The metal door to the synagogue swung open and a small boy skipped across the courtyard. He looked puzzled at the three people who stood before him, two of whom were clearly not Iranian. He led us up some steps to the temple, where I slipped a skullcap on to my head. A lady came towards us, smiling. “Are you Jewish?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “Sorry.”
My friend Annette and I went inside anyway, past a table of food laid out for Passover, and sat at the back as an elderly man read from the Torah in front of eight others.
I’d never have guessed that my first time inside a synagogue would be in Tehran, but Iran is full of surprises. It has a fundamentalist leadership that many in the West believe to be as nutty as a box of pistachios. But it also has a population of 65 million, most born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution (which culminated in the return from exile of Ayatollah Khomeini 30 years ago this month), and far removed from the dour and menacing stereotype often portrayed on the 10 o’clock news. The ordinary Iranian people are by far the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve met in more than 20 years of travelling.
Our ten-day trip took us from traffic-snarled Tehran 600km (370 miles) south across the Zagros Mountains to Shiraz and the magnificent ruins at Persepolis, started by Darius I in 515BC and destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330BC. (I have never been to a historical site where the past felt so approachable.)
Then we headed back north to the capital via Esfahan and the holy city of Qom, passing near the controversial nuclear facility at Natanz, which looked more like a car assembly plant. I assume, though, that most car factories aren’t protected by banks of anti-aircraft guns.
Our guide for the journey was the ever-smiling Mr Sassan, a font of knowledge and always ready with a new story. At the start of the trip I believed all he told me, but as the week got longer his tales got decidedly taller.
We learnt that it paid to sit down when he started to talk, for with Mr Sassan there was no such thing as a quick skip through 3,000 years of history and the conspiratorial goings-on as empires rose and fell, invaders came and went.
“Now this is a sad one,” he’d say before recounting a tale of humble beginnings, love, jealousy, power, betrayal, exile and death. And when we seemed incredulous he’d look slightly hurt. “No, it’s true, I’m telling you,” he’d reply. He was also adept at scooping handfuls of nuts and fruit for us from displays in open-fronted shops, walking away waving his cane shouting “Free samples, they don’t mind,” as we scurried off. He was also a Mr Fixit.
In Shiraz, after guiding us to the tombs of the classical poets Sa’di and Hafez – as Shakespeare is to us, so are these to Iranians – he tracked down the best local faludeh, a wonderful frozen dessert flavoured with rose water.
The Mausoleum of Shah-e Cheragh has supposedly been closed to non-Muslims for the past three years, since a mullah objected to the revealing outfits of some Spaniards, so we headed through a winding, covered bazaar to its back entrance for a peek through the gates.
Yet, rather than shooing us away, a young caretaker welcomed us inside on the proviso that Annette put on a chador (an enormous cloth that covered her from top to toe) and that we didn’t go inside the main shrine.
The large courtyard was busy with worshippers paying their respects to the remains of Sayyed Mir Ahmad, who died in the city in AD835. The caretaker asked where we were from. Inglistan? “Ah, welcome to Iran,” he beamed. Could he, though, ask us a few questions? What is the difference between England and Britain, he wondered, and whereabouts was Charles Dickens buried?
Another gracious encounter was with Mr Abbas and his wife in the dusty, backwater village of Imamzadeh Bazm.
We had planned to camp for two nights with Qashqai nomads, but a drought had delayed their 500km migration from the Gulf. Instead of 1,700 families on the grassy plain, we found just one; the women making crisp, thin bread over a stove, the men smoking opium in a tent next door and then coming back to fiddle, glassy-eyed, with a gun that they use to scare away wolves.
Back in the village, Mr Abbas’s B&B was basic but clean and comfortable, and his wife’s cooking was the hit of the holiday: aubergines mixed with yoghurt and mint; mushroom and barley soup; pickles; lettuce dipped in vinegar; and, for breakfast, tea and fruit followed by cheese with chopped walnuts.
But, above all, it was the people we met who made this trip for us. Groups of teenage lads – many in trendy T-shirts and elaborately gelled (and, in theory, illegal) hairstyles – always offered us big smiles and a “Salaam” (Hello). After establishing our nationality, there would be an invitation to pose for a photo with someone’s mobile phone. Annette and I would beam away while everyone else adopted an authoritative stare into the lens.
“How-are-you-I’m-fine?” was the standard opener from laughing students. What did we think of Iranians, they all asked. Did we think Iran was dirty? What about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? Was it right that Iran shouldn’t be allowed nuclear power? (No mention of nuclear weapons.)
And what about America? “They think we’re all terrorists,” said a laughing, leather-skinned loo-brush seller from his kiosk outside Tehran’s main bazaar. He waved several of his products towards us: “Look! Weapons of mass destruction!”
Their simple acts of hospitality were a continual delight – women offering tea as they tended a relative’s grave by a mosque, a man inviting us for dinner after we asked to photograph him on a bridge, several people giving us their phone numbers in case we ever needed translation help.
The women didn’t shy away from us. Far from it. Yes, they wore drab, shapeless overcoats and headscarves, the latter often pushed back to show plenty of hair.
And tourists must cover up too, although Italian tour groups we encountered had their own fashionista definition of what was acceptable. Annette found wearing a headscarf in 35C heat thoroughly annoying and couldn’t wait to remove it the moment she stepped on the London-bound plane.
Our experience in the Tehran synagogue came on our last day in the country. Annette and I said goodbye to the tiny congregation, then returned outside to Simi Alley and bought sweet lemons from a fruit shop. We went to the swankier north of the city for pizza and carrot juice, then explored the Shah’s former palaces alongside dozens of picnicking families.
“Stop and have some tea with us,” we were asked more than once. “Please take some almonds. Tell people in Britain how we really are.” I promised I would.