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March 4th 2017
Published: July 17th 2017
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This place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you. - Hafez

Within moments of entering the Islamic Republic of Iran, the secret police were on our trail. A man stopped our guide, whom we had only just met, before we had gone more than ten paces from passport control, and asked him in Farsi for his credentials and for details about our trip. It was a routine inquiry; American, Canadian and British tourists must be accompanied by a guide at all times while in the country, and even taking oneself to one’s hotel from the airport unaccompanied is illegal.

I was so pleased to be waived into the country after weeks of nail-biting about potential visa retaliation against US citizens, given Trump’s executive order banning Iranian visitors to the US, that having my details jotted down in the notebook of an Iranian secret policeman was almost a relief. If I hadn’t received my visa early, about six weeks before our trip and two weeks before Iran stopped issuing them to American citizens, I wouldn’t have been allowed to visit at all. Leaving the airport unhindered and venturing out with our guide into the darkness of the Shirazi morning to find a taxi to our hotel felt like an accomplishment. I have other places that it’s taken me even longer to get to – I’m looking at you, Russia – but no trip has been so difficult to plan and execute.

We stayed in the Niayesh Boutique Hotel in the old part of town, not far from the bazaar. A nice place with a good location, lovely common areas and a terrific breakfast – turmeric potatoes, bread, a tomato and egg dish, lentil stew and tea most mornings for me, with an extra big helping of yogurt with honey and rose jam. I heard good things about the dinner as well. Attentive staff. Recommended.

I felt ready to go after a few hours rest but our guide needed more time, so our tour of Shiraz began around 10 am. We found out we were the only American tour for our guide this season because no visas were being issued as of late January, a big loss for said guide, who has been taking English-speaking travelers around the country for thirteen years. Luckily there are plenty of Europeans still able to make the trip.

Our first day in Shiraz, the Cultural Capital of Iran, City of Poets, Wine, and Gardens, was extremely full. First stop was the Eram Garden, one of the oldest gardens in Shiraz, with magpies and myna birds, cypress trees and a few early blooms. Arriving in the weeks before Nowruz, the ancient Persian New Year festival that shuts the country down for two weeks so that everyone can travel and enjoy the beginning of the season, meant that preparations were still underway; we encountered construction and planting everywhere we went, but most especially in Shiraz, the city that receives the most visitors for the holiday. Considered a quintessentially Iranian pre-Islamic celebration, Noruz was originally borrowed from neighboring Babylon to mark the annual enthronement of God, similar to Rosh Hashanah, and may have been imported by Cyrus himself, according to the wonderful book, In Search of Zarathustra.

A wonderful lunch at the small Qavam Restaurant, which reminded me of a chic café in San Francisco with wonderful food, with spinach yogurt, mirza ghasemi, meatballs in a sweet soup, cooling lemon mint drinks and walnut-stuffed dates with sesame seeds. Recommended.

Tour of Karim Khan Citadel in the city center, built in the mid 18th century and turned into a jail under the Shah, featured a pleasant exhibit of photos of Shiraz from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Afterwards we started on our tour of the first of many wonderful Iranian religious structures with the lovely Vakil Mosque, with a vaulted prayer hall supported by 48 carved columns, impressive mihrab and a beautiful marble minbar. I was constantly reminded during the trip in numerous small ways, starting here with some unique architectural elements, that I was visiting a Shite, not Sunni, Muslim country. Before the Muslim conquest of Persia in 633-656 CE, Iranians were largely followers of the Zoroastrian religion. The Islamization of Iran was a slow process, and did not include the Arabization that accompanied the Muslim conquest of other areas, such as Egypt, a point repeatedly remarked upon by our guide. Although initially mostly Sunni Muslims, the country was converted to Shia Islam by the Safavid dynasty in 1501. Today the only Shia majority countries are Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, with Shias comprising between ten to twenty percent of Muslims worldwide.

Next up was the Vakil Bath. Not on the itinerary but a common tourist site, which would be a much more impressive experience if it could be resurrected as a bath house. Unfortunately, we missed its incarnation as one of the most popular traditional restaurants in Iran. Male visitors to the bath house would have been segregated by class, and wax figures now feature some of the social activities that would have taken place long ago.

Our second mosque, Nasir Almolk Mosque, also known as the Pink Mosque, was exquisite – pity not to have made an early morning visit and seen the effects of the stained glass glowing throughout the interior of the winter prayer hall. One of the most elegant mosques in southern Iran, it was built at the end of the 19th century, and is covered with fabulous tiling within and without.

At the Tomb of Sa’adi our guide recited and interpreted a poem by the Shakespeare of Persian. Sa’adi’s tombstone is housed in an open sided stone colonnade, inscribed with seven verses from the poet himself and supporting a tiled dome; his original tomb has been destroyed several times, and the current building is from 1952.

At the Tomb of Hafez, the pen name of Khajeh Shams-ed-Din Mohammed, we got caught up exploring the gardens and, upon leaving, enjoyed the little parakeets who choose your fortune from Hafez’s verses. The most important Persian poet - it is said that all Iranian homes have at least two books, a Koran and a volume of poetry by Hafez – had many visitors, including a number of young couples enjoying an evening stroll. The marble tombstone of Hafez was placed here, inside a small shrine, by Karim Khan in 1773; in 1935 an octagonal pavilion was put up over it, supported by eight stone columns beneath an exquisitely tiled dome.

The end of our busy day was spent at the Shah-e Cheragh Shrine, the interior walls and dome and ceiling entirely covered in small white, yellow, green, red and blue mirrors. Magnificent crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. A funerary monument and mosque where lies the tombs of two sons of the seventh Imam and brothers of Imam Reza, who were killed on this site in 835, were built as simple mausoleums in the 12th century, and became celebrated pilgrimage destinations in the 14th century when the Queen ordered the tomb to be covered with millions of pieces of colored glass. We were offered tea and cookies after visiting, while I was still in my flowered chador, lent to me by the woman at the entrance. The people in charge of the shrine were friendly but I couldn’t muster up much energy for conversation. I finally lost my fight against sleep in the taxi back to the hotel.

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