Iran: Historic Capitals
Iran's rich history goes back millennia, to the days when Persepolis was home to the "king of kings." In this episode, we explore three historic capitals of Iran: Persepolis, with its splendid monuments; Shiraz, with the tombs of Iran's most beloved poets; and Isfahan, with its extraordinary mosques and endearing people.
Note on the script: This episode of Rick Steves' Europe was created with footage from the one-hour television special, "Rick Steves' Iran: Yesterday and Today." Aside from minor changes, the second half of the special's script, below, serves as the script for this episode (starting with the section on Esfahan).
Hi, I'm Rick Steves — in what just might be the most surprising and fascinating land I've ever visited. We're in Iran — here to learn, to understand, and to make some friends. Thanks for joining us.
Like most Americans, I know almost nothing about Iran. For me, this is a journey of discovery. What are my hopes? To enjoy a rich and fascinating culture, to get to know a nation that's a leader in its corner of the world — and has been for 2,500 years, and to better understand the 70 million people who call this place home.
We'll show the splendid monuments of Iran's rich and glorious past, discuss the 20th century story of this perplexing nation, and experience Iranian life today in its giant metropolis, historic capital, and a countryside village. ["Salaam."] Most important, we'll meet and talk with the people whose government so exasperates America. ["…situation is open."] We'll go to Friday prayers in a leading mosque, consider the challenges confronting Iran's youth, enjoy the hospitality of a family dinner and survive the crazy Tehran traffic before experiencing the tranquility of rural life and meeting joyful school kids on a field trip.
Iran, twice the size of France, sits in an increasingly important corner of Asia — surrounded by Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. We start in the capital, Tehran, follow an ancient trade route south to the village of Abyaneh, to Esfahan, to Shiraz, and then finish at Persepolis.
Every country, including our own, limits access to foreign film crews. We're here in Iran with the permission of the Iranian government. And we're working within the limits it sets as we explore this complex society.
Knowing we're here to explore social and cultural dimensions rather than contentious political issues, the Iranian government is allowing our work. It believes the Western media has given Iran an unfair image. They gave us our visas provided we respect its limits as enforced by our guide. His job: keep us safe, manage the complicated permissions, and keep an eye on what we're shooting.
Tehran, a youthful, noisy capital city, is the modern heart of this country. It's a smoggy, mile high metropolis. With a teeming population of about ten million, its apartment blocks stretch far into the surrounding mountains.
Traffic is notorious here. My first impression: wild drivers. But after surviving my first day: I realized they were experts at keeping things moving. Many major streets actually intersect without the help of traffic lights. It's different…but it seems to work.
Two wheels are faster than four. Helmet laws are generally ignored. As a matter of fact…sometimes the direction of traffic is ignored as well. To cross town quickly, motorcycle taxis are a blessing. But wear that helmet. I'd rather leave a little paint on passing buses than a piece of scalp.
Pedestrians fend for themselves. Negotiating traffic as you cross the street is a life skill here. Locals say it's like "going to Chechnya."
Immersed in the commotion of a busy work day — apart from the chador-covered women and lack of Western fast food chains — Tehran seemed much like any city in the developing world.
If you need to get somewhere in a hurry — or if your motorcycle taxi is under some big bus — thank goodness for the subway. Tehran's thriving subway moves over a million people a day.
This subway system is really as good as anything I've seen in Europe.
Of Iran's 70 million people, well over half are under the age of 30. While there are plenty of minorities, the Persian population dominates. The local ethnicity reflects the turmoil of this country's long history. You'll find people with Greek, Arab, Turk, Mongol, Kurdish and Azerbaijani heritage.
Iranians are not Arabs and they don't speak Arabic. This is an important issue with the people of Iran. They are Persians and they speak Farsi. Faces seem to tell a story and are quick to smile…especially when they see a film crew from the USA. Actually, we found that the easiest way to get a smile was to tell people where we're from.
Rick: I'm from the United States…
Man 1: Oh, you're from the United States…OK.
Man 2: America? Wow!
Rick: Yeah, it's true, it's actually true.
Woman: I love you, America.
Rick: Thank you; that's nice to hear.
I was impressed by how the people we met were curious and eager to talk. Young educated people are internet savvy and well-informed about the West. They generally spoke some English. Anywhere foreigners went, signs were bilingual: Farsi for locals…and English for everyone else.
The script looks Arabic to me, but I learned — like the language — it's Farsi. The numbers, however, are the same as those used in the Arab world.
Another communication challenge: people here have to deal with different calendars: Persian and Muslim (for local affairs), Western (for dealing with the outside world). What year is it? Well it depends: After Mohammad — about 1,390 years ago, after Christ — two thousand and some years ago.
And all this complexity is the result of a long and tumultuous history. The National Museum of Iran helps to give an appreciation of this country's rich heritage. At first I was disappointed by what seemed like a humble collection for such a great culture. Then I learned that most of its treasures were destroyed or looted by invaders and much of what survived was taken away to the great museums in the West.
The collection starts in prehistoric times, back when nomadic hunters were becoming farmers. This bronze plaque featuring Gilgamesh dates from about 1000 B.C., a time when this region was in the realm of Mesopotamia. Then in about 500 BC, with the great kings Darius and Xerxes, the mighty Persian Empire was established.
Their art glorified their kings and the notion of peace through strength. Culture flourished and it was about this time that, with cuneiform, the Persian language was first put into writing.
That first Persian Empire was conquered by Alexander the Great from Greece. Later, a second Persian Empire was conquered by Arabs. Then came invasions by Turks and Mongols. Finally, with the establishment of a Third Persian Empire in the 16th century, this culture enjoyed a renaissance. While it's weathered wave after wave of conquerors, the essence of today's Iranian culture is still rooted in that first Persian Empire from 2,500 years ago.
Newsreel: Persia; At the turn of the century, a poor agricultural country, rich only in legend and undeveloped natural resources…
In the 20th century, with the discovery of its vast oil reserves, Iran became entwined with the West.
Newsreel: …oil was struck at last and drilling commenced…
During World War II, Iran was a vital oil resource for the Allies. After the war Iran's young shah, or king, Mohammed Reza Shah Palavi became more closely involved with the West. Oil flowed easy and he was a friend of western oil companies. Then things changed…
Oil, again poses a threat to peace and the Middle East again becomes a trouble spot as Iran's vast petroleum reserves aroused nationalists…
In 1951 the popular Prime Minister Mossadegh nationalized Iran's foreign-owned oil industry. With the resulting turmoil, the shah was forced into exile. This is when the troubled relationship between Iran and the United States began.
Every Iranian school kid knows the date: 1953. That's when the CIA engineered a coup that over threw the democratically elected prime minister Mossadegh. He had angered the West by nationalizing Iranian oil. So they installed the pro-Western shah instead.
Newsreel: Former premier Mossadegh's ruined house is a mute testimony to three days of bloody rioting culminating in a military coup from which the one time dictator of Iran fled for his life. The Shah who had fled to Rome comes home backed by General Zahedi military strong-man who engineered his return to power. Iranian oil may again flow westward.
Back on the throne, the shah allowed Western oil companies to run Iran's oil industry again. With the profits, he modernized the country. Through the '60s there was a return to stability and the shah was a key American ally in the Middle East.
The shah ruled in royal opulence from grand palaces. He enjoyed summers in this one until the late 1970s. Strolling through its fine rooms visitors are reminded how the shah lived in extreme luxury. But his materialistic decadence and pro-Western policies offended Iran's conservatives and alienated religious and political groups. Angry people hit the streets.
The unrest led to crackdowns by the shah's forces that tortured and killed thousands. All of this emboldened a revolutionary movement and burned into the national psyche a fear of American meddling in internal Iranian affairs.
After 25 years of the Shah's rule, the Islamic Revolution threw him out and brought Ayatollah Khomeini back from exile. That Revolution and the Ayatollah established the Islamic Republic which rules to this day.
Walking the streets here, I felt a disturbing presence of government. This is not a democracy. In 1979 the new government brought Iran not freedom, but what they call a "Revolution of Values" – it legislated morality such as no alcohol, and no casual sex. As far as many parents are concerned here, it's family values.
Iran is ruled by a theocracy. They may have a president, but the top religious official, a man called "the supreme leader" has the ultimate authority. His picture — not the president's — is everywhere.
Religious offering boxes are on every street corner. The days when the shah's men boasted that mini-skirts in Tehran were shorter than those in Paris are clearly long gone. Women must dress modestly and are segregated in places like classrooms and buses.
And yet here in the Islamic Republic of Iran, to me, the atmosphere felt surprisingly secular compared to other Muslim countries.
Skylines are not punctuated with minarets; I barely heard a call to prayer. Except for women's dress codes and the lack of American products and advertising, life on the streets here seemed much the same as in secular cities elsewhere in the developing world.
While relatively uncluttered with commercial advertising, there are plenty of billboards and murals and they pack a powerful propaganda message… Some religious murals are uplifting — this one is a Shiite scripture claiming; the most caring help is to give good advice.
Yet others are troubling and hateful — this one condemns what's considered American Imperialism with skulls and dropping bombs rather than stars and stripes. And this one glorifies Hezbollah fighters and their struggle with Israel which many here consider Americas' 51st state. This mural honors a martyr — one of hundreds of thousands who died fighting Saddam Hussein back in the 1980s.
These murals mix religion, patriotism, and a heritage of dealing with foreign intervention. While I find some of them offensive, I see in these murals the fear and the spine of a people whose values are threatened.
The greatest concentration of anti-American murals surrounds the former US Embassy. In 1979, Iranian university students successfully stormed the embassy, they took 52 hostages, and held them with the world looking on for 444 days.
Some Iranians claim the hostage crisis was a way to radicalize the Islamic revolution and put the hard-liners in power. Others say it was a pre-emptive strike to stop the USA from orchestrating a military coup designed to overthrow their theocracy and put the shah back in power. They also wanted to force the extradition of the shah who was in exile in the United States.
Today it feels like the hostage crisis is old news and younger Iranians have moved on. The murals seemed to drone on like an unwanted call to battle — a call which people I encountered it seems had simply stopped hearing.
Tehran is a vibrant metropolis — Iran's social, artistic and educational center. Its university is the oldest, biggest and most prestigious in the land. It's quite selective — only about one in ten applicants get in. Here, as in other Iranian universities, students enjoy a higher education paid for by the government.
But wandering through campus, we learned that free tuition comes with strict guidelines as dictated by the theocracy. While I hoped to find some non-conformity, the vibe here made BYU seem like Berkeley. Compliance raged.
Women are perfectly welcome. In fact women outnumber Iranian men in both universities and in many respected professions. But segregation is the rule. In classrooms, it's men on one side and women on the other. There was no real student union center, just a small commons in each department…with a snack bar for men and an adjacent one for women.
Despite the conservative atmosphere, we found students friendly, curious, and willing to chat.
Rick: What do you study?
Rick: Chemistry? Very difficult. For me, very difficult.
Rick: What do you study?
Woman 2: Chemistry.
Rick: All of you are chemistry!
Rick: So we are learning very much when we come to Iran.
Woman 3: For example?
Rick: For example, the people are not angry with America.
Woman: Yes, government has a lot of war with each other because they benefit but there's no war between people.
Rick: That's a very interesting point. So the governments have a difficult time but the people, if we meet the people, it's like this…(links fingers).
Woman: Yes, they are like friends to each other. They should be friends.
Rick: I like that. So for Americans we are a very religious people but we make the government and the church apart you know?
Woman: It's not common to each other. But in Iran unfortunately the religious and the politics is mixed with each other.
Woman: And that's the main problem.
Rick: You think that's —
Woman: It's the main problem and it's the main point of that distance between people and government.
Rick: So you are a modern young woman?
Woman: Yes of course.
Rick: Well educated?
Woman: Yes, I like to be.
Rick: And you must cover your hair.
Woman: Yes, it's a law in Iran.
Rick: It's a law.
Woman: It's a law.
Rick: Now I cannot shake your hand?
Woman: No, because here it's a religious society.
Rick: So I can go like…Salaam?
Rick: OK. And I can shake his hand?
Woman: Yes, yes.
Rick: I'll shake your hand for her…OK? Thank you.
Man: Do you like to take a picture? Do you like to take a picture together?
Rick: I would like to take a picture (that's a good-looking hat). I have a game I like to play with all my new friends. I will go like this…can I take a picture with you and me?
Woman: Yes, of course.
Rick: And all of you guys together. So you can go here. OK, alright. Are we ready? So we'll look into the camera and we'll say "salaam" and we'll say "people to people".
Iranian women live under strict Muslim laws in public. To a Western viewpoint, the dress code imposed on women seems disrespectful. But according to an Islamic perspective, modesty is considered respectful. In Iran, women's bodies are not vehicles for advertising. You don't see sexy magazines. There is almost no public display of affection.
While women can dress as they like at home, in public they wear the chador and are expected not to show their hair or showoff the shape of their body. I found their awareness of our camera fascinating — women seemed to sense when it was near and would adjust their scarves to make sure their hair was properly covered. Local surveys indicate that about 70% of these women would dress more freely in public if allowed.
While modesty is enforced, vanity is not out of bounds. In fact cosmetic surgery — especially nose jobs — is big business here among the middle class. Even though covered up, women expertly utilize their feminine charms. Faces are beautifully made up and when so much else is covered, particularly expressive and mysterious.
In Tehran, I found simply wandering the shopping streets endlessly entertaining. Dropping into this book store and surveying its selection, the Persian passion for poetry became clear….
Rick: Yes, so this one opens like so.
And in Farsi, the book starts where our books end.
Rick: Is this the beginning of the book here?
Streets were lined with cheap, colorful snack bars and inviting ice cream shops. Each little visit left me with indelible and often tasty memories.
This isn't just any ice cream sandwich — saffron, rosewater, and pistachios…a Persian specialty.
But if you really want to shop with style, leave the gritty, intense central area and head to the hilly district of North Tehran. Browsing in its malls and classy shops, you could be in London or Paris.
Shoppers who have the money can find nearly anything they like. This high-end confectionary shop gives a glimpse of the taste and lifestyles of North Tehran citizens.
Cafes in lush gardens like this are the playground of Iran's wealthy…where they "let their hair down"…just a little. The young, privileged, and cosmopolitan manage to be quite fashionable. This scene may be chic, but I heard that the real partying goes on in the privacy of people's homes. Many of these people could afford to live abroad, but prefer to live as economic elites here in the ritziest corner of Tehran.
On our way out of town we visit a symbol of this vibrant city, its Freedom Monument. Dating from the 1970s, it's one of the former Shah of Iran's many extravaganzas. He built it to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire and all the mighty Persian kings who came before him. Underlining the ancient roots of this society, its design symbolizes a Zoroastrian fire altar and it's decorated with classic Persian motifs.
Leaving Tehran was quick and easy with its impressive system of highways. Just outside of town, we drop by the great mosque containing the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini. He was the spiritual leader of the rebellion that overthrew the Shah in 1979 and Khomeini ruled the country for the next decade.
Even though the mosque can accommodate up to a million worshippers on special days, it's undergoing a major expansion. The work is funded by small donations mostly from the poor as they were the people Khomeini inspired the most. This felt like a particularly easy-going mosque — in keeping with Khomeini's image among his people. Rather than the impression I've long held…of a menacing ideologue, here he's considered a sage — and a champion of traditional values.
After the shah's excesses and corruption, Khomeini's simplicity and holiness had a strong appeal to the Iranian masses. He did use oppressive tactics. But to the poor and the less educated the charismatic Khomeini was like a messiah. As the personification of the Islamic Revolution, he symbolized deliverance from the economic oppression and Western decadence of the Shah. Khomeini gave millions of Iranians hope.
Continuing south on the main highway, the arid vastness of this Alaska-sized country is clear. Venturing up a river valley, where water brings life to the landscape, we find a timeless moment: a shepherd watching over his flock. The scene could be from five thousand years ago when this corner of Iran was part of the Fertile Crescent. A place and time when farming and the domestication of animals helped give rise to the first great civilizations.
You get the feeling this could be back in ancient Mesopotamia. Then we came across the village of Abyaneh nestled in its valley. The remains of a ruined castle are a reminder of its former importance.
Now a sleepy backwater Abyaneh is a picturesque example of Iranian village life. The reflective roofs help residents weather blistering summers. I'm glad we're here in May.
As in small towns almost everywhere, the younger generation is pulled to the big city in search of employment and a more exciting life. Those who remain are old and seem to have an abundance of time on their hands.
The few tourists — mostly Iranian — wander through admiring the simple architecture and fine old wooden balconies. For me, the village highlight was meeting its people.
With a little translation help, I get a demonstration in the local fashions for men…along with baggie pants the town is proud of its unique gender specific door knockers. I never considered the value of knowing if it's a boy or a girl at the door. But that's handy for a conservative Muslim woman.
Rick: Xodâhâfez. Bye bye.
Woman: Xodâhâfez. Bye bye.
And the main industry seems to be selling dried fruits.
Rick: Salaam. Is this good? What is this?<
Rick: How many? I don't think so…I'll give you…Oh, Khomeini? Him? OK? That one? OK, merci.
So, it surprised me. They said one Khomeini and I bought these dried apples with this bill and it's got a Khomeini on it. So that's what they call a bill for the tourists…a "Khomeini."
Rick: OK, nice.
This austere yet holy mosque was dedicated to the Muslim equivalent of a saint. Inside, two young men who work in a Tehran TV station were attracted to our high definition camera. This encounter provided an opportunity for a quick language lesson.
Rick: If I want say "hello," what do I say?
Man: You must say: "Al salaam a'alaykum."
Rick: Salaam a'alaykum… If that's too long for me and I want to just say "hi."
Man: "Hi" means "salaam."
Rick: Salaam... salaam… and if I want to say goodbye?
Man: "Goodbye" means "xodâhâfez."
Man: "Xoda" means "God," "hafez" means "keeper."
Rick: So, "God keep you?"
Rick: May God keep, take care of you.
Man: Yes. I wish that God keep you.
Rick: Say "high def"…is good?
Iran's main highway, slices through the empty landscape, linking the country's leading cities like a lifeline.
After a few hours we reach Esfahan. The city, with a million and a half people, is a showcase of Persian splendor. One of the finest cities in Islam and the cultural heart of Iran, it's famous for its dazzling blue tiled domes and romantic bridges. Iranians come here to both connect with their heritage and to celebrate it. I'm not surprised that this city is Iran's number one honeymoon destination.
Along with being romantic, Esfahan is also just plain enjoyable. Its main boulevard is a delight giving the visitor a slice-of-life look at today's commerce. It's a bustling scene as entertaining for its people watching as it is for its window-shopping. We found the people in Esfahan were as friendly and willing to talk to us as they were in the countryside.
Rick: What is your name?
Man: Your heart is very kind.
Rick: Thank you, your heart is kind, too.
Man: I am very philanthropic.
Rick: Yeah? Can I take your photograph? Hello... Thank you… America and Iran, we can be friends.
Man: I wish that the relationship between Iran and America become good.
Rick: Me too.
The Chehel Sotun Palace is a vivid reminder that Esfahan was the capital of Persia 400 years ago. With its reflecting pool and fine gardens, the palace gives you a sense of Persia's 16th and 17th century golden age. The portico features twenty slender and stately wooden columns. The entrance shows the geometric motif the Persians were famous for. Twinkling mirrors lure you into the interior of the palace.
I was struck by the elegance and grace of Islamic Persia at its zenith. With tender dancers, flowing hair, and dashing moustaches, the sumptuous richness of this culture comes across in these fine paintings.
Scenes in its grand hall show how, around four centuries ago, the king or shah maintained, defended, and expanded his empire. Here the shah and his troops quell a revolt against his rule by the Uzbekis.
Then, defending his empire, the shah battles the Ottoman Turks — with their frightening new artillery — and manages to stop the Ottoman's Eastward juggernaut. Waging what I would imagine was very high powered diplomacy; the shah threw extravagant banquets in this very palace. These splendid scenes seem to show off the very best of Persian life.
In Esfahan, everything seems to radiate from the grand Imam Square — it's one of the largest in the world. Like so much in Iran that prior to 1979 was named for the Shah, now it's named after Khomeini, the great Imam — as leading Muslim teachers are called. Two striking mosques face Imam Square.
The smaller mosque was built for the women of the shah's harem. Under its colorful dome, lattice windows illuminate intricate mosaic work.
The Imam mosque — one of holiest in Iran — is both huge and beautiful with the elaborate decoration typical of Persian mosques. It has exquisite tile work and was constructed in the early 1600s. That's about when Bernini was redoing St. Peter's basilica and Europe was in its Baroque age.
Its towering façade is as striking as the grandest cathedrals of Europe. But Islam forbids images. Therefore, rather than the carved statues you'd find decorating a Christian church, a mosque has decorative designs and script. This creates a visual chant of Koranic verses praising Allah — or God. Locals believe that the color pattern of the tiles: light Turkish blue and dark Persian blue — is calming and contributes to spiritual healing.
This mosque's cantor is happy to demonstrate the splendid acoustics of its 17th century dome.
We're here it seems with much of Esfahan for Friday prayers. Filled with thousands of worshippers, the mosque comes to life. This scene struck me as similar to a church service back home — sermon… responsive reading… lots of prayer… lots of getting up, and getting down.
But there are perplexing differences: women worship in a separate section; soldiers stand guard among the worshippers — a reminder of the tensions within today's Islamic world; … and the seemingly innocuous yellow banner in the background proclaims death to Israel.
This disturbing mix of politics and religion apparently results from a deep seated resentment of Western culture imposed on their world. Esfahan, as a religious center, is an ideal place to try to better understand complexities like these.
Officially this is the Islamic Republic of Iran. It's a Shiite Muslim theocracy… there's no separation of mosque and state. The constitution does allow for other religions as long as they don't offend Islam. A major concern: Mohammad, who came in the 7th century, is considered the last prophet. That's why Sunni Muslims, Christians and Jews are tolerated but Bahai's (whose prophet, Baha u llah, came in the 19th century) are not. Tolerance?…to a degree. Religious freedom? Well let's put it this way: if you want to get anywhere in Iran's military or government you better be a practicing Shiite Muslim.
Iranians are predominately Shiite Muslim, not Sunni Muslim. Struggling to understand the difference, I asked our local guide, Mr. Seyed Rehim Bathaei, to explain.
Rick: So, there are more than a billion Muslims on this planet. Some are Sunni, some are Shiite, what's the difference?
Seyed: Difference is very simple. They were split after the death of the prophet Muhammad, and it was the beginning of seventh century, and it was over the succession of the prophet Muhammad. Those people who believed in Ali, as a successor of prophet Muhammad, and also his descendants, were Shiite, became Shiite. And those who didn't believe in the system, we call them Sunni's.
Rick: All the different Christians have one bible, what about Shiite's and Sunni's?
Seyed: They have got the same book, same holy book, it's called Koran. Same verses, same writing.
Rick: Good Sunni, good Shiite die, do they both go to heaven?
Sayed: They both go to heaven. That's the same for Sunni and Shiite's… There are only minor differences.
Rick: But these differences seem small, but still, many people are dying, and I read in the news Sunni fighting Shiite. Of course, Protestants have fought Catholics and many people were dying, today in Islam Sunni and Shiite are fighting, why is that?
Sayed: Just consider that many nations have fought each other during the course of history, not all of it has been because of religion.
Rick: But there's so much bloodshed between Sunni's and Shiite's. In the 1980's, one million casualties between Sunni Iraq and Shiite Iran. Why do they fight and shed blood when the differences seem so small?
Sayed: Because it wasn't a religious war. It has got nothing to do for being a Shiite or Sunni. That was a territorial thing, and also ambitions of a dictator, Saddam Hussein.
Rick: Economic expansion, nationalism.
Sayed: Nationalism, economic expansion, some help from superpowers. I think the best example for the people in the West to understand these matters between Shiite's and Sunni's, is this example of England and Ireland.
Whatever the root causes — religious or nationalism…the Sunni and Shiite Muslims share a bloody past. And the conflict continues. Like cities throughout Iran, Esfahan has a cemetery dedicated to the estimated 200,000 Iranian martyrs — as anyone who dies in a religious or national war is called — of the Iran/Iraq war. All the portraits and all the dates are from the 1980s.
Today, over two decades later, the cemetery is still very much alive with mourning loved ones. While the United States lives with the scars of Viet Nam, a generation of Iranians live with the scars of their war with Iraq — a war in which Iran, with one quarter of our population, suffered many times the deaths.
It's traditional in Iran to picnic at the gravesites of lost loved ones. We met two families, who each lost a son in the war, sharing a meal. They first met here twenty years ago and became friends. Their surviving children married. And they've shared memorial meals together here at the tombs of their lost sons ever since.
Esfahan's sprawling covered Bazaar still serves the community — as it has for 1300 years. It functions like a big shopping mall. Locals pick up the basics for everyday living. For me, it was a great opportunity to get a lesson in things uniquely Persian from merchants who, perhaps, had never met an American tourist.
Rick: Tell me, what is this for? Many colors…
Man: It is ah, seven spices.
Rick: Seven spices.
Man: Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, red pepper, coriander and this is muscat. You then mix together and like this…
Rick: OK, this is a pirates-punch…
Man: For cooking, this is for chicken or meat.
Rick: Oh, that takes me back to dinner last night, yeah…
Man: Very delicious.
Rick: So when I have a meat dish in a restaurant I will have this spice, all mixed together.
Man: Yeah, mixed together.
Rick: This is saffron.
Man: Yeah, this is saffron.
Rick: Can I taste a little bit?
Man: Yeah, yeah… very good for body.
Rick: For the… yeah, I bet.
Rick: Am I red?
Like a vast department store, the bazaar has different sections. The countless gold shops are a reminder that for locals — especially the women — gold is a solid way to keep your wealth. It's considered a hedge against currency devaluation and inflation… and, it's dazzling to wear. Traditionally, women here wore their personal savings in the form of gold bracelets.
Another local treasure is so typical of this land that the words just fit together: Persian carpets. We're dropping into a shop for a little lesson.
Persian carpets go back twenty five hundred years and have a rich tradition. There are two types: Nomadic and city-woven. Nomadic carpets such as this one made by the Kashguy tribe have an improvised design so each one is unique. They always have a geometric design, are made of lamb's wool and use organic colors made from vegetable dyes.
City-woven carpets can be made of wool and/or silk. They are based on a predetermined design and usually have floral patterns. This one, made in the Ayatollah Khomeini's city of Khomayn, took one master weaver 14 months to complete. With a combination of skill, tradition, and the finest materials, Iranians believe that Persian carpets are the best in the world.
Straddling its river, Esfahan is famous for its marvelous bridges which date to the 17th century. And between those bridges, stretching for six miles on either bank is a much-loved city park.
This is where families and friends gather over a pot of tea or box of sweets. Here on the riverbank, I was struck by the tranquility of the scene, filled with people who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying life's simple blessings.
I love it in the last hour of the day when everybody is out and here in Esfahan it's down to the river bank. You know, all over Europe you've got this passegiata / paseo — people are out during the magic hour. I didn't expect to find it here in Iran, but boy, they've got it. I don't know what the word is in Farsi…but they've got the paseo.
Like the paseo, it's a social scene filled with young men and women and families enjoying the moment. Any interaction between men and women seemed very discrete. Still, even with the constraints of dress and behavior, I sensed a confidence and youthful vitality. To me, these young people felt like the future of Iran. They had a modern sensibility and seemed well educated.
Rick: I have many friends in America that are curious about Iran, what can you tell them? What message would you give to my friends?
Girls: Your friends? About people?
Rick: About the people in Iran.
Girls: We love them… OK, we love the people in America.
Rick: Yeah? That's good to hear. Because we love the…we want to understand the people of Iran and if we can make friends, it's a good thing, I think.
Girls: Yeah, it's great.
Rick: Do you have friends that you come to see on the river?
Girls: On the river? No, we just come here with our families.
Rick: Might you meet a boy down here?
Girls: No, we don't meet a boy usually.
Rick: Where do you meet a boy?
Rick: Someday you must meet a boy.
Girls: OK, we may meet a boy, but we are not supposed to find a boy.
Rick: Oh, they find you?
Girls: OK, yeah, they find us.
Rick: Really? How does that work?
Girls: OK, it really works.
Rick: Does it work OK? So you have no worries about this.
Girls: No, no worries.
Rick: You'll be happy.
Rick: That's good, I hope you're happy.
Rick: Very nice to meet you.
Girls: You too, same here.
As the sun goes down the people of Esfahan also gather in Imam square as if to savor the beauty of their city at twilight.
At the edge of Esfahan on a windy bluff stand the well-worn remains of the Atashkedeh Fire Temple. Way back in the 5th century, the eternal flame of what many consider the first monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism, burned from this mountain top temple. Zoroastrianism, which predates Islam by over a thousand years, is a reminder that Iranian or Persian culture goes back long before the 7th century advent of Islam.
The earliest Persian kings were Zoroastrian. This medallion symbolized humankind finding enlightenment in the one Zoroastrian god. The religion had three essential tenets: right thinking, right saying, and right doing. And today in this predominately Muslim society a small Zoroastrian community still survives and worships freely.
Heading further south, I was impressed by the stark beauty of the countryside. Much of Iran is a high plateau. In fact, during our entire visit we'll never drop below about 4,000 feet.
Each rough roadside town we pass gives an insight into work-a-day Iranian rural life. This village offers a glimpse at a busy bakery. Business is brisk and the efficient mini production line reveals that good fresh bread is still the staff of life.
The fertile river valleys still grow grain as they have for ages. And using technology from the days of David and Goliath, a farmer slings a rock to frighten the birds off his barley.
And, just across the stream, stands a caravansary — a road-side inn going back to the Middle Ages and the days of Marco Polo. Iran served as a thoroughfare for the legendary Silk Road. It was a 5,000 mile long trade route connecting China and Istanbul — the gateway to Europe. Along the entire route, every 30 miles or so — that would be a day's journey by camel — there was a rest stop providing a safe and secure overnight for the caravans.
Seeing the shafts of light swirling with ancient dust, it's easy to imagine the smell of cook fires so many centuries ago and the cacophony of sounds as travelers took shelter within these walls.
I find these caravansaries evocative. Imagine, this fortified complex providing a safe refuge for the night — complete with restaurant, good place to park the camel, market, entertainment, and a great place to catch up on the latest news.
Across the farmers field atop a cliff sits the ruins of an ancient city. Iran is dotted with weathered remnants of its rich history. Many of these bits of its ancient past go back 2000 years — to the age when silk and other treasures from the Orient began arriving in Europe. Today, the Iranian government recognizes the value and the fragility of its heritage and it's working to preserve it.
A couple more hours to the southwest is Shiraz — a booming city of over a million people. Another center of Persian culture, Shiraz is a sophisticated city. Its impressive citadel, with fine brick work, survives from when this was the capital of Persia 200 years ago.
Shiraz is famous as the home of beloved Persian poets. Perhaps the two greatest were Hafez and Saadi, who lived here centuries ago. Gardens sprawl out from the poets' tombs with tranquil corners provided to ponder the mystical brilliance of these prophets of love. Even in our rushed modern world, Iranians take time to slow down and be meditative. Friends and families gather here to share their poetry.
Hafez who lived in the early fourteenth century is entombed beneath this ornate canopy in this peaceful garden. His lyrical poems are noted for their beauty. They draw upon themes of love, mysticism, and early Sufi teachings. He is revered and his poetry is still enormously influential on the Iranian people.
The tomb of sheikh Saadi has a similar impact on people from all levels of Iranian society. Writing in the 13th century he drew from his extensive travels and interactions with people from all walks of life. His words still stir the souls of Iranians.
[Woman reading poem in Farsi (translation below)]
The links of the beloved's hair form a chain of suffering
the man, not thus bound, remains unaware of this tale.
As for myself, strike me by the sword in her full view
a sidelong glance from those eyes will full ransom make.
And should I give up life in pursuit of her favor
no pity at all; I love the beloved more than my life…
Guide: This is Rick.
Rick: Nice to meet you.
Visitors are welcomed into Iranian homes as honored guests. We've been invited into a fairly wealthy family's home for dinner and a look at the modern domestic scene. Their home is as contemporary and up to date as you'd find anywhere.
Because we're here with our camera the women are dressed more conservatively than they would be if they were just here with their family and friends. Time and time again we experienced how, in Islam, visitors are considered a "gift of God" and treated as such with generous hospitality — and tonight, that includes a wonderful meal.
Guide: This is called Iranian kebab. This is the chicken.
Rick: So this would be lamb mostly.
Guide: Yeah, mostly lamb, mostly lamb.
Rick: Do you say bon appétit? Is there any word like that?
Guide: Nooshe jan.
Other man: Yeah, nooshe jan.
Rick: Nooshe jan, nooshe jan.
Guide: The same as bon appétit.
Before I know it my plate is filled with fish, kebabs, two kinds of rice, eggplant, and tomatoes…the conversation is as lively as at any home I've visited in Europe.
Rick: That's what people say: If you want to eat well in Iran, make some friends.
And dessert came with a surprise…
Rick: Hey, look at this!
Everyone singing: Happy Birthday to you…
Rick: Ohhh, thank you… oh you guys!
Man: Puff your candles.
Rick: Puff em' out… yoooo! Ohh… mamnūnam, mamnūnam very much.
An hour's drive from Shiraz takes us to Persepolis, the dazzling capital of the Persian Empire back when it reached from Greece all the way to India. Built by Darius and his son Xerxes the Great around 500 BC, this was the awe-inspiring home of the 'king of kings' for nearly 200 years.
I'd always dreamed of visiting Persepolis and it didn't disappoint. For me, this is the most magnificent ancient sight between the Holy Land and India.
The vast complex is a series of royal palaces built on a massive elevated terrace. At the time Persia was so mighty, no fortifications were needed. Still 10,000 guards served at the pleasure of the emperor.
At the "Nations' Gate" dignitaries from the 28 nations subjugated by Persia entered "we're not worthy"-style to pay their taxes and humble respect to the emperor.
Cuneiform inscriptions, from 500 BC, say the same thing in three languages. Essentially: the king is empowered by god. Submit totally to him for the good of Persia. All nations can live in peace… if, you are compliant.
The palace of Xerxes is called the Columned Palace because it once had 72 columns. The uniquely decorative Persian capitals recall the distinct power and pride of this civilization. Imagine its immense roofs spanned by precious Lebanese cedar carried all the way from the Mediterranean. It was under Xerxes that the Persians defeated the Greeks and burned and pillaged Athens in 480 BC.
Next to the columned palace is the throne hall marked by its distinctive collection of mighty doorways. The throne hall was used mainly for receptions for military commanders and representatives of all the subjugated nations of the Empire. The frames are elaborately decorated.
Evocative reliefs survive throughout the ruins of Persepolis. Supplicants gracefully climb the same steps we do, bringing offerings to the king. Lions, a symbol of might, represented both the king and the power of the seasons. In this recurring scene, a lion kills a bull symbolizing spring killing winter and bringing new life. Then, as today, Iranians celebrated their new year on the 21st of March, the first day of spring.
The figure on the eagle's wing, that symbol of the Zoroastrian faith, is a reminder that the king's power came from Ahuramazda — the Zoroastrian god.
Imagine this place at its zenith: the ceremonial headquarters of the Persian Empire. Coming here you have high expectations. Being here, they are exceeded. Iranians visit with a great sense of pride. For an American, it'd be like having Montecello, Cape Canaveral, and Mount Rushmore all rolled into one magnificent sight.
Gigantic royal tombs, reminiscent of those built for Egyptian pharaohs, are cut into the adjacent mountainside. The scale of Darius and Xerxes' tombs is intended to dwarf the mere mortals viewing them. Each comes with huge carved reliefs displaying their battle prowess. Even today — 2500 years after their deaths — they're reminding us of their great power.
As history has taught us, no empire lasts forever. In 333 BC Persepolis was sacked and burned by Alexander the Great — the Macedonian Greek who turned the tide against the Persian Empire. Ending Persian dominance, Alexander spread his Greek culture all the way to India. And Persepolis has been in ruins ever since.
Iran is an ancient and proud land with a rich culture. Traveling here, it felt like a paradox — it's contradictions difficult to understand. While our governments may be at odds, the people we met were consistently curious, generous and friendly.
I found that, like in my country, there's a tension between modern and traditional, liberal and conservative, secular and religious. Maybe we're all just struggling to defend the moral fabric of our respective societies. I've been wondering to what extent the USA/Iran tensions might be explained by caring people on both sides motivated by love and fear. And the flip side of fear is understanding.
I came to Iran a little nervous. I leave impressed more by what we have in common than by our differences. I've overcome my fear by getting to know the Iranian people. Granted, there are no easy solutions to the problems confronting our two nations. But surely getting to know this culture is a step in the right direction. I'm Rick Steves. Happy travels…and as they say here, "peace be upon us."