Lifting the veil on the mysteries of Iran
As flights resume to Tehran, Nick Boulos ventures beyond the capital into the rural heartland and on to the ruins of Persepolis and the fabled city of Isfahan
The old man paused for breath beneath a walnut tree. A part-time philosopher, he was called Rahmatollah (“Offer of the Gods”). He had wobbly knees and clutched a walking stick but his mind showed no sign of slowing down. He sat in the shade quoting the 13th-century Iranian poet Saadi Shirazi and musing over his 80 or so years living in the sleepy mountain village of Abyaneh, 210 miles south of the capital Tehran. “I used to walk in these peaks as a boy, searching for wolves and hunting ibexes. Back then, Abyaneh was a very different place,” he said, almost mournfully.
Once a thriving agricultural community, Abyaneh was home to thousands and blessed with an almost semi-autonomous existence. Isolated until the 17th century, it remained free of interference by Afghans, Turks and Indians. With the next village 12 miles away, locals even formed their own dialect.
Today barely 80 residents remain, living in red mudbrick houses. Bizarrely, though, Abyaneh is located close to the epicentre of the country’s biggest problems, a lonely spot in the desert that has seen it exiled from the international community.
“No photographs,” warned my guide Majid as we drove past the mysterious Natanz nuclear facility, all high fences and armed patrols.
But change is coming. Sanctions imposed over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme are being lifted and the Islamic Republic is once again open for business. Last year saw the Foreign Office ease travel restrictions and reopen the British embassy in the capital after it was famously stormed in 2011. As a result, airlines and tour operators are hastily re-establishing their presence. On September 1, British Airways will recommence direct flights to Tehran from London Heathrow. It is welcome news to the 77 million population of this nation plagued by preconceptions as a land of fundamentalists and terrorists.
Majid has been showing off his homeland to curious visitors for the past 15 years. “Iran is a deeply misunderstood country,” he said, sitting cross-legged on a Persian rug and sipping a cup of saffron chai in a teahouse high in the quiet hillsides north of Tehran. Beyond the walls, mules ferried sacks of pomegranates along deserted trails.
There, like almost everywhere in Iran, the locals greeted us with a touching mix of curiosity and delight. Some stared unsubtly while others whispered with urgency. Some came rushing over with questions and, more often than not, offers of tea, fruit or homecooked meals.
Hopes are high that Iran has finally turned a corner and a new era beckons. Rahmatollah was characteristically coy about it all. “The future? Only God knows but good things are coming,” he said, gazing out over Mount Karkas.
Many miles to the south, the city of Yazd was doing a roaring trade. The pavements were heaving with shoppers browsing the father-and-son kerbside stalls selling fruit, sweetsmelling rose water and Persian rugs. The busiest place, however, seemed to be Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar, a confectionery store started by two brothers more than 60 years ago. The place was stacked with all manner of sugar-dusted treats with exotic names such as noqhl, loze nargil and qotab.
And while it cannot trade on a world-famous name like other Iranian heavyweights such as Shiraz and Isfahan, Yazd proved to be one of the most enlightening stops on our two-week tour, thanks mostly to the famed Towers of Silence. These large manmade monuments in the desert on the outskirts of town are where Zoroastrians leave their dead to be consumed by vultures.
We broke up the long journey to Shiraz beside a roadside pistachio farm. The small shrubs, all neatly planted in regimented rows that swept up the hillside, were decorated with ripening shells like faded rubies dangling from the tip.
The owner – a farmer on a
Red mudbrick houses in the remote village of Abyaneh, left
An artisan makes a copper pan in his shop in Isfahan, left