The Islamic Republic of Iran

After I had exchanged money at the airport I engaged a taxi driver who wasn’t very appealing but offered the best price for a ride into the city. He was unshaven, his fingers were nicotine stained and he had a voice to wake the dead. His car was nearly falling apart and some parts had actually fallen off already. But the redeeming factor was that he was old enough. My theory is that a driver who is over 50 and has survived the traffic in a country like Iran must have some skills. However, it soon became evident that my theory was to be challenged. For a time we drove on a bus lane, we drove through traffic lights that by all accounts were red and we frequently drove on the wrong side of the road. Meanwhile my driver entertained me by counting to one hundred in bad English, unfazed by near death collisions with heavy haulage lorries…. In the end I paid roughly 13 dollars whereas on the internet the consensus seems to be that 20 to 25 dollars is the going rate…

Tehran was cold and bleak, the pollution horrendous. Unfortunately, I had caught a bad cold and so I took it easy for a few days. The hostel provided free tea so I drank copious amounts of this beverage during my recovery.

The currency of Iran is the rial. At the time of my visit, a euro bought roughly 38.000 rials. Iranians, however, more often than not, use the toman, which is 10.000 rials. If this is not enough, thousands are often omitted. So 5 toman is the same as 5.000 toman is the same as 50.000 rial. In the future Iran will hopefully abandon the rial in favour of the toman and they might as well drop a few zero’s when they’re at it. Everybody happy.

In Kashan I visited the Sialk ziggurat. It was my first ziggurat. It was very old and severely eroded. From a distance it looks like a natural hill, but at closer inspection one can see it is made of bricks and mud. This ziggurat was made by the Elamites around 2900 BC and is reputedly the oldest ziggurat in the world. Ziggurats are huge stepped structures on which the ancients built temples. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel is, according to some, based on the ziggurat of Babylon.
Later, when I was walking around in Kashan, I saw a lot of old buildings that seemed to have been made of similar material.

The photo to the left is colour enhanced to make it look more like an example of a ziggurat in an archaeology textbook…

In Kahsan I stayed in a traditional house that functioned as a hostel. When I deposited my valuables in the safe of the hotel, the woman at the reception counted my money.
This is all you have? The woman asked.
Em…. yes.
It’s very little.
She said.

A notice on the door of the toilet read:
Dear tourist
Please do not throw toilet paper into the toilet
It will overfill because Iranian toilet paper is very thick.

Next morning I took my breakfast to the upper floor where I sat on an old rug in the morning sun. Behind a lattice I heard the twittering and giggling of girls and while I ate my flatbread and cheese, I felt like a figure in Arabian Nights who involuntary overhears the women in the harem of the sultan….

The bread is baked in cylindrical clay ovens, or tandoors, in small bakeries you see everywhere. They are often busy with people scooping up the freshly baked bread. During my stay I saw mainly two varieties: barbari  and sangak. The latter has an interesting history: it is baked with pebbles and was the bread traditionally eaten by the army. Every soldier would carry a handful of pebbles and when it came to baking the bread they put the pebbles together and baked the bread for the whole army. It is still made in a very traditional way; bakers use a patch of the dough of the previous day instead of yeast. Eating this bread can cost you your teeth as there are sometimes small stones left in it….
Another word used for bread is the more generic naan, which many travellers who have been to India or have frequented Indian restaurants will recognise.

Women entering a mosque.
Banner with Ali and Hussein, two Imams in Shia islam.
Propaganda with heroic soldier.

During my stay in Kashan there were several holidays. This was not as festive as I imagined and it meant most businesses were closed and people stayed indoors to mourn as it was all about people that had died and the people were very sorry for it. They were all dressed in black and music was forbidden.
Apart from this, even on non-holidays, I had a hard time finding a nice place to eat or even a small teahouse to just drink tea. Most of the time I ate in joyless, mostly empty, fast food outlets.

On my last day I bought a ticket for the night train to Shiraz. It was in Persian and the date was the 18th of the 9th month of 1395. This is, interestingly, following the Solar Hijri calendar. The year in this calendar starts with the arrival of spring on the 21st or 22nd of March and is as long as our Gregorian calendar. The origin of the calendar is determined on the Hegira of Mohammed from Mecca to Median in 622 CE. A great advantage of this is that to convert to the Gregorian calendar is suffices to add 622 or 621 years (depending of course whether the date is before or after the March equinox).

A great improvement compared to the lunar Islamic calendar which is a mess.

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