My favourite book as a child was the Folk of the Faraway Tree, by Enid Blyton. The story revolves around three children, who, while out exploring their new neighbourhood, come across an enormous tree that extends high up into the sky beyond the clouds. The children climb to the top branches of this tree and discover that every now and then a faraway land arrives and a new adventure awaits.
The lands that appear are magical, imaginative places that would be the top of every child’s travel bucket list: the Land of Take-What-You-Want, the Land of Topsy-Turvy, the Land of Spells, the Land of Goodies, the Land of Dreams and the glorious Land of Birthdays. I loved each adventure up the faraway tree and could envision these lands, rotating above the clouds, high above the branches, whereby a seemingly plain tree provided access to a completely different world.
This book came to mind on my recent travels to Iran. There was something surprising about Iran and, although I didn’t have to climb to the top of a tree, I felt that I kept entering enchanted faraway lands.
This is because in my previous travel experiences, when you are in the vicinity of an historical landmark, it’s usually easily visible and identifiable; think of hillside castles, cathedrals, towers or statues. But in Iran, whether you were visiting a tomb, mosque, palace, garden or fire temple, you first need to go through an entranceway, typically a gate or arched passageway or perhaps a plain mud-bricked wall. I knew that on the other side of that entranceway, I would be captivated by the history of the particular landmark we were visiting. But, what I didn’t expect, was the feeling that I had been transported to a new land, like one of the children of my childhood storybook.
This new land accessed through the initial passageway typically led to a central courtyard leading to other vaulted spaces and often to another courtyard; perhaps with a pool, gardens, additional buildings, or water fountains. And then, maybe then, a gateway to the monument itself. And every time, this surprised me, and every time it seemed that I had just wandered into a faraway land—the Land of Hidden Gems—the Land of Persia.