-I’m going on vacation to Iran.
-What? Iran? But why???
-Uhmmm, why not?
-It’s dangerous, you know. IS is over there.
-No, IS is in Syria and Iraq, they are NOT in Iran.
-Really? Are you sure???

I cannot remember how many times I had this conversation with friends and colleagues before my trip to Iran. It’s puzzling and astonishing at the same time how a country could have its fate changed so dramatically and its image turned upside down in just a generation. From the cradle of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, Iran is now part of the ‘axis of evil’ thanks to US President George W. Bush. From a thriving culture famous for its intricate carpets and the enchanting Arabian Nights, home to world-famous poets such as Hafez, Khayyam, and Rumi, Iran is now associated with wars, terrorism, and nuclear weapons. From a fast growing economy attracting tens of thousands of Europeans and Americans to Iran each year, the country is now shunned by mainstream tourists, out of fear that they would be in harm’s way in a faraway land that they know so little about. If there is a list called ‘The most misunderstood countries in the world’, I am pretty sure Iran will be head and shoulders above all other contenders for all the right and wrong reasons. But it should not be.

Eighteen years ago, Iran in my eyes was fleeting images of 3 fellow students in an evening English class: fashionable jeans and chunky boots under the hem of black outer coats, beautiful eyes and porcelain skin, long thick curly hair hiding under black headscarves, and an elaborately decorated dome against a piercing blue sky donning the cover of a handbook about Iran they gave me as a souvenir. All these images buried in the depths of my memory came to life again when I finally had a chance to visit the country.

One word kept ringing in my head during the trip, which represents best how I felt about Iran – ‘contrast’. The more we stayed, the more I saw it in so many different facets of Iranian life and society. ‘Introvert architecture’ conceals beautiful gardens and exquisite interior behind high walls and modest exterior. Seemingly simple vernacular structures hide genius climate responsive designs and architectural strategies at macro, medium and micro scales. Daily calls for prayers carry the acoustic secrets of mosques’ domes. Subtle flavored Persian cuisine disguises a delicate balance of sweet and sour, hot and cold, and a wide array of spices. Dense networks of small alleys in old city centers connect to thousands of km of superbly developed highway system. The calm and gentle manner of Iranian people gives way to cheeky jokes and boisterous laughs once you get to know them, while their traditional verbal etiquette taarof can also go hand in hand with erratic driving, which results in the highest number of road accidents in the world. And while the world may not know much about the true Iran, Iranians are far more educated and informed about the world out there thanks to the widespread use of internet and social media. All make the mosaic of modern Iran so vividly colorful and fascinating!

Some bloggers call Iran ‘the sanest travel choice in an increasingly insane world’, and I cannot agree more. Travelling in Iran is super safe, easy, comfortable, and guaranteed to bring you so many pleasant surprises. If there is any justice in the world, Iran should be on top of any traveler’s list, and I urge you to visit the country to see for yourselves its amazing Islamic architecture, arts and crafts, its out-of-this-world landscapes, and above all, its’ people who are probably the most kind-hearted, open-minded, peace-loving, and friendly people in the world.

***

Our first destination – Qom

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Driving from Tehran to Qom – Public infrastructure, especially highways and railroads, in Iran are superbly developed.

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I loved taking photos of the landscape along the highway.

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It felt like we were driving on Mars :))

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Colored rocks, hills, and moutains

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Entering Qom – first sights of mullahs. Qom is one of the two holy cities in Iran, and the largest center for religious education in the country. Not many tourists stay in Qom, most only stop for a few hours on their way from Tehran to other big cities further south.  But Qom is always teeming with pilgrims who come to visit the shrine of Fatema Masumeh, and with mullahs and scholars from all over the world who attend various religious schools in the city.

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You can tell how religious an Iranian city is by looking at the clothes of women on the streets. In a holy city like Qom, all women wear long black chadors. Many also cover their faces.

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Taxis and motorbikes lining the streets in Qom

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Chaotic traffic in Qom

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Slowly driving to the shrine

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Pilgrims on their way to the holy shrine

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Local women holding on to their black chadors

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The holy shrine’s beautiful dome

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A mullah on the street of Qom

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Outside the holy shrine

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Lots of mullahs walk the streets of Qom. Black-turbaned mullahs are descendants of Prophet Muhammad, hence are more respected.

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Inside the holy shrine of Fatema Masumeh. We were lucky to have one black-turbaned mullah called Seyed to take us around the shrine. Seyed was attending a religious school in Qom, but volunteered to be a guide so that he could help foreign tourists have a better understanding of Shiite Islam. He was extremely knowledgeable, polite and patient with us. I still regret that we did not stay in Qom longer to learn more from Seyed.

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The beautiful mirror balcony

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The walls and ceiling are all covered in tiny mirrors. It is a place for self contemplation. Looking up, you see your own reflection, but your image is dissolved and refracted into thousands of small pieces. It’s like transforming yourself into tiny pieces of light, and loosing your self-consciousness in the house of God.

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This ceiling is covered in real gold leaves. You can find this 3D geometric structure in many mosques and shrines in Iran. It represents the cave where the Qu’ran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammed. No matter how complicated the structure is, at the end, all lines and forms converge into one single point at the top, which represents God.

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All surfaces of the holy shrines are covered in beautiful designs

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Religious scholars leaving their morning classes

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I really don’t know how they could design and make something this beautiful

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The outer shell of a dome

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