The Greatest trip Ever
Mention the word Persia and people think of romance, poets, literature, history and culture.
Mention the word Iran and you will get stares of horror, fear of bombs, terrorists, of the military and nuclear armament.
But it is the same country and on our recent trip there to the Islamic Republic of Iran, we encountered the former.
What I was not prepared for was the vastness and grandeur of the landscape, the beauty and diversity of the countryside and the friendliness of the people.
Some of the routes we drove through were so spectacular it puts the grandeur of our young Central Otago to shame.
The Heat is Oppressive
The heat is unrelenting for women required to cover from head to foot. Wearing a headscarf, trousers, knee length over dress with arms fully covered in temperatures of over 30 degrees, I often felt oppressed. Open toe sandals give some relief and are acceptable. Men, able to wear open collars and short sleeves and no hat get off easy. The blistering sun on pale scalps is their only problem!
There appears to be no traffic rules in Iran, anyway none which are apparent to westerners. The madness and seeming ill-discipline of the city traffic is frightening as they bully their way between beat-up old cars, helmet-less motor cyclists and jay walking pedestrians. However it must work as we did not see any accidents. What we did observe were motor cycles carrying sometimes as many as four people whizzing in and out of the chaos. On one occasion we saw a husband, wife with tiny baby on her lap and small child all driving helmet less through the heavy traffic on the one motorbike.
It was in Shiraz we had our first adventure when a passing truck clipped the mirror of our bus. The driver set off in hot pursuit but in spite of some pretty hair-raising driving though the traffic finally saw sense and recognised that perhaps endangering 20 tourists in his bus was not sensible and he stopped the chase. I have no idea what the ensuing conversation with police was about.
The Persians eat late, often after 9 or 10 which was hard after a full day touring but we always had a couple of hours off to rest in the afternoon. Those more hardy souls went on private explorations but it is in the heat of the day often over 30 degrees so most often we all rested.
Driving through the countryside
On the drive throughout Iran we passed through mountains and deserts. The villages are the colour of the surrounding hills from which they are made, either starkly sited in the landscape or nestled amongst pomegranate orchards. Thunder and lightning accompanied us on one journey through the desert, forked lightning in the barren landscape with very little rain to accompany such drama. All along the roads from Esfahan to Kermanshah to Hamadam were nomadic settlements. Their old brown tents obvious in the arid landscape, surrounded by rubbish and goats, and unchanged for centuries. It is a hard existence.
All over the countryside of Iran the nomads tended their flocks, usually fewer than 50 animals. I wondered at the stillness and patience of them as they roamed or sat waiting for their sheep and goats to graze scare foliage. Both animals and humans are so hardy as they move across barely arable land. Even in the valleys where there is irrigation, they roam amongst the pomegranate orchards. There are no fences so they wander freely, but it is a lonely existence until they bring their flock home at night for safety.
Roses and Gardens
For the rosarians and gardeners in the group, there were some treasures to be found in the home of the ancient Damask rose.
We saw few old roses in the state gardens, only mass plantings of an unknown modern floribunda, but came upon old roses, our love, in the ancient ruins.
Also a field of (what we identified as probably) Rosa Damascena Trigintipetala, the rose from which attar of roses is made and which enlightened our visits to little villages where small boys would give us a bloom.
A Cypress tree over 4,500 years old continued to grow in a tiny village not far from Yazd. Every city and town greeted its visitors with gardens, fountains and sculptures, even the smallest and most remote would have planters on the streets. And fields of bright red poppies everywhere as our journey took us along the flank of the Zagros Mountains still covered in snow.
Every town had billboards of young men with inscriptions under their names. With 3 to 8 images on each billboard and changing throughout different environments, they recognised the ‘martyrs’, the young men who lost their lives when Iraq invaded Iran. They are still remembered along with the poets, engineers, architects, kings and holy people who lived throughout Iran’s long and astounding history.
But before we travel through the arid desert of Iran how did so ancient a civilization survive there? Why did they come here? The answer is the qanats, the ancient underground canals of water from the snow capped Zagros Mountains which are still used and built throughout Iran today. A public water system Persians have used for centuries.
A brief history lesson plus the significance of the qanats will put my words into context before I take you on a tour of my memories.
There is recorded evidence of artifacts from the Neolithic and Bronze periods as well as the period described as the period of tribal kingdoms, all existing between 5000BC to 550 BC. This was the time of Cyrus the Great, considered the founder of Persia. During the pre-Islamic period there was the much described Achaemenid period from 550BC to 330 BC when Darius the Great and his successors reigned supreme. After the Achemenians,, was a period of foreign domination until the Sassanian Period from 224AD – 651. This is also a much recorded period of history with many relics remaining. The Islamic period followed with minor dynasties and a further period of foreign domination which included the Mongols, Timurid and Turkomans until 1499 AD. The more modern dynasties, from the Safavid, Afshar, Zand Qajar and the final dynasty of the Pahlavis who modernized Persia ruled Persia from 1925 until 1979 when the revolution took place and deposed the late Shah, forced into exile.,
Qanats – An Ancient Method of Distributing Water
Nothing would happen in Iran if it were not for Qanats so my story starts here. The technology was developed in ancient Persia and has since then spread to other countries. A recently discovered system is said to be dated back to 1000BC.
Iran is irrigated by these ancient, hand-constructed systems of water canals deep under the desert. Water flowing from the abundant snow on the Zagros Mountains, which traverse the country from north to south, has been captured by artisans centuries ago to make a barren country green. These systems still being added to today using the same methods of old, ensures pure potable water for villages, towns, cities and fields. The orientation of the city or town is consistent with the gradient of the land to provide good water flow and efficient water distribution.
Cities of Antiquity
On our journey through Iran, we passed through, visited or stayed at cities, towns and villages, all of which greeted us with sculptures and gardens at their entrances.
A city of bustle and smog. Flat, huge and disheveled sited at the bottom of the mountains still capped with snow in May. Is there ever blue sky there? The adjacent misty, snow covered mountains morphed into the sky without any colour comparison. It is the city to remember the dynasties of the various shahs with their fabulous palaces, mirrored and tiled mosaics.
The Shah’s jewels and the glitter of the walls and stained glassed windows lent an aura of extravagance and excess but truly beautiful to behold. Some old, some new – opulence, grace, charm and glamour.
A much more accommodating city, smaller, ancient and gracious. Traffic is much less manic than Tehran and the sky is blue here!
Again we were confronted with museums, sacred sites, mosques, gardens and tombs.
In Shiraz there are two cherished poets, both of whom have magnificent tombs there, beautifully decorated in mosaics with grand architecture. Sited in peaceful gardens the locals also came to walk, meditate and respect Hafez and Saadi from the 13th and 12th centuries.
From where the three kings who visited Bethlehem came. This is a fabulous city with a great square seething with people and busy shops. We had an experience watching men of all ages at a Zurkhaneh (House of Strength) where the members , “pahlavans”, perform their exercise ritual, a mixture of sport and religious devotion. Heady, powerful, fast, strenuous and constant exercise to the beat of drums and the chanting of Hafez poetry. Although they wear different T shirts, their trousers were all the same – richly patterned to the knees with leatherwork at the top presumably to support their lower backs.
The old city abuts the Jameh mosque boasting the tallest minarettes in Persia, amongst high walls in lanes only a car wide protecting secret gardens and private lives. This is a huge city within the city with mud and straw rendered walls and with everything looking the same it’s easy to get lost. We visited a Zoroastrian village, old, narrow lanes where the style of life has barely changed for generations. The townspeople tend their sheep in the surrounding countryside by day and bring them home at night to be safely housed in an enclosed yard. Only the old people remain, the children have fled from a subsistence living for the dubious delights of the cities or America. There is nothing to keep the children apart from family, religious or tribal loyalty.
We went to a Tower of Silence an ancient site for burials of the Zoroastrian faith where their dead were prepared and taken to the top of a tower and left for the vultures to pick their bones clean. The faith believes in the purity of the earth, and will not pollute it by burying the dead in it. This created a problem for the Iranian Government but eventually an agreement was reached whereby they would bury their dead in concrete tombs on the top of the earth.
The hotel here was a joy with all rooms opening out onto a peaceful inner courtyard garden with chairs, water and plants. Honeysuckle, emitted its fragrance, and many roses, all modern, but flowering profusely amongst trees, geraniums and ivy.
We were able to watch the blooms being distilled in the little village of Qamsar, high in the mountains where every second shop has very primitive stills making rose water but no oil.
The once flowering Damask rose provides a source of income to the local people as they pick their blooms to bring to the nearby distillery for processing.
I would have been happy to spend all my time in this wonderful, beautiful gracious city. The hotel was a restored (by the Shah) caravanserai, historically used by the nomads for night shelter, but is very grand with a large garden courtyard and well maintained gardens.
The main attraction is the huge square, Maidan-e Imam, which consisted not only of gardens, fountains, and 2 mosques but also a market surrounding it which extends for a kilometer at its northern end, selling anything and everything found in other bazaars but in greater quantity. Esfahan is the town of carpets where we saw the care and attention of a weaver plying his trade. Ever ready for the overseas traveler carpets can be purchased with a handy carry bag for the plane!
A visit to the home of a miniaturist who practiced the art of pointillism, painted with a single cat hair using tiny dots to build up a picture amazed us with the skill and patience exhibited by the artists, a father and son.
The city garden laid out in the style of a Persian carpet was a work of art, almost but not quite equal to the mosaics in the mosques.
The city has an Armenian quarter with a historic Christian cathedral, the Muslim and Christian communities living peaceably together after a pretty rugged history identified in the attached museum. The Vank Cathedral has graphic and hideous frescos depicting torture of martyrs and the horrors of life in hell. Not for the faint hearted.
And finally Esfahan is home to 11 or 12 bridges, 6 are new and the rest were old and now just for walking. Most were build around the 12th century in old yellow brick some double and for the men of the group were fascinating in their structure. Me, I just thought they were beautiful to look at, all beautifully lit up at night for walking across the river.
This amazing village is a UNESCO world heritage site. The tiny village, in the mountains with buildings of ochre coloured clay, is a settlement of antiquity and uniqueness. It was most wondrous, even to its pre-historic storm water gullies in the bricked pavement, the wooden doors, architecture and tightness of the village as it scrambled up cliffs. The mud bricked houses, alleyways, mosque and other structures are breath-taking in their ancientness. The women, aged and wizened wear colourful rose patterned head scarves that they have worn for centuries and are quite unlike the rest of Iran.
It was a long drive to Kermanshah, dating back to the 4th century, threatened by the Iraqis during the invasion and now has a heavy military presence, through mountains, fertile valleys and deserts along the flank of the Zagros mountains. These mountains are big and awe-inspiring, covered in snow for many months of the year.
On one of our side trips we clambered up a mountain side to view a hillside of giant imperial fritillarias growing in the wild on poor soil undernourished and thriving.
On the way through the land of the Kurds we stopped at a village for an icecream and solicited the interest of the local police. We were required to travel to and stop at the police station and report. Our passports were inspected with much talking by our guides and we were sent on our way. There is a strong but unobtrusive presence of police and military in Iran, normal police, religious police, tourist police and the military all carrying batons but not obvious weapons.
This city has all the charm which Kermanshah lacked. It was also the final city of our tour before our return to Tehran and home. With wide avenues, tree lined, squares with good 19th century architecture and lots of open spaces, parks and fountains. Hamadam dates back to 1000BC and is where Ester from Biblical times is buried. In 650BC it was the capital of Ecbatana until it fell to the Achaemenian Persians in c550BC.
Tehran’s archeological museum was one of many we visited. Treasure from the 5th millennium BC found at many of the ancient sites throughout Iran. Housed in a wonderful stately building we saw pottery, glass, instruments, and artefacts from ancient times. Every ancient site has an associated museum where explanations and relics are displayed. It was in these building we came to grips with the antiquity of this civilization, which brought into stark contrast the youth of New Zealand.
Yazd had a water museum explaining the ancient art of Qanats, the public water system used in Iran for centuries for greening its deserts and turning wasteland into arable farmland.
Everywhere one travels in Iran there are mosques, mostly old and beautifully decorated with mosaics, but some of the older ones plain, sundried mud brick and just as beautifully crafted. They are open to all and include in their precinct toilets for the weary traveler. Each mosque has its own style but all have multiple rooms, male and female rooms, places for praying or discussion and all with a record of its history.
The mosque in Yazd boasts the tallest minarets in Iran, with its
beautiful mosaics contrasting with the mud brick old town in which it sat.
Isfahan’s mosques were the most stunning visually.
The square had 2 them, all beautiful with their different mosaics and interestingly the most beautiful was the one for the royal princesses of Safavid times which did not sport minaret’s as it was for women only.
Esfahan is also the home to the oldest and largest mosque in Iran, entirely unadorned with just beautiful brickwork.
.It was in one of these mosques that a member of our group, stood on a stone identified as the place where a voice can be heard throughout the mosque, and sang our National Anthem in Maori. All visitors stopped to listen, not only to the beautiful singing but to the acoustics as his voice reverberated around them
The Historic Sites
What can you say when faced with ruins of a civilization some 500 years BC?
The size and significance of its unveiling to us as it rose from the desert amid rugged hills took our breath away. Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenian Persian Empire (550BC) and lies 50km north of Shiraz. Built by Darius, on a rock outcrop it is a huge terrace on three levels with massive steps carved into the limestone one of which is guarded by carved winged bulls. Persepolis was a ceremonial place with emphasis on the coming of spring and the New Year on March 21. It was destroyed by Alexander the Great who is said to have used 10,000 mules and 5,000 camels to transport the Persepolis treasure to the summer palace at present day Hamadan.
Close by are the tombs of the Achaemenian Kings cut into the limestone cliffs at Naqsh-e Rustam, the burial site of Darius the Great band 3 of his successors.
The partly excavated Sassanian city was built in 266 AD was another experience of a history so old it is almost incomprehensible to a New Zealander with our history of less than 200 years old.
The bas reliefs of the Sassanian kings were incredible and detailed given their age. It was built after King Shapur’s triumph over the Roman Invaders, but lost its importance after the Arab invasion and by the 10th century was falling to ruin.
This was where the Tomb of Cyrus the Great, a Persian King, the founder of the Persian Empire was a strange sight. Set in the middle of the desert with barely excavated buildings around, it looked a strange sitting in the middle of nowhere by itself.
The tomb was originally surrounded by gardens and the guardians of the tomb were housed there. There are 4 other ruins nearby the residential palace and audience hall, a square tower and a stone platform.
Near Hamadam are the limestone cliffs of Taq-e Bostan where well preserved bas-relief depict kings of the Sassanaian age. (224AD-651AD). Wondrous as they were, they paled into insignificance at Bisotun where on the bold escarpments are carvings and extensive cuneiform inscriptions in three ancient languages proclaiming the greatness of King Darius of the earlier Achaemenian period (559BC – 330B). The recent archaeological excavations of Hekmatana Hill where we were able to walk by way of a bridge across the excavations getting a bird’s eye view of the ancient city. And a visit in the evening amongst the throngs of Iranians out on their public holiday, where we visited a granite mountain with more inscriptions celebrating Darius and Xerxes in three languages. Anahita the goddess of water and fertility is also recognised here.
Our penultimate heritage site was at Takht-e Suleyman (Throne of Solomon) where we wondered at the ability of the early Persians who built this fantastic city high in the mountains.
It was the ceremonial city of the Zoroastrians and is another of Iran’s UNESCO sites. It is sited in a huge lonely high volcanic caldera and built around a crater lake.
The Soltanieh Mausoleum
Onwards towards our return to Tehran we visited our last historic site, a huge mausoleum some 48m high and is the world’s tallest brick dome.
The Soltanieh Mausoleum, also a UNESCO site, was built by the last Mongol ruler (1258 – 1365 AD) who was buried here in 1317. We could climb up and up skywards to be rewarded with outstanding views of the countryside
There are bazaars everywhere from the smallest village to the big cities. Our first experience was in Tehran where a huge bazaar on our first morning filled us with a heady mixture of excitement and dread.
The smells, colours and people never mind the variety of items to buy was scary. We didn’t buy but filled ourselves with the experience.
It is easy to get lost as you wind down alleyways of carpets, spices, silver or cloth. Safer to stay on the fringes where you can easily escape to the street. Traders are keen to sell at ‘a good price’. We had offers of a good price wherever we went, but how would we know? We waited until we had our trusty guides, Harry and Maureen, with us who spoke Farsi and who understood the incomprehensible money system.
We got lost in Shiraz market another chaotic experience with people everywhere pushing and shoving but somehow managed to buy spices, a carpet bag, pashmina and a carpet! Anything you could want is here. Bargaining a way of life as people push and shove. The array of delicious smelling herbs and spices, saffron, turmeric and others, together with strange looking dried fruits, limes and red currants were enough to make even an amateur cook drool.
But it was the bazaar at Isfahan which was the most memorable, surrounding the huge square and expanding a kilometer north, divided, a local told us, into the ‘tourist’ market and the local one. It was hard to turn away from silver and turquoise jewelery, carpets of all sizes, patterns and areas, spices and herbs with smells to stimulate the latent cook. Within walking distance of our hotel it was an easy ramble, if you brave the traffic and just follow the locals across roads to wander and resist!
Every sacred site, mosque or ruins is visited by Iranians as well as tourists. Every site had bus loads of school kids. The Iranians seem to treasure their own history and seemed at pains to educate their children in their history.
We were surrounded by giggling school boys and girls.
Welcome to Iran.
Where are you from?
What is your name?
Thank you for coming to Iran.
They wanted pictures taken of them with us and to talk in good English about their county.
Did we like it?
Where had we been?
We did not feel threatened but were welcomed wherever we went by people old and young who wanted to talk, to tell us that Iran was a good place and not what the western papers say it is.
We felt privileged and enlightened by our experience and thank Maureen and Harry McQuillan and Leila Farmani for the opportunity to visit, learn and fall in love with the country they lived and worked in for 20 years.
Would we go again? Probably, there is so much more to see.