Lift­ing the veil on the mys­ter­ies of Iran

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Cuba -

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

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