After a 3,300-kilometer drive through the Zagros Mountains of Iran (ascending close to 3000 meters in parts), we descended on Isfahan, Iran’s legendary city of history, art and culture. It flourished in the 15th to 17th centuries during the Safavid Dynasty whose most prominent and influential king was Shah (Persian for King) Abbas the Great who made it the capital.
Isfahan was a city long before the Medes, the Parthians and the Persians ruled the area after the Elamites, the Babylonians and the Assyrians. This is how long Isfahan has been a part of history and how much the mix of cultures had been intrinsic to it.
Pottery, hand-painted tiles, miniature paintings, carpets, urban institutions like squares and mosques, Persian gardens, poets and poetry were what made Isfahan famous to the West, in Europe, as well as the East, as far as China. Textiles, jewelry, religious scholarships were parts of Isfahan, as well as migrants from Armenia, Chinese potters “imported” to enhance its pottery industry. Peoples of Central Asia like the Mongols and Timurids (led by Tamerlane) were also “swept in” as invaders.
Eventually the Safavid Dynasty was replaced and Isfahan went into physical decline. Many beautiful buildings known for their architecture and decoration were destroyed and the populace demoralized by uncaring, violent invaders. But like the phoenix, Isfahan revived and in the 19th century became a traveler’s destination. The Pahlavi Dynasty among others rebuilt many of its architectural masterpieces, others that still existed were brought back to their former glory and many travelers wrote glowing accounts of its setting, its craftsmen and its way of life.
Today, Iran has a cultural heritage ministry that takes care of about one million historic sites and sees to it that guides and tourist personnel are well-trained. We came across French, Italian, Spanish, German, British, and Chinese tourist groups with Iranian guides speaking the language of each nationality.
Isfahan today is an icon of Iranian urbanity. One’s breath is taken away upon arrival by its broad and leafy boulevards lined with plane trees. The royal gardens of Shah Abbas are lovely parks of greenery, statuary, water in vast spaces with fountains and walks including a palace, Al Qapo, with its mirror decoration, woodcarvings and paintings. Nearby is a 16th century double-tiered bridge made of brick with arches across a now dry riverbed (water has been diverted to a dam) and another earlier bridge much less elaborate but still operational over the same river. Both are engineering marvels and aesthetic masterpieces.
Isfahan has the second biggest city square in the world, Iman Square, which is just slightly smaller than Tiananmen in Beijing. The square has an integral 16th century structure around it and kept as is, eschewing commercial signs or anything interfering with its design despite being used as a store where textiles, copper painted vessels, miniature paintings, turquoise and other semi-precious stone jewelry aside from gold and silver, pottery are sold.
Aside from the crafts stores there are the architecturally important mosques in two areas of the square with domes, hand-painted tiles, mosaics, courtyards and gardens. It is a designated Unesco Heritage Site.
In Iran for three weeks, the menu was lamb and chicken kebabs (minced or whole) served with Iranian rice sprinkled with saffron or toasted into saffron rice cakes. Iranian saffron is world-renowned and considered the best. They use it for everything, in sugar crystals and even saffron ice cream. Iran also has delicious yogurt (plain, with cucumbers or shallots) served in every meal including breakfast. Every meal starts with salad – lettuce, tomato, red cabbage, pickles, olives, shredded carrots, cucumber and tomato mix and a tasty eggplant mash with tomatoes. It is very much a Mediterranean diet with unleavened bread coming in waffle-like shapes.
Aside from kebabs, there were chicken and lamb stews with plums, barberries (a delicious small red berry that is sweet and sour), pomegranate seeds and walnuts. Barley soup is a staple, sometimes partnered with lentil soup. Persian melons and watermelons as well as pistachios, walnuts, figs were abundant.
There was no alcohol but lots of non-alcoholic beer brands along with the usual soft drinks. On plane rides, even of 35 minutes, (Isfahan to Tehran), full meals are served.
We were billeted in the Abbasi Hotel in Isfahan. The hotel has a beautiful garden full of apple, citrus, pomegranate trees laden with fruit, a place to be in at tea time when the sun sets and the moon (at the time of our stay, just a sliver) rises with a dome of a mosque nearby juxtaposed in the sky. It was dreamlike.
In sum, Iran is the biggest country in the Middle East (about 1.6 million plus square meters) which has created and nurtured some of the world’s oldest cultures, making it truly a cradle of civilization. From wars, religions, trade and migrations, it has never been isolated but always been part of the equation of geopolitical, religious, social, cultural and human history. It is, therefore, worth knowing and experiencing.
I went to Iran when the opportunity came to be a friendly tourist because my youngest son who had been to Iran as a journalist invited by the Iranian government to an international conference about five years ago, had come back with tales of a friendly, hospitable people and a starkly beautiful country that had one of the earliest civilizations. As a tourist and a guest I respected their values and their singular identity just as they reciprocated with mine. I highly recommend a visit to Iran.