If you tell your friends you are going to Iran, they will probably inform you that you’ll never come back alive. But if you tell them that you have just returned from Iran and were warmly welcomed, they will laugh, and ask what really happened.
The truth is, Iranians you meet will ask you where you come from, grin when you answer “America,” perhaps ask to take a selfie with you, and tell you they love American people. You may even get invited to someone’s home.
Your tour will begin in Tehran. Among the splendors of the busy, bustling city are the Jewelry Museum, with its blinding array of functional objects covered in gold and dripping with rubies, emeralds and diamonds, and the Carpet Museum, with its brilliant pictorial carpets that are of such high quality that they can last hundreds of years.
The Archaeological Museum features the art and artifacts of little-known civilizations like the Sialk (1000 B.C.E) or the 7,000-year-old Bakun culture. The museum is famous for its bronze lions, massive reliefs carved in stone and symbolic elements like the lotus flower (longevity) and the palm tree (sweet life) — all found in the ancient city of Persepolis.
An ancient capital
Persepolis was the ceremonial seat of the Achaemenids, one of the world’s greatest and most extensive empires. The city dates from around 500 B.C.E. and lasted until it was burned and sacked by Alexander the Great in 333 B.C.E.
Today, Persepolis is easily reachable from the city of Shiraz. It rises from the desert floor, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Visitors enter through the Gate of All Nations, where partially ruined monumental Lamassus statues still stand in proud but broken glory. They have the head of oxen and the bearded face of humans — suggesting both power and intelligence.
Although a lot of the ancient site is in ruins, many of the fabulous friezes remain. They depict the gifts other nations brought in tribute: lotus flowers, perfume, gold, silk, giraffes, elephants and, most prized of all, lions from Africa. The animals are so well depicted that you can still see the wide eyes of a sheep, its nostrils flared, as though it knows it is about to be sacrificed and eaten.
Also remaining are sculpted representations of the 10,000 soldiers who took care of the royal family. When one died, he was replaced, so the number was always 10,000. Because their ranks never dwindled, they were called the Immortal Guards.
In Shiraz, a must-see mausoleum belongs to Persia’s greatest poet, the l4th-century Hafez. His tomb is nestled in a lush garden, and Iranians of all ages come to pay homage to the master.
Yazd, a desert town, is home to the Zoroastrian Temple of Silence and the Fire Temple. The former is perched on top of a steep, arid hill, and is the place where, in the past, bodies of the deceased were carried so they could be close to the sky. The Fire Temple, where an eternal flame burns in a huge copper urn, and the adjacent museum offer a good deal of information about Zoroastrian rituals and practices.
Sightseeing, then shopping
In Isfahan, you can visit with artists who paint in miniature, learn more about Persian carpets, and tour (the main) Imam Square, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Shah Mosque is a shimmering example of Safavid architecture, the Ali Qapu Palace makes visitors dreamy as they imagine life in a spectacular, art-adorned palace, and the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, which was built for the ladies of the harem in the l7th century, is an elegant and graceful architectural pearl.
After sightseeing comes shopping, and there’s no better place to browse for art, hand-stamped textiles, jewelry, carpets and souvenirs of every stripe than the Imperial Bazaar. If your feet get tired, relax at a tea house where you might want to try a flavored tobacco in a water pipe.
The newly agreed upon Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, which involves lifting economic sanctions in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, is being greeted everywhere in Iran with reactions that range from skepticism to cautious optimism to unbridled buoyancy. Visitors are arriving from Europe and Asia, a major expansion of tourism infrastructure is underway, and it’s the perfect time to visit.
Judith Fein is an international travel writer and author of “Life Is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel.” Her website is globaladventure.us.
If you go
Women have to wear a headscarf and long shirts that cover the derrière. You must bring cash because you can’t use your credit card or withdraw money from an ATM.
Original World offers many tours of Iran. See originalworld.com/Iranian-Tours for more info.