Land of emperors and kings

Nasir Al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran, also known as Pink Mosque
Nasir Al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran, also known as Pink Mosque
Iran, an ancient land with a vibrant culture and absorbing history, is our next-door neighbour, but surprisingly, is not a popular holiday destination for most Pakistani tourists.

The fear that the US may not grant a visa to those who visit Iran keeps many travellers away.

Obtaining the visa was not a problem for us; the Iranian consulate in Karachi issued the papers within 48 hours. There are regular and convenient flights from Dubai to Tehran.

This city, surrounded by the snow-covered Alborz mountains, is picturesque but heavily populated; its most impressive tourist attractions are the Golestan Palace and the collection of Royal Jewels, which are securely housed in the basement of the National Bank of Iran.

On display is an assortment of bejewelled swords, crowns and exquisitely handcrafted jewellery from the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties. Nadir Shah’s Peacock Throne, which he brought back to Iran from India, the splendid crowns that the Shah and the Shahbano wore at the centenary celebrations of the Pehalvi dynasty at Persepolis in 1971, are a feast for the eyes.

News about Iran would have you believe that the country is on the brink of collapse.

We were therefore pleasantly surprised: Tehran airport is modern, and our domestic flights were always on time.

There was not even an hour of power failure.

We saw an occasional traffic policeman on the streets, but certainly no visible weapons nor any VIP motorcade. You know you are in a civilised and progressive country.

The older, conservative women wear the traditional black chador, but most young women dress in exquisite styles that match the haute couture of Fifth Avenue, New York.

The only binding stipulation is that women must wear headscarves: This is advertised ubiquitously with grim-looking ayatollahs glaring down from large billboards.

The fashion-conscious women grudgingly conform to this rule in letter, although not in spirit.

They would sooner doff their scarves and show off their beautiful coiffure.

Young women confided in us that they hate the dress restrictions imposed by the clerics.

The Iranians have not forgotten their martyrs of the 1980 war with Iraq. The main streets of the towns are lined with photographs of them affixed to lamp posts and on billboards.

Reza, our English-speaking driver-cum-guide, holds a Master’s degree in Persian history, and his vast knowledge about the Achaemenids, the Sassanids, the Safavids, the Shahs and the ayatollahs kept us engaged in lively discussions during long drives through the deserts connecting small and large towns.

Reza told us with a wink that the exquisite mosques we visit are actually meant for tourists; not many Iranians frequent them. English is hardly spoken here except in hotels, so we were relieved that Reza was with us to bargain with shopkeepers and whittle down the prices of souvenirs.

He explained the delicacies on offer in traditional restaurants where we sat on raised takhts.

There is more to the Iranian menu than Chillo Kebab and we were ever ready to try delectable Persian cuisine, washed down with a tumbler of mint lassi.

The most romantic city in Iran is, of course, Isfahan. It is called Nisf-i-Jahan, and indeed it is.

The fragrant gardens and fountains around the Chehel Sotun and Hasht Behesht palaces offer a blissful quiet broken only by birdsong.

A short, pleasant walk from our hotel was the Naqsh-e-Jahan Square. Here, around a large 400-year old maidan are the exquisite Safavid mosques built by Shah Abbas.

I was smitten by the city and am considering applying for permission to move here!

Iran is definitely not isolated from the world; it is, indeed, very popular with international tourists. In our hotel, we met Europeans who were not deterred by economic sanctions.

In fact, the devalued Iranian rial makes travel in Iran quite affordable.

Persia is the home of legendary poets and philosophers. The works of Hafiz Shirazi, Saadi, Rumi, Firdausi, Omar Khayyam and even Allama Iqbal (known here as Iqbal Lahori) are abundantly displayed in bookshops and hotel lobbies.

To offer our tribute to the poets, we travelled to Shiraz and visited the mausoleums of Hafiz and Saadi. For most Iranians, Hafiz is not merely a poet; they believe his poetry transcends the mundane, and they often use it for faal, to guide them in making important decisions.

Just a few miles from Shiraz is Persepolis, the once-glamorous city built by King Darius of the Achaemenid period, and destroyed by Alexander the Great.

Nearby are the Royal Tombs, at Naqsh-i-Rustom although the burial site of Cyrus, the most celebrated king of ancient Persia, is in Pasargade.

Iran, a vast country, is veritably a museum of Zoroastrian and Islamic dynasties, of marauding nomads, and Sufis and saints.

They have left behind indelible imprints of their cultures and languages, which still resonate across Iran.

Two thousand years of history flash by us in a blink.

Iftikhar Salahuddin | Tehran

(The writer is the author of Jerusalem-A Journey Back in Time)

Published on The Statesman