Instagramming Iran

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The Islamic Republic of Iran is not a huge fan of the Internet. The Iranian government has in recent years cracked down on Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and hundreds of independent websites and blogs -- and has even tried to create its own internal, state-sponsored version of the Web. Oddly, it has yet to train its crosshairs on Instagram, perhaps because the authorities don't yet view the hugely popular photo-sharing program, which isn't widely used in the country, as a threat.

I discovered the Instagram loophole in August 2012, when, as international sanctions began to bite and talk of war against Tehran mounted, I decided to make one last trip to the Islamic Republic of Iran -- the country where I spent my adolescence -- before all its splendor was potentially lost forever.

The last time I had visited was in 2009, during the post-election protests known as the Green Movement. Since then, the Islamic regime has cracked down on dissent and made efforts to censor nearly all aspects of the Internet. It is now virtually impossible to navigate online without being directed to a page listing websites that the Iranian government deems morally acceptable. But Instagram, somehow, is still OK.

That could change if more Iranians begin using the service. Already, a quick search for #Iran on Instagram provides a window into the ordinary lives of the Iranian people and captures some of the country's stark beauty, which often gets overshadowed by geopolitical squabbles. Even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has an official account, which includes photos of him at Friday prayer and public meetings with Iranian citizens -- all of course, filtered for maximum nostalgia value.

Armed with an iPad, I traveled from the capital Tehran to the holy city of Mashhad and then to the beautiful old capital of Esfahan. Unlike many Iranians, I don't have a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on my iPad to help me circumvent the firewall. Instagram was my only tool to make (uncensored) contact with people outside the country during my travels. Here's what I saw along the way.  

The picture above shows the 17th-century Royal Bazaar in Esfahan, located more than 200 miles from Tehran. Although it was Ramadan when I visited and many shops were closed, the bazaar was still buzzing with people. Located in Meydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan (Royal Square), the bazaar is one of the oldest and largest in the Middle East, stretching for more than a mile.


This is a view of north Tehran from a high-rise in the trendy area of Elahieh. The skyline is made up of new apartment buildings; in the distance is the Alborz mountain range, which turns white with snow during the winter.


The Masjed-e Shah (Shah Mosque) in Esfahan is regarded as a masterpiece of Iranian architecture, with its towering dome, colorful mosaic tiles, and calligraphic inscriptions. It was built to hold both a mosque and a religious school, and it is now featured on the back of Iran's 20,000 rial banknote.  

Bagh-e Salar, a famous restaurant located outside Mashhad in Shandiz village, is representative of traditional Iranian architecture, which is characterized by stained-glass windows and many arches. The restaurant serves shandiz, an Iranian kabob dish that takes its name from the surrounding village and is made with shishlik, or skewers of lamb chops.


Iranians spend their Friday afternoon at Koosar, a traditional Iranian restaurant outside of Tehran in Shemshak, an area known for weekend getaways in the spring and summer and skiing during the winter. The people shown here are sitting cross-legged on takhtehs (daybed-style tables) with Persian rugs and cushions.

A Kia Pride and Porsche Boxster wait at a stoplight at Meydan-e Quds (Jerusalem Square) in the capital. Tehran was the Porsche capital of the Middle East in 2011, accounting for more of the company's sales than any other city in region until the luxury sports carmaker pulled out of the country in April.

Manar-e Jonban (the Shaking Minarets) is an architectural wonder on the outskirts of Esfahan that was built in the 14th century over the grave of a local hermit and holy man named Amu Abdullah Soqla. The minarets are often shaken for tourists because when one is shaken from the inside, the second one also sways. It's not entirely clear whether the minarets were specifically designed to behave this way or whether the phenomenon developed over time.

Vank Cathedral is located in the Armenian quarter of Esfahan and was built in the 15th century. Its frescoes are painted with gold leaf and depict scenes from heaven, hell, and earth. The main building in the courtyard is a museum that houses some bizarre artifacts: a biblical verse written in Armenian on a strand of a woman's hair and a miniature Bible written in seven languages. The cathedral's courtyard also contains a memorial dedicated to the Armenian genocide.

An Iranian woman talks on her cell phone near the new Tajrish metro stop while wearing the latest hijab style -- her headscarf pulled back in a manner that reveals most of her hair and ears. Each metro station in the city is decorated on the inside with contemporary and traditional Iranian art.

The 1,427-foot Milad Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, rises above the Navab Highway in Tehran. A high-end restaurant at the top of the tower once sold ice cream covered in edible gold for $250, but stopped doing so after Muslim clerics in the country complained that the decadent offering violated Islam.

An anti-Israel, anti-American mural by the Chamran Expressway in Tehran features an image of the Dome of the Rock and the declaration, "His Excellency the leader: Imam Khomeini's followers are always supporting Palestinians and fight their enemies." A painting below the billboard used to show Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004. But the image has been painted over without explanation.

A view of Elahieh, home to some of the most affluent Iranians and most expensive real estate in the country and the famous Fereshteh Street, which is filled with upscale shops and cafes. In the years since the 1979 revolution, there has been a great deal of development on large plots of land belonging to old aristocratic families; these plots supply much of the area's greenery.

Azadi Square (Freedom Square) is a Tehran landmark. It was the site of many of the demonstrations leading up to the Islamic Revolution and also became a focal point for the more recent Green Movement protests. The square was built in 1971 under Iran's last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. At night, the tower at the center of the square lights up in different colors. As I took this photo, the monument was, ironically, in the process of turning green.   
In Mashhad, visitors explore the mausoleum and garden of Nader Shah, the founder of the Afsharid Dynasty, who ruled Persia from 1736 to 1747. Often referred to as the "Napoleon of Iran," he is best known for successfully invading India, where he seized the infamous Koohinoor (Mountain of Light) diamond and the Peacock Throne.   
The Tohid Tunnel in Tehran is nearly two miles long and has a reputation for being dangerous: people speed through it and it lacks adequate ventilation for motorcyclists. Although signs around the tunnel warn motorcyclists not to enter, many still attempt it -- and sometimes don't make it out alive  
Valiasr Street is a sycamore-lined road that stretches for 12 miles and is the longest street in the Middle East. Built by Reza Shah Pahlavi to connect the ruling family's complexes, the street is now one of the main shopping arteries in the capital. Shoppers can find both Iranian brands and foreign chain stores. It was the scene of massive protests during the Green Revolution.

Behesht-e-Zahra (Zahra's Paradise) cemetery in Tehran is the largest in the country, with more than 1 million graves. The site includes a section devoted to the martyrs of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, which left anywhere from half a million to 1.5 million people dead (some graves are empty, containing only a buried dog tag). The mausoleum dedicated to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, is located next door.

The immense Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad contains the mausoleum of the eighth Shiite imam, Reza, who died there in the early 9th century. Non-Muslims are welcome to pay a visit to the premises but not the shrine itself, and visitors are offered a free meal from the banquet hall as well as a guided tour by the Ministry of Tourism in several different languages. The sacred site is a major tourist attraction in Iran, drawing some 20 million visitors a year.

A corner view of Royal Square in Esfahan with Ali Qapu Palace to the right and the Shah Mosque in the background.

When I visited the main entrance to the Royal Bazaar in Esfahan, it was under renovation in order to preserve the murals on the outer walls.

Ghasr Talaee (Golden Palace) is a trendy five-star hotel built for tourists and pilgrims in Mashhad. It is also the largest and tallest hotel in the city. Yet another memorable snapshot from my trip to Iran that I was able to share with the world -- thanks to a crack in the country's Internet firewall.

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