RSAA members Max Lovell-Hoare and Sophie Ibbotson both recently were privileged to be part of a first in the history of travel – they were guides on the first private train to be permitted to cross from Iran to Europe. Here, Max Lovell-Hoare reflects on an unexpected gem he discovered in Iran during the journey.
Three days before boarding my flight to Tehran, I still didn’t have a visa. The Iranian authorities’ wariness of foreigners with journalist credentials is well-known (and, frequently, justified), but their principle reason given for stalling my own application was that I had reported for the Wall Street Journal from Tehran in 1982. Given that I would have been six at the time and hadn’t set foot in Iran before or since, this did cause me to raise an eyebrow, but the point seemed to have passed over a plethora of bureaucrats, and even once I spelled it out, my application still hung in limbo as no one wanted to countenance the fact that an internal intelligence report might be wrong. Quite whose common sense prevailed I cannot be entirely sure, but I am forever grateful. I was summoned in person to the Iranian Embassy in Dublin, the paperwork was stamped, and 48 hours later I was on yet another flight, this time to Tehran via Istanbul.
I flew to Iran to join the inaugural tour of the Golden Eagle Danube Express, the first European private train to be allowed into the country. Built in the mid 20th century to transport senior Hungarian officials around the Balkans, this was the train’s first foray east of Istanbul, and its arrival marked both an up-tick in Iran’s diplomatic relations with the West, but also gave the clear message that Iran is once again fully open for tourism. The reception we received from Iranian officials, the media and from ordinary people, was ecstatic.
In my mind, it was Persepolis that would be the highlight of the tour. The majestic ruins, set amongst an arid landscape, did not disappoint, but neither did they quite marry with the images I had first seen in National Geographic as a child. Instead, the place which utterly fascinated me, and which I could visit time and again, was somewhere had never even occurred to me might exist. It was the extraordinary Vank Cathedral in Isfahan.
Shah Abbas I relocated a substantial number of Armenian refugees from the Ottoman Wars to Isfahan in the early 17th century. He gave them permission to build a cathedral church in their new homeland, and the resulting building is a remarkable fusion of Islamic and Orthodox architectural and artistic styles. The sanctuary is typical of a Safavid-era mosque, but the accompanying dome is very much from the Orthodox tradition. On the walls are finely glazed tiles with geometric patterns and floral motifs, but also exquisite figurative frescos depicting scenes from Revelations, and gilded cherubs with beatific smiles. A faint smell of incense lingers in the air, and throughout most of the day a solitary priest prays unhurried at the altar.
The cathedral, small though it is, is a haven of peace in an otherwise frantic city. Perhaps it is this contrast which made its discovery such an unexpected delight, though I think at least part of the charm was that it overturned my own preconceptions about what I’d find in Iran. Logically, I knew there was still a Christian community in Iran, but it took meeting with it face to face to realise not only does it still flourish, but its cultural heritage is treasured and preserved not only by Iran’s Christians but by the population at large.