As I boarded a plane in Tehran, I couldn't help but think of the location of my destination, Qeshm Island. There were several reasons Qeshm was chosen as the site of the annual star party I would attend, including remoteness that offered relatively dark skies (with some important caveats described below), easy access from around this large country, and its status as a free zone that would allow future international participants to attend without the need to obtain a visa. It's a great place for nature tourism, too.

It was Qeshm's setting in the Persian Gulf, though, that was on my mind during the flight, especially it's position in the narrow Hormuz Strait that separates Iran from Oman and the other Gulf states. Some one-third of the world's crude oil passes through the strait, only 39 km (24 miles) wide at its narrowest, making it one of the world's most strategically important locations. As we neared the island I watched ships, presumably laden with crude, slowly gliding through the Strait, exiting the Persian Gulf for the Gulf of Oman and the open ocean of the Arabian Sea beyond. Their slow, peaceful movement belied the tension underlying a potential flashpoint through which geopolitical tidal forces also ebb and flow.

Interesting, but the practical impact of Qeshm's marine location on me would be the high humidity – never pleasant for a native of semi-arid southern California – and the natural wonders I'd have a chance to explore. Qeshm's mangrove forest is home to diverse wildlife, and fascinating geological formations abound as recognized by its Geopark designation. The human inhabitants were fascinating as well, with a culture influenced by the proximity of the Arabian Peninsula. Iran's diversity of cultures is one of its primary attractions for me. Traveling in Iran can be like a tour of its neighbors, from Turkey to Afghanistan, from Pakistan to Iraq.

I was heading to the island for the 2nd Qeshm Star Fest. We visited a few of the island's highlights on the way to the event's remote site, a primitive campsite with facilities trailered in. I was shown to my guest quarters – a large tent I shared with fellow close friend Babak Tafreshi. With others arriving from throughout the country, there was a festive atmosphere despite clouds threatening the evening's viewing. There was much more than viewing going on, though, and attendees were there more to socialize with fellow Iranian amateurs than the hard-core observing I'm used to seeing at star parties in the US. In retrospect, "StarFest" was a better name for this event than "Star Party", with lectures, contests, and all manner of activities sharing the passion of astronomy beyond gawking at familiar objects.

The few telescopes there were well-used, though. A 16-inch SkyMaster had a line whenever the sky was clear. This is a really big telescope in most countries, something unheard of when I first visited Iran in 1999, and probably the largest telescope anyone there had looked through. The country's largest operating telescope is only slightly larger at 20 inches, though that vintage instrument at the University of Shiraz' Biruni Observatory is a professional research telescope. There were a few smaller telescopes and an H-alpha scope for daytime – all brought to the island by the event organizers – but that was it. Not that many Iranians even own their own telescopes to bring along but it didn't matter. The few telescopes there served the observers well enough and there was plenty else going on at night.

The cleared area I had expected to be just the "telescope field" turned out to be much more. Beyond the scattering of telescopes there was a lecture area with activities most of the evening, and small groups assembled in chairs here and there to talk and enjoy the sky together. Green laser pointers swept the sky – again a stark contrast to US star parties where pointers receive a cool reception or an outright ban – as constellations were outlined and stars and planets pointed out. It was a casual and festive atmosphere. The clouds that moved over us on some nights had far less impact on the ground that at a star party devoted entirely to observing. Even the strong wind that kept the telescopes under wraps one night (and moved more than a little dust around with it) didn't dampen the high spirits of the attendees.

The lighting added to the sense of a carnival. High on poles above the central area and near important facilities, the CFL coils shown brightly whenever they were in use for meetings or when conditions didn't allow deep-sky observing. More shielding would help a lot for those who were still looking skyward but there were still areas where groups could sit and enjoy the stars. When conditions were good and the lights were out the sky above was very nice. Slight light pollution from a nearby village and an apparent haze near the horizon (not surprising considering the warm-water gulf surrounding us) diminished the low-altitude stars but the zenith was still quite good. The strangest source of light pollution, though, was miles away across the island – a giant flame burning off waste gases at the top of a tall smokestack, with no intervening mountains to block the direct glare. It was more a distraction than a hindrance.

There were lectures indoors on the first day as well, though many in attendance chose to visit some of the island's many natural attractions.  The audience that attended was particularly engaged in the presentations given by me and Babak Tafreshi.  My presentation on light pollution – the problems and possible solutions – led to a very spirited discussion of how an awareness campaign could be launched in Iran.  I was mostly left out of the discussion since it took place in Farsi too quickly for my translator (who was also taking part) but my meeting with one of the potential organizers showed they're quite serious and more than capable of bringing this issue to the attention of Iran's 75 million citizens.

Next year the Qeshm StarFest will move to a more remote location that won't have nearby villages or direct light sources like the huge flame to contend with. Along with event organizers, I met with the officials of the Qeshm Free Zone that encompasses the entire island, including the director referred to informally as the "King of the Island", and tourism agency leaders. They are solidly behind the StarFest and are working to support and improve it in the future. The event fits perfectly with Qeshm's image as a great destination for nature lovers (which this nature lover can attest to).

The Qeshm StarFest has great potential for becoming a must-do event for astronomers in the region. I met Iranians from around the country, not only from big cities like Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, but also from Iran's well-known "astronomy town" of Sa'adat-shar, and a very spirited group from Bushehr that broke into song with any excuse. Access to Qeshm is very easy not only for inhabitants of the nearby Gulf States and other countries of the Arabian Peninsula, but with Dubai just minutes away it should attract others who want to see something of Iran, some unique nature or history, or just enjoy sharing the sky with others regardless of their points of origin. Visas aren't needed to visit the Qeshm Free Zone.

Qeshm is a fascinating place culturally and historically. I loved the local food that was prepared for dinners and I was fascinated with my limited interaction with the local people. But more important – as always in my visits to Iran through the years – is the people from around the country. The extremely warm welcome I've always received, especially as an American, outshines the many other attractions of Iran. I was fortunate to begin my work in bringing people together under the sky we all share in this ancient homeland of the civilization that gave so much to my own Indo-European culture (beginning as it did on the Iranian Plateau before splitting in those two directions). We have a lot in common in addition to our love of the sky, and I look forward to future visits with my friends and colleagues.


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