22 Apr 2017
The rest of the tour group arrived around lunchtime on Friday. Twenty-one paying tourists, all Australians, two Australian staff (Bruce the legendary carpet expert, and his assistant, Vicki), two Iranian guides (Parri and her offsider Javed), and the two bus drivers, who didn’t speak English, and at that time were way in the south of the country, where they would meet our flight in Shiraz the next night.
Saturday, the tour began in earnest, and we had to have bags outside our rooms at a certain time, be breakfasted and checked out a half hour later, ready in the foyer to get on the bus. This was a pattern that became very familiar for the next two weeks. About half the time, we’d be staying in a hotel for two or three nights with no need to pack up every day, but still, we sometimes felt a bit like sheep, herded here and there.
A great double act
Bruce and Parri have been leading tours together for nearly twenty years. Bruce is getting on a little, but he has a wicked sense of humour and a delight in puns and wordplay. A fondness for tall tales and a sense of the macabre, and sometimes one is not entirely sure as to the accuracy of his discourse.
Parri knows Bruce all too well, and her commitment is to presenting Persian culture and history clearly and accurately. Watch her closely when Bruce is talking, and you’ll catch more than the occasional eye roll.
They tease each other with longstanding familiarity, and it is a delight to watch them at work.
Our first stop gave us a firm base for understanding Persia. The National Museum of Iran may not be cutting edge techno-visual, but it doesn’t need to be. Its exhibits speak for themselves. This part of the world is where civilisation was invented, where writing began, where great empires rose and fell.
This is a place that is more than Persia. This is for all of us.
The entrance is majestic, deliberately modelled after the enormous brick arches of Sassanid palaces (of which we would see an 1800-year-old example in a few days).
Inside were riches and school groups. This was a continuing feature of our tour; all the major cultural sites had a steady flow of school students, mostly schoolgirls. Iran is obviously proud of its history – and rightly so! – and keen that its citizens have a solid grounding.
We found the schoolchildren unfailingly well-behaved, polite, interested in we foreigners, and utterly charming. Given half a chance, they flocked around the female members of our party for selfies and basic conversational English.
There isn’t enough space here to do more than scratch the surface of the treasures on offer. Sometimes actual gold coins and ornaments, but the real value lay in the age of the items, sometimes tens of thousands of years old, and the extraordinary beauty.
One famous example is a metal arrowhead tooled into the shape of a duck in flight. The head, wings, feathers all clearly delineated. A mirror beneath shows that the arrow maker has included the feet in this tiny work of art.
Pottery in the shape of whimsical and fantastic creatures, decorative tiles, statuettes that exuded personality; each display case held fresh delights. Most were difficult or impossible to photograph due to reflections in the glass, and I yearned for a polarising filter. Next time.
Some items from Persepolis – our destination for the morrow – held pride of place. There were panels showing the king receiving envoys from subject nations, superbly and beautifully executed down to the smallest details of dress and decoration. The king sits on his throne, elevated just a little above the platforms for his guards, officials, and the vassals offering salutes before him. Two and a half thousand years old and the panels are crisp, polished, elegant.
The objects that impressed me most of all, however, were small and not particularly beautiful. Clay tablets marked with symbols in odd patterns. Here was the earliest writing of humanity, the very beginning of history.
We only had an hour or two, barely enough to take in the highlights. And there was another museum next door, containing objects related to the Islamic conquest of Persia. Here were items of intricate patterns, colourful, complex, beautiful, and glorious. But we had no time to see them on this trip. Next time.
Parri gathered us before a wall map of Iran, using a long pointer to draw our attention to the various geographical and manmade features of the nation. “Note here,” she said, “how this body of water is the Persian Gulf. It is not the Arabian Gulf as some have recently tried to rename it.”