By Nick Rowan
Originally published in 2006, this article won the Thesiger Prize in 2007, and reflects on my time in Iran, which ended up being my favourite country along the Silk Road that I travelled at the time, despite international reports having you believe it was the "axis of evil". Nothing could be further from the truth on the ground...
It was with some trepidation that I approached the Iranian frontier from the small Turkish border town of Dogubeyazit. The seeds of war were seemingly being sown as the row over Iran’s nuclear programme intensified. I had been warned. The news that morning had shown damning reports of the programme and the world was frighteningly poised to act. Friends and family questioned my imprudent attitude, warning me that by going to Iran all I was doing was putting myself unnecessarily at risk. I pressed on nonetheless.
2000 years ago, the Silk Road passed through the largely inhospitable Persian territories. Ordinary traders risked their lives to bring luxurious goods, such as Chinese silk and Indian spices, across the barren yet daunting Pamir peaks and then headed through the territories of present day Iran on the last stage of their journey towards the West. The Persian influence on this trade made it a country of huge strategic importance. Today Iran is still placed at the crossroads of commerce between East and West, only this time the goods are not silks and spices but oil and gas.
In much the same vein as the merchants of the past, I was slowly heading east towards China and Iran was to be the seventh country of twelve that I would eventually have to traverse during my own Silk Road journey. I crossed the border effortlessly and was warmly greeted by a young, sprightly man from the Iran Tourist Office. Thrilled to see a foreigner, and keen to practice his English, he managed to detain me a further hour before I was set free into a sea of black chadors worn by women in accordance with the Islamic law that governs the country. A combination of luck and dogged determination sent me to the Maku bus station and within minutes I was on a decrepit bus slowly heading for the former Silk Road town of Tabriz.
Of all the negative media and political reports one gets in the West of how dangerous Iran is, not one mentioned the biggest danger you face here - the traffic. Some horrendously high figure (21,000 last year) is given as to the number of people killed in road traffic accidents each year. The early signs weren’t positive: My bus driver seemed more interested in drinking tea and talking to me that actually watching the road.
The recent tension could be felt around the city and, as I walked through the enormous bazaar, the gold merchants were trading hard. As is tradition in hard times, the locals were depositing their savings into gold nuggets, considered to be much safer than leaving it in the bank.
I walked around the narrow alleyways brimming at every point with shops selling carpets, jewellery, clothes, stationery, meats, spices and pretty much anything you could want. For centuries such bazaars had been powerful centres in the city where Silk Road traders could gather and sell their wares. The wonderful architecture, smells and noises easily take you back to those days. People seemed bemused to find a lost foreigner wandering alone and were immediately inquisitive, but open and friendly. Despite the language barrier, I was led here and there, offered tea and coffee and introduced to almost everyone.
The bazaar is as old as the city itself and although rebuilt in the 15th century has been in existence for over a thousand years. Marco Polo visited it on his travels and, as Tabriz was located en route for the trade caravans arriving from the east and west along the Silk Road, it became a focal point for the exchange of Asian and European goods. At one point up to 22 caravanserais surrounded the bazaar equipped to receive and provide for arriving merchants.
My next stop was a 24 hour bus journey away, to the south in Shiraz. This southern corner of Iran, once famous for its wine-producing grape is also home to the legendary city of Persepolis, built by Darius I in 512 BC as his summer capital. Sadly not much remains of its once dominating architecture. A few marbled columns still protrude from the dusty earth, but given the length of time this city has stood, it’s an amazing and enduring testament.
Later that evening I hadn't walked more than 10 minutes when a group of young Tehrani engineers on holiday approached me wanting to practice their English. Having nothing better to do, I was happy to oblige. An hour later, they decided that I should go with them and continue to see Shiraz's sights. It was getting late by now and I wondered how much sight seeing we might actually be able to do.
In a country where the words "night life" hardly exist and the idea of a disco is unthinkable, what life exists after dark is to be found in a city's monuments. I was taken on a whistlestop tour of 6 different mausoleums, museums and statues. Each person wanted to share their knowledge and educate me about Iran's remarkably cultured and diverse past. We spent the evening sitting in the various monuments, quoting the revered Iranian poet Hafez, singing songs and eating ice cream whilst meeting the local girls under the cover of darkness. Finally we headed back to one of their friend’s houses for supper.
It was another horrendously early start as I made my way, sleepily, to the main bus station to catch the bus to Yazd. The buildings changed from modern styles to lower level mud-brick houses, blending into the desert scenery. It was only a seven hour journey, but it was hot, sweaty and generally uncomfortable. We sauntered along the way through countless villages, with the dusty desert surroundings broken only by the occasionally dry tree or shrub. We passed several ruined buildings, clearly former Silk Road caravanserais, and arrived in Yazd by lunchtime.
I’d hardly deposited my bags at the hotel before I was off to wander the ancient, narrow lanes of Yazd’s old town. It was like going back several hundred years to a forgotten city. Low-level mud-brick buildings closed in on you from every side and I quickly became lost in the never-ending maze of alleys. Occasionally a blue-tiled mosque would appear with majolica tile-work so fine that you wondered if it was a mirage. No matter how many of these I saw in Iran, I would marvel at every one’s beauty and magnificent architecture. By now I had gotten totally and utterly lost. A few children approached me and offered to show me the way back to my hotel, but only after a game of football in the dusty streets. Heavily outnumbered I agreed and lost. With Iran heading to Germany for the world cup football had become a useful language to speak here.
Yazd is, quite simply, one of the most charming cities in Iran. Its uncomplicated and relaxed atmosphere is contagious. Walking in the street gets a mixture of confused and helpful faces coming up to talk to you. Here Iranian hospitality was at its best, I never had to walk far before a local would come up to me, ask me where I was heading and then take me there even if it was several kilometres out of his way. I felt so at home here that sitting in my hotel’s courtyard with a cup or tea and a water pipe became an obsessive evening habit before meeting up again with some new Iranian friends I’d made earlier that day.
Yazd also plays host to one of the largest communities of Zoroastrian worshippers. Dotted in the desert around the city one finds an enormous collection of Zoroastrian relics from Towers of Silence, where the dead were placed as part of the funeral ceremony, to fire temples in the rocks at Chak Chak. It was a religion that I knew little about before visiting Iran, but whose influences along the Silk Road are astoundingly still seen today in the architecture, art and customs of the nearby countries.
The harsh desert climate would have been formidable to traders of the past and throughout the surrounding desert crumbling caravanserais can be seen as a reminder of its past prominence. Nearby the now almost dead village of Kharanaq, built up around an ancient Silk Road caravanserai, sits with its mud walls lamentably disappearing into dust. Presently only two families remain and while the people of the past may have moved into the towns and cities, the physical remains of the past linger on resolutely.
If there is one place you have to see in Iran, it is Isfahan. Not only does it have some of Iran’s most spectacular monuments including the Jameh Mosque and Imam Square, but its tree-lined boulevards are a seductive invitation to stroll around and soak up the atmosphere. Except for the noisy traffic you could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking you were in Paris.
It was Friday, the Iranian weekend, and annoyingly everything was closed so I wondered how to fill my day. Almost as soon as I had walked out of my hotel a rather unusual cry of "monsieur" stopped me. It was the first French spoken by an Iranian that I had heard and I was immediately intrigued. He introduced himself as Ali and insisted on taking me to lunch at the local restaurant and then showing me a few of the sights. We toured the spectacular bazaar, strolled along the river bank, visited the Armenian Orthodox quarter, bought a carpet and took several cups of tea along the way before finishing up at the Zou Khaneh (House of Strength) where a session of this ancient Iranian sport, of Sufi origin, was underway. A rather large man sat on a throne overlooking a depressed pit and read famous Iranian poems to the beat of his drum whilst several men performed acts to show off their strength to the rather small crowd of local men who had gathered (This is a men-only sport and women are forbidden from watching).
My last few days in this incredible country were spent exploring Kashan and Qazvin, also Silk Road towns, in northern Iran. Some 75km away from Kashan lies the tiny ochre-coloured village of Abyaneh. I hired a taxi for the drive through barren, yet stunning desert mountain scenery. About 40km from Kashan we came to a 5km stretch of road on which cars were not allowed to park and there were signs indicating that one wasn't permitted to take photographs. Before I had a chance to ask my driver, Mr Reza, why, we rounded a corner and it became immediately clear. This was a military zone and anti-aircraft guns were mounted on the top of small mounds while soldiers patrolled the grounds beneath. We passed the main entrance gate to this complex and I caught a glimpse of the buildings and a rather large and tall tower. It was clear that heavy construction was taking place as the lorry in front, loaded with metal girders, turned off into the site.
"Nuclear energy programme", Mr Reza pointed out, taking his eyes of the road and looking at me with a knowing smile.
"But where's the reactor building", I replied, expecting to see the typical domed building that accompanies nuclear power plants.
"Underground", Mr Reza answered and, with an ever broadening smile, decided it was time to look back at the road again. The world’s political events had suddenly returned to the forefront of my mind. By now I’d completely forgotten that I was in the country that was the centre of worldwide attention.
Back in Kashan I stopped off at the bazaar to climb the roof and watch a rather disappointing sunset. Up on the roof I met a 16 year old boy, Mohamed, who was trying to fix the air conditioning vent for his shop with his father. He spoke a little English and with a combination of actions and pointing I understood that I was to be invited to their house for supper. I refused a couple of times as I have now become used to, but they insisted, so I accepted. They lived not far from the bazaar in an apartment with Mohamed's aunt. His sister had prepared Fesenjun, my favourite Iranian food, with another delicious, but unpronounceable, dish. At home I saw the remarkable change between Iran’s public and private life. Here Mohamed’s mother ruled the house and did so without any trace of the chador that so faithfully covers her up in public. It was a completely different side to see and once again I had been shown such hospitality by complete strangers. After several cups of tea, the equivalent to after dinner Port I suppose, I decided that it was time to leave. In many ways their hospitality made me feel inexplicably uncomfortable. I left them the only gift I had, a photo of me which I signed and dated. They seemed thrilled by the gesture, but I felt guilty that I could not offer more.
By now my visa was expiring and time didn’t allow me to get much of a glimpse of the bustling capital, Tehran. Brief as my time was, it had been enough of a taste to want to see and discover more of this country’s heritage and people. I had misunderstood Iran before my visit. I had thought of it as a faraway country where Koran-wielding and beard sporting men shouted, “death to America” at every opportunity. But now I struggle to understand how a country so beautiful, rich, refined and welcoming has acquired such a bad reputation. As I write these final lines, the leaders of the world are still debating whether or not to punish Iran. It’s a difficult situation, but hopefully common sense will prevail and ensure that the wonderful people who took me into their homes as a friend don’t suffer from our ignorance or rash thinking.
Iran was the 7th country that I visited during a personal research trip along the modern Silk Road. The journey took place from March until September 2006. It took me 10,000 miles from Venice, Italy through Eastern Europe, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and ended in Xi’an, China across some of the world’s most rugged and inhospitable places. Whilst the scenery was stunning, ultimately it was the kindness and hospitality of hundreds of people I met along the way ended up making it one of the most rewarding experiences.
19th September 2006