Traveling on to Yazd, and eventually to Persepolis and Shiraz, we ventured deeper into the dry areas of Iran. Mountain ranges on the horizon presenting an impressive play of lights and shadows in the setting sun, as our VIP bus is moving at inching speed.
Yazd invited us to our first real antique experience in Iran, a Zoroastrian site. Zoroastrianism is the longest continuously practiced religion and is thought to have influence basically all subsequent Abrahamic religions (at least). Upon the arrival of Islam Zoroastrianism faded slightly but has remained a practiced religion in Iran. Notably, the Zoroastrian god is benevolent, contrary to his Abrahamic successors. A really novel religious concept of a deity!
The towers of silence are a burial site of the Zoroastrians, which nowadays is no longer in use though. Corpses were placed atop a tower to be consumed by vultures until only bones remained, last done in the 70s. It looks really eerie, as the video demonstrates.
The city of Yazd features the largest mud building aggregation world-wide. Tiny alleyways meander through the old town like a labyrinth. Many buildings have a roof-top cafe and restaurant allowing spectators to watch the sunset over a large collection of mosques, hotels, minarets, and wind-towers. Wind towers are being used in this dry and warm region to allow for air circulation and keep things cool.
In Yazd we also met Tallis, a couchsurfer Husam has met in Lithuania some years back, and shared tea, sitting on a tall mud building at night, overlooking the shimmering town. It is amazing how travelers may bump into someone they know from one end of the planet at the opposite end of the world. I myself have my share of such instances. That being said, thanks to Facebook, their family of apps, and similar inventions, the “coincident” of today is at times more “predictable” than the coincidence of my early travel years. Usually, we are remotely in touch with our friends and acquaintances, minimizing the surprises.
Writing things like that make me feel old… But it is true that traveling nowadays has indeed been transformed by the internet and the smartphone. Today traveling has become so easy, almost devoid of any planning, and even thinking, in general, can be reduced to a minimum. While I like the simplifications and conveniences, it may also contribute to the large stream of tourists many places experience. Fortunately, Iran is not that “bad” yet. And I am considering Iraq, Syria, and North Korea for more exclusivity… 😉
Zig zagging through the alleys of Shiraz we stumbled upon an oddity of Iran, religious sport clubs. A Zurkhaneh:
“Zurkhaneh is a Persian type of sports club where athletes undergo rigorous regiment training under the direction of masters known Morshed. The term Zoorkhaneh which means “House of Strength” refers to the place of Iran traditional exercises. The Zurkhaneh ritual is lead by a musician who chants sacred poetry while keeping time on a drum and ringing bells to mark the beginning of different sections of exercises.
It is not many places in the world where one can see this Iranian sport at a close quarter. Zoorkhaneh is perhaps among the oldest extant martial arts in the world which is a joy of effort, house of strength, generosity, and chivalries spirit and love of country combined with Iranian art and literature. This sport with thousands of years of history has played a great role in empowering the mental and physical health aspects of the people.
According to the evidences such as Zurkhaneh instruments and equipment, type of facilities and the Old Persian names and titles which are still common in the Zurkhaneh, this ancient school of thought in human physical education was created in old Persia. However, the sport historians are not in total agreement on a specific date that marks its creation.“
We got a Quoran as a gift at the Zurkhaneh. I did take a photo of me with the book – which initially, as someone kindly pointed out, I, of course, held upside down. What an affront! To not cause more controversy or even outrage I forego posting an image of it here. Husam convinced me that it may be seen as disrespectful. And indeed, while I was just carrying the book through the streets a guard approached us and asked what was going on. Apparently, it is, as Husam explained, dubious for a non-muslim to carry around a Quoran. Talk about cultural specificities! To put it as mildly as an atheist can who is interested in going on traveling alive.
Still, the friendliness of people still keeps baffling me. But there are additionally oddities one may want to be aware of. For instance, it may happen that a woman does not shake your hand. Physical contact between the genders is prohibited, in the opinion of religious Muslims. In one instance we were at a jeweler to exchange money, which here oftentimes is a good place for that. The staff was extremely friendly, offered us tea after the exchange and chatted with us. When they learned we were on our way to eat something they ordered food and drinks for us (!) and paid everything. When leaving, the lady in the store denied a handshake. We stayed on for a bit – I learned before already that saying goodbye can involve multiple rounds of well-wishing and repeated handshakes – and in the end, she gave me her hand. I am not sure really what changed her mind. However, an oddity, from a European perspective of course.
Next up: less of a cultural difference than a nuisance one can experience almost anywhere to varying degrees. In one instance when staying at a couchsurfer place it became evident after a while that the host and his family had all kinds of tricks up their sleeves to get some money from us.
After so many trips around the world, one can smell when something is odd. So Husam and I both had the feeling that a rip-off attempt was imminent. So, we could deflect, and turn the situation by not falling for their attempts. However, interestingly two days later the host got a review from another couchsurfer explaining the rip-off. But for us that was a one-off, and I would assume that such occurances are rather rare.
Persian food is quite different from some of the neighbouring countries in my mind. Some travelers were not really happy with the taste. I personally like it very much, since it offers a range of flavours and culinary ideas that I have not experienced like this somewhere else. Apparently some of the recipes may go back several thousands of years! A fascinating thought, that people four millenia ago maybe ate the very same things – or versions thereof – that we eat today. A BBC articel outlined how researchers tried to recreate a recipe for such a dish. Maybe something you want to try the upcoming weekend!?
A real specificity is saying no to someone. Especially in Iran where culture apparently dictates that one cannot accept a no for an answer when someone, for example, offers you tea, or money for something, or in basically every situation where someone acts kindly to you. You are supposed to decline at least three times, after which you may accept the offer. In Iran, there is even a word for it: Taroof .
On the bus, someone offered me tea. I took the tea immediately, which led to Husam bursting out in laughter. Fully aware of my mistake he could not stop being amused by the poor Iranian guy now being without his tea. He apparently offered just as a kind gesture, which I took for a genuine offer. Talking about cultural misunderstandings.
At the next longer stop, I bought him a tea in return. He declined three times, I then insisted and he accepted. However, I think I still did not save the situation that way. Husam, still being entertained, commented something like: “It is his own fault, he should not try to be kind…”. 🙂
Ghosts of the past in Persepolis
Persepolis is a place that would be completely overrun by people, was it not in present-day Iran. This historical site was mind-blowing to me. Going back to the beginnings of the Persian empire it has been withstanding attacks until a certain Macedonian rascal and his hordes dropped by. The sheer size and geological situation of the place is more than impressive. Even just standing in front of the massive city wall, that dwarfs people, creates a feeling of awe.
Places like Persepolis stimulate my fantasy. Royalty has walked the same stairs as me in antiquity! Kings have stood in spots where I stood, and thousands of people may have touched stones that I have touched. Only a little physical oddity we call “time” separates me from these people, whom I see ghost-like going about their daily errands, clad in unfamiliar looking clothing. I see stone masons bringing the huge blocks of stone to life, by chiseling life-like figures out of the rock.
The columns that are the only remnants of a once magnificent city, that suddenly retakes its old shape in front of me. Glowing smooth and white in the blinding sun. Massive roofs recompose and tower high above the allays again where I walk. People walk between the buildings, a man and woman flirt leaning against a wall, merchants loudly offer their goods, kids feverishly play hide and seek between carts and the buildings, shouting, laughing and running around, the sounds of hundreds of people chattering reaches my ear, and the smell of the various animals standing in the shade mixes in my nose with the scent of fresh fruits.
Places like Persepolis are mystical and real at the same time. A memorial to time, life, and transience. The grand architecture all but turned to dust and crumble, riches of the past scattered in the dirt, names that once made people shudder now all but forgotten, great achievements of lifetimes reduced to a single sentence in a history book – if even that.
The mountain’s face lifted me higher thanPersian poet Hafiz, 1320-1389 AD
A song’s wink aligned me with joy. And a
tune paradise hums I came to know.
The forest, letting me walk amongst its naked
limbs, had me on my knees again in silence
shouting – yes, yes my holy friend, let your
splendour devour me.
The town that lends a wine grape its name – albeit it may actually have nothing to do with the grape – sits in the south of Iran and is famous for some fine architecture. Staying with Artin and his family welcomed us in the most generous ways imaginable. We basically spent three days as family members. I helped Artin with his German lectures and in turn learned a lot about politics, religion, especially Islam, and the troubles and struggles of people in Iran.
While Husam visited his old friend Doris Dörrie who apparently is famous in Germany, I met some folks in a café, who later took me to visit the grave of one of the greatest religious poets of Iran. I learned that Iran has no place nor heart for skaters, people with piercings, hip hop, hard rock, individuality in general, and people who wish to be free. It is heartbreaking to hear that people in their teens commit suicide so frequently that basically every youngster lost friends that way.
You may want to look into the movie “no one knows about Persian cat” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_One_Knows_About_Persian_Cats] to get a better feeling for how it is to try to make modern music in Iran, being arrested, or worse…
It sounds extremely discouraging to hear that people who have studied instead of going to the military are prohibited from traveling outside of the country. There is close to no legal way to leave the country for a better life. And so, it is not surprising to hear that everyone seems to know someone or some who have made up stories to obtain asylum in Europe. Mind you, there are plenty of legitimate asylum seekers too. As indicated, no place for people who are considered deviant, such as homosexuals, modern artists, or anyone with an opinion other than the prescribed one.
It is hard to become aware that I am currently roaming free in a place that is a gigantic prison for a majority. Hearing all the reports from people, and realizing that no one in their normal mind would defend or like this system, it is easy to assume that the regime must fall soon. But fear is great. People tend to disappear forever, with no one knowing where to. Fear is a powerful deterrent for change. I just wonder when not starving to death will not be sufficient for people. It is clear that Iran would change overnight if everyone who is opposed to the reigning cast would stand up against it.
Adam’s children are limbs of one bodyBani Adam, Persian poet, 1258 AD
That in creation are made of one gem.
When life and time hurt a limb,
Other limbs will not be at ease.
You who is not sad for the suffering of others,
Might not deserve to be called human
Some say seeing Esfahan is the only place you should see, if you had only time for one place in Iran. “Isfahan is half the world”, the Persians say, in an homage to its beauty. It becomes obvious why quickly. The city is green, full of parks, has nice parks, many of them by the river that runs through the city, beautiful bridges connecting the two parts of town, endless bazaars, old mosques and palaces, and the pretty Armenian quarter. Simply everything in Esfahan appears prettier than in the rest of the country.
Else there is really not much to say. Just the realization that being surrounded by beauty is a prerequisite for some of us in life, to feel that we lead a qualitatively satisfying life. I wonder if architects, city planners, fashion-designers and their victims and decision-makers in some of the beauty-challenged places of the world will eventually return to the concept of beauty. Meanwhile, I will probably continue my life as a refugee from ugliness, running to elegance. Iran, I think I will be back.