“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”
Omar Khayyám d.1123
Standing by this poet’s tomb in the northeastern Iranian town of Nishapur on our last evening, I thought of this poem that I vaguely remembered from a reading in my youth. And I thought how different in mood today’s land of Iran is from when the Persian poet lived here a thousand years ago. Bread there still is, but sipping openly from a flask of wine is no longer possible in the Iran of today. In his poetry Khayyám celebrated worldly pleasures and didn’t believe in sacrificing what could be had then for the dubious promises of the hereafter.
One of the attractions for us of visiting Iran was experiencing the latest iteration of the centuries-old civilization of Persia that, united under monarchs Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, once ruled the ancient world as a superpower. Persian art and thought existed long before the rise of Ottoman Turkey and greatly influenced Turkish culture and language. Even after Atatürk’s language reform, Turkish still contains many words of Persian origin. In English, it is thanks to Persia that we have the word “paradise” and the ideas it represents.
So, what is today’s Persia like? In 1935 the country asked the international community to refer to it as Iran, meaning “land of the Aryans,” the name it had used internally for a long time. And since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the founding of the Islamic Republic, it is an authoritarian state and a theocracy, perhaps the world’s only one.
Iran protects its singular Islamic character by strictly enforcing its prohibitions against alcohol and western influences. In so doing it has isolated itself in several ways. As Americans, Kay and I needed visas to enter the country, and even then, we needed to travel as part of a tour group with an approved itinerary and a licensed Iranian guide. Although Wi-Fi was available in our tourist hotels, many websites were blocked, and we could not get cash from the country’s ATMs, or use our American or Turkish credit cards. It has been only very recently that US cellphone use is possible due to an agreement between AT&T and a local Iranian company.
Since Kay and I knew of these restrictions and prepared for them in advance, we didn’t find our visit to be onerous. Our group tour, arranged by the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT) numbered thirteen adults. All of us are well traveled and all except one have lived for years in Turkey.
Although the tour lasted only a week, it was intense. We were taken to four regional cities and many historical and religious sites. Meysam, our guide, is a thoughtful man, who speaks English well, and is extremely well informed about his country. Between what he told us, what we picked up from reading, and what we were able to observe, we got a good general idea of what the country stands for and what life is like for many Iranians. Nevertheless, our approach was scattershot. It couldn’t have been anything else given our limited amount of time and the restrictions placed upon us.
Even though relations between the Iranian government and those of most western countries have been fraught for decades and even hostile at times, we encountered no animosity from the Iranian people who were, for the most part, open and welcoming.
For better or worse, our visit coincided with the principal week of Moharram, a month-long of mourning the death of Imam Hossein, one of Shia Islam’s greatest heroes. He died in 680ce in a battle in Karbala where he and his 72 followers had taken refuge from the enemies who were pursuing him. This was because he had refused to take an oath of allegiance to the caliph recognized by the Sunni community. As the son of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law and chosen successor, he could not do otherwise.
Hossein is known as the third of the twelve imams or leaders prophesied by Mohammed, and the anniversary of his death on the 10th day of Moharram is Ashura, “Day of Remembrance,” a national day of mourning for observant Shi’ites everywhere. In Iran, on Ashura and the day preceding it, nearly all commerce is suspended; even the historical sites are closed. That was bad news for us tourists. We were in Shiraz at the time and couldn’t see much of that historical city. On the other hand, we were able to witness the mourning processions, the drumming, and the groups of men rhythmically and symbolically flagellating themselves with chains. Except for our group, nearly every one of the thousands in the streets was dressed in black. It was a sight to see.
Shi’ism is the branch of Islam practiced by about 10% of the world’s Muslims; however, Iran is Shia country where that number is closer to 95%. Our immersion taught us some differences between Shia and Sunni practice. For example, in Sunni communities the call to prayer is chanted five times a day while among Shi’ites, only three times.
One notable Iranian restriction concerns the dress code for women. Whereas in Turkey a woman can choose whether or not to cover her head, in Iran a headscarf or hijab is mandatory for all women in public, female tourists not excepted, as you’ll see if you look at our photos. Women also need to cover their bodies with garments that reach at least to a point above the knee. Kay chose to wear a black manteau that covered her to mid-calf. In addition, on a couple of occasions when we visited especially sacred sites, the women had to don a chador on top of their other garments. These were provided by women staffers at the sites and looked like printed cotton bed sheets. They are worn over the headscarf in a manner that allows no hair to be shown and descend to the ground. They are secured tightly under the chin by a clip. Naturally, they further restricted the women and added to the warmth they already felt.
In the southern cities of Esfahan, Yazd, and Shiraz, although it cooled off in the evening, the weather was brightly sunny and hot all day. Skies were bright blue with few clouds. From the landscapes we viewed through the bus windows, we concluded that much of Iran is arid. The river beds we crossed, such as the Zayandeh in Esfahan, were wide and bone dry at this time of year.
By now, you may be getting the idea that Iran is a very different country from those you know. You would be correct. It is a country the likes of which Kay and I had not experienced before, and we wonder if it might not be uniquely different among nations.
I was surprised to learn that Iran’s population of about 80 million is far from homogeneous. Although nearly everyone understands and can read Farsi or Persian, only about half the citizens speak it as a first or native language. For example, people in the northwest of the country speak Azeri, a Turkic language, while a large group in the country’s southeast are Baluch and have a language of their own. Among other languages, Arabic is spoken in parts of the country.
The unsightly views we had of settlements along the highways and on the outskirts of the cities sadly reminded us of Turkey. They consisted of one and two-storey buildings, many unfinished or abandoned, housing garages, shops, and other small businesses that looked poor and strewn with rubbish.
Where we found beauty was mostly in the city mosques. Architecturally, these look very different from the mosques in Turkey. They more closely resemble those of Central Asia. We’ve not been to Samarkand, but looking at photographs on the Internet of its mosques, the resemblance is very clear. They have two tall ivans or portals in the Selcuk style and two tall minarets with bulbous tops rising above them.
Everything—facades, portals, and minarets— is covered with mosaic tiles and often bordered with calligraphic inscriptions from the Koran. The beautiful mosaics feature geometric or floral designs. Whereas stone was used to build the great mosques of Istanbul, bricks seem to be the primary material in Iran and often form interesting and contrasting patterns, especially in the arches and vaults that form the ceilings of some interiors. The art and craftsmanship manifested in these structures is impressive.
Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that predates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by many centuries. It was promulgated in the Irano-central Asian region as early as 1400bce. We were taken to a modern-day fire temple where Zoroastrians honor their uncreated god Ahura Mazda. Although the building itself is new, the fire within has been burning for more than fifteen centuries. The Zoroastrian emblem features a pair of wings divided horizontally into three parts, each part standing for one of the religion’s three tenets: good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.
Zoroastrianism was an important cult during the Persian dynasties of the Achaemenids (550-330bce) and the Seleucids (323-240bce.) It survives today in Iran and the Mumbai region of India.
One traditional Zoroastrian practice is how a human corpse is washed and then left to decay openly, prey to vultures, in a high place known as a Tower of Silence. This tradition is no longer followed in Iran where Zoroastrian bodies are now buried in cement-lined graves to keep the decomposing flesh out of contact with the soil. However, two Towers of Silence exist just outside the city of Yazd where we were allowed to climb one of the steep hills and see the circular, walled, flattened apex where in earlier times bodies were arranged on flag stones around a deep central pit. When all the flesh had disappeared, the skeletons were disposed of in the pit. Members of our group made the climb near sunset when the views of the adobe structures below and the cityscape beyond were bathed in a warm light. For me, it was a highlight of our trip.
No first trip to Iran would be complete without a visit to the ruins of Persepolis. Never a political capital, archeologists believe the huge site was a ceremonial complex for welcoming envoys and rulers from subject nations to pay homage to the great Achaemenid emperors. Among the many extant reliefs that decorate its walls are processions of men representing different nations bearing prize animals and handicrafts as tribute. Begun by Darius the Great around 1515bce, it was still unfinished when in 330bce Alexander and his army looted and burned it to the ground in revenge for the Persians having earlier invaded Greece and razing Athens.
Apart from its many reliefs, which are stunning, I was a bit disappointed by the little that remains of what had to have been one of the wonders of the Ancient World. Ascending the staircases to what were the Hall of 100 Columns and the Audience Hall, it is hard to imagine the size and splendor of these great chambers that we know of from contemporary accounts. To help visualize Persepolis as it was in its glory, it would be nice to look at a model or a 3D animation of the entire complex. If such aids exist, they are probably in Tehran where we did not go on this tour.
It would also have been good to have had more time to explore the ruins. We arrived at the end of a long day, which unfortunately gave us less than two hours before dark. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity not to have been missed to get a glimpse of a very special historical record.
Our days on the tour passed as follows: Leaving our hotel after breakfast sometime between 7:30 and 9 a.m., we would board our bus to be taken to one or more sights of interest. Our guide would speak to us briefly on the bus and at greater length on location. A pre-arranged restaurant lunch would be served shortly after mid-day. More sightseeing would follow in the afternoon. Usually we would have time to freshen up at our hotel before meeting again for a restaurant dinner. With no alcohol available, there could be no cocktail hour, a ritual sorely missed by some of us.
During the two main meals of the day we had the opportunity to taste a variety of Persian cuisine, reputedly one of the world’s finest. Certainly some of the dishes were intriguing. Chicken in pomegranate and walnut sauce named fesenjan is one. Lamb with spinach and prunes, aloo, is another. Soups were available morning, noon, and night with barley the most common. We were often served chicken and lamb kebobs, and there was steamed, buttered white rice with every meal. Occasionally we would be offered what the world knows as Persian rice, which has a crusty layer on top. Salads would be the green variety mixed with other vegetables. They came, not with vinaigrette dressings but with different flavored kinds of mayonnaise. Iranians mostly eat flat breads with their meals. My favorite was taftun, crispy white and round. Although I was lucky enough to be served some delicious ice cream a couple of times, I learned this was not common. Instead, the item that appeared again and again for dessert was jello. Quelle surprise!
As we were to learn, Persian carpets deserve the high praise they are given. They are some of finest in the world. As it happens, our guide Meysam’s mother was a carpet designer and weaver, and he knows a great deal about their different types and how they are made. One evening he demonstrated that knowledge in a large store by giving us a lecture that he illustrated with the carpets that surrounded us.
Carpets are essential for the Iranian lifestyle. Domestically, they are used for sitting, eating, and even sleeping. Nomads live in narrow, black tents, so the carpets they weave are necessarily narrow. They bind or edge them with goat hair because it repels snakes and water.
Before weaving the wool, cotton or silk, the colors of the dyes have to be “fixed” so they will not run together when wet. Nomadic carpet weavers use cattle urine as a fixative. Another method is to submerge the material in running water for a week or more.
Persian carpets are categorized as Nomadic or City. City carpets are done to a thought-out, pre-drawn design while the designs of Nomadic carpets arise from the imaginations of the weavers as they weave. City carpets are done to standard sizes; nomadic carpets are not.
Two kinds of knots are used in carpet making. The single or Persian knot is most common. The quality of carpets depends largely on the number of knots per centimeter. The finer the thread, the more knots are possible. The best quality silk allows for thirteen.
In a note about colors, Meysam said that city dwellers, who live in hotter environments, prefer cooler colors in their carpets while nomads who live in colder climate prefer their colors to be warmer.
Of the thirteen members of our group, seven of us bought carpets, and yes, Kay and I are were among them. Although we really didn’t need another carpet, we were so taken by a pretty Nomadic number that we had to have it.
Our fourth and final city was Mashhad in northeastern Iran. We got there from Shiraz by way of an Iran Air flight on a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft that looked well past its retirement age. Mashhad is a major pilgrimage city because of an important shrine containing the tomb of Imam Reza and dedicated to him. He was another of Shi’ism’s holiest leaders, who died in 818ce during a time of political instability under mysterious circumstances.
Nothing we had heard or read prepared us for the size and splendor of this complex comprising eight large courtyards. It is said that since the founding of the Islamic Republic, the state has poured tons of money into the shrine’s reconstruction and expansion, making it perhaps the Mecca of Shi’ism. I wish I had words to adequately describe it since I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera inside to take pictures.
Once we had been briefed and the ladies enshrouded in their chadors, we were led around the site by a guide (not our own) and surrounded by several minders of both sexes. At one point we were taken into a large chamber where an imam seated high above the floor delivered a talk in Azeri to a group of about 50 men seated on the floor in front of him. In another part of the room we were seated in front of a screen on which a silent video showed aerial images of the complex with its courtyards filled with the devout. Although not full today, there were still enough pilgrims around to make things appear busy.
As we walked around the complex, admiring the extraordinary portals, walls, and minarets so richly and colorfully tiled we were constantly bombarded with voices from outdoor loudspeakers reading or reciting religious texts. Black-clad women stared as we passed, but when the boldest of them tried to talk to us, our minders shooed them away.
Our tour of the Shrine ended with a short museum visit. One large gallery displayed carpets. Another held oil paintings, some by European artists that were mediocre and others by Iranians that were far more interesting.
I can’t end this account without writing that our tour encompassed the tombs of several historical figures. Interestingly, these were of three authors and one painter.
Nearby Omar Khayyám’s we looked at another of a19th-century painter named
He is a favorite of our guide Meysam, who admires his work and thinks highly of his character.
Earlier we made a side trip to a distant part of Mashhad to the see the monument and tomb honoring the author of The Shahnameh (The Book of Kings,) Persia’s epic poem of 60,000 couplets embodying its history, culture, and language. We were told hyperbolically that every home in Iran has a copy of The Shahnameh.
Finally, I must mention the memorial to another national poet. The Tomb of Hafez is set in a lovely park perfumed with flowers in the center of Shiraz. His sarcophagus looks to be carved from alabaster and is set under a beautiful canopy supported by columns with capitals done in the Selcuk manner. The underside of the canopy is a colorful mosaic of floral and geometric pieces. We arrived after dark, and after listening to Meysam’s introduction, went to witness the performance of a man who has been a fixture for the past twenty years. For a tip he opens a volume of Hafez’s poetry at random and reads a passage in a sonorous voice before telling someone’s fortune. On this occasion, Shirley Ann, one of our group, was his subject. Time will reveal the accuracy of his prediction.
So, I come to the end of this abbreviated account of our unforgettable week in Iran. We have to confess we were exhausted as we sat at the Mashhad airport waiting to board the plane to Istanbul scheduled to depart at 1:30 a.m. Fortunately, once at home the pains of travel pass quickly, allowing me to write about our trips more or less objectively. Time is so fleeting; it’s important to see the world while we can. The rewards are huge. On that note I leave you, as I began, with another of
Omar Khayyám’s quatrains:
Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly—and Lo! The Bird is on the Wing.