Before you come to Iran, you might be thinking the main reasons to visit the Islamic Republic are that it is a bit adventurous and there is a lot to see from the years when Persia was a great world power. If you make your travel decisions based on what your friends and family say, you will probably never make it to Iran. This is a country whose politics are impossible to escape. For most travellers that will mean little more than some pre-departure questions about their sanity, but it can make getting a visa a challenge. Except for Americans, who must be accompanied, once in Iran independent travel is easy and, through the people you meet, rewarding and sometimes sobering. However you chose to plan your travel, a journey in Iran will change the way you see this part of the world.
Since the political and social upheavals that Iran has been undergoing since the revolution in 1979, Western tourism in Iran has shrunk to a mere trickle. Even today, many people simply do not realize that it is possible to travel in Iran. And yet, for several years now, tourism has been developing at a steady rate and the attraction of Iran's cultural and historical riches is proving stronger in the long run than the preconceived ideas that exist about the Islamic Republic.
Those who knew Iran in the 1960s and 1970s will be struck as soon as they arrive by the most obvious changes that have occurred: the growth in the population, unrestrained urbanization, pollution. In addition, a revolution and ten years of war have inevitably left their mark on the people, although these deeper scars are not always immediately visible. Despite this, the quality of the welcome has lost none of its earlier warmth and modern Iran can be as interesting as ancient Persia.
Walking around the sublime, turquoise-tiled domes and minarets of Esfahan’s Naqshe Jahan (Imam) Square, the awesome power and beauty of the Achaemenid’s ancient capital at Persepolis, the mudbrick alleys and rooftops in Yazd, and the wonderfully immense Elamite ziggurat at Choqa Zanbil will put you in the footsteps of some of history’s most outstanding figures. In addition, you will not find yourself crowded out of any sights.
These highlights, together with the atmospheric teahouses, bustling bazaars, deserts punctuated by historic oases and rugged mountain ranges, gives Iran more than its fair share of fantastic places to see.
If you are flying into Iran, be sure to ask for a window seat – you might be surprised by what you see. Rather than the featureless desert wasteland many perceive, Iran is a diverse land where snow-capped mountains border vast desert plateaus and cliff side villages contrast with palm-filled oases. More than half of Iran is covered by mountains. There are several peaks reaching more than 4000 m, though heights fall to an average of 1500 m in the south. The forests will look familiar to Europeans (oak, ash, pine, poplar, willow, walnut, maple and elm), The deserts include occasional salt lakes and are dotted with luxuriant oases – a welcome sight for travellers down the ages.
Iran is a land of 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, listed here chronologically:
- Choqa Zanbil, XIII century BC
- Pasargadae, VI century BC
- Bisotun, VI century BC
- Persepolis, V century BC
- Arg-e Bam, IV century BC to XVIII century
- Shushtar Hydraulic Complex, primarily III century
- Armenian Monastic Ensembles, VII to XIV centuries
- Takht-e Soleiman, primarily XIII century
- Oljeitu Mausoleum, Soltaniyeh, XIV century
- Sheikh Safi-od-Din Mausoleum, Ardabil, XVI to XVIII centuries
- Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Sq, Esfahan, XVII century
- Tabriz Bazaar, primarily XVIII century
- The Persian Garden, nine sites
At the beginning of the XXI century, more than two decades after the Islamic Revolution, Iran stands at another turning point in its history. This vast country with enormous economic potential-it contains the third largest oil reserves in the world-is on the verge of becoming one of the most powerful states in the Middle East. Whatever the long-term evolution of its policies, it can no longer be ignored by the West nor by the rest of the world. Let us then learn to understand it rather than fear it.