Saturday, May 23, 2009

Wonders of Persia

A bas-relief showing a lion attacking a bull on one of the grand staircases leading up to the audience hall in the ruins of Persepolis, a city built by the Persian King Darius I in 518 BC. Kipat Wilson for the National

“When Iranians see something amazing,” our guide explains as we tour the lavishly decorated Chehel Sotun Palace in Isfahan, “they don’t say ‘wow!’ or ‘goodness gracious!’” Arash points to a vivid 17th-century fresco that shows Shah Ismail I vanquishing an Uzbek army with spectacular style. Riding on a fine white charger, the immaculately-dressed king runs his sword through a fleeing opponent the way a butcher sticks kebab meat on a skewer. “See the man in the corner,” Arash continues, “moving his hand towards his lips in shock? We call this gesture ‘biting the finger of wonder’.”

When you book a holiday to Iran, there is certainly plenty of opportunity for wonder. The Islamic republic has developed cachet as an offbeat and seemingly difficult destination to visit, and is intriguingly coloured by the idiosyncrasies of a religious revolution that has just passed its 30th birthday. Visitors are greeted by abundant portraits of its founding father, Ayatollah Khomeini, and today’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Iranian television gives fulsome coverage to the flag-waving rallies held in honour of the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and every townscape is bedecked with poignant portraits of the young men who were killed in “The Imposed War”, as the devastating Iran-Iraq conflict that lasted from 1980 to 1988 is known.

Yet most travellers are not here out of political curiosity; they are visiting Iran as pilgrims to its holy sites such as Mashhad, or to behold the glories of its past. In particular, there is growing interest from groups of European tourists who fly into Tehran to take an eight-day or longer package tour of the country’s key historical attractions. “I’ve waited 40 years to come here,” an English doctor tells me over breakfast at the delightful Abbasi Hotel, converted in the 1960s from an early 18th-century caravanserai. “Isfahan is everything I hoped for. The sights are beautiful, the sense of history is overwhelming, and the Iranians are exceptionally welcoming.”

Through a window beside us we can spy the dazzling blue dome of a neighbouring madrasa, while down below is an enchanting garden with a tranquil teahouse, plashing fountains and the heady scent of jasmine and roses.

In the warm evenings, smartly dressed couples gather here for courtship and conversation, while the hotel’s ornately decorated restaurant serves intriguing dishes such as fesenjun, a chicken dish with a rich sauce made from walnuts, aubergines, pomegranates and cardamom.

Travellers landing here soon sense that there is a deeper, underlying magic to – no, not Iran – but Persia. The distinction is crucial in a country where the vestiges of the past seem omnipresent, and which has only borne its current name since 1935. Few realise just how much the world owes Persian culture and innovation, which is said to have given us such delights as chess, polo, the water wheel, the Arabian horse, the postal service, algebra and stained glass. Rather ironically, given the soul-withering pollution and congestion of Tehran today, Persia also gave us the word “paradise”.

Iran’s ugly modern capital offers little indication of the beautiful sights that lie elsewhere in the country, but it does deliver an instant initiation into life in a city of 13 million people. Pedestrians quickly learn that drivers will rarely stop to let you cross the road, while shoppers must get to grips with prices quoted in archaic “tomans” even though the official currency is the rial.

Compensation for what seems like wasted time here is provided by two small but engaging museums. A compilation of the country’s greatest early historical hits, the collection of the National Museum of Iran stretches from 7,000 year-old pots to Roman mosaics via the gruesomely preserved head of a man buried in a salt mine in Zanjan in the 4th century. The high-security National Jewels Museum, meanwhile, redefines the meaning of bling with displays of regal rocks and ceremonial decorations that include the largest pink diamond in the world, known as Darya-I-Nur (Sea of Light), and a globe in which our planet is mapped out in over 50,000 precious stones. India is in rubies, Africa in sapphires, Iran in diamonds. Gazing at this amazing sphere of sparkles, you realise that this is a land that is no stranger to great wealth and power.

The place to start contemplating all this is Pasargadae, a lonely field of ruins north-east of Shiraz, in the south of Iran. “There’s not much to see” Arash warns us, but this is a bewitching example of how less can feel more. On a flat, flower-speckled plain stands the tiered stone tomb of Cyrus the Great, the 6th century BC ruler who founded the Achaemenid empire, which at its height stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Indus River. It was the ancient world’s first superpower, with a longevity built on tolerance and devolution. The “Cyrus Cylinder”, an ancient document inscribed on a clay tube that was discovered in 1879 in Babylon and now resides in the British Museum, London, records how Cyrus respected local traditions while at the same time reminding readers that he is, of course, “king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king....”

By contrast, there is plenty to see at nearby Persepolis, the showcase imperial city founded in 518BC by Darius I. The best known of Iran’s nine Unesco world heritage sites, this is where the Achaemenid rulers gathered every spring to celebrate Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. Like Petra, Leptis Magna, Angkor and Machu Picchu, these ruins have such magnetism visitors may well find it hard to leave – my tour group was so smitten we staged a mini-rebellion and demanded extra time to go back and swoon till sunset. Built to impress subjects travelling in from all corners of the empire, the greatest wonder at Persepolis is the staircase of the Apadana Palace, which is decorated with exquisite bas-reliefs depicting officials bringing tributes from 23 nations. Skeins of wool from the Ionians, rams from Syria, camels from Arabia, elephant tusks from Ethiopia – it could almost be the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

Visiting such sites brings home how important it is to swot up a little before you visit Iran – how many us know our Safarrids from our Safavids? You might also want to read some classical Persian poetry, for this is a nation where bards are still heroes.

Two of the most beloved hailed from Shiraz – Sa’di and Hafez, who wrote in the 13th
and 14th centuries respectively. Visiting the tomb of the latter, I had imagined I would encounter an atmosphere of wistfulness and contemplation – but no. The Persians may well be famous for their serene and delectable gardens, but this one was mobbed with spirited young Iranians taking countless shots of each other with their cameras and mobile phones. Often amusing, occasionally overwhelming, their animated gaggles were a reminder that some two-thirds of the national population is under 30.

We encountered a similar frenzy at other tourist spots – and foreign visitors are rarely spared. My companions and I were frequently approached by groups of giggling boys and chador-clad schoolgirls keen to practise their English, get autographs – or simply interact with a bunch of bizarre-looking outsiders, so hot and bothered in their panama hats and unfamiliar headscarves.

At the same time, such monuments, parks and gardens provided the best opportunities for us to meet Iranians, who wasted little time telling us in frank terms about the ingrained duality in their lives, with what goes in private so different than public life. We, in turn, had our own questions. Like why do you all drive so crazily? Will Iran qualify for the 2010 Fifa World Cup? Why are young men so obsessed with having nose-jobs? And, please, where can I get some decent coffee?

A tiled mural decorating the palace of Baghe Eram, or Garden of Paradise, portrays Nasser al Din Shah who ruled Iran from 1848 to 1896. Kipat Wilson for The National

The Iranians are a notably proud people, and while we grew tired of hearing how the country always produces the very best of everything – caviar, carpets, pistachio nuts, rosewater – there is no doubting that its joys remain woefully underappreciated.

Nowhere bears this out better than Isfahan, which in another life would be raking in international tourists as slickly as Athens, Marrakesh or Istanbul. Endowed with Iran’s most beautiful monuments by Shah Abbas I, who made it the national capital in 1598, the city feels remarkably untrodden despite the growing number of visitors, and it is less than two hours’ flying time from the UAE.

The focal point is Imam Square, which Iranians claim to be the second largest historical square in the world after Tiananmen. With its municipal flower beds, street photographers and horse-and-carriage rides, it feels considerably more homely than its Beijing rival. Bordered by a bazaar with some 500 shops, there is surprisingly little hard sell – the only pressure I experienced was from a genial coppersmith who asked me to take a photograph of his elderly father and send him a copy after I returned home. We bought metal spoons, dates, carpets and sets of antique tea glasses, and dined in unfussy local restaurants where a meal costs around $15 (Dh55) a head.

When Iranians eat out they nearly always opt for what one menu tellingly called “the ever popular kebabs”, but we preferred to order reviving soups, usually spicy and made with pearl barley, and sweet-and-sour dishes like tahchin, layers of chicken embedded in saffron rice then topped with sweet red barberries. Though served with little finesse, the fare was tasty and plentiful.

Isfahan was where the whistle-stop pace of travelling in a tour group was the most aggravating. Like Venice or New York, this is a city where one yearns to explore at leisure – perhaps in winter, when there can be snow, quietly discovering its romantic bridges, Armenian churches and alleys lined with craftsman’s workshops.

If you go

The Tour Cox & Kings (coxandkings.co.uk; 00 44 207 873 5000) has an eight-night tour visiting Tehran, Shiraz, Persepolis and Isfahan from US$1,503 (Dh5,530) per person, not including flights to Iran.

The Flight IranAir (www.iranair.com) flies direct from Dubai to Shiraz and Isfahan, from $210 (Dh772) return. Gulf Air (www.gulfair.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Shiraz via Bahrain. A return flight including taxes costs from $317 (Dh1,165).

Our brief encounters with its key sights were nevertheless unforgettable – particularly the music chamber on the top floor of the Ali Qapu Palace, where the plaster walls are elaborately cut out with the shapes of flasks, bottles and jars. Nearby, the huge Imam Mosque, which dates from 1611, was a shimmering ocean of blue tiles that can hold 10,000 worshippers – today it gets around a third of that every Friday. The grandeur is overwhelming – as intended – but perhaps a little too despotic for my taste. In Persian history poetry and savagery never seem far apart, and while Shah Abbas I left many beautiful buildings, it is hard not to forget that – ever fearful of an assassination plot – he also had his sons killed or blinded.

I was more moved by the smaller and more intimate Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, which was built on the east side of Imam Square for the private use of the shah and his wives. Here an entrance ticket costs just $0.40 (Dh1.5), and the seller may well strike up a conversation and ask what football team you support – and that’s something you don’t get when queuing to visit the Louvre or the Sistine Chapel. Once inside the mosque’s cool and meditative prayer hall, crowned with a 32m-high dome exuberantly patterned with mosaic tiles and grilled windows, it feels as if the gates to heaven have just been opened in a glorious blaze of blue and yellow light. At such moments you might well want to bite the finger of wonder.