With the first break of dawn, as our airplane was descending to land at Tehran International Airport, we caught sight of a distinctive pyramid shape piercing the sky in the distance. Seeing Damavand’s silhouette in contre-jour filled us with excitement: tomorrow will find us on that mountain!
Only after exiting the airport’s buildings did we manage to get our first feeling of Iran: dry lands as far as the eye could see. And for the next days that we were going to spend in this country, we encountered mostly dry landscapes. We were in the middle of the Middle 🙂 East, what else could we expect? :))
Once on Iranian soil, hijab is mandatory for women, when in public. Hijab refers to wearing a head cover and loose fitting clothes that cover legs, arms, and cover the body shape. Men are only restricted from wearing shorts and shirts that show the shoulders. However, the rules have relaxed over time, and as a foreigner woman, you can get away with showing a bit of neck or some hair and wearing 4/5 sleeves.
Before we would reach Tehran, we had two stops along the way: the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini and Behesht-e Zahra.
HOLY SHRINE OF IMAM KHOMEINI
Driving down the highway towards Tehran, an enormous silky Iranian flag, together with a huge golden dome, and four tall minarets began to dominate the skyline. Still under construction, the sheer scale of the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini is impressive in size.
In Iran, a shrine of an Imam is actually a religious building centered around that man’s tomb, where people come to pay their respect, pray, or ask for divine intervention in resolving their issues.
In this particular case, this shrine is the resting place of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the First Supreme Leader of Iran. The 1979 revolution overthrow the last Shah of Iran, marking the end of almost 2500 years of Persian monarchy.
Judging by the many colorful tents camped out before the shrine, we could imagine this is one of the major pilgrimage sites of Iran. While traveling throughout the country we were to discover that it is commonplace for people to picnic, or even sleep on the lawns of parks or green areas.
Different to other shrines, this one exhibits plenty of freedom for visitors. It is open to non-Muslims, chador (a full-body-length cloak) is not mandatory for women, and even though men and women have separate entrances, once inside there is no physical or visual separation between the male’s and female’s side, allowing everyone to move freely in most parts of the shrine.
Visibly a huge building from the outside, the actual immensity of the shrine becomes apparent only when inside. It could easily rival in size Europe’s largest cathedrals. The huge golden dome is framed by four 91m tall minarets, symbolizing the age of Imam Khomeini at his death. Contrasting with the remarkably stark outside, the inside of the shrines is impressively decorated. Intricate designs make the ceilings sparkle and shine, fine carpets cover the floors, while depictions of tulips, an Iranian symbol of martyrdom, decorate the main dome. The centerpiece is Imam Khomeini’s sarcophagus, placed inside a zarih, an ornate cage-like casing, laying exactly under the huge gilded dome, where people come to pay their respect, occasionally slipping in some banknotes.
Imam Khomeini’s shrine is actually part of the Behesht-e Zahra complex. Literally “the Paradise of Zahra”, the largest cemetery in Iran, in addition to the tombs of the royals, politicians and other significant people, it also has a martyrs’ section where deceased soldiers of the Iran-Iraq War are buried.
At the head of each grave, a glass box rises on stilts, enclosing small belongings, maybe a watch, a letter, maybe a prayer book, of the lost, often quite young, soldier who looks back at us from a yellowed photograph. Roughly 200.000 such glass boxes stand as a daunting reminder of the cost of war…
Continuing towards Tehran, crowded neighborhoods began to emerge from the heavy atmosphere, climbing up the foothills of the mountains surrounding the city. Home to about 15 million people, Tehran is a huge metropolis with an impressive road infrastructure to fit its size. Countless cars pour onto multilane and multilevel streets and intersections.
Traffic in Iran resembles a constant flow of cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, and people, literally making their way between other each other. Only motorcycles can prove to be an unpredictable nuisance since they can cut your way without any notice, or come riding on sidewalks, pedestrian areas, or narrow alleys.
“US DEN OF ESPIONAGE”
When in Tehran is worth making a detour in the foreign embassies’ quarter, and checking what is locally known as the “US Den of Espionage”. The former US Embassy in Tehran was stormed in 1979 by Iranians, holding US diplomats hostage for 444 days. Following the Iranian Revolution, diplomatic relations between the US and Iran were severed.
Nowadays, the former embassy is preserved as a museum.While banners displayed in its garden, and colorful mural covering its outer walls show anti-American messages, including one in which the face of the Statue of Liberty is rendered as a skull.
Iran is a land abundant in culture and history, and in order to get our first real taste of it, we left the more modern districts heading for the heart of the city, where Tehran’s arg (“citadel”) once used to lay. The arg’s walls used to enclose, among other buildings, one of the oldest historical monuments still standing in Tehran – the Golestan Palace, the only remaining edifice of the arg. Many of Tehran’s historical buildings were torn down on the orders of Reza Shah to make way for his extensive modernization plans.
Throughout the ages, Iranians have found ingenious ways to cope with the heat and dryness characteristic for their habitat. From ancient times they dug qanat-s (underground channels) for water supply and built badgir-s (wind-towers) to create air-conditioning. Nowadays, cold water dispensers (with perfectly good water) are widely available in cities and throughout the country, and touristic areas abound with a wide variety of juices and ice cream. From sour pomegranate juice, very sweet rose water with chia seeds, delicious melon juice, water infused with figs, lime or mint juice with rose water, sour barberry juice, to the “usual” orange, mango, or pineapple juice.
Not only were we about to taste from Iran’s famous history, but also from all its savory juices. With one sort of juice in one hand, and another sort in the other hand, alternatively sipping from each juice, we walked down the streets of central Tehran until all of a sudden we found ourselves in front of a splendid building, lavishly decorated in colorful painted tiles. It was one of the many stunning buildings making up the Golestan Palace complex.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site from 2013, the Golestan Palace – literally meaning “Palace of Flowers” – dates back to the Safavid dynasty, and became the official residence of the Qajar dynasty (1794–1925) when Tehran was chosen to be their capital. The complex consists of several royal buildings centered around a beautiful garden, and used for many different occasions such as coronations, royal weddings and other important celebrations, the last being the coronation of Mohammed Reza Shah in 1967.
Standing as a monument to the glory and opulence of Qajar rulers, beautiful, colorful and intricately decorated tiles glaze the outside of the palace’s buildings, while their spectacular insides sparkle and shine in brilliant mirror-work, as if covered in precious gems and diamonds. It is said that large and expensive mirrors were imported from Europe, but due to the waste distances they had to travel, many arrived shattered into pieces. Local craftsmen reconciled the situation by using the broken mirror pieces to create extravagant mirror-works that now are so renowned throughout Iran.
Much of the way the palace looks today is owed to Nasser al-Din Shah (1848 – 1896) – no, he’s not that “Aladdin” :)), even though he had abundant riches and treasures. Impressed by European palaces, the shah turned the Safavid-era arg into the opulent palace seen today.
Besides the extraordinary tile-work and mirror-work, the palace has some impressive hall rooms, terraces, fine stained glass windows, chinaware sent as presents by European Kings such as Tzar Nikolai I, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Queen Victoria.
The Hall of Mirrors houses replicas of the Peacock throne and Sun throne, lavishly covered in precious jewels. The Marble Throne is a spectacular terrace dominated by a magnificent yellow alabaster throne. Four tile glazed badgir-s (wind-towers) soar above the Building with Wind-catchers. The Edifice of the Sun with its two identical towers rising high above all the other palace buildings, to offer panoramic views of the city, is the most stunning structure of the Golestan Palace. A small pond with a bubbling fountain cools the shady and cozy tile glazed Karim Khani Nook. While centenary tall pine trees, and an interconnected system of pools and fountains moving water through the palace’s inner garden, create a quiet and refreshing haven at the heart of the hot, bustling metropolis.
TEHRAN GRAND BAZAAR
Literally across the street from Golestan Palace, the many streets and alleys of the Grand Bazaar begin to spread out. Contrasting to the old, crowded and bustling bazaar, right next to it a new, modern, multi-story shopping mall is currently under construction.
Now, in hindsight, after seeing most of Iran’s major bazaar-s (Esfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz), Tehran’s bazaar is not the most impressive, and it’s worth a visit only in case you need to complete your hijab outfit, or to stock up on dried fruits and nuts for Damavand.
Tehran’s landmark, Azadi Tower (“Freedom Tower”), marking the west entrance to the city, was commissioned by the last shah to mark 2.500 years from the foundation of the Persian Empire.
By night, its white marble seems to radiate light from within, making a vivid impression on passersby, and marking for us the end of our tour of Tehran.
The next morning we were going to have a date with Asia’s highest volcano: Mt. Damavand, so we headed back to the hotel for an early good night sleep, as we were going to need all our energies to climb to no less than 5671m. And back down… 🙂
As for the story of our experience climbing Damavand… keep close, it’s soon to follow 😉Tags: azadi, bazaar, behesht, cemetery, damavand, espionage, freedom, golestan, grand, hijab, imam, iran, khomeini, palace, paradise, revolution, shah, shrine, tehran, tower, war, zahra