Iran Now: Old Muslim in New Face (1/7-9/7)
We organized a 9-day programme to Iran from 1st to 9th July 2017 with the aim to understand more about the often-misunderstood Iran, in which we were able to get a first-hand perspective of the people’s life, religious influence and politics. We visited 5 cities including Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Kashan and Qom, to form a holistic understanding of different parts of the country. Through exchanges with local people and institutions, we were able to comprehend issues ranging from Iranian Revolution, Press Freedom, Women Rights and the basics of Islam. Of course, the thousands years of Persian history was not missed out. Below are some highlights:
Bazaar is a traditional market for Persian people to trade and shop. Indulging ourselves into these bazaars was helping us to understand how Persian urban tradition has been passed on to new generations. In the trip, we were able to visit four bazaars in Iran, one of them was the Grand Bazaar in Tehran. The Grand Bazaar is very large in size. It is split into several corridors and there are many twists and turns, therefore it would be difficult for a tourist to go without getting lost. With the help of our local experts, we seamlessly walked around the bazaar and visited a tea house with more than 100 years’ history, which was then featured on the CNN news.
Former US Embassy
The former US Embassy located in Tehran remains the scar of US-Iran relation nowadays. The Embassy also set the stage for the famous Hollywood Movie “Argo”. The visit to the Embassy was not easy, we were only granted special assess to the place after rounds of negotiations. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, American hostages, who were all staff in the Embassy during the time, were taken for 444 days as political bargaining chips, which triggered a series of events to the eventual hostile bilateral relations between the Iran and the US. Before we entered the Embassy, our local expert warned us the requirements for women’s outfit would be quite strict in the Embassy, so we, especially the ladies, were quite nervous about visiting the site. There were a lot of propaganda posters outside the Embassy, and the posters are mainly criticizing the US’ foreign policy and said the US was the actual terrorist. Inside the Embassy, we were able to see different spying equipment and machines that created counterfeit passports for spies, showing that the United States committed a range of secret services in the embassy before the Iranian Revolution. Indeed, the Embassy was the largest base in the Middle East for the US to pursue its interest in the region. The Embassy represents the most politicized part of Iran.
We took an overnight train to travel from Tehran to Shiraz, which was a 14-hour ride. In the train cabinet, we could finally take off our hijab and enjoyed the ride with comfy.
Ever since Muslims entered the Persian soil in the seventh century, Islam has become the most influential religion in Iran. Going to mosque and pray has become daily life for many Iranian. Shāh-é-Chérāgh is one of the most important Mosque in Shiraz, which houses the remains of Mir Ahmad, one of Imam (伊瑪目)’s 17 brothers. Ladies all had to wear Chador, an Iranian traditional Muslim dress for ladies, to enter the mosque. The famous blue-tiled dome reflects the Shiite (什葉派) rituals.
Nasir ol Molk Mosque (Pink Mosque)
Also called the Pink Mosque because of its use of lots of pink mosaic bricks. We woke up early to capture the best morning timing to see how sunlight shined through the colourful glasses.
One of the most important relics in Iran to trace back the Achaemenid Empire, often referred as the foundation of Persian civilization, was a must-visit to understand Iranian’s past. We had a in-depth tour at the site and learnt about how the early Persian dynasty has become center of civilization. Even in the 1970s, before the Iranian Revolution took place in 1979, the Iranian Shah (Emperor) held a grand and extravagant celebration at the relics to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian Empire.
Naqsh-e Jahan Square (Iman Square)
Naqsh-e Jahan Square is one of the largest squares in the world. It is situated in the centre of Isfahan. The square is surrounded by The Shah Mosque, Ālī Qāpū Palace, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and The Bazaar of Isfahan, the latter was known as one of biggest shopping areas in the world. We went to enjoy the entire view of the square would be going to the balcony of Ālī Qāpū Palace. We saw Iranian having picnic and rests.
The Shah Mosque used to be a public mosque. There are 2 layers of ceilings, and the hollow space in between created an echo effect. When we entered the inside of the mosque, we heard a Muslim man calling for prayer. Although we did not understand the language he was saying, we were still able to tell that he was praying by the overwhelming holiness. There was a sudden connection with Islam.
Armenian District of Isfahan
There are around 100,00 to 200,000 Armenians living in Iran, especially in the city of Isfahan. We visited the Armenian Quarter and saw how Armenian heritage, including the Catholic tradition, has passed on to the district. We also checked out the Armenian Genocide Memorial which records the tragedy happened in the then Ottoman Empire. We learnt that Iran hasn’t treated minorities badly in recent history compared to its other Middle Eastern counterparts.
We then went to dinner with Reza and his family, who is the former director of the National Iranian Oil Company. It is interesting how his family members compared the life in Iran and Germany where some of them studied abroad.
After we arrived in Kashan, the dessert city we headed to the Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse. The artwork crafted on the ceiling and the pillars are very colourful. We were instantly captured by its stunning design. The bathhouse used to be a social hub in the old days. We were amazed by the fact that old ladies would find their son’s future wife in the bathhouse since the mum could check out the bodies of the other young ladies and assess who could give birth to “better“ babies. Before we were leaving, we went to the roof with many hemispherical domes and enjoyed the city view from the top.
Dinner with local family
We were invited by a local family in Kashan to have dinner. They prepared a traditional meal for us which included vegetable stew and ostrich stew, the Iranian traditional home food. We followed the Persian tradition that we placed all the food on the floor, and held our own plates to eat. We asked the host, who is a mid-age man working in tourism industry for 20 years, whether Kashan has been changing much. He replied that Kashan has welcome more tourists recently and some of the traditional houses have turned to boutique hotels and restaurants.
Qom has been regarded as the “Shia Vatican” in the Islamic World, a place also saw how Khomeini, the founder of Islamic Iran, studied and initiated the Iranian Revolution. We went to the Al- Mustafa International University to study about the basics of Shia Islam. The Professors introduced the Islamic understanding of Women Rights in Iran sparked a heated debate among our group mates and the professors. We left the room with more questions to answer about the Islamic Worldview regarding women’s status and secularization.
The Iran Project
The Iran Project is a new online media in Iran found by our friend Seyedali, which covered politics and economy in Iran. We went to the office of the Iran Project at Qom, and discuss the future outlook of new online media.
Jamkaran Mosque, located on the outskirts of Qom, is one of the popular sites for Shia Muslims to pilgrimage. As the day we visited was Friday, that Muslims would pray in congregation, there were a lot of people going to the mosque. The Mosque is gigantic and retained a great sense of religious atmosphere.
Persian Calligraphy Workshop
If language is a key to culture, we were trying to get the Persian key in that afternoon. Written Persian adopted the Arabic alphabet. Contrary to most of the languages in the world, the Perisan is written from right to left, therefore it was a challenging task to learn about the basic writings. The calligraphy workshop was hosted by the famous Calligrapher Master Amouzad who demonstrated different forms of Persian writings prior to our attempts. It was quite difficult as we needed to use a bamboo pen to write some unfamiliar letters, but it was a good cultural experience that afternoon.
Back to Tehran, we visited the Mehr Media, one of the most successful agents covering international news for Iranian. We toured around their office and talked to editors of different sections and understood more about their daily work.
We went to meet with the Peace Spirit Foundation where we talked with the founder and members there on the kinds of campaigns they are pushing forward to empower women and other minority groups in Iran.
Built to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the founding of Achaemenid Empire, the golden days of Persian civilization, the Tower signified the last days of the Pahlavi Dynasty, to be taken over after Iranian Revolution. Interestingly, nowadays the Tower has become a favourite spot for citizens in Tehran to protest and organise assemblies.
In the cosmopolitan Tehran, one of the few shrines that bears much importance is the Imamzadeh Saleh located in the northern district of the city, closer to the Alborz mountains, and the traditionally richer district of the city. The Imamzadeh is the Persian word for immediate descendant of a Shia Imam, and the mosque dates back to the 13th century. We walked in, washed out feet, took off shoes, and visited the mosque. We observed local Iranian made a wish inside the mosque for good health or other fortunes.
Shisha is originated from Iran. When in Iran, do as the Iranians do. Therefore some of us sneaked out [!] at night to have shisha in a local restaurant.
Shisha is very common among young Iranians. A lot of them would also go out at night to chill out together. When we were out, we met some young people and talked for a while, some of them were young filmmakers, they even showed us around their own studios!
The itinerary is meticulously designed to introduce us to Tibetan politics, religion and culture. It enables us to very critically reflect upon the current situation of Tibet.
It wasn't merely a trip but a mini course introducing the cultural, social and political issues about Tibet. From the pre-trip reading materials to the mini-lectures delivered on coach, I saw and felt the hard work and passion of EV in preparing this tour.
I guess the most important thing is to have good travel buddies who are all interested in exploring Tibet, and Eastern Vision serves as a platform for all of us to meet. Most of us signed up without knowing anyone else on the trip but it was easy to make new friends as we are all university students/ fresh grads.
The places that we travelled were well-selected. Not only are they stunningly beautiful, they also have rich cultural deposits, long-standing history and strong ethnic character.
They really did a nice job showing us the problems and situations Tibetan society is currently facing, and the conflicts between Tibetans, Han people and the PRC government you probably can't see if you go there with mainstream travel agency or on your own.
On top of the uniqueness and excellent planning and arrangements offered by Eastern Vision, the DRPK tour provided us the opportunity to experience the country and interact with the locals and even exchange students studying in North Korea.
I had a great time exploring DPRK with eastern vision. After the trip, I realized some media coverage about DPRK was hampered by the lack of information. As a result, some reports are based on unproven claims. This trip brings me a new perspective on DPRK.
Incredible experience with Eastern Vision which allow us to go to the DPRK, not just for the sake of going but to learn and grow from it. Everything was well-planned and we even had the opportunities to see some of our own requests fulfilled. Excellent from beginning to end!
A well organized and thought-provoking trip with many good moments that we could interact with the local DPRK people.
Fantastic organisation which provides travelers with an opportunity to do so much more than just sight seeing. Tours are planned to provide insights into the lives of local people, and the staff are quick to provide advice and guidance. I would definitely advise travelling with Eastern Vision.