Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Pasargadae, Naqsh-e Rustam, Persepolis

After breakfast we left Zein o Din Caravanserai and began a leisurely drive towards Shiraz. Three monuments of the ancient Persian Empire were on our itinerary.  We first visited Pasargadae, which was once the capital of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the capital was in ruins and not much remains of the once glorious palaces and gardens.  Cyrus' dramatic mausoleum still stands at Pasargadae though.  Impressive in size and simplicity, Cyrus' tomb sat in an open, empty space dominating the surrounding agricultural fields.  

We left Pasargadae and drove about an hour through green countryside to Naqsh-e Rustam, where four tombs of Achaemenid kings were located.  The bright sunshine had given way to stormy skies and I struggled to keep my head scarf on my head while walking in the strong winds which swirled around the site.   

The tombs of Naqsh-e Rustam were carved in the shape of "Persian crosses" high up on a soaring rock face. Visitors standing below were dwarfed by the immense scale of the massive site. One inscription identified the tomb of Darius the Great while the three remaining tombs are believed to belong to Xerxes, Artaxerxes and Darius II. The oldest of seven bas reliefs below the tombs dates from 1000 BC and is said to represent Rostam, the mythical hero of the epic Shahnameh by Ferdowsi.  Sassanid kings are featured in scenes of coronation and conquest in the other carvings.

From Naqsh-e Rustam we drove about 8 miles to the grandest monument, "The City of Persians," Persepolis.  The late afternoon rain that had started to fall, magically stopped when we arrived and I stood looking at the ruins from a distance before walking towards what was left of the ancient palaces.  

A stairway of many low steps led to a huge raised terrace where immense buildings once sat. Now stone columns and doorways are all that remained. Alexander the Great (or as Milad liked to call him, Alexander the Not-So-Great) ordered Persepolis sacked to avenge the destruction of Greek temples by the Persians.     


The stairways of the Apadana Palace featured bas relief carvings depicting guards, noblemen and dignitaries from all parts of the empire, each recognizable by their distinctive clothing and the gifts they brought.  Milad also explained to us the symbolism of the carvings of the fighting bull and lion which represent the changing of the seasons from winter to spring.

The Gate of All Nations loomed over us at an impressive height of 54 feet. The winged guardian bulls formed a grand entrance even now.  A closer look revealed centuries of graffiti carved into the stone, recording past visitors to what is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The sun was beginning to set when the announcement came over the loud speaker that Persepolis was closing and we must leave.  We drove another 45 miles before finally reaching the last city on our tour: Shiraz-the city of poets, wine and flowers.   

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Night at Zein o Din Caravanserai

After our walk through the alleys of Yazd, we packed up and drove about an hour to the Zein o Din Caravanserai which was south of Yazd on the Kerman highway. We timed our arrival for late afternoon as there was little to do at the caravanserai until evening.

Zein o Din was built over 400 years ago to provide rest and food for travelers and camels on the Silk Road.  Nine hundred and ninety nine caravanserai were built across Iran, located 25 to 30 miles apart on trade routes that crisscrossed the country.  Most caravanserai were built as square structures but Zein o Din is one of only two inns built in a circular shape.  

After we put our luggage in our sleeping alcove, we climbed up steep stairs to enjoy the desert views from the roof.  The sun setting over the distant mountains was a beautiful sight and one was reminded of the modern world only by the very faint sound of traffic on the distant highway about a mile off in the distance.  


A wonderful meal was followed by an entertaining performance of fast and furious Baluchi dances.  The spectators were sitting against the walls of the small room and I was sure the dancers would spin out of control and land on top of them in their exuberance. We returned to the roof after the dancing to gaze at the stars that appeared in our absence.  

The dark desert sky was a magical thing and we spent a couple of hours on the roof looking up at the stars, trying to identify the constellations.  When we became too tired and cold to stay up any later, we went back down stairs to our beds.  Our small sleeping alcoves were furnished with thin mattresses and pillows laid on plush carpets.  It was a cozy spot and I imagined Silk Road traders being accommodated in much the same way.  After breakfast we continued south to see some magnificent ruins of ancient Persia.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Walk Through Yazd

A second day in Yazd found us walking around town to see sights we didn't have time for the day before.  We started by stopping by Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar to purchase more sweets.  I bought several boxes of Persian cotton candy called pashmak, which means "wool-like" to give as souvenirs.  A short walk down the street brought us to the Yazd Water Museum.   

Housed in a beautiful old traditional house, the museum tells the story of water in a desert country.  Especially interesting were the displays about the qanats, a series of shafts and gently sloping tunnels which brought water from the mountains to desert areas to make it livable. The qanats were developed thousands of years ago and some are still in use today supplying drinking and irrigation water.  

Milad pointed out an old picture of men digging a qanat and asked us if we knew why the men would wear white to do such a dirty job.  We said we didn't know and he told us that the men worked in their burial clothes in case there was an accident and they were buried alive.  

We continued walking past shops and people selling things on the street. This little girl and her mother were selling cumin seed to passersby.  

The street ended at a large square which held the  Amir Chakhmaq Complex.  A three story structure with arcades of arches on either side, the mosque is the largest building of its kind in Iran. 

After visiting Amir Chakhmaq Complex and watching a group of school boys play a lively game of soccer in the square, we continued on to the Yazd Bazaar.  We saw lots of shops selling textiles and ceramics.  Along the way we ran into a group of lively young women who wanted to know where we were from and how we liked Iran.  We didn't pass up an opportunity to have our pictures taken with our new friends!

Milad promised us a special treat and took us to a tea house located in an old renovated traditional house turned hotel, the Malek o Tojjar. We took off our shoes and sat on one of the platforms scattered with damask cushions and covered with a Persian carpet in the beautiful central courtyard.  The waiter asked our guide where we were from and then produced flags representing the United Kingdom, Australia, Iran and the United States. 


Large bowls of exotic Saffron Rosewater and Pistachio Ice Cream were brought to us and then the waiter determined that the flags needed to be rearranged.  He told me that the flags of Iran and the United States needed to be next to each other because we were friends.  When we finished our ice cream the waiter surprised us with a tour of the hotel. 

We continued our 
walk through Yazd as Milad took us through a maze of alleys in an old part of the city.  

Finally we emerged onto a street in front of the Yazd Jame Mosque. The mosque towers over the city and it's minarets are the highest in Iran.  The beautiful tile work is done in shades of turquoise, Persian blue and dark blue, colors which are said to promote spiritual healing and peace.  This is one of the few mosques I visited in which I saw someone praying.  

It was around 3:30 in the afternoon when we finished our walking tour at the Jame Mosque. We walked a short distance to the Orient Hotel and got ready to go to our next destination, the Zein o Din Caravanserai.  

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Ancient Desert City of Yazd

We had a lovely breakfast in the restaurant of the Orient Hotel with the rooftops and wind catcher towers of Yazd in front of us.  The Jame Mosque rose high above it all and was a spectacular sight.  It was tempting just to sit and drink tea all morning while enjoying the bird’s eye view but we had things to see in this ancient desert city.

Yazd has been a major center for the Zoroastrian religion, one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions, founded in Iran by the prophet Zoroaster approximately 3,500 years ago. The faith can be summed up by the phrase: good thoughts, good words, good deeds. On this day we saw two places important to Zoroastrian people.

The first site we saw, the Zoroastrian Fire Temple, was located in a beautiful setting with many trees and a large circular reflecting pool. The temple is not old but the sacred fire burning here is said to be the oldest living fire on earth, burning since 470 AD.  The fire, which represents God's light or wisdom, is carefully tended by a caretaker who adds wood to the fire three times a day.  

We then went to the Towers of Silence.  I had expected them to be out in the empty desert but they were now within the city, a short walk across an empty lot.  Large circular structures built on hills, the Towers of Silence were a place where Zoroastrians left their dead to avoid polluting earth or fire, which are considered sacred elements. 

We climbed to the top of the smaller Tower but it was still a taxing ascent. Once inside, I saw where the bodies of the dead were left to the elements and scavengers.  The pit in the center of the platform was where the clean bones were left to disintegrate.  The Towers of Slience are no longer used and from the high vantage point we saw the nearby walled cemetery where Zoroastrians now bury their dead.  

We left the Towers of Silence and went to an unusual place, a henna factory.  The space was dominated by a large grind stone which ground henna leaves into a fine powder.  In the past, yoked donkeys would have circled the room, supplying the power to turn the stone.  A hole in the ceiling provided a ray of light in the murky room, illumining stacks of bags of henna and green dusty walls, floor and ceiling.  The factory worker was covered with henna and when I left I, too, was covered in a fine green powder and had to brush myself off before getting in the van. 

After visiting the henna factory, we walked a few doors down to do some shopping at a spice shop. Large barrels of fragrant and colorful spices filled the small space.  It was hard to choose just a few spices to purchase but I decided to buy dried limes and black nigella seed which I can't buy at home.  

Yazd is famous for it's sweets and after lunch we visited Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar for some traditional Yazdi cookies and candy.  The store was popular and filled with shoppers.  After we looked at a myriad of choices on display, Milad filled out order forms for us and we joined the lines at the counter waiting to place our orders. We then went to the register to pay and back to the counter to pick up our selections.  I left loaded down with with boxes of rice cookies, coconut sweets and pashmak, Persian cotton candy. Milad then suggested an adventure and we headed to the van for a visit to the desert and a ride on a camel. 

After a long drive through empty, barren desert, we arrived at a small group of old brick buildings.  A ways away, near a tree, there were a couple of camels waiting to carry us across the sand.  The camels wore halters decorated with a riot of colorful tassels and old carpets covered the saddles on their backs.   It was with some trepidation that I climbed aboard.  A teenage boy lead my slightly reluctant camel up the ridge of the sand dune with Ishbel following.  I had to work hard to maintain my balance and held tight onto the saddle.  Mercifully, the ride was short.  

Once Sue and Catherine returned from their camel ride, we all took off our shoes and climbed up dunes of fine, shifting sand.  Near the top, Sue and I sat down and admired the sun setting on the horizon.   It was amazingly still and quiet in the desert.  After a while it started to get dark and we walked back, retrieved our shoes and sat drinking tea and eating sweets as twilight gave way to the dark night sky.