“This is madness!” I exclaimed, aghast as I looked across the desert cliffs, chiseled and carved into a series of rock cut tombs, home for eternity to the ancient Achaemenid kings. “No” replied the guide “this is Persia!”. A huge grin spread across his face as he kicked me in the chest sending me spiraling down an abandoned well to my death.
TEHRAN | IRAN
Alright, it didn’t happen exactly like that, but finally being boots on the ground in the ancient land of the Persians (Iran was formally known as Persia until 1935) was just as thrilling mentally. Touching down in Tehran airport at 3am on the red eye from Dubai my main concern was the visa process. I was pretty sure, based on online information, that I could qualify for visa on arrival but you can never be too certain. The Iranian visa would prove to be a major cause for concern – not right now when a sleepy airport official lazily stuck a pictureless visa page in my passport before falling back asleep – but in later border crossings, namely Israel and the US, where I would be detained for hours each time to explain it.
While Iran is once again pivotal in world affairs I suppose now would be a good time to state the obligatory: a country is it’s people, not it’s government. I found Iran to be an incredibly safe and friendly country to visit, and that isn’t the usual travel blogger fluff piece. People seemed genuinely happy that you came to visit them, and were full of questions and helpful advice. They were always pleasantly surprised at your interest in their country as they have a perception that everybody in the outside world didn’t like them. Now whether this is a result of a successful smear campaign against Iran by certain interests and / or exacerbated by a paranoid government trying to instill a siege mentality in its’ citizens I don’t know. I’m not qualified to give an intelligent breakdown on the political situation, and while I try to stay up to date as best I can I’m more of a say-what-you-see kinda guy. It’s also important to state right now that my visit here was in 2015, so this blog is merely a snapshot of my experience in the country at that time.
Tehran is nestled at the base of a snow capped mountain range, something which came as a bit of surprise to me. Places are usually a lot more diverse than we think, unlike Ireland which genuinely is just a giant farm with a few towns springing up around the network of pubs. There is a lovely view of the city on the hill near the Milad tower. What amazed me most here was the worlds most impressive teapot. Look at this fucking thing. Tea is serious business in Iran.
Irish mammies would be in heaven, as not only is tea sacred, but carpets are too. Persian carpets are renowned and sought after the world over and we spent an hour or two in the Persian carpet museum. These are all made by hand, which is an enormous feat considering how large and elaborate they can become. Maybe the reason why they have such intricate teapots here is to avoid spilling any on the rugs? To my continued disappointment none of them can fly. Apparently they lost the ability when mankind invented air travel and, unused and forgotten, evolution took it’s natural course.
That evening we boarded an internal flight bound for Shiraz, located in the Fars province in southern Iran. The city itself is bursting with colourful mosques and shrines, one of which the Nasir-Ol-Molk or “pink shrine” has become a bit of an Instagram celebrity in recent years thanks to it’s stained glass windows.
I’ve heard that Iran claimed to have invented ice cream, a claim strongly disputed by Ben and Gerry – notorious rewriters of dessert history. I don’t know much about that particular scuffle but I ended up having quite a few bastanis (persian or shirazi ice cream) here. The ones in Shiraz are especially delicious being covered in ice shavings giving a crisp, sharp texture. It’s a bit different from back home where we value smooth, creamy ice cream, but that’s probably because we are trying to use up all of that milk surplus. Thanks Dairy Council!
While my efforts to find Iranian KFC proved fruitless the local food really hit the spot. One favourite was a stew called dizi, mostly mutton and chickpeas which you mash up in a spicy sauce. Don’t look for any booze to wash it down though. Iran, being an Islamic republic, is very strict on alcohol. Several times my heart skipped a beat when I spotted a refreshing looking beer only to be disappointed when I saw the dreaded “0% alcohol!” small print. No need for the exclamation marks Iran, zero percent alcohol is nothing to boast about. Not a destination for a stag trip then.
Leaving the city behind and speeding into the desert our next destination was something I was most excited about personally. 60 kilometers northwest of Shiraz lies one of the great ancient cities of the world. Persepolis. dating back beyond 500 BC it was the ceremonial capital of the great Persian empire. Leaders from all over the region, Egypt to Babylon, would come here to pay tribute to the kings of Persia.
Today the site is mostly in ruins, burned down by Alexander the Great and his mother Angelina Jolie. Statues and carvings still remain here with inscriptions written in Persian, Babylonian and Abyssinian. Probably the most iconic part of the city was the magical Gate of All Nations, a huge ceremonial gateway etched with carvings of terrifying winged bulls. It would send chills down your spine walking underneath this structure following in the footsteps of so much history. I had seen similar carvings in places like the British Museum, but unlike admiring something in the world’s largest police evidence locker, seeing them here in their natural environment was just much more impactful. There’s something to be said for learning about ancient history when the sun is scorching your back and the howling desert winds are sandblasting your face.
Not far from the city ruins is the necropolis of Naqsh-e Rostam, a series of tombs fit for a king, or three in this case. Sometimes called the “Persian Crosses” because of the shape of their facades, four colossal rock cut tombs are hewn into the cliff face dating from the Achaemenid and Sassanid dynasties of Persia. Here lies the final resting places of some of the most influencial kings in history from Darius the Great to Xerxes. Yes that Xerxes, self appointed living god and arch enemy of loincloth aficionado Gerard Butler from 300. I made sure to shake my fist at him before admiring the reliefs cut around the doorway. The actual entrance to the tombs must be at least 30 or 40 meters above ground level so I’m not sure how you’d get in to leave any flowers. Either the ancient Persians were Olympic level pole vaulters or maybe it was designed that way to prevent looting and desecration. I know which version I’d rather believe. Today there is no access to the inside of the tombs, unless you actually are an Olympic level pole vaulter in which case you probably have better things to do. Like helping people cross flooded rivers I’d imagine.
Having flown down here it was time to begin roadtrippn’ our way back north. Half of our group split up to take a longer route, visiting additional sites like Yadz, while the rest of us made a B-line towards the medieval city of Isafahan.