A land of history and rich culture

Gulf Daily News, Bahrain
July 2, 2004

A land of history and rich culture


Iran, a land with more than 2,500 years of rich culture and history,
is a living museum with its pre-Islamic monuments, great palaces,
historical mosques, churches, ancient fire temples, vast mountain
ranges and two vast deserts.

With all this in mind, I was set to make my first visit to the
mainland of Iran and spend at least two weeks exploring and travelling
from city to city.

Doubts arose from friends, colleagues and family about the wisdom of
making the trip, but I wanted to prove them all wrong.

Armed with my Lonely Planet guidebook and useful information from the
Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam I was all set.

A 21-day visa was secured after spending 72 hours on the Free Trade
Zone Island of Kish by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a cost of
$78 (BD29.5).

My plans were almost shattered while cycling on the Kish coast. I was
going too fast and crashed into some metal barriers used to stop cars
using the track.

I smashed my head against the ground and needed emergency treatment at
the island’s main hospital and 50 stitches for gashes above the eye
and an almost ripped-off ear.

Heavily bandaged, I visited the island attractions, as I had on
previous visits, including the marooned Greek Ship, the ancient city
of Harireh, Derakht-e-Sabz (Green Park) and the Ahovan Wildlife Park
and Aquarium.

My visa came through and an air-ticket on Aria Air, costing 269,000
rials (BD12) got me to the capital Tehran.


After leaving the airport an official airport taxi for 30,000 rials
(BD1.500) gave me my first look at the sprawling metropolis.

I passed the 45-metre high Azadi (Freedom) monument built in 1971 to
commemorate 2,500 years of the Persian Empire and it suddenly hit me
that I was in Iran.

On my way to the Atlas Hotel at $35 per night I got a glimpse of
Tehran’s traffic nightmare with cars changing lanes without
indicating, motorcycles moving in all directions including on
pavements and little or no observance of traffic signals. I did much
walking and managed to avoid becoming a traffic statistic!

I took a stroll on a cold Thursday night and stumbled across the old
US Embassy, now known as the US Den of Espionage.

Central Tehran with its wide avenues is eerily quiet at night.

The next morning, I met Sadegh a friend I’d first met a year before on
Kish, and the two of us took an early lunch at the Dizi Restaurant,
which serves traditional abgusht, a famous dish of Tabriz in the
northwest of Iran.

It’s a combined soup/stew of beef or lamb, chickpeas, potatoes, onions
and a chunk of fat served in a dizi or small upright container. You
drink the soup and eat the stew (after mashing it into a paste)
separately with bread. It was very tasty and is a favourite amongst

After parting ways, I made my way to the Armenian Sarkis Cathedral,
situated in an area with a sizeable Christian population. Though the
church was closed, I had a quick look around the courtyard which has a
number of graves.

Built between 1964 and 1970, this white-coloured building is one of
the most important non-Islamic buildings in the city and is open to
visitors free of charge most days except Sunday.

As in most cities you have to be careful if you are a stranger and
Tehran is no exception.

Beware of ‘bogus police’ – I was stopped by one guy who stepped out of
an unmarked car who asked about passport, money, mobile phone and even
what I had photographed. I demanded to see his identity card which was
flashed briefly in my face. It could have been anything.

You should never get in a car and insist they come with you to your
hotel which should frighten them off. Telling them I had the
registration number of the car, they quickly moved on!

A bit rattled, I informed the hotel and they said that this often
happens to foreign tourists.

One of the most interesting and least known museums is the Reza
Abbasi, so named after the artist who lived in the Safavid period
1502-1722 AD.

The top floor has collections from the Achaemenid period 550-330 BC,
such as drinking vessels, armlets, carvings, tools and daggers dating
back to 1000 BC and the Sassanian period 224 to 637 AD.

The Islamic Gallery houses pottery, metal objects from the Seljuk
period from 1051-1220 AD, along with oil lamps, incense burners and
metal works through the Safavid period up to the end of the Qajar
dynasty in 1925.

In the Calligraphy section, you can see ancient Qurans, leaves of
copies from the books by the great poets Ferdowsi and Sa’adi and
paintings by Reza Abbasi.

The bazaar in the south of the city is a city within a city,
containing mosques, hotels, banks, a church and even a fire station.

It is a labyrinth of alleys and streets and a first-time visitor will
easily get lost. The whole complex is a mass of humanity where just
about any commodity can be found. Each area sells different items such
as copper, gold, spices, carpets, shoes, electrical and tobacco to
name but some.

Inside the bazaar a couple of mosques stand out – a 600-year-old one
containing the shrine of Emamzadeh Zaid, with beautifully coloured
Quranic and mosaic inscriptions and the Imam Khomeini or Shah mosque
from the 18th century which is in an open courtyard. Picture taking
is frowned upon because the faithful are praying at all times.

Nearby is the Golestan Palace complex, which originated as a citadel
during Safavid era, becoming a palace during the mid-18th century.

Golestan was mainly for receptions during Pahlavi era and Reza Shah
crowned himself here in 1925 in what is known as the Takht-e-Marmar
(Marble Throne) and supported by human figures and constructed from 65
pieces of marble.

Other sections include collections of art, calligraphy, furniture and
vases and a historical photography gallery.

The National Jewels Museum, is a must-see with exhibits dating as far
back as 500 years. It is heavily guarded and even touching the glass
cases is likely to set off a piercing alarm. Photography is not

The main attractions include a throne encrusted with 26,733 gems,
crowns worn by the last Shah and his wife Farah Diba in the coronation
of 1967 and a 34kg Globe of Jewels made in 1869 and using 51,366
precious stones.

My third day took me to the Sa’d Abad Museum and Niyavaran Palaces,
both former residences of the last Shah.

Sa’d Abad has 54 rooms and you get to see the private quarters and
banqueting and ceremonial halls for visiting dignitaries and

Outside is a giant pair of bronze feet, all that remains of a statue
of Reza Shah cut down during the revolution.

The Niyavaran Palace is now split into four museums. The best was the
Sahebqerameh Palace or King’s Special Office, which houses a
collection of paintings, photographs and calligraphy, a teahouse and
even private dental surgery facilities.

My final day in Tehran took me down to the Holy Shrine of Imam
Khomeini and the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery. The shrine is the resting
place of Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989.

It was an incredible experience being in a vast room and the hundreds
who pay their respects to the founder of the Islamic Republic.

The huge Behesht-e-Zahra Cemetery is a sad place and it is estimated
about 200,000 soldiers are buried here, killed during the Iran-Iraq


My next stop was the holy city of Qom, a religious centre with many
clerics and scholars. My hotel, the Kowsar Hotel, at $13 per night,
was located opposite the Hazrat-e-Masumeh shrine, the burial place of
Fatemeh (sister of Imam Reza) with its magnificent dome and minarets.

Many people visit the shrine each day but non-Moslems are not
permitted. The next morning I visited Khan-e-Khomeini, which was the
former residence of Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1960s.

A very modest dwelling, I felt overwhelmed and privileged to be able
to go inside this place with all the history behind it.


I arrived next in Esfahan, one of Islam’s great cities and one of
Iran’s jewels.

For an amazing $15 per night, I stayed at the Aria Hotel near the city
centre and barely five minutes walk from the Imam Khomeini or
Naghsh-e-Jahan Square. At 5,200 feet above sea level, it was very
cold at the time.

Chahar Bagh (four gardens) is the main street originating from 1597
and once lined with many palaces. One of the main features of the city
is the River Zayandeh and its 11 bridges, five of which are

The next day would be spent exploring the old bridges which would take
up most of the time.

A second day of walking took me to the Safavid era Hakim mosque, which
has a portal dating back to the 10th Century.

It’s easy to get lost in the older part of the city with all its
restored old houses in the narrow lanes and in the same area is the
Bazar-e-Bozorg or Great Bazaar, one of Iran’s biggest and built in the
16th century.

A number of shrines are in the bazaar area, one dedicated to
Emamzadeh-y-Jaafar and another to Emamzadeh-ye-Ismail and the
Mausole-um of Harun Vilyat.

One of the most visible sights is the towering 48m high brick minaret
of the Ali Mosque which soars 48m into the sky.

My third full day began with a tour of the Jameh (Friday) mosque
dating back to the 11th Century.

It is also one of the largest mosques in Iran, even surviving bomb
damage during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Another mosque is the Manar
Jomban (Shaking Minarets) about seven kilometres outside the city.
They truly do shake! Every half hour visitors see a demonstration by
the Official Minaret Shaker and it does look to the eye that they
move. Sitting on the low wall you can definitely feel the
vibrations. It is an amazing experience.

Esfahan also has an Armenian quarter called Jolfa, established in the
early part of the 17th century, where you can find 13 churches today.

Vank Cathedral, established in 1606, is decorated with themes from the
old and new testaments. lt also houses more than 700 handwritten books
on display, a section on Armenian culture and religion, a memorial to
the 1915 Armenian genocide and even a small drawing by Rembrandt.

A good way to wind down after a day of exploring is to try the local
Qalyan (sheesha) at a teahouse and admire the view of the square.

Other attractions include the Chehel Sotun Palace, Natural History
Museum, Hesht Behesht Palace and the Madraseh-ye-Chahar Bagh
Theological School and Esfahan’s most expensive hotel the Abbasi.

On the way to Yazd more than 400 kilometres away, I passed through the
geographical centre of Iran at the town of Na’in. It is a carpet
centre and has a 10th century Jameh Mosque.

Next Friday, we travel to Yazd and Shiraz.