During late April and early May I travelled for just over 2 weeks in Azerbaijan and Northern Iran. With this trip I may have definitely earned my place on the domestic security watchlist (googling my head off about Shia Islam) & given up an easy visit to the USA for 5 years (because I ticked off Iraq, Sudan and now Iran from the new Axis of Evil-list
in the past 2 years). But it was all worth it: it opened up a whole new part of the world for me with its own pecularities. And that is what travel is all about.
1. Be prepared for some serious personality cults
|Martyr portrait in the streets of Iran |
In Azerbaijan this veneration is limited to one person: Heydar Aliyev
, founding father of the current independent republic and Soviet Politburo member before that. His son has been in power for the last 13 years, but he is much less charismatic and seldom portrayed. Iran’s streets on the other hand show a whole pantheon of depicted persons. The combined pictures of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei are the most frequently seen. But the main streets of all towns are also aligned with endless rows of pictures from ‘martyrs’ who died in the Iran-Iraq War. This custom can also extend to local celebrities: in Bandar-e Anzali for example I saw a large billboard
in remembrance of a young player from the national football team, who had recently suddenly died. I did not encounter any anti-USA or anti-Israel slogans in the North (in contrast to Solivagant at Pasargadae
): at least there were none written in English.
2. Learn about Shia Islam
Azerbaijan and Iran are two of the only four countries in the world where Shia Islam is the majority religion. Although I had been to the other two before (Iraq and Bahrain), I never gave much thought about it at the time. But the knowledge about Islam in the West is much more derived from Sunnism than from Shiism. The Shia have their own rules and rites, such as combining the 5 prayers of the day into 3 sessions. A visible difference in mosques is the use of a clay tablet for prayer, holding the holy soil of Karbala (see 2nd photo). One of the biggest surprises of Iran is that outwardly it isn’t a very pious country: life just went on during prayer times and mosques were far from fully occupied.
3. Enjoy the pluriformity of this region
|Türbe - clay prayer tablet|
This particular itinerary, entering Iran from a back-door in the northwest, shows the pluriformity that is present in this region. You’ll meet a lot of Azeri’s, Armenians and Kurds before you end up in Tehran. Bordering the Republic of Azerbaijan lies the vast Iranian Province of East Azerbaijan, with its inhabitants speaking a Turkic language and the important historic regional center Tabriz. The Kurds were being their gregarious selves, strolling around in traditional dress in the streets of Sakez and Zahandaj. And an old monastery and a modern church represented the healthy Armenian minority.
4. Expect a steady flow of good but not great WHS
I was a tiny bit disappointed by the quality of the WHS that I saw on this trip, though there were no less than 8 of them in 2 weeks time. I do use a ranking system for my own ‘administration’, and all 8 visited WHS received a mark between 6 and 8 (out of 10). Takht-e-Soleyman
got an 8, the Armenian Monastic Ensembles
and the Sufi Shrine in Ardabil
both a 7.5. Especially Iran is hyped up a lot at this moment, experiencing the most favourable window of opportunity since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. But the sites that I visited did not match up to the main monuments of Uzbekistan for example. I expect Persepolis and Esfahan to be top class (as per our WHS Top 200), but they lie much further south in Iran.
5. Try Baku for a long weekend trip
|Modern architecture in Baku: Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center|
Azerbaijan’s capital Baku is the most interesting large city along this route. It’s a vibrant place, with European-style restaurants and shopping. There are many layers to discover here, so it’s worth a couple of days of your time. Its old city center
is a WHS, but especially for those fond of architecture there are many more remarkable sights. A carpet museum
in the shape of a rolled-up carpet for example. Or the re-styled facades of former Soviet housing. Or the fascinating Flame Towers
– they may be kitsch but I loved watching them at night when they are illuminated with alternating projections of yellow-and-red flames and the Azeri flag.