By Rich Juro
Our visit to Iran was in 2010, after President G.W. Bush declared it to be an axis of evil (along with Iraq and North Korea) but before President Trump canceled the nuclear treaty with them and imposed even more sanctions on Iran. Yes, Americans could go there then, and still can. And, no, your life will be safe, as long as you follow simple Iranian rules. If you’re Jewish, and wear a Star of David or a yarmulke, you’ll probably be safer than in Western Europe!
Persia is basically the old name for Iran. Persians (Iranians) are not Arabs. It has 83,000,000 people, 95% of those are Shia Muslim. Iran is a big country, varied in topography, and vast natural resources, especially gas and oil. Rich in history and culture, there are 22 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iran.
Fran and I flew from Omaha to Mumbai, India, and stayed at the Trident Hotel that had been attacked by Pakistani terrorists the year before. We were more worried about our safety in India than in Iran. In Mumbai, we boarded our home for the next two weeks: Cabin 508 in the Spirit of Oceanus, an expedition ship which we had sailed with before through remote islands in Oceania. We went through the Arabian Sea, and then into the Persian Gulf. Just at the narrow and strategic Strait of Hormuz, where the Persian Gulf makes a U-turn, we docked at Bandar Abbas. That city is a main port of Iran and the home to half a million people.
We disembarked and went through Iranian immigration faster than American customs. On the buses to the airport, after welcoming us to Iran, our three local women guides shocked us with their remarks:
“Do you think we want to wear these hijabs (hair covering)?”
“Our national government is a bunch of idiots.”
“Stupid is the best description of our leaders.”
Not only were we astounded, but there were two male security guards on the bus, and we assumed they understood English.
Soon we were at the airport for our charter flight on Air Bandar Abbas to the city of Shiraz. (No, we didn’t fly on a magic carpet although Iran is the world’s largest producer of handmade carpets.) Shiraz has almost two million citizens, mostly Moslem, but in 2010 there were 2,000 Jews and several Christian churches. Its known as the city of poets, literature, and wine. The wonderful Shiraz grape and red wine originated there, although since the Islamic revolution in 1979, alcohol is banned in the country (but we heard it is available illegally). The city gets many tourists, especially Iranians and Asian Muslims, to visit the tombs of the great Islamic poets and other local sites.
At the Shiraz airport, we boarded buses again. This time our destination was Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Persian Emperors (the real capital was mostly at Susa in Babylon because Persepolis was inconvenient). Parsa was how the people referred to this area of Persia, but Persepolis simply means, in Greek, the Persian city. After Cyrus I started the Archaemid Empire about 2500 years ago, in 515 BCE, he began building his capital here. The main palaces and terraces were mostly completed by his successors, Darius I and Xerxes I. The low walls were all carved in great detail with scenes such as the emissaries from subjugated nations bringing tribute to the Persian capital. The Persian warriors are portrayed, whether on horseback or on foot, in a peaceful manner (unlike almost every other nations’ depictions of their own soldiers).
Some of the multi-level magnificent constructions of this half square mile UN World Heritage Site:
The Gate of All Nations.
The Apadana Palace, 200 feet in each direction, with 72 columns of 66 feet tall, topped by animal sculptures. 13 of the original columns still stand. It was roofed by cedar planks brought from Lebanon. The foundation bears an inscription by Darius I describing the vast extent of the empire, from Central Asia to Libya.
Our tour guide around Persepolis was a local young woman. She was knowledgeable and informative, but her hijab kept slipping down from covering her hair to her shoulders. She paid no attention. Three times a “security policeman” walked up and indicated her hijab was incorrect. Each time she fixed it in the approved position, but within ten minutes the scarf was again down on her shoulders…until the next guard scolded her.
Persepolis stood for almost 200 years. In 330 BCE Alexander the Great, who united Macedonia and Greece, invaded the Persian Empire. After mixed results, he won a great battle at Persepolis. To pay his troops, Alexander allowed them to loot all the private houses. The conqueror sent for safe keeping vast amounts of gold and silver found in the palaces. Then followed victory games and dinners with bountiful food and drink. In the drunken aftermath, Thais, a female courtesan (a unique combination of prostitute and poetry reader from Greece) suggested loudly that it would be a great idea for the Greek women to burn down the Persepolis. Led by Thais and Alexander, they did. Although Alexander later may have regretted it, the possible reasons for the torching of Persepolis:
1) Simple drunkenness;
2) Alexander wanted to let the Persians know that he was a foreign conqueror;
3) Revenge for the burning of the Acropolis of Athens by Xerxes I over 150 years before.
Most likely, the fire was a combination of two or three of the motives. In any case, most of Persepolis was destroyed, including much of the literature, tapestry, and architecture of the great Archaemid Empire. And for that reason, Iranians refer to the conqueror not as Alexander the Great but simply as Alexander.
After the tour of Persepolis, we returned to Shiraz to a Sufi restaurant for a lavish dinner. The Sufis are an Islamic order, with millions of followers around the world, including those who dance as “Whirling Dervishes”. They believe in a very personal relationship between the individual and God.
First was big plate after big plate of Persian appetizers: sabzi (rice pilaf with white fish), khoresh bademjam (eggplant and tomato stew), kuku (Herb based fritata), koofteh berenji (meatballs with rice), zereshk polo (rice, berries, chicken), and more. We stuffed ourselves. Then we were served the main courses: platters of kebabs on skewers made of ground beef, lamb, chicken, etc. Since we were too full to eat anymore, Fran carried over our serving dishes to the security guards eating at the table behind us. They thanked her in Persian and ate prodigiously.
What followed is one of the weirdest incidents of all of our travels. We heard a thud on the floor behind us. Fran turned around and saw the loaded gun from one of the security guards had fallen out of his pocket. He was still eating and didn’t realize what had happened. Fran reached behind, tapped him on the shoulder, and pointed to the gun laying on the floor. He grabbed it, and thanked her, but this time he was not smiling. Probably embarrassed. We didn’t take a picture.
After dessert, we flew on Air Shiraz back to Bandar Abbas, then went to the ship. The next day we had a tour of the city of Bandar Abbas, with its big outdoor market. Not surprisingly, we did not tour the main base of the Iranian Navy. Surprisingly, our middle aged female guide told Fran and a couple of other women tourists that she would leave Iran if she could, but feared to put her family in jeopardy.
So what were our overall impressions of modern Iran? Its large, with over 80 million people, which makes Iran both the most populated and largest in size of the nations of Western Asia. It has a diverse geography, and vast natural resources, including the second largest (to Russia) natural gas reserves in the world and the fourth biggest oil reserves. Its technically a democracy, with the Parliament and President being elected by the people. But the ultimate power is in the Ayatollah as Supreme Leader. The nation has officially been known as the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979 when the Islamic revolution took place and installed a theocratic constitution.
We had all of the women guides complaining about their dictated mode of clothing, and describing their leaders as “stupid”. But they had to comply with the Islamic rules. President George W. Bush described Iran as one of the three Axis of Evil countries, and President Trump has increased the sanctions even more. Yet Iran complied with the nuclear treaty drawn up under President Obama. It has a 93% literacy rate and has more of a democracy (except for the Supreme Leader) than most of the Middle Eastern nations. It hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from its neighbors of Iraq and Afghanistan.
We fully expected there to be protests and demonstrations from the citizens unhappy with the economic situation or the theological restrictions. They have happened, but were suppressed. Sharia Law and the Supreme Leader remain in power. Iran remains static, but somewhat also in flux. Who knows what the future will bring? It’s definitely a Country of Paradoxes.
Iran is an ancient culture with at least 6,000 years of history. Jews were in Persia at least since 600 BCE when Assyria conquered the area of Palestine and forced the exile of Jews. Thousands dispersed to Babylon and Persia (now Iraq and Iran). In 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated Babylon, and allowed the Jews who desired to return to Israel. Later, Emperor Darius ordered the completion of the Second Temple. Several Books of the Bible (Esther, Ezra, Daniel, and Nehemiah) report favorably on the Jews vis a vis the Persian Empire. At that time, most of the Persian people were Zoroastrian.
In the seventh century AD, Arabs conquered Persia, and brought the Islam religion. Timor the Lame brutally took over the area in 1383, and sent many of the Jewish artisans and artists to work in his capital (Samarkand, Uzbekistan). In the 15th century, the Sunni practitioners of Islam were forcibly converted to the Shia branch. The Islamic revolution in 1979 overthrew the Shah (king) and established a theocracy. Now the state religion is the Shia branch of Islam.
Through 25 centuries, the Jews of the Persia have been alternately encouraged, tolerated, persecuted, or any combination thereof. During WW II, hundreds of Eastern European Jews escaped the Holocaust to Central Asia, and some wound up in Iran. In 1948, there were 150,000 Jews in Iran. When Israel was established that year, many Jews emigrated there. In 1979, there were about 100,000 Jews in Iran, and they enjoyed freedom of religion and economic success under the Shah. Since the Islamic revolution, most Jews have left the country, going to Israel, the USA, and Western Europe. Its said that the poor Jews went to Israel, the rich Jews went to the USA, and the middle class stayed in Iran. In the USA there are big communities in Southern California and in Long Island, New York State.
In current Iran, the official line is freedom of religion for those religions that were in existence before Islam (Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, etc.), but persecution for those religions established after Islam (the followers of Bahai, especially). But there is official hatred for Israel and Zionists. Ayatollah Khomeini said: “We recognize our Jews as separate from the godless, blood-sucking Zionists.” He then issued a fatwa decreeing Jews in Iran were to be protected. The are 13 active synagogues, five Jewish schools, and one large Jewish hospital in Tehran. Those institutions are unguarded and safe, and Jews can wear yarmulkes and other religious garments or jewelry safely in public. Jews serve in the armed forces like other Iranians.
But there is an undercurrent of discrimination. The teachers and the principals and the doctors at the schools and hospital are mostly Muslim. In the 1990’s, the government republished the notoriously anti-Semitic and libelous “The Protocol of the Elders of Zion”. A high official of the government proclaimed a few years ago that the Holocaust was a myth. There is one appointed Jewish member of Parliament. He actually publicly protested the government official for denying the Holocaust.
Now there are about 8,000 Jews in the capital of Tehran, 2,000 more in Shiraz, and various smaller Jewish communities. The total of over 10,000 makes it the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel. The Jews in Iran are safe as long as they don’t proclaim their affection for Israel. They are more traditionally religious than their ancestors, the Jews in the USA, or the Jews of Israel. Most keep kosher (yes, there are kosher meat markets), and there is almost no intermarriage. Some feel that the Iranian government treats Jews well so that the officials can blame Israel and Zionists for everything else.
Fran and I didn’t meet any Jews in Iran nor visit any synagogues. Partly, we didn’t have time, and partly, if any Iranian Jews met with Americans, it might put them under suspicion of consorting with the enemy. Notwithstanding, the Muslim Iranians we met were always friendly to Americans. We mutually agreed that the governments didn’t get along, but the people of each country could.
We’ll end this section about the Jews of Iran like we ended the tale of our visit to Iran: It’s a country of paradox!