“Do you want the real one or the Chinese fake?”
This from the salesman in a small electronics store in Tehran where I am trying to find a charger cable for my iphone.
“The real charger is 850,000 riyals ($25) and the fake is 400,000 riyals ($11.75) but the fake will stop working in 2 or 3 weeks.”
I am impressed by his honesty regarding his counterfeit Apple merchandise because I can’t tell the difference from the packaging, and he is unlikely to ever see me again. As I also need a wall plug which costs another $25, and my trip is almost 3 weeks long I take the risk and buy the real USB cable, but the fake wall plug. My phone doesn’t blow up, but the screen freezes twice and I have to wait for the battery to drain to re-start it, and the charge never once holds properly. Twenty photos and the battery is stone dead.
Poster seen at Hamadan, western Iran
I am not visiting Iran for the first time as part of the tourist onslaught now that the country is ‘opening up’. I have been leading tours to Iran for 15 years much to the surprise of many Americans who are amazed to learn that they are allowed into Iran. Other Americans remain convinced that if they were to go, they would be kidnapped, shot or otherwise inventively done in, before they left the airport. Most of the people traveling with me are retired, and almost all of them say that friends and family tried in vain to dissuade them from going.
Iranians know quite well how their country is viewed by many in the United States, and are therefore doubly delighted to see us, “we love America, we are very happy you are here, welcome to Iran.” We are not long in the country when a restaurant owner beams delightedly on hearing we are from the United States, “Obama GOOD, Rouhani GOOD,” he makes the gesture of a turbaned head, “VERRY bad!” he roars. Rouhani is a cleric too but we know what he means. We are greeted the same way everywhere, I have a sense of restrained optimism that I didn't see a year ago. “We hope Khameini and some of our mullahs do not say anything to give any excuse to prevent new relations between our countries,” we are told more than once, in reference to the Supreme Leader who is known for his anti-US views.
One of the few "Great Satan" slogans that remain, Tehran
Iranians are a proud people, their country has more than 2500 years of civilization behind it and they have not enjoyed their decades of isolation in the international arena. Their pride in their long history, a history suffused with tremendous achievement in science and the arts of which most westerners are woefully unaware, means they do not appreciate being lectured to as if they were some recently-minted statelet. Iran’s geography means its history has been eventful and in the last century alone it was subject to the demands of its powerful neighbors Russia (and later the Soviet Union), and Britain, as in British India which included Pakistan, one of seven countries that borders Iran. (The others are Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and Iraq.)
Thirty-six years on from the Islamic Revolution that brought down the Shah, a large number of young and educated Iranians are tired of the way the government runs things but this does not mean they want a return to the old days. Disparate groups of Iranians came together in common cause prior to 1979, in part to rid themselves of external domination and this sentiment has not changed, they know that to effect real change they must do it themselves. Direct confrontation with the government has not produced the desired results and these days many young Iranians have turned to social activism, concentrating on issues like the environment rather than focusing on politics.
Tehran gets short shrift; despite its status as the nation’s capital, it is a city noted chiefly for its pollution and horrendous traffic and both are true. But it is also a city of stately trees and world-class museums, and on day one every visitor to Tehran goes to the Jewels Museum which is housed in the basement of the National Bank. A tourist group used to be a rarity and you could wander round admiring the huge cache of gems at will, but these days are gone and now a crush of goggle-eyed tourists gasp at trays piled with loose rubies, diamonds and emeralds and cases of jewel-encrusted daggers, swords and pistols. Delicate, turquoise-studded coffee cups and bejeweled water pipes vie for attention alongside shelves of mounted aigrettes made not of feathers, but sprays and cascades of rubies, diamonds, emeralds and pearls.
Detail of the 18th century Kiani crown worn by the hirsute Fath-Ali Shah. Picture taken from Treasury of National Jewels brochure which I buy and can use because Iran has no copyright law. (Cameras are forbidden inside the museum.)
Tiaras and imperial crowns, each accorded an individual glass case, are made up of hundreds of roughly-cut precious stones, while more modern diadems have matching robin’s egg turquoise stones, and faceted diamonds that sparkle in the darkened crypt. Mounds of ruby and emerald cabochons lie next to an array of two-inch square emeralds with seals and talismanic writings in intaglio. Other display cases contain rows of tassels made up of multiple strands of miniature seed pearls, and gold-embroidered mantles. The collection is priceless, it makes the British Crown Jewels look like a bagatelle.
Detail from the pale pink 'Sea of Light' diamond. It weighs approx. 182 carats and is framed with 457 diamonds and 4 rubies.
As you might expect, Tehran has a carpet museum where not only are there exquisite old and new creations from every region and tribe in the country, but one learns about the difference between a Persian knot and a Turkish knot, the former naturally being infinitely superior. This fact is considered to be of such importance that it is rendered in three languages and in braille. We learn that the number of knots per square inch is only relevant in “city” carpets and not in tribal rugs, and that the best, and certainly the oldest carpets, are dyed using natural dyes including pomegranate skin, onion skin, tobacco, tree bark, walnut shells, saffron, madder and indigo. It was the Venetians who first imported Persian rugs to Europe in the 14th century and Henry VIII who introduced them to England in the 16th century. Rugs took a few years to catch on, the first known carpet was woven some time between 200-500BCE, fragments of which are in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Golestan Palace, Tehran
13th century opalescent tiled mihrab
On to the third must-see museum, the National Museum, which has a large collection of millennia-old Iranian pottery, some Parthian pieces - including an equestrian warrior wearing chaps, which we are humbled to discover were not invented in the American West - tiny Lurestan bronzes, and a copy of Hammurabi’s stele containing Babylon’s civil and criminal code written in Akkadian cuneiform (the original is in the Louvre in Paris). From Persepolis is a large frieze depicting Darius on his throne, with his son, Xerxes, behind him, accepting homage from his subjects. The Persian officer ushering in the humble citizenry holds his spear on top of his shoe, Zoroastrians did not pollute the earth with a weapon. And the citizens did not sully the rarified air around the king with their plebeian breath, they covered their mouth with the hand when they greeted him.
The Islamic wing of the museum has finally re-opened after years of renovation; some of the most exquisite treasures include a 13th century luster-tile mihrab from Qom, 10th century ceramic dishes from Nishapur, 13th century carved wooden doors and illuminated Qurans from different eras. All items in the collection originate in Iran.
14th century mihrab of carved stucco
Before leaving Tehran we visit Sa’adabad Palace, an uninviting pile of marble floors and pillars, high ceilings, large formal rooms and enormous hand-made Persian carpets. Home of the last Shah, it feels more like the headquarters of a well-funded institute. His father’s palace, the Green Palace, is a smaller but more regal little number of mosaic glass ceilings, glittering crystal chandeliers, lushly draped brocades and tasseled passementerie. Both palaces are beautifully set in extensive plane-tree’d grounds with views of the Alborz mountains.
The culturally-illiterate military man, Reza Khan (Shah), Commander of the Persian Cossacks, was 'imposed' on Iran by Britain and Russia in 1923, who then forced him to abdicate in 1941 when they discovered he was not quite as malleable as they’d supposed. Also, they felt he was decidedly too pro-German. (The whole situation was rather more complex than this bare-bones, pared down version.....) He was sent into exile whereupon his son stepped in as Shah, but the boots of Reza Shah were too big for his vacillating son to fill and in something of a pitiful metaphor, outside the son’s cheerless abode stands an enormous pair of bronze cavalry boots, the bottom half of Reza Shah. One old man stops on his way to the palace to bestow a reverential kiss on the giant boots. I am surprised as I have never seen such a thing before but perhaps I shouldn't be, historically Iran was always a monarchy and if young people want no more of it, many elderly Iranians look back wistfully to an earlier, more ordered time that the Shah’s father represents.
Reza Shah's boots
A group of younger locals visiting the palace is less nostalgic; opposite the grand entrance to Sa’adabad Palace is a statue of Arash the Archer, a character from the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, Iran’s legendary and factual history. To settle a land dispute between Iran and Turan (a mythical region that corresponds roughly to parts of modern-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan), it was agreed that Arash would shoot an arrow; all the land within the arrow-shot would belong to Iran, whatever lay outside of it would belong to Turan. But instead of facing north-east as he should, Arash and his bow and arrow faces south-west, “look, he is aiming in the direction of Saudi Arabia”, one of the young men quips wickedly.
Arash the Archer
There has never been any love lost between Iran and its Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia. I suspect that Iranians have still not fully got over the fact that they were defeated in 637CE by a throng of invading Arabs. One has the feeling that they still ask themselves what happened, how did their sophisticated civilization get overrun by a ragtag band of desert illiterates from across the water? (The rigid caste system practiced by the Sassanians undoubtedly had a lot to do with it.) Aside from the occasional trading of barbs, the Aryan/Semitic rivalry has long been one of muted mutual antagonism, but these days hostilities are out in the open; Iranian support for the renegade Houthis in Yemen versus Saudi support for the ousted president, Iranian support for Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, versus Saudi support for Islamist militias opposed to Assad, not to mention the Iranian forces operating in Arab Iraq - all has contributed to distrust of the other’s intentions.
But the catalyst for the most recent war of words was the death of hundreds of hajis in Mecca in October, including almost 500 from Iran. Iranian clergy and media called the Saudis liars for not telling the truth about what happened and for giving false information on the numbers of dead. (Independent sources cite many hundreds more than the official Saudi figure.) The Saudis countered that the Iranians were politicizing a tragedy. Iranians called the Saudis irresponsible, incompetent and unfit to manage the annual Haj. The Saudis allegedly said it was the destiny of the dead pilgrims to die in Mecca. “They didn’t die because of God’s will, they died because of your incompetence,” Iran jeered. All of this is faithfully reported on Press TV, an Iranian English-language channel based in London. It is too droll that Iran has taken advantage of British freedom of speech to base Press TV there because it is so predictably anti-western in content that it is positively entertaining. Facts are never allowed to get in the way of a story, although in this regard Press TV is hardly an exception.
This is illustrated as we chat with some merchants in the Tabriz bazaar, they are happy to see Americans but bemoan our politics. “We see terrible images of dead Yemeni children killed by bombs that your government gives to the Saudis. How can this be right?” We agree that it is deplorable, but someone in the group pipes up, “But we see terrible images of dead Syrian children killed by Assad’s barrel bombs and your government supports him. How is that right?” We are interrupted as tea arrives, “It is not right”, one man with a neatly-trimmed beard concedes, “you see dead Syrians and we see dead Yemenis. It is all politics, it is a kind of game.”
Grand Mosque, Tabriz
Later, back at the hotel, a tall and stately Iranian man shares the elevator. “How do you like Iran?” he intones gravely in perfect English. I give my stock answer, “I have been here many times and am always delighted by how warmly we are received by ordinary Iranians.”
“Iranians are very hospitable” he agrees, “we are a cultured people, not like the Arabs. In Syria they are very unfriendly, they have always acted as if nothing could ever happen to them and now they are begging at Europe’s door.”
I am not surprised by what he thinks, but that he has given voice to it is unusual, the exaggeratedly polite Iranians generally hold their counsel on such potentially contentious issues, especially with people they do not know. I feel compelled to say that I also know Syria well and that we have always had the warmest of welcomes from Syrians too, to which he reluctantly grants, “perhaps it is just Iranians they do not like. They do not welcome us.”
He may have a point; ever since Syria and Iran became official BFF’s, large numbers of Iranian pilgrims descend on Damascus year-round to visit shrines. (Shrine-visiting for Shia Muslims is akin to what the Grand Tour of Europe used to be for English aristocrats and luminaries, it is 'what you do’.) Among many, they visit the head of Hussein in the Ummayad Mosque and the shrines of the Prophet’s granddaughter Zaynab, and his great-granddaughter Ruqqaya, indeed Iranian money has built lavishly gilded and mirrored mausolea over the tombs of the two women. A large part of ritual lament in Shi’a Islam involves wailing and keening which Sunnis find abhorrent, and Damascenes lament the lamenting. “I do not mind Iranians but I do not like what they are doing to this city, they wander from shrine to shrine moaning and crying as if it all happened yesterday and not fourteen hundred years ago,” is a version of a statement I heard more than once. (All of this lamentation dates to 680AD and the martyring of Hussein, the Shi’a’s third Imam, who was killed at Kerbala in present-day Iraq.) One dissenting voice does not policy make, but given the other anti-Arab rumblings that many Iranians no longer bother to keep quiet about, perhaps Basher al-Assad has good reason to keep in with Russia, he may fear that under the right conditions, Iran would drop him like a hot cake. But many Iranians are concerned about ISIS, “We are Shi'a, they hate us more than they hate you” we are told by several, “you should be helping us to get rid of them”.
Gold bangles in the Gold Souk of Zanjan
There is no getting away from the fact that Iran is in the midst of a prolonged drought. Lake Urumiyeh in the north-west has lost 90% of its volume in the past 30 years and salt blowing off the lake's 'new' saltflats pollutes the air with a white haze. Isfahan’s Zarudeh river barely exists - the little water there is, is dammed for irrigation because, like California, Iran has an important agricultural industry - and the city’s fabled bridges are piteously reduced to spanning a wide and shallow trough of pebbles, sand and reeds. In Shiraz, the Dry River is more aptly named than was intended, because the ‘dry’ that was seasonal is now more permanent.
Qajar Pavilion, Fin Garden, Kashan
Iran is largely covered by desert, but to the north and west the mountains’ icy thaw watered the cities in the foothills every spring. Because of its scarcity, Iranians gloried in this precious resource, using fountains, pools and water-channels as part of their sumptuous formal gardens. Even their carpets featured designs of flowers and leafy trees which was intended to "bring the outside world indoors". Persian gardens are still revered and indeed the English word ‘paradise’ is derived from paridaeza, a Persian word meaning ‘walled garden’.
It is dismal to see Shiraz without its familiar tinkling fountains and reflecting pools. Renown for its rose gardens, in these days of drought I notice some have been dug up. But cities must plow on, no pun intended, and Shiraz is not sitting on past glories, it has plunged ahead and re-invented itself as a regional capital of cosmetic surgery. Dubai dowagers, intent on regaining or retaining their youth, regularly trot across the Persian Gulf for a bit of nip/tuck, as do balding Egyptian men crying out for a hair transplant. This is not a stretch because Iran is already the world capital of rhinoplasty, as thousands of Iranian men and women strolling around with the telltale bandage over their nose attest. And when you look carefully, it is impossible not to notice the many splendidly sculpted schnozes, not all of which were bestowed by nature.
Eram Bagh Gardens, Shiraz in happier days
It is perhaps fitting therefore that it is in Shiraz that I become acquainted with Iranian medical care and all because of a nose. In 7 days I make 7 visits to 4 different hospitals in 2 cities, of which 5 are visits to the emergency room, 3 in the middle of the night. To wit, one of the people traveling with me who had a cold, suffered several runaway nosebleeds with attendant spiking blood pressure. Because said traveler has hypertension, his blood pressure was checked more often in a week than mine has been checked in my entire life. He had 2 EKG’s, his nose was packed with antibiotic-soaked gauze, unpacked 3 days later, then packed again a day after that when there was still some bleeding, he received more nitro-glycerin and other pills, antibiotics and saline solutions than a small-town pharmacy might reasonably be expected to stock, and scored an appointment with a cardio-vascular specialist on 5 hours notice. The bill for this week-long medical saga was $111.88. I have no idea what the average cost of such a drama would be in the United States, but there would certainly be many more digits and a comma or two involved. When the patient returned to the US he was given the all-clear by a specialist. It’s just a thought, but given the undeniable level of skill of their surgeons and their competitive pricing model, I predict a boom in medical tourism just as soon as sanctions are lifted.
The episode gave us the chance to spend two extra nights at Shiraz’s Homa hotel which was once an Intercontinental, built in time for the Shah to have his star-studded spectacular at Persepolis in 1971, an event to which most Iranians were not invited and where the only Iranian connection to the whole affair was the caviar. After the Islamic Revolution a 'Death to America' style banner was raised above the hotel entrance and Intercontinental went away. The banner was removed many years ago and although Intercontinental has not yet returned, perhaps it should because with all the trade delegations and regular tourists, not to mention the soon-to-be burgeoning medical tourists, the country will need many more hotels.
Incidentally, despite the fact that the price is still high, I was startled to discover that caviar is now farmed in the Caspian Sea. Farmed caviar? Whatever next? Farmed caviar from China? Well yes, as a matter of fact. There is no more wild sturgeon, the fish is another victim of over-fishing, poaching and pollution. Will caviar now go the way of lark’s tongues? Where is the elitism in eating the eggs of a farmed fish?
Gate of All Nations, Persepolis
And speaking of Persepolis, pre-nosebleed saga we drove there from Shiraz to admire the Gate of All Nations with its monumental Assyrian-style centaurs and the magnificent Apadana Staircase. But first we were obliged to spend some time explaining America’s political process to a group of perplexed locals, because of yet another mass shooting in the United States. “Why can’t you pass any laws limiting the sale of guns?” they ask, not unreasonably. “How much time do you have?” reply the Americans in unison.
In Iran hardly anyone owns a gun of any sort because the paperwork is so onerous that the grizzliest of Aryan macho-men has been known to lose the will to live when faced with Iranian bureaucracy. After the first hurdle of actually obtaining the permit, there is the portentous matter of renewing it. As an example, let us imagine that a gun owner, in a ghastly error, has shot a female mountain goat instead of a male since the last permit was granted. Now the whole procedure shifts up a gear or two, stiff penalties are added to the bureaucratic morass, the renewal takes longer - at which point most sensible people give up, voluntarily surrender their gun and take up crocheting. In Iran it is not even legal to shoot someone who has entered your house and is making off with all you possess. You may whack the intruder over the head with a rifle butt, but you may not shoot him.
When Persepolis was built in 518BCE by Darius the Great, Persia had a massive empire and was the undisputed ruler of a vast swathe of the known world. It all came crashing down in 330BCE when Alexander the Great defeated Darius III, destroyed Persepolis and became the greatest conqueror the world had yet seen. When Alexander died only 3 years later, his empire split into three and crumbled in turn. The thing I like about ruins is that they are a grand poke in the eye to hubris because if nothing else, they remind us that nothing lasts no matter how powerful. As we sat among the ruins with the descendants of the ancient world’s most powerful empires discussing the unfathomable gun violence in the United States, it was sobering to think that many centuries hence, our descendants will be sitting among the ruins of Washington, perhaps on the disintegrated steps of the Lincoln memorial, mulling over why the then most powerful nation on earth was unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
Giggling gaggles of schoolgirls with a ringleader wielding the dreaded selfie stick, huddle in noisy scrums at every tourist spot in the country. At Persepolis, it used to be that schoolgirls rushed up to talk to you, notebook in hand begging you to write a few lines. Now they rush up and insist that you be in their selfie. It seems unfair to deny them their youthful narcissism in a country where they are obliged to shroud themselves, so I don’t. I smile and insert myself into the fray, then take a picture of them taking another selfie. We are all mad.
Not every Iranian woman is wearing chador. The country’s fashionistas are luxuriating in a moment of lax application of the law, by wearing the mandatory headscarf way back on the head, showing off thick, glossy manes and tumbling tresses. They wear heavy make-up, short and tight-fitting coats, skinny jeans, strappy sandals and their feet are bare with painted toenails. All of this is quite unlawful because Iran’s constitution demands that women show only their face and hands. Meanwhile some European tourists have upped the ante by strolling around in scarves tied at the back of the neck, pirate-style, capri pants, and tops that barely cover their bottoms. Local guides don’t say anything because in Iranian culture it is not the done thing to criticize a guest, however errant, but European tour operators should know better.
Iranian women push the laws well beyond the limit, for which I heartily applaud them - it is absurd that men have decided what women must wear - but they do it knowing that the day will come when the clerics decide enough is enough and begin once again to apply the letter of the law and shove the women bare-faced, back under the chador. The sartorial crackdowns never last but they are irksome, and insouciant Latin ladies ignoring the law merely hasten the day. Meanwhile the delinquent suburban housewives are long gone. It is not cool.
Crown of David temple, one of several working synagogues in Isfahan, where Hebrew is taught.
I include these two photographs as many people will be surprised to learn that Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are allowed freedom of worship in Iran. It was Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, who freed the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity and Jews have been an integral part of Iran for millennia. There are many different Christian sects but the majority are Armenian. This cathedral however is no longer a working church, it is located near the border with Armenia and Azerbaijan and nowadays most Armenian-Iranians live and work in Tehran and Isfahan. Iran has good relations with Armenia, so much so that busloads of Iranians trundle off to Yerevan for holidays and long weekends.
The Armenian Cathedral of St Stephanos, Jolfa, in north-western Iran.
On our last day in Isfahan we visit the old Safavid pleasure palace of Hasht Behesht. At the back of the palace is a small tiled panel which depicts the tale of a man who struck up a friendship with a bear. The bear is kind but, as everyone knows except the man, none too bright. One day when the man falls asleep the bear sits and watches over him. After a while the bear notices that flies are buzzing incessantly around his face, and afraid that the noise will wake him, it picks up a large rock and crashes it down onto the flies, killing them all. The rock also fatally smashes the man’s skull. The moral of the story is that if you are foolish enough to choose your friends unwisely, when the outcome is disastrous you have only yourself to blame. Iranians quite like to tell this story.