The Other Iran By JAMES VLAHOS
February 10, 2008
"MADRASA kojast?" Where is the religious school?
Leaving my hotel on the tree-shaded boulevard of Chahar Bagh Abbasi in
Esfahan, Iran, I had ducked down a small lane just south of Takhti
Junction, made a couple of turns, and gotten lost. I was trying to
follow a seven-mile walking route recorded in my Lonely Planet
guidebook - and nowhere else, it seemed, not on signs or on any local
map - and wandered into a maze of alleys flanked by tawny walls.
A man repairing a motorcycle in a small garage smiled and gave me directions. "Madrasa," he said, pointing to the right.
If you're going to get lost, Esfahan (also spelled Isfahan), a city of
1.3 million about 200 miles south of Tehran in central Iran, is an
extraordinary place to do it. There's a centuries-old saying that
Esfahan is "half the world," meaning it contains fully half of the
Jean Chardin, a 17th-century French traveler, wrote that Esfahan "was
expressly made for the delights of love"; in the 1930s, the British
travel writer Robert Byron rated it "among those rarer places, like
Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity."
I had arrived in Iran two weeks earlier, last May, considerably less
venturesome and more anxious. "Excuse me, ma'am," I sputtered in phrase
book Farsi to the first person I met - a bearded soldier.
I knew only the news-report version of Iran: renegade developer of
nuclear technology, member of the Axis of Evil, and mortal enemy of the
Great Satan, the United States I was hoping to learn what the country
was actually like; I wanted to know how it would feel to be an American
"Where are you from?" a German tourist asked on my first day in Tehran.
When I said, "The United States," her eyes bulged. "Ssssh, I won't tell," she said.
Tehran didn't dispel negative stereotypes, at least not at first.
Braving streets jammed with pollution-spewing motorcycles and Paykan
sedans, I walked under the watchful eye of my Iranian guide, who said
that it would be dangerous for me to leave his sight. We passed a
billboard showing the glaring visage of the Ayatollah Khomeini and
reached the former United States Embassy. Site of C.I.A. plotting -
including for the 1953 coup that installed the Shah - and of the
1979-81 hostage crisis, the compound is now a museum and historical
site known as the Den of U.S. Espionage.
I walked past a painted slogan in rough English - "United States of
America Ghods Occupier Regime Is the Most Hated State Before Our
Nation"- and another that read "Down With USA." A young man stood
smiling in front of it. I snapped a photo; discreetly, or so I thought,
but he ran down the sidewalk after me.
"I don't hate America," he said plaintively. "I love America."
Nearly three decades after the Islamic Revolution, Iran is undergoing a
quieter transformation, this one in tourism. Last July, a government
official announced a worldwide campaign to boost tourism, with new
tourist offices to be opened in 20 countries.
This closely followed the news that Iran would offer cash bonuses to
travel agents who can attract certain categories of tourists,
especially those from Europe andAmerica. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
, probably hoping to convey peaceful intentions, has even announced
that foreign tourists will soon be able to visit the country's
controversial nuclear sites.
This charm offensive hasn't translated yet to an easy process for
Americans hoping to visit. Independent travel is all but impossible -
you need a host, typically a commercial outfitter - and the wait for a
visa often lasts several months. I traveled with the photographer Greg
Von Doersten, and despite the fact that he made arrangements well in
advance with a company called Iranian Mountain Guides, he was forced to
travel to the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, which handles Iranian
interests in America, onthe morning of our flight to pick up our visas.
He barely made it back to New York in time for our evening departure.
Iran has sprawling pre-Islamic ruins, mosques glittering with
kaleidoscopic mosaics of tile, and cities that present both a stern
theocratic face and a glitzier Western one set to a ring-tone
soundtrack. Its deserts are vaster than those of the American
Southwest, its mountains higher than the Rockies.
Our itinerary would take us from Tehran to the highest summit in the
Middle East, 18,606-foot Mount Damavand, to Persepolis, the
2,500-year-old masterpiece of the Achaemenids, the first Persian
Empire. The highlight of the entire trip, though, was the long walk I
took in Esfahan.
After following the motorcycle mechanic's directions, I stood before a
set of hulking wooden doors with peeling paint and dangling chains.
This was the entrance to the Madrasa-ye Nimurvand, a small school known
for being friendly to foreign visitors.
Robed students with books under their arms crossed the leafy interior
courtyard; there was a low murmuring of voices and pleasant chirping of
birds. A mullah, his beard flecked with gray and his head wrapped in a
white turban, walked by, and we wound up in an hourlong discussion
through a translator.
The mullah, Abdullah Dehshan, didn't shy away from asking meaty
questions: Do you think Islam is violent? If you could have one wish
for the world what would it be? Do you believe in God? Maybe, I said,
but people often get in the way.
Do we need priests, rabbis, mullahs? I asked him. Mullah Dehshan smiled
at this theological softball. If you want to go to Shiraz, he said, you
would need a car, a road and a map. It is difficult to reach a far-off
destination without help. "And so it is with God," he said.
Leaving the madrasa, I followed an alley to the northeastern edge of
the Grand Bazaar Bazaar, one of the country's largest. Built primarily
in the 16th century, with some parts dating back to A.D. 700, the
covered passages extended for miles and presented a maze even more
convoluted than the alleyways that had preceded it.
The ceiling was high and vaulted. Star-shaped portals admitted spears
of sunlight that cut through dusty air. Vendors and their wares were
crammed into tiny stalls, selling spices, jeans, toiletries, soft-serve
ice cream and cheap plastic toys. The atmosphere was souk meets 99-cent
Many booths, however, sold the very sort of handmade crafts that one
would hope to find: ornate Persian carpets, many woven by nomadic
peoples like the Turkmen and Lors; finely painted miniatures depicting
hunting trips and polo matches; lacquered vases and bowls; and copper,
silver and gold platters.
The passage ahead grew brighter. I passed through the Qeysarieh Portal,
a faded but still colorful fresco overhead showing Shah Abbas I
battling the Uzbeks. Esfahan owes much of its greatness to Abbas, who,
after driving the Ottoman Turks out of Persia in the 16th century,
began an architectural campaign to glorify his new capital city.
Abbas's verdant gardens, glittering palaces, grand ceremonial square,
arched bridges and resplendent mosques still stand and are easily
connected on a walking tour - one from a guidebook or, even better, one
of your own invention.
I emerged from the portal onto a grand plaza under brilliant sunshine.
Measuring 1,680 feet long by 535 feet wide - over 20 acres -Iman Square
is one of the largest plazas in the world, and holds what is possibly
the most stunning assemblage of Islamic architecture. A procession of
arched bays enclosed a grassy esplanade and long reflecting pool.
At the far south end, twin minarets guarded the towering alcove
entryway to Imam Mosque, which was capped by onion-shaped domes. To the
right was Ali Qapu Palace. Six stories high, it had thin wooden columns
supporting a roof over the elevated terrace, the royal vantage point
for watching the polo matches that were played below hundreds of years
ago. To the left was the broad, colorful cupola of Sheik Lotfollah
Mosque, dedicated to Abbas's father-in-law.
Trotting horses towed carriages. Families picnicked on the grass. If a
traveler had any lingering doubts about the hospitality of Iranians
toward Americans, this was the place to dispel them. Making a new
friend required no more effort than standing still for 30 seconds.
I was approached first by a trio of giggling girls in black chadors.
Next came an older man who invited me to have tea with three of his
friends. Everyone wanted to know why I had come to Iran, and wondered
what people back home thought of this undertaking. They had a pretty
good idea about the answer.
"People think that we are all religious extremists with nuclear weapons
and beards down to our stomachs," said a carpet vendor named Vahid
Mousavifard. "But Iran is actually very safe for tourists."
Many people wanted to talk politics, though this, I knew, was to be
done with caution. Members of the secret police are known to circulate
in crowds, I was told by a guide; visitors have been detained for
saying the wrong thing.
The people I met, as one might expect, weren't big fans of President
Bush. "You have troops in Afghanistan and troops in Iraq," one young
man said. "How long before you invade Iran?"
But I also heard comments that could have been scripted by Karl Rove .
"In Iran we have no wine, no music , no dancing, no disco, no loving,"
said a ranting middle-age neuroscientist. "We want your government. We
want your freedom."
The Imam Mosque is the larger of the two at Imam Square; Sheik
Lotfollah is the more beautiful. Its tiled dome was covered by twirling
black-and-white vines and turquoise flowers, a design with the
precision more of fine china than of monumental architecture. A high,
honeycombed arch known as an aivan, decorated with Koranic inscriptions
and complex arabesques, capped the entryway.
Inside, a cool, dim passage led to a prayer sanctuary beneath the dome.
Light filtered in through screened windows, revealing glass and tile
mosaics even more colorful and elaborate than those outside.
Iranians are proud of these 17th-century monuments, as they are of much
of Persia's history over the millennia. In the course of my travels,
people complained more frequently and vigorously about the American
movie "300," which was perceived to portray ancient Persia in an
unflattering light, than about any contemporary political issue.
In Shiraz, 225 miles south of Esfahan, I had met a young Iranian tour
guide, Maziar Rahimi, who had just spent the day at Persepolis. "When I
went there I saw how big we were back then and how small we are now,"
He believed that there was great dissatisfaction with the current state
of the country and that it was time to live up to the glories of the
"You see it everywhere," he said. "The young women are wearing their scarves far back and more makeup. Change is coming."
LATE one afternoon in Esfafahan, I strolled from Imam Square down to
the Zayandeh River, which snakes through the heart of the city. Yet
more of the legacy of Shah Abbas and his successors is on view there, a
series of stunning old bridges spanning the broad, calm waterway.
Following a path along the bank, I saw people spread out on blankets
for picnic dinners, groups of laughing girls, even some couples boldly
I reached the Si-o-Seh Bridge, the Bridge of 33 Arches. The sun was
setting, and lights came on to fill each of the alcoves with a golden
glow. Silhouetted figures gazed out from the portals.
Farther east, near the base of the Chubi Bridge, stood a small
teahouse. The inside was packed with men sitting shoulder to shoulder
smoking qalyans, or water pipes. Spotting the visitor, they squeezed
even tighter to make room.
A waiter brought tea, sugar and a qalyan. The smoke was sweet and rich;
there was so much in the air that the people across the room were hazy.
The man on my right asked where I was from. "America," I said.
The room got quieter. Everyone seemed to be looking my way. Then the man clapped my shoulder and smiled.
"Our governments are bad," he said. "But the people are good."
A DEGREE OF RISK THAT CAN REAP REWARDS
The latest State Department official Travel Warning on Iran
(www.travel.state.gov) urges Americans "to carefully consider the risks
of travel" there, saying "American citizens may be subject to
harassment or arrest." The United States does not have diplomatic or
consular relations with Iran, and Americans must rely on the Swiss
Embassy for consular services there.
There are no direct flights from the United States to Tehran. But you
can get there through a number of European and Middle Eastern cities.
Among the airlines that fly to Tehran are Lufthansa, Emirates and
British Airways. A recent Web search found round-trip fares from New
York in late February starting at around $1,050 on Air France.
Iranian authorities discourage independent travel by American citizens.
The best way to obtain a visa is to book a guided tour with a tour
operator like these two in Shiraz: Pars Tourist Agency
(98-711-222-3163; www.key2persia.com) or Gashttour Travel and Tour
Agency (98-711-230-1900; www.irangashttour.com). Reserve at least two
to three months in advance to allow the outfitter time to obtain your
Bring all the money you think you'll need in dollars, which are widely
accepted or can be exchanged for rials. Travelers checks are not
accepted, banks and A.T.M.'s do not have access to accounts in the
United States, and credit cards do not work.
WHERE TO STAY
In Esfahan, the Abbasi Hotel (Amadegah Avenue at Goldasteh Avenue;
98-311-222-6010; www.abbasihotel.com) was built in the shell of a
Safavid-era caravansary. The rooms are modest, but the public areas are
not, especially the grandiose central courtyard, which has a large
reflecting pool flanked by arched bays. Doubles start at 1,287,000
rials, about $134 at 9,600 rials to $1.
While wandering through the alleys west of the Bozorg Bazaar, I
stumbled upon the Isfahan Traditional Hotel (Hakim Street;
98-311-223-6677; www.isfahanhotel.com), where I would stay if I were to
return. A dozen rooms surround a lovely and hidden courtyard. Doubles
are 615,000 rials.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Whether you eat at a highway truck stop or at an expensive traditional
restaurant, the culinary offerings in Iran are usually identical: lamb,
chicken or mince kebabs (average meal about $5). I ate them at least
once, and often twice, a day, so other options, like the quince and
squash stew at the Bastani Restaurant (southeast corner of Imam Square;
98-311-220-0374) were welcome breaks.
At the north end of the square is the Qeysarieh Tea Shop. The service
is indifferent at best, but I went several times to sit on the outdoor
terrace, puff on a qalyan, and admire the second-story view over the
JAMES VLAHOS is a contributing editor for National Geographic Adventure.
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