Sacred Fires, Assassins & The Great Satan

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December 11th 2007
Published: December 11th 2007
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Well, we’re back from a brief sojourn again to the north-east in the small town of Qazvin, a previous capital and apparently the butt of all Iranian homosexuality jokes. Although I must say that the women here are among the most attractive that we’ve come across thus far, so I reckon that the fellas here play along with it to keep them all for themselves…

We finished our time in Zanjan with a trip to Takht-e-Soleiman, an age-old ruin and one of the most important of the Zoroastrian fire temples, secluded away in the towering mountains to the south. There were originally (3000 or so years ago) four continually-burning great sacred fires each associated with a social class; one for agriculture, one for the priests etc. The fire at Takht-e-Soleiman was associated with the royal warrior class. Little remains now but for various crumbling remnants (some very precariously held up with scaffolding) situated around a lovely volcanic lake which was central to the religious rites of past. It was a beautiful spot, as was the drive there and back through the a few staggering and stunning ranges, the site was completely covered with snow and we wandered aimlessly until the chill finally got the better of us. Despite the stunning scenery, the only thing that seemed to catch our driver’s eye was when he braked suddenly and gabbled excitedly, all the while pointing at something off the side of the road. After a few moments we managed to make out horsh mazeer (delicious) as he continued to thrust a finger at a couple of pigeon-like birds nestled in the snow. For some reason, it reminded Jane (who continued to giggle for much of the drive) of when I was hit by a recently-disturbed pheasant in Vietnam who, startled, took to flight and collided with my helmeted head and almost knocked me clean off the back of a motorbike…the obscure reason that Jane linked these is that my driver then, Thuy, somehow persuaded me to join him in galavanting around the countryside in order to catch the injured bird as it too, was reportedly delicious…

We then headed back to Tehran, on yet another red-eye express, (most trains seem to either leave at the crack of dawn or once the sun has set) and split up for the afternoon - Jane to the Glass & Ceramics Museum and myself up to the notorious Den of Spies. The US Embassy is situated in the north of Tehran and was the scene of the infamous hostage-taking back in 1979 which provided a bit of a dramatic kick-start to the Islamic Republic and continues to taint relations between the two countries to this day. Basically, in the wake of the revolution, and mainly due to the US allowing the deposed and much hated Shah to claim asylum there (and were further convinced, rightly or not, that they were orchestrating events to restore his rule in Iran) a group of revolutionaries stormed the embassy compound and kept the staff hostage for 444 days. This period obviously strained relations and included a botched rescue attempt which saw a couple of helicopters crash in the desert and a number of US soldiers die, and ultimately led to the downfall of Jimmy Carter. If you can get your hands on a rather chunky book called “Guests of the Ayatollah” by Mark Bowden, it recounts the events in great detail and is quite a gripping bit of non-fiction.

Today, the Embassy no longer houses diplomats from the Great Satan but is instead home to a fairly hard-core pro-revolutionary militia, thus making the taking of pictures a bit of an adventurous affair, lots of quick snaps and rapid secreting of the camera in ones pocket, which isn’t so easy with a nice chunky SLR. The US crest has been heavily defaced and the walls are covered with pro-Iranian and anti-American murals, (Statue of Liberty with the face of a skull, US flag incorporated into the shape of a gun, etc) and often quoting some of the Imam Khomeini’s more outrageous statements in both Farsi and English.

Friday morning (as again, nearly everything is shut on the holy day) was spent checking out a couple of museums and gazing dumb-founded at some amazing artefacts. Stunning gold necklaces and bowls, ancient swords inscribed with Persian text, reliefs pilfered from Persepolis, clay pots from the 7th millennium BC…yes, 9000 years ago…

The afternoon was dedicated to culture of a different sort as myself and another Aussie we’d met headed out to the football. Unfortunately, the ladies aren’t permitted at the games (and obviously neither is the beer - we both commented repeatedly that it was probably the first match either of us had seen where we’d been absolutely, completely stone-cold sober). We’d decided to support Persepolis who are the most-supported team in Iran and currently sitting on the top of the table take on Sapa, another team from Tehran, although we didn’t spot one opposition supporter all day.

It was also pissing down with rain, the pitch was slick and greasy and led to some hideously ferocious tackles which normally would have warranted a straight sending off but didn’t even raise an eyebrow here. But the weather didn’t seem to dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm and we crammed ourselves onto the southern terrace with all the other local lads decked out in red. We were quickly adopted, a couple of Aussie Persepolis fans are obviously not the norm at the Azadi Stadium, and stood there clapping and jumping, trying to pick up the chants, but to little avail. The noise was incredible for an open stadium and the roar that erupted when Persepolis took the lead was almost deafening - blokes were jumping off their seats into the crowd, as full-on as any mosh (potentially even including Sepultura), punching each other out of joy, screaming at the heavens. They then scored another screamer, a speculative lob from over the halfway line only moments later, before Sapa somehow scored two themselves just before the final whistle - we actually missed them due to the torrential driving rain (we couldn’t actually see the other end by this stage) and utter lack of response from the fans.

After spending the first day in Qazvin ambling around the town fairly aimlessly, wandering into beautiful mosques and through the colourful and ramshackle bazaar, we headed north into the mountains to check out the numerous Castles of the Assassins. The word ‘assassin’ actually comes from the term ‘hashashin’, due to the misconception (maliciously spread by the king’s Arab enemies and perpetuated by Lonely Planet) that he kept them consistently high, as well as contented with plenty of young ladies, in order to maintain their loyalty. The truth of the matter is that this was a very close knit and ferociously loyal community led by an incredibly charismatic and well educated ruler, but why let the truth get in the way?

We drove for about three hours through some absolutely magnificent and towering mountain ranges on the way (I will be trying to upload some photos when we get to Istanbul, as again, words really won’t do them justice), finally arriving at Gazor Khan, often referred to as Alamut. Staring almost straight up, we could faintly make out a small collection of ruins perched on top of a massive and impenetrable cliff. It was a fairly steep climb as a lone eagle soared above us (the other name for the castle is actually Eagle’s Nest, so that was quite apt) but eventually we made it to the solid stone remains. Hassan al-Sabbah and around 2 000 soldiers based themselves at this particular castle in the 11th century and managed to hold off the invading Mongols time and time again. And standing at the top you could see why - you can easily see for dozens of miles in every direction and the lookouts were positioned in a 360 degrees circle from where they could unleash torrents of arrows and rocks. There was only one way up, again heavily fortified and the fortress was designed so that ample food could be stored and also housed numerous reservoirs to provide fresh drinking water. We spent the next few hours scampering over boulders and checking out where the soldiers had their hideouts, finding shards of 900 year old pottery and nervously peering over the edge at the devastating drop that plummeted straight down for hundreds of metres.

And then it was back to Tehran again this morning for our last day in Iran. We’ve just returned from the Jewel Museum which was in itself quite mind-blowing due to the absolutely incredibly numbers of jewels and stunningly ornate designs - bowls, waterpipes, boxes, tiaras, swords, shields, crowns - each one intricately decked out with hundreds and hundreds of rubies, emeralds, sapphires, pearls and diamonds. The world’s largest pink diamond, the Kuh-I Nur (whose sister diamond is part of the Crown Jewels in London) was there as well as this monstrously preposterous globe of the world (probably four times the size of a basketball) containing over 51 000 gemstones.

So, I guess that’s it. A big motashakkeram (thank you) and koda hafez (goodbye) to Iran and its wonderful people. We’ve had a truly amazing time here and will certainly remember this land and its hosts for the rest of our days. And now onto Istanbul for a decent coffee, English newspaper and beer - most probably, but not necessarily, in that order…

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14th December 2007

miss you
Hey dude, I miss you. Hello to Jane. I hope you are both keeping well. Reading through I can almost imagine myself on the trip with you. I will h ave a beer or two for you today - 34 degrees, Christmas Party at the Circus!!!!!
20th January 2014
Victory on tour at the tombs at Naqsh-e-Rostam

Hi there, I'm planning a trip to Iran and found your blog interesting and helpful. How long did you guys travel in Iran for? Planning a 2 week trip and would love to hear from you. Prema
24th January 2014
Victory on tour at the tombs at Naqsh-e-Rostam

Hey there We were there for a month, about five years ago. It really is an absolutely wonderful place to travel - amazing sites, incredibly friendly people. Truly one of my favourite places that I've travelled to. During that month, we went from Tehran to Esfahan, Shiraz, Persepolis, Yazd, Zanjan, Qazvin and Kashan. Was really easy and very cheap to get around by bus or train. Please feel free to email me any questions that you might have, would be more than happy to help out if I can. Cheers Simon

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