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Warm welcome in Iran

03/08/2009

Warm welcome in Iran

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Language, religion and dress no barriers to connecting with friendly people. Surrounded by several Iranians, answering questions as they recorded my words, I should have felt intimidated. "You speak very good English," one of them ventured, to my surprise.

I was on a 27-day tour of Iran with an eclectic group of 16 like-minded people from Canada, the United States and Australia -- all of us over 50 years of age. With us were two guides, one from Iran, the other from the Netherlands.

We were simply amazed throughout our trip at how friendly the Iranians are, offering the most sincerely asked questions, like "Are you being treated well?" I found it fascinating that we were the curiosity. Students particularly would produce cameras to take our pictures.

For me, these were the magic moments, the smiles, the warm exchanges, people simply being people, no matter the colour of the skin, the dress or the religion. We are simply one.

It was a far cry from the reaction I received from friends when I announced, "I'm going to Iran." That statement was usually met with shocked silence, puzzled looks, and finally,"You're going where? Aren't you afraid?"

Iran presented me with an incredible opportunity to visit a culture and country so different from our own.

About five minutes before landing at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, the women were reminded to don head scarves and manteaus; otherwise we would be refused entry. We received positive nods from our Iranian seatmates, which set the stage for our journey.

We visited several cities and sites, including Tehran, Shiraz, Persepolis and Esfahan. Esfahan was a very welcome change after the very hot, arid country of northern Iran. Temperatures hovered above 30 C, especially taxing for us, not used to the scarves, long pants and manteaus that were mandatory attire at all times.

Esfahan is the cultural capital of Iran, largely due to the efforts of Shah Abbas I in the 16th century. Ninety-nine per cent of the population is Muslim, but there are other religions represented -- Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and Baha.

Amid an amazing mix of ancient architecture, grand bazaar and teahouses, we were warmly welcomed by the locals, women in their chadors, college-age students in their more modern dress, girls in their white scarves.

Esfahan is a prosperous city of a million and a half people with heavy industry on the outskirts, creating air pollution and traffic congestion. In fact, traffic circles can be up to six lanes with right of way from outside. Cars are only inches apart when suddenly a car exits from the inside, cutting directly across all lanes. Pretty scary stuff for visitors, but normal for the Iranians.

With its parks and 11 bridges on the Zayandeh River, Esfahan is very attractive. Mornings were wonderful: a five-kilometre walk in the cool of the day, drinking in the scenery and meeting the local people. In fact, I was reminded of walking in our own river valley, with tree-lined walking paths, flower beds and herons flying about.

We started at the oldest bridge, Shahrestan, dating from the 12th century but standing on the foundation of a much earlier time. A short distance away on the riverbank were two men with fishing rods, enjoying the day. Laughter erupted as my friend and I got caught up in their lines.

I was surprised to find a tombstone to Arthur Up-ham Pope, an American expert in Persian art 1881-1969, on our walk to the second and most beautiful bridge, Khaju. It is 132 metres long and is on two levels, the lower containing locks regulating water flow.

Along the way, we met a student sketching in the park and many locals. Women carry their babies and young children, and strollers were very few. We never saw a carriage.

Older women usually wear a chador, a head-to-toe black tent-like covering that must be held closed with the hands, but usually with their teeth. It was obvious that bags and purses were underneath. Younger women always wore a hijab, a one-piece head covering, and a manteau, a thigh-length wrap usually black, but sometimes grey or blue, over jeans. They often wore brightly coloured shoes in red, pink and yellow.

Men wore pants and usually long-sleeved shirts. We saw families picnicking in the parks, often inviting us over for tea, and people enjoying paddleboats on the river.

Iman Square is one of the largest in the world, 512 metres long and 163 metres wide, and has many fine examples of Islamic architecture -- Iman Mosque, Sheikh Lotfollat Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace and Chehel Sotun Palace. At either end of the square are marble goalposts, used in polo games 400 years ago. The Bazaar E-Bozorg off the square is filled with shops selling carpets, hand-printed tablecloths and bedspreads, hand-painted miniatures on camel bone, inlaid jewelry boxes, gold and silver jewelry.

The Iman Mosque with its towering minarets, built in the 1600s, is a must-see. The architecture is stunning, the mosaic tilework, mostly in blues and yellows, breathtaking. The architect deliberately made mismatches, so as to say: "only Allah is perfect."

Throughout the mosque, the names of Muhammad and Ali are written over and over again. The mosque is huge, containing sanctuaries, courtyards and madrasa, where students were taught until the late 19th century. The Sheikh Lotfollat Mosque displays many beautiful mosaics and has stairs leading to the entrance; it has neither minaret nor courtyard and is believed to have been a mosque for the women of the shah's harem.

We visited the Armenian quarter known as Jolfa, where 13 Armenian churches serve a Christian community of about 7,000. The Vank Cathedral and attached museum are interesting, with decorative paintings depicting the creation, the expulsion from Eden, the killing of Abel, the nativity and many other scenes.

The frescoes, portraying scenes from the Old Testament and New Testament, are truly magnificent. The museum houses the first book printed in Iran, as well as more than 700 other handwritten books, with some beautiful depictions.

In every village, town and city in Iran, billboards show pictures of martyrs -- those who lost their lives in the early 1980s in the Iran-Iraq War. They're often shown with a rose or a dove. We visited a huge martyrs cemetery in Esfahan with row upon row of graves of mostly young men, but also of some older men, women or children. I was deeply saddened, thinking of those lost and the grief that lingers as families visit the graves. I was reminded of those young lives lost in our own country, through the years and still today.

IF YOU GO
- Eldertreks offers a 21-day trip for travellers 50 and over, in the spring and fall. All meals, accommodations and tour guides are included. They can be reached at 1-800-741-7956 or eldertreks.com/brochure.
- Imaginative Traveller offers tours in Iran and can be reached at imaginative-traveller.com.
- A visa is required. For the visa photo, women need to have their picture taken with a hijab, a headscarf covering the head and neck, leaving only the face showing.
- Females must wear a head covering when entering Iran, and a loose, long shirt or coat covering the mid-section, preferably knee- or thigh-length, over baggy pants. Dark colours are usually worn. Males usually wear long-sleeved shirts, but short-sleeved is acceptable.
- Never take pictures of police, military or any building with a government interest. This includes gas stations and some banks. This speaks to the importance of a guide, as buildings are not clearly marked.
- The Abbasi Hotel in Esfahan is recommended; the central garden courtyard is beautiful, the rooms are plain, $95 US single, $120 US double.
- Refer to Foreign Affairs Canada for up-to-date travel advisories.

By Carol Hoyt, Canwest News Service

Tags: warm welcome, iran tour, ancient architecture, grand bazaar, teahouses

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