15 August 2016
ACE Tour Director Andrew Wilson is currently in Iran on a research trip for our tour to the country in 2017, Iran: Glories of Persia, which departs in both February and April. In this travelogue, Andrew sends back photographs and thoughts from the trip to give an insight into what travellers can expect when they join him in the country next year.
Andrew Wilson BA, BD, FSAScot, is a specialist in archaeology and ancient history.
AN IRANIAN TRAVELOGUE: ARRIVAL IN SHIRAZ
The opportunity to compare and contrast Western historical, religious and cultural understanding with a fresh Asian perspective is what makes this aptly named ‘Glories of Persia’ tour so special. My Islamic travels with ACE have taken me all round North Africa, the Middle East and Ottoman Turkey, so the glorious splendours of Isfahan will complete the circle. I look forward to introducing ACE travellers to this extraordinary country.
I was interested to compare and contrast, and to seek out fresh parallels, developments and innovation. What better place to start than Shiraz, traditional home of wine, poetry (surely the two always go together!) and nightingales for some reason (sadly the Shiraz grape is not available at present in this dry country). So my first glimpse of Iranian architecture was the muqarnas, that untranslatable corbelled stalactite construction from the Masjed-e Vakil, the 1750 mosque built by local dynast Karim Khan. The floral and geometric colourful motifs are stunning, and an appetiser for what lies ahead in this visually exciting and thrilling new destination.
An Iranian Travelogue: Food and Travel
It’s just the second day of my trip, and I’m confident that the archaeology and architecture for the February tour is going to be superb. But what of the practical issues? Well, travellers will have to expect some early starts/late returns and a lot of travelling on roads that aren’t always of the standard we’re used to, with lots of traffic (although not nearly as bad as Cairo, for example). Everywhere I have been in Iran I have been welcomed with genuine smiles and sumptuous traditional Persian hospitality, and I am assured continually that the country is the safest throughout the whole region. They are very pleased that ACE is coming to Iran!
Food is a major part of their culture, with exemplary service and attractive presentation. I love Middle Eastern food, so the cuisine is Paradise (a Persian word, of course) for me, with lots of grilled meats in kabab form. These are accompanied by wonderful fresh, hot flat breads called nun and different varieties of rice called chelo, my favourite being polo, flavoured with small, red berries. So many healthy and imaginative salads and exotic desserts, usually very sweet, complete the experience. They are very keen for me to try everything, right down to their different tasting ice-cream bastani, which means meals can be a lengthy process!
An Iranian Travelogue: Naqsh-e Rostam
Just to the east of Persepolis is a sequence of four remarkable rock tombs, Petra in miniature you might say, at a place called Naqsh-e Rostam. A short walk over the sand from the coach park allows you to stand before this impressive façade and gaze upwards. Darius I, Xerxes, Artaxerxes and Darius II were reputedly buried here, but beneath their tombs is a stunning frieze showing a later ruler, Shapur I, of the Sassanid dynasty, who reigned in the mid years of the 3rd Century.
Rome's eastern frontier was never fully secure, and eventually the first Syrian born emperor Philip "the Arab" was effectively forced to sign a peace treaty with Shapur, probably in 244 AD. Shapur received a hefty sum of money from Rome, but despite this Philip still felt able to celebrate the treaty with a coin issue pax fundata cum Persis. The peace was short-lived, and a few years later the emperor Valerian led a force to Edessa, where he was decisively defeated by Shapur in 260, ending up as a captive for the rest of his life, the first emperor to suffer such an indignity. Some sources even suggest he was used as a footstool by the Sassanian, this further shame surely compounded by the image below, which shows Philip the Arab kneeling and Valerian in simple dress reaching out to the mounted Shapur in act of subjugation. This is such a rare image, for usually we see subject peoples in humiliating poses beneath the might of Rome, which is why this is my abiding memory from this fascinating necropolis.
An Iranian Travelogue: Persepolis
Persepolis is perhaps the most important archaeological site in Iran, dating back to King Darius the Great (of Marathon infamy) and his son Xerxes (likewise defeated at Salamis). The excitement mounts as you make your way through monumental gateways, carved with exotic creatures, and then up symmetrical staircases to various palaces, all designed to impress the courtiers, soldiers and subjects who entered this monumental complex. New Year was celebrated here, and all the satraps or governors from the different administrative regions came to show their respect to each other, and above all to the King of Kings himself. The reliefs show beautiful cuneiform inscriptions and stunning reliefs, and I particularly enjoyed the scene above, where a well-dressed Persian courtier on the left greets an equally splendidly-attired Mede on the right, a reminder of how Cyrus the Great established this new Achaemenid dynasty in 550BC by uniting these two tribal groupings. Alexander the Great burned the palace in 330BC, but not comprehensively thankfully, enabling us to enjoy this UNESCO site today.
An Iranian Travelogue: Isfahan
Isfahan has so many glorious monuments it is hard to pick a favourite, but surely the most significant is the splendid Masjed-e Jameh, the 'Friday' or better 'Congregational' mosque that contains centuries of stylistic innovations and decorative features. Although work began around 841, it is during the Seljuq period that the architecture really takes off, as the earlier four-courtyard Sassanid palace design is adapted to suit Islamic architectural requirements. Isfahan fell to the Seljuqs in 1051, and their restoration and expansion of the earlier mosque on the site paved the way for future mosque development in the wider Islamic world. Without getting too technical (and it's easier to point them out in situ rather than describe them in words!) the double-shell ribbed domes are visually thrilling, but the highlight has to be the mihrab (the niche that points the way to Mecca) in the vaulted open hall to the west of the great courtyard. This dates to Sultan Uljeitu from the short-lived Ilkhanid dynasty, a date of around 1310 seems most likely, and is constructed of elaborate stucco decoration with Koranic inscriptions, floral and geometric patterns and an overall design that delights the viewer. My photograph above does not do it justice.
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