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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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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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As usual before my holiday I spent some time researching possible trips out of Esfahan and made a list of all those things that I wanted to see. I compiled the list before I experienced the searing heat in June/July and therefore some of my plans had to be changed to suit the temperature once we arrived in Iran. One trip which I didn’t have to change however, even though we were due to head South-East towards the desert, was a visit to Na’in. I read about the old mosque with its minbar, the carpets, the citadel and the qanats in this town and convinced Feri and Will that they would love to spend a day in Na’in too.

Rahmon (see previous post) was duly roped in to our adventure-willingly as usual- and we set off early on Sunday morning with our normal supplies of  iced water and tea. Although this was the first day of Ramazan we were hopeful that we would find somewhere open to eat lunch later and we left the nun and panir at home.

As we traveled out of Esfahan to the East, the landscape gradually changed and we saw several pigeon towers dotted across the fields; herds of goats and their herdsmen were sheltering from the sun under the tree-shade by the roadside, the large guard dogs were also trying to keep cool by lying in the ditch. As we traveled towards Na’in, the soil became more sandy and the already sparse green shrubs became fewer and farther between. The passing cars left a thick dusty trail behind them as they disappeared into the distance.

After a short stop for a drink, we continued the long and winding climb through the mountains as the sun started to get really hot and intense.  We arrived in Na’in and drove straight to the old mosque-Masjeed-e Jame which we found easily by its tall 28m high octagonal minaret. We parked the car close to the mosque and walked towards the entrance.

The 28m high octagonal minaret

The 28m high octagonal minaret

Mr Aghaee

As we approached the mosque a man came towards us and greeted us in both Farsi and excellent English. I clearly understood the English but strangely, Feri and Rahmoon had difficulty in understanding the Farsi dialect. It appears that he was speaking the Pahlavi Old Persian which is not widely spoken in Iran but at least they understood more than they were able to speak!

Now they know how I feel 🙂

This very polite man introduced himself as the curator of the old mosque and Pirnia House (Pir= old, nia= ancestry) an Ethnographic Museum which Mr Aghaee has built up almost single-handedly, and was particularly proud of his mention in the Brandt Travel Guide to Iran. I actually had a copy of this guide with me and turned straight to page 112 where I read; ” Do persuade the knowledgeable curator, who speaks very good English to take you round; his wife is a noted carpet maker in the locale. He has persuaded the townspeople to lend him interesting archival material, such as marriage contracts, as well as metalwork and ceramic objects.”  

Feri & Mr Aghaee

Feri & Mr Aghaee

I can vouch for both his extensive knowledge and his excellent English and he was more than happy to escort us around the site. There was no persuasion required but if you visit and he is not there, do try and find him as it will make your visit much more meaningful.

During our initial conversation he explained that he is 73 years old (that was a surprise-he looks much younger I think), he has 7 children (must be the secret of eternal youth!) and his wife is a renowned local carpet maker. He corresponds with several ex-visitors by email, including an eminent professor from Oxford University. He has learned 22,000 verses of Persian poetry including some from Rumi and Hafez, and proceeded to recite some for us.

One of my favourite sayings of his was;

“Grey hairs are not a sign of growing old.

Growing old is when you have no love left in your heart”

As one who is cultivating grey hair at an alarming rate this was rather comforting.

Once we has listened to some of his poetry, Mr Aghaee offered to take us round the old mosque. This was too good an opportunity to miss as he was clearly both very knowledgeable and passionate about both the mosque and the museum of his and so it turned out to be.

Next time: Na’in, the old mosque.

Learn the lingo

Goat              Boz

Mosque             Masjeed

Museum         Muze

Carpet           Farsh

      

 

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Monday at do shanbeh bazaar

Monday at do shanbeh bazaar

Although “do shanbeh bazaar” literally translates as “Monday Market”, the shops, stalls and traders which make up this bazaar in the town of Sede can be found here all week. Having said that, it is on Mondays that it is at its busiest and more traders flock to the site filling up the street and pavements on both sides. Walking through the bazaar is slow work and not just because of the crowds of people, motorbikes and cars which all share the thoroughfare, but because there is so much to see. You also need to watch where you walk so you don’t trip over uneven paving stones and the odd hole in the road which can catch you out.

I love the atmosphere in the bazaar with traders shouting out prices to attract the passing shoppers and the noise of the constant haggling  by the wily women who know just how to get the best deal. I hate haggling. I am not used to it but watching Feri’s niece in action is an awesome sight and she always comes away with a reduction; £5 off a fresh flower display (eventual cost £15) was one of the best!

Iranians are born traders and you can end up paying a lot more than others if you don’t adopt the haggling mentality. My husband always tells me to identify items that I would like and then disappear from the scene so that he gets a good deal for being a “local” or “native”. If traders spot a tourist they will inflate the price substantially so my advice for buying in Iran is “caveat emptor!”

The variety of goods found in the bazaar is amazing and it is much more exciting and exhilarating than shopping in a sterile department store. It really is a “one-stop-shop” and I usually come home with a bag full of goodies which haven’t dented the purse too much. The nice thing about this market is that it is not focussed on the tourist trade but is very much about local produce and household goods that anyone will need.

I do get a lot of stares from the locals when I am in the bazaar. Sede is not a tourist town unlike Esfahan where they are much more used to tourists and Westerners and this can be difficult to tolerate sometimes. I understand why they stare but it can get a little disconcerting when people deliberately stand in your way to get a good look at you!

Mini-pumpkins

Mini-pumpkins

Walking up and down the street I am always amazed by the different goods that you can buy; Fresh fruit and vegetables (melons are a speciality of the Esfahan area), shoes, haberdashery, lights, material, sheep’s heads (for calapoce), ducklings and chicks, wedding dresses, nuts and dried fruit in abundance and hardware to name but a few. Some of my favourite shops and stalls sell women’s clothing and I have noticed a huge difference in the fashion since first coming to Iran four years ago. Colours are brighter, manteaus are shorter and are belted or have nipped in waists, scarves are worn further to the back of the head exposing more hair and make-up is applied with abandon. All very different and far more daring than on previous visits.

With all this activity going on you could easily walk past the bazaar mosque which offers an oasis of calm. The mosque is beautifully decorated with mosaic tiles and is clearly a focal point for the market community especially at prayer times.

The lovely thing about this bazaar is shops and stalls are rarely shut up and locked when the owner is away for any length of time. They may just put a sheet of cloth across the doorway which signifies that no one is there but I have seen no looting or theft despite the easy access. You can leave your bags of shopping hanging on your motorbike handles and it will still be there when you return. It is a much more relaxed and trusting environment which is a privilege to experience.

I love going to the bazaar especially at night when it is cooler and people are buying fresh produce for their evening meal. Life doesn’t stop when it gets dark, in fact it is at dusk that things come to life under the many lights that illuminate every street. I dread to think what Iran’s contribution to Global Warming may be due to their use of electricity to light their world but I do know that it makes life a lot easier and the days a lot longer when you can see what you are doing!

Next: Teenagers East & West meet up for a night out.

Learn the lingo:

Saturday                    shanbe

Two                              do

Monday                     do shanbe (two days after Saturday)

Watermelon             hendoune

Peach                          hulu

 

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