April / May 2018
On my travels I always met people who were in Iran and raved about it. Since most of the country is on a high plateau, it is cold in winter. So I visited the country from mid-April to mid-May, when the temperatures were pleasant. Ramadan began immediately after my departure, during which the Muslims do not eat anything from sunrise to sunset and the restaurants are therefore closed throughout the day.
For a few years now, citizens of Switzerland and other countries have been able to travel to Iran with a visa-on-arrival. It costs € 75 and it takes about an hour until the visa is issued at the Tehran airport. But I could save myself the trip to the Iranian Embassy in Switzerland, which was important because I had been traveling for a long time.
I arrived on an unfavorable day because the Iranian government banned all exchange offices from changing money after the Iranian Rial had lost more than 20% against the US dollar and the euro the week before. Six people were sitting at the exchange office at the airport. Still, nobody could change me money. With my US Dollars I could take a taxi to my Bed & Breakfast in the city. The next day I couldn’t change any money either. My host even lent me money to eat in the restaurant. Another guest arrived a day later and could change again at the airport. He kindly sold me Rials. I also wanted to buy a SIM card, but the telecommunication companies could not activate a card on my foreign passport. Apparently, the government closed the mobile network to newly arrived tourists. So my journey began more adventurously than I had feared.
A colleague came to Iran a week later, so I first went alone to the Alborz Mountains in northwest Tehran. In this area in the 12th century there was a network of castles protecting the followers of an Islamic sect. This sect specialized in the murder and kidnapping of politicians of that time. The Mongolian ruler Hulagu Khan, a nephew of Genghis Khan, took the castles (in one case the siege lasted 17 years) and put an end to the sect’s behavior.
In the middle of April there was unusually much snow in the Alborz mountains
The locals live from fruit cultivation. They fear that because of the late snow the harvest will be much smaller.
Cherry blossoms with snow
On this rock stands the famous Alamut Castle. To prevent future difficulties, the Mongolian conqueror Hulagu Khan completely destroyed the castle. Today we can only see a few walls.
Further northwest, there is the small mountain village Masuleh, which is famous throughout Iran for its terraced construction. The paths are often laid out on the roofs of houses below.
On a hike I met two Iranian couples from a nearby town who spent their day off here. They had pre-cooked food that they warmed over the fire and liked to share with me.
Back in Tehran I met my colleague. Our first task was to change money. We could not use the ATMs because the Iranian financial system is being boycotted by the West and therefore our credit and other cards are not working.
We knew the exchange offices were closed by the government. We therefore went to a large state bank and wanted to change at the official rate there. A counter clerk pointed us to another counter. There the bank employee said that the bank can only change to a poor rate. But he could call someone right away who can give us a better rate. The changer was in the bank in a few minutes and offered us a 10% better rate, which we gladly accepted. We couldn’t believe that even in a state bank there was illegal exchange in front of all employees and customers. During the trip we noticed that the black market price was another 20% higher. After all, we were able to change in the secure counter hall.
There are a few million Rials in 100,000 and 500,000 notes on the table. In Iran you can quickly become a millionaire, because one million Rial is about 16.5 USD (€ 14).
Next we wanted to buy a SIM card. As a week ago when I arrived, activation for foreigners was still not possible. But even in this case an solution was found. Two guys approached us in front of a shop of a mobile phone provider that they could help us to get a SIM card. They led us to a kiosk, which had SIM cards already activated on other people’s name from under the counter and sold them for an extra charge. In fact, they worked right away. The government had achieved nothing with its ban on SIM cards for foreigners, on the contrary. If it had officially activated the SIM cards for us, it would have known who was using the SIM card because of the obligation to register. Now it knew nothing about the SIM card holders.
On my journey I became increasingly aware that most Iranians are not concerned about the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Anything’s allowed at home. Most Iranians have alcohol in their homes. There are even police officers who demand sex from women so that they do not report offenses such as going out as an unmarried couple to the vice squad.
At the beginning we stayed one day in Tehran. A highlight was the Golestan Palace, which was built during the Qajar reign in the 19th century.
In the garden of the palace I drank the best tea of my trip to Iran. It consisted of rose petals and saffron.
The next day we flew to Shiraz, 900 km away. Although wine was once cultivated in Shiraz, the Shiraz (or Syrah) grape has no relation to this city. The Lonely Planet travel guide praises the city, but we were disappointed. The wonderful gardens were small, some areas were not planted and the fountains had no water. The mosques were often in need of renovation.
The quality of service in the hotel was very person-dependent.
The Arg-e Karimkhan Citadel
The Vakil Bath
The Shapouri Restaurant – an oasis in the hectic city
Young women at the entrance to Nasir al-Mulk Mosque
The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque offers an impressive play of colors in the morning
A ceiling in a public building
60 km from Shiraz is Persepolis, a ceremonial site of the Achaemenid Empire, whose oldest remains date from 515 BC.
The Entrance Gate
This relief depicts emissaries from all over the empire bringing gifts to the king.
This picture of the bull-eating lion can be found in several parts of the complex. The Achaemenid kings must have thought they were in the role of the lion. Effectively, however, the lion was Alexander the Great, who overrun and plundered Persepolis in 330 BC.
Naqsh-e Rostam burial place
The burial place Naqsh-e Rostam contains four tombs of the Achaemenid kings. The lower left relief shows the Sassanian king Shapur I on horseback, while the Roman emperor Valerian is bowing to him. The relief recalls the Battle of Edessa in 260 AD, when Valerian as the only Roman emperor ever was captured. This was one of the greatest humiliations in the history of the Roman Empire.
Tomb of Cyrus the Great
The tomb of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, has stood nearby for around 2,500 years. It stands alone on a desert-like plain and thus appears even more colossal despite its simplicity.
We traveled on to Yazd, a desert town. The historic old town is built of clay and consists of many narrow alleys.
The Amir Chaqmaq Mosque
Nightlife on the square in front of the mosque
As in other desert cities, there are wind towers that direct the wind into the buildings and cool them down. Due to the many openings you can see that the wind blows here from all directions.
The Bagh-e Dowlat Abad Palace was built around 1750 for the then Persian ruler.
In every Iranian city there are pigeon towers in which up to 60,000 pigeons lived in the niches and left their excrement. The pigeon excrement is rich in nitrogen and was used as fertilizer. I was impressed by these towers because of their symmetrical architecture.
In the background of the picture on the mountain is the so-called Tower of Silence, which was used by the Zoroastrians as a burial place. Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion of Persia before the advent of Islam and is still widespread. The dead were taken to the tower outside the city, where the vultures fed on them. This type of burial has been prohibited since the 1960s.
The next destination was Isfahan, which is called the jewel of ancient Persia. Unfortunately, the ravages of time gnaw at many monuments.
With 800 years the Jameh Mosque is the oldest and the largest mosque in Iran. As in many other places, the pictures of Iman Khomeni, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Iman Khamanei, the current highest leader, can be found here.
Inside the mosque
This stucco gate dates from the 14th century.
A carpet shop at the bazaar. A bazaar in Iran is usually a huge building complex with long, winding corridors in which countless shops line up.
But there are also many shops outside the bazaars.
The Iman Mosque on the main square is said to be one of the world’s most beautiful mosques, according to the Lonely Planet travel guide. For me, the mosque needed restoration.
The colors on the ceiling had faded. I changed the photos slightly. This is how the colors of the ceiling would shine after a necessary refreshment.
The smaller Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is a real gem. Its cream-colored dome changes color throughout the day to pink at sunset.
Inside I found wonderful patterns that were almost as detailed as those in the mosques in Uzbekistan.
We continued our journey to the desert town of Varzaneh.
One of the mosques of Varzaneh
Another pigeon tower
This man has trained an ox to trot down a certain distance on command and thus pull up a large tub of water from a spring.
A family party on a Friday, the day off of the week in the Islamic world, of course without alcohol.
From Varzaneh I made some excursions. One led to high dunes and a salt plain. Another time I visited an abandoned city built entirely of clay.
The third trip started before sunrise. Our destination was the Khargushi caravanserai 60 km away, which offered travelers overnight accommodation in the middle of the desert during the time of the camel caravans.
Our next destination was Kashan, a town on the edge of the Dasht-e Kavir desert.
Some historical houses have been preserved and can be visited. I particularly liked the 450-year-old Amir Ahmad bathhouse. 17 layers of plaster were removed during the renovation.
We saw this poster in the bath.
Some villages around Kashan are famous for their distilled rose water.
Abyaneh mountain village
The mountain village of Abyaneh, 87 km from Kashan, with its narrow alleys and historical architecture, now lives mainly from tourism.
Back in Tehran we visited the richer north of the city, which has many green areas. There you can find the Iran Holy Defense Museum, which is dedicated to the wars with Iraq.
The statement on this house wall has become more topical from Iran’s point of view since the cancellation of the nuclear agreement by the USA.
The Azadi Tower is a monumental building 148 ft high and covered with marble slabs. It was built under the last Shah and commemorates the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the state of Persia.
Many websites and social media apps are blocked in Iran. On my travels I use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service as standard, with which I could also use all Internet services in Iran in encrypted form. From the third last day of my trip I could no longer establish a connection via VPN. This was annoying because it opened up attack possibilities for a potential hacker, as the WIFI connections in the hotels were often not encrypted. I kept my surfing activities in Iran to a minimum during the last days.
After my colleague left, on my last day I visited various museums such as the National Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art.
National Jewel Museum
The National Jewel Museum is probably unique in the world. Before the entrance the visitors are checked several times. The camera must be stored. Then you are led through a heavy armored door. And wow! Nowhere else, not even in the Tower in London, have I seen so many diamonds and gems sparkle. On display were crowns, diadems, whole swords set with diamonds and the corresponding sheaths, shields, necklaces, belts. Several bowls with dozens of large diamonds and rubies stood around. The sparkle was everywhere, probably comparable only to the cave of Ali Baba and his 40 thieves. Most of the treasures date from the Safavid dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1502 to 1736.
Taking pictures was forbidden. Therefore I cannot show any pictures from the museum. A globe from the 19th century consists of over 51’000 gemstones. The seas and lakes are represented by green emeralds. Red rubies were used for the land masses. Iran, Great Britain, France and parts of South Asia are represented by diamonds. 35 kg of pure gold are processed in this globe. Another piece of jewellery is the Pahlavi crown. The last Shah and his father before him wore this crown. 3’380 diamonds with 1’140 carats are processed in this piece of jewellery. The largest is a 60 carat yellow diamond. The largest emerald weighs 100 carats. The crown of the queen and wife of the last Shah consists of over 1,600 precious stones, of which 1,469 are diamonds. The royal sword is covered with about 3’000 gemstones. The last Shah wore it at his coronation in 1967.
Despite the uniqueness of the Jewel Museum, my expectations of this trip to Iran were not fulfilled. Most of the sights were not particularly spectacular. Especially the Islamic buildings were often in a bad condition and in no way comparable to the mosques and Koran schools I had seen in Uzbekistan. In addition, foreigners had to pay higher entrance fees for visits to the sights, which added up to several hundred USD over the one-month stay. The veiled women, blocked internet services, monotonous food and the lack of alcoholic beverages were further negative points.
On the other hand, the Iranians are very hospitable people who want to show the world that the prejudices about Iran are not true. There is a large selection of wonderful sweets and the country is cheap for Westerners thanks to its weak currency.
I flew on to Beirut, Lebanon. Many women took off their headscarves as soon as they got on the plane.
This text is an automatic English translation from the German original by deepl.com