Cradle of civilisation

When Tony Wheeler first visited Iran the Shah was still in power. Since then much has changed, but the welcome remains the same

The Paykan car swerved in to the roadside. A portly gentleman levered himself out from the driver's seat and steamed towards me, like the
Titanic on a pressing engagement with an iceberg. I was in Iran and I was about to be kidnapped. "I am a guide, I speak English," announced Ahmad Pourseyedi as he grabbed my arm. "Come, we will go to the Fin Gardens."

The Paykan car swerved in to the roadside. A portly gentleman levered himself out from the driver's seat and steamed towards me, like the Titanic on a pressing engagement with an iceberg. I was in Iran and I was about to be kidnapped. "I am a guide, I speak English," announced Ahmad Pourseyedi as he grabbed my arm. "Come, we will go to the Fin Gardens."

There was no arguing. The fact that I had only arrived in Kashan half an hour earlier and was on my way to dinner merely enabled me to put off the inevitable for 12 hours. The next morning I belonged to Ahmad, in fact I had become part of his family. At each of the beautiful traditional homes for which Kashan will, one day, be justifiably famous, the ticket-seller was expected, no, commanded, to offer me the family discount.

It was a typically Iranian encounter. I cannot remember the last country I visited where there was such an overwhelming urge to make you feel welcome, to roll out the Persian carpet, to include you in the family gathering.

So this is what life is like on the Axis of Evil. I had driven through Iran 32 years earlier, during the Shah's reign, when Iran was firmly part of Washington's Axis of Good. "That was a golden era," said Mohamad, the tourist guide I'd encountered at the stunning restaurant in the old Hammam-e Vakil in Shiraz, when I told him about my trip in the 1970s. "There were problems, but we had so much more freedom in those days."

Not quite, I thought, thinking of the dreaded Savak, the Shah's secret police who were every bit as fearsome as Iran's religious police are today. "After every revolution there are winners and losers," mused Mansoor, back in the capital. "The Shah thought Iran ended at Tehran. He neglected the country and the villages. People outside Tehran are much better off now. Look out on the street," he indicated, pointing at the tumultuous traffic that boiled all around us. "You see plenty of women driving, don't you? That wouldn't have happened in the Shah's era."

I'd started my short tour of Iran aboard a new Iran Air Airbus which zipped me south to Shiraz. The ticket for the London-Paris segment of the journey cost £15. When the poet Omar Khayyam wrote, "a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou", he was probably dreaming about a jug of Shiraz. Sadly, although Shiraz, that dark peppery red, is popular worldwide, you won't find any Shiraz in Shiraz today. Or anywhere else in the strictly teetotal Islamic Republic of Iran. Fortunately I had sampled some Shiraz Shiraz way back on my first visit, in the back of a VW Kombi van at a campsite in Isfahan.

Iran's favourite wine may be off the list, but Omar Khayyam was never Iran's favourite poet in the first place. His popularity in the West - all that "moving finger moving on" verse - is in part due to Edward FitzGerald, who put a lot of effort into translating and promoting him. Back home, his reputation rests on his mastery of mathematics rather than his prowess with prose.

Saidi and Hafez, both of whom are buried in Shiraz, are the big names in a country where poetry is still important. Hafez's tomb stands in a beautiful garden and features a popular tea house where you can sit around, puff on a qalyan (water pipe), sip chay (tea) and quote the master. Much of life takes place around a teapot. I trace my 30-year love-affair with the drink straight back to my first visit to Turkey and Iran in the 1970s. Tea had always been a stewed, milked and sugared affair until I discovered it could come in tiny glasses and, while sugar was on offer, it wasn't essential.

Shiraz has a fine old fort, some interesting mosques and mausoleums and the Bagh-e Eram ("Garden of Paradise"). But the real attraction is 30 miles away, where the ancient ruins of Persepolis perch on a plateau below a cliff face. Darius I (the Great) started building his showpiece city in 512 BC. Its glory days ended in 330BC when Alexander the Great invaded Persia, sacked the city and burnt it down.

Historians are uncertain whether the demolition of Persepolis was the unfortunate result of a drunken party that got out of hand, or deliberate revenge for the destruction of Athens 150 years earlier by Xerxes, Darius I's successor. Today things move faster: it took less than two years from the attack on the Twin Towers to the trashing of Baghdad. Alexander may have been slower in exacting revenge, but he was also somewhat more organised than the modern-day invaders of the Middle East. He cleared Persepolis before it was burnt - signs at the site note that emptying its treasury took 3,000 camels and mules to cart off the "12,000 talents" of silver. It's the bas-reliefs that really tell the Persepolis story, and the impressive Apadana Stairway has the best of them. The 23 subject nations who turned up to show their respects march in bas-relief line with gifts such as a lioness and two cubs (from the Elamite delegation),a humped bull (from the Gandarians of the Kabul Valley, the people who carved out the Bamiyan buddhas), bags of gold (from the Indians of the Sind; even then gold was important in India) and a giraffe and elephant tusks (from the Ethiopians).

I'd intended to take a bus the 275 miles to Yazd the next day, but Hassan, my Persepolis taxi driver, had been such a friendly guide that I decided to splurge £35 for air-conditioned comfortin the 40C heat. We cruised off with his Chris de Burgh tape providing a wholly inappropriate soundtrack and his nine-year-old daughter along for the ride. Yazd's Zoroastrian fire temple and towers of silence (where, once upon a time, vultures would pick over dead bodies) provide a reminder of this Islamic republic's religious past. Yazd is also a centre for underground irrigation channels known as qanat. The city's water channels may be hidden from view, but examples of its other traditional architectural features are very evident. Any worthwhile old home is topped by what looks like a cross between a stylish chimney and a lookout tower. These badgirs ("wind towers") are cunningly designed to catch the breeze and funnel it down over a pool of water in the house, providing a surprisingly effective form of natural air conditioning. From Yazd I took a bus - air-conditioned, comfortable and cheap (less than £1.50) - for the 200-mile trip to Isfahan. This city alone could justify any trip to Iran. It's hard to decide whether the prime attraction is the magnificent sweep of the Emam Khomeini Square, with its perimeter of shopping arcades and its breathtaking blue-tiled mosques, or the gentle curve of the Zayandeh River with its multi-arched bridges and fringe of parks. I wandered down one side of the river, pausing at a teahouse built into the Chubi bridge. I then stopped for tea again just downriver from the Si-o-Seh ("Bridge of 33 Arches"). Finally I walked back to the main square for yet more tea, this time in a shop perched beside the bazaar entrance gate at the north end of the square.

By the time I reached the south end, heading towards the restaurant I'd chosen for dinner, the sun was down and the floodlit blue tiles of the huge Emam Mosque had an eye-catching glow. A carpet dealer intercepted me and after a short sales pitch switched to tour guide, suggesting I should have another look at the mosque. "If you have seen it in daylight you will find it quite different now that night has fallen," he says.

Unfortunately, a guard stops me. "It's prayer time," he says. "You cannot go in." Immediately an animated discussion started up with the men sitting around him. Within minutes he relents. "They all say you must see the mosque by night," he explains. "If you keep over to one side you will not disturb anybody. Go ahead."

The next morning there are the shaking minarets to quake at, an amazing pigeon house sited in the middle of a roundabout, and the extravagant frescoes of the Vank Cathedral to admire before I head off to Kashan. The cathedral is one of a group of Armenian churches in the affluent Jolfa area, with its elegant cafés and glossy shops.

En route to Kashan there's another diversion, this time to Abyaneh. The old village's twisting lanes and mud architecture has brought it Unesco recognition, but as yet few tourists. If it were in France or Spain every other house would be a café or craft shop. Here there's a solitary counter selling a handful of souvenirs. Between the village and Kashan I had a brief encounter with that other Iran, the one that features in the press much more often than beautiful hotels and friendly people. "It's a nuclear research centre," my guide explains as we pass anti-aircraft gun emplacements beside the road and half-buried buildings.

Ahmad, my Kashan kidnapper, drops me off at the bus station after checking what time my lift departs Tehran. I'd even been round to his house where his wife brought us lunch while we took a break during the midday heat. I'd enjoyed cruising around Kashan in his Paykan car, "arrow" in Persian. Thirty years ago, in what seems like a previous lifetime, I was a young engineer with the Rootes Group car manufacturers in Coventry. I worked on the old Hillman Hunter, a project known in-house as "Arrow". They're still the most popular vehicles in Iran.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Iran Air (020-7493 8618; www.iranair.co.uk) fly to Tehran from Heathrow; Mahan Airlines (0121 554 1555; www.mahanairlines.com) flies from Birmingham. Fares are around £390.

STAYING THERE

In Tehran, the Atlas Hotel (00 98 21 88 00 408) has double rooms from 315,000 Iranian rials (£20). Hotels are cheaper in other cities; in Yazd you can stay in a restored traditional courtyard house for around 160,000 Iranian rials (£10).

RED TAPE

British passport holders require a visa to visit Iran as a tourist. The Embassy of Iran (0906 302 0600; www.iran-embassy.org.uk) provides these for £54. Applications (both online and through the post) take around one month to process. Before you can apply for a visa, you must first have authorisation from an agent, details of which are provided by the Embassy or Travcour (020-7223 5295; www.travcour.com), the visa and passport service. For this you must send two passport photos, a photocopy of your passport and details of your itinerary.

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