The big read
Jean O’Hanlon’s last minute tour of Iran introduced her to the fascinating treasures of the Persian Empire which stretches back more than nine thousand years
AYEAR ago Iran wasn’t on my list of destinations. Well perhaps it was — but only in a bucket list kind of way — in, say, a moment of projecting forward to deathbed regrets.
It only grew into a plan about three months ago, and it wasn’t much of a plan even at that point. I knew next to nothing about the country. Omar Khayyam’s Rubbaiyat poem; rumi (wise); Cyrus the Great. Magnificent ceramics.
Ostentatious shahs and wet-blanket mullahs. Several initially interested travelling companions had dropped out since it first came up, for reasons of visa, cost — or Donald Trump. So this little piece was triggered by lovely surprise, and maybe by an urge to set a few records straight.
Nine thousand years ago, Persians were making elegant clay pots, and six thousand years ago the artistry of ritual and domestic ceramics had expanded to impressive monumental architecture.
By the first millennium BC the Persian Empire spanned three continents and governed almost 50% of the world’s population.
This was its time of grea- test glory, when outgoing armies and incoming processions of gift-bearers passed one another on the giant network of roads that linked its far reaches, Egypt to India, with illustrious imperial cities at home — Susa, Pasargadae, Persepolis.
Zoroaster was introducing to Central Asia the revolutionary concept of a single all-powerful heavenly god, Ahura Mazda, soon coopted by the very powerful earthly tribes that collaborated to establish the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, Xerxes.
It was Cyrus, apparently, who conquered King Croesus, of legendary wealth, and who created the world’s first human rights charter, establishing equality for all races, religions and languages.
Persian engineers at that time were already building a reputation as ingenious innovators in ventilation, cooling systems and refrigeration.
The lush, well-groomed gardens tended by the gardeners of the king of kings and which moderated somewhat the climate extremes of middle Asia, were known as ‘pairi-daeza’.
Nomads were bedding down on the first Persian knotted carpets around 500 BC.
So much history, and so much more in the packed centuries that follow.
But fast forward to today, where Iran has been reduced in the media to little more than cartoon status as a home of self-flagellating mullahs broadcasting hate. Is it true? Of course not. Do people know better?
Not for the most part. Not with all the fear-mongering. I was a bit concerned myself, but only that it might be dull, if all was forbidden, a land of silent women with heads down and angry young men.
I found the little internal travel agency online. It had positive reviews on TripAdvisor and the website was full of practical detail and enthusiasm about the various tours on offer. I chose the cheapest one — ‘A Glance of Persia’ because I would be paying a 20% single supplement, and I can honestly say I have never been so well served by an agent.
I booked my own very reasonably priced ticket to Tehran from Dublin with Turkish Airlines and the delights of that experience began at Dublin Airport, where the check-in official told me I was going to a magnificent place and that if I hadn’t already done so (I had), to throw out my TV set and see the wonderful world.
The online clothing guides recommend conservative attire for Iran, invisible ankles and a head and neck covering.
Over the coming days we saw all kinds of headwear, from nun-veils to fashionconscious wraparounds. It could be a bit of a pain if the