Many facets of Iran

Iran’s politics doesn’t put off tourists who are drawn by the landscape and architecture. A bottle
of mineral water may be more expensive than petrol, but it makes driving around cheaper,
Christoph Kohler

The Blue Mosque of Esfahan is mesmerising
The Blue Mosque of Esfahan is mesmerising.
— Photo by the writer

Shrouded in a mesh of political unrest, Iran may not be everyone’s idea of a prime holiday destination but it is a treasure-trove of picturesque landscapes and magnificent architecture waiting to be rediscovered.

Non-existent town planning has led to uncontrolled growth. Tehran is no exotic crossroad soaked in oriental splendour and deserves to be explored. The presence of the Komite, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, has visibly diminished. Make-up, nail polish and high heels are visible, emphasising a growing feminism. Audiences flock to Titanic, cut to a meagre one-hour trailer. These simple changes became possible under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s predecessor Mohammad Khatami.

The rigid Islamic laws, imposed during the Islamic Revolution, forbidding alcohol, Western music and card games, are still strictly enforced.

While the dress code for men has relaxed and women’s fashion shops abound in urban Iran, the chador is, however, the only female fashion tolerated in public.

Tehran still has evidence of its very vulnerable relationship with North America, perceived as the ‘Great Satan.’ An enormous mural of an American flag adorns a downtown skyscraper; skulls replacing the stars, and bombs dropping from the bleeding stripes. Paintings celebrating the storming of the American Embassy in 1979, and images commemorating the accidental downing of a civilian aircraft by the US Navy in 1989, embellish the grey walls of the former ‘US Den of Espionage’. Nowadays, the obsolete embassy is used as a computer-training centre for aspiring Komite cadets.

However, it is the people who smash one’s preconceptions. Iranians don’t really hate America, they love hamburgers, which are available at every corner, and flush them down with Parsi Cola while scrutinising the latest basketball results in the newspaper. They don’t take the ridiculous propaganda seriously any longer, having been penetrated by it for years.

Travelling around the country is very convenient and economical. Sixty litres of petrol are sold for less than two dollars. A bottle of mineral water is more expensive. All public transport is therefore easy on the pocket, very reliable, comparatively comfortable and certainly no hit-and-miss affair.

Esfahan is mesmerising. Its charm has always fascinated travellers. As the saying goes: ‘Esfahan is half the world,’ which expressed the city’s grandeur in the 16th century. Intellectually brave, the town has been a flourishing centre of learning for decades. Nowadays, the city’s thinkers gather behind closed doors, the music volume kept to a minimum, barely loud enough to hear the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, the all-time favourite hymn among Iranian youth. For fear that the tipped-off Komite might arrive on the scene of such a ‘heinous’ social event, within seconds all ‘evidence’ can be eliminated.

The cosy teahouses under the bridges spanning the river are marvellous retreats, to linger for hours, meeting the delightful ‘Esfahanis.’ They are atmospheric refuges to sip boiling tea in and savour sweet pastry. Young and old, the locals get together in Esfahan’s teahouses to philosophise about life and dreams of a scholarship abroad. They exchange entertaining anecdotes of the rough times in the compulsory army, buying booze and magazines for inflated prices from Turkish soldiers across the border.

Shiraz, another night journey further south, was one of the most important cities in the medieval Islamic world. In its heyday, Shiraz was famous for nightingales, poetry, roses and even wine, which nowadays is only tolerated for communal services in the Armenian Church. Shiraz’s true jewel, however, is a stone’s throw northeast in the desert. The ancient palace complexes of Persopolis, once Persia’s glamorous capital, display only a small fraction of their past grandeur. Rampaging Persia at the time, Alexander the Great paid a violent visit to his enemy’s glamorous capital on a cold January day in 330 BC. With unrestrained ferocity, Persopolis was looted and torched to the ground.

Across the barren desert in central Iran, Yazd has always been a centre of religion, retaining its treasure of old tradition and architecture. Recognised by Unesco as hosting the second oldest architecture in the world, the old town is entirely built of mud bricks. Yazd is an important hub for Zoroastrianism, Persia’s state religion from around 500 BC. Modern scholars trace the birth hour of the world’s first religion based on prophesy back to 12th century BC.

Heading east, Bam is a lush-green oasis in the middle of the harsh wilderness. In the heart of this isolated town is an incredible ancient city, moulded in the desert’s red clay. Surrounded by a maze of eucalyptus, the outer walls measure more than 3 km. Three levels of fortifications were used to protect the citadel until it couldn’t withstand a devastating Afghani raid in 1722. Currently the government is carrying out renovations, securing this breathtaking marvel for future generations. East of the oasis stretches the mighty Baluchistan, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. This land is home to proud tribal people, who frequently take the law into their own hands.

The territory is also a drug trafficking belt; tons of drugs are smuggled across the Afghani border, en route to profitable markets in Europe and the Middle East. The provincial capital Zahedan appears dusty and featureless.

At any given moment, skirmishes between the police and local feuds may flare up. Nevertheless, travelling in Baluchistan is very rewarding; The Baluchi’s remarkable hospitality is born of their isolation, where an eye for an eye is the only way of retaining ones honour. Iran has many faces and facets, presenting a rich kaleidoscope of culture and tradition.