Valley of the Assassins

Alamut castle, Valley of the Assasins, Northern Iran

Alamut castle, Valley of the Assasins, Northern Iran

During the 10th century, an open version of Islam appeared on the Alamute mountains of Northern Iran, between the Caspian sea and Alborz mountains.   Its followers were called Ismaili and they were ferocious fighters living in fortified castles on Alamute vallues. They were destroyed military and,  as this was not enough, a myth was created about them: It was said that they were intoxicated with  hashish and presented in such state to maidens in secret gardens, made ferocious and ready to die, and then were sent to kill or kidnap – hash-ishiyun, “hashish-smokers” – or, as it would become know to the west, “assassins”


Alamut valley



L1006919Alamut castle


L1006904Lamiasar castle, Alamut valley


L1006955Alamut valley

Returning from the ascent of Alamut castle and its 700 steps – a young Iranian hands over a set of postcards. Nothing unusual here – people selling postcards outside one of the ost touristsic sites of a country. But – wait, there is a catch – after insisting one, two , three, four , five times, the man refuses to receive any money… Iran is the first country I have been where one has to insist (again and again) to pay the taxi driver or the tourist shop seller.

The country of poets / Η χώρα των ποιητών

There is a county where ancient poets are venerated more than kings or mystics. A country where everyone can recite by heart verses from the 9th  century, a country where Omar Khayaam wrote of getting drunk on friendship and wine and love.


Kandovan – (ancient surrealism ) – a thousand year old village built in the rocks – Northern Iran

A country of soft, gentle people, who rarely  talk loudly and carry on their shoulders the weight of a millennia  – old nobility. This country is called Iran – this country we are visiting. The country that will be having elections in a few weeks


(Reading on the Kindle: All the Shah’s men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror  by Stephen Kinzer / Collected Poems by Forugh Farrokhazad / Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski / The conference of the birds    by Farid Attar )

Kandovan Village, Northern Iran

Kandovan Village, Northern Iran

All the Shah’s men – a gripping account of the CIA and MI-6 organized coup against the most popular politician in modern history in Iran – Mosaddegh.  A story, recounted in the introduction of the film Argos, that is the key to understanding not just the Iranian revolution but modern Iran. An elderly Iranian female writer is quoted in the introduction in an outburst ”Why did you Americans do this terrible thing? We always loved America. To us America was the great country, the perfect country, the country that helped us while other countries were exploiting us. But after that moment no  one in Iran ever trusted the United States again. ”. A foreign  plot hatched by the archetypal Graham Green’s “quiet American”.  Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt buying and manipulating the press against Mosaddegh, plan street demonstrations by paid thugs, push the  Shah to add a fig leaf of legitimacy to the coup by blessing it and corrupted and finally buy pliable  military officers to execute the coup itself. (In 1951, that was a trial run for the  USA on how to removed a  popular, elected government – the success of this coup provided the blueprint for subsequent interventions in Chile, Indonesia, Congo, and only a few years ago the attempted coup in Venezuela.)


L1006977“The den of espionage” – outside the previous American embassy in Tehran

Zoroastrism, the ancient religion of the Iranians is based on the freedom  (indeed the obligation) to get rid of your king if he loses moral authority. When Iranians became (unwillingly)  muslims following their conquest by the arabs, they twisted Islam to accommodate their ideals of social justice. Again, it was the revolt against the power of the state and its officials, all the way to martyrdom if necessary, as symbolized by the sacrifice of  prophet Ali and Hussein, that became central to their identity. Shiite Islam was born.

Four observations on Islam in Iran

–         This is the first Muslim country I have been where I have yet to hear  the muezzin’s voice:  The call to prayer is three  (as opposed to the traditional five) times per day, and it is much less loud and obtrusive.

–          Women (especially the young and middle class) wear the headscarf like a tiara – barely covering the back 1/5th of the hair.

–         The association of western tourists with (generally perceived negatively) western policies in some Muslim countries is completely absent in Iran: We have never encountered anything but softness and kindness in our dealings with Iranians

–          Men do not have an (occasionally manifested) predatory attitude towards western women and local women do not seem to have a cowered, subservient or passive look.


Παρκο ,  Tabriz, απογευμα


Behind the Grand Mosque in Tabriz

From Gaza to Morocco, from Xinjiang province to the Netherlands, Islam seems to be on the offensive: confident, dynamic, effortlessly inspiring  loyalty…everywhere?

Well – not in Iran: Religion seems to be on the retreat – or so it feels:

First impressions in Tabriz: Young people  playing a cat and mouse game with the moral police. Young women  letting their headscarves  in a gravity free-fall, leaving most of their hair uncovered – hijab slowly but inevitably mutating to a  scarf and this mutating to a necktie… In the park a young medical student, big beard, a bit like a 70’s hippy approaches me, slightly awkward, pimples and all: “ I would like to change my religion, I do not like Islam”. Behind the mosque, couples are holding hands.  Two young guys run around letting everyone know that police is coming; couples disperse and a few seconds later, the police arrives. Chuckles everywhere –  policemen are not even hated, they are the butt of the joke..



L1006723-EditTabriz, behind the Grand Mosque: The moral police (glowing POLICE signs, uniforms and all) arrives – the couples holding hands have just left the building…:)


And poetry raises its head again – the main street is Firdausi street, people cut their hair to resemble poets of previous centuries and everyone can recite the verses of poets long dead…


Ancient Bazaar in Tabriz


Grand Mosque, Tabriz


L1006841Massouleh village, Northern Iran


Massouleh village, Northern Iran

First impression: The true religion of Iran is poetry (and Islam only to the extend that it is poetic – not  Islam that holds a measuring tape)…

Train Ankara – Tehran / Τραίνο Αγκυρα -Τεχεράνη


Νίκαια – Κωνσταντινούπολη – άφιξη Άγκυρα 3 το πρωί . Ξυπνάμε νωρίς για να προλάβουμε το τραίνο. Ενας γελαστός,  ευθυτενής ηλικιωμένος κύριος μας βοηθά να βάλουμε πίσω τις αποσκευές : O πρώτος Ιρανός του ταξιδιού μας.


Once upon a time in Anatolia :Ενα μισοάδειο τραίνο που σταματά σε ξεχασμένους σταθμούς, χωριά χαμένα και διαφημίσεις που έρχονται από το παρελθον , δυνατή (ημι-ελληνική) μουσική στο βαγόνι-εστιατόριο και ένας θεατρικός σερβιτόρος. Δυό ημέρες  για να διασχίσεις τις κοιλάδες και τα βουνά  της Ανατολίας..L1006493




Στο πλοίο πάνω στη λίμνη Βαν – το τελευταίο τμήμα της διαδρομής Άγκυρα – Tabriz- Τεχεράνη. Ιρανοί που επιστρέφουν από διακοπές, εναλλακτικοί Τούρκοι στο δρόμο για το Ιραν, μια φοιτήτρια κινηματογράφου απο την Ρουμανία προσπαθεί να γυρίσει ντοκυμαντερ αλλά έχει μείνει απο μπαταρίες..

Σαν ένα παράξενο αμφίβιο ζώο, η μηχανή του τραίνου ακολουθεί τις ράγες και κλείνεται μέσα στο καράβι..



Πέντε ώρες για να διασχίσεις την λίμνη Βαν – στο  βάθος το όρος Αραράτ.. Οι ακτές της λίμνης γυμνές – κανένα σημάδι ανθρώπινης παρουσίας – στην καρδιά του Τουρκικού Κουρδιστάν. 


Είναι πολύ εύκολο να πιάσεις κουβέντα: ( τα ονόματα προφανώς αλλαγμένα)
Abbas- 41 ετών, φωτογράφος: Λίγο θλιμμένος, περισσότερο θυμωμένος. There are no jobs, there is no future for anyone young in Iran…  Με συνέλαβε η αστυνομία για μια μέρα στις προηγούμενες εκλογές, ο αδερφός μου έμεινε στη φυλακή για έναν χρόνο
Αυτό που ξαφνιάζει πανω απο όλα ειναι πόσο απέλπισμενος και/ή ελεύθερος πρέπει να αισθάνεται κάποιος που μπορεί τοσο ευκολα να τα μοιραστεί αυτα με έναν αγνωστο..
Amit- 29 χρονών – καθηγητής αγγλικών – όλο γελάει:  Παίζει κιθάρα στο κατάστρωμα – the king of couch-surfing  – “κανείς δεν συμπαθεί την κυβέρνηση (στο Ιραν) – τα πάντα γίνονται στα κρυφά : αλκοόλ και ότι θελήσεις, τα καλύτερα πάρτι γίνονται πίσω από κλειστές πόρτες στην Τεχεράνη..”                                               Everyone is eager to share his time, his food and his music – you do not remember the last time you met so many generous and intelligent people in the space of a few hours and a couple of square meters.

3 το πρωί –  κρυώνοντας, αγουροξυπνημένοι στεκόμαστε στην ουρά  για ελεγχο διαβατηρίων στα σύνορα.



To   τραίνο φτάνει πολύ νωρίς το πρωί  στην Tabriz, πρώτη πόλη στο Ιράν