Each year on February 1st—the date Iran’s former supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned to the country in 1979, after 15 years of exile—the Islamic Republic begins its annual “Ten Days of Dawn” celebrations. The tenth day marks the date that Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s regime officially collapsed, and events are held throughout the country to commemorate the anniversary of the 1979 revolution.
The celebrations offer the state-controlled media the opportunity to portray a people united behind the country’s leadership, with appeals to a sense of nostalgia, national pride and Islamic unity. Just how much of this rhetoric really hits home with the people of Iran is hard to know.
Most travellers returning from Iran will tell you about the legendary hospitality and natural curiosity of locals towards outsiders.
This was certainly my experience. Travelling solo, spending time in both the major cities and some of the smaller, more remote and down-trodden settlements, I was always made to feel welcome. I also never questioned my safety, except for some white-knuckle taxi rides through Tehran.
My goal was simply to see and shoot as much as I could while I had the chance. I experienced few issues taking pictures, and especially outside the major cities people were surprisingly open to being photographed.
Below is Khaju Bridge in Isfahan at sunset. The bridge and its banks are a popular meeting place for young people and local families.
Despite the welcome, travelling at this time of year it was abundantly clear that some older attitudes die hard. Although much of the hype surrounding the anniversary of the 1979 revolution appeared to be artificially whipped up by the authorities, the sight of young children propped up on their parent’s shoulders, holding placards that called for the death of the Islamic State’s perceived enemies, was hard to ignore.
In the city of Yazd I clambered up some dodgy scaffolding to take the picture below, which was one of the more surreal experiences of my trip. Even as the revolution celebrations reached fever pitch, most people simply waved and smiled, despite the hostile sentiment.
The former US embassy in the capital city of Tehran remains in much the same state as shown in the movie Argo. Now something of a museum, complete with wax figures representing former embassy staff, it is only technically open to visitors a few days each year. Anti-American murals such as those below have long been part of the urban landscape in Iran.
From these grisly monuments and stark murals around the former US embassy, to the huge national protests, rallies, and celebrations held throughout the first ten days of February, there were constant reminders that reconciliation with the West still has some way to go.
However, not long after my visit a number of major steps towards this seemingly improbable reconciliation took place. Today, with the prospect of economic sanctions being fully lifted, the authorities are promoting the lofty goal of making tourism one of the country’s largest exports.
Below is an image of a fellow tourist who spent the better part of an hour posing for pictures for her friends at the beautiful Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz. The building is famous for the early morning light cast through its ornate stained glass windows.
Lifting the sanctions will hopefully remove two of the more significant difficulties faced by travellers to the country. At the time of my visit, Iran was almost completely cut off from the international banking system, leaving independent travellers with little or no access to funds, even in an emergency. This meant carrying all the cash I needed for my entire trip.
Added to this was the famously difficult visa situation. I arrived into Tehran at 3.00am armed only with a letter of invitation, which had been paid for in advance via a numbered Swiss bank account. After a cursory check over my documents, a friendly though wary customs officer disappeared into a back room to discuss my situation with a superior.
After what seemed like an hour he returned, smiled, and welcomed me to the country with a crunching stamp across my newly minted visa. After all the tension, I half went to high five the officer—the pressure was off.
Yet these relatively minor inconveniences pale into insignificance compared to the challenges the Iranian people have had to endure under the crippling economic sanctions brought on by the bluster of their uncompromising, theocratic leaders. Hyper inflation had brought their country’s economy to a grinding halt.
Below is a man bearing a placard with images of the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, and the ‘the eternal religious and political leader of Iran,’ Ruhollah Khomeini.
The struggling economy, coupled with instability and insecurity, have pushed many to seek a better life outside of Iran, seeking refuge in Europe, the US, and beyond. For a brief period Iranian asylum seekers had also been arriving in large numbers via perilous boat journeys to my home country, arriving on Australia’s north coast from ports in Indonesia. Boat arrivals in Australia are presently not allowed to stay in the country and are shipped off to the small islands of Naru and Manus for deportation or relocation to third countries, most recently Cambodia.
For all the genuine pride in their country people showed me, there were just as many stories from people hoping to leave, by any means possible.
From a taxi driver who showed myself and some other travellers photos of his lacerated back after he was given lashes for drinking home made beer, to an older man who brought himself to tears talking of his beloved brother, shot by the police for translating books into English a decade earlier, it was clear that many living in Iran have extremely good reasons to search for a better life elsewhere.
Below is a young girl and her mother leaning over the graves of some of those who lost their lives fighting during the 1979 revolution.
Yet from a traveller’s perspective the country is incredible.
Everything is cheap and the standard of hotels and food is generally pretty good. Mercifully, moving forests of selfie sticks are nowhere to be found. Well-known spots were busy at times, but never so much as to feel over crowded. Time will tell how long this will continue to be the case.
Below is Naqsh-e Rustam, an ancient necropolis with an impressive group of ancient rock reliefs cut and carved into the cliff. The oldest relief dates back to around 1,000 BC.
Below are two stone bulls flanking the north side of the Throne Hall at the UNESCO world Heritage site of Persepolis. Literally translating to “city of Persians,” the city Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, from around 550–330 BC.
Near Yazd are the ancient Zoroastrian ‘Towers of Silence.’ The Zoroastrians ‘purified’ their dead by exposing the bodies to the elements and to birds of prey, on top of these flat-topped towers, called dakhmas.
While in the city of Isfahan, I visited the beautiful Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Along with the Naghsh-e Jahan Square on which it borders, the mosque is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Early mornings see brilliant rays of light illuminate the intricate tile work of the building.
Also in Isfahan is Vank Cathederal, established by Armenian deportees settled by Shah Abbas I after the Ottoman War of 1603–1605. Today, this building remains one of the few Christian places of worship in Iran, and has many beautiful, fading murals within its interior.
One of the most interesting areas I explored during my visit was the southern region of the country, particularly the small islands and towns along the Persian Gulf coast. Thanks to the region’s colonial history as both a slave trading port and a stop on ancient trading routes, the area is home to the most ethnically diverse people in the country.
One morning I shared a simple breakfast of fruit and tea with the woman below, and afterwards she was happy for me to take her picture.
The capital city of this region is called Bandar Abbas, and is a major port for smuggled goods coming from Dubai and Oman. It is home to the Bandari ethnic group, which literally translates as ‘people of the port’.
The locals here dress colourfully and still practice many customs that differ somewhat from the rest of the country. For me, it was the potential for some colour and a break from the dark chador worn throughout much of Iran, that made it so appealing to visit.
Early one evening in Bandar Abbas, I paused alongside a large crowd gathered to watch a sideshow, a common sight in the region.
Below is a group of young men working to fix an Iranian built Paykan Taxi. When I returned to the city a week later, the men were still working on the cab, seemingly no closer to getting it moving.
Taking a short drive from the city of Bandar Abbas I arrived at the small town of Minab, seen below, where the people from around this vast area gather each week to sell their wares at the famous ‘Panjshambe Bazar’.
The striking coloured masks worn by the women of this region are said to have originated at a time when the Portuguese colonists would take the prettiest girls as slaves, and the masks would help to shield young girls from unwanted attention. I learned that each town in the region has its own signature variation of mask, varying in colour and construction.
The Panjshambe Bazar was a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the different cultures and people who call this area home. While there were large sections of the town dedicated to selling ubiquitous imported goods, there was still much to see that wouldn’t have changed much since Marco Polo made a visit—from the bustling livestock market, to the vendors selling colourful fabrics and homegrown produce.
For a fully grown, healthy goat, the prices seemed to hover around the 40 USD mark, a large sum of money for Iranians struggling in an economy crippled by sanctions and high inflation.
Below is a masked woman smoking tobacco from a waterpipe, or nargeela in Persian. This practice is banned for women throughout Iran in public places, but it remains popular amongst vendors at the market in Minab, who can often be found discreetly puffing away.
From tiny Minab I worked my way around to explore two rocky and arid islands just off the coast in the Persian Gulf, called Qeshm and Hormuz. On Hormuz, due to the severe lack of fresh water, Iranian engineers have constructed a water pipeline from the mainland.
Both islands are home to some of the oldest settlements in the Middle East, with a number of historic mosques and shrines, and I explored the crumbling ruins of ancient Portuguese castles and forts.
In 1507 the Portuguese conqueror Afonso de Albuquerque attacked the island of Hormuz, and it became a part of the Portuguese Empire. For over a hundred years, the Portuguese occupied the island, also capturing other islands and ports nearby, including the island of Qeshm. Their rule came to an end in 1622 when the Safavid king, Abbas I, conquered the Portuguese territories, forcing them to leave the Persian Gulf. Below you see remains of a chapel at the Portuguese fort on the island of Hormuz.
During 2009 Iran and Portugal prepared joint plans to restore historical sites in this region, however, little work seems to have taken place since then. These two young girls were passing through the ruins of the ancient Portuguese castle in the village of Laft, on Qeshm island.
Qeshm island is also home to large reserves of natural gas and a massive military presence. In early 2012, an underground military facility was established, designed to house Iran’s Ghadir-Nahang class submarines. The week after my visit a mock US warship was sunk just off the coast here by missiles fired from the main base in the east of the island.
Military service is mandatory for Iranian men. Except for special exemption cases, men not completing their service are unable to apply for a driving license, passport, or leave the country without permission.
Today the communities living on the islands of Hormuz and Qeshm are small, and in addition to natural gas exploration and production, fishing is one of the primary occupations forr inhabitants of these islands.
Above you see a partially constructed Iranian lenge on Qeshm island, which is a traditional style of fishing vessel made of wood.
My hope is that the images shared in this story show a bit of both sides of Iran, as it is certainly a place that defies preconceptions.
Today, despite its beauty, rich history, and welcoming people, there is still a long way to go before it becomes a country where all of its people can feel safe, secure, and able to provide a better life for their children.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.
Brook Mitchell is a Sydney based photographer with Getty Images & The Sydney Morning Herald. Find out more about his work on his website.