Inspired by tales of Persian poets and Persepolis, Helen Anderson travels across one country and 2500 years of history.
We arrive today, on this bright autumn morning, on the same route used by peasants and pharaohs, satraps and soldiers - on horseback, on mules, on litters borne by slaves or, like us, on foot. Like the subjects of the mighty Persian empire 2500 years ago and hundreds of generations since, we raise our eyes from the dusty plain to the palace of the Achaemenid kings Darius the Great, Xerxes and their heirs. Persepolis is mounted on a desert plateau like a mirage: masculine and utterly majestic.
At the top of a massive double staircase - each stone step just the right depth to allow a visitor wearing a long gown to ascend in elegance - we're dwarfed by a pair of double-headed bulls atop towering columns. Scores of 19th-century adventurers left their marks here - the explorer Henry Stanley, among others, scratched his name on the Gate of All Nations after he found Livingstone in deepest Africa. Beyond lies the Palace of 100 Columns and a treasury so large it's said Alexander the Great needed 10,000 mule carts and 5000 camels to carry away the booty. And behind the whole magnificent pile of carved gateways, fallen columns and honey-coloured ruins is the tomb of Artaxerxes cut high into the mountain face.
Though it was only a summer palace, Persepolis was an imperial statement by the world's first superpower, meant to shock and awe those who might come calling on the Achaemenids. The famous Apadana Stairway, once polished black with shark oil, depicts 23 delegations paying their respects: half-naked Indians bearing spices, Bactrians with their two-humped camels, Elamites with a lioness and cubs, Libyans and Babylonians; an entire roll call for a vast empire. It's awesome but its architecture is also beautiful. In one drunken evening, Alexander the Great torched the place; the scorch marks remain.
The marks of conquerors and conquered are everywhere seen or easily imagined in Iran, or Persia, as many still call it, though it was renamed in the 1930s. It's not so much a case of preservation as the past being indelible. From the ruins of Persepolis to the exquisitely tiled turquoise mosques in every city, from the paradise gardens of Shiraz to the roadside billboards of martyrs, history here is inescapable. The Achaemenids were finished off by Alexander, who himself wasn't long for the world by the time he torched Persepolis. The Seleucids took control, then came the Parthians, the Sassanians, the Arabs bearing Islam, the Seljuks and the Mongols, the Safavids, the Qajars and the Pahlavis. The last of that line was Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who fled to Egypt in 1979 as the Islamic revolution broke upon the nation.
Just as its history is complex, so is the decision to travel to Iran. Several of its neighbours are in states of civil war: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. When I was making travel plans a few months ago, there were rumours of an Israeli attack on Iran before the US presidential election. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful but there are widespread fears it intends developing nuclear weapons. But who's to say, since the nation's isolation from the West, and much of the Arab world, for that matter, makes it hard to know what to expect. And there's the hostility towards the US by the Islamic republic's ruling clerics. Would travellers from countries allied with the US be welcomed?
In fact, the hospitality and curiosity of Iranians are among the heart-warming pleasures of travelling here. "How do you find Iran?" is the question asked by so many people I meet - mainly women, because the theocracy's strict segregation means female visitors aren't routinely approached by men, and always politely.
It's not just the hijab that makes Iranian life difficult for a visitor to fathom. "Poshte pardeh", meaning "behind the curtain", describes the dual Iranian life: a public face, prescribed by law and obligation, and a private life conducted behind closed doors. "It is difficult," one young man tells me, "everything is a risk."
To get to Persepolis, we've travelled west from neighbouring Turkmenistan to the holy city of Mashad, Iran's second-largest city. Each year 17 million pilgrims converge on a vast shrine city built around the tomb of Imam Reza, Shia Islam's eighth imam. Mashad isn't the most appealing city in Iran but it does offer instant immersion in the nation's prevailing orthodoxy.
For a moment, it looks like a city in mourning - most women here choose to wear the chador, the tent-like black cloak clutched under the chin or between the teeth. There is a current of intensity here that might be religious - or just my own anxiety. As foreign non-Muslims, though, we're allowed to enter all but two of the holiest shrines in this vast complex and we're welcome to wander, though shadowed by a young woman wearing chador and an East London accent.
The atmosphere lightens as we head further west to Persepolis and the nearby city of Shiraz, regarded as the most liberal of Iranian cities. I taste the grape that originates here but not in the glass - there are no wineries and no alcohol in the Islamic republic, none of the wine that flowed so freely in the poetry of the great Persian poets. Hafez, Saadi, Rumi and Omar Khayyam are revered still; it's said most Iranians can recite their work. At the tomb of Hafez, a 14th-century sufi regarded as one of the world's greatest poets, I watch young women reciting his poetry in mellifluous Farsi in a kind of fortune-telling ritual based on his verse.
The best of Shiraz can be found in this one tranquil site: deep pride in Persian culture, a characteristically lovely garden full of orange and pomegranate groves, palms, pools and Persian symmetry and, just beyond the oasis of the garden, a dress-circle of bare mountains. Shiraz is famous, too, for its onion-shaped domes, saffron ice-cream and historic chaykhaneh, or tea houses, where friends gather for tea, a puff on a qualyan (water pipe) and to chat on low couches covered in Persian rugs and cushions. This would have completed a perfect Shirazi day. But we're too late; most of the old tea houses in Shiraz and Isfahan have closed in the past year, ostensibly because authorities want to ban water-pipe smoking and preserve heritage buildings. Many people, however, believe it's the work of the "morality police", determined to shut places where young men and women might mingle.
I'd read about young urban women daring to show fringes and curves but I see fewer examples than I expect. We hear murmurs about crackdowns in the past year, in which scores of women have been warned or detained. Under Iran's sharia law, women must wear loose-fitting, knee-length coats, called manteaus, and cover their hair in public places: no arms, no ankles, no neck, no curves (though there's plenty of plastered noses identifying the surgically enhanced). On top of the headcovering and manteau, many women I see choose to add the extra layer of the black chador.
For a female non-Muslim traveller, hijab feels a little like fancy dress: a novelty that dispenses with bad-hair days and will be shrugged off soon enough. It's difficult to imagine being compelled to wear it for a lifetime. I'll say one thing: even in the Iranian autumn, it's hot under hijab.
Though Iran has one of the highest rates of road accidents in the world, I feel less anxious driving than taking domestic flights. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs has "serious safety concerns about Russian-built aircraft on many of Iran's domestic air services". But that potential danger is remote compared with walking across any road. There are no breaks in the traffic in Iran's cities; with about four million cars in Tehran, traffic is terrifying. "Just step out and the cars must stop for you," urges our guide, Ramin, on my first road-crossing in Shiraz. He steps into three-lane traffic with nonchalance and the cars do, miraculously, stop. But I learn the slightest hesitation or, more importantly, any indication that the pedestrian has seen the approaching driver, will result in a heart-stopping near-miss.
From Persepolis we drive north into the desert - endless but never empty. We pass through dusty towns announced by roadside stalls selling melons and bearing samovars of tea, to be drunk strong with a cube of sugar between the teeth. It's in these towns that I first notice the hand-painted billboards of young men. It takes a while to realise they're the martyrs, among a million Iranians who died in the savage eight-year war with Iraq in the '80s. Then I see them wherever we go, especially in Tehran, where their gentle, blank faces gaze down at the city's petrol queues.
On the way we pull over at a ruined 17-century caravanserai for a picnic of Persian feta, flat bread, cucumber, yoghurt, Shiraz grapes and pomegranate. We're participating in a national tradition; I'm sure Iranians are among the world's most determined picnickers. We see people picnicking in the middle of the desert, in the middle of roundabouts, on traffic islands in freeways, in the middle of the night.
It's twilight when we arrive at Isfahan. This is the city that offers even today, with traffic jams and the usual blights of urbanity, the most sublime expressions of high Persian culture. The arts of Persian miniatures and carpetmaking were perfected here, in a city of exquisite architecture positioned around a monumental royal square, a labyrinthine bazaar and perfectly proportioned bridges over a river lined by gardens. In one day we walk through the 17th-century Palace of Forty Columns and wander beneath the stalactite portals and dazzling tiles of the Imam Mosque, with acoustics so precise, 50,000 worshippers can hear the words of the imam. In the 17th-century Palace of Eight Paradises, built for a king's harem in the Garden of Nightingales, we marvel at the plunge pool and outdoor fireplaces in a dining pavilion once hung with perfumed drapes. And we crane our necks and try to count 484 different vaulting patterns in the domes of the Jameh Mosque, dating from the 11th century.
We arrive just in time to watch the 3 o'clock shaking of the minarets (as improbable as it sounds, they do visibly tremble when pushed). We get happily lost in Isfahan's bazaar, where just about everything is made in dusty workshops behind the shop fronts, and stop for tea and a puff on an orange and mint qualyan. We climb one of the strangest buildings I've seen: a 16-century pigeon tower. There are about 300 in Isfahan, beautiful in their simplicity, filled with niches for pigeons that drop ready-made fertiliser for collection from the floor.
In a city full of exquisite architecture, I find one building as powerful as an epiphany. The mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah fronts Imam Square but it's oddly out of kilter - its dome and portal don't line up and it's small, without minarets or a courtyard. I walk along a dark corridor, enter the chamber and look up to find a symphony of tiles, colour, light, plaster and squinches. The abstract patterns keep rearranging themselves as I move under the dome. "I have never encountered splendour of this kind before," wrote Robert Byron in his landmark 1930s travelogue, The Road To Oxiana.
Glorious achievement and folly are the twin pillars of Persian history. In 1971, to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the monarchy, the last shah threw a lavish party at Persepolis. He invited the world's dignitaries, set up a tent city and popped 5000 bottles of champagne. The party went off, by all accounts, but many of his own people were appalled by the extravagance and his opponents used it to foment revolution.
I can see the silhouettes of a few of the remaining tents from where I sit at sunset, in the ruined palace of Xerxes. The tents, which once had marble bathrooms and air-con, only just escaped a torching after the revolution; then they, too, fell into ruin. In a strange twist, the government announced a few years ago it would restore these once-reviled tents to lodge tourists.
I wish I could remember more of Shelley's poem about the fleeting nature of power. Though not written about Persepolis, it could have been. "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" In the soft desert twilight, I look on these works as a hundred generations have - with awe.
Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of World Expeditions and Thai Airways.
The cheapest fare to Tehran is $1484 with Gulf Air, flying to an Asian hub, then Gulf Air with an aircraft change in Bahrain. Thai Airways flies to Dubai for $1448; connect here with Emirates to Tehran for $742 return. Emirates flies all the way to Tehran with an aircraft change in Dubai for $2133. (Fares are low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne excluding tax.) Australians require a visa; a tour or accommodation must be booked before departure and authority must be given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran.
World Expeditions has an 11-day Best of Iran trip to Tehran, Shiraz, Persepolis, Yazd and Isfahan. The cost is $2750 a person, including all land costs, meals, accommodation and guides. The next departure is April 20. The author travelled overland to Tehran on World Expeditions' 21-day Tashkent to Isfahan tour, through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, for $5390. The next departure is April 10. Phone 1300 720 000 or see worldexpeditions.com.