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A Forgotten Empire
James Skinner

I remember a geography game I used to play with my father when I was about ten or eleven years old. He would bring out the atlas and would ask me to look at the shape of individual countries and continents. We would then try to think of objects that resembled their shapes. There were simple ones like Africa, that looked like a cobbler’s mould, or Italy, a boot about to kick poor little Sicily into touch in a rugby match. These were some examples to name but a few.

One day he pointed at a country in the Middle East and said: “What can you make out of this one?” I looked at it carefully and then shook my head. “Take a closer look. Don’t you see a snail, moving its way slowly but surely in a north-westerly direction towards Europe?” He paused for a moment with a nostalgic look on his face: “That is Persia, known today as Iran. It was once a great empire.” From that moment on, he never stopped talking about the place.

Iran’s recorded civilisation dates back to around 3000 BC when the Elamites settled in Khuzestan. But it wasn’t until the Persians under Cyrus II conquered the Medes around 550 BC that an empire was established. In recent history, Iran has gone through some radical changes. It also fought a devastating war with neighbouring Iraq.

Today, it is a large country with over sixty million inhabitants governed by Islamic leaders. Although its current wealth lies in its oil reserves, the country has a large young population, and is rapidly becoming an influential, political and economic world power. However, from a human rights point of view, Iran has retracted into the dark ages. Democracy is non existent. Female equality was shattered when the Mullahs took over in 1980. They are regarded as second class citizens. Freedom of speech has all but disappeared.

My father spoke to me about its rich history, its multiplicity of cultures and ethnic communities and the variety of customs. Although predominantly Persians, there are also groups of Kurds, Semite-Jews, Assyrians, Arabs and Armenian Christians. He went on to describe in detail the sheer beauty of the country. He said that you could be transported within hours from arid deserts to magnificent mountain ranges, from hot and steamy tropical seaside shores to lush green valleys. His knowledge was based on his experiences of living there over twenty years before.

His stories had left a mark on my impressionable mind and I was therefore determined that one day I would trace his steps in the Iranian heartland. I finally made up my mind to fly out for a week’s vacation this coming October. I wonder how much will be the same and how much will have changed since my father’s time? I have a plan.

Once I had checked into the Tehran Hilton, and rested for the night, I would start my tour of the city by visiting the downtown bazaar. This is a labyrinth of thousands of miles of twisting passageways full of cubby hole shops. They are closely guarded by pipe smoking keepers, eager to take your ‘rials’ in exchange for their trinkets. I’m sure that my bargaining skills would be put to test for anything ranging from copper pots to Persian carpets, whilst enduring endless cups of tea and listening to tales of old from a shrewd collection of merchants. I could be there all day.

In the evening, I would check out ‘Leon’s Grill’, a Russian restaurant famous for its menu of best Beluga caviar served on pancakes with sour cream and lemon. Sluiced down with ‘frozen’ Iranian vodka until all 100 grams of sturgeon roe were consumed. Oh, but wait! Alcohol is banned, so I assume I would have to settle for spring water.

Next day would take me to Qom, a holy city some ninety miles south of Tehran. Being the centre of Shi’ism, which is the leading Islamic religion of Iran, it is also famous as a place of pilgrimage. Worshippers flock to visit the tomb of Fatimah, the sister of ‘Ali ar-Rida who was the Shi’ite leader way back in the 8th century. When the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979, the incoming ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took up residence in Qom. I must make sure to visit the numerous ornately decorated mausoleums that date back to the 14th century. There are at least ten kings and over four hundred Islamic saints buried there. The city is also host to Iran’s major theological university that launches the future lawyers and philosophers of the country. However, I’m not sure if I would be allowed to visit it.

I would then head south to Isfahan, a beautiful city about 200 miles from Tehran, with over a million inhabitants. It lies on the banks of the river Zayandeh, and was once the capital during the 17th and 18th century. It then fell into decline but was later restored in the 1930’s by Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Iranian King, who returned the city to its original splendour. It is famous among other reasons, for being the manufacturing centre of a special type of Persian carpet. It differs from others because it is woven with a mixture of silk and wool and contains a variety of blue as the predominant colour in its design. I would then spend the night at the luxurious Sha Abbas Hotel, enjoying a real Iranian dinner of lamb kebab and spicy steamed rice. No wine, I’m afraid!

My return to Tehran would coincide with the religious week of ‘Ashura’. It usually takes place during the first half of October and includes fasting from sunrise to sunset. (I must make sure I have some fruit in my rucksack just in case). During these days, the Shi’ite Muslems pay their respects to Husayn the martyr. He was the grandson of Muhammad the Prophet. The peculiarity of this event is the act of public flagellation – a sign of the cleansing of sins - that takes place as male followers march through the streets beating their backs with iron chains.

My brief tour would then include a trip to the Alborz mountains, north of Tehran. This range of towering volcanic peaks that include Mount Demavand (18000 feet) runs along the southern shore of the famous Caspian sea. After a morning of skiing on some of the best slopes in the world, I intend to travel down to the seaside to spend at least one night in one of the small village hotels. A jog along the beach at dawn would be followed by a typical Iranian breakfast of herbal tea and freshly baked ‘barbari’ bread before returning to the capital.

There is still much more I could see like the city of Shiraz or the ruins or Persepolis, but I’ve run out of time. As it would be my last night, I decided I would go out on the town before finally returning to London the next day. If belly dancing is still going on, I’m sure I would find it. Alternatively I’ll probably end up in a night spot smoking a water pipe and listening to beautiful melancholic Iranian folk music.

A word of caution, travel with your brother, your friend, your business partner or even your local butcher, but make sure they are male. I wouldn’t recommend a visit to this place to any one of the opposite sex. They may never be seen again!

© James Skinner 2001


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