This article was featured in the National Geographic traveler India magazine. http://www.natgeotraveller.in/exploring-the-hidden-charms-of-iran/
As we roamed the city of Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site about 70 kilometres from Shiraz, Iran, my friend Ali gestured at the millennia-old ruins around us. “If you look at the carvings on the wall,” he said proudly, “you won’t find a single sign of hatred. All these were built with love, where everyone was holding hands or had a hand resting on the other’s shoulder; where people brought silk, wool, cattle, horses and other gifts as tokens of friendship. There is not a single expression of violence here. That is our history.”
I could appreciate the warmth of the sentiment, though of course Iran has had its share of ancient and modern struggles for power and control. In its prime, the Persian Empire was the greatest on Earth, extending from the Indus River to the Mediterranean Sea. With a history that can be traced back to the Bronze Age, this region has seen dynasties rise and fall. Its ancient grandeur is amply visible at Persepolis, which was built and used as a capital city by the Achaemenid Dynasty that ruled Persia between 550 and 330 B.C. With rulers like the Achaemenids, the Parthians, the Sassanians and the Safavids, Iran is a historical feast, a jewel box full of architectural gems. It is also the wellspring for much of India’s finest architecture, constructed by the Mughals. To my surprise, India’s most beloved architectural marvel the Taj Mahal, was also designed with the help of an Iranian mind from Shiraz.
When I travelled to Iran, I didn’t know what to expect of it, besides the usual stereotypes: strict Islamic governance, fatwas against writers, compulsory hijab, public hangings, and anti- West demonstrations. My plans to spend ten days backpacking there last July were met with worried incredulity. Questions I was asked ranged from “Is it safe?” to “Are you out of your mind?” For me however, there is something romantic about waking up in a city where no one knows your name. And I wanted to go because I have always been fascinated with Persian architecture and history. I was glad to learn that Iran’s many shared historic links with India extend into the present—from Iranian cuisine to architecture and to the warmth and hospitality extended towards visitors.
Tehran, the capital city appeared familiar, but not in any romantic, inter-civilisational way. Rather it resembled Mumbai to me—a metropolis, choked, polluted, but vibrant. Everyone was in a hurry. Tehran’s population exploded in the last century. The city is still growing and, at first glance, is somewhat repellent with its chaos and the traffic jams. A closer look revealed its charms: amazing museums, art galleries, theatres, some well-tended parks, and a bustling young population, which contributes to its frenetic energy. As someone who loves people-watching, my favourite experience here was sitting in the city’s chaikhanas, or tea houses, sipping tea with a qaliyan (shisha pipe).
Compared to the rest of the country, Tehran’s architecture is rather modern and cold. However, Tehranis make up for this with their warmth and friendliness. One of the major attractions of the city is the Treasury of National Jewels, which houses the imperial crown jewels of Iran and the trophies of conquests by the Safavid and Afsharid dynasties since the 16th century. Numerous crowns, tiaras, aigrettes, bejewelled swords, shields, and a staggering number of unset gems are heaped up behind fortified glass. Among other exhibits sits the Daria-i-Noor, a 182-carat rare pink diamond originally mined in Kollur, Andhra Pradesh. The rock was seized by Nader Shah Afshar, along with the Koh-i-noor and Peacock Throne, from the Mughals. As I stepped outside the museum, I found the landscape reflected the trinkets within the museum. In the winter, the snow-capped Alborz Mountains that overlook Tehran appear to be the city’s crown.
After three days I left for Isfahan. The Persians often say, “Isfahan, Nesfe Jahan” (Isfahan is half of the world). The proverb dates back to the 16th century, during the time of the Safavid dynasty, when Isfahan was the world’s biggest city and the capital of the Persian Empire. I found it to be astonishingly beautiful, with its mosques and palaces, its Naqsh-e-Jahan square—another UNESCO World Heritage site—and the gorgeous murals on the domes of its Armenian churches.
One of the most memorable evenings I spent there was on the Pol-e-Khaju, or Khaju Bridge, where people sat watching the sunset. A few poets were singing ghazals to a crowd that hummed along. It was magical, watching the tangerine sky and listening to the music of a language I did not comprehend, but which seemed to speak to me.
The echoes of recited poetry followed me to Shiraz, my last destination. Unlike Tehran or Isfahan, however, Shiraz was a ghazal unto itself—an enchanting town where every citizen seemed to be a bard. In a chaikhana outside the Bazaar-e-Vakil, I met an old man with a silver beard and wrinkled forehead. With prayer beads in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, he recited Hafez to me in a meek voice, in Persian (I understood the meaning later, from Henry Wilberforce Clarke’s translation):
The subject tonight is Love
And for tomorrow night as well,
As a matter of fact I know of no better topic
For us to discuss
Until we all
Shiraz is the birthplace of many great poets including Hafez and Sa’adi. The former is such a revered part of Iranian culture that the old man had suggested I carry a book of his poems to Hafezieh (Tomb of Hafez). According to a local belief, whenever a person faces a dilemma or is at a crossroads, they should turn to this book of poetry. The first line that the reader’s eye falls on is the “Fal-e Hafez”, or the solution to their problem.
At this place of pilgrimage, I was deeply moved by the sight of people, young and old, reciting his poems at the tomb. How better to honour a poet who died 625 years ago? As I opened my copy and began to read, I felt more overwhelmed than I had in Tehran or in Isfahan, beneath the domes of the Masjed-e-Shah, before the murals of the Vank Cathedral, or at the deserted, Sassanid fire temple. I might have been romanticising it, but I felt that I had made my way to Iran for some reason, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I was only able to pin down that feeling a little later: It was easy to feel at home in Iran. In fact this journey proved more spiritual than recreational for me. Iran is one of those places that leave a lingering flavour long after you have left, overflowing as it is with history, amazing landscapes, architecture, and wonderful people. More than a few times, people on the street asked me for directions in Persian. When I told them I was from India and didn’t speak the language, many smiled—“Hind!” they remarked— with a twinkle in their eyes. I seemed to have befriended half a dozen people like that. We spoke, without reservation, about Indian films, music, education and politics, about Game of Thrones and Clash of Clans, and about history. And most were optimistic about the future with their new president Hassan Rouhani in charge. “Change,” said one of my new friends, “it has already started.” But there is one thing I hope that will never alter: The recurrent feeling I got, that I was connected to the tea vendor outside the Shiraz bazaar, a traffic policeman in Tehran, or the stranger who became a friend in Isfahan. We all had a lot in common, even if we spoke different languages. In the poetry of this land I saw what a friend once told me: we’re all mirrors and everyone is merely a reflection of us.
Appeared in the April 2015 issue of Natgeotraveller India as “At Home in Iran”.