanian dynasties, a living lesson in the power of symbolism and cultural continuity. Pasargadae is earlier but of lesser interest, except for romantics come to stare at the simple tomb of Cyrus, the great founder of Empire, where Alexander wept.
Shiraz has the world best living memorial to a poet, the much loved tomb garden to Hafiz complete with a café. It is a place to return to again and again, but at its best in the evening, unlike a morning passegiata through the exuberant 19th century Eram gardens. On the edge of the old city, there is the Nasir al Mulk medresse and mosque while the centre is still dominated by the monumental Vakil mosque and Vakil bazaar, all nicely finnished off by brief visit to the Pars Museum, the remnant octagonal pavilion of an old walled garden.
In the evening we rather fell for the ground floor, traditional Persian section, of the Haft Khvan restaurant complex, while the café of the Shapor Garden is the perfect place to sit out mid afternoon with a long tea.
Kerman is the conclusion of an Iranian city tour, with its old city centre still satisfactorily dominated by the Jameh mosque wrapped in a complex bazaar complete with caravanseria, preserved 17th century Ganjali bath-house and hospitable tea-houses. On the edge of the city is the gaunt stone remains of the Gonbad Jabiliyeh – an ancient Sassanid dome, while 14th century mausoleum complex of Shah Nematollah is 30 miles beyond. A perfect self-contained day trip is out to the ancient fortress of Rayen Citadel, which watches the snow-capped border mountains of Baluchistan pausing on your way back to explore the 19th century Qajar Shahzadeh walled garden.
Travellers used to fly back to Tehran from Kerman, in order to catch flights back to Istanbul, but Turkish Airlines has been impressively bullish in the last year, adding direct flights to Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad, Kermanshah and Tabriz.
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by Barnaby Rogerson