Largely shrouded from the West, Iran is a hospitable and fascinating country
‘You need to know something,” a tall, animated Iranian man tells me. He’s wearing an intense expression and his jabbing index finger is almost at my chest. “We are not terrorists,” he says. He pulls his pointed hand over his heart. “We love your nation. We love all nations. Iranian people love all the world’s peoples.”
I’m mid-conversation with the amiable, pink-shirted Afshin. We’re standing in a corner of Imam Square in the city of Isfahan in central Iran. As I’m finding out, Iranians want to change how their country is perceived and are fascinated by what you think of it. (“Do you love Iran?” Afshin later asks me.)
To a visitor, Iranian people’s most striking quality is their hospitality. Random Iranians – in huge cities – often say, “Hello. How are you?” start chatting to you, and welcome you to their country. Tourists are such a novelty that strangers frequently ask if they can have a photo with you. It lends travelling in Iran a surreal, Justin Bieberesque quality.
But as my exchange with Afshin also shows, Iran has had a troubled international relationship over the last four decades. After the Shah fled the country in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini established Iran as an Islamic republic. Since then, it has been largely shrouded from the West.
I visited Iran with four friends in 2017 when the country was slowly beginning to open to tourists. After Iran agreed an international deal in 2015 about restricting its nuclear programme, the UN lifted economic sanctions on the country. In 2018, Donald Trump controversially withdrew the US from the landmark pact, but president Biden wants to restore it.
Iran closed its borders to tourists in March 2020 because of the pandemic. It’s slowly reopening to vaccinated travellers, but because of a volatile security situation and the spread of Covid in the country you’re unlikely to be visiting anytime soon.
So Isfahan, where I meet Afshin, is out of reach for now, but the city has exerted a magnetic pull on travellers for centuries. Indeed, ‘Isfahan is half the world’ is an ancient Persian proverb. When I start to look around Imam Square, I get a sense of what it means. The square is enormous. After Tiananmen Square, it’s the biggest in the world and is enclosed by an almost uninterrupted perimeter of latte-coloured brick buildings in a uniform two-storey design.
It’s around midday. Children are playing in the square’s fountains and teenage boys are doing wheelies on bikes near black, horse-drawn carriages that take tourists around the square’s manicured lawns and evergreen trees.
We walk from the splendour of the square through the dimly-lit hallway of the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah mosque and into an arresting prayer hall. It’s a tapestry of sunlight filtering through high, stained-glass windows under a domed ceiling engraved with exquisite lemon-shaped patterns. The ceiling tiles climax in a montage of the glittering fan of a peacock’s tail.
That image comes to mind a little later. Trying to meet a potential mate in Iran must be tricky: by law, men and women who are not related to each other cannot socialise – or touch – in public, and dancing, because it can be interpreted as “indecent”, is effectively banned.
But at Si-o-se Pol Bridge, I see a bunch of twenty-something male friends, all wearing identikit skinny jeans and Bose headphones, steal glances as they amble past a cluster of young women wearing high heels and pushed-back headscarves. The air is heavy with the whiff of Calvin Klein and Yves Saint Laurent.
In public, women in Iran must wear headscarves. We sometimes stay with local families and the custom of women wearing headscarves in their own homes varies. On these occasions, Suzanne, the only female in our group, follows the example of our hosts. Women must also cover their arms and legs. In cities, lots of women wear brightly-coloured, elegant tunics – called manteaus – over jeans. Men, meanwhile, are prohibited from wearing shorts in public.
It’s approaching sunset and along the 33 arches of the magnolia-coloured Si-o-se Pol Bridge, couples and friends sit, talk, and watch a luminous, salmon-pink sky paint its reflection on the shimmering Zayandeh River.
Iran is a Muslim country, but it is not Arabic. Farsi is the national language and modern-day Iran was once home to the ancient Achaemenid Empire: at its peak, it stretched from India to Ethiopia – the largest empire the world has ever known.
The city of Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Today, the city’s ruins – a vast, sandy brown terrace cut into a mountain – hint at its former imperial extravagance. We follow the route foreign delegations took on arrival in the city: up the Grand Stairway and through the hulking pillars – defended by bull sculptures – of the Gate of All Nations. But unlike then, no trumpeters are here to greet us.
Looking out from the site, it’s a jigsaw of soaring columns (standing and collapsed) brilliantly vivid against the sunny haze of the surrounding mountains. In its pomp, the grandeur of Persepolis rivalled that of Rome and Athens.
In fact, it was Alexander the Great who, in 330BC, destroyed Persepolis. Accounts claim that Alexander needed at least 3,000 camels to cart off the city’s treasures. What’s most startling about Persepolis today isn’t the scale but the minutiae.
The meticulous detail of the bas-reliefs expresses a fascinating story: depicting the peoples of the empire – including Arabs, Egyptians, and Ethiopians – and emphasising the importance of the equinox to this culture by frequently showing a lion (representing the sun) killing a bull (the moon). The tradition continues: Iran’s New Year starts on March 21.
Outside the perimeter of the Unesco site, beside the toilets and half-hidden by pine trees, we see a collection of metal frames in an abandoned field. When we walk to it, we realise we’ve stumbled into another, very different chapter from Iranian history.
If it looks like the forgotten structures of a monumental circus, in a way that’s what it is. In 1971, the Shah built a lavish tent city here to mark 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy for over 600 international dignitaries at a massive party. Guests were served caviar-stuffed quails’ eggs by French chefs. Ironically, the profligate celebrations planted the seeds of the Islamic Revolution.
These days, it’s said that every Iranian home has at least two books: the Quran and the collected poems of Hafez, a 14th century poet who is to Iran what Shakespeare is to England.
In Hafez’s hometown of Shiraz, his memory is fittingly marked. In an extensive garden with pools and orange trees, Hafez’s marble tombstone rests under an imposing, eight-columned pavilion. Streams of visitors swirl around the tomb, yet this site possesses an innate stillness.
It’s early evening when we get here. As we sit back and watch Iranians make their pilgrimage, I feel the urge for a glass of red wine. But alcohol is illegal in Iran. And that includes in Shiraz – even though the city shares its name with one of the world’s most famous wines and it’s where wine was first produced more than 7,000 years ago.
So, I take a cue from Hafez. His poetry celebrated the pleasures of wine, but also the power of acceptance. “This place where you are right now,” Hafez wrote, “God circled on a map for you.”