Yazd

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I survived the six hour journey in my VIP bus – I have to say it was quite comfortable and I had my Kindle with me to keep me busy. What I noticed was the change in scenery en route – from green trees to dry land. I met a nice Iranian man who wanted to have a chat and obviously was very impressed by what Pasteur and Napoleon had achieved. Conversation was a bit difficult because he didn’t use any verbs and they were replaced by ‘OK’ but he was kind enough to point out some features during our journey.

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With its winding lanes, mud-brick houses and rooftops, Yazd has its own charm. On a flat plain ringed by mountains, the city is lodged between Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut, a true city of the desert. Originally settled 5000 years ago, Yazd has an interesting mix of people, 10% of whom are Zoroastrian and is very much the centre of this ancient religion.

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I decided to have a walk towards the centre and the bazaar which only opened on Saturday. The first monument that caught my eye was the Amir Chakmaq Mosque Complex but I wasn’t able to visit it, however I did take a picture!

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I continued heading north and went to visit the Masjed-e Jameh mosque. Soaring above the old city, this building is decorated with a tiled entrance portal (one of the tallest in Iran), flanked by two 48m-high minarets and adorned with 15th century inscriptions. Built during that time, the mosque is built on 12th century foundations over a former fire temple. You might notice on some of the tiles the ‘gardoneh mehr’ (swastika symbol) which in this context represents infinity, timelessness, birth and death, and can be found on Iranian buildings dating back as 5000 BC.

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After I went to the Old City, which according to UNESCO is one of the most ancient settlements on earth. The 2000 or so Qajar-era houses, made from sun-dried mud brick are dominated by ‘badgirs’ (windtowers) on almost every rooftop, essentially an ancient form of air conditioning and a reminder of the extreme heat of summer. On recommendation of the guide, I decided to wonder around the narrow streets and ended up visiting a traditional house. By that stage I was very thirsty and went to the rooftop of the Art Centre which provided a fantastic view on the rooftops and the sunset. It was relaxing and I was encouraged not to use Wifi as per the the sign the owners had put up!

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I went to the Orient Hotel roof-top restaurant for dinner that evening, with a super nighttime view on the Masjed-e Jameh mosque. I had aubergines, camel, a vegetarian curry and of course… rice. The food was delicious and I walked home for a relaxing evening.

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In the morning I went to the Bazaar as it wasn’t open on Friday. I got lost in the streets and took the opportunity to take pictures of the doors. In Yazd doors have two different knockers on each door – one for women and one for men. It is important to know who is knocking on the door so the appropriate gender can open the door, and each knocker gives a different sound, thereby knowing whether a man or woman is knocking. I wouldn’t know which one to knock on as being a Teddy Bear I was raised gender neutral!

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Another interesting feature that is local only to Yazd are the ‘Nakhl’ which you can stumble upon across the city. It is linked to a Shia religious ritual, Nakhl Gardani, carried out on the day of Assura for commemorating the death of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad and third Shia Imam. The Nakhl wooden structure is used as a symbol of the Imam’s coffin and Nakhl Gardani is the act of carrying the former from one place to another, resembling an Imam’s funeral.

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The bazaar wasn’t as busy as the one I had previously seen but they had the usual stands of spices, kitchenware, gold jewellery and carpets. I had a look at a carpet shop and it must be difficult to chose due to the choice and wide range in budget! I was however told that carpets that are folded tend to be better quality than those that are rolled – something to keep in mind when buying. Also worth noting that the international exchange rate used is not the local Iranian one!

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Following the bazaar, I went to the Water Museum. Yazd is famous for it ‘qanats’ (underground aqueducts), and one does wonder how the settlers had access to water in such an arid region. The museum is devoted to the brave men who dug those underground waterways that enabled life to flourish in the desert. Their uniform was padded cotton hats and white-coloured clothing. This not only was luminous in the dark, but would also act as a shroud in the event of a fatal accident. Indeed Muslims wrap their dead in white cloth before burying them, and the workers were therefore ready for paradise.

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The museum charts the 2000 years that Iran’s irrigation system has been in operation  and still is nowadays. ‘Qanats’ run through many wealthy houses, collecting in pools at the basement, which provided much needed cool, and are the reason why the more affluent districts are always closest to the mountains – to be closest to the freshest water.

Talking about water, time for a refreshing drink in this 33C degree! I found another rooftop and had an iced tea with mint and lemon, perfect for this heat. I rested for a little while before heading back to the hotel.

Off to bed as I am going on an excursion tomorrow morning!

Persepolis

I was up to an early start as the guide taking us to Persepolis arrived at 7.30. As it was a shared group tour the coach picked some others on the way – from Finland, Japan and Argentina.

Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the great wonders of the ancient world, embodies not just a grand architectural scheme but also a great idea. It was conceived by Darius the Great who, in 520 BC, inherited the responsibility for ruling the world’s first known empire founded by his predecessor Cyrus the Great who wrote what is considered to the the first charter of Human Rights, nowadays found in the British Museum. Indeed, he considered that workers should have insurance, should be paid according to their skills and amount of work, and he freed the enslaved Jews from the Babylonians. He considered that everyone should be free to practice their faith and that no one should be coerced into converting to another religion. Darius went further and installed equal pay for women, if not more if they were more skilled than men. Under Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, the Persian Empire eventually became the largest empire in human history up to that point, based on a model of tolerance and respect.

Persepolis was embellished with the succession of Kings and by the 4th century BC it was an elaborate project of palaces and treasuries. Inevitably the city attracted the envy of powerful rivals and in 330 BC it was burnt down by Alexander the Great.

The guide first showed us Xerxes’ gateway, also called Gate of all Nations, that once heralded the important of important dignitaries. Unfortunately, some have signed their names on the stone – but now some are part of the history, such as Henry Morton Stanley or McDonalds! On top of the columns, unfortunately not in its past glory, were griffins who were a support to the roof.

We then headed to the Apadana Palace which would have be used to receive foreign delegations and was the venue for big parties. The engravings by the side of the staircase are particularly revealing. We can see the cypress and the lotus flower, symbols of Iran, and then a lion and a bull. The lotus flower is probably a Zoroastrian sign representing the calendar: one centre (one year) surrounded by twelve petals (twelve months). Contrary to what it looks like at a first glance, this isn’t a fight or hunt. Indeed if it were the lion would have attacked the bull by the neck. Instead, it is pushing the bull out of the way – it is an astrological sign and the bull represents winter and the lion summer. Effectively Summer is pushing Winter out and this corresponds to the New Year, celebrated on the 21st of March, which dates back to the Zoroastrians, so perhaps they were Zoroastrian at that time, as indicated by some engravings.. On the left side are bas-reliefs of what would have been visitors from the empire visiting and offering gifts – in the below photo you can identify the Greeks by their hairstyles.

During our free time I clambered up a steep stone ‘staircase’ to the Tomb of Artaxerxes II. It also provides a great view over Persepolis and a greater appreciation of its scale! By that stage I was getting very warm so I decided to climb down – being made of wool is not ideal in those temperatures!

I re-joined the party and we stopped at the cliffs neighbouring Persepolis featuring four rock-hewn tombs called Naqsh-e Rostam, a necropolis. It is believed that Darius II (the most important tomb), Artaxerxes I, Darius I and Xerxes I were buried there. Their bodies would have been deposited here but contrary to popular belief they were not mummified like in Egypt. Instead they would be lathered with some sort of honey, then wrapped in fabric and placed in the coffin, surrounded by gold and silver for the afterlife. The door was to be sealed for ever, however Alexander the Great and his soldiers opened the tombs to loot the goods and it is unknown where those precious offerings now are. Facing the cliffs is Bun Khanak, thought to be a fire temple, although this is disputed by historians who think it could also have been a Treasury.

We all headed back to the van and after a short drive stopped for lunch in a very pleasant guest house. Lunch was a rice and meat dish which reminded me a little bit of a ‘plov’, an Uzbek dish, along a rice omelette, some pickled vegetables, yoghurt and some dates. It was delicious and what I needed as I had had breakfast quite early this morning! We were treated to local music and singing by the owner who agreed to take pictures with me and the group.

Our next stop was Pasargadae where Cyrus the Great was buried, about an hour drive away. The ruins are a lot smaller than Persepolis and the tomb consists of a modest rectangular burial chamber perched on six plinths. It is believed that Cyrus started building a city there during his lifetimes but the site was abandoned after his death by Darius who went to build Persepolis. In the future centuries, to avoid the tomb being looted, the villages invented a story stating that in fact it held the remains of Solomon’s mother, a story that protected the tomb.

By the end of the afternoon I was very tired, probably because of the stifling heat. The driver dropped us back to my hostel where I decided to go out for dinner in a local restaurant called Balo. It was a rooftop with comfortable tables and blankets if you get chilly! I was a bit greedy and ordered a kind of aubergine dip, a cold soup made of yoghurt, cucumber and spices, as well as aubergine frittatas.

Off to bed for an early bus to Yadz!

In the meantime, I can say that I had a lovely time in Shiraz. The city is beautiful and welcoming and I felt less likely to get run over!

Shiraz

Time for Shiraz! Everyone I have spoken to has told me how beautiful it is. My night bus was a bumpy ride and I arrived at 6am on Tuesday. Luckily my hotel let me sleep on Iranian daybeds in the courtyard for a few hours despite my room not being ready yet.

A little while later I went to the bazaar and as expected I got lost – although it is a lot smaller than the Bazaar in Tehran which is a complete maze! I stumbled across a street aligned only with shops selling gold jewellery – it was very impressive. I stopped for tea in a coffee house. Interestingly they have samovars here like they do in Russia and the name for tea in Farsi is the same as in Russian (chai!)

Before leaving I asked for directions to the owner but I am fairly certain that stall owners don’t even know where they are within the bazaar as I was given varying instructions from different people!

I then went to visit the beautiful Aramgh-e Shah Cheragh, shrine for Sayyed Mir Ahmad. One of the Immam’s seventeen brothers, he was killed by the caliphate on this side in 835 AD and his remains are buried there. In the second courtyard is a second smaller mausoleum which houses the tombs of the two brothers of Mir Ahmad.

After returning to the hotel to check in and have a much needed shower, I went back towards the centre and went on the hunt for a bite to eat – it was mid-afternoon by that stage. I found a terrace and had a salad – as much as the kebabs and rice are delicious in Iran it was refreshing to have something green and light.

Following lunch, I went to the Pars museum across the square. This is where Karim Khan once received foreign dignitaries in the pavilion, and has beautiful stalactite ceilings and hand painted murals. I then went to the UNESCO-listed Eram gardens to relax, designed under the Qajar dynasty. They are also very pleasant to stroll in and are famous for their cypress trees, symbol of Iran. I was stopped by an Iranian English teacher who asked us if we could spend a few minutes chatting to her students to practice. After a couple of minute one of the mothers of the girls kindly invited us for dinner! Being invited by friendly Iranians to their house is starting to become a habit – and I am starting to run out excuses but I think communication would have been limited (unless the English teacher was there to translate!)

I headed back home to rest before deciding where to go for dinner. I chose a restaurant called Shater Abbas – it took me a while to find it as much to my confusion it had changed name since the guidebook was published but got there in the end. Before ordering the waiters brought some jelly and quince paste accompanied by fresh orange juice and I wasn’t sure if it was an appetiser as it was quite sweet but it tasted good nonetheless. The restaurant quickly filled up with a big gathering of Iranians taking up most of the venue – I assumed it was a last big communal meal before Ramadan starts this week end? I went back to the hostel and it was not long before I was in bed ready for a busy following day!

Wednesday morning I walked to the Masjed-e Nasir-al-Molk, know in English as the Pink Mosque. It was built at the end of the 19th century and its tiling is pink-ish as opposed to blue which is the case with most of the mosques I have visited so far. The highlight was taking a picture through the colourful stained glass with the sun streaming through. I clearly wasn’t the only one who wanted to take pictures!

I then went to the Naranjestan-e Ghavam Pavillion which used to be owned by one of Shiraz’s wealthiest Qajar-era families. The entrance is of course mirrored and sparkly but the ceilings of the upstairs rooms are painted in European-style motifs. I had a break and tried a Shiraz speciality, faludeh – a frozen sorbet made with thin starch noodles and rose water. I had a few bites but I didn’t finish it.

Following this I walked across the Khoshk River to the Imamzadeh-ye Ali Ebn-e Hamze, a 19th century shrine built for Emir Ali, nephew of Shah Cheragh. I had to wear a chador (an all covering cloak) and as I was about to return it a man working in the tourist office invited me for tea and biscuits and he answered some questions I had about the building. He explained that each fragment of mirror used in the mosaics reflect each and one of us and that by reflecting light it reflects God.

Next I took a taxi to the Aramgah-e Hafez, the Hafez mausoleum. Hafez is to the Iranians what Pushkin is to the Russians. Indeed Iranians have a saying that every home must have two things: first the Quran, then a collection of the works of Hafez. This 14th century pote is revered and almost every Iranian can quote his work, bending to whichever social or political persuasion they subscribe. The garden did not disappoint and I wondered about before having a late lunch.

I finally went to the Citadel in the centre of the city, built in the early Zand period. One of the southeastern towers has a noticeable lean, having subsided in the underground cistern that served as a bathroom. What struck me when walking in the courtyard was the strong citrus smell as it is lined with rows of orange trees as you can see on the photo!

Back to the hostel now to write this blog before going out for dinner. I have a early start as I am visiting Persepolis tomorrow and the guide is picking me up at 7.30!

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