Diyarkbakır and Hasankeyf. Mardin and Midyat. Şanlıurfa and İstanbul. I did a lot of touring in March. Two more cities, this time in Iran. Tehran and Kerman. Not only was being in Iran different but being on a tour was different for me. I’m used to going wherever I want, doing whatever seems interesting at the moment. Sometimes with a tour you have far too little time in a place that seems particularly fun and interesting (like the Grand Bazaar in Kerman) and sometimes you wonder why you even bothered stopping (like the Cinema Museum in Tehran). Overall, I adjusted to being with a group and on a tour more easily than I expected.
As I was reminded in Mardin, a guide can make a huge difference. Our guide in Iran, Ali, was super. I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone who could talk so knowledgeably about so many different topics — and all in his second language: the layout of Persian gardens, the design of Iranian markets (bazaars), dome and squinch architecture, geology, qanat construction techniques, … The list went on and on.
Everyone on our tour was from the US. In order for US citizens to get a visa for Iran we’re required to be on a tour. Without this magic tour number I had previously applied three times unsuccessfully for an Iranian visa. In Iran we were somewhat restricted with regard to where we were allowed to go and what we were allowed to do, mostly manifested in needing Ali’s permission to do anything without our group. However, our first evening in Tehran we had some free time to walk to Laleh Park (Tulip Park, just like in Turkish) near our hotel.
Megan and I quickly took advantage of this opportunity, made a wrong turn when leaving our hotel, and found ourselves in Meydan-e Felestin (Palestinian Square) where we went in our first Iranian mosque. A man outside pointed out which door was for men and which for women since, of course, we can’t read Farsi which is written in Arabic script. Even Azeri, which I can understand, is written in Arabic script in Iran so I have no chance to read that either. There were three men in the mosque. One never took his eye off me and didn’t return my smile. I poked around, took some photos, and left to find Megan waiting for me outside.
At the nearby Daneshju Park I was surprised to see a young woman without a headscarf smoking a cigarette. She returned my smile. Women in Iran are required by law to wear headscarves, but many of them wear these scarves so far back on their heads that when they’re facing you, you don’t even realize they have a scarf on. And, as I understand it, women smoking a cigarette is also making a point, unfortunately at the expense of their health.
Curious about religious freedom in Iran, on Sunday evening Megan and I entered “St. Paul’s Church; Episcopal Church of Iran” (at the northern end of Hafez Street if I’m not mistaken). It was an ugly building that was probably used as a school during the week. We sat down in the back row and listened to the priest’s sermon in Farsi for a few minutes. There were perhaps 15 people in the congregation, dwarfed by the large room. When a latecomer showed up, we tried to sneak out. The newcomer addressed us loudly, and everyone turned around to look. So much for sneaking out. After determining our Farsi deficiency, the priest offered to give us a personal sermon in English. Not wanting to be late for dinner, we declined as politely as we could.
As far as tourist sites in Tehran, the highlight was the crown jewels. I certainly have never seen so many jewels before. There were separate displays for the rubies, emeralds, pearls, turquoise, diamonds. There were swords, daggers, thrones, and then literally piles of precious stones that hadn’t been set. Have you ever seen of bowlful of diamonds? The most memorable piece was a jeweled globe with 51,363 precious stones. Iran was made entirely of diamonds.
My favourite palace was the Golestan Palace with a room upstairs with brilliant light. If I remember correctly, it’s where Reza Pahlavi (the last Shah) was coronated. On another day we went to the Niavaran Palace in an area of pleasant greenery in North Tehran where the Shah spent his last years in Iran until his exile in 1979. The rooms for his children were in the nearby Ahmad Shahi Pavillion. What surprised me there was how the rooms looked just like children’s rooms in the 1970s in California, complete with model airplanes and stuffed animals.
Tehran on the outside, however, is unending ugliness, mad murals, and engaging locals. After three days I was happy to get out of there for our evening flight to Kerman, known for its huge bazaar and former public bath houses. The famous adobe citadel at Bam has still not fully recovered from the 2003 earthquake so we visited a much smaller one at Rayen instead. Next stop was a slightly flooded Persian garden which we enjoyed in the rain. And not far away in Mahan I was impressed by the Shah Nematollah Vali Shrine. Nematollah’s a 14th century Sufi mystic with a contemporary cult following.
It’s this type of Islamic architecture that gets me excited, and we saw more the next day at the Friday Mosque in Kerman’s bazaar district.
Like Atatürk in Turkey you see Khomeini everywhere you go in Iran.