By Bruce G. Stumpf
Links have been added to the text below that will show related photographs in a separate pop-up window, or present a slide show (also in a pop-up window) with more photographs of the area discussed. The trip described below took place in October 2000.
A full moon rose over the mountains as we drove southeast toward the city of Mashhad, an important pilgrimage destination for modern- day Shi’ite Muslims. This same moon once cast its soft light over a Persian empire that stretched from the Nile River in the west to the Indus River in the east and included present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and parts of modern Greece, Syria and Israel and Egypt. The names of the great Persian rulers are familiar to all those who stayed awake through those long hours of history class: Cyrus the Great (reigning from 558 to 529 BCE), who conquered immense territories from the Mediterranean coast to modern Pakistan; Darius I (522 to 486 BCE), who added to the empire in the east, secured control over Egypt and built the great city of Persepolis, but was stopped by the Greeks at the famous battle of Marathon in 490 BCE; and his son Xerxes (486 to 465 BCE), who avenged his father’s defeat by capturing and burning Athens, only to later watch the destruction of the Persian fleet at Salamis in 480 BCE and the beginning of the gradual disintegration of Persian greatness.
In succeeding centuries, Persia was invaded or dominated by foreign powers. Alexander the Great and the Greeks arrived in 331 BCE to carry off the vast wealth of Persepolis before burning the city. The Parthians came out of Asia to unseat the Greeks and ruled from 250 BCE to 224 CE. The Arabs swept through in the seventh century CE, bringing Islam, which quickly overwhelmed the indigenous Zoroastrianism. The Seljuq Turks arrived in the eleventh century, followed by the horrific atrocities of the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his grandson Hulagu Khan in the thirteenth century and Tamerlane in the fourteenth century. Another Turkish dynasty, the Safavids, took control in the sixteenth century, only to be ousted by yet another Turkish tribe, the Qajar, in the eighteenth century. Qajar rule continued until the 1920’s, but the Qajar Shahs (kings) were unable to raise a credible army or enough tax money to support their opulent lifestyle. Instead they sold “concessions” to foreign powers that eventually led to domination by Great Britain (seeking to protect its trade routes to India and later to obtain oil) and Russia (coveting a warm water port on the Persian Gulf).
Through all these centuries of foreign domination, however, a distinctly Persian culture of learning, art and poetry flourished. Foreign invaders were quickly seduced and barbarians from the steppes of Asia were transformed into refined Persians. In a sense, the vanquished conquered the invaders. In the process, Persia became a rich mixture of ethnic groups, many of whom retained their own language, their own customs and, in some cases, their own religions (for despite the sweeping success of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism all survived in various parts of the realm).
But while the mountains outside Mashhad today remain much as they have for twenty-five centuries, the moon now casts its glow over the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world’s most notable experiment in theocracy and a country with which the United States has had turbulent relations for the last two decades. These same two decades have been tumultuous inside Iran as well. The Islamic Revolution brought Ayatollah Khomeini and conservative religious leaders to power in 1979 and ushered in an era of strict observance of Islamic law (known as Sharia), where alcohol is forbidden, women must cover themselves from head to foot, men and woman sit in different sections of the bus, and brutal punishments such as stoning, flogging and amputation are carried out – all wrenching changes in a country that from 1920 until 1979 worked hard to adopt modern western ideas and fashions. These two decades also witnessed Iran’s bloody eight-year war with Iraq, complete with human wave attacks by fanatical Iranian “martyrs” against Iraq’s use of poison gas. Iraqi missiles rained down on Iranian cities and by the end, 750,000 Iranians were dead. Although peace with Iraq was finally restored in 1988, inner turmoil continued as a debate simmered within Iran between the “reformers,” seeking to relax the clergy’s control over day-to-day government, and the “hard- liners,” seeking to preserve that control while resisting “outside” – primarily western – ideas. These debates often erupted into street demonstrations and even violence.
For Americans today, modern Iran still conjures up images of turbaned clerics denouncing the U.S. as “the great Satan” and bearded radicals burning the American flag. But modern Iran is also heir to ancient Persia. Modern Iranians still avidly read and readily quote lines from the great Persian poets and they still gather at the poets’ tombs to pay homage. Modern Iran still faithfully maintains the elaborate Persian gardens and modern Iranians flock to them every chance they get. Modern Iran is still home to a vast array of colorful ethnic groups who retain their traditional customs and lifestyles. Modern Iran remains a land of spectacular Persian architecture, intricately woven Persian carpets and highly skilled artisans at work in the bustling bazaars. And modern Iran stills boasts some of the most stunning landscapes in the world, from the great salt deserts of central Iran to the lush green mountains, rice paddies and tea plantations along the Caspian Sea.
It was this fascinating mixture of modern Iran and ancient Persia that lured me to the country in October 2000. The prospect of a visit was made even more intriguing by the fact that Iran is hardly a popular tourist destination, especially among Americans. But despite the lure, I was also apprehensive about how Americans might be received. I needn’t have worried. After visiting more than thirty countries over the last decade, I can say this categorically: the Iranians are the friendliest people I have met anywhere in all my travels.
I visited Iran as part of a group of twelve Americans assembled by Geographic Expeditions of San Francisco (www.geoex.com) and accompanied by Hooman Aprin, an American who was born and grew up in Iran. The company assisted in getting the necessary approvals from the Foreign Ministry in Iran so travel visas could be issued (through the Iranian interest section of the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, D.C. – the U.S. has no direct diplomatic ties with Iran). Once in Iran, the day-to-day activities were handled by Pasargad Tour of Tehran (www.pasargad-tour.com), who provided an excellent local guide, Mojgan Attarzadeh, to accompany the group, handle logistics and explain most of the sites we would see. The three-week tour covered the major cities of Iran (Tehran, Tabriz, Mashhad, Yazd, Kerman, Shiraz and Isfahan), but also offered enough time to explore less-visited areas, such as the Caspian coast, some small mountain villages and the oasis town of Bam with its magnificent ancient citadel. For the most part we traveled by bus, which was an excellent way to see the country and very comfortable given that twelve people and two guides were able to spread out through the full-sized coach. In order to save some time, however, we did fly from Mashhad to Yazd, via an overnight stop in Tehran.
We arrived in Tehran late in the evening (most connecting from the U.S. to the Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt) and spent the next two days exploring the city. Tehran, a city of twelve million and the capital of Iran, was a small town of little importance until the eighteenth century when the Qajar (GAH-jar) rulers relocated the capital from Shiraz. Since that time Tehran has grown rapidly, if haphazardly, and is today the main business and political center of the country. Some say that Tehran’s traffic is the worst in the world (it’s certainly in the top ten) and the gridlock is fueled, literally, by subsidized gasoline prices equal to about twenty-two cents a gallon – a price the Iranians complain is too high! The city sits in the foothills of the Alborz mountains and ranges in altitude from 3,000 feet in south Tehran – the poorer, hotter, dustier part of the city – to 5,000 feet in north Tehran – an area of upscale stores, expensive apartments, parks and the palaces of the former Shahs. A curious network of jubs (JOOBS) – open channels about eighteen inches across and at least that deep – line the streets bringing cool, fresh water from the mountains (and penalizing those whose parallel parking skills are less than precise). While Tehran can be blistering hot in the summer, during our visit in October the weather was decidedly cool with some light rain and even a trace of snow in the nearby mountains.
One of main attractions in Tehran, and a good introduction to both ancient Persia and the Islamic era, is the National Museum (formerly called the Archeological Museum), which houses Neolithic pottery from 5,000 to 1,000 BCE, a copy of the famous Code of Hammurabi from the second millennium BCE (the original is in the Louvre in Paris), and a wide selection of statues, bas-reliefs and artifacts from Persepolis and other historic sites. The second floor of the museum is devoted to Islamic art and contains many fine examples of illuminated manuscripts of the Koran, as well as textiles, wood carvings and metalwork that exhibit the amazingly detailed calligraphy that flourished under Islam. (Statues and paintings of people or animals were discouraged in the Islamic world as “graven images,” possible objects of idol worship. The decorative arts thus evolved toward ornate geometric patterns and highly stylized calligraphy, usually of passages from the Koran.)
Another museum, however, held the attractions that left the most lasting impression. The National Jewels Museum, housed in a large underground vault at the main offices of the Melli Bank in Tehran, displays the wealth of Iran’s former Shahs, particularly Muhammad Reza Shah who was deposed in 1979 (and who is the one many Americans remember as “the Shah” – the term “Shah” is merely the Farsi (or Persian) word for king, but typically was placed after king’s name). After passing well-armed guards and security scanners, we entered the vault through a thick steel door. Before us, in dozens of glass showcases, lay riches beyond the dreams of avarice: cups and utensils of solid gold, ceremonial swords and daggers with jewel- encrusted handles and scabbards, tassels for curtains made from thousands of miniature pearls, a globe weighing eighty-eight pounds and inlaid with 51,000 precious stones, the Pahlavi Crown, made in 1924 for Reza Shah (the father of the Muhammad Reza Shah) and set with 3,380 diamonds plus assorted emeralds, sapphires and pearls, and one of the largest diamonds in the world, the 182 carat Daria-e Nur (Sea of Light) brought from India in the eighteenth century by Nader Shah. In addition, and perhaps even more impressive in an understated way, were piles containing hundreds of uncut diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires.
A glimpse of the Shah’s wealth and sumptuous lifestyle continued when we visited Sa’ad Abad, a complex of eighteen palaces and residences set in a landscaped, 300 acre park in the cool reaches of north Tehran. Although somewhat austere on the outside, the palaces on the inside are ornate enough to make the crown jewels feel right at home. The large central room in the green palace was decorated in a traditional Iranian style that uses thousands of cut mirrors set into plaster to cover every square inch of walls and ceiling – a style of decor that gives new meaning to the term “dazzling.” The palace also contained enormous Persian carpets of exceptional quality that were woven to the precise measurements of each room.
Tehran also offered ample evidence of the Islamic Revolution, which brought the Shah’s opulent rule to an abrupt end. The former United States Embassy, where Islamic militants held fifty-two Americans hostage for 444 days, still has anti-American slogans painted on the walls. There are large, anti-American paintings on many other buildings as well. And Tehran, along with almost every other city and town in Iran, displays large portraits of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, and glorified images of the “martyrs” who died in the eight-year war with Iraq.
One of the most interesting aspects of Tehran, however, was the opportunity to see the day-to-day lives of modern Iranians. One morning, at around 6:30 AM, I decided to go for a jog in the park next to the hotel. Rain threatened so I assumed I would be one of the few in the park at that early hour. To my surprise, the park was teeming with Iranians playing soccer, volleyball, badminton or just walking and stretching. I also saw quite a few other joggers, including women who were running in the headscarves, long pants and knee-length coats that are considered the bare minimum for female attire under Islamic law. On the way back to the hotel I passed a girls’ elementary school (schools are segregated by sex in Iran) and watched as young girls between the ages of six and ten lined up by class, each wearing a headscarf of the color specified for their grade. Despite looking like miniature nuns, these girls were running around, shouting and playing just as girls of that age would do anywhere in the world.
Later in evening we traveled further north in Tehran, high into the Alborz Mountains. Set in a narrow canyon was a mile or more of restaurants, open-air food stalls and teahouses. Music drifted out of the restaurants and the path was lined with brightly colored lights. We were told that the area is jammed on Thursday nights (the equivalent of Saturday night in Iran and other Muslim countries where Friday is the day of prayer). Young people in particular come here to meet and talk to the opposite sex away from the prying eyes of the morality police. We enjoyed one of our many typical Iranian meals of chicken or lamb kebab, rice, flat bread and the “soup of the day” (which invariably turned out to be barley soup in every restaurant in every part of the country – we took to calling it “soup of the year”).
The next morning we left Tehran for Hamadan in western Iran, the home of rock inscriptions from the Achaemenian period (fifth century BCE) and the Tombs of Esther, the Jewish wife of Xerxes (486 to 465 BCE), and Mordecai, her uncle. We weren’t on the road very long before one of those events occurred that adds spice to any travel – the bus broke down. As long as they don’t become too disruptive, I frankly look forward these unscripted moments. They usually give travelers a chance to see an unexpected side of the people and places they have come to visit.
Mojgan (MOESH-gahn), our wonderful Iranian guide, immediately rose to the occasion, whipped out her cell phone and dialed Tehran to arrange for a new bus to meet us in Hamadan that evening. She then rounded up four taxi drivers from the local village where we were stranded and all the luggage and people were shoehorned into four small Paykans (small sedans manufactured in Iran). Mojgan must have told the drivers that she would only pay the first three to reach Hamadan because they set off at a breakneck pace and continually passed each other along the way. This “Keystone Kops” chase intensified as the lead car missed an exit and all four cars were obliged to make a U-turn across the median strip to get back on the correct road. But we made it safely, if a bit ruffled, to Hamadan, where a small bus was arranged for the day of sightseeing until the larger bus arrived that evening.
One of the main attractions in Hamadan is the Gonbad-e Alavian (Alavian Dome), a mausoleum and a fine example of the ornate brick and stuccowork of the Seljuq period (12th century). As it happens, the tomb sits in a schoolyard and Mojgan’s learned discourse about the building was quickly upstaged when several dozen schoolgirls in their early teens ran out to greet the tourists. They were excited to learn we were Americans and eager to practice their rudimentary English. One woman in our group showed them a photograph of her family, which set off a frenzy of running around so everyone could see it. Several of the girls posed for photos while others offered food – in this case cheese doodles – to the visitors, a sign of Iranian friendliness and hospitality that would be repeated again and again throughout the country. Finally, one of their teachers came over and explained, in rudimentary English, that she was their English teacher. She too welcomed the chance to practice.
In the following days, on our way to Tabriz in the northwestern part of the country, we had a chance to see more rock carvings, this time from the Sassanian era (224 to 642 CE) and the remains of the Zoroastrian Anahita Temple in Kangavar, which dates from the earlier Parthian period (250 BCE to 224 CE). Outside the small town of Takab, on the way from Sanandaj to Maragheh, we stopped at the misnamed Takht-e-Soleyman (Solomon’s Throne), which has nothing to do with the prophet Solomon but was in fact the site of an early Zoroastrian fire alter and possibly the birthplace of Zoroaster himself. Later additions to the fort were made during the Parthian, Sassanian and Mongol periods. Off in the distance we could see a strange, cone-shaped hill, which came to be known as Solomon’s prison because the inside of the cone is a hollow shaft that descends hundreds of feet and would make escape very difficult – if it had ever been used as a prison, which it probably wasn’t, by Solomon, who certainly had nothing to do with this namesake either. Climbing the steep hill gave us a chance to stretch our legs and peer down into the vertigo-inducing core.
During this drive we also passed through the Kurdish area of the country, which offered an opportunity to see one of Iran’s distinctive ethnic minorities. Although adhering to the strictures of Islamic propriety, the Kurdish women wear very colorful outfits – a welcome change from the basic black of Tehran. The Kurdish men in turn wore very stylish baggy trousers, waist-length vests and small turbans – also a welcome change from Tehran where one is more likely to see men in a Nike warm up suit. At one point we stopped by the side of the road where a group of Kurdish women were doing laundry in a stream. As we were admiring this colorful scene we were besieged by a group of young children anxious to see and perform for the foreigners. They were very enthusiastic, running from one person to the next until they were satisfied that each of us had taken at least several photos of every child. And, refreshingly, unlike many other countries I have visited, this enthusiasm was not followed by requests for money, candy or pens. As would happen time and again throughout the trip, the friendly people of Iran proved to be even more memorable than the “important tourist sites” listed in the guidebooks. (Related slide show: Northwestern Iran: Hamadan and the Kurdish Region.)
Continuing on toward Tabriz we passed into the province of East Azerbaijan, home to another of Iran’s important and distinctive ethnic groups, the Azerbaijanis. Tabriz, with a population of more than a million, is an important trading center for commerce between Turkey and Tehran. The city also offers two wonderful sites for visitors – the Masjed-e Kaboud (the “Blue Mosque”) and the massive and labyrinthine covered bazaar dating from the fifteenth century.
The Blue Mosque, though largely in ruins now and being painstakingly restored, displays an outstanding example of fifteenth century tilework. At first glance, one assumes the intricate geometric and floral designs were painted on the tiles prior to firing. Closer inspection reveals, however, that what seems to be a single tile is actually a mosaic with each color cut from different tiles and pieced together with a skill and patience that defies imagination. With no schoolgirls in sight to upstage her, Mojgan was free to explain that different colored glazes have different optimum temperatures for firing. By firing each color at its optimum temperature, then piecing the parts together, the resulting mosaic is far more durable than painted tiles fired at a compromise temperature.
During the afternoon the schedule called for free time. Several of us headed for the covered bazaar, confident that no matter how lost we got in the gigantic maze we would eventually come out to a street where we could hail a cab back to the hotel. One of the charms of Iranian bazaars is that the artisans often are visibly at work in their shops. As we walked along we came to a small shop where wooden stools were made but the craftsman was nowhere to be seen. Having done some woodworking myself in the past, I poked my head into the shop curious to see what types of tools were used in this part of the world. Suddenly the craftsman, who had been socializing with a nearby shopkeeper, noticed my interest and ran over to show me how he worked. He started to vigorously cut one stool leg after another, looking for all the world like a “how-to” videotape running on fast forward. While the language barrier prevented a more meaningful discussion of technique, he could plainly see that I was interested in his craft and he was eager to demonstrate. The next day, as we were roaming through the bazaar a second time I again happened upon his shop (which I couldn’t have intentionally found in a million years). This time he was making a full size wooden coffin. Recognizing me from the day before, he immediately pointed to the coffin then did a very funny impression of a corpse stiff with rigor mortis to make sure I understood what he was making.
Leaving Tabriz, we set out to cross the Alborz Mountains and descended to the Caspian Sea. Along the way we stopped in Ardabil, the site of the mausoleum of Sheikh Safi al-Din (1252-1334), an important destination for members of the Sufi sect of Islam (the Sufis are best known to westerners as the “whirling Dervishes” who spin to go into a trance). Although we arrived in Ardabil on a Monday, the day the mausoleum is usually closed to visitors, the attendants graciously agreed to make an exception for us so we could see the spectacular tilework and stalactite niches.
As we continued toward the sea, the landscape changed dramatically. Barren deserts suddenly gave way to lush green forests. One could feel the humidity rise and mists hung low over the mountains. As we descended we could also look across a river valley into the former Soviet republic and now independent country of Azerbaijan.
Our first glimpse of the Caspian Sea came in the town of Astara, which sits at the junction of the border with Azerbaijan and the Caspian shoreline. We took a break to stretch our legs in a small outdoor market not far from the sea. As usual some locals came over to talk with the visitors. One fellow gave me to understand that Russian vodka and drugs were readily available – I’m not sure if he was looking for a customer or just offering some local knowledge. Astara was certainly well positioned for smuggling, either over the water or overland to Azerbaijan.
As we continued along the Caspian coast we entered an area of rich farmland where tea, rice and many other crops are grown. Before visiting Iran I had a vision of a country consumed by hot and dry desert. The Caspian coast is about as far from that vision as one could possibly imagine.
Several stops along the coast revealed more of this perplexing country. One was a walled compound at the edge of the sea that serves as a summer getaway for Armenian Christians living primarily in Tehran. Once inside the walls of their own compound, they are free to dispense with the Islamic dress even to the point of bathing suits, and they are permitted to make and drink wine, and freely to worship in their own churches. Although we had made no prior arrangements, a knock on the door of the compound brought a gracious welcome and a guided tour of the area.
We spent one night in Chalus at what was once a luxury Hyatt Regency hotel overlooking the Caspian. Although one could sense the grandeur that existed when this beach resort drew wealthy, international visitors, like most of the grand hotels built during the Shah’s era, this one had suffered from neglect since the 1979 revolution. One of the two elevators did not work; wallpaper was peeling in the bathrooms; the carpets were worn and stained; and, as with all Iranian hotels, the swimming pool had long since been abandoned as an anachronism in the new, puritanical regime. (Later in Isfahan we stayed at a hotel that featured an indoor swimming pool with designated hours for men in the morning and women in the afternoon.) Near the beach, frames for two huge curtains were erected – one to segregate men and women on the beach; the other to shield the view of the entire beach area from the upper floors of the hotel. Needless to say, these restrictions (along with the prohibition against alcohol) have persuaded the international jet set to find their pleasures elsewhere – presumably much to the satisfaction of the religious “hard-liners” determined to eliminate all decadent, western influences. (Related slide show:Along the Caspian Sea.)
We continued east, finally leaving the Caspian shoreline near Gorgan and made our way to Gonbad-e Kavus, a town named after its most famous monument, an impressive and well-preserved 167-foot tall mausoleum built for a local prince in 1006-07. Constructed entirely of brick, the tower is ten-sided on the outside, yet circular inside and features a conical roof. At this point we also entered another of Iran’s ethnically distinct areas, this one dominated by the Turkomans, where the black chador (the long, tent like covering worn by the most conservative Iranian women) yields to colorful shawls imported from neighboring Turkmenistan (once part of the former Soviet Union but now an independent nation). A brief stop at an open-air street market allowed us to immerse ourselves in a bouquet of bright colors, from the fresh produce offered for sale, to the piles of bright plastic house wares, to the printed textiles displayed in the stores and the colorful shawls of the local women. Related slide show: Turkoman Street Market.)
We entered the holy city of Mashhad later that evening – under a full moon – and found it bustling with Iranians who had come to celebrate the birthday of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the primary spiritual leaders of the Shi’ite sect of Islam. (The title “Imam,” in the Shi’ite sect, is reserved for descendants of the Prophet who have attained a high degree of religious training and are authorized to interpret the Koran. Since his death in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini has been referred to as Imam Khomeini.) Mashhad is a major pilgrimage center for Shi’ites because it is the burial site of another important Imam, Reza, who died in 817. Iranians flock here on religious holidays. The next day we visited the Mosque and Holy Shrine of Imam Reza, a grand structure with a luminous golden dome and magnificent tile work. Because it was Friday, the day of prayer and a special one at that in honor of Imam Ali’s birthday, we could not enter the inner courtyards of the mosque. We could, however, peer through several of imposing entrances and watch as workers covered the ground with scores of Persian carpets laid edge to edge in preparation for the noon prayers. We could also catch a glimpse of the ornate silver grill that covered the tomb of Imam Reza.
The Holy Shrine of Imam Reza is such an important religious center that all women, even non-Muslim tourists, must wear not only the typical headscarf and roopoosh (which female tourists must wear at all times anyway), but a chador as well, which is usually worn only by the most conservative Muslim women. I had to suppress more than one chuckle as I watched the women in our group struggle with this unwieldy piece of material (it would be like trying to wear a queen-sized bed sheet draped from your head). Watching them, however, gave me renewed respect for the Iranian women, who manage to gracefully keep the chador in place while balancing a fidgety child on one arm and a bag of groceries on the other – or while riding on the back of a motorbike, a sight that never ceased to amuse me. (Related slide show: Mashhad and Khorassan Province.)
From Mashhad we flew, via an overnight stop in Tehran, to the desert city of Yazd in central Iran. The architecture of the city is specially adapted to the harsh desert conditions. Tall and elegant wind towers (known as badgirs) built on the roofs capture the slightest breeze and channel it to the rooms below. Domed cisterns, also cooled by badgirs, collect water from underground springs. The streets of the city twist and turn to prevent desert winds and sandstorms from gathering momentum through town. And high walls line the streets and provide welcome shade except at noon when the sun is directly overhead.
Yazd is the main center for Zoroastrianism in Iran. A modern fire temple holds a sacred flame that is said to have burned continuously for more than fifteen centuries. The temple displays a modern image of the Zoroastrian God, Ahura Mazda, that is largely unchanged from the version carved at Persepolis two-and-a-half millennia earlier. Outside of town, visitors can climb the eerie “towers of silence,” where until 1978 Zoroastrians brought their dead to be set out in the open and picked clean by the vultures. Disposal in this way avoided profaning the sacred elements of earth (as burial would) and fire (as cremation would). Nowadays bodies are buried in the ground, but carefully sealed in cement liners to avoid actual contact with the earth. (Related slide show: The Desert City of Yazd.)
Two hundred miles south and east of Yazd is the provincial capital of Kerman (care-MAHN). As we left Yazd, we stopped at a police checkpoint about thirty miles outside of town. The bus was required to stop at these checkpoints each time we passed from one province to another, which meant almost once a day and sometimes more than that. The bus driver was required to take a book containing his driving record to the police station, together with a cardboard disc from the speedometer that recorded the driving times and speeds over the last twelve hours. Usually, these stops were a minor annoyance and we were quickly on our way. Occasionally, to flex their muscle, the police would demand a list of all the passengers on the bus together with passport numbers, in Persian. Our redoubtable guide Mojgan was always prepared and usually the delays were minor. But as we left Yazd, it appears new rules had gone into effect without notice and it was now necessary to get an exit permit from the police in town before leaving a city – which meant that we had to turn around and drive thirty miles back to Yazd to get the permit, then return to the checkpoint.
Kerman, once we finally reached it, featured another grand mosque, plus a covered bazaar that houses a restored version of the traditional Persian bathhouse and a wonderful vaulted teahouse, the perfect place to relax some weary legs and sample some of the local cookies.
Just when I’d seen enough mosques and bazaars for a while we arrived in Bam, a lush oasis of palm trees 120 miles further south and home to an immense ancient walled city and citadel built entirely of mud brick. We were able to spend several hours roaming through the narrow streets of the deserted city and climbing up to the highest point of the citadel for a commanding view over the ruins and the desert beyond. Here one can appreciate exactly how the ancient city was laid out because it was abandoned intact, rather than gradually renovated over the years as an inhabited town would have been, obscuring in the process what came before.
Our next stop was Shiraz, the city most associated with the sophistication, culture and poetry of ancient Persia. Indeed, Shiraz is the capital of the province of Fars, which in ancient times was known as Pars and became the root for the name the Greeks gave the country: Persia. The seventh century, however, brought the Arab invasion and “Pars” was transformed to “Fars” because Arabic has no equivalent for the letter “p.” The revised term is now the root for Farsi, the language of Iran.
To modern Iranians, Shiraz remains a place of roses, nightingales and love – all celebrated in the poetry of two of Persia’s most famous poets: Saadi (c.1207-1291) and Hafez (c.1324-1389), both of whom are buried in Shiraz in beautiful mausoleum gardens that are popular gathering places for Iranians. (Ironically, Shiraz was also once known for its fine wines, but after the revolution wine making ceased (at least in public) and the only shiraz wines available today are from Australia and other wine-making regions.)
While in Shiraz we also visited the Bagh-e Eram, another garden with shaded walks leading to a large reflecting pool and an ornate palace from the Qajar period (19th century). As I was walking along one of the more secluded paths with a fellow traveler we passed a couple of university students sitting on a bench. They quickly asked where we were from and, like so many other Iranians I met, were anxious to talk to Americans and show their hospitality by offering food, this time one of the bananas they had brought to eat. (Related slide show: Central Desert of Iran and Shiraz.)
Outside Shiraz stands the most impressive of the archeological sites in Iran: the remains of the ancient city of Persepolis, a World Heritage site. Darius I (of the Achaemenian dynasty) began construction of the city in 518 BCE. It appears that the city never played an administrative or commercial role in ancient Persia and may in fact have been reserved for the annual New Year celebration when envoys from around the vast empire traveled to Persepolis and passed through the Gate of All Nations to pay tribute to the king. (In Iran today, as in ancient Persia, the New Year holiday, No Ruz, is celebrated in March at the beginning of spring and remains one of the most popular holidays on the calendar.) Several partially built structures have given scholars keen insights into the building methods of the time. In 330 BCE, Alexander the Great captured Persepolis and, with the help of ten thousand horses and five thousand camels, emptied the city of its vast riches, including the famous library, which was carried off to Greece where the books were translated into Greek before the originals were destroyed. Alexander then burned Persepolis – some say intentionally, others claim accidentally when one of the conqueror’s orgies got out of hand. To the Iranians, Alexander is not considered so “great.”
While the size and remaining structures of Persepolis are certainly moving, for me the most impressive sights were the well-preserved bas-relief carvings that covered the walls. In many cases, twenty-five centuries have failed to dull the sharp lines and fine details. The scenes typically depict delegations arriving from distant parts of the empire to present the king with gifts. The bas-reliefs are so precise that scholars can determine from which part of the empire the pictured delegations had come based on their manner of dress. My favorite carvings portray these gift bearers ascending the very same steps used by live visitors to Persepolis then and now – in a sense, these ancient emissaries were my companions as we climbed the steps together. Other carvings link the king to Ahura Mazda, God of the Zoroastrians, to convince the populace of his divine right to rule. High above Persepolis, cut into the rock, are the tombs of later Persian kings, Artaxerxes II (405-361 BCE) and Artaxerxes III (361-338 BCE). Both the carvings at the tombs and the commanding view of Persepolis below make the climb worth the effort. A short drive from Persepolis, at Naqsh-e Rostam, are other tombs of Achaemenian kings, Artaxerxes I (465-424 BCE); Xerxes (485-465 BCE) and Darius I (521-485 BCE).
To the north of Shiraz, on the road to Isfahan, lies another important archeological site from the Achaemenian era: Pasargad. These ruins, however, are not nearly as intact as Persepolis and are scattered over a wide area. Although worth seeing, the visitor should be advised that after Persepolis, Pasargad is underwhelming. Nearby stands the austere rectangular tomb of Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great, 559-530 BCE), who built Pasargad as his capital. When Alexander the Great, who revered the Persian leader, stood before the tomb in 324 BCE he was distressed to find it had been desecrated, Cyrus’ bones scattered and the treasures within stolen. He ordered his soldiers to repair and seal the tomb to prevent further damage. It’s hard to believe that this was the same man that burned Persepolis. (Related slide show: Ancient Persian (Part 1) slide show.
As evening approached we arrived in Isfahan, the most spectacular of all Iranian cities. It was once said that “he who has not been to Isfahan has not seen half the world.” While perhaps something of an overstatement today, Isfahan still encourages superlatives. Shah Abbas the Great, of the Safavid Dynasty, moved the capital of Persia to Isfahan in 1598 and began a grand rebuilding of the city that included wide avenues, lush gardens, grand palaces and magnificent mosques. In 1925, Vita Sackville-West wrote: “In sixteenth century Isfahan Persians were building out of light itself, taking the turquoise from the sky, the green of the spring trees, the yellow of the sun, the brown of the earth, the black of their sheep and turning these into solid light.”
Unlike many other Iranian cities, Isfahan is a city that invites walking. Beautiful parks line both sides of the river and ornate pedestrian bridges allow one to easily cross from side to side, or even stop for a rest in a teahouse along the way. (Unfortunately, due to drought conditions and possibly a new and poorly conceived dam upstream, the river was dry when we visited.) A casual stroll through the park gave me yet another chance to meet friendly Iranians when I was invited to join a family of picnickers. They offered tea, some of the local sugar candy and were eager to talk about a wide range of subjects. (The issue that the Iranians most wanted to talk about was America’s support for Israel. During my October 2000 visit, violence erupted in the West Bank as Palestinians bridled under Israeli military occupation. Scenes of well-equipped Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian teenagers armed only with stones were shown repeatedly on Iran’s government-controlled television. With all the problems that have occurred between Iran and the U.S. – including the hostage crisis, the freezing of Iranian assets, and the U.S. Navy's shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988 killing all 290 aboard – I was surprised to find the subject of Israel at the top of their agenda.)
The centerpiece of Isfahan is the immense and magnificent Imam Square, also known as the maidan (may-DON) and, before the 1979 revolution, as Royal Square. Though twice the size of Red Square in Moscow and seven times as large as St. Mark’s in Venice, this World Heritage site is best appreciated on foot – or perhaps in one of the many horse-drawn carriages. At the northern end of Imam Square begins a three kilometer long covered bazaar with mazelike branches in all directions. The rest of the gigantic square is bordered by a two-story row of shops and offices punctuated with two of the most beautiful mosques in all the world, plus the Ali Qapu (“Lofty Gateway”) palace with its elevated portico that offers visitors a wonderful vantage point to take in the entire scene. In the center, walkways, grassy lawns, benches and fountains invite the visitor to linger and watch as a cross section of Iranian life passes by or, more likely, stops to talk and offer food.
The two mosques that grace Imam Square take different paths to splendor. The Imam Mosque on the southern border of the square is a large and imposing structure with turquoise minarets, a massive dome and a magnificent gateway opening onto the square. In parts of this mosque the traditional mosaic tilework was abandoned in favor of the faster, though less durable, method of painted tiles. The effect, however, remains stunning. The large internal courtyard, the minarets (from which the call to prayer is sounded) and the grand gateway all reveal that this is a mosque where the general public assembles for the Friday prayers.
The other mosque in Imam Square is quite the opposite: no minarets, no inner courtyard and only a relatively small, though richly decorated, inner hall for prayer. But what it lacks in size it makes up for with its sumptuous decor. The Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah was built as a private mosque and is one of precious gems of Islamic design. The dome is a masterpiece of Persian tilework, with its tasteful colors and intricate arabesque designs, and the elaborately tiled entrance is one of the finest examples of the characteristic “stalactite” vaulted arch.
North of Imam Square, in the old quarter of town, is another mosque with yet another design and feel. The Friday Mosque was begun in the eighth century, but has been renovated and enlarged many times over the years. Compared to the other mosques in Isfahan, this one at first appears quite austere. The main dome and much of the inner courtyard consist of undecorated brick. But gradually the full effect of this magnificent structure begins to seep in. Architecturally it is very complex, with 476 separate domes, hundreds of columns and smaller mosques and chambers within the grand structure, such as the “winter mosque,” an indoor area where light filters through alabaster skylights.
Another of the grand structures in Isfahan turned out to be the Abbasi Hotel, where we had the pleasure to stay. The hotel is a renovated caravanserai that once offered overnight lodging and protection to the trading caravans that crisscrossed the country. A high wall surrounds an inner courtyard that once accommodated hundreds of camels and other beasts of burden. Set into the surrounding walls were rooms for the human members of the caravans. Today, the beautiful inner courtyard offers a quiet respite with fountains, flowers and a wonderful teahouse. (Related slide shows: The Magnificent City of Isfahan; and Shah Abbas, great builder of Persia during the Safavid period.)
Although we spent two full days and three nights in Isfahan, I would have been happy to remain another week and slowly soak in more of the city’s ambience. But schedules are schedules and we had to make the long drive to Tehran. Fortunately, we were able to break up the drive with a stop in the wonderful, mud brick village of Abyaneh, set in the mountains near Natanz. Most of the working age adults have left the village to find employment in the cities, but the elderly residents and children left behind were friendly and delightful to be around. (Related slide show: Kashan and Abyaneh.)
As we approached Tehran from the south, night began to fall. In the distance we could see the beautifully lit mausoleum of Imam Khomeini. The Ayatollah who sparked the Islamic Revolution died in 1989. Although he is most often remembered as an uncompromising religious firebrand and virtually all of the many photographs of him throughout Iran show him with stern and glaring countenance, the Imam himself decreed that his burial site should be a place where people could come to relax and enjoy themselves. Today, many Iranians bring a picnic lunch and let the kids run around and play.
Young children laughing and sliding across the marble floors of the final resting place of the unyielding Ayatollah is just one of the many unexpected scenes in this perplexing country. The intricate weave of modern Iran and ancient Persia offers the visitor a tapestry of conflicting images. There are large cities with crawling traffic and small villages where donkeys still carry the loads. There are the black chadors of Tehran or Mashhad and the colorful shawls of the Turkoman area. There are the religious zealots and posters denouncing America as the “Great Satan” and the people on the streets and in the parks eager to meet and share food with Americans. In the middle, there are President Mohammad Khatami and the U.S. State Department, both of whom have called for a warming of relations between the two governments. Hopefully, in the near future, the governments will be able to have formal relations that are as cordial and generous as the friendly Iranians with whom I shared food. In the meantime, I hope many more Americans will travel to Iran and help dispel the one-dimensional images we see on the television news. I, for one, look forward to returning.
Related Page: Timeline of Persian / Iranian History