When my aunt and uncle asked if I’d like to join them on their trip to Iran – I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve always been fascinated with Iran, it’s famous tiled architecture, literature and of course the bad press it gets on TV: the land of “conservatives”, “oppressed” women and anti-Americanisms. Wouldn’t that peak your interest at least a little bit?
Apparently, it didn’t to most. When I told people I was going to Iran I was met with numerous blank stares and questions of why? What’s there to see? Is it safe? Aren’t they at war? Are you sure you’re going there? I was surprised no one asked me about the fatwa against Rushdie while they were at it.
Ancient ruins of Persepolis
I can’t blame them though. A combination of the bad publicity Iran gets coupled with the inherent fear of the unknown plus ignorance influenced some of these questions. Most people only know Iran from what they see on TV, which is truly unfortunate. Iran is a land rich in history. Its pre-Islamic history dates back to the Achaemenid Empire in 500BC and the magnificence of this empire is evident from the ruins of Persepolis. The majesty of Persepolis with its high columns, intricate carvings and sculptures could easily rival with those of Greece, Rome, Egypt and the like. It is a must see for history junkies and it’s also necessary to understand the roots of Persian beliefs and culture.
Interior of a section of the Jameh Mosque, Isfahan
Of course the Islamic history throughout Iran is equally remarkable. Most evident in the architecture – remnants of the Seljuks, Safavids, Qajar era are clustered across the country. My personal favourite illustration of this is in the Islamic architectural evolution that is the Jame’ Mosque of Isfahan.
The structure of the mosque constantly changed reflecting the ruling dynasty – as though each era was laying its claim in producing a resplendent masterpiece that incorporated over twelve centuries of architectural design.
Sand dunes of Varzaneh Desert
Not only rich in its history and architecture, its natural wonders will also astound you. The snow-capped mountains visible from Tehran will inform you that it does snow in the desert. The beautiful Maharloo Lake just outside of Shiraz gives an illusion that it’s pink due to the reflection of the surrounding mountains. The unassuming yet enchanting sand dunes of Varzane desert en route to Isfahan reminds you that one country can have such a diverse geographical terrain.
Zoroastrian eternal flame
And how diverse Iran is! Not only in its history and terrains but also in its people and its culture. Many assume that Iranians are all Muslims – Shia Muslims to be exact – and that other faiths are just non-existent or assimilated into the majority. How far from the truth this is. There are many Christians in Iran and yes there are Sunni Muslims as well. Even a Persian Jewish community exists. And of course Zoroastrians, the ancient religion is almost synonymous with pre-Islamic Persia. Still practiced in Iran today, Zoroastrians mainly inhabit the town of Yazd, where the fire temple housing the flame that has been burning for 1500 years is located. A visit to this fire temple is a must to gain a better understanding of the faith and its followers. It will also dispel the widespread belief that they are fire-worshippers (Zoroastrianism in essence is a monotheistic religion, worshipping an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God. Fire is believed to be holy but it is symbolic).
Iranian women relaxing at Shazdeh Gardens
A discussion around diversity in Iran would be incomplete without looking at the women of Iran. There is a dress code imposed, yes, but the variety of clothes and headscarves worn, the colours, the hair peeping out somewhat defiantly challenges the common Western perception of the “oppressed” women of Iran. Instead I saw many women confidently walking on the streets alone, frequenting roadside cafes, occupying everyday jobs. Many of the women that we spoke to throughout the trip were highly educated individuals, exhibiting much confidence in themselves and their identity: contrary to the word oppressed. Indeed I got an impression that women are highly regarded in the society, I did not experience any catcalling or harassment as I have previously experienced elsewhere. As a woman myself, I felt safe walking the streets of Iran at night, more so than I felt at home.
The broken mirrors of Shah Cheragh mausoleum
The diversity I saw in Iran from its history, culture, landscape and people made me question my own perceptions of the country. It brings me to what the guide to the Shah Cheragh mausoleum in Shiraz said. The grandeur design of the mausoleum was made up of broken mirrors pieced together, but because it was broken glass our reflections were distorted, incomplete. The guide went through the various reasons for this, but the one that struck me the most was that it gives the viewer a realisation that what we see isn’t always what it seems. Our perception does not equate to the truth.
This rationale behind the broken glass mirrors of the mausoleum extends beyond the spiritual – for me it exemplifies Iran as a whole; how it isn’t what we think it is. Perception is not always reality. What we perceive is influenced by what we read, what we see, whom we’ve met. Iran is a nation that needs to be experienced. Each individual’s experience of the country will differ and influence his/her impression of the land of course, but trust me, whatever preconceived notions you have of it will be challenged once you’ve been there.
Iran really is a treasure waiting to be discovered. Perhaps the draw is its enigma, its many undiscovered gems, its status as an off the beaten path travel destination. That is its charm. When you venture into a small town, people will keenly ask you where you’re from and despite the language barrier they will take your hand in theirs and with warmth welcome you to Iran, honoured that you chose to visit their nation. In that humbling moment you realise they aren’t just welcoming you to their country, they’re welcoming you to their home.
This article is written by Nadiah Adnan