I had just been refused entry onto a flight into Jeddah, the closest international airport to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia from Dubai. It was 08:00AM in the morning and I had just got off a connecting flight from London. I was tired. It was August, ten days before the Hajj begins; the annual religious holiday when over two million Muslims from across the world make the pilgrimage to Mecca where the Prophet Muhammad was born and lived for the first 52 years of his life. The Hajj is the largest annual gathering of people in the world. Muslims walk seven times around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building and the most sacred site in Islam: Bayt Allah, or House of God.
I had a normal Saudi tourist visa (it had taken me five months to get the necessary invitation letter from inside The Kingdom to even apply for this) but the airline refused me entry because I didn’t have a special ‘Hajj Visa’. In the airline office my enacted whining/displays of outrage were completely ineffective and despite myself not being a Muslim, and them having already sold me a ticket, I realised it was just not going to happen. I bought another ticket to Riyadh, the capital, for the following day.
On the plane the atmosphere was already different from the multicultural melting pot that is Dubai. There were quite a few western-looking businessmen but no women. The rest of the passengers were Saudis. The women were all dressed in black burkas, the men in white dish-dash with either a large flowing white, or a red and white checkered headscarf, secured with black cord. The air smelled of camphor. No alcohol was available. From the TV screens and speakers a prayer from the Koran resonated that the Prophet Muhammad used to say before embarking on a journey, the gold Arabic script flowing across a video flying over clouds and a bright blue sky.
Iran in comparison to Saudi Arabia
I spent a day in Riyadh and a day in Dammam, a city on the east coast near Bahrain, before returning to Dubai. It was 45 degrees outside and the heat hit you like a furnace. It is an austere place yet I always find the local people extremely friendly, welcoming and helpful. Their mosques are built with a very understated style of architecture, a manifestation of Wahhabism, their stricter form of Islam. You drive past endless desert; there are a lot of fast-food outlets; you meet American oilmen; you drink a lot of tea; people smoke in the public lavatories; you sweat through all your clothes; the women are covered from head to foot, very rarely revealing their faces, so you only catch glimpses of their flickering eyes.
I spent two days in Dubai doing some work then flew with two friends Tom and Juni to Tehran, Iran’s capital, to have fun for the weekend. Tom is British and is married to Juni, who is Iranian, and they both live in Dubai. We stayed at Juni’s mother’s large, stylishly decorated house, in a quieter quarter of the city. Tehran has a population of 15 million and although the traffic and pollution can be appalling, it has a great atmosphere; vibrant, chic, fun and completely removed from the rather stifling hard-line ambiance I had experienced only a few days previously. Leafy tree-lined streets and opulent marble-fronted apartment buildings abound, with trendy restaurants and coffee shops on every corner in the richer northern neighbourhoods.
Tehran was a welcome relief after a rather stressful and hectic week, and as I am close with many of Juni’s friends and family, a rather exhausting round of family parties ensued with everyone shouting over everyone else in Farsi across huge dinner tables laden with ridiculously opulent platters of food, loud music blaring and dancing into the early morning hours. Iranians enjoy a party and are great fun. Iranian women are extremely beautiful and although in public they are required to wear an abaya partially covering their heads, in the capital especially this is nearly always pushed as far back as possible, revealing their full hair and face often adorned with make-up and bright lipstick.
What are Iranian people like?
The men are handsome and some of them have excellent physics; wrestling is the national sport and sometimes you see a man walking down the street with arms like actual tree-trunks. If you meet an Iranian man for the first time there is a 50% chance his name will be Alireza. Both men and women have only very dark hair and olive skin from their Persian heritage. Some of the men have fantastically thick but well-trimmed beards. At private parties in the houses of friends or family, women remove their abayas to reveal the most modern fashions (if they are rich of course). It is common for women to work but they still have many disadvantages to navigate in public society.
Iranians are not Arabs. Iranians are Persians and speak Farsi, which is a completely different language (with a surprising French and Spanish influence), although is written using the Arabic script. The Persians, after creating one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen [553-330BC] were conquered by the Arabs over a period of 20 years from the first attack in 633AD, when Islam exploded out of Saudi Arabia after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. In bloody conquest, the Islamic Caliphates, under various dynasties, established an empire that ruled from India to Spain. The name ‘Iran’ only began to be used after the conquest of the Arabs, and derives from the word ‘Aryan’, denoting the Persians’ ancestors’ origin from the northern steppes of Central Asia and Russia, rather than Arabia.
Another fundamental difference is in the nature of their religion. Although Muslim, Iranians are Shiites, compared with the Saudis and indeed the majority of the Islamic world, who are Sunnis. The division in their religious beliefs stems from a division in the line of succession of the leaders of the faith after the Prophet Muhammad died. The Shiites believe that his true successor was Muhammad’s nephew Ali who also married Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, and the ensuing line of ‘Imams’ that followed from him until the 12th Imam who disappeared after persecution by the Sunnis, and whom they believe will one day return again alongside Jesus Christ (also a prophet in Islam) to lead the Muslims in rightful governance.
The Sunnis on the other hand believe that Abu Bakr, close companion and through his daughter Aisha, the father-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, was the true inheritor of the faith, and the ensuing line of ‘Caliphs’ that ruled after him. There are other myriad differences between the two sects, as well as many different offshoots and styles of Islam, but this is a basic explanation. They are all Muslims however, and Iranian and other Shiites will still make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia.
Hanging out in Tehran
We slept in in the mornings then would drive into the city to upmarket chelo kebab restaurants for lunch where it is good to be seen. The food is delicious, but the concentration of lamb and beef in huge quantities alongside buttered rice and thick yoghurt so heavy, that often we had to return home for afternoon naps before heading out to see our friends again in the evenings. Juni had to fly back to Dubai for work but Tom and I decided to hang around and drive down to Isfahan for the sightseeing. The five-hour drive down is through unbelievably dry, desolate and barren desert, a shock to the system after the mountain-enclosed, well-irrigated streets of Tehran.
We had been skiing together in Iran’s northern Alboroz Mountains in February of the same year in deep powder, and I had since explored some of the Assassin’s castles in the lush, green northwestern area near Tabriz, and the shores of the Caspian Sea. Now it was difficult to believe that we were in the same country. Yet as soon as we entered the suburbs of Isfahan, as if by a miracle trees reappeared everywhere in the shady, well-irrigated oasis of civilisation. Along the streets, as across the rest of the country, black and white photos of ‘the martyrs’ hung from lampposts. These are the men from local neighbourhoods who fought and died in the bloody Iran/Iraq war of 1980-1988, when Saddam Hussein invaded the western border of Iran, resulting in a catastrophic loss of life.
Isfahan, although the second largest city in the country, in no way compares with the frenetic energy of Tehran. It is much more subdued with more parks and far less traffic. The seat of the Safavid dynasty [1301-1736AD] after the capital came down from the north, this era is considered one of the most important in the country’s history, and the city’s palaces and mosques are still the epicentre around which its daily life revolves. We checked into a fancy hotel in the centre of town that in ancient times was also a Caravanserai [rest-house for travelling caravans]. This was re-vamped into its current opulent, glittering manifestation under the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, until his overthrow by the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Exploring around Isfahan
The main area of Isfahan, Naqsh-e Jahan Square, is 560 meters long by 160 meters wide, and is surrounded on all sides by two-story identically constructed buildings forming a perimeter wall. Before a fountain was built in the middle of this great space, nobles used to watch polo matches from the raised dais of Ali Qapu Palace balcony. The square was and remains the center of community life. The mosque, palace, hammam, bazar, food halls, and peddler’s stalls all convene together to service the requirements of daily life. Red-helmeted soldiers used to patrol the square, keeping the peace in the name of the king. European painters in the 17th Century were invited to come and paint frescos on the walls to demonstrate the ruler’s treaties with the outside world.
The great Shah Mosque, situated on the southern end of the square, is the jewel in the crown of the country. It is blue and very large. It has two large minarets, denoting its adherence to the Shia form of Islam, as Sunni mosques will have either one or four minarets. The mosque is made up of four mosques that enclose a communal courtyard where men would bring their camels to sell and trade, discuss religion and taxes. The dexterity of the design combined with the simplicity and scale of the architecture is impossible to describe physically: But it inspires the finer internal musical melodies hidden in the heart of a person (all-too rarely teased forth by the patterns of daily life) and, like a fine conductor, induces your soul to rise up and sing with joy to realise the heights of beauty to which humanity is capable of attaining.
A mullah, seemingly of some importance, dressed in a light grey cloak with a dazzlingly white turban welcomed us and was very diplomatic in asking where we were from and explaining the teachings they do in the religious schools. These are found in the low-rise buildings that face the verdant gardens adjoining the main courtyard. He thanked us for coming to Iran and said that all people, no matter their religion or race, were welcome to come and visit the mosque, and he encouraged us to bring others in the future. I know a humble-brag or a fake smile when I see one, but he meant it and I liked him.
Outside the square, the royal palaces are situated between shady gardens and fountains: with ceilings of cut glass; souring wooden roof supports carved in the same style as the ancient stone pillars of Persepolis; the first mirror ever brought to the country at great expense from Venice; a drafty palace hall covered in frescos of various battles with Ottomans and diplomatic treaties with Uzbeks, in which Queen Elizabeth II of England once slept but was so uncomfortable that Shah Reza Pahlavi ordered the hotel in which we were staying to be created; summer porches; winter porches with fireplaces; latticework windows; frescos of birds, flowers and Islamic patterns.
Continuing my journey to Yazd in the desert
Tom caught a plane back to Dubai and I caught a bus the next day heading east, back into the barren desolation of arid nothingness, towards the city of Yazd. Yazd is quite remarkable because it doesn’t seem natural for a city to thrive in the middle of a desert, yet it is one of the oldest towns on earth, with an estimated 2000 years of permanent human settlement. It is in the dead centre of Iran, and trade has always flourished here as a result. It is surrounded by a ring of sun-scorched mountains, with complex underground irrigation systems that keep the city alive throughout the blisteringly hot summers, when temperatures can reach up to 48 degrees.
It is famous for its windcatchers [badgir in Farsi]; a medieval form of air conditioning prevalent across the Middle East. A high, latticed chimney-like structure is raised above a house or building to catch draughts of wind that are pulled down to cool the rooms below. They are very attractive to look at and many modern buildings across the region still incorporate them in their design. When I lived in Dubai for a couple of years, my modern apartment building was designed in this style. The badgir rise above the low-rise mud walls of which many of the buildings are still constructed. They are interspersed across the city by elegant turquoise-tiled domes and very tall, turquoise-tiled minarets that reach up to heaven, flickering in the sunlight.
At night I walked along the cooling streets to Masjid Jameh, the largest of the Mosques. I never feel threatened in Iran, day or night, and am less suspicious when first approached by men or women on the street, compared with some other countries, due to Iranian’s natural inquisitiveness and legendary hospitality. I listened while a mullah expounded on something in Farsi through a microphone, sat underneath a huge arched edifice bathed in white light. The men all sat around on red carpets drinking small cups of chai whilst the women sat outside in the courtyard on a raised dais, all in black abayas. An expansive looking man waved me over and insisted I share some saffron and pistachio cake with him.
The Zoroastrian fire temples of Iran
The following day was baking hot. I lazed about. I went to the Zoroastrian fire temple but it was closed so I sat opposite in a café working on my laptop. Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Persia and when the Arabs invaded, Yazd was one of the last strongholds of its believers, although many of its rituals and symbols have permeated into their religion today. At the great mosque in Isfahan for example, right where the King would pray towards Mecca, there is a beautiful green mosaic of the ‘Tree of Life’, which stems from Zoroastrian mythology.
The Zoroastrians regard fire as a symbol of purity, and in the temple in a huge brass urn, pieces of almond and apricot wood are burning, maintaining a flame that has been kept alive for the last 1524 years. The temple was built by the Last Shah and so is relatively modern, but pleasingly understated. Atop some simple pillars is the Zoroastrian symbol of a Persian man with an Achaemenid-era distinctive pointed beard, two large wings either side of him (one representing good, one bad) and a circle at the bottom, representing the consequences of ones actions. I went in to look at the flame then came back out and sat on a stone step in the blazing sunshine, the heat pounding away on my skin. This is Iran.