Summer 1973: My first visit to Iran - then a prominent tourist destination for western tourists. At that time Americans formed amongst the largest visitors to Iran.
As I was back packing from Europe to Asia, I was fortunate to see many countries enroute and saw scores of historical sites, however, I was most impressed with what I saw in Iran.
January 1978: Five years later. The political surprise of the last century - the Iranian Revolution erupts. The monarch who only seven years back in 1971 celebrated the longest reign of any monarchy in human history, was now no longer one. The celebrations of the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire has been referred to as the “Billion Dollar Camping”; “The Party of the Century” and “The Mother of all Parties”. Amongst the many extravaganzas, 50,000 songbirds from Europe and over 150 tons of kitchen equipment were flown from Paris to Persepolis. The “shah-en-shah” i.e. king of kings, a self installed title, was now yet another facet in Iran’s rich history.
The revolution led to an absolute halt in tourism to Iran. Ten years later, small groups of tours from Western Europe and Japan started venturing into Iran. But North America remained inaction.
October 1996: Bestway Tours & Safaris was the first North American tour operator to resume tours to Iran.
October 15, 2016: Just two weeks back, I returned from escorting another tour to Iran. This tour was timed to be in Iran for the lunar month of Muharram. Muharram, is the mourning month for the Shiites (who form the absolute majority in Iran). The first 10 days of the month are considered revere and people wear black clothes recapping the brutal slaughter of the Shiite Imam Hussain along with a large part of his family. Though the tragedy took place in Kerbala (now in Iraq) in 680AD, this event has been observed every year since. Part of the tour experience was to see the various activities around the observance of this event.
The observance of this tragedy is like going back into time, of religious expressions, of conservatism. It is also when families get together and unite in the rituals reminiscing the tragedy. The rituals are in public and include indulging in some self flagellation, grieving, weeping and abstinence from music and other joys of life. That was how it was and still is but this time around not necessarily confined to that.
Over the years I have seen some changes in Iran. However, this visit coming after some five years since my last, the changes were felt as being revolutionary. Yes, people did what they have been doing for generations, but they felt least impacted by those who were not actively participating or doing something else. The mosques and shrines were open to both “believers” and “non believers”. Photography, an assumed taboo in most such events in the past, was neither a concern nor a novice. We saw Iranian ladies in their chador busy observing the rituals and then there were others occupied with their cameras. No hindrances and yet the reverence for the event was natural.
What has not changed is the magnitude of the many sites of Persian and Iranian civilisations - their upkeep, majesty, historical impressions and awe! The Iranians, rightfully so, are proud of their historical heritage and of being amongst the oldest civilisations in the world. The country is home to 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (with 49 more sites on the tentative list). The other noticeable trait is the very friendly nature of the people - ready to help, assist and go out of their way. Seeing a foreigner, they come forward and greet in English wanting to know genuinely about you - their warmth still being felt even as I am now thousands of miles away.
The cities and sites we covered in this tour included Mashad (a Silk Road city with the majestic mausoleum of Imam Reza); Neishapour (birthplace of poets Omar Khayyam and Farid ud din Attari); Shiraz (city of Persian Gardens and poets like Hafiz and Saadi); the historical sites of Persepolis and Pasargadae; Yazd, the birthplace of Zoroastrianism; Tehran and its many museums and Alamut (the citadel of Hassan bin Sabbah). We also had a wonderful medieval experience when we stayed overnight in a 16th Century Caravan Serai. Due to lack of time, many other sites like Masuleh, Tabriz, Susa, Hamadan, Kermanshah, Kerman, Bam, etc. could not be covered in this trip.
Iranians are excited with the lifting of the sanctions and expected positive impact. Preparing for this relaxation, Iran has been making strides in a lot of fields. In tourism, besides our popular traditional itineraries (Passage to Persia and The Persian Route) we now also offer tours on private luxury trains, desert safaris, skiing, private customised tours as well as an all women tours.
Whether the lifting of the embargo will have an impact on the indigenous culture or not is to be seen. This concern is often an item of conversation with foreigners. But for now, Iran certainly stands as amongst the most sought out tourist destinations in the world.
Greetings from your team at Bestway Tours & Safaris -
"Journeys sans frontieres since 1978"
Chief Explorer and your team at Bestway Tours & Safaris.