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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.

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Hafez

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.”

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

 

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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

 

 

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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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The Pazyryk Carpet

The Pazyryk Carpet

I think that I can say without prejudice that the Persians make the best hand-made carpets in the world. The designs are exquisite and the workmanship is awesome. Carpet weaving in Iran is an ancient craft with the earliest woven carpet, the Pazyryk Carpet dating from at least 500BC and thought to be Persian (or Armenian), on show in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.

 

Persian carpets are usually made from wool, sometimes camel hair but often from silk which makes finely knotted carpets that look like painted pictures rather than rugs they are so delicate and tightly put together. Traditional Persian carpets are knotted and not woven and thousands of knots make up each row. Each knot is made by hand which is extremely time-consuming and harsh on the fingers. Carpets or rugs can have as many as 900 knots per square inch although between 500-700 is more usual.

There are many traditional designs, and each region of Iran has their own special design and colours that they use. Kashan is considered to be the Persian carpet capital and traditionally produces carpets of brick red, ivory and beige with dark blue medallions and borders. The carpet makers of Esfahan however tend to use traditional designs like the Tree of Life and contemporary items feature more pastel colours.

And so it was that Mr Aghaee, our guide at Na’in Old Mosque who we met earlier in the series, has a wife who is a renowned local carpet maker. As is typical with Iranians when I expressed an interest he rang his wife and we were invited to their house to meet her and watch her at work. I love planning my holiday trips and Iran has never disappointed me so far, but I also love the unplanned diversions usually at the behest of the wonderful Iranian hospitality.

Mrs Aghaee was every bit as welcoming as her husband but with less English and so all my questions were routed via Feri. Mrs Aghaee started by sitting at her loom and giving us a demonstration of her Persian knotting skills using a mixed silk and wool thread. The carpet she is working on is a commission from Tehran and she is expecting it to take 26 months to complete. We worked out that for the price of this carpet she “earns” between £1 and £1.50 per hour. The equivalent in the UK based on the National Minimum Wage would be £25,000.

Whilst knotting away very quickly, Mrs Aghee told us that she has been making carpets since she was 6 years old, and as the only daughter of 7 children, it was up to her to carry on the family tradition. Watching her at her craft, Mrs Aghaee used a very heavy device to “fix” the knots and she admitted that it can make her wrist very painful after a while but it is necessary to ensure the tightness of the knots. She also said that sitting at her loom for hours on end can give her back ache so whilst the carpets and rugs are beautiful and very desirable, they clearly come at a personal cost to health.

Mrs Aghaee insisted on us staying for some tea (chai) whilst she showed us some of her carpets and rugs. She also told us about her seven children, six of whom are highly educated with her youngest son being an incredibly talented artist. Sadly, none of the children are in the least interested in carrying on the family carpet making tradition and so the specialist skills learned and honed over the years and the knowledge passed on from generation to generation will be lost unless Mrs Aghaee finds someone interested in taking this on.

 

Na'in old mosque designed and woven by Mrs Ahagee

Na’in old mosque designed and woven by Mrs Aghaee

I would have loved to have brought a rug made by Mrs Aghaee home with us, but with the smallest (and the most beautiful in my opinion) was £2,000 and therefore beyond our means this holiday. Maybe next time!

 

 

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Octagonal minaret

Octagonal minaret

Compared to some of the elaborately decorated and colourful mosques I have visited in Iran, being one of the four oldest mosques in the country, the Congregational Mosque in Na’in is no less beautiful for its simplicity of design and clean lines shown to perfection against the clear blue sky. The oldest part of the mosque dates from the 7th Century with the remainder built in the 10th/11th Centuries.

 

Spectacular both inside and out, some of the internal features were real highlights for me and it was amazing to find that they lived up to their descriptions in the guide books. I had read about the famous minbar [an elevated pulpit from where the Imam stands to deliver his sermons] and so firstly made my way towards it only to find that was partially screened off which restricted viewing. I could still see however that it is a magnificent example of a minbar. Standing 5m high and intricately pieced together from wooden marquetry, it is 700 years old and the most valuable minbar in the Esfahan region – hence the extra protection.

 

Another common feature of Persian mosques is the finely carved stucco which decorates the mihrab and columns. The Congregational mosque has a beautiful stucco mihrab which is the traditional semi-circular niche in the wall of the mosque directing Muslims to face Mecca when praying. These unique carvings are echoed on the fourteen surrounding columns making this part of the mosque the most ornate.

The minaret at the Southeast corner, which led us to the mosque when approaching the town, is most unusual. It is 28m high and can be seen from miles around. It is also octagonal, a feature which makes it completely different from any other minaret found in the Esfahan area.

 

Na'in old mosque

Na’in old mosque

We were now entering the hottest part of the day, and with travelling East to the edge of desert country the temperature was rising steadily to 40 degrees +. Although we were walking slowly around the stone built building and being comparatively cool compared to out in the open, it was still very hot. I was very thankful therefore when Mr Aghaee, our impromptu guide, told us about the underground prayer hall and qanats which were much cooler.

Mr Aghaee proceeded to take us down two flights of stone steps leading to the Prayer Hall. He told us that the Prayer Hall remains at a constant temperature throughout the year only fluctuating 10-15 degrees even in the hottest and coldest times of year and is mostly used during high summer and mid winter when temperatures are at their least comfortable. It was a relief to escape from the oppressive heat upstairs and I could see why this area would be popular. The Prayer Hall wasn’t built or constructed but was simply dug out of the ground together with a maze of passages and small recesses also carved out beneath the mosque’s ground floor. The underground accommodation has no electric lighting, but is cleverly lit by five marble panels placed in the floor of the mosque which refract the daylight down “lampshades” made of stone. The effect is curious and can be seen in its full glory when a picture is taken with the subjects standing directly beneath one of the panels. Mr Aghaee kindly took our photos to illustrate the lighting arrangement and we could then see clearly what he meant. He knows exactly where best to stand and take the photo for best effect and we are very grateful for his inside knowledge.

 

Some of the recesses or alcoves are used for meditation and in the absence of interested visitors like us, I could understand why. Quiet, calm and comforting, the chambers are the perfect place to seek peace and tranquillity alone with your own thoughts.

 

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit the area of Na’in was to see and learn more about the qanat water system that originated in Iran and for someone who is avidly interested in how things work, I was fascinated by this concept. I am no engineer, but even I understand how the system is meant to carry water near and far in a country of massive desert areas knowing  that there are still some working examples I was determined to seek them out.

 

Old mosque qanat

Old mosque qanat

Luckily for me, the Old Mosque in Na’in has a qanat in it’s underground area, although today it is non-working, and again Mr Aghaee agreed to show us around the underground water tunnel and share his local knowledge.

 

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