Tehran was a town of little consequence until the Qajars moved the capital there in 1789. Since then it has grown both enormously and haphazardly. It is said that Tehran has the worst traffic in the world. Having visited Cairo on this same trip, I am not sure I could decide which is worse. Certainly both must rank among the top ten in this dubious category. Tehran's traffic is fueled, literally, by gasoline prices that average 22 cents a gallon – a price that the Iranians complain is too high!
We received an orientation to the country and had our first taste of Persian art when we visited the National Museum. The museum is divided into pre-Islamic and Islamic sections. The former area presents exhibits from the neolithic period through the Sassanian Dynasty (which ended with the Arab invasion in the mid-seventh century) and includes many fine works from Persepolis. The second floor of the museum is devoted to Islamic-era carvings, tiles, textiles and illuminated manuscripts of the Koran. In addition to this large museum, we also visited several smaller ones including Abgineh Museum of Glass and Ceramics and the Carpet Museum, which, as you might expect, contained a large collection of fine Persian rugs.
To my mind, the museum that left the most lasting impact was the National Jewels Museum, contained in a large, underground vault at the Melli Bank. After passing through security scanners, we entered the vault through a thick steel door. Before us, in dozens of glass showcases, lay riches beyond the dreams of avarice: cups and utensils of solid gold, ceremonial swords and daggers with jewel-encrusted handles and scabbards, tassels for curtains made from thousands of miniature pearls, a globe weighing eighty-eight pounds and inlaid with 51,000 precious stones, the Pahlavi Crown, made in 1924 for Reza Shah (the father of the Muhammad Reza Shah) and set with 3,380 diamonds plus assorted emeralds, sapphires and pearls, and one of the largest diamonds in the world, the 182 carat Dariá-e Nur (Sea of Light). Perhaps even more impressive, in an understated way, were piles containing thousands of uncut diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires. (Unfortunately, photography was not permitted inside the museum.)
A glimpse of the Shah's wealth and sumptuous lifestyle continued when we visited Sa'ad Abád, a complex of eighteen palaces and residences of the two Pahlavi Shahs set in a landscaped, 300 acre park in the cool reaches of north Tehran. Although somewhat austere on the outside, the palaces on the inside are ornate enough to make the crown jewels feel right at home. (Unfortunately, photography was not permitted inside the palaces.)
Tehran also offered an opportunity to see the day-to-day lives of modern Iranians. One morning, at around 6:30 AM, I decided to go for a jog in Lâleh Park behind our hotel. Rain threatened so I assumed I would be one of the few in the park that early. To my surprise, the park was teeming with Iranians playing soccer, volleyball, badminton or just walking and stretching. I also saw quite a few other joggers, including women who were running in the head scarves, long pants and knee-length coats that are considered the bare minimum for female attire.
One evening we traveled further north in Tehran, higher into the Alborz Mountains. Set in a narrow canyon was a mile or more of restaurants, open-air food stalls and teahouses. Music drifted out of the restaurants and the path was lined with festive colored lights. We were told that the area is jammed on Thursday nights (the equivalent of Saturday night in Iran and other Muslim countries where Friday is the day of prayer). Young people in particular come here to meet and talk to the opposite sex away from the prying eyes of the morality police.
After a few days in Tehran, we set out toward Hamadan and northwest Iran and the Caspian Sea.