Ticket to Iran: a traveler's concern turns to fascination
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
April 2, 2000
Author: Gig Gwin\Special to the Post-Dispatch
Photo by Gig Gwin

An American quells his anxiety on a countrywide tour of Iran's historic sites. By Gig Gwin

The moment I arrived at the airport in Tehran, there was no mistaking that I was in a strange land. The customs agent took one look at my U.S. passport and escorted me to a special restricted area. One official put my passport on a copy machine while three uniformed soldiers debated my fate. I noticed some intense discussion for what seemed to be an eternity. Then politely they returned my passport, escorted me to baggage claim and gave me permission to enter the great land of Persia.

But still, I wondered, was I perceived as friend or foe? Was I a welcome tourist or part of the Great Satan of the West that the ayatollah says has imposed severe hardships on his country?

One might ask in today's turbulent world why anyone would travel to Iran. As most people know, there are no diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran, and visas have to be obtained through the Pakistan Embassy in Washington. The ponderous bureauracy of the Pakistan embassy finally granted my visa request, but the procedure took two months. But through it all, there was a fascination with being in this proud land.

Iran possesses great historical landmarks, dating from the early Persian dynasties through modern times. To truly explore the greatness of this country, a traveler needs two weeks. My itinerary took me to the capital city, Tehran, and south into the desert to Shiraz, "the city of poets," and to the ancient ruins of Persepolis. My sojourn also included the eastern holy city of Mashhad on the northern border with Afghanistan. And a final stop through the eastern Zagros Mountains to the border of Iraq. My trip exposed me to a culture that I have experienced in no other country in the world.

Getting accustomed

In Shiraz, I went through the formalities of checking into my modest room and organizing my clothes. I suddenly became aware of a black arrow fastened to the ceiling. My curiosity, and my suspicions, were aroused. Was it a microphone? Was it a small camera? Then I came to my senses and realized it was a marker pointing toward Mecca. Of course, if you're a Muslim and need to pray in your room, you need to know which direction to face. I felt a little foolish and decided it was time to visit the city's landmarks.

My experienced young guide, Ali, and I spent the day enjoying two poet's shrines and a spectacular mirror-encrusted mosque with thousands of light reflections. He then suggested we drive to a hilltop teahouse and relax while overlooking the city.

In this tranquil setting, I was ensconced in a totally different society. All the women wear black robes or chadors. They don't wear veils, but rather an oval-shaped scarf around their faces. The result, to a Westerner, is an eerie, almost sheltered appearance. I also noticed that the women did not wear makeup. The chadors are tent-like, showing no figure and discouraging a feminine look. Why? The Supreme Leader, the ayatollah, has decreed it's the Muslim law. The few Western women who visit Iran must wear a scarf and chador in public.

The ruins of Percepolis

Teahouses throughout Iran are very important. They are the major social gathering places, starting at lunchtime and continuing through the evening. They serve a tasty tea called Chia, bottled water or soda, and a fascinating ice dessert called Faludeh. But no alcohol is served in the teahouse, no alcohol in the hotel, no alcohol sold anywhere in the country. Why? The ayatollah has forbidden it.

The following day, traveling north, we entered Percepolis. The city, founded by Darius the Great in the 6th century B.C., is one of Iran's premier sights. The ruins of Percepolis include palaces with detailed stone bas-reliefs; huge, free-standing pillars, and a majestic stone wall surrounding the ancient capital.

Alexander the Great conquered Percepolis in 330 B.C. and lived there for several months before eventually torching and sacking the city. The ruins were ignored for many years, yet the colossal artwork and bas-relief still bear witness to this incredible Persian kingdom.

From high above Percepolis, where royal tombs are carved deep into the mountains, we could see a large, multicolored tent some distance from the ruins. Ali explained that during the 2,500th anniversary celebration of Percepolis, the former shah of Iran invited world leaders to a weeklong celebration, and a small city of Persian tents was erected for the occasion.

Today, the tent city is in ruin. The ayatollah has no love for the former shah, so most of his monuments have had no upkeep for many years. The shah attempted to modernize the country, Ali quietly explained, but in his zeal he disregarded sacrosanct Islamic rules and eventually was forced to abdicate the throne. This led, of course, in 1979 to revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Since his death, the new Supreme Leader, Ayatollah, has steered a more moderate political course but retains ultra-orthodox Islamic teachings.

Recently, a liberal legislature was elected with an overwhelming majority for change. The president and legislature are, by Western standards, enlightened toward a modernization of Iran. The president and the supreme leader are engaged in a struggle over the direction that Iran will take in the new century. Just recently, the United States relaxed its embargo to allow selected free trade.