Tehran is a city of contrasts that play out on geographic lines. It is modern and traditional, secular and religious, rich and poor – north and south. Most of the spark comes from the affluent north, but wander through southern Tehran and you’ll see a contrastingly conservative, religious and poor city with little of the north’s brashness. At a practical level, Tehran has a decent choice of hotels and the best range of restaurants in Iran. There are enough museums to keep you interested, and compared with residents of many capitals, Tehranis are surprisingly welcoming.
Archaeologists believe people have lived in this area since Neolithic times, but apart from 11th-century AD records suggesting the village produced high-quality pomegranates, little was written about Tehran until the 13th century. In his book Mo’jamol Boldan, writer Yaqoot Hamavi described Tehran as a village of Rey, then the major urban centre in the region, where ‘rebellious inhabitants’ lived in underground dwellings. He went on: ‘They not only disregard their governors, but are in constant clashes among themselves, to the extent that the inhabitants of its 12 quarters cannot visit each other’. In 1220 the Mongols sacked Rey as they swept across Persia executing thousands in the process. Most of those who escaped wound up in Tehran and the future capital’s first ever population explosion turned the village into a small, moderately prosperous trading centre. In the mid-16th century Tehran’s natural setting, many trees, clear rivers and good hunting brought it to the attention of the early Safavid king, Tahmasb I. Under his patronage, gardens were laid out, brick houses and caravanserais built and a wall with 114 towers erected to protect the town and its merchants. As it continued to grow under later Safavid kings, European visitors wrote of Tehran’s many enchanting vineyards and gardens.