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Tehran, Capital of Iran

Tehran, Iran

Tehran, the mile-high capital of Iran, has bad traffic and good public transit. It’s a multicultural city with Persians dominant; the people speak Farsi. They use different calendars: Persian/Muslim and Western. We visit the National Museum of Iran to learn about Iran’s history.

Complete Video Script

Iran, twice the size of France, sits in an increasingly important corner of Asia — surrounded by Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. We start in the capital, Tehran, follow an ancient trade route south to the village of Abyaneh, to Esfahan, to Shiraz, and then finish at Persepolis.

Every country, including our own, limits access to foreign film crews. We're here in Iran with the permission of the Iranian government. And we're working within the limits it sets as we explore this complex society.

Knowing we're here to explore social and cultural dimensions rather than contentious political issues, the Iranian government is allowing our work. It believes the Western media has given Iran an unfair image. They gave us our visas provided we respect its limits as enforced by our guide. His job: keep us safe, manage the complicated permissions, and keep an eye on what we're shooting.

Tehran, a youthful, noisy capital city, is the modern heart of this country. It's a smoggy, mile high metropolis. With a teeming population of about ten million, its apartment blocks stretch far into the surrounding mountains.

Traffic is notorious here. My first impression: wild drivers. But after surviving my first day: I realized they were experts at keeping things moving. Many major streets actually intersect without the help of traffic lights. It's different…but it seems to work.

Two wheels are faster than four. Helmet laws are generally ignored. As a matter of fact…sometimes the direction of traffic is ignored as well. To cross town quickly, motorcycle taxis are a blessing. But wear that helmet. I'd rather leave a little paint on passing buses than a piece of scalp.

Pedestrians fend for themselves. Negotiating traffic as you cross the street is a life skill here. Locals say it's like "going to Chechnya."

Immersed in the commotion of a busy work day — apart from the chador-covered women and lack of Western fast food chains — Tehran seemed much like any city in the developing world.

If you need to get somewhere in a hurry — or if your motorcycle taxi is under some big bus — thank goodness for the subway. Tehran's thriving subway moves over a million people a day.

This subway system is really as good as anything I've seen in Europe.

Of Iran's 70 million people, well over half are under the age of 30. While there are plenty of minorities, the Persian population dominates. The local ethnicity reflects the turmoil of this country's long history. You'll find people with Greek, Arab, Turk, Mongol, Kurdish and Azerbaijani heritage.

Iranians are not Arabs and they don't speak Arabic. This is an important issue with the people of Iran. They are Persians and they speak Farsi. Faces seem to tell a story and are quick to smile…especially when they see a film crew from the USA. Actually, we found that the easiest way to get a smile was to tell people where we're from.

Rick: I’m from the United States…
Man 1: Oh, you’re from the United States…Ok.
Man 2: America? Wow!
Rick: Yeah, it’s true, it’s actually true.
Woman: I love you, America.
Rick: Thank you, that’s nice to hear.

I was impressed by how the people we met were curious and eager to talk. Young educated people are internet savvy and well-informed about the West. They generally spoke some English. Anywhere foreigners went, signs were bi-lingual: Farsi for locals…and English for everyone else.

The script looks Arabic to me, but I learned — like the language — it's Farsi. The numbers, however, are the same as those used in the Arab world.

Another communication challenge: people here have to deal with different calendars: Persian and Muslim (for local affairs), Western (for dealing with the outside world). What year is it? Well it depends: After Mohammad — about 1390 years ago, after Christ — two thousand and some years ago.

And all this complexity is the result of a long and tumultuous history. The National Museum of Iran helps to give an appreciation of this country's rich heritage. At first I was disappointed by what seemed like a humble collection for such a great culture. Then I learned that most of its treasures were destroyed or looted by invaders and much of what survived was taken away to the great museums in the West.

The collection starts in prehistoric times, back when nomadic hunters were becoming farmers. This bronze plaque featuring Gilgamesh dates from about 1000 BC, a time when this region was in the realm of Mesopotamia. Then in about 500 BC, with the great kings Darius and Xerxes, the mighty Persian Empire was established.

Their art glorified their kings and the notion of peace through strength. Culture flourished and it was about this time that, with cuneiform, the Persian language was first put into writing.