Hearing that my wife and I were in the Holy City of Qom, the Council of Mullahs invited us to meet with them. I shall never forget the gentle, authoritative voice of a senior Mullah. “We know that there have been bad times between our two countries. But we would like you to understand that we admire and respect your Jesus Christ, we love your Virgin Mary; it’s only the British Government we do not like!”
A decade-and-a-half ago – relations are less strained now – I went with the excellently organised British museum travel company, paying the full commercial rate, to Iran, on a holiday.
Everyone in Iran whom we met wanted to be friendly and welcoming.
From Tehran, a metropolis with many stunning museums – the one I remember most vividly was the carpet collection – we went to Rasht on the Caspian. The beach of a freshwater sea is something different. The fish was unusual and delicious, partly because it was cooked with such care in a tradition which had lasted for centuries.
Sent to Hamadan, as a beekeeper, I encountered a delicious range of local honey in the market sold directly by local beekeepers. When I had asked them how they handled bees, I realised that the Iranians had skills which we did not. In particular, they would move their bees from one desert-like land to another depending on where the wildflowers were blooming.
The wildflowers of Iran are something to behold whether or not you are a beekeeper. In Kashan, where one could purchase carpets, many women would spend hours making them, for embarrassingly small prices.
Old Isfahan is quite simply the most beautiful city which I have ever been to. Its mosques are breath-taking. The blue glazing on tiles is astonishing in the early morning or late evening sun.
Our bus then took us on roads well tarmacked, with very few potholes across the desert to Yazd with its tall minaret. Back to Shiraz, by way of the striking desert tomb of the great Persian warlord Cyrus, with its ever so delicate architecture.
Having been informed by the Iranian embassy in London – they had done their homework on us – that my wife was chairman of the Royal Commission in Scotland for ancient and historical monuments, special care was taken to explain their funereal monuments, many of which have stone lacework remarkable in its intricacy. Exquisite paintings, done with cats’ tails can be purchased in the market. It’s an art form all its own.
The final stop was Persepolis. My mother and father had been there in the 1920s and told me of the lifelike faces equal to those at Autun cathedral in France but made a thousand years earlier, of the captive peoples of Xerxes and his kin. The sadness was that they had recently begun to blur since the sandstone was suffering from the polluting presence of oil refineries, hastily moved out of harm’s way from the Iraqi frontier during that awful eight-year war.
Once in a lifetime you should go to Iran; don’t forget to pack a couple of toilet rolls in your bag.
Tam Dalyell was a Labour MP from 1962 to 2005