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

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Inside -

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

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