A Short Trip to Iran

I took the trip to Iran in June 2012 and wrote this piece afterwards. It was meant to be published somewhere else – but as it didn’t come to this, I will publish it here now:

When I planed a trip to Northeastern Turkey I decided I would like to go to Armenia as well. Although Turkey and Armenia share a border, it is closed due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Therefore, the only way to get to Armenia from Turkey is via Georgia or Iran. I had always wanted to go to the latter.

When I told my friends and family that I was considering going to Iran, most of them told me that I was downright crazy. But I wasn’t really so sure about that … mainly because no one could actually tell me why they thought it is dangerous to travel to Iran.

I kept thinking about what I knew about the country – and found out that I knew very little. I remembered some history (the Achaemenid Empire and the Greco-Persian wars, the Safavid Empire, the Iranian Revolution and the following Khomeini era); culture (the “Persian Lion”, stunning architecture like Persepolis or the Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Esfahan), famous poets like Hafiz and Rumi and excellent food; but also some controversial remarks by current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, of course, the nuclear program.

So I tried to fill in some of the gaps on Iranian history while also consulting some travel books and maps as well as the internet to find out more about the country and what was behind the negative image. I was especially surprised to learn about the strained relationship with the west, which has existed practically since the end of the Safavid Empire, which might explain today’s situation. But given Iran’s rhetoric towards Israel I was even more surprised to learn that the country is also home to a Jewish community which is officially recognized and even has a reserved seat in parliament. My curiosity piqued, I decided to stay in Tabriz, Iran for a couple of days.

Mount Ararat
Mount Ararat

Crossing over at the Bazargan border from Eastern Turkey, I hired a cab with a Turk and two French gentlemen who crossed the border with me. Together we rode the 300 km to Tabriz. After the border my first impression of Iran was the landscape. Though the majestic Mount Ararat was already looming over my latest destinations in Turkey, it was exiting to go around its slopes. We were traveling over mountainous landscapes, down to the desert and then back up until we finally reached Tabriz.

After parting from our French travel companions, I was introduced to a man from Tabriz by my Turkish friend who in turn introduced me to Iranian culture. The first thing I noticed was how modern the country is. You could find all the things that are advertised in Europe and America as well – from the newest flat screen TV to the latest smart phone. The coffee houses sold espresso and cappuccino and there were many restaurants serving hamburgers, spaghetti and pizza. It was quite a different experience from Eastern Turkey, which is more traditional.

The streets were busy with people shopping and meeting in coffee houses and many cars moving rapidly. Of all the things I encountered in Iran, the traffic was truly the only frightening thing. Although there are some zebra crossings (crosswalks), they seem to be for decoration only. Cars keep on driving and if you need to cross the road you just have to start walking when you see the first small opening. Soon you are standing in the middle of the road and the cars keep buzzing around you. You have to keep waiting for the next opening to get further until you finally get to the other side.

The people I met in Iran were some of the most friendly and helpful people I have ever encountered. After my Turkish friend continued his journey to Tehran, his Iranian friend introduced me to his family and friends who showed me the many sites of Tabriz. They also took me to wonderful restaurants, where one can sit outside and eat some fantastic kebabs while drinking a cool, refreshing Iranian beer. The beer is, of course, alcohol free. It is a kind of fruit flavored malt beer – and I can especially recommend pomegranate and lemon.

Another surprise was that the relationship between women and men was much more relaxed than I know it from Turkey where it was rare to encounter women at all. One time I went to a shop that sells CDs to buy some Iranian music and a woman costumer helped me choose some music and later invited me for a coffee – a scene that is nearly unimaginable in Turkey.

The Bazaar in Tabriz
The Bazaar in Tabriz

The early history of Tabriz is not yet very well known, but most likely the city dates back to the 7th century BC – and there are even archeological findings from older settlements. So of course, the city has a lot of sites to offer, most famously the largest covered Bazaar in the Middle East, which used to be one of the most important commercial centers along the silk route.

Another impressive site is Maqbarat-o-shoara (the Tomb of the Poets) which contains the graves of Tabriz’s most important poets, mystics and scientists. The building itself is one of the most impressive architecture I have ever seen. But also beautifully tilted mosques and old houses are there to be discovered.

Image
Maqbarat-o-shoara

Of all the museums in town, the Museum of Ostad Bohtouni was the most original. It contains Iranian dishes made of some kind of plastic.

The predominant language spoken in Tabriz is Azeri, though, like all over Iran, the official language is Farsi. Therefore, the local TV and radio stations broadcast in both languages. Other media like weekly magazines and newspapers are produced in both languages as well. Sadly I couldn’t take a closer look at the publications as I speak neither Azeri nor Farsi.

Overall, Tabriz presented itself as a lively and modern city with a far reaching cultural background.

Whatever preconceptions one has about the political situation of Iran from the press – I didn’t encounter any of that on my journey. Instead, in this wonderful city, Iran came across as an interesting country with very friendly and helpful people. It is a place I would like to return one day.

73 comments

  1. Wonderful article. The structure of the museum is a beautiful design.

    Thank you for visiting my blog today. I appreciate the time you took to stop by. May your day be filled with joy and peace.
    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

  2. This post is an excellent bridge-builder. Your insights as a traveller help the broader world see a side of Iran that is often missed in Western journalism.

  3. wonderful photos, I’d love a chance to tour Iran, but the way my country is towards them I dont see that happening anytime soon.

    • …yes, it is a great place to visit – and I would really like to explore further places there.

      I think if you can get a visa, it wouldn’t be a problem – however, I am not sure how easy it is to get one now, that the sanctions go further and further…

  4. hi, this is a terrific piece, and helps to de-mystify a country we all think we know something about and probably know very little about. A friend of mine was there about 12-13 years ago and i’ve always been a little jealous of that fact. He said that, apart from Tehran, the other main cities were very nice, in fact very elegant, and full of nice architecture. It’s also of course one of, if not the, oldest civilisation on earth. I’d really love to go one day. Anyway, great piece- thanks for posting. Arran.

    • Yes, after I read about the country and also visited it I think there also is a great deal of mis-communication involved – and I think that a lot of problems result from colonial politics (as they still do in other parts of the world)…
      …on a personal level it was a great trip – that also showed that (at least western media) doesn’t tell you the whole truth.
      But the world is not black and white, like a lot of people would like you make to believe.

      Thanks for the compliment.

      Greetings,
      rabirius.

  5. Iran’s been on my list for a LONG time now. I really want to go there. Nice to read up on your travels there. I guess everyone says that Iranians are among the friendliest people they’ve ever met!

  6. I cross several time the Barzagan border decade ago and always wanted to go back. I remenber the little town few kilometers from the border call Zanjan (My dear wife – In Persian). People in Iran were very friendly. Beautiful people with a great history. I enjoyed reading your blog, Thanks.

  7. Istanbul is the closest I’ve been to the Middle East, and Iran has always been on my list. As an American, of course, we are not supposed to do business with them (they are on our official trade embargo list), but its always made me sad that Iran and similar nations get such a horrible world reputation because of the actions of a select few. It warms my heart to know that your brief experience was so nice.

    • Thank you very much…
      …yes, probably it is some understanding that is missing.

      If you’ve been to Istanbul – to be the city still feels very cosmopolitain and European. But you can travel deeper into Turkey and have totally different experiences. I can especially recommend the South East – where most places have their own special atmosphere. In my “Text” section you will also find some pieces about Eastern Turkey: https://rabirius.wordpress.com/category/text/

      Greetings,
      rabirius.

  8. Thank you for this article! It just goes to show that what the world listens from the “official” lips and media, are blown out of porposion, to say the list. Last year a fellow worker from Pakistan told me the best things about Iran. The oil money are going back to the people of the country, in every form imaginable, food, education, health, technology etc. Not like other countries that have sold out their resources to big corporations, for the few to enjoy.
    I will wait for your next articles from Armenia and Georgia!

    • You’re welcome.

      A curious thing I noticed here in Europe is, that if you say “Persian” it is usually considered something good – but “Iranian” something bad. And although there are many ethnic groups living in Iran, Persians are seen as the people inhabiting that country…
      …but you are right, Iran is very much seen as an enemy in the west – and this also is the line most of our media follows to report about that country. But it also means that you are far from getting the real picture.

      I usually try to approach such things with history books, when I have no direct sources – there yo learn a lot about developments that lead to the current state and you will have a lot of extra information to look at something – at least a little bit – from another perspective.

  9. With such a long history of arts and culture I am sure Iran is interesting, and that also goes for the nature. The problem is how the country is run today. I don’t think this is the best country for female tourists, but you don’t mention how things are for women..

    • …I don’t know – in Tabriz I had the feeling that the relationship between men and women was very relaxed – but I don’t know how it is to travel to Iran for a woman…
      …but a woman friend will travel there in a couple of months – so then I will have some first hand information.

      • I guess all the women was covered in every sense of the word? I have a male friend who climed mountians in Iran and had a great journey, I don’t want to be covered up, or treated differently than others.

      • …well, some are – but it is enough to have something over your head – but it doesn’t need to cover the whole head. So it is at least not in “every sense of the word”.

  10. 🙂 Very good reading. Your curiosity and documentation is wonderful.
    I live in Tehran. If you want to return Iran, call me for photography trips…

    • Thank you!
      When I visit a new place, or country, I like to find out where I go – and therefore I also do a little research. And as I like places that have a long history, Iran is a country that really fascinates me with its history going back for thousands of years…
      …yes, it would be nice to meet when I go back to Iran.

      Greetings,
      rabirius.

  11. I am very distressed about the confrontational/political situation in Iran. All the particular issues aside the country should be revered and embraced for starters for its rich history and contributions to ancient civilization. With most countries the US is dismissive of the heritages of countries with ancient civilization and does not understand how valuable these traditions is to those peoples.

    • Yes. I think one needs to understand another culture and respect it as well – then one can avoid a lot of useless confrontations and avoid situations that can have far reaching consequences.

  12. I found you! A pleasure to meet you today in Kadikoy. Enjoyed reading your posts especially about Iran. Someday, despite being close to impossible for an American to accomplish, it is a dream of mine to find a way to visit Iran. One of the most effective ways to maintain negative stereotypes is to make it difficult to visit.

  13. Velice mě potěšil objektivní pohled na svět, který dnes není přijímán pozitivně z neznalosti a vlivem propagandy, která budí zbytečné a zlé vášně, mně se nelíbí, že lidé si neumí udělat vlastní názor a naslouchají nenávistným hlasům. Děkuji z celého srdce. Anna

  14. Interesting article. I have traveled fairly widely in the MidEast for an American woman. I have not gotten to Iran, but the Persian people I have met have exuded cultural sophistication. I was invited once a long time ago and regret not going. My question is about the dishes in the museum you visited. Were they modern or ancient? Plastic? Interesting.

    • Thank you for your comment, Fahrusha.
      Yes, I really liked my short visit to Tabriz and hope to see more of Iran one day.

      The dishes were made of plastic.
      As I remember it, most of the dishes were traditional things that are still eaten at local restaurants. Not sure how far back Iranian/Persian cuisine goes – but I know that it has at least been around a couple centuries and always had a good reputation as being very exquisit.

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