After successfully negotiating the Tehran Metro, which was very straightforward my husband Feri, his cousin Mannaz and I made our way to the Golestan Palace in Panzdah Kordad Square. There are several government buildings on the approach to the palace and you need to be careful that you are not freely taking photographs as you walk along as you might be caught out when you come across a “No photography” sign attached to the fence. It is also not advisable to take a photo of the no photos sign as you may get yourself into very hot water as a result. It is best to walk past, admire the architecture and keep your camera off until you get to the Golestan Palace where there are plenty of opportunities for amazing photos.

I was given a little guide-book in English on entry and apparently Golestan Palace (which means Palace of Flowers) is the “oldest of the historic monuments in Tehran.” If you are like me and love historic buildings and sites then this visit won’t disappoint.

As there are several different rooms and areas to visit, you are given the option of choosing which ones you want to visit and pay for when you enter. The guide should help you but it is useful if you do some research before you visit so you have an idea which rooms you want to see and those you are not bothered about. For instance, we didn’t visit the Chador Khaneh (House of Tents), the Howz-Khaneh where you will find European paintings, the Wind-Tower Building or the Ethnological and Special Museum. From experience you can see too much at once which tends to dilute and not enhance your visit as you spread yourself too thinly. Clearly everyone is different which is why this system of ticket purchase is so flexible.

I wasn’t expecting such a beautiful and exquisite building with its pool and surrounding gardens in the middle of Tehran. Only a few minutes walk away from 6-lanes of smoky traffic, the incessant noise of blaring car horns and thousands of city workers on their lunch break you will find this oasis of peace.

There is plenty of information about Golestan on the internet which I don’t intend to repeat here, but I will post my photographs and give a brief description of our visit. Sometimes less is more and in this case a few words are all that are needed to show off the highlights. The pictures will do that job nicely.

Takht-e Marmar (Marble Throne)

The Marble Throne is found on the Terrace built in 1806. The marble comes from Yazd, famous for its yellow marble, and the throne is made of 65 separate pieces. The terrace and throne were used for the coronations of Qajar kings, but was also used for the last time when Reza Khan formed the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1925. Reza Khan was the father of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran who was exiled in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution.

Talar-e Aineh (Hall of Mirrors)

Wow! Although quite a small room, the décor is unbelievable. My camera takes decent general photos but I wish I had a more sophisticated camera which could cope with the refraction of light and detail. I also don’t have a wide angle lens so if you would like to see this Hall in all it’s glory, check out the images on line or even better, go and visit!

Be prepared to put on plastic bag overshoes when visiting indoors. This protects the carpets and mosaics and you won’t be allowed in unless you comply. If you are dressing to impress in your Jimmy Choo’s, this is not the place to do it.

Talar-e Salam (Reception Hall)

This room was originally designed to be a museum and house the famous Peacock throne. The Peacock Throne was however moved to the Royal Jewel Collection at the Central Bank and this hall was then used “to hold special receptions in the presence of the King.”


To be continued.


Just past midnight
To my delight
The bus turns into the parking bay
Here comes the trip
Only hope I kip
While the night turns into day…………

Not exactly the exotic Night Boat to Cairo (Madness, 1979) but to me the upcoming journey was just as exciting. Apart from flying into and out of Tehran Airport I have never been to the city of Tehran and, as I had heard so much about the cheap and daily 5-hour overnight bus service from our home town of Khomeni Shah to Iran’s capital, I wanted to try it out.

Feri fetched the one-way tickets in advance which cost the equivalent of £5.50 each, and all we had to do was get to the bus station in time for the midnight departure. We arrived in good time and I was surprised to see that the bus station was still open and in full swing selling tickets, snacks and drinks and with the illuminated fountains in the surrounding gardens still spouting their plumes of water. Although it was approaching midnight, the place was so well lit it could have been the middle of the day and it is times like this when I realise that if only we had warmer weather here in the UK it doesn’t matter if it’s dark; you can still participate in a 24-hour outdoor society as long as the lighting allows. How I’d love to be picnicking by the river or doing my shopping instead of hunkering down at dusk and huddling around the fire and TV.


The bus came into the station 15 minutes late. Late being quite normal here in Iran and only 15 minutes late considered a bonus. We were called forward to board and Feri and I joined our fellow passengers and prepared to alight. The bus itself was almost brand new and very clean. When on-board we looked for our seats and sat down ready for departure. Only then did I notice that there were only 3 seats in a row unlike the normal 4 which meant that every seat was a luxurious width with full recliner facility. Each seat also had a TV screen with headphones embedded into the rear and rubbish bags were available to prevent litter spoiling the cleanliness of the coach. I haven’t been on a long-distance coach journey in the UK for many a year, so I can’t compare but it is certainly an improvement on my student days when I used to travel on National Express. At last, when everyone was on board, we set off for the 5-hour journey to Tehran.


The idea of an overnight service is that you sleep during the journey and although the seats were very comfortable I was too pre-occupied to nod off. I was still awake when, 20 minutes after departure, the attendant brought everyone a box full of biscuits (4 snack packets of various flavour treats) and a carton of juice. This was more than I expected for my £5.50 but very welcome all the same.
We stopped for a comfort break about half-way to Tehran then it was full-steam ahead. Sadly, one criticism I have about travelling in Iran is the state of some of their toilets. Obviously, I cannot comment on the gent’s facilities but, for the ladies, most of the older service station toilets are the squat type reminiscent of those found in France some years ago on their beach-side camping sites. This in itself is not an issue as, apparently, it is healthier to squat than sit and contemplate your navel on a throne but, due to the amount of water used to hose oneself down, you may need to hoik your trousers or long skirt up so the hems don’t get wet. I always carry wipes and paper just in case!As this rest-stop looked rather archaic, I passed on the toilet preferring to wait until we reached more up-to-date facilities.

We reached Tehran South bus station after the scheduled 5 hours just as dawn was breaking and then continued to Arjentine Square for the rest of us to get off the bus. Altogether it had been a very comfortable overnight journey for a bargain price leaving us the whole day ahead to explore the capital.

As we were staying with family for our visit to Tehran we firstly made our way to their apartment for breakfast. I admit that after our overnight trip we did have a sneaky snooze after eating and before we ventured into Tehran City on the Metro. After a quick discussion regarding which place I wanted to visit the most we selected Golestan Palace (see next episode). However, we first needed to tackle 13 stops on the underground to get there and thankfully Feri’s cousin Mannaz agreed to accompany us and help to navigate the Tehran Metro.

We were guided, via taxi, to the Tehran Pars station where Mannaz bought us a Metro Card which would last us for our 2 day stay. I was surprised by the modern, clean and easy-to-navigate underground system which is in stark contrast to the much older and crowded London Underground. Instead of paper tickets which need to be fed through a ticket reader (very awkward when carrying luggage or if you are left-handed) in London, everything is contactless on the Tehran Metro. Of course, being contactless doesn’t prevent people from “contacting” their ticket physically to the reader which I find quite amusing, but it seems a lot quicker than our system which requires you to feed your ticket into a narrow opening then wait for the ticket to reappear for onward travel. (Or be eaten by the machine if it’s life has expired).
Of course you can always get a Visitor Oyster Card for travel in London. This is a smart card and I would recommend that visitors to London investigate this before buying separate tickets.


When we were through the initial gates and onto the platform I noticed how spacious and clean the platforms are. Not a single piece of litter in sight. I also noticed that, like the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), the train carriages stop in the same place. This means that people know where to stand and wait and, with the guidance of the arrows painted on the floor, know where to get on and off the train. The arrows dictate that to get off the train you dismount via the middle of the doorway; to get on the train, you enter via the sides. This avoids the body-slamming which I usually encounter when using the London Underground.
Simples! If only we could adopt such civilised methods.


Another difference on the Tehran Metro are the “Women Only “carriages. When we caught our train home we got on the nearest carriage to stop near us not realising that this was a carriage for women only. Luckily, they didn’t seem too worried that Feri was amongst us so no harm done! I noted however that the women only area was marked by metal barriers so that there was no chance of men joining the women once boarded. I imagine that as tourists we were forgiven, and, as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed European, I was even asked to have my photograph taken with a lady in the same carriage. If however this had been rush hour, a persistent offender would have been ejected pronto.


In less than 24 hours I had experienced travel in Iran which was very much the same/different to my experiences in England. Of course I look for the most efficient and comfortable mode of travel and if I had to vote now based on my encounters I would choose Iran for its cleanliness, efficiency and up-to-date technology and customer service.
We can learn a lot from our Iranian friends.



After the stress of the previous evening, Feri and I slept soundly for ten hours in our en-suite, air-conditioned room. It was impressively clean with a large, comfortable bed and a huge fridge. Breakfast the next morning was typical Iranian fayre and plenty of it. It seemed a shame to check out after just one night after all the effort we had made to get the room, but we were meeting Rahmon for a day of sight-seeing in Shiraz and we had an early start.

Rahmon managed to find a precious car parking space in the city centre multi-storey and we made our way towards the famous Vakil Mosque, Bazaar and public baths.


First stop was the old public baths which, after spells as an underground restaurant and carpet shop, have now been converted into a waxwork museum depicting what the baths may have looked like when fully operating. The first things that strike you as you enter the first of many chambers are the smell of camphor and the beautiful designs decorating the ceilings. I understand that the restaurant closed in 2008 when it was found that the heat was destroying the plaster ceilings and I am so pleased that they are now being preserved.


Waxwork figures are placed in each chamber/room and it is easy to see how many traditional treatments were available in public baths at a time when many people didn’t have bathing facilities at home. There were masseurs, barbers who often doubled-up as dentists, circumcisers, blood-letters, exfoliators, henna and hair removal specialists. Men and women were segregated and non-muslims were mostly not admitted. The baths were not only a place to get yourself spruced up but also somewhere to catch up on the news and gossip. It is no surprise then to find that bath day often took all day.


It was while wandering around the chambers that a young girl approached me and asked whether I was English and if I could speak to her. She was learning English at school and wanted to show me how much she had learnt. Of course I obliged, then after a while I answered her in Farsi which delighted her so much that she shouted across to a large group of people and beckoned them over. This was a family outing to Shiraz, and coincidentally they too were from Esfahan. We had lots in common so they all started to ask me questions wanting me to reply in Farsi. It seemed to amuse them that I could. They also took lots of photos; some surreptitiously, worried that they might offend me by asking, others more blatant and unashamed!

Luckily, Feri realised that I was surrounded by a well-meaning but demanding audience and understanding that I may be getting a little overwhelmed he came to my rescue. After more obligatory photos with every member of the family, we departed friends, me having done my bit for Anglo/Iranian relations.


Next stop was Vakil Mosque. I must admit that my initial reaction was one of disappointment. I was used to the spectacular and visually stunning blue mosques of Esfahan but here the decorative tiles were more muted and mostly in shades of pink. I soon realised that I have been spoilt in becoming so familiar with the mosques in Esfahan and not realising how amazing they are. It is not until you have something to compare them with that this becomes so apparent.


As I walked around the 48 stone columns carved in spirals and looked closely as the mosaics, I saw how intricate and beautiful the mosque is. One of the main features of this mosque is the minbar, the pulpit from which the Imam conducts prayers and delivers his sermons, which is carved out of one solid piece of green marble. The minbar has 14 steps leading up to a recess in the blue and yellow tile-decorated wall and appears to be a favourite place for Iranians to pose for photographs.


This is one thing that really annoys me when visiting historical and cultural sites in Iran. Posing Iranians, with designer sunglasses and selfie sticks, heavily made-up women draping themselves over carved stones, wrapping themselves provocatively around pillars demanding yet another picture be taken. It is something that I haven’t come across anywhere else and it seems disrespectful to both the site and others wanting to see items in their “raw” state!

With camera poised and after much huffing and puffing, shifting from one leg to another, the offending Iranians eventually got the hint and let me take my photos.

After the relative peace and quiet of the mosque, it was full-steam ahead to the bustling Bazaar Vakil with instructions from Rahmon to buy his wife a scarf and with our immediate task of finding a tea-house where we could sit down and take stock, and refreshments.

Next time: Clubbing and bazaar happenings in the car park.



The previous instalment covering our adventures in Iran had left Feri and I sitting in the foyer of Hotel Atlas in Shiraz waiting patiently to check in. There didn’t seem to be many people about so I began to wonder why it was taking so long to take details and allocate rooms. I watched couples approach the reception desk, fill in a form and present their identity documents. Nothing unusual there, so I turned to Feri and nonchalantly asked “Have you got the passports?”

“No” came the reply.

I tried again, “Iranian ID card?”

Another “No.”

“Marriage certificate?”


“Credit card?”

“No, I brought plenty of cash, why?”

“Because I think that the hotel will need to check our identities and whether we are married before giving us a room”

The Rial then dropped-Kerching! Feri walked across to the lady at the desk. I watched closely as some nodding was going on but worryingly there was a lot more shaking of the heads. Those of you who know Feri will have witnessed that he can usually charm birds off trees but he was unable to convince the Receptionist to give us a room; all because we had no evidence that we were married. She went on to explain that, due to the strict “morality laws” in the region, hotels were unable to allocate rooms to unmarried couples. Further, if the “Morality Police” came to the hotel and checked their records to find that no evidence of our marriage had been obtained, the hotel would be fined.

Mmmm. My mind flew back to the previous evening back in Esfahan when Feri assured me that all was “sorted.” It clearly wasn’t as we were now faced with some unforeseen choices.

  • We could call our trust driver, Rahmon, and drive home. We quickly decided that this was not feasible as he needed to rest.
  • We could try to tout round some different hotels to see if we could compromise our morality and grab a room. This plan was not appealing. I can only take so much rejection.
  • We could go and buy a tent and pitch up in the local park. This is common in Iran but I wasn’t prepared for camping.

After serious consideration of our options we did the only sensible thing and rang Rahmon for his input. Luckily for us, his brother-in-law was a General in the Iranian army and knew exactly what we needed to do. In short, we would have to report to the HQ of the Morality Police in Shiraz, where he would talk to the Chief and all would definitely “be sorted”.  Rahmon came to pick us up and off we went to the HQ with Mr General.

I was already feeling a little apprehensive when we found that the entrance to Morality HQ was guarded by soldiers with guns slung over their shoulders. This was rather intimidating but when we explained why we were there they let us into the compound via intercom. I am sure that I heard lots of laughing behind us as the gate closed and could only imagine that the story of our plight had reached them in advance of our arrival. Thankfully we were then escorted to a quiet small office and asked to wait whilst Mr General went in search of Mr Chief.

After ten minutes or so and without any warning in walked a very tall, large gentleman accompanied by a soldier. This was beginning to look quite serious and, if I am honest, a bit over the top for wanting a bed for the night. Big Man, clearly in charge, started to ask Feri questions whilst his assistant wrote everything down. I don’t speak much Farsi, enough to get by, but I do understand a lot more. It soon became clear to Big Man that I understood a lot of what he was saying and he started to soften his very aggressive approach just a little. I could see that Feri was getting riled no doubt annoyed with himself for not bringing our documents and also with the aggressive manner of questioning by Big Man.

During the questioning, Big Man stopped to answer his mobile phone. How rude. When he turned his attention back to us it was clear that Feri had had enough and was getting really cross. It wasn’t helping the situation, and maybe it was the stress of the event and my nerves getting the better of me but I started to laugh. I tried to hide it as I thought I may jeopardise even further the none-too harmonious relations which already existed between Feri and his interrogator. Big Man noticed my laughing and asked what I found so funny. That was scary. I then had to explain, via Feri, that I found it ridiculous at our age and with our travel experience to find ourselves in such a position. It was literally laughable. Big Man thought so too, without the laughing.

I began to understand how Mary and Joseph must have felt when they tried to get a room and at this point I would have been quite happy with a straw bed as long as I was away from this fiasco. We were however starting to progress and it then transpired that the quickest and only way we were get a hotel room in this city was to call Feri’s sister back in Esfahan to obtain our details.

Big Man spoke to her and asked lots of questions about us. Were we really married? When did we get married?  Where were the passports? Luckily, she lives next door to us in Esfahan so she was able to fetch our Iranian passports and ID documents and give the details over the phone. We then had to wait whilst they were cross-checked with the relevant authorities. This was a worrying time as it was now 8pm and I wasn’t sure whether anyone would be able to access our records to provide assurance. Morality, however, turns out to be a 24/7 business in Iran and we were given the all clear to enable Big Man to write us a signed authorisation which would allow the hotel to give us a room.

Phew! I was so relieved and we got up ready to leave, but not before we were asked to give some feedback about their way of dealing with things in Iran. Big Man asked whether they were much different from the police at home in the UK. I replied that I had no idea but I found him very aggressive in the circumstances as we hadn’t committed a heinous crime, we just wanted a hotel room and further, I thought it very rude that he took a phone call in the middle of our conversation. I’m not sure Feri thought this was a good time to get on my high-horse but the Big Man did ask. He took it all in his stride however and escorted us all out of the compound with his good wishes.

I would like to bet that he had a good chuckle about our adventure that evening.

I can laugh now, but rest assured I will be carrying my passport with me everywhere in future.




Persians and their poetry

The Persian’s love of poetry stretches back for thousands of years. They are famous both for their poets and their epic poems and even today you will come across Iranians who can recite hundreds, and in many cases, thousands of verses. I always remember a time when friends of Feri came over from the US to stay and one evening we invited a few more Iranians to join us. After the meal the men disappeared.  A good while later I went to find them. There they were sitting in a circle, cross-legged on the hard floor in the sumptuous surroundings of the utility room, happily reciting poetry to each other.


152That’s what they do. I admit that I found it strange at first, but listening to the rhythmic, lilting recitations I found myself enjoying the language and its calming effect, even if I didn’t understand its meaning. It reminded me of the lovely recording of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” by Richard Burton.

“To begin at the beginning:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless

and bible-black, the cobble streets silent and the hunched,

courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the

sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”

Just as Under Milk Wood is a “Play for voices,” so I believe that Persian poetry is best read aloud in its original language.

To finish off Day 1 in Shiraz and before finding a hotel for the night, Feri suggested that we squeeze in a visit the tombs of two of the most famous and revered of Persia’s great poets, Hafez and Saadi. Understanding the importance that poetry plays in Iran’s culture and history it came as no great surprise to find not just any ordinary tombs but large mausoleums both ornately decorated with colourful mosaics and set in beautiful public gardens.



Hafez is the pen-name of the poet born in the early 14th century, Mohammad Shams al-Din Hafez. Hafez means “one who has learned the Koran by heart” which suggests that he was educated in devoted Muslim surroundings.  Hafez was, and still is, renowned for his sensual poetry and passionate free-thinking nature of his writing to the extent that, when he died, he was initially denied a proper Muslim burial.  This decision was eventually revoked and he was buried in a Muslim cemetery; his plot marked only by a plain tombstone.


This austerity is a marked contrast to the Mausoleum of Hafez which exists today. The centrepiece is the marble tombstone engraved with two of Hafez’ poems. The tombstone stands within an 8-columned rotunda whose roof is coated with copper on the outside and decorated with intricate mosaics made of enamel tiles on the inside.  The beautiful garden complex includes a popular tea house where Feri and I ordered tea to drink under the tapestry canopies whilst enjoying the early evening warmth by the rectangular pool.

I understand that the Mausoleum of Hafez is the most visited historical and cultural site in Shiraz. Seeing the number of people come to pay their respects during the short time we were there, I am not surprised.

With tea finished, we made our way out of the garden and set out this time for the Mausoleum of Saadi.



Unlike Hafez who rarely left Shiraz, Saadi travelled extensively in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. His travels clearly influenced his writing and the combination of his experiences and the wisdom gathered during his journeys mean that his works are highly valued by Persians.  One of his sayings, referring directly to his travels is;

“I have wandered through many regions of the world, and everywhere have I mingled with the people. In each corner, I have gathered something of good.”

This resonates with me following my travels in Iran and I hope it continues!

In many ways, the setting of Saadi’s Mausoleum is even more spectacular than the gardens where Hafez lies in rest. The site covers an area of about 8,000 square feet and the gardens are exquisite.  Three pools occupy areas to the North and South of the tomb and the Mausoleum, which is built on two floors.  Beautiful mosaics depict vases of flowers and I notice that the main colours in these panels are pink instead of the more usual blue I am used to. I learn that Shiraz is known more for its pink mosaics (as in the Pink Mosque) whereas Esfahan is adorned entirely in blue.

By the time we had explored the extensive gardens and the underground teahouse with its fishpond, I was getting tired and looking forward to dinner, a shower and my bed.  We therefore decided to call it a day, having been awake and on the move since the previous mid-afternoon, and we drove back into the town centre to find a hotel.


We found what looked like a nice hotel to stay in quite quickly, parked the car, unloaded our hand luggage and entered the foyer. We said “Good Night” to Rahmon who was staying with relatives and we both sank into the comfortable leather sofas waiting to check-in.

Little did I know that I would have to wait for my dinner, shower and bed for a few hours more.

Next time: Checking in with the Morality Police!


The ancient site of Persepolis is vast and incredibly addictive. I was unconsciously drawn from ruin to ruin; each palace, every stone-carved column with its own history causing me to stop and visualise what the site would have looked like in its heyday. Visions of Kings and courtiers, delegations from faraway lands arriving in hoards, the magnificent gifts of jewellery, stallions, golden bowls and sumptuous fabrics brought for the royalty flooded my imagination. Banquets and debates, stone masons and joiners working around the clock; Soldiers protecting the site whilst the workers scurried around making sure that all was running smoothly. By midday, not only was it getting to hot to walk around the great stones in the heat, but my mind needed a rest too.  I hope to return to Persepolis in due course as there was only so much I could take in from this first visit but we had so many other places to see before returning to our base in Esfahan the following day that we decided to head off to Naqsh-e Rostam closeby.


As ever, I had no idea what to expect but was yet again amazed with what I saw . Naqsh-e Rostam is a Necropolis – City of the Dead-with burial chambers for the Achaemenid Kings built into the mountain side.  In addition to the chambers, bas-reliefs are carved into the rock under each tomb depicting scenes from Persian legends. It is a magnificent sight but it is difficult to convey the sheer size of the tombs in my photos.


On the way into the site I had spotted a nomad and his camel. Dressed in traditional clothing, the nomad was offering rides on his camel to anyone who fancied a go. I have never ridden a camel and observing that “Toufan” (Farsi for Tempest) was actually pretty calm, I climbed up the ladder and took up the reins.  A sharp slap on the backside, Toufan’s not mine, and we were away. I soon adopted the back and forth rocking motion needed to stay aboard the beast and fell into a good rhythm. It was all going well until the nomad clearly thought it would be a laugh to speed things up. A couple more slaps and some verbal encouragement and Toufan broke into a camel-gallop. I held on for dear life and started shouting “Yavosh, Yavosh”…..”slow, slow”, but Toufan was obviously so confused by my Persian Esfahani accent that it made no difference and across the car park we went. By this time there was quite a crowd gathered to watch this weird Western lady atop a galloping camel shouting instructions to it in Farsi, probably hoping that I would make a compete fool of myself and slide off. I’m afraid that I disappointed them all and managed to return to base intact but a little shaky. Instead of letting me off however, Mr Nomad sent me off on a couple more trips around the car park firstly with Feri and secondly with an Iranian lady who held on to me like a limpet.


At last I was allowed to disembark and after giving the nomad enough money to feed Toufan for a month we left for Shiraz.

Next instalment: Persians and their Poetry

Persepolis (2)

We watched the sunrise over Persepolis from the car and, just before 8am, walked across to the kiosk to buy our tickets. Needless to say it was sometime after 8am that the shutters lifted and we were able to hand over a total of 40,000 Rials (£1 sterling) for the three of us to enter the site. I benefit from the “Iranian Rate” tickets as an Iranian passport holder but if you visit as a tourist, you will be charged $5 per person! I do get some funny looks when I claim my Iranian rate and at times have to show my passport to prove I am Feri’s wife and not some incredibly rich western woman travelling with a personal guide, but it can be amusing.

The terrace020

Persepolis is built on a large flat outcrop at the foot of the Mountain of Mercy and is about 1,770m above sea level. The terrace itself constitutes a platform about 15m above ground level as you approach the entrance and that in itself is incredibly imposing. You have to crane your neck to see the highest columns against the stark blue sky. The natural outcrop was reinforced and levelled out by using enormous pieces of limestone quarried 40km away and hauled to the site on wooden log rollers. The stones were put into place using ramps, timber scaffolds and frames which held the necessary ropes and pulleys. It must have taken hundreds, if not thousands of men and many years just to build the platform but it was certainly built to last and remains largely intact despite Alexander’s best attempts to raze it to the ground.

The staircase

To reach the terrace and the city of Persepolis you must first negotiate the grand staircase and every one of the 111 steps. Each step is 7m long, 38cm wide and 10cm high. There are in fact, two staircases; twin flights of steps which diverge from the middle of the platform first heading away from each other, then, halfway up, changing direction so that they converge at the top. Whichever staircase you take, the view becomes ever more panoramic as you reach the terrace and from the top, you can see for hundreds of miles across the plain; a great advantage in times of conflict when the advantage of a surprise attack is stripped away from your enemies.

Gate of All Lands


The first palace that you reach from the staircase is called the Gate of All Lands. It was here that guests sat on large stone benches awaiting their audience with the King. Some of the walls remain as do two of the original columns. The East portal is well-preserved and bears the design of two figures made up of the body of a bull, with eagle wings and heads of bearded humans. The detailed carving  is astonishing.

The Apadana

The Apadana is the largest of the palaces; scholars estimate that it took more than 30 years to build and was in use for almost two centuries. This is where the King of Kings met the nobility and gift-bearers who came from all over the Persian Empire. The remains of the palace still standing suggest that the palace was originally over 20m high and dominated the entire complex. Out of its 72 columns, only 14 remain but even these few that remain give you an idea of how magnificent the palace would have been in its heyday.  A few bases without their columns are still in place, as are the griffin capitals which were destined for the column tops but, for reasons unknown, were never put in place. The griffin is now the corporate symbol of Iran Air.

It is in the Apadana ruins that the best bas-reliefs adorn the staircases and provide an amazing living history of the different nations that visited Persepolis. The carvings show their traditional clothing and the type of gifts that they brought to Persia and the King of Kings and it is fascinating to look closely at each group of delegates and “spot the difference.”


Next time: We leave Perseoplis and travel to nearby Naqsh-e-Rostam before heading into Shiraz for our overnight stay.


Persepolis (1)


078Once upon a time many moons ago, I was possibly one of the minority who looked forward to our divinity (Religious Education) lessons with eager anticipation. I’m sure that many people remember RE as turgid, irrelevant and with repetitious stories told without much discussion or debate and certainly without the benefit of the associated ancient history which helps put so much into perspective. I was lucky in this respect. Our teacher was the school chaplain who was classically educated and we benefited not only from his knowledge of  Latin, Greek and Hebrew but also his extensive understanding of the ancient history and physical geography so important both then and now in our understanding of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

I fondly remember lessons peppered with wonderful words like Mesopotamia, Euphrates, Persia, and Cedars of Lebanon, Babylon, Medina, Tigris and Elamites. All strangely unfamiliar at first but nevertheless listening intently to the teachings of Reverend Cox, I was able to conjure up visions of what life was like during the period just before and after the birth of Christ. I didn’t know at the time of course, but these lessons are proving invaluable when visiting Iran and the ancient historic sites I bookmark before we travel.

One name stood out; that of Alexander the Great. By all accounts, Alexander was a very young and handsome, gifted and successful soldier who, by the age of thirty, had created one of the largest empires in the Ancient World. Mention Alexander the Great in our house however and this “drunken marauderer” is looked upon with disdain. From a Persian perspective, and having now visited the ancient ruins of Persepolis, I understand why. It was during Alexander’s visit in 330BC, and as a result of a drunken orgy, that the Persian capital city was sacked and burned to the ground. The huge ceiling timbers burned to such a degree that they melted the metal fixings which held the structures together and the result was devastation. The impressive ruins which are left for us to see today were lost for centuries, covered completely by dust and sand, until the 1930’s when excavation started and the amazing relics were revealed.


I have always wanted to visit Persepolis and on our most recent trip to Iran  we were able to fit this long-awaited adventure into our busy schedule. Being a 6-hour drive south from our home base in Esfahan it was at midnight on the first Tuesday of our holiday that Feri confirmed that everything was “all sorted” (please remember that statement of assurance for a later instalment) leaving Rahmon, our trusty driver whom you know from previous adventures, to load the car. We set off aiming to reach Persepolis for sunrise.

The journey was uneventful and we actually arrived at Persepolis before sunrise which gave us the opportunity to watch the sun come up over the Mountain of Mercy which shelters the ancient pillars and stones. The clear dawn light gave the site a fresh, early morning glow and took the edge off a slightly chilly start to the day.

We made the decision to enter the site as soon as it opened at 8am so we could explore as much as possible before noon. In hindsight this was good thinking as the ruins cover a much larger area than I imagined and there is little refuge from the searing midday heat on the lower plains.

Persepolis is a Greek word for “City of the Persians.” The Iranians however call it Takht-e-Jamshid or “Throne of Jamshid. ” It has also been known as “Forty Minarets” and “A Hundred Pillars.” Whatever its name at a particular time, even in its ruined state the site is truly magnificent and I would love to have seen it in its heyday when it spread over an area of 125,000 square metres. I can only imagine the sheer size of the columns and pillars holding up enormous wooden ceilings carved from whole tree trunks; grand halls which, according to archaeologists and historians, were decorated throughout with black marble, gold leaf, exquisite drapes and no doubt, traditional Persian carpets made especially for the King. The spectacle of visiting peoples from subject nations paying homage to the King, sweeping up the great staircases with their tributes of animals, gold jewellery, fabrics and other precious gifts, would have been a sight to behold.

The words “awesome”, breath-taking” and “overwhelming” cannot convey the true magnificence of the buildings and the stunning carvings and bas-reliefs which have miraculously survived for centuries against all the odds. I will try however to put my experience into words and give you some idea of how remarkable these ruins are and how fearsome and awe-inspiring the newly built site would have been to Persia’s neighbours and enemies at the time.


Next time….how Persepolis was built, the staircase and entrance through the Gate of all Lands, the Apadana and the amazing bas-reliefs

Yakhchals (Persian Yakh = ice Chal = pit)

If I told you that in 400BC Persians were able to keep ice from melting when temperatures often reach 40 degrees and without the luxury of electricity, you’d probably think I was making it up. In fact, it is true and I find the invention and use of a Yakhchal  fascinating. By keeping ice as ice for a prolonged period it meant that houses could be kept cool by using the blocks in the summer, and food could be “passively refrigerated” to substantially extend its shelf life in the heat.


Yakhchal and badgirs together

Yakhchal and badgirs together

Yakhchals are domed structures constructed from mud bricks with underground space excavated below ground level. The dome and underground chamber are also insulated with a very effective and delightful mixture of sand, clay, egg whites, lime, goat hair and ash up to 2 metres thick. We found a yakhchal and badgirs together on the outskirts of Na’in between the new town and the ancient citadel and I can vouch that the ice house is a very large building. Sadly, the ice house was locked and we were unable to find anyone who could let us in to take a look.

Ice could either be brought down from the mountains in early winter and stored until the following summer or, more commonly, the water from the Qanats was channelled into areas which were sheltered from the sun and wind so that it froze overnight in the notoriously cold winter desert temperatures. Blocks could then be cut and stored in the Yakhchal ready to use the following summer.

Whilst most of the ice houses in Iran are now abandoned in favour of electric white goods, some communities in desert areas across the globe are looking at the ice house method of keeping things cool as an alternative to using electricity-“off grid living”. Instead of ice blocks however, 2 litre bottles of water are filled and used. Not only are these easier to transport it also avoids unnecessary plastic going to landfill.

In this day and age of reduce, reuse, recycle, ice houses could still yet make a come back!

Further reading:

The ice houses of Iran by Hemming Jorgensen

Ancient ice houses of Iran (some great photos)

Badgirs (Persian Bad = wind, gir = catcher)

Badgirs, or windcatchers, do exactly what it says on the tin; they catch wind. Built from brick or mud and adapted to take into account the direction of airflow depending on its intended use, these structures are the forerunners of air-conditioning systems but again, without the need for electricity.

Badgirs were, and still are in some parts of Iran, used to cool buildings and act as ventilation. The Yadz area in particular is renowned for the high numbers of wind catchers in use and this is no surprise given its location on the edge of the desert. Badgirs are usually high towers and have either one, four or eight openings. For air-cooling a house, the tower would often have one opening facing the prevailing wind so that it drags the air down and into the house thus keeping the air continually moving whilst cooling.

When used alongside a Qanat, windcatchers can also be adapted so that they draw air up from the water tunnel which cools as it passes over the water and up through the cool ground. For this to happen, the opening will be facing away from the prevailing wind.

Strangely, windcatchers are also effective cooling mechanisms when there is no wind! In this situation, hot air travels up and out of the tower as a result of the pressure gradient created. This leaves the lower levels of buildings extremely cool and welcoming on hot days.

I am always impressed by the early engineering and construction skills of the Persians and these three structures are classic examples of their advanced thinking to the extent that countries today are looking to use these ideas as more sustainable alternatives to the energy-hungry modern equipment we currently use.

Not bad for a 2000 year old legacy.

Further reading:

The circle of ancient Iranian studies

Green Prophet




My traditional pre-holiday reading was focussed on the extreme summer heat and not just how I was going to cope but also how the Iranians manage year after year during the seeringly hot summer months when temperatures can soar over 40 degrees centigrade in many areas. Inevitably, much of my research concerned water consumption and distribution in regions where much of the land is arid or semi-arid and how crops are grown in rural areas without regular rainfall. Was I going to be eating the luscious melons that Esfahan is so famous for or would they all be withered up left to dry out in the fields? I also wondered whether we would be subject to water rationing at home and, heaven forbid, would there be a ban on hosepipes?


It was when reading about these problems that I came across an ingenious solution to water distribution, the Qanat system. This underground aqueduct system is known to have been developed by the Persians sometime early in the 1st millennium BC, around the same time that we Britons were fighting off the Roman invasion led by Julius Caesar. Qanats were subsequently adopted by Arab and African countries further West and the remains of Qanats can still be found in China, Pakistan, Syria, UAE, Algeria, Greece and Spain.

So what is a Qanat? Simply, a Qanat is a series of shafts connecting ground level to sloping tunnels below ground. The theory is that the Qanats tap into the water underground so that it brings large quantities of water to the surface up the shafts without the need for a pumping mechanism. The water drains by gravity as it flows downwards from the aquifer source towards its destination. Because the canals are underground, there is little or no evaporation or wasteage and contamination is kept to a minimum. Qanats are usually contructed to cover a large area/distance which means that many fields and homes can be kept watered. Qanats were both expensive and time-consuming to build but it was considered a major investment by the communities who needed reliable water supplies for many years to come. That initial investment must have repaid them many-fold and the Qanats are a wonderful legacy.

Qanat cross section

Qanat cross section-diagram courtesy of the Middle East Institute


Building the Qanats is a skilled occupation and knowledge was generally passed through families from father to son. The gradient of the Qanat has to be just right if it is to be successful. Too shallow and the water will not flow; too steep and the heavy flow of water is likely to collapse the Qanat by washing it away. Bearing in mind that these shafts and tunnels were excavated by hand, without the sophisticated machinery we have today, they are amazing to see. If the Qanat diggers were lucky, they would initially hit the water aquifer at 50ft. Unfortunately for the labourers many of the shafts are 200-300 feet deep. Most Qanats are between 8-10 miles long with the longest Qanat in Iran being 18 miles long.

“In Persia, blind white fish live in the qanats.” This statement led four Oxford undergraduates to Iran in the early 1950’s to look for a new species of fish which apparently lived in the qanat water system and a book detailing their travels and exploits can still be found in secondhand bookshops. Keep an eye out for “Blind white fish in Persia” by Anthony Smith. It is well worth a read.

The Old Mosque in Na’in has a Qanat in the underground chambers although it is no longer in use. When it was used, it carried water for 1.2km to the left of the town and 1.5 km to the right thus serving much of the community around. Qanats are often used in conjunction with wind towers (Badgirs) and Yakhchals (ice houses) which are separate above-ground structures combining to cool air and water-an early version of air-conditioning and refrigeration and not a watt of electricity in sight.

“Necessity is the mother of invention” [Plato]

Perhaps these ideas can be adapted for future use as more sustainable options.








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