Iran: Shiraz & Persepolis

October 2003


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The journey by bus from Bandar-e Abbas to Shiraz took most of the day, travelling through endless dusty deserts, with jagged, rocky mountains forming a frequent backdrop. The journey became rather dull and tedious as the bus continued relentlessly along the road. We only stopped twice, once at a police checkpoint north of Bandar and again in the middle of the afternoon at a roadside teahouse. It was good to be back inland away from the coast and the intense heat and humidity. I stood outside the teahouse basking in the dry heat of the desert while drinking an ice-cold bottle of soda. Despite the boredom of the journey, I was happy to be leaving Bandar-e Abbas far behind me and looked forward to arriving in Shiraz, the centre of Persian culture later that evening.

By 20.00 we finally arrived in Shiraz. The contrast between the dark, empty desert we had been travelling through and the bright lights and crowded streets of the city could not have been greater. The bus disgorged all it's passengers, including me, at Valiasr Square before reaching the bus terminal. I quickly worked out that from where I stood it was a fairly short walk along Zand Boulevard into the city centre and to the cheap hotels. I made my way through the bustling crowds in the square, everyone trying to get somewhere, hawkers trying to make a profit and almost every other person saying, 'Hello mister' to me. I weaved through the traffic, a chorus of car horns and whistles and walked west along Zand Boulevard, leaving the chaos of the square behind me. The further I walked along the tree lined boulevard towards the city centre, the quieter the city became; most of the shops and workshops were closed for the day behind metal shutters. As I approached Shohada Square the traffic disappeared down a tunnel suddenly leaving the street eerily quiet; where there were once cars now were kids playing football. I checked out a few cheap hotels trying to find the best deal for the night before finally checking into the Darya Hotel on Piruzi Street, a few hundred metres south of Shohada Square. I had a twin room on the top floor at the back of the building, away from the noise of the street. The view from my window looked out east across the rooftops of the city towards the illuminated dome of the Mausoleum of Shah-e Cheragh.

Shiraz is a city of just over one million people; it felt like I had met a lot of them when I got off the bus at Valiasr Square on the evening I arrived. It was once one of the most important cities in the Islamic world and served as the Iranian capital between 1750-1789, during the Zand dynasty. The city is very much the centre of Persian culture, a city of learning, poetry, gardens and wine. The great Persian poets, Hafez and Sa'di are both buried in the city and there is also a large and important university. Unfortunately the wine from the grape, which the city lends its name to, is not currently cultivated; although I heard rumours of locals fermenting wine on a small scale, I never did get to try a glass of Shiraz in its home city. The city sits in a fertile valley, once covered in vineyards at an altitude of almost 1500m, giving the city a very pleasant climate, especially when compared to what I had left behind on the coast of the Persian Gulf. The Khoshk River flows, when it rains, through this valley and through the centre of the city dividing the city between the mainly residential areas on the north banks and the old city and commercial centre to the south. During my stay this river was as dry and dusty as the deserts I had travelled through to get here and seemed to serve mostly as a depository for the cities litter and rubbish.

I spent four nights at the Darya Hotel, which gave me enough time to explore the city and the nearby ruins of Persepolis. Zand Boulevard is the main commercial street, which runs roughly east to west, parallel to the Khoshk River, which flows (when it rains) to the north. Shohada Square is in the centre of the city, but unlike the centre of most Iranian cities, it isn't a traffic choked, chaotic place, thanks to the tunnel that takes the vast majority of the traffic underneath Zand Boulevard for a few hundred metres. This left the Boulevard a relatively peaceful pedestrian precinct, apart from the roar of the traffic coming from the ventilation shafts dotted along the pavement. All sorts of entrepreneurs set up business under the trees above the tunnel selling everything from books, shoes and shirts to tea and bananas. There were even fortune tellers with their caged budgies and finches, which once you paid their owners the birds would pick a card from a box with something written on it, generally a verse from one of the great Persian poets.

Next to Shohada Square is the impressive citadel of Arg-e Karim Khani looking rather odd surrounded by modern buildings such as the police headquarters and other governmental buildings around the square and the central branch of the Bank Melli. It really looks like a desert fortress, something you would see while watching Lawrence of Arabia, stuck out in the middle of a desert surrounded by sand dunes; to me it looked out of place, here in the centre of the city surrounded by some very un-contemporary buildings. It is a beautifully simple building, perfectly square and uniform with 14m high circular towers at each corner and an uncomplicated entrance midway along the eastern wall. The walls and towers are all built from brick, the towers decorated with ornate brickwork in geometrical designs. The tower at the southeast corner has a dramatic lean to it that almost puts the Tower of Pisa to shame; engineers from all over the world, including Pisa, have tried to correct this lean, but have so far failed.

Karim Khani was the first ruler of the Zand dynasty who created a royal district around the citadel that bears his name; he wanted to create a capital city equal to Esfahan under Shah Abbas I. Unfortunately the Zand dynasty was short lived and in 1789 Agha Muhammed Khan moved the capital to Tehran. Shiraz remained a prosperous city though, being on the trade route to the main port of Bushehr, until the trans-Iranian railway line opened in the 1930's and trade switched to ports along the coast of Khuzestan province. Much of the royal district was subsequently lost, victim of either neglect or the town planners. One part of this royal district has survived though, the bazaar, probably one of the most impressive bazaars in the country. Built to make Shiraz a great trading centre, the Bazar-e Vakil is magnificent with high vaulted brick ceilings, which keep the bazaar cool during the heat of the summer and warm during the winter months. I wandered around the bazaar soaking up the atmosphere and squeezing through the crowds; Koran readings echoed down alleyways while businessmen negotiated with customers. Sometimes business was conducted at a frantic pace, others times it was slow and relaxed, there was always time for a cup of tea and young boys would dart up and down the alleys delivering glasses of sweet black tea to traders and their customers. At the southern end of the main vaulted bazaar I came across a caravanserai the Serai Mushir. It was like an oasis amidst all the alleyways of the bazaar, the sudden, bright sunshine made my eyes squint as I emerged into the courtyard. It made a nice place to stop and relax under the green trees away from the bustling crowds of the surrounding bazaar.

On my second day in the city I met Wouter while I was photographing the citadel. I hadn't had a proper conversation with anyone since I had left Bam some four days ago and I found myself talking almost uncontrollably to Wouter. We were both in a similar situation, travelling by ourselves around the country and we decided to go and visit some of the sights of the city together that day. I was just happy to be talking to someone after all these days; I did later apologise, but isolation in a land where you don't speak the language can become unbearable after a while. Wouter was from Holland and had just finished work as a tour guide in Uzbekistan and had travelled through Turkmenistan, crossing the border into Iran and stopping first at the holy city of Mashhad before continuing his journey on to Shiraz.

We first visited the Regents Mosque built by Karim Khani in 1773 beside one of the entrances to the bazaar. This was the first mosque I had visited so far in Iran and the exquisite tiling, predominantly in a floral motif, suitably impressed me. I was very surprised at the access foreigners and infidels had to the religious sites in this country. On previous travels to many Middle Eastern countries it was very rare to be allowed to freely walk into a mosque and have a look around and take photos; Iran was a country that continuously surprised me. We continued our walk through the labyrinth of the bazaar to the Madraseh-ye Khan; a theological college built in 1615, which is still in use today. We knocked on the door and where allowed in to wander around the peaceful courtyard amongst the mullahs, who welcomed us warmly. Again the madraseh was like an oasis, palm trees surrounded a pool in the centre of the courtyard; the chaos and noise of the bazaar seemed a world away rather than just outside the door.

After stopping for lunch at one of the numerous hamburger joints along Dastqeib Street, we continued to the Mausoleum of Shah-e Cheragh at Ahmadi Square, whose illuminated dome I could see from my hotel window every night. The mausoleum was built in the mid fourteenth century over the grave of Sayyed Mir Ahmad who died in Shiraz in 835AD. He was the brother of Emam Reza, the eighth Shiite imam and a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed whose burial place and shrine is in Mashhad. This shrine is an important place of pilgrimage for Shiites. We were able to walk around the large courtyard but were not allowed into the shrine itself, which had a magnificent entrance covered in thousands of dazzling mirrored tiles.

From the mausoleum we walked east back along Dastqeib Street looking for the elegant Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque. We knocked on a door, which we thought was the mosque but found ourselves in another, small madraseh. An elderly mullah welcomed us and allowed us to look around the courtyard. The next door we knocked on was that of the mosque, built towards the end of the nineteenth century and decorated in the most exquisite blue tiling. In the courtyard we met a beautiful, young artist who was working on a restoration project at the mosque. She spoke very good English and showed us around a chamber, which was being restored; the chamber housed the tomb of the son of the Fourth Imam. She joked that the tomb, a giant glass box surrounded by a heavy metal frame, looked more like a refrigerator. She told us that it would be replaced with a more fitting tomb as part of the restoration. Meanwhile she and other artisans were slowly uncovering original wall paintings piece by piece, which had been hidden behind more modern plaster and tile work; her work involved restoring these delicate paintings. Today appeared to be her day off as she was busy working on a painting for an art competition to commemorate the poet Hafez. She had been at the tomb of Hafez all day yesterday, where the gardens were open free to the public for the day. We decided that these peaceful gardens would make a relaxing place to end a busy days sightseeing.

Hafez was one of the great Persian poets, together with Ferdosi, Sa'di and Omar Khayyam. He was born in Shiraz in 1324 and educated by the cities scholars after his father died while he was still young. He memorised the Koran at an early age and went on to study literature and write poetry. His verses are still read today and are very much part of the fabric of Persian culture. In 1389 Hafez died and was buried in his hometown of Shiraz. His tomb is on Golestan Boulevard on the north side of the river near Melli Park. The gardens surrounding the tomb were very beautiful with two long pools shaded by cypress and pine trees creating a tranquil and relaxing atmosphere. The tomb itself was very simple; Karim Khani laid a marble tombstone engraved with a verse of his work here in 1773. In the 1930's an elegant octagonal pavilion was erected over the tombstone supported by eight, slender stone columns, a beautiful piece of simplistic architecture.

At the rear of the gardens we found an outdoor teahouse in a small walled garden. Alcoves were built into the walls where people sat on soft cushions sipping tea and smoking qalyans (water pipes). Wouter and I found a large alcove and stretched out on the cushions with a large pot of tea to drink. There cannot be a better combination than soft cushions and tea after a busy day sightseeing. We sat back and relaxed and reflected on the events of the day while sipping tea and decided that tomorrow we would visit Persepolis together. We continued relaxing and ordered more tea until we eventually outstayed our welcome and were asked to move to make room for some other customers.

The ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis are about 60km northeast of Shiraz. Wouter and I made an early start and walked to the bus terminal to find a local bus to Marvdasht, 42km along the road. From there we managed to hire a taxi fairly reasonably for the final 18km of the journey and arrived shortly after 09.30. Once we purchased a ticket at the visitors centre, just down the road from the ancient city, we walked to the monumental Grand Stairway, the main entrance to the city. As we approached, the city remained mostly hidden sitting on a plateau above us, the Grand Stairway cutting up the retaining wall built of mammoth blocks of stone. Two flights of shallow steps, built so that the ancient Persians could walk gracefully up to the city in their long robes, took us up to Xerxes' Gateway, also known as Gate of All Nations. This would have been the main formal entrance to the city and is today still an impressive monument. A later addition to this monument is the graffiti scratched into the stonework during the 19th and 20th centuries, mostly by British soldiers posted out here; their graffiti has now too become history over the period of time.

Persepolis is a palace complex rather than a city and was built by Darius I in 512BC to serve as a summer and religious capital. The city stands on the slopes of Mt Rahmat and covered an area of 125,000 sq metres surrounded by an 18m high wall. It was used as a place for the people of the empire to pay homage to the King during the New Year festival of No Ruz and it is thought that during the rest of the year it may have been deserted. It's original name was Parsa and was only known by its Greek name of Persepolis, meaning City of Persia and Destroyer of Cities after it was sacked by Alexander the Great.

Persepolis became the religious hub of the Achaemenid Empire, founded in the 7th century BC by Achemenes, whose main religion was Zoroastrianism. The administrative capital of the Achaemenid Empire was centred at Shush. During the reign of Darius I (Darius the Great), the Achaemenid Empire became known as the First Persian Empire stretching from India in the east, to the Danube River in Europe and Egypt in North Africa. Today the vastness of this empire can still be seen at Persepolis amongst the fascinating relief carvings. These depict delegations from over twenty countries bringing tributes to the Achaemenid King; these include Arabs, Ethiopians, Indians and Parthians. The fortunes of the Empire finally turned during the reign of Darius' son, Xerxes when he was defeated in Greece in 480BC. Alexander the Great finally defeated the First Persian Empire after conquering most of Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq and invading Persia, capturing Persepolis in 330BC. After Alexander spent a few months at the palace city, it was burnt down and abandoned. Today there is still a debate as to whether this was a deliberate act or just an accident but whatever happened it marked the end of this beautiful city. Over the following centuries it became lost to time, covered by sand and dust. It wasn't until the 1930's that archaeologists finally began extensive excavations and once again uncovered the lost glories of this ancient and historically important city.

Today, no great buildings are left standing, so it is difficult to imagine how impressive this city once looked. There are though, tantalising glimpses of the sheer scale and grandness of the palace buildings from some of the huge columns, which have been re-erected, giving an idea as to their huge scale. These include the Palace of 100 Columns, the largest of the palaces where delegates came to pay tribute to the Achaemenid Empire. The slightly smaller Apanda Palace lies to the west of this, where the more important delegates would be received and between the two, the much smaller Central Palace, with reliefs in the eastern doorway of Darius on his throne. It must have been truly awe-inspiring to visit this city in its heyday, the grandeur and monumental scale of the buildings would have left you in no doubt as to the power behind the empire that built this place. The greatest legacy of this city left today are the thousands of bas-relief carvings, which adorn every wall on every building; they offer a wonderful insight into life during the First Persian Empire. These carvings are the most impressive historical sight in the whole country.

The most exquisite carvings are to be found on the Apanda Staircase, on the eastern wall of the Apanda Palace. The panels along the staircase depict dignitaries paying tribute. The northern panels show the reception between the Persians, in their long robes and the Medes in their shorter tunics. Three tiers depict the Imperial Guard and the royal procession including horses. The centre panel depicts the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda flanked on either side by two human headed eagles and four Persian and Median soldiers. A ring with wings represents God, a symbol repeated across the city. On either side of the centre panel is the staircase, guarded by Persian soldiers standing on each step. The southern panel, which I found the most interesting, shows twenty-three delegations from across the ancient world from as far apart as Ethiopia and India, bringing tributes to the Achaemenid king. During the New Year Festival the bull was an object of worship; an almost iconic carving, repeated across Persepolis, shows a lion attacking a bull.

Cut into the rocky hills, overlooking the city are the rock-hewn tombs of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III. Both these tombs are decorated with Zoroastrian carvings including the winged ring symbolising God. At Artaxeres III tomb I found a shady spot to snooze for a couple of hours before returning to Shiraz later in the afternoon.

Continue reading this journey: Yazd