In April 2016 myself accompanied by my wife Mehar and daughter Mobinah made a two week private study tour of Iran. It was one of our most enjoyable journeys.
My love with Iran:
For me Iran is a special place, having visited in 1985 following the Islamic Revolution in order to attend a conference where I met many great people including Imam Khomeini.
Ever since I had the intention to visit Iran with my family to take a study tour of Iran in order to observe post revolution Iran, develop insight into the thinking of people and enjoy Iranian history, culture, food and language.
With my Indian background, our history, culture, food, dress and language owes a great deal to Iran.
Farsi was the court language and that of elites for a great majority of Muslims from Ottoman Empire in the West to the Mughal Empire in the East.
A great majority of Muslim scholars, scientists, poets and writers were of Persian origin and Farsi speaking.
This includes Islamic scholars like Imam Bokhari, Imam Muslim, Imam Ghazali, Imam Abu Hanifah, scientist like Ibne Sina and sufis, writers and poets like Rumi, Saadi, Hafiz as well as the descendants of Ahle Bait who are buried there.
Our timing of visiting Iran in April was perfect. We were there in northern spring season and thus avoided extreme hot and cold weather in Iran. It was also the month of Rajab in the Islamic Calendar that marks special religious devotion in terms of prayers, voluntary fastings and meditation.
I had two Iranian friends who completed their PhD from Universities in Sydney during the 1980s with whom I had maintained communication for the last 25 years. Br Hassan in Tehran and Br Mohammad in Shiraz who were kind enough to guide me to prepare a well informed itinerary.
An Iranian couple who visited us in Sydney a few years back and attended the MEFF Eid Festival, Br Mohsen and Sr Somayyeh, in a very efficient and organised way booked our train trips as well as carried out most of the hotel bookings. Many tips for our journey were provided by Sr Afsaneh, another friend who visited us in Sydney.
In a nutshell our two-week tour was organised as follows:
Leave Sydney Mon 11 April morning, Emirates airline for Tehran via Dubai, arriving same day in the evening and staying 2 nights and 2 days.
Travel by Zendagi luxury train to Mashhad, 12 hour journey, stay 1.5 days and 1 night.
Travel to Esfahan by Train Ghazal via Tabas, 18 hour journey and stay 2 days and 2 nights.
Depart for Shiraz by bus, 7 hour journey and stay 3 nights and 2.5 days.
Leave for Tehran by Train Nour and stay 2 nights and 3 days going for one day on Sat to Qom day trip by car
Depart from Tehran Sun 24 April in the evening arriving Sydney Mon 25 April evening.
Tehran Arrival and surprise party
We were received at the airport by Mohsen, Somayyeh and their little daughter Anis and taken straight to our hotel in order to have a good rest after the gruelling 18 hour journey.
Next day most of our time was spent in obtaining Iranian sims for our phones, exchanging money, shopping and lunch, our first Iranian meal in an upmarket restaurant.
Visitors to Iran can not use their credit cards in Iran. Therefore one needs to take dollars and convert them into Iranian currency. I took US dollars as well as Australian dollars and found that it was sufficient to travel to Iran taking only Australian dollars that can be converted easily into Iranian currency.
In the evening Mohsen apparently organised a special program and dinner together with his family and that of Hassan’s family at the Milad Tower, the sixth tallest tower and 17th tallest freestanding structure in the world with a revolving restaurant at the top.
As it turned out, my wife Mehar had conspired with Mohsen, Somayyeh and Hassan to celebrate my 63rd birthday party at the occasion, a complete surprise to me till the birthday cake was brought after dinner with singing of happy birthday in English and Farsi.
I found Tehran a nice and clean city, a little crowded with frequent traffic jams, but with good road system and a peaceful atmosphere. People were very hospitable, polite and extremely friendly.
Next day we visited the Niavaran Complex including Niavaran House, a mansion that has preserved the living style of Mohammad Raza Pahlavi. I boasted to my Iranian hosts that although not as luxurious, the dining table at our Sydney house, Darulislam could accommodate 24 people compared to the Shahs dining table with 18 chairs.
In the evening we boarded the most luxurious train called Zendagi for the 12 hour overnight journey to the north eastern city of Mashhad.
The train journey was incredible. Mohsen in his brilliance had booked a full coupé of four berths for us three passengers, giving us full privacy. The train was like a five star hotel with beddings, robes and slippers provided. The female attendants with uniforms resembling air-hostesses in full hijab served us with drinks and snacks in the compartments while the dinner was served in the palacial double decker dining carriages.
The unique pleasant surprise to me was that the trains stopped at appropriate times at train stations where most passengers, males, females, youth and children got off to offer their prayers at the purpose built adjacent railway mosques.
Train networks in Iran are relatively newly built and therefore most modern just like airport buildings. Instead of overhead bridges, there are underground subways to move from one platform to other at most train stations with lifts. Since I love train travel, , I found traveling by train in Iran hassle free, safe and very pleasant.
Mashhad and the wedding reception
Mashhad is the second most populous city of Iran. The name of the city is short for Mashhad-ar-Reza where Imam Reza was buried after he was martyred in the ninth century CE. The city is best known for the shrine of Imam Reza, a pilgrimage site.
The Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid is also buried in the same place. The city is also known as the city of famous poet Ferdowsi who wrote the longest poem in any language known as Shahnama.
My friend Hassan had left the day before with his family for Mashad by air, kindly booked us all in a hotel close to the station and promptly received us at Mashhad station at 6 am.
We were enthusiastically received by Afsaneh at Imam Reza Shrine where we went to the foreigners section where we heard a talk on the history and significance of the shrine and life history of Imam Reza by a young scholar in impeccable English.
After Zuhr and Asr prayers we had the honour of attending a reception lunch as guest of the Shrine administration in their huge dining complex. We visited the centre of the Shrine, separately as males and females and recited Quran and dua and then visited libraries and exhibitions.
In the evening we went out of Mashhad to attend the wedding reception of the son of Hassan’s colleague in segregated halls for males and females. This was a gathering of Iranian elites, mostly technocrats, many of them of my generation educated in the US speaking comfortably in English and some even sang some of the Bollywood songs of the 60’s and 70’s to keep me entertained. We immensely enjoyed the wedding style Iranian cuisine.
Next day was Juma and I attended the huge congregation with the pleasure of my best friend Hassan accompanying me at the 15th century Goharshad mosque next to the Shrine. Unlike in many Muslim countries, Juma prayers in Iran are not depoliticised. The first Khutbah was a religious one exhortation for the believers to adopt taqwa and do good while the second khutbah was on the sad condition of the Ummah suffering from conflicts. The congregation periodically sent salwat for the Prophet (s) as well as margbar Amrica and mergbar Israel throughout the Khutbah.
In the afternoon we boarded the train to Esfahan for our long 18 hour journey.
Esfahan, the city of love
Esfahan is the third most populous city of Iran 350 km south of Tehran and was once one of the largest cities in the world.
We arrived in the morning by train in the largely deserted, but very modern Esfahan train station and took a taxi to the Safavi Hotel. Again I praised the thoughtfulness of Mohsen for booking us in this traditional hotel that was a fine example of Iranian architecture and decoration.
After having a unique Esfahani style lunch at the hotel, we visited the 16th century Naqhshe-Jahan Square or Imam square, one of the largest city squares in the world and an outstanding example of Iranian Islamic architecture located at the centre of Esfahan.
Within these premises we visited several landmarks including Sheikh Lotfullah Mosque, Shah Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace and the Grand Bazaar and shopped for Gaz, a typical Esfahani sweet like Turkish delight, plates and clothing.
Next day we paid a visit to the one of the oldest mosques of Iran, Jameh Mosque first built in the 8th century CE and then subsequently rebuilt with additions by various Iranian rulers over many centuries. The apparent Quranic writings and flower designs are in fact fine tile work when viewed closely, something that is amazing.
As we were coming out of the complex, Mehar commented to the officials present that it looks like this mosque is only for tourists and not for prayers. We were told that from 12.30 pm, no tourists are allowed and Muslims can only get in to offer their Zuhr/Asr prayers in a separate section of the mosque complex.
We went inside again and to our surprise, yes at 12.30 an attendant came to open the prayer section of the mosque and very courteously guided us to men and ladies sections. In no time some 150 men and around 100 women gathered to offer prayers together and it was a great pleasure for us to join them.
In the afternoon we visited two landmark bridges Si-o-Seh Pol and Pol-e Khaju on Zayande River which flows through the centre of Esfahan with beautiful gardens on both sides of the river. The locals spent a lot of evenings here singing, talking and socialising with family and friends.
Next day we had to catch a bus to Shiraz, city of poetry, further south of the country.
Next: Safarnameh Part 2: Shiraz, Qom and back to Tehran.