Modern Iran can provide a desert adventure with a real difference. Nick Smith spent a fortnight driving across old Persia, soaking up the ruins, mosques and bazaars
My first encounter with Iran was reading Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, a classic that for many still defines the romance of Persia. Byron travelled to that most famous of ruined desert cities – Persepolis – and described in minute architectural detail the splendours of Iran’s great mosques in Esfahan and Yazd. Oxiana has proved so enduringly popular that Iran has become an imperative for the adventurous traveller. Anyone wishing to sample the splendours that await should pay a visit to the British Museum’s current exhibition Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran.
As a destination Iran can match the grand scale archaeology of ancient Egypt or Jordan, the souks and bazaars of Morocco or Tunisia, or the deserts of northern Africa. And yet, unlike these tried and tested destinations, Iran is blissfully free of package tourists. You will often find that you have archaeological sites all to yourself. Sadly too many people are put off travelling through this exquisite country because of concerns over safety.
My tour of Iran started before I even got to Heathrow. As I packed I listened to Radio 4’s Excess Baggage where John McCarthy discussed Iran with Amelia Stewart of Simoon Travel, a specialist in the region. We’ve all got the wrong idea, said Amelia. These days Iran is safe for everyone. Even women? Especially women. It’s always a good idea to check the Foreign Office ‘travel advisories’ before going anywhere further afield than Spain, but there’s hardly ever any need for special caution when it comes to Iran.
By pure coincidence Amelia was to be my guide for my fortnight in Iran. We met at Tehran before flying south to Shiraz to begin our winding journey across the high salt deserts of old Persia. This ancient Iranian capital city, despite its name, no longer exports fruity red wines, but is now famous for its serene rose gardens, the imposing architecture of the Regent’s Mosque and for being home to the tombs of the great Persian poets Hafiz and Sa’di. Most tours of Iran start in Shiraz because of its proximity to Persepolis, the ruined summer capital of Darius the Great. The bas-reliefs of the procession of the tributary nations on the stairway of the Apandana are a glorious reminder of the achievements of the ancient world.
After Persepolis my tour moved to the tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam, one of the most important Achaemenian and Sasanian sites in the country. Four immense royal tombs have been hewn out of a sheer cliff face in a feat of civil engineering to rival the Pyramids at Giza. Opposite lies the Cube of Zoroaster, thought by archaeologists to be another royal tomb or fire temple. We visited more Zoroastrian sites in Yazd where a sacred flame has burned uninterrupted for 1,500 years. Just outside today’s modern city are the gruesome Towers of Silence where bodies of the dead were, until the 1970s, left exposed to the sky to be picked clean by vultures and crows.
Threading our way through the great mountainous expanse of the Dasht-e Lut desert we stopped for the night at a restored Silk Road caravanserai at Zeinoddin. Here we drank cups of tea sweetened with saffron sugar before experiencing Iranian cuisine in all its glory. A local dish called fesenjan, a type of bitter stew made with pomegranates and walnuts, is served with rice and slices of watermelon, dates, cherries, peaches and dried apples. It’s all washed down with doogh, a refreshing mint flavoured yoghurt drink.
All roads it seems lead to Isfahan, one of the great cities of the Islamic world and the capital of the founding father of modern Iran, Shah ‘Abbas. Isfahan’s Royal Square boasts the two most glorious mosques in Iran – those of Shaykh Lutfallah and Masjid-i Shah – as well as the magnificent Ali Qapu palace. For the souvenir hunter the labyrinthine bazaar sell carpets, silverware and antiques. Horse-drawn carriages take tourists on trips around the city, while side roads dotted with comfortable teahouses drift down to the river where herons and egrets fish at sunset by Isfahan’s famous bridges.
Travelling in the Islamic world requires some knowledge of the basic etiquette, but you might be surprised by how liberal day-to-day Iran can be. Iran – or Persia as you will end up calling it – is relaxed to the point of being laid back, and the people are the friendliest you will meet anywhere. Complete strangers will ply you with tea and invitations to their houses. The only thing a Westerner could ever possibly feel uncomfortable about is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the generosity of the local people.