OPINION: Iran, past, present and future

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Mary Jane Walker, who lives in Queenstown, is the author of eight travel books. A Maverick Iranian Way is her most recent book

With all the current tension in the Persian Gulf, I’d decided to visit Iran to see what it was like for myself.

I knew that Iran was the home of the ancient Persian civilisation; a civilisation that spread beyond its borders into India, to create the Taj Mahal.

What would Iran – or Persia – be like itself, I wondered?

The first thing I saw at the border was a man’s butt as he stuffed smuggled cigarettes down his trousers!

I met prostitutes whose profession was sanctioned as temporary marriage by clerics.

In the supposedly dry Islamic Republic of Iran, I was offered alcohol and all the drugs under the sun, and discovered illegal pubs with people drinking.

And also, of course, the most fabulous mosques, crown jewels and palaces anywhere.

Travelling overland, I crossed the border from Turkey near Mount Ararat. This area was a haven for smugglers, with a low-grade civil war on the Turkish side.

Having survived my border adventures, I went on to the northwestern city of Tabriz.

And then to the Alamut Valley, once home to a guild of Medieval assassins directed by holy warrior Hassan-i Sabbah, who inhabited a castle perched on an incredible crag.

I climbed to the top of the assassins’ crag and found that 40 varieties of tea were on sale there to anyone who made it up!

And from there to the capital, Tehran. The cities of Iran are just routinely full of mosques and palaces in the style of the Taj Mahal, though more colourful (the Taj is a mausoleum).

From Tehran, I visited the Caspian Sea resort of Chalus. And then south to the old cities of Isfahan and Shiraz, and finally to the Star Wars-like desert city of Yazd.

Isfahan is sustained by the Zayandeh, the biggest river in central Iran. The city has great gardens downtown and a surrounding green belt fed by canals from the river. Or at least it used to be. For the Zayandeh has been running dry for some years. Iran suffers huge water problems, made worse by global warming, and people are quite fearful of the future.

Shiraz is another attractive city, the home of Persia’s most famous Medieval poets: satirical and political writers who warned their people to beware of abuse and tyranny.

Shiraz used to be famous for its wines, such as the one named after it, until the 1979 Islamic Revolution shut down the industry. These days, religious minorities such as Christians can make wine for their own use. But that’s all.

The ancient capital of Persepolis and two royal tomb complexes are nearby.

Finally, I arrived in Yazd, the largest adobe city in the world. Without resources, the people of Yazd have always made their living from manufacturing. In Marco Polo’s day they were famous for Yazdi, a type of silk cloth. These days the city boasts a fibre-optic factory.

The Yazdis also have a system of natural air conditioning, operated by high towers called wind-catchers that suck air into people’s houses from underground canals. During cold nights, the wind-catchers are run in reverse to cool the canals, and even to generate ice. Only about two-thirds of Iranian citizens are ethnically Iranian (or Persian). The remaining third consists of various minorities including Kurds, Turks, Azeris, Arabs and Armenians.

To round off, it’s worth noting that the population of Iran has doubled since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, from 40 million to more than 80 million. Most of its people are young. They are often very modern-thinking and chafe under the authoritarian rule of the Islamic Republic. Most want more freedom. But not another revolution, nor a war with the West that would leave their country broken like Syria or Afghanistan. Many women remove the hijab but put it back on under pressure.

The Western media sometimes give a false sense of a uniformly conservative and backward society. This ignores a whole other side to Iran: a dynamic and progressive modern society and one of the world’s finest ancient cultures.