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Posts Tagged ‘Shiraz’

atlas-hotel-shiraz

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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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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.

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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.

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

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