With a change in the political climate Western visitors once more have a chance to sample the history and culture of Iran. Conal Gregory risks a peek under the veil.
The rich cadences of Omar Khayyam have carried great appeal over the years. Edward FitzGerald’s noted translation of the 12th century Persian mathematician suggests a magic land: “Awake! For morning in the bowl of night ... has caught the sultan’s turret in a noose of light”, but in recent years Iran has been off limits to most foreign visitors.
However, with BA having resumed flights and tour operators launching guided tours this key part of the Silk Road is back on the tourist itinerary. This land of 80m people, three times the size of France, has a rich cultural heritage with outstanding Islamic architecture. Tours usually start either in Shiraz in the south-west or the modern capital, Tehran.
With a history from 2000 BC, Shiraz was spared by the Mongols. Today its sights include a vast blue-tiled dome complex over a 12th century shrine and a tranquil garden of palm and orange trees which lead to a mirrored hall. The modern era is evident at roundabouts by the posters of martyrs who lost their lives in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq conflict.
A short journey away is Persepolis, an enormous site which was once the centre of the known world. Built by Darius I and Xerxes in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, it must have been magnificent to judge by the huge gateways and impressive stone staircases. Despite its destruction by Alexander the Great, the ruins still reveal stunning bas-reliefs. They are so well preserved, with clothing and gifts as clear as the day they were carved.
Not far away at Naqsh-e Rostam are the royal tombs from the Achaemenid dynasty. Four have been carved out of the rock cliff. Yazd lies to the north-east, a desert caravan city which should not be missed. It has a labyrinth of streets, all beautifully clean. From one of the bar balconies, relax with pomegranate juice and spot the wind towers which provide natural air-conditioning, catching the breeze and sending it to the rooms below.
Two major religious sites show the city’s historic importance. Zoroastrianism predated the Arab conquest and there is still an active community. Their former burial ground where bodies were exposed to vultures, as well as the eternal flame, said to have been lit in 470AD, can be visited. For Islam, Yazd is also home to Jameh mosque, built over 600 years ago, with the tallest tiled portal in Iran. With two 48m high minarets, it shows the artistry of fine mosaic making.
Persia’s gardens have a unique style. They were designed to symbolise Paradise and nine have been recognised by Unesco. Each has four partitions to represent earth, sky, plants and water. The one in Yazd, Dolat Abad, built c1750, has a beautiful intricate latticework pavilion complete with the country’s tallest windtower at over 33m.
To really know the city, enjoy its sweets, notably baghlava, the best of which is said to be made at Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar in Amir Chakhmaq square. It is less syrupy than the Turkish version and contains pistachio and makes for a great souvenir. Look also for Saheb A Zaman club, where the Iranian body-building sport of zurkhaneh practised to loud drumming and traditional chants. Visitors are welcome and do not miss an old water reservoir below the club.
Isfahan hosts the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen in Beijing. Imam Square, c1602, was designed as the capital of the Safavid empire.
Outside the magnificent blue-tiled royal mosque was a less than welcoming protest banner, declaring ‘down with UK’, along with US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Yet Iranians are friendly, keen to shake hands and speak English.
The square used to host polo tournaments. This is easy to visualise from the terrace of the elegant Ali Qapu Palace. Although in need of restoration, some of it reveals true Persian craftsmanship.
The vaulted bazaar is historic: a market maze of charm, parts of which are over 1,000 years old. The bartering is good humoured. Yet for finer quality, visit some of the specialist shops in nearby streets. This could be a carpet dealer who can offer examples from workshops in the holy town of Qom or a miniaturist painter who uses a brush so fine that it comes uses a cat hair.
No visitor should miss Vank Armenian cathedral, built 1648-1655, not only for its rich frescoes over all the walls but for its outstanding museum.
Break the journey from Isfahan to Tehran at Kashan for both the beautiful Fin garden and a former merchant’s home, Taba-Tabai House, to gain a perspective on a bygone era.
Tehran lies at the foothills of the Alborz mountains (with ski slopes) and enjoys warm dry days and cool evenings. It suffers from traffic congestion but visit it for one stunning museum: National Jewels housed in the vaults of the Central Bank (open Saturday-Tuesday). There are good English-speaking guides.
There are restrictions. All women, even tourists, are required to wear a hijab in public. Alcohol is banned. Debit cards are not accepted. Take enough sterling or US dollars for the entire visit. Hotel exchanges offer the same rate as bureaux de change but often do not have non-rials to exchange back.
Most restaurants for visitors offer buffets. Look particularly for lamb with walnut sauce, roast quail, chicken with pomegranate and aubergine puree. Rice, frequently flavoured with saffron, is ubiquitous, as is flat bread.
For accommodation, star ratings have little in common with the West. Expect hard beds, even harder pillows and variable plumbing but smiling staff throughout.
British Airways six return flights per week (Heathrow-Tehran) £359. Guided tours from: Cox & Kings, Kudu Travel, Martin Randall, Pettitts, Travel the Unknown and Undiscovered Destinations.
Hidden beauty: The Jameh Mosque at Yazd; Persepolis, built by Darius I and Xerxes in the fifth and fourth centuries BC; right, from top, the famous garden in Yazd; Shiraz was spared by the Mongol invaders; inset below left, intricate carvings at Persopolis.