For many years, I read about the rich history of Persia and yearned to see the wonders left behind in Iran, but when I told my friends I wanted to visit Iran, they thought I was crazy. They didn’t believe it was safe, or they thought Iranians would be hostile toward Americans. Nothing could be further from the truth: The people’s friendly welcome was rivaled only by the beautiful remains of Persian culture.
I started my 11-day tour of Iran in April in the ancient Persian city of Persepolis, where 3,000-year-old palaces and gateways built by Xerxes and Darius the Great still stand. Although the city was looted and partially destroyed by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., many of the original structures remain in a somewhat diminished but rehabilitated form. Persepolis, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lay dormant for centuries until the 1930s, when restoration efforts began. Although it is the chief tourist attraction in Iran, it is only one of many joys I experienced.
In all, I visited 10 towns, starting in the south with Shiraz and going north to my final stop in Tehran for three days and nights. The weather was almost perfect: Temperatures in the mid-60s and low humidity made touring enjoyable. There were some inconveniences along the way: no ATMs, no credit-card charges, and no use of U.S. dollars. However, I adapted.
My favorite towns were Yazd and Esfahan. Near the desert in central Iran, Yazd, with a population of 500,000, is one of the world’s oldest towns. Quaint narrow streets included 2,000-year-old houses, making it fascinating to wander and explore, especially for someone who spent his childhood in Swampoodle.
Esfahan is much bigger, with about 2 million residents, and glorious in its profusion of tree-lined boulevards, Persian gardens, and beautiful Islamic buildings, including Iran’s largest mosque.
The trip’s highlights were the bazaars, the mosques, and the people. Every town has at least one bazaar where it seems one could walk forever under cover with shops on either side selling almost everything. Bazaars are the Iranian version of American shopping malls – without endless parking lots wasting space.
Resplendent in their beautiful architecture and breathtaking interiors, the mosques mesmerized me. I visited as many as I could. My favorite was Cheragh in Shiraz, with its gold-topped minarets and mirrored tiles on interior walls.
As for the people, many speak English and love talking with and posing for photos with Americans. I posed with as many as I could. Three encounters heightened my impressions of the many people I met:
One evening when I was confusedly walking in Esfahan as I sought the local synagogue, a man asked me in English whether he could help. When I told him my destination, he took me across the street to a plain building that housed the synagogue, rang the bell, and explained in Farsi over the intercom that I was eager to see the interior. A woman came and welcomed us. Unrushed, I walked inside and took many photos.
One night in Tehran, my camera battery was running low, and I didn’t have my charger. An English-speaking man in a camera shop said he had no chargers for my camera, but he offered to charge my battery on his shop’s machine. We chatted for 20 minutes while the battery charged at no cost to me.
The hotel chauffeur who drove me to the Tehran airport for my return flight didn’t just drop me off at the curb: He parked the car, helped me with my bags, and even went through airport security with me.
My Iran trip was one of my most enjoyable adventures in all of my travels.
by Lou Oschmann, For The Inquirer