Category Archives: Iran

Shiraz and Persepolis

Persepolis is a popular excursion from Shiraz which I undertook with two other guests from the hotel I stayed at. We had hired a taxi with a driver who doubled as a guide.

Persepolis is a complex of palaces built by the Achaemenids from the 6th century BC onward. The largest palace of Persepolis is the Apadana, built by Darius the Great and finished by his son Xerxes the Great. We walked through the audience hall where delegations from subjugated nations brought their gifts to the King of Kings. On the eastern stairway there are three registers with reliefs that depict 23 such delegations. Our guide explained.

From left to right there were Medes followed by Elamites, bringing a lion with two cubs. The overseer was not amused.
Jesus, what is that? Get it out of here! That’s dangerous….
nd Arians who had taken a camel. Next up were  Arachosians, who nobody knew where they were from..
You are from…?? Arachosia?  We actually conquered you?
Next came Egyptians (the panel is badly damaged here) and Bactrians who had brought, how satisfactory, a two humped camel, and..
And you are…?
We are Assagartians…
I beg your pardon?
We are Assagartians, we come from Assagartia, it’s not far from Arachosia.
You are from where? And it’s not far from where?

Assargatians got that a lot.
Then there were Assyrians, because they were always there, and Pointed-hat Scythians, a funny looking lot, who had brought horses and trousers, which were a new apparel handy for horse riding, which they happened to like a lot.
Next were Gandarians of the Kabul valley bringing a humped bull.
Just through that door,  if you like. to the left, yes,…. beware of the lion…
Then Amorgian Scythians nobody had ever heard of, and Lydians of Croessus fame.
Greeks who brought wool.
In case the King of Kings wanted knitting.
Which he didn’t.
Cappadocians from Turkey who came with hot air balloons and Parthians who had come with yet more camels and Indians who had brought bags of gold dust.
As you do..
Furthermore European Scythians, looking amused, and Arabs of Jordan, and Palestines, who had all brought more husbandry for the Great King.
Then there were the Zarangians, who came from Mars, followed by Lybians with an antelope and Ethiopians with a giraffe. Some sources speak of an okapi, which must have baffled the Ethiopians, had they known it…

Nobody had brought any donkeys.

Persepolis was destroyed by Alexander the Great and his army looted the remains and according to Plutarch: Carried away its treasure on 20,000 mules and 5,000 camels…. Nowadays, to see what they have left of it, one has to pay a 200.000 rial entrance fee.

Not far from Persepolis are the rock graves of the Achaemenid kings. There are four of them, almost identical and characteristically cruciform (photo right).

The photo to the left is a building that is known as Ka’ba-ye Zartosht, which translates as the ‘cube of Zoroaster’, though it’s no longer generally believed to be a Zoroastrian temple. Its function remains a mystery, though it looks like it could hold a giraffe.

On the rooftop terrace of my hostel, cuddling with a book in the warm sunshine:

A cappuccino please… and do you have a toilet here?
You want with sugar?
Yes… eh.. but you don’t have a toilet?
No sugar?
Yes, I want sugar.
You want sugar?
Yes. And do you have a toilet?
You want a toilet?
Sorry, no toilet.
You don’t have a toilet?
Where you from?

Musing over a brochure of Shiraz, I read about the Delgosha Garden that I might visit: Some researchers attribute the history of the garden to the past time…. The scribe that had assembled the brochure was nibbling on his pen, that sounded good, researchers attributed it to the past time….. Then the museum which was rubbish …and on the second floor (of the museum) more than 100 different types of old radios are on display….
Lots of different types of radios that’s….. that’s good. Yes.

Instead, I visited the Nasir al-Mulk mosque, popularly known as the Pink Mosque. On sunny mornings the stained windows orchestrate a whirling display of colours.

On the internet I had read an article of the Huffington Post that described the mosque as “a riotous wonderland of color that is absolutely breathtaking”. But I found out that this was to be taken as typical American aggrandisement: It was nice but not breathtaking, even though their photography is obviously much better than mine.
I was intrigued by the sign “Don’t roll up the carpets please”. It suggested that  some tourists were caught in the act of rolling up the carpets.
What are you doing?
Ve are rolling up ze carpets…
Could you please stop that!
Ve vere only trying to help….

Later, I walked through the Bazaar e-Vakil, under its domed ceilings, where I rubbed shoulders with turbaned Baluchis who were dressed in shalwaar khamiz. I drank tea and ate kebab with rubbery bread, which could have been used as placemats, and which was served with raw onion. I tried the dizi, a stew of mutton, chick peas and beans, that is served in a mortar with a pestle. Like all food in Iran it comes with bread. It’s customary to decant the fluid in a bowl and eat it as a soup with the bread. The remainder is then mashed and eaten with more bread.

After a prolonged stay in Shiraz, I took a bus to Isfahan. When we came close to Isfahan, it started to rain and not much later the desert was soaking wet. I was surprised at how big the city was: it took an hour in slow moving traffic around the expressways that surround Isfahan to reach the bus station. In my memory it was just a provincial town. How deceiving memories can be…. but then, after all, Isfahan is half the world as they say.

The river was dry and the famous tea houses under the bridge were gone…


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.