I have been for more than a week traveling in Iran. I am overwhelmed by its geography, its long history and the friendliness and hospitality of the Iranian people. Truly this is the cradle of civilization as Iran has been called. Iran is a vast country bounded by many nations as its borders stretch to Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Syria and Iraq. For millennia, people and cultures have moved back and forth from these areas and Iran has been a crucible where environment and people have forged the Iranian identity through culture, the interaction of people with their environment. Iran is a country of mountains, its vast space is the Iranian Plateau where people first thought to have come from the Russian steppes settled and domesticated the horse and the dog, hunted and gathered, settled down to sedentary agriculture, evolved a script for writing and then went on to unite their tribes into one state, then one nation and finally an empire, the Persian Empire. It is a story dating back thousands of years, more than two thousand of recorded history.
The Iranian Museum of Archaeology in Tehran tells it all with its unique and vast collection of artifacts from prehistory to history — pottery, stone steles, seals and cylinders with script, columns from temples, weapons, precious metals and stones, mosaics, murals depicting worship, tributes to kings, victories in war. All of it housed in a building of exceptional architecture from the 1930s featuring the barrel vault, a signature architectural feature of Iran from historic times.
Tehran itself is a fascinating city surrounded by the high Elborz Mountains that stands over it so closely they appear as sheer cliffs that you can touch. The city is almost two cities – south and north. The south is where the international airport is about 30 kilometers and lots of traffic away from the north. It is also lower by more than a thousand meters and is surrounded by desert. North Tehran is greener and more modern and higher in altitude. But both are one city, fascinating to traverse with mosques, parks, monuments, expressways, murals on buildings and underpasses, as well as the pulsating commerce that seems everywhere as people bustle about living their life. Outstanding museums are the Reza Abbassi Museum of miniature paintings, a Persian art and its most famous master was Reza Abbassi. It also has a fantastic collection of ceramics and gold and other precious metal objects as well as illuminated scripts that probably started in the area before going on to Europe. The Middle East too is where glass first originated. Europe’s crusaders (a pejorative term then and now for intrusions into the Middle East in the past) discovered it and brought back its artisans or learned from them so they surfaced in Murano, Italy and eventually from there to Bohemia in Czech Republic. Then there is The Carpet Museum of Iran set in a Persian Garden, a modern building dating from the late 1970s with a varied collection of the classical Persian carpets dating from thousands of years exhibited in a building that enhances their size, their beauty and the intricate creativity and workmanship that is the tradition of a Persian carpet. The National Jewel Museum in the Iran Central Bank seemed to be the most popular with crowds of tourists lining up to see the fabulous collection of jewelry that must be incomparable. Aside from dishes, cups, swords, scepters and crowns encrusted with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and turquoise (an Iranian semi-precious stone), there were thrones, aigrettes and even pearls from the Persian Gulf. It was overwhelming, awesome, shocking even for its quantity and quality (bowls of rubies, emeralds and spinels as loose stones waiting for a setting were part of it). These were the artifacts, gifts, symbols of Empire but as the booklet on the museum thoughtfully said, “Every piece of this collection is a reflection of the tumultuous history of this great nation, and the result of the creativity and artistry of the residents of this land. Each piece recalls memories of bittersweet victories and defeats, of the pride and arrogance of rulers, who were powerful or weak.”
From Tehran, we travelled to the Caspian Sea, which is another Iranian geographical feature that has much to do with its culture — silk, caviar, forests.
Meanwhile, everywhere we go Iranians look and smile, ask where we are from and say welcome to our country, how can we help you, hope you enjoy your stay. The children try out their English with you – hello, how are you, welcome, thank you, goodbye. The chador-wearing women smile and point to the blue sky to say, “Look, what a nice day!” As I was struggling with my head scarf at the Gulestan Palace in Tehran (16th century), a woman spontaneously came up to me and helped me fold it securely, when I said ‘Thank you,” she gave me a kiss.
Until next week.