On the day that our Indagare Insider Trip arrived in Iran, the cover of the Tehran Times featured a photo of a march marking the anniversary of the United States embassy takeover. The next morning, we passed a giant mural on the side of a building depicting an American flag with falling rockets in the place of stripes and bearing the slogan “Down with the U.S.”
This jarringly inauspicious start to our trip proved a wholly inaccurate foreshadowing of what the rest of our weeklong experience in Iran would be. Throughout our stay, people on the streets, in bazaars, at museums and monuments would come up to our group to greet us, ask our impressions and thank us for coming. I have never felt more genuinely welcomed by the local people in any of the more than 100 countries I have visited.
Related: Iran: In Intricate Detail
According to the Tehran Times, the number of foreign tourists arriving in Iran has doubled since it signed a nuclear deal with six Western countries, including the United States, in January 2016, leading to the lifting sanctions. In the top hotels, which were built in the 1960s and ‘70s, by the last shah, or even earlier, we shared buffet breakfasts with mostly French, German and Japanese guests and only a few other Americans. Visitors to Iran understand that they must adapt to Sharia law and customs, under which alcohol is strictly forbidden and women must wear hijabs, or headscarves, outside their rooms. Advanced visas are required for Americans, who must be accompanied by Iranian guides and may not visit Iranians in their homes. These restrictions are richly compensated for by the incredible sights, not to mention the interest and kindness of the people. This is a destination for history buffs and connoisseurs of decorative arts who don’t mind basic rooms and food. It is not for sybarites looking for nightlife or spas.
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From Tehran we drove south through miles of bleak desert to Isfahan, stopping on the way in Qom, the country’s religious center, where we visited the shrine of Fatima al Masumeh, and Kashan, site of the Bagh-e Fin Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we had lunch in a hotel fashioned from traditional houses. In both places, we discussed American politics with Iranians and whether relations would improve between our governments. We all hoped so.
Related: Member Slideshow from Iran
Isfahan, known as the soul of Iran, has long been its artistic center. Its stunning Imam Square, the world’s second largest public square, after Beijing’s Tiananmen, is lined by mosques and palaces boasting incredible tile work. In the Ali-Qapu Palace, from whose central verandah Shah Abbas once watched polo matches, a narrow winding staircase leads up to a music room whose niches, carved in the shape of instruments, were created not just for decoration but to enhance the acoustics as well. Across a park, in the Chehel Sotun Palace’s pavilion of 40 columns, painted walls depict battles against the Ottomans and Uzbeks, as well as feasts and celebrations. Wandering through the city’s Armenian and Jewish quarter, we found small cafés and parks where the locals were enjoying the last warm days of fall. At the slightest smile, girls would approach and ask to have selfies taken with us. The people on the streets were so friendly that when we returned to our hotel, the other Western tourists, who didn’t greet us or stop to chat, seemed cold by contrast.
Related: Iran Insider Trip 2017
The necropolis Naghsh-e Rostam, which lies a few miles from Persepolis, reminded me of Petra. The tombs of Darius the Great, Xerxes and Artaxerxes rise out of the desert, memorializing the kings in millennia-old stone reliefs. Persepolis itself contains the Apadana Palace. It was destroyed by successive waves of conquerors, including Alexander the Great, who set fire to it. What remains, however, is still staggering in beauty and scale. Thought to have covered more than 30 acres, the palace contains bas reliefs depicting the fashions of the great empires of the 1st century B,C. and inspires awe toward the ancient dynasty.
Our last stop was Shiraz, where again the star attractions—in addition to the tile-encrusted palaces and mosques—were the people we met. In the bazaars, the squares and at the tomb of the revered mystic Sufi poet Hafez, we chatted with students, newlyweds and wizened men who remembered when many Americans lived in Iran. One man asked, “Why do you hate us now?” We explained that we do not. “But that is what we are told,” he said, referring to Iranian news reports. I thought of all the people in the U.S. who couldn’t believe that I would travel to Iran. “Aren’t you afraid,” they asked, “knowing that they call us the Great Satan?”
Being in Iran reinforced my belief that, now more than ever, we must travel to countries to understand them and their people. Everyone in our group had read many books and articles on Persia and Iran. Each of these explained some aspect of the region’s history, but none prepared us for the openness we encountered or the instant acceptance of differences. I think of a banner hanging on a park wall in the center of Isfahan that read, “God loves everyone who is happy and easygoing.” In his wonderful book The Silk Roads, which I read while in Iran, Peter Frankopan notes that all great civilizations have been built on tolerance. Yet the media in both our countries convey messages of deep mistrust and intolerance.
That is why I travel to places that exist behind curtains. In Iran, the curtain is made more opaque by misleading media coverage and lost years of communication. Traveling among its people allowed us to experience a reality that is otherwise shielded from the world—a reality that was, in fact, the opposite of what we expected. That “happy and easy-going” banner may have been ridiculously simplistic, but it captured the true atmosphere of the place. Such realizations, realizations that disrupt expectations and acknowledge life’s nuances, are, I think, what transformative travel, in its truest form, is all about.
We have planned an Indagare 2017 Iran Insider Trip for next November and are hopeful that Iran’s ban on Americans visiting will be lifted before then. To see more photos from the transformative trip, view Melissa’s slideshow and an album compiled by participants.