Before writing about surprises one finds traveling in Iran, I figure most of you are probably thinking, why travel there in the first place? That’s the question many of my friends asked. Iran was the epicenter of one the the greatest civilizations in history — the Persian Empire, which stretched from Europe’s Balkan Peninsula—in parts of what is present day Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine—to the Indus River Valley in northwest India and south to Egypt. It was a global hub of culture, religion, science, art and technology for more than 200 years before it fell to the invading armies of Alexander the Great. And then there’s a reason to go for those interested in present GeoPolitics in the Middle East, but more on that a little later.
Just a few of the highlights — Remains of that civilization include the World Heritage Site, Persepolis, the impressive ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE) built at the apogee of the Persian empire by Darius the Great. Then there’s the grand square of Isfahan, known as Shah Square, another world heritage site that dates from the Iranian Renaissance under the Safavid dynasty.
Constructed between 1598 and 1629,] it is surrounded by buildings including a mosque with breathtaking tiles, an exquisite palace and grand bazaar teeming with tempting silk carpets, copper kitchen ware to covet,
marquetry, and much more.
And then for anyone interested in geo politics in which Iran is a major player, it’s fascinating to see other realities from what we would imagine in the West. A visit literally breaks the stereotype. With that in mind, rather than this being a travel piece, I thought you’d enjoy some of the very surprising observations I and my very well traveled UK companions found most surprising.
From Shiraz and Yazd to Isfahan, Kashan and Tehran, we found Iranians welcoming, open, warm and friendly. They smile and laugh easily. There’s a parallel universe to that of the government.
There was little evidence of a police state, with no military and only traffic police in view, even at tourist sites. And we all felt safe.
Public services worked — streets were well paved with scarcely a pothole, highways well maintained, and surprisingly, we never saw garbage or litter anywhere.
All, and I mean all, women wore a hijab covering their heads, tunics or some facsimile, pants and long sleeved shirts to cover up. Tourists are obliged to follow this dress code as well, even in hotels. In eight days I saw one single Iranian woman who did not cover her hair. That being said, the fashion statement was made with colorful headscarves, shoes and handbags.They also spend a lot of time on makeup, emphasizing their large expressive eyes, and often sporting tattooed eyebrows. Very religious women of whom we saw few, wore all black chadors which are like robes, and even fewer also had the burka which covers the face.
Cosmetic surgery among women and men is big, especially nose jobs. You see the tell tale sloping noses everywhere. In fact, nose surgery is considered a status symbol among some, so much so that people are known to sport a plaster splint across their nose even when they didn’t have the surgery.
Iranians don’t call their food farm to table, but that’s what it is. Vegetables are delicious, often prepared with nuts and varied spices. There is fish, but most prevalent is lamb and chicken (pork isn’t allowed), made in uber tasty stews or most usually in mouth watering kebabs. Often used ingredients include spices — The common ingredients include cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, dried rose petals, coriander, black pepper, turmeric, dried limes, cloves and such; nuts; and pomegranate molasses. In fact, our favorite dish of the trip was grilled chicken that had been marinated in a sauce of pomegranate paste and crushed walnuts. And do they ever love sweets, most frequently made with sesame paste, honey and nuts in different variations.
The word Iranian and Persian are not synonymous. Iran is composed of different ethnic groups of which one is Persian. Others include Turkmen, Kurds, Baluchis, Lors, Azeris, Arabs and others.Though the country is predominantly Shiite Muslim, there are also Eastern Orthodox Christians and even Jews.
For those who don’t know, Iranians will make it clear that they are not Arabs, nor do they speak Arabic. They have their own language, Farsi,which is from the Indo-European branch of languages.
One of the biggest surprises, is that men and women seem to be more equal than I would have imagined. On the streets you see most of them walking side by side, some holding hands, and sharing the care of children (not the very religious ones). Women seem happy, behaving as you’d see them in any Western country.
Words used to compliment and criticize are often very telling in a culture. And so, when I asked my guide if people cursed and what was a terrible curse in Farsi. She replied saying the other person is “uncivilized”.
What was not a surprise was the large expanses of barren, undeveloped land between cities. This was among the signs of some facets of development having stopped in time due to Iran’s political isolation after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that brought Khomeini to power. Others included old housing and many older model cars.
Iran is definitely a place to put on your “to go” travel list. Just be prepared for an alcoholic detox (totally dry), maybe viewing it as an opportunity; being prepared to forget about being a fashionista, unless you can do it with a tunic and head covering (though save money on hairdressers); and in many tourist spots you’ll find latrines (no positive here in my book). Also, Americans, British and Canadians are not allowed to travel without a guide, Iran’s quid pro quo to our sanctions.
Turkish Airlines flies non stop from Miami to Istanbul which now has one of the world’s largest airports. There you catch a plane to Iran. I suggest combining Iran with a trip to Istanbul, a complement to better understanding that part of the world.
Thanks to our terrific guide Hanieh Bagherzadeh and fellow travel companions from Wild Frontiers International for their input in this post. This includes Sarah, Sue, Linda, Eliza, Luzia, Fiona, Teresa and Jim.
Any questions about Iran or Istanbul including how to get a visa? If so, go to Ask Karen and ask away!!!!