Iran: the beauty behind the polemic
Quick, at the count of three, give four ideas related to Iran, the first to come to your head. Already? Surely they will be something like: women completely dressed in black, Ayatollah Khomeini, war, oil... They do not seem too flattering and you’ve probably never stopped to think about this Persian Gulf country, but if you read on you’ll discover a magical place full of history and wonders of what will be difficult for you to forget.
There are too many clichés and preconceptions about Iran. Everybody knows its character as an infamous dictatorship that violates human rights and treats, above all, women, as an impure object with which one must tread carefully. However, behind everything that has happened in the last fifty years, Iran is a country that wants to open itself to the world, with people of all kinds, interests, statures and colors. Of course, there’s always something that must be taken into account: one thing is the people and another is the government. That’s what this series of articles is going to be devoted to; discovering (or reminding) culture, day by day, the sentiments of all these countries that appear constantly in the news because of the decisions of their rulers (or rather the ones that other rulers make for them... but that's another issue) and that on many occasions produce so much rejection from the West.
Let's put aside nationalisms or political ideas and enjoy the senses.
First things first, Iran is a Middle Eastern or Near Eastern Country? It depends how you look at it, which borders to Pakistan and Afghanistan to the east; Turkmenistan by the northeast; the Caspian Sea to the north; Azerbaijan and Armenia by the northwest; Turkey and Iraq to the west and finally to the coast of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the south. Its population is almost 80 million people of very diverse ethnicities and its capital, Tehran, perfectly fulfills the role of agglomerator of all these.
The oldest civilizations, along with Iraq and Syria, were formed thousands of years ago here. But one of them gained much more importance thanks to its power and greatness; Persia. From the 1st millennium BC until 1936, the vast territory that encompassed was connoisseur of a prosperous town with an exquisite culture. For several hundred years, the Persian empires extended by much of the Middle East, reason why their beliefs and customs affected importantly the towns that conquered. Persian music, literature and cuisine are great pillars of contemporary Arab culture. However, the majority religion of the country, the Shiite root of Islam, is not looked very favorably by the rest of Muslim countries, mostly Sunnis; which makes it possible for Iran to find itself somewhat marginalized within the great alliances formed by these countries and for a living wound to be formed between these two great pillars of Muslim culture and history: Iran on one hand and the fraternizing countries of Saudi Arabia on the other. This enmity has meant that Iran has had to develop slowly and recreate itself with the animosity of other countries.
8 unique places in Iran:
It was Iran’s capital while the Achaemenid empire was in charge. 70 km away from the city of Shiraz. Its construction, started with Dario I in charge until, more than two centuries after, Alexander the Great conquered the empire. Its great palaces, paradisiac gardens, big structures and sculptures were built first to impress subjects who came to pay homage to him.
Troglodyte village of Kandovan (Mianeh)
In the remote northwest corner of Iran there is a very special village, that at first sight might look as a termite colony. The residents of this village in the region of East Azerbaijan, have been carving their own houses into caves since the 1300s, when the people fighting against Mongol army needed a place to hide. The homes are known as “karan” in the local dialect, a word that roughly translates as the plural of beehive. The caves are some of the most energy efficient homes created, with the rock providing adequate insulation to keep the interiors comfortable throughout the long cold season. The homes also remain cool in the summer.
The third largest city in Iran is known as the culture capital of the country. It contains the Nasqsh-e Yahán square (named World Heritage Site), known for the beautifully built blue dome that contemplates it. There are also many recognised museums around the city, such as the contemporary arts one, the natural history one and the local music one (a Paradise for intruments lovers). The Khaju bridge is known as the oriental Ponte Veccio, where neighbours reunite everyday between its old archs (from the XVII century). Another remarkable piece is Vank cathedral, built in 1606 for the armenian community. The whole, mixed with the smells and sounds of the neighborhoods creates a small world within Iran.
Shah Cheragh (Shiraz)
Billions of mirrors and glass cover every inch of this spectacular mosque. Its also a funerary monument, housing the tomb of the brothers Ahmad and Muhammad, sons of Mūsā al-Kādhim (the 7th Imam for the sunnis) and brothers of ‘Alī ar-Ridhā (the 8th Immam). The two took refuge in the city during the Abbasid persecution of Shia Muslims. The tombs became celebrated pilgrimage centres in the 14th century.
Despite not being a particularly nice city as its companions, the capital of the country has something that sets it apart. They are not its packed with smog-creating traffic jams or its not very good looking public buildings, it’s its spirit, its people, moving around, celebrating festivities and some manifestations too, relaxing in a tiny restaurant or trying to pass by the enormous bazaar. This last century Tehran has lived the big transformation that has completely changed the country and his politics and it can be perfectly seen in its streets.
With a history of more than 4,500 years in its back, Tabriz is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the entire world.
That deep past now reveals itself in the layers of architectural majesty the place is known for, at spots like the colossal Blue Mosque of 1465, which comes gutted with shimmering ceramics of a deep cobalt blue. Another real must see is the sprawling Bazaar of Tabriz, which is known as one of the great trading outposts of the old Silk Road.
This unique kurdish village, with houses near-vertical built is known for the hospitility of it villagers. The amazing views they have and the ruling peace surely are one of the reasons why. At night, when the mountainside glows with lights, it’s completely delightful.
The colorful stone terrace, very near from Tehran, glows in the sunlight and dazzle the eyes. Although this type of formation is quite seen around the world, Badab-e Surt is unique due to its distinctive orange hue, resulting from a concentration of iron oxide.
Iran’s cinematic scene has gained great fame in recent years. From the pioneering Jafar Panahi films of the 80s to Asghar Farhadi's works of art (his films A separation and The Salesman have captivated international critics and won multiple awards including Best Foreign Film Oscars) small treasures of the recently deceased Abbas Kiarostami. All together they form a charming, but above all, sagacious and realistic vision of Iranian society and geography.
Traditional iranian music is known as one of the worlds most creative and original, with regard to its instruments. Related to the antiquity of its lands, Iranian music has something mystical to it. This sound is clearly influenced by the prayer and sound of the Quran. Some of the instruments most used in today's music are: cane flute, tanbur (string), harp and tar (six strings). Another distinguishing characteristic of Persian music is that it often has the lyrics of the poems of Rumi, Hafez, Saadi or Baba Taher.
Refering to their gastronomy, Iran has affected many other arabic and Eastern countries in their kitchens. Since the beginning of the Persian empire, commercial exchanges propitiated this important affectation of flavors. Apart from the dishes of Arab origin most consumed by this community in the world, such as falafels, lamb in its multiple fare or cous cous, Iran has a vast gastronomy that delights anyone. Some of this extraordinary dishes are: mirza ghasemi, a dish made with eggs, loads of garlic mixed with mashed grilled eggplant, tomatoes, salt, pepper and turmeric.
Kalam polo, a récipe made of cabbage rice and loads of fresh herbs such as parsley, cilantro, chives, basil, tarragon, dill, and summer savory, to which there can be meatballs added.
Dizi sangi is one of the most traditional Iranian dishes; it is a stew of lamb, tomatoes, potatoes, and various legumes cooked in a clay pot with a lump of fat. The liquid is poured into a bowl and eaten with shredded pieces of bread. Meanwhile, the remaining bits are mashed together (with or without the fat) in the pot, spread on flatbread, and eaten with pickled vegetables, onions, and/or fresh herbs.
Tachin is also one of the most famous dishes. It is basically a baked rice cake with chicken layered into yogurt, egg yolk, and saffron-soaked rice. The ingredients are pressed together into a greased dish and baked in the oven, and then sliced just like a cake.
All these and more places, their long history, their pleasant music… everything creates a magical and authentic aura that hardly can be found in any other place on earth.