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The ruins of Persepolis

I’d always wanted to visit Iran. It is one of the places India shares a deep connection with — dating back to the Indus Valley civilisation and beyond. Such shared history makes it a country that deserves to be explored thoroughly and with that agenda, we landed at the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, to get our passports stamped for a visa on arrival. Iran is one of the few countries to extend that privilege to Indian citizens.

We had two weeks in hand and every desire to see as much of the country as we could. The modus operandi was to explore through the day, travel through the night by bus, eat local food and exchange ideas with locals, staying with them wherever possible. When we hit the road, we had no idea what a life-altering trip this would turn out to be.

An Iranian point of view

Our journey began from Tehran, a modern, mature metropolis. The April days were beautiful, with a Darjeeling-in-summer kind of chill in the air. Our host was an electrical engineer who works for the Iranian government and loves interacting with travellers from the world over. He put in perspective the aspirations of the average Iranian — the desire to live a good life with family and friends. “Governments of all countries love America while their people don’t care too much for it. But the Iranian people love America while our government hates it,” he stated.

Half the world

An overnight bus from Tehran brought us to what would become our favourite place in Iran, the city of Isfahan. There is an old saying that goes, “Esfahan nesf-e-jahan ast” which means Isfahan is half the world. And as you step into Naqsh-e Jahan — one of the largest constructed town squares in the world — you begin to believe that. One of the many Unesco heritage sites in Iran, the square was built when Shah Abbas wanted to shift his capital to Isfahan in 1598. He wanted to be the most powerful Persian king, a tall order considering the long and glorious history of Persia. He started with building the Naqsh-e Jahan square, with the Shah mosque on one side to harness the power of the clerics and the Baazar-e-Buzurg on the other, to keep a control on trade and commerce. His Ali Qapu palace was right in the middle.

Isfahan offers you a whole lot, but you must do three things at least. The first is to check out the centuries-old bridges of Si--She, Khaju or Shahrestan where you can hang out with the locals and lend a voice to their songs. Next, walk through the super-cool Armenian quarter of New Julfa — where many Armenians in India came from, including our very own Arathoon Stephen (who built Grand Hotel and Stephen Court). Finally, climb the Sofeh mountain to share the Iranian passion for the great outdoors and make sure you give in to one more of their national passions besides tea — the qeyloon or hookah.

Where mountains wept

Our next stop was a city that my Parsi friends would kill to be at — Yazd, the hub of Zoroastrian culture. We stayed in a wonderful restored old mud-brick house now aptly named The Silk Road Hotel. They were so happy to host us, the people of Hind, that we were plied with gifts — Coke, cheese, yoghurt and more. Mud-bricks and plaster home, wind-catchers for ventilation, qanuts or water channels criss-crossing the city — it was wonderful to walk through Yazd and see how the quaint old city withstood the test of time to stay true to itself. The traditional, mouth-watering baghlavas (baklavas) of Yazd kept us going.

The next day brought us to Pir-e-Sabz — one of the holiest mountain shrines of Zoroastrians — also known as Chak Chak. Located on top of a mountain in the middle of the desert, this was a picturesque climb to the fire that legend says was ignited by Zoroaster himself. Zoroastrians believe that Nikbanou, the daughter of the last pre-Islamic ruler of Iran, was attacked by Arabic invaders at this spot and the mountains opened up to protect her. Chak Chak, which is Persian for drip-drip, is said to be a spring that stands for the tears the mountains shed in grief for Nikbanou.

Walking through history

Day 8 of our trip took us to the famed city of Shiraz. The days that followed were the most fascinating of our lives, steeped in the history of centuries, as we explored the Persepolis, Takht-e Soleyman, Naqsh-e Rustam, Tomb of Cyrus The Great, the ancient Kaaba of the Zoroastrians and much more. It was an eye-opener to see how beautifully these monuments are preserved. It was clear that the Iranians are not only aware of their past, they also make great efforts to preserve it. And each of these impeccably preserved heritage sites is open to travellers. We wrapped up our travels around Shiraz with a visit to the tomb of Hafez.

In the next few days, we saw old towns like Mayboud and Abyaneh, dating back to pre-Islamic Iran. Though in most ways, including the dress code for women, Islam has taken them over, but on the whole, contrary to popular perception, women in Iran are more liberated than in most places.

A way of life

We left with an insight into the people and how they live — how they love Bollywood and hence anybody who comes from ‘Hind’! How it is difficult to praise anything without being offered the object as a gift and how each and every citizen knows their history and is proud of their heritage. Love for outdoors — so much so that the unofficial national sport could be going for a picnic! — and endless cups of chai consumed through the day, or even the fact that the word ‘chelo’ in the national dish Chelo Kebab actually refers to rice.

Just like all great trips, we learnt and saw so much that we realised how little we know of the world and how much there is to explore. It was a trip that evoked Prophet Mohammad’s famous quote:

Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have travelled.”