"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book


Bridging the Persian Gulf

Blog | Jun 26, 2019

Persepolis by s1ingshot is licensed under CC BY 2.0

My new friend leaned down from the hole in the wall, smiling broadly. He seemed not to know the rule that Muslim men may not touch women outside their family as he reached out his hand and called: ‘Let me help you.’

He had started chatting to me as we scrambled up the short steep hill on the outskirts of the city of Yazd leading to one of the ‘towers of silence’, where followers of the Zoroastrian religion used to lay out their dead.

He was with three female relatives and a young Chinese man he had also befriended. ‘Welcome to Iran!’ he said. ‘I don’t trust what our media tells us about other countries being evil. I like to be friends with everyone!’

At the top of the hill we were faced with the sheer wall of the round tower. The only way in to see the platform where the bodies used to be picked clean by vultures (the practice was stopped fifty years ago) was through an opening about five feet up.

My friend scampered up the rudimentary footholds then helped the women in his party, who bunched up their chadors in front of them and nimbly swung themselves up on his outstretched hand. Then it was my turn to be hoisted, laughing, through the gap – this was ancient monument viewing, Iranian style.

To be fair, all later sightseeing was conducted in a sedate and conventional manner but our consistent experience wherever we went in Iran was the surprising, and thoroughly delightful, encounters we had with people. We sat on the edge of the pool in the orange-blossom-scented courtyard of a 17th- century madrassa, discussing the struggle between individualism and family duty with a mullah; we learned about the nation’s favourite poet, Hafez, from an enthusiast in the garden devoted to his memory; we chatted to a feisty 19-year-old girl who told us she intends to look into all the major religions and then pick the one that suits her best – this in a country where switching from Islam allegedly attracts the death penalty. Such chats – all initiated by Iranians – turned an interesting trip into something truly memorable.

We travelled with Persian Voyages, a company run by Nasrin, an Iranian-born woman working from her home in Surrey. We picked an 11-day trip taking in the major historical sights, and she fixed up hotels, drivers and terrific guides. After a couple of days my friend and I met up with some other tourists and then we were a group of eight.

A local engages one of our group in a discussion about Hafez

Our tour began in Tehran where we visited the Golestan Palace – home to shahs of the past, and stunningly decorated in mirror mosaics. A shah once ordered a shipload of mirrors from Venice but they arrived shattered, and thus a new art form was born. Just as interesting was people-watching in Northern Tehran – the commercial district and the hippest area in Iran. Many of the girls there wore tight-fitting tunics and trousers, full make-up and skimpy scarves almost slipping off the backs of their heads, only just conforming to the dress code. (It is the law in Iran that women have to wear loose clothes and a headscarf. You see some startling interpretations of the rule by Western women – a blood-red blanket sported by a substantial German Frau was a particularly arresting example. My friend and I acquired a couple of shalwar kameez with matching headscarves, which proved by far the coolest and most elegant solution.)

Our next stop was the medieval city of Yazd with houses made of mud and straw and a gorgeous 14th-century mosque covered in blue mosaics. Most memorably, we dropped in to a traditional gym where we found a group of boys performing a routine of exercises based on skills needed in battle, orchestrated by a lad sitting in a lighted booth, beating a drum and singing.

We were driven the five hours to Shiraz – you have to be prepared for some long road trips if you want to see the major sights – and from there spent a day at the fabulous ruins of Persepolis, heart of the sixth-century BC Persian empires of Darius and Xerxes. Because Iran gets few tourists there were no crowds and we were able to get very close to the wonderful bas reliefs which depict ambassadors from the 23 countries of the vast empire bringing gifts to the king.

In Shiraz itself we spent a lovely couple of hours in the garden at the Tomb of Hafez. It was heady with the scent of stocks and thronged with people strolling around reading from his poetry – it is said that every Iranian has his works on their shelves.

From Shiraz it was another long road trip to Isfahan where there were more stunning mosques and seventeenth- century painted palaces – but also shopping! We watched a world-renowned miniaturist at work, bought hand-woven silk carpets, and picked up some enamelwork in the vast bazaar.

Accommodation was in standard three-star hotels except in Isfahan, where we stayed in a traditional hotel with rooms grouped around a cool central courtyard.

I started the trip expecting to find Iran a grim, slightly scary place under the iron grip of the mullahs. What I discovered was Persia – a land of scented gardens, ancient empires, living poetry and proud, undaunted people who just want to reach out the hand of friendship.