My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Iran: A Persian Odyssey - home from Tehran via Ayatollah Khomeini Mausoleum

at the Ayatollah Khomeini Mausoleum Tehran
We are in Tehran and about to go home after a fantastic tour of Iran over the last 11 days - and how much we have seen - described in the last several blogs.
Smog is bad across the mountains this morning – by 9am they are practically obscured. We see on BBC World News that on the recent Day of Cyrus there was a huge disturbance at Pasargadae around his tomb - a nationalistic demonstration which we visited only the other day – all tour groups had to be kept away as 1000s converged and local guards couldn’t cope – but seemingly all went off without any obvious extreme violence. How lucky we were able to visit when we did.
The smog today has affected my chest badly and I cannot actually now wait to get out of the city. Before we left the hotel I went up to the 13th floor for the advertised view from the Chinese restaurant there but cannot get out of the lift lobby as the doors into the restaurant with the views is locked. 

inside the Ayatollah Khomeini Mausoleum Tehran
The hotel advertises a garden – this must be the public Laleh gardens just up the road to the left from the entrance. I stroll up there and it is quite a large area with map at entrance but I do not have the time to fully explore. Others said it was very pleasant and relaxing among trees once one was away from the rather urbanised entrance.  

Suitcases checked and loaded on the bus - we are soon on our way to the airport via the Ayatollah Khomeini Memorial. We pass by the American Embassy building – scene of the American hostage crisis when the Embassy staff were held hostage for 444 days from October 1979. It is now an exhibition hall and the Swiss embassy is responsible for the American Embassy at the moment. The British Embassy only opened quite recently – hence enabling our own visit.  
Driving through the streets it is noticeable that the many small shops on which the Iranians seem to very much depend are grouped by product – thus there are concentrations of shops selling shoes, brass ware, musical instruments, bread, meat, hardware, building materials, wheelbarrows and so on… 

Ayatollah Khomeini Mausoleum
At the Ayatollah Khomeini Memorial we girls all enter to the left – where we have to take off shoes at the edge of the carpet and put on chadors – it is very difficult to get the hang of these – the ladies there smilingly help us put them on, quite amused probably at our clumsiness. Cell phone cameras are allowed but not other cameras – it is difficult anyway to take a photo and hold on to the chador at the same time!! We meet the men inside, who have their own entrance to the right of the shrine – they are shoeless but no special dress otherwise required for them – they are amused by the ethereal group of white chador clad womenfolk drifting over towards them across the carpets.  

the blood fountain at Behesht-e Zahra (cemetery)
Once outside again we see the blood fountain - red water symbolising the death of the many soldiers who were killed in the Iran Iraq war as well as those killed in the 1978 demonstrations against the Pahlavi regime - and the campsite of tents for the many pilgrims who come here to pay their respects.  
Back on the bus we make our presentations to the driver and Ali – who have looked after us so very well throughout our trip. 

So to the airport – a train line is being built alongside the road to the airport from the city – this should go some way to relieve the traffic pressure on this extremely busy route.   

All in all it was a wonderful trip and I would love to go again to see so much more that we didn't have enough time for in 11 days.

Before taking a break for a while from posting here - until the next pilgrimage perhaps - I would like to thank Rachel and McCabe Pilgrimages for such a well organised trip, the Revd. Canon Adrian Slade who made such a good job of leading and spiritually guiding us, our excellent local guide Ali with his encyclopaedic knowledge of just about anything we wanted to know, and our driver who transported us safely and cheerfully throughout the journey, always there to meet us and look after us and give us another picnic! And thank you to all my fellow pilgrims for being such good company. 

So where shall I be going next? Any ideas welcome and I would love your comments on any of my blogs to date. 

I wish all my readers a very happy New Year. May there be more peace for everyone in 2017.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Iran: A Persian Odyssey - Tehran

pottery Elamite period bull 

We are in Tehran - the capital of Iran. As I write this it is covered by a blanket of snow!! When we were there at the end of October it was hot.
Cuneiform script from Persepolis 5th century BC
We have travelled through 7000 years of civilization during our amazing trip to Iran over 12 days, and I could happily do this all over again. The country is beautiful, the people so friendly and welcoming to the many tourists visiting. We met on our own journey other tour parties from Britain, France, Holland, Germany, Australia and Canada and Russia, as well as seeing some lone backpackers up in Abyaneh. And we could scarcely scratch the surface of the treasures the country holds in the time available to us. 
We have seen a 5000 BC archaeological site where remains of humans, their houses and their pottery have been unearthed. 
We visited remnants of the Achaemenid dynasty (550-330 BCE) at the extraordinary ruins of Pasargadae and Persepolis, and at the necropolis of Naqsh-e Rostam. 
We visited the hauntingly beautiful ancient Zoroastrian Sassanid (224 - 658 CE) village of Abyaneh high in the mountains between Esfahan and Kashan and the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence at Yazd, and enjoyed the wealth of the Safavid court (1501-1736) reflected in the beauty of Esfahan
Bronze statue Parthian nobleman
In Shiraz we saw a charming example of Zand (1750-1794) architecture in the 1767 citadel, Arg-e Karim Khan Zand, perhaps the best surviving example of 18th century fortification in the country. We visited Kashan, which dates from the 12th century, a town which survived the Mongol (c 1220-1340) campaigns but is also home to splendid merchants' houses from the Qajar Dynasty (1757-1924). 
National Museum Tehran
We have been brought right up the present day in Tehran where tomorrow we will visit the shrine to Ayatollah Khomeini founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic which marked the end of the Shah's Pahlavi dynasty (1926-1979). He died in 1989.

Much of this history, from the hunter gatherers of the Lower Paleolithic period to the end of the Sassanian period is brought together in the National Museum of Iran which was our first stop this morning.  Here there are priceless exhibits and an excellent English brochure – make sure you pick this up as you go in.

On our journey through the city we pass the Palestine roundabout – a mural on the wall alongside shows Palestinians throwing stones at the Israelis - a significant example of Iranian graffiti. There is plenty of graffiti in the city, official and otherwise, and some very decorative.

marble throne for Shah by Esfahani craftsmen carved
in 1800s
typical Qajar tiling at Golestan
The population of Tehran is 9 million, with 18 million total counting all the sprawling suburbs. To the North is a mountain range to which the city dwellers love to escape where possible. Iran’s highest peak is here at 5678 metres. Tehran itself is at 1200 metres altitude. There is a state run university here which is highly regarded with much competition to be admitted. I see a lovely pavement sculpture of a girl posting a letter.  

We have a great land train experience – unscheduled I think – and fun! But the land train has a serious purpose - locals use it all the time to travel up and down the long pedestrianised shopping street.

Golestan Palace
 Then we walk on to the Golestan museum complex. This is amazing – but photos are  forbidden within the complex. We have also had to leave our bags in the bus as they are not allowed within the museums.
Golestan Palace
The GolestanPalace (Palace of Flowers) complex, with its ornate rooms and marble throne, was the seat of power of the Qajar dynasty, became the official residence of the Royal family and is the oldest historic monument in Tehran. It would once have been enclosed within the mud-thatched walls of the historic citadel in the city. 

street scene Tehran
pomegranates for sale Tehran bazaar

It is now surrounded by the typical city buildings and roads of the 21st century. Both Reza Khan and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi were crowned here.
The official website supplies some photos and much more information, albeit with a less than perfect translation.
Afterwards we have a long walk to pick up the bus – an amazing feat for our driver to even find us in the midst of total traffic madness! It’s now 1.30 and we have had a very long morning without refreshment – too long actually and many of us are wilting! 

land train Tehran

 So we are driven to Masqh Square complex where we find our restaurant –  this is a top hotel in Tehran and the meal was quite the best we had – 10/10! Superb buffet spread with veggies well catered for – quality sweets and hot drinks – all splendid.

sculpture at Laleh Park Tehran
The National Jewellery Museum holds many of the Qajar monarchs’ jewels, safely stored in a bank vault, access to which involves several security checks and some long waits. But it is all worth it. Again the official web page supplies the photos  
We have a very long wait here to let the crowds subside and then we seem to go through three different security processes – including xray machines, and frisking, before we are allowed through. We then have an official guide to take us around the circuit – our own guide Ali is not allowed to do this. It is all very precisely organised. The jewels are priceless, some vulgar, some exquisite. But it is an interesting experience.  

the Palestine Roundabout Tehran
I guess everyone visiting Tehran has to experience the seemingly impossible task of crossing a road! It’s certainly not for the faint hearted, or to be attempted alone. As a group ably guided by Ali we make it in one piece! We pick up our bus on the other side of the carriageway, with some relief.  

typical cabbage decorated roundabout
Shanderman Restaurant for supper was superb – excellent veggie meal and meat eaters rated theirs highly too – very good salad, buffet and soup with choice of meats and tea with biscuit, coffee or ice cream to finish with a group set meal. 8/10. On our return to the hotel we give Adrian a book on Persepolis with our thanks for his excellent leadership throughout the tour. Sad that we have to go home tomorrow.