We wake to the chirping of birds and the soft murmur of the water fountain in the courtyard outside. Pulling aside the tall curtains, sunlight streams into the room, illuminating the glittering chandelier and elegant patterns painted on the walls in gold, turquoise and chocolate brown. We watch a bird take an energetic morning bath in the courtyard pool before fluttering off above the deep pink roses into the trees.
We dress quickly, eager for the day ahead. We have treasures to see: many are Unesco World Heritage sites, including a building so beautiful it has been known to move visitors to tears. Then there are heavenly gardens and sumptuous palaces to stroll through and ancient bridges to cross, followed by hunting out antiques and exquisite handicrafts in row after row of boutiques.
Are we in Venice? Paris? Madrid? Far from it. We are in Esfahan, Iran.
But isn’t Iran dangerous?
Ask someone who’s been there and invariably they will describe this much-maligned country as one of the safest and friendliest they’ve ever visited. Strangers regularly stop you for a chat, offer snacks of dried cherries or nuts, and invite you home to lunch. While city walls are still emblazoned with giant anti-America and “Down with Israel” murals, the average Iranian will repeatedly assure you they love the West, and ask if you could please tell your friends and family back home that Iranians are very happy for them to visit. “That Iran is unsafe is an outdated notion, almost irrelevant,” says Jason Elliot, prize-winning British author of Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran.
“It’s far safer than many places I’ve been, safer than many places in Europe. I meet a lot of people who’ve been to Iran who are astonished at how modern it is. The West has been isolated from Iran; Iranians are not isolated from the West.”
Iran’s legacy of being unsafe for tourists dates back almost four decades to the violence of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when the US-backed Shah was ousted from power and the Islamic Republic was born. The new regime closed its doors to foreign intervention, the veil replaced the miniskirt, and Iran became one of the world’s most reviled nations. Over the decades, however, relations have thawed, and US- and Europe-imposed sanctions were lifted last year. Despite new tensions with the Trump administration in recent months, Iran remains committed to strengthening ties and building its tourism sector with both East and West. Visitor numbers are increasing fast.
The same cannot be said for other parts of the Middle East. Jordan, which is both spectacular and safe, and relied on tourism to bring in 20 per cent of its GDP, has recorded a 66 per cent drop in tourist numbers since 2011. The conflict in neighbouring Syria has created a widespread sense of unease about travelling to the region. The British Foreign Office travel advice states that there is “a high threat from terrorism” in Jordan. But the warning is the same also for Egypt, Germany and France. Jordan’s historical marvels, such as Petra, are today practically empty.
In Iran, too, many historical treasures off the classic Tehran-Esfahan-Shiraz-Yazd itinerary remain as yet largely unvisited by foreigners. This only adds to their captivating mystery. At the Choqa Zanbil ziggurat in western Iran’s Khuzestan province, the only other person you are likely to encounter is a 3,000-year-old child who left her footprint in the mud floor. This wonderful ziggurat, or stepped pyramid, in red brick imprinted with the world’s first alphabet, cuneiform, is the best-preserved example of Elamite architecture anywhere. It was built sometime in the 13th Century BC, and was “lost” for three millennia until it was rediscovered in 1935. It’s now a Unesco World Heritage site, one of many important sites in this part of Iran, a region that saw the rise of mankind’s first civilisations.
But if there’s a civilisation that Iran looks to as its progenitor, it’s the Achaemenids. Iranians trace their culture back 2,500 years to Cyrus the Great, who founded the biggest empire the world had ever seen. Cyrus’ Achaemenid Empire stretched from the Indus River to the Mediterranean Sea. Its influence extended as far as Athens, where many Athenians adopted parts of Persian culture as their own. Echoes of Persian culture can still be heard both east and west in food, language, art, architecture and philosophy today.
“Cyrus’ place in world history is assured by the empire he founded,” Elliot says. “But for Iranians it’s more than that: they speak of him with almost personal affection for the qualities he’s known for, such as benevolence and tolerance, to the extent it can be verified, and we do have records. Cyrus believed in the equality of sexes, and the respect of law. He is said to have known the names of all his soldiers, and planted trees with own hands in the gardens he had built. The Achaemenids respected the religions and laws of the countries they incurred, and they established an exceptional model of administration. They set the tone of Persian ideals of humaneness, culturally and artistically, too.”
As Elliot points out, the perfect example of how this earlier age still informs Iran today is the fact that the main holiday is Persian New Year, or Nowruz. It is a celebration that is not Muslim, but Zoroastrian, the religion of Achaemenid times.
The remains of Cyrus’ palace at Pasargadae is one of the key sites to attract visitors to Iran. Dating from 550BC, there’s not much left to see, and the site is lonely and windswept, but it does stir philosophical musings on the march of history and our place in it.
More famous than Pasargadae, however, is, of course, Persepolis. This ceremonial capital of the Achaemenids was built by a successor of Cyrus, Darius the Great. Alexander the Great, who admitted great respect for Cyrus, burned Persepolis to the ground in 330BC, but foundations, stairways, gateways and columns remain and give a convincing sense of the immense scale of the palace. Dominating the wide plain, and backed by a dry hill studded with the tombs of kings, this city of giant halls and ceremonial walkways must have inspired awe in Darius’ subjects.
Persepolis and Pasargadae might be Iran’s most famous historical monuments but there are other jaw-dropping sites more contemporary. Esfahan is often described as a living museum of art and culture.
“Most of the monuments in Esfahan date from the 1600s when Shah Abbas I moved his capital here from Qazvin in the north,” says Amir Haeri Mehrizi, who has guided foreign visitors through Iran for more than a decade. “This great Safavid ruler transformed Esfahan into one of the biggest and most beautiful cities of the 17th century.”
The central Naqsh-e Jahan Square, believed to be second only in size to the mainland’s Tiananmen Square, feels a lot like Florence with its water fountains, manicured gardens, and al fresco cafes topped with canvas awnings. A list of architectural jewels line the square, including the Ali Qapu palace, with its exquisite murals of pheasants and fawns and room constructed with acoustics ideal for music recitals.
The Imam Mosque – previously known as the Shah Mosque, and also known as the Blue Mosque – is immense and impressive, while the city’s captivating bazaar, which opens to one edge of the square, offers the country’s finest handicrafts, including delicate silver filigree, gorgeous Persian carpets, Khorasani turquoise jewellery, masterful textiles, and exquisite handpainted glass, wood and copper ornaments.
But it’s the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque that’s the crowning glory here. Small, but perfect, it’s interior dome really does take your breath away. Diamonds, swirls, and floral motifs move in exquisite symmetry ever upwards to the highest point of the dome. Ribbons of elongated calligraphy border a row of small, intricately carved windows high up that gleam with the light of the sun. Every inch of the interior is decorated in elegant patterns of royal blue, turquoise, yellow, white, black and green that work in immaculate harmony. If there ever was a building to inspire tears, or thoughts of a higher being in a dedicated atheist, this would be it.
As we step out of the mosque, humbled by the sublime beauty humankind can achieve, we are silent. It’s time for a cup of strong black tea and a sugary pastry in one of Esfahan’s charming tea houses. Passing young lovers holding hands and families picnicking in the square, we mull over all we have seen. Iran may be safe, but don’t expect to leave without your preconceptions dangerously challenged.
Getting to Iran
Many travel companies offer tours to Iran:
Burrows & Bird
This Hong Kong and London-based boutique travel company creates trips that offer a deeper understanding of Iran through interacting with local experts – be they artists, astronomers, botanists, historians, architects, or grandmother chefs. It offers set trips in spring and autumn limited to eight guests. It can also tailor-make private itineraries according to your interests and budget.
This large agency offers a range of trips to Iran, from nine to 24 days. The shorter trips take in the iconic sights while the longer itineraries offer more chance to get off the beaten track.
Abercrombie & Kent
Luxury travel specialists Abercrombie & Kent tailor-make trips to Iran or offer one set itinerary with a few departure dates through the year. The 15-night set departure includes Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahan, and Yazd as well as a stay in Ahwaz to see the ancient step pyramid of Choqa Zanbil.