Shiraz, Persians and Sassanians

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July 15th 2010
Published: July 22nd 2010
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Tehran to Shiraz

From the city of Kerman I got yet another bus westwards to the famous city of Shiraz. The Iranian chick I'd met in Esfahan had told me to meet her there and she would show me around.

At the bus station I stood and stared at the coach. For some odd reason the bus had a Crystal Palace Football Club sticker on the back window; and this is by no means the sole occurrence of a mid-table English football club finding itself in Iran. I recently spotted a coach with hooligan- fantastic Millwall Football Club badge. Somehow the former team coaches of English football clubs have been sent to Iran - and I don't know why. I think that's why I've kept smiling.

The journey took seven hours of winding roads through more of Iran's hot and barren mountains. I kept myself fed with pistachio nuts and water but most of the time I have to resort to what's on offer in the shops which are cakes, buns, chocolate and other assorted junk food. Nothing savoury or healthy on offer. It's rubbish.

I arrived at Shiraz station at about 9pm and immediately the pack of cab drives tried to take my bags and when I asked how much they tried to charge me triple of what the journey is. So I walked, much to their amusement. Half an hour later and I'm in the centre of the city and I pop into a hotel that Matthew the Canadian has recommended. It's not in the Lonely Planet (for once) and it's cheap, I whittle down the cost to 8 dollars. I get the dorm room to myself as well.

The next day I had to do some laundry in an antiquated Japanese washing machine that looked like it was 25 years old (it was top loading and had no lid). Twenty minutes later and I took my clothes to the roof where I hung them to dry on the line. An hour later and my clothes were dry, yes it was that hot outside.

That evening I met up with Fatima the girl I'd met in Esfahan and we got a taxi to the tombs of two famous Persian poets. The first was Hafez (1315-1390) a Persian lyric poet whose collected works (Divan) are to be found in the homes of most Iranians, who learn his poems by heart and use them as proverbs and sayings to this day. When we got there it was busy with Iranian tourists paying homage and taking photos. Some of them were carrying out the old tradition of opening up a part of the Divan to see an insight into their future.

We then took another taxi to the tomb of Sa’di (1184 - 1283/1291?) - a favourite poet of my friend Fatima. I can see why, he's full of nice axioms like,

"To give pleasure to a single heart by a single kind act is better than a thousand head-bowings in prayer.


I never complained at the vicissitudes of fortune, nor murmured at the ordinances of Heaven, excepting once, when my feet were bare, and I had not the means of procuring myself shoes. I entered the great mosque at Cufah with a heavy heart when I beheld a man who had no feet. I offered up praise and thanksgiving to God for his bounty, and bore with patience the want of shoes.
The Rose Garden (1258) ch. 3, Tale 19; see Sayings (23)

After we walked around the place we headed towards the entrance where I noticed a white guy coming through the entrance with an Iranian guy. This is a very rare occurrence here in Iran but I also noticed his clothes and general gait which all looked familiar; I told Fatima that I predicted that he was English.

As we passed each other he noticed that I was wearing my England football jacket and approached me to ask about the upcoming game against Germany in the World Cup. We exchanged the what, who, where of travellers and I was spot-on. He was English and from my neck of the woods in London. I could see the awkwardness in his face as I told him I had played for my school against his - correcting me that he had gone to the private Mill Hill County. He was spending a gap year travelling before going to university and had just spent a couple of months in India.

The guy he was with was letting him stay with his family via couchsurfers and was now showing him around. As we said our goodbyes and Fatima told me that this guy knew her brother because they had gone to university together. The coincidences which occur in my travels are seemingly so common but never short of amazing.

Fatima and I later walked to an ice cream parlour and sat outside and ate this strange but delicious fereni a starchy ice cream that has the texture of grated carrot. I had still to arrange what I would do for the next couple of days in Shiraz. I wanted to visit the ruins of Persepolis - the ancient ceremonial capital of Persia that was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. It was 70 kilometres away from Shiraz and taxi was the best way of getting there but I wasn’t sure if I could get a good price or not. Fatima then gave Ali a call and straight away he offered to drive us all the following day.
So the next morning Ali and his brother picked me up from the hotel with Fatima and Mill Hill kid in the back. About an hour later we arrived at Persepolis and it was clearly going to be a very hot day; probably in the 90s. Unfortunately there was little shade cover so we had to brave the elements - but I wasn’t too concerned - in fact I was quite excited.

I’d read about Persepolis from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus who recounted strange and lurid tales of Persian, Median and Babylonian kings. Persepolis was founded as a royal administrative centre by the Achaemenid king Darius I between 520 and 510 B.C. It was the centre of an empire that stretched from the River Indus to Ethiopia. To the ancient Persians, the city was known as Pārsa, which means "The City of Persians" but tellingly it is more famously known (even in Iran where there is a very popular football team named after it) for in Greek interpretations Πέρσης πόλις (Persēs polis: "Persian city"). Very little is left of the city because of what must be one of the greatest acts of revenge in history.

Between 499 BC and 449 BC there were a series of conflicts between the Achaemenid Empire of Persia and city-states of the Hellenic world. In 480 BC under Darius the Great the Persians invaded Greece in which the Acropolis in Athens was laid to waste. One hundred and fifty years later and Alexander of Macedon in Greece takes over Greece and then came-a-looking for the Persians to avenge their invasion. Upon arriving at Persepolis he ordered his men to burn it to the ground - but not before plundering the treasury which made him independent of the Greek states. The rest is history but Persepolis incredibly, was only excavated until the 1930s.

At the top of the Grand Stairway sits Xerxes Gateway, otherwise known as the Gate of All Nations. This is still an impressive sight, with three ancient and dead languages inscribed upon it, Babylonian, Elamite and Old Persian. I noticed that the gateway was surrounded by glass and that the columns themselves covered in graffiti. Lots of British
Armamgah e shah e cheraghArmamgah e shah e cheraghArmamgah e shah e cheragh

Mausoleum and shrine of Aayyed Mir Ahman - brother of the eighth Imam
soldiers with regiments like ‘Bengal Lancers’ from the mid nineteenth century but also a bloke called Stanley - the same bloke who was paid to look for the Scottish explorer Dr Livingstone.

We wandered around what remained of the destruction: columns, ceremonial gates, hall rooms, individual palaces, but most unique of all the terraces. These showed the different subject nations paying tribute to the King in ceremonial procession. The shallow steps allowing those to take part without tripping over their long gowns. The figures in bas reliefs are remarkably well preserved and I spent a long time looking at the details of each one.

Meanwhile amidst the reverence and grandeur the Mill Hill boy was turning into irritating spaz boy for the afternoon. It wasn’t just the corruption of English into an oikish patois of ‘innit’ and ‘like’ into every sentence. No, no what got my goat was the sanctimonious details about travelling around India for five months where the original and wise statement was proclaimed for me to record: ’I dunno, India just makes you feel alive’. The fact that despite his long stay he hadn’t even bothered to visit the epitome of beauty in a building - the Taj Mahal - explained his behaviour at Persepolis. As soon as we approached the covered ceremonial staircase of bas reliefs - 2,200 years old - he suddenly lunged and had a good feel with his grubby hands. This surprised even our Iranian hosts who expected more from a Western visitor. He then continued his thick-bastard routine by jumping over ropes and climbing up with the larger bass reliefs, putting his arms around them. Further idiocies occurred; the lame idea of trying to swap a shitty blue baseball cap he had acquired in India with one that a guard of the site was wearing. Duh. But there were also the details of only finding out in the airport before departing for Iran that he could take any money from ATMs nor use traveller’s cheques. So, he came to Iran with only as much money he could get out in one day; really not enough. Also, on arrival the customs people had only given him a 15 day visa compared to the usual 1 month tourist visa - which I guessed was something to do with him.

Later on we visited the nearby Naqsh-e Rustam, which are an amazing four tombs belonging to Achaemenid kings which are carved out of the rock face. One of them has an inscription of the tomb of Darius I (r. 522-486 BCE). The other three tombs are believed to be those of Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE), Artaxerxes I (r. 465-424 BCE), and Darius II (r. 423-404 BCE) respectively. But that’s not all, below those are seven further rock reliefs depicting monarchs of the Sassanid period. The investiture relief of Ardashir I (r. 226-242) the founder of the Sassanid Empire, who is seen being handed the ring of kingship by Ahura Mazda. The inscription bears the oldest attested use of the term ‘Iran’. The most interesting for me was the Triumph of Shapur I (r.241-272): This is the most famous of the Sassanid rock reliefs, and depicts Shapur's victory over two Roman emperors, Valerian and Philip the Arab. Yes, amazingly this Iranian king managed to defeat two Roman emperors but also capture one too. Other reliefs also depict the Bahram II (r. 276-293) battling a mounted Roman soldier and the second has the king appear to be forcing a Roman enemy from his horse. In the lower register, the king is again battling a mounted Roman soldier.
Again the nineteen year old made a bad example and swaggered up to the reliefs and monkeyed about on them as he asked us to take a photo. Was he a fool or a knave I asked myself.

That evening we spent with Ali’s family, of which he seemed to have about 5 brothers. Batahay helped translate a lot of things as we watched the England v Germany game. They then made us sit down and have dinner with them - again faultless Iranian hospitality. Despite being born and brought up in England and speaking like a moron from the estates the Mill Hill lad managed to support Germany - ‘ I’m half English, my mum is German and my dad is Australian”. Uh-oh, another one of those people who despite being born and brought up in England wasn’t willing to be described as English or British. Pathetic really. A dodgy refereeing decision, Iranians supporting the Germans and a bloody immature Anglo-phobe made the evening a frustrating one.

The next day muppet boy was dropped off in Shiraz to extend his visa whilst Ali acceded to my request to find out more of this Sassanian Empire. We drove about 9 minutes to a place called Firuzabbad and to the ruined palace of the Sassanid period. Built in AD 224 by Ardashir I of the Sassanian Empire it had suffered from recent earthquakes but was now being restored. It was a pretty cool place to see as it has unique architecture to the historic period. Again it was bloody hot, but it was nice to hang out with Ali and another one of his brothers. They were all really nice guys. Ali showed us the scars on his arms and head from the injuries he received from a police beating the previous year. Something to do with a fraudulent election and mass protests. I knew Ali was a good guy all along and this confirmed it. I paid Ali and his brother for the petrol costs and the time expended on driving us around and we shook hands, Fatima insisting on
By the time Fatima and I were dropped off I was ready for that afternoon sleep that everyone seems to have here. However, women are not allowed to go to a guest’s room unless they are your husband. So I went upstairs and took a shower whilst Fatima waited for me and she was asked nosey questions by the guy in reception; he couldn’t understand where we could possibly have met. This made Fatima chuckle as I think she enjoyed flummoxing the naive Iranian men who had these preconceived ideas about men and women. It struck me that if I was to bring a male friend to my room that would be perfectly acceptable - they did not presume think of sexual relations between men only between men and women; Yet another example of retrograde sexism here in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Anyway, we left Mr Nosey and tried out a hamburger fast food joint called Hamburger 110. It’s a very popular place with the young and middle class who can’t get enough of Turkish style kebabs and American fast food. When we got there, it was a glorified kebab shop in London but with worse service. We tried to give our order to the man behind the fifty year old cash register but he was on his mobile and tried his best to imagine we were not there in front of him. All the while the idle and greasy men behind the counters stared at us relentlessly.

When the burgers arrived we sat down and surprise, surprise they were utterly underwhelming - I couldn’t understand why this place was popular. Coming here actually made me appreciate good old fashioned junk food from the USA. They know how to do a hamburger right. I also wondered to myself at how much of a killing one could make by opening up a proper fast food joint American style - well any style. Sanctions and the stance of the government put pay to that idea I’m sure.

My last day in Shiraz was visiting the historic mosques of the city. Interestingly that day was a public holiday in Iran- a celebration of the birth of the Eighth Imam in Twelver Shiaism - Imam Alī ar-Ridhā so there were lots of pilgrims at the oldest mosque, Atigh Jame' Mosque. More so because it also houses the shrine of the tomb of the brothers Ahmad and Muhammad who were brothers of Imam Ali. Unfortunately because of this special day it meant that I couldn’t enter the most interesting part of the complex that of the Masjed-e Jameh-Yeh Atigh mosque which has a 14th Century tower that the Persian poet Hafez is believed to have worked at. Also, the Vakil Mosque (1751-1773) was out of bounds for me. Not to worry; it isn’t long before somebody comes up to you in Iran and ask some questions.

As I sat down under cover in front of the shrine a man behind me introduced himself and asked me where I was from. He was from Kerman and ran an ‘eco tourism’ business to which he proceeded to tell me all about in detail, presented his business card and entreated that I should visit. I politely explained that I had just come from Kerman and didn’t see any eco tourism possibilities in the area. He told me about a nature reserve and what his company did; but the idea that I had the time, money and energy to do what he wanted was lost on him. How do you yawn without giving offence? He asked if I had gone into the shrine but I said as a non-Muslim I couldn’t enter - he didn’t seem to know this rule and his wife came along and rebuked him for suggesting it. I’m always surprised by this.

The other mosques in the complex were also denied to me so I stood in the shade protected from yet another burning hot day and took a few photos. Then another bloke came up to me - bespectacled and a kind face. He asked me the usual question but seemed delighted that I was from England. Seeing as I wasn’t able to enter any mosques I allowed him to prod me with more questions - so we got talking. Abbas Sahebjam used to be a bookseller and when I told him I worked in London in a library - he was so excited. Respect at last! I asked him where he had leant English and amazingly he had taught himself using books. He decided to be my guide and as we walked around the complex we discussed our lives and religion. He was delighted (you can tell this guy was pretty happy-go-lucky) that I knew about Shiaism but he couldn’t quite understand the whole ‘I don’t believe in God’ thing - and bless his heart he did try to understand. I said I wanted to see the nearby Nasir al-Molk mosque which was meant to be particularly beautiful. So he told me he would take me there using a ‘cut short’ around the back of the complex and through the back streets. Soon we were there and gazing at the mosque in a beautiful courtyard. We then went inside one of the side iwans with beautifully carved pillars and stained glass windows. We then went to a small niche which points in the direction of Mecca and made a small prayer. Sat on the carpet against a carved pillar we talked some more before he then led me back to near my hotel. We passed through some more backstreets, greeting many friends with ‘salaam aleykom’ lowering his arm to his chest in deference. We then visited one of his friends in a bookshop, an unsmiling serious looking fellow who wanted to know where I was from. He then proceeded to show me Qu’rans in English to which I politely looked at and passed back. He must have been a religious fellow.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Abbas he was just a bloke (an extraordinarily friendly one) who enjoyed talking to foreign visitors to the city and went out of his way to show me around. Just another example of how special the Iranian people are.

I had to decide where I would go next in Iran. I wanted to go north to Shushtar but the bus journey took 10 hours overnight and seeing as I’m unable to sleep upright on a bus I looked for alternatives. Flights to the nearby Ahvaz were scheduled only once a week (and at 5 in the morning!) - normal schedules don’t seem to run here in Iran. But the safety record of airplanes here in Iran is suspect so I was in a bit of a quandary - a frustrating experience for me.

Fatima would either go back home to Esfahan or onto Bushehr where she was from. Bushehr is a city on the Persian Gulf and it is extremely hot in summer. I could possibly stay with her family and I would get to see a part of Iran I did not intend to see - the unexpected and Iranian hospitality was attractive. Much to the delight of Fatima we arranged to meet at Shiraz bus station the next day. I was relieved that I had sorted out my travel plans.

Additional photos below
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14th February 2014

Healthful of food
A)Sorry you couldn't find food that met your standards on the road, in the middle of nowhere. It's called traveling. Get used to it. B) Don't judge a culture based on your ability to understand it. If you can't appreciate it, then do not take your snooty ass there.
15th April 2014

hatful of trolling thank you for your 'wise' suggestions however A) I have traveled to over 30 countries so I don't need to take your advice on judging a culture. B) being unable to find food that isn't western junk confectionery in a country that has terrific cuisines generally is a shame. C) I'm sorry you have to resort to trolling to get your kicks.

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