While Tehran has much human drama to keep a first-time or umpteenth-time visitor entertained, the heart of Iran still beats in the central plateau south of the city. It behooves a visitor to join the well-paved and heavily travelled freeway that winds along dry washes and barren desert landscapes past the holy city of Qom to Kashan and Yazd, and to places where vast armies once maneuvered and great kings held court and managed the world’s first empire.
Qom, like Tehran, is a congested city, but the highway soon crosses a hot-in-day/cool-at-night arid and windswept land lined with gravel, sand and salt plains (with lots of discarded trash), mixed with empty hills and distant hazy mountains (the Zagros). It is hard for me to imagine that such a place could foster and feed an empire at one time unless up until a millennium or so ago the climate was perhaps wetter and more welcoming of vegetation. I have found no documentation so far to support my theory, however.
If I hadn’t known better, the highway might have been a bypass of Phoenix, Arizona or Austin, Texas. Along the way, Iran’s modernization scheme has already been realized in some locations where so-called rest areas for motorists resemble familial meccas for cool clean fun, and even miniature shopping malls. All sorts of people mingle at these welcome centers, including busloads of European tourists and automobiles transporting whole families of city-dwellers seeking holiday relaxation in a Thousand and One Nights. The cars are predominantly pale-colored or white in color, presumably to ward off the heat of the blazing sun. This region is definitely the antithesis of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness assigned to the depths of the African jungle. Here in a desert, bereft of trees, is the “heart of lightness,” where the Persian sun dominated a nearly cloudless sky every day while I passed through.