Home to one of the world's oldest civilisations, Iran brims with the riches of the Persian empire
It isn't difficult to feel awe for Iran's antiquity. To stand beneath its towering mosques, ceilings arched in perfect geometry, the laws of physics precisely tuned to lift a call to prayer into the sky and across a sea of faithful. Persia, as Iran was known before 1935, was after all the conqueror of Egypt, a civilisation undefeated by Rome, and revered as the centre of the ancient world.
For the past 50 years, much of what the world knows about Iran has been framed by its status as an oil-rich country saddled by internal strife, plagued by harsh economic sanctions, and calcified by its politics. It doesn't help that Iran has been largely demonised by American media and occasionally launched into headlines the world over for its ominous nuclear capabilities.
Yet, those stepping into Iran for the first time will be surprised by what they find. Yes, hand-painted portraits of martyrs from its bloody war with Iraq still look down from buildings in Tehran while anti-American graffiti colour the walls of the former American Embassy. But it isn't all ayatollahs and chadors. The women we encounter in Tehran drap their hijabs loosely around their heads and necks. It is common for the veil to sit far back on the head, exposing perfectly coiffed hair and flashes of the neck.
Is it safe to go to Iran? This is a common question I receive from people who've heard that I made the trip there. To that, I share that I have been mobbed countless times. No, I'm not talking about the angry mobs from Ben Affleck's 2012 historical drama Argo, but warm, curious Iranians who ask if they can take a "wefie" with you before asking where you're from. Fair-skinned Asian men and women are particularly sought-after subjects for wefies, thanks in no small part to the popularity of Korean dramas dubbed in Farsi.
There's also another reason why tourists often find themselves on the receiving end of Iranian hospitality. "Tourists are thought to be a gift from God," explains Tiam Nikseresht, our guide in Iran.
While satellite television is banned in Iran, many households have erected their own satellite dishes and consume the same media diet (American dramas are popular here) as couch potatoes in other parts of the world. Facebook, another American export banned in Iran, is also actively accessed via VPNs. Tinder, however, has yet to shake up the dating scene here.
Today, those yearning to encounter the glory of Persia will find much to behold. Its architecture is immense in scale, its artisans second to none, and its poetry — still very much alive, brimming with words that live not on yellowed pages, but on the tongues of the living. One evening, we find ourselves in the Isfahan Music Museum, before a quartet performing a song with lyrics from one of Hafez's poems. It is also in Isfahan, Persia's capital during the sixteenth century, that we meet the celebrated Persian poet once again. This time, he is resurrected on paper from the brush of Hossein Fallahi, a 68-year-old miniaturist who honed his skills from the age of 12. His paints with a steady hand, holding a brush made with cat's hair as the quality of feline hair is fine and sharp — exactly what's required for these paintings that condense whole worlds into the tiniest boxes made of camel bone.
Spend a day at the Imam Square, home to the birthplace of polo and the world's oldest polo field. The field formerly used for polo matches is today a grand display of fountains. The Imam mosque, standing in the south of the square, is entirely covered in tile work and considered a masterpiece of Persian architecture. This UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts seven-colour mosaic tiles and calligraphic inscriptions dating back to 1611. Equally ornate is the Ali Qapu Palace, built in the early seventeenth century with an unusual music room featuring intricate niches — modelled after musical instruments — which serve both aesthetic and acoustic purposes.
In Tehran, the capital of Iran, the 400-year-old Golestan Palace complex justifies its UNESCO World Heritage status with stunning mirror work, an exquisitely manicured garden, and ornate decorative art reflecting the artistic flourishes of the Qajar era.
The poetry of Iran extends to the dining table, where it is easy to forget the complete absence of alcohol (save for malt-flavoured, zero-alcohol beer). The cucumber salads here feature the crunch of sweet onions and juicy tomatoes, all brightened with a splash of vinegar. It makes for the perfect accompaniment to the meats, most of which are simply marinated and slow-cooked or grilled to lend a deliciously smoky edge. With a rich bounty of produce growing across the land, the Iranians dine well with incredibly fresh produce enlivened with flashes of herbs.
For breakfast, I enjoy fresh yoghurt drizzled with honey scraped from honeycombs, fresh pomegranates that stain my fingers purple, and sweet, soft dates. A visit to the bazaar reveals bright baskets of pistachios, figs, dates, and little red berries known as barberries —commonly added to saffron long-grain rice to lend a tart burst of flavour that lies somewhere between the sweetness of pomegranates and tanginess of cranberries.
Be prepared to drink copious amounts of tea. It is a cornerstone of Iranian culture and the perfect brew is dark and sweet. To enjoy a cup of tea the traditional way, clamp a sugar cube between your teeth before sipping on your tea. At the historic Abbasi Hotel, the oldest hotel in Iran, we find respite from the winter air in its warm tea house. Here, some of us sip on hibiscus tea infused with mountain herbs while others work their way through aash-e reshte, a thick herb-rich Persian noodle soup topped with a drizzle of kashk, a pungent, umami bomb made from fermented yoghurt.
For a tea house that hinges on a more personal history, walk through a passageway lined with vintage castaways before heading down the stairs to find Azadegan Teahouse, whose late owner collected-or rather, hoarded-antiques. A constellation of lamps dangle from the ceiling while faded photos of men riding lions, topless wrestlers, and squirrels puffing on hookahs line the walls. This treasure trove of kitsch is where you'll sip on black tea while nibbling on jooshfil, a candied snack shaped like elephant ears.
Over in the desert city of Kashan, our afternoon tea ritual takes on a different form. Famed for its cultivation of roses, rose water here is used not only for cosmetic purposes, but is stirred into black tea along with a touch of mint syrup to form an aromatic brew. As you purchase packets of dried roses and bottles of fragrant rose water, know that you're bringing home the very same rose water used to anoint the holy shrines in Mecca.
In Kashan, we explore its historical houses, which showcase the ingenuity of traditional desert architecture. Fortified to weather the searing summers and cold winters in the desert, the grand structures are built into the ground and feature wind towers that channel cool air into the home.
Similarly, the Bagh-e Fin Garden, which dates back to the Safavid era, illustrates how the Persians managed to erect a lush garden in the middle of a desert. A sophisticated network of aquifers and irrigation systems ensure the survival of cypress trees, cherry plants, and rose bushes.
As we leave Kashan for the airport in Tehran, we traverse long stretches of road flanked with flat land that stretches into snow-capped mountains. Small tufts of green dot a landscape that is otherwise arid, parched, and riddled with stones. We chase the sun as it sets. Halfway into our journey, the horizon smudges and it begins to snow, dusting tiny specks of white onto the gentle, rolling landscape. I think of our guide Tiam, who urges me to visit Iran again, this time to make a stop at Shiraz, the city of music and poetry. The city she was born in. "Come in Spring, when the gardens bloom and the air smells like flowers," she urges. It's an invitation I find hard to turn down.
Getting there.Thai Airways flies four times weekly between Bangkok and Tehran.
Visas. All foreign nationals are required to obtain a valid Iranian visa from an Iranian embassy or consulate. It is advisable that you apply for your visa two months ahead of your intended travel date. Singaporeans can apply for a 30-day tourist visa upon arrival at the following airports: Tehran Imam Khomeini, Tehran Mehrabad, Mashad, Shiraz, Tabriz, Isfahan. Do note that you will not be able to enter Iran if your passport contains proof of entry to Israel.
Cash. You won't be able to use international credit cards at most shops. Bring cash in USD or Euros to exhange for the local currency — Iranian Rial and Toman. Currency exchanges tend to offer better rates than banks.
Where to stay. Following the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s, you'll find few international hotel chains in the country. In the capital city of Tehran, the Espinas Palace Hotel and Ferdowsi Grand Hotel are options you can consider. Across the rest of the country, Swiss-run OrientStay offers Airbnb-style services with over 1,000 licensed listings across the country.
Internet access. Wi-Fi is limited in public areas and you'll find hotels charging for Wi-Fi access. You could purchase a local prepaid SIM card with a data plan. As Facebook and Gmail is banned in Iran, you're best off downloading a VPN on your phone and laptop before you enter the country.
Dress code. For women, a head scarf must be worn at all times. Women must also wear loose clothing which covers the arms and legs (up to the ankle). No short sleeves are allowed.
Alcohol. Alcohol is prohibited in this Muslim country. However, you'll find 'malt-flavoured' beverages available at most eateries and restaurants.
Never stick out your thumb. It's a rude gesture in Iran. Many Iranians were perturbed and bemused when they first saw Facebook peppered with the social media giant's 'Like' sign.