I’ve been an enthusiastic traveller for many years, improving my grasp of history after schooling mainly in maths, the sciences and languages. Despite concern on the faces of many friends due to regional conflict, I recently spent a wonderful 3 weeks experiencing Iran and its people with their quiet dignity and firm hold on their Iranian culture. I always felt extremely safe, even walking on my own.
After the Arabs conquered Iran in 651AD, the people adopted the Shia form of Islam but kept their largely Persian culture and Farsi (Persian) language, so it is not arabic. About 50% of Iranians are Persian and at its peak, Persia spanned from India to Egypt and parts of Greece, including Turkey and the Middle East.
Iran alarmed the west with its desire for nuclear facilities and concern this might lead to calamitous misuse. Iran’s last President Ahmadinejad fanned these concerns with his fundamentalist approach, often denouncing the U.S., threatening Israel’s existence and denying the Holocaust. I was told Iranians feel relieved to now have more moderate leaders in President Rouhani and Supreme leader in Ali Khamenei.
Some now wonder if keeping the Shah (king) they overthrew in 1979 would have been preferable in hindsight. The last Persian king (Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi) spent tax revenue freely to benefit his immediate family but it seems corruption rose to a whole new level with little to show for the huge oil revenues during Ahmadinejad’s tenure.
Our tour was advised that under theocratic rule, women must ‘cover their hair and curves’, lest men be unable to control themselves! However, I saw many younger women wearing fashionably designed headscarves well back on their heads to show off some hair, while others wore black, navy or a chador (long cloth head covering down to the toes that’s held closed under the chin). It’s a warm climate (5-38C). There is talk of relaxing dress rules for foreign visitors but no imminent change. I also saw TV discussion about improving efficiency by giving women at work more dress freedom. Male dress was also conservative – all wore long trousers, some with short sleeves but sandals less common.
Regardless of the dress, people were very friendly. They’d often sidle up and ask questions, introduce a child or wish to be photographed with us usually on my camera. So I’d show them, then walk off with the image – but everyone was happy. Some young men asked difficult questions about Australia’s immigration stance but all were keen to meet and chat. Iranians are well educated with 60% of university students now women.
Like Australia, it’s a dry country but they have plentiful water from snow-topped mountains that melts for ample use in cities and agriculture. Flood irrigation is common and a falling water table has made better water use an imperative – Persian style gardens feature in all populated areas. Despite the long standing economic sanctions due to nuclear concerns, Iran has modern cities akin to the European standard. Of these, Esfahan is particularly beautiful but Shiraz (no alcohol there) was also most appealing. The food was also excellent, so I do encourage you to sample Persian cuisine. For a local restaurant that does a great job of this you could try ‘lezizz’ at Parkside!
Apparently, Iran refers to its Aryan roots –habitation in the area dates back to 5,000BC with the Elamites – Susa is the oldest city in the world in southern Iran near Iraq’s Basra. Later, Achaemenid Emperor ‘Cyrus the Great’ (580-529 BC) founded the Persian empire by uniting the Medes and Persian tribes who’d moved down from the Caucasus in the north. Cyrus stood out by leading with benevolence, which enabled him to utilise the skills of those he defeated. His successors, Cambyses, Darius and Xerxes built upon his Acaemenid empire and the cities/palaces like Persepolis and others are major attractions for tourists today. Subsequent dynasties include the Sassanids and Safavids and there’s much to see on each.
Several operators tour Iran but the comprehensive coverage in my trip was structured by WEA Travel, indeed my Australian embassy friend in Tehran praised their coverage. Maybe give it a go?