Iran: Carpet buying in Yazd

October 2003


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Wouter, who I had met a few days ago in Shiraz, decided that he would spend another day in the city before travelling to Yazd. We agreed to meet up again at the Hotel Amir Chakhmagh, a popular travellers hotel in Yazd. I had booked a bus ticket the previous day on the way back from Persepolis. At six in the morning I met up with a Swedish couple I had met at a restaurant the night before and we shared a taxi to the bus station. Also waiting for the same bus was Paul, a British ex-pat who now lived in Lisbon, Portugal. He had moved there from Hampshire in the UK about ten years ago and now taught English. The approximately 400km journey took longer than expected and it wasn't until the mid afternoon that we finally arrived in Yazd.

Yazd is a desert city sitting between the northern Dasht-e Kavir and southern Dasht-e Lut deserts and has the best preserved still inhabited old city in the country, which Unesco has recognised as one of the oldest inhabited towns in the world. The city dates from the Sassanian period, 224-637AD. After the Arab conquest in 642 the city became an important staging post along the caravan route to Central Asia and India. In more modern times the extension of the railway line by the last Shah has brought new life to the city. The noisy, traffic choked Beheshti Square marks the centre of the city. The old city lies to the north of the square and is bisected by the busy Emam Khomeini Street.

The bus station was in the southern suburbs of the city next to the railway station on the Tehran to Kerman railway line, which I passed along in the middle of the night a couple of weeks ago. The Swedish couple went to book tickets at the bus station for the next leg of their journey east while Paul and myself hired a taxi to the Hotel Amir Chakhmagh in the centre of the historic old city. The only rooms free were those at the front of the hotel overlooking the noisy Amir Chakhmagh Square. The compensation though was the fantastic view of the three-storey façade of the Amir Chakhmagh complex. This has to be one of the most recognisable and unique buildings in the country with its three rows of alcoves and two towering minarets. I won't forget the view at night from the hotel window of the facade floodlit and the crescent moon hanging in the sky between the two towering minarets.

Later that afternoon I went for a short walk around the square to familiarise myself with my new surroundings and to find a barbers shop to get a hair cut and a shave. I briefly explored part of the bazaar, south of Qeyam Street just on the other side of Emam Khomeini Street. It was getting late in the afternoon though, so I decided to explore the rest of the bazaar tomorrow when I had more time. Once the sun had set Paul and I wandered out into the darkness to find a restaurant. We had heard rumours that there were some good restaurants in Yazd. I hoped these rumours were true, as so far on this trip I had been living off chelo kebab and Iranian fast food delights of pizzas and burgers. The two words, chelo kebab, must be the two most disappointing words in any culinary language. We walked to the Hamum-e Khan in the heart of the old city, just to the south of the main bazaar, where I had been wandering earlier that evening.

Like most buildings in Yazd, it didn't look very special from the street, but a short walk down some stairs in a passageway took us into the splendour of a beautifully restored underground hammam. The first domed room we entered served as a teahouse, locals and tourists sat around either on cushions or chairs quietly talking while sipping tea and smoking pipes; waiters glided past carrying tea pots and cups on silver trays. The restaurant was in the next room, complete with a shallow pool. This was by far the most atmospheric restaurant I had visited for quite some time; the food was pretty good as well and at last my Iranian food nightmare was over.

I spent a day exploring the city, wandering aimlessly for hours along the labyrinth of back streets and alleyways. Once away from the busy main streets it felt like I had stepped back in time, the alleyways were lined with traditional mud brick walls, which mostly hid the houses from public view. Children played in the streets, when they saw me approaching they would quickly run back to their houses and stand in their doorways staring as I walked past. The old doorways in Yazd where fairly unique as they had two doorknockers, one long and thin, the other round and fat; one would be used by women, the other men. They would give off different sounds so that the homeowner could decide who would answer the door. In this conservative society this was important so that women would not encounter men. The peace along the narrow streets would occasionally be broken by a speeding motorbike leaving a cloud of dust in it's wake; there is nowhere in Iran where you can escape from the motorbikes.

My walk took me through the busy bazaar, which is centred to the north and south of Qeyam Street, just east of Emam Khomeini Street. I eventually found my way out of the bazaar and reached the stunning Jameh Mosque; two towering minarets reaching up into the sky flanked the huge, elegantly tiled entrance portal. The mosque was constructed in the 14th century, reputably on the site of an earlier Zoroastrian fire temple. In the courtyard of the mosque is a stairwell, which leads deep underground to a qanat, an underground water channel. This has been the traditional method of irrigation in Iran for at least two thousand years. There are more than 50,000 of these underground irrigation channels in the country, the longest one more than 40km.

I returned to the hotel in the mid afternoon for my afternoon siesta and a cup of tea. It wasn't long until Wouter arrived from Shiraz and checked into the room I was sharing with Paul. The three of us returned to the Hamum-e Khan restaurant, where we had eaten the previous evening. After dinner, while we were enjoying a cup of tea and smoking a water pipe we met a couple of local students who were studying English. We talked for a while and were invited to visit the language college the next morning to meet the other students and to help them with their conversational English.

The following morning at 09.00 the two students arrived outside our hotel in a Paykan that, like most Paykans, had seen better days; Paul and I climbed into the back seat and we were driven across the city to the college. We soon stopped outside a non-descript concrete and brick building in a suburb of identical modern buildings. We walked down a staircase into a basement and into the small college. There were a number of classrooms; in one a class of about a dozen young children, no older than six or seven, where busy shouting out numbers in English. Every now and then one of the young kids would peer around the door and stare at us with big, dark eyes. The students we had come to see were all late teenagers and soon they arrived and gathered in the reception area where we were sitting; the majority of them were girls, dressed in the traditional, black chador. For Paul this was like a busman's holiday as in his adopted home in Lisbon, Portugal he taught English as a foreign language. We spent most of the morning talking with the students and learning from each other about our respective cultures. By lunchtime we finally managed to leave after saying some very extended goodbyes to all of the students and were driven back to our hotel.

That evening a group of us from the hotel walked into the heart of the old city past the Jameh Mosque and along narrow alleyways past mud-brick buildings to Husseinia, a small shrine lost in the heart of the city. Some young boys showed us the way; otherwise we would never have found this small building in this maze of a city. This shrine is a popular place for visitors to watch the sun set over the city; stairs lead up to the roof providing a fantastic vantage point with 360' views across the city. The views were quite breathtaking with the many tiled domes and minarets of the mosques glinting in the evening sunshine. The traditional badgirs, the wind towers used to cool the houses, dominated this roof top view and the ochre coloured mud buildings glowed in the last warm rays of sunshine, the shadows stretching away from us. We could see as far as the desert, which fringes the city and the jagged mountains beyond disappearing in the haze. Now, for the first time, looking down on the city we could see the many traditional houses below us, which are hidden from public view at ground level by high mud-brick walls. In a courtyard below us boys were playing football; when they saw they had an audience they began to show off. This perfect scene looking over this ancient city was completed when the call to prayer began to echo across the city from the many mosques. I sat on the dome of Husseinia mesmerised by the sights and sounds around me; it almost felt magical.

I didn't plan to buy a carpet in Yazd, I was going to wait until I reached Esfahan at the end of my trip, so I didn't have to carry it too far. Wouter also planned to purchase a carpet while in Iran and the next day, while wandering around the city, in the area behind the Jameh Mosque, we came across a small carpet shop in the corner of a dusty and deserted square next to a school. We decided to go in to the aptly named, Iran Carpet Showroom, to have a look and to do some research, checking prices and types of carpets available, so that we would be better prepared by the time we reached Esfahan. We were welcomed into the shop by Javad and taken upstairs to the carpet showroom. A young boy soon appeared with a silver tray and a couple of cups of tea for us.

I had visited many carpet shops in many cities across the Middle East and knew pretty well what style and colour carpet I wanted. I explained what I was after to Javad and he began to pull carpets off the shelf and roll them out in front of me. The fourth carpet he unrolled caught my eye. It only took a split second for me to realise that this was the carpet I had come looking for in Iran. Another few seconds looking at this beautiful carpet laid out in front of me and I decided that I wouldn't be leaving this shop today without it. I began to prepare myself for some very tough haggling. Meanwhile more and more carpets were unrolled at my feet until a pile almost knee high lay before me. Another cup of tea arrived and Javad turned his attention to Wouter and proceeded to unroll carpet after carpet for Wouter to look at. I sat back sipping the sweet, black tea trying to work out a strategy for buying this carpet.

After a while there were two piles of carpets in front of us; Javad stood there now looking rather exhausted from the exertion of pulling all these carpets off the shelves, which reached up to the ceiling. A small group of European tourists arrived in the shop; they all looked around retirement age. Javad suddenly had his work cut out now flitting between his two groups of potential customers. He helped us narrow down our choice of carpets to four, which we liked; I went through the motions as my mind was already made up as to which carpet I would purchase. Eventually I was left with the fourth carpet I had seen lying at my feet; now came the difficult part, negotiating the price. Javad looked in his stock book, made a quick calculation on his calculator and announced the price as US$680. My heart sank as I realised that there was no way I could afford this carpet at that price. Wouter and I decided to haggle for our two carpets together to try and obtain a bigger discount. First we had another cup of sweet, black tea delivered.

Meanwhile the group of European tourists were quickly closing a deal on some splendid looking city carpets, which would be well over my budget. I could see the excitement in Javad's eyes as large wads of crisp Euro banknotes changed hands; they must have paid a high premium for their short stay. Now he gave us his undivided attention as we began to negotiate. It was hard work, but soon the price began to drop. I worked on the assumption that a good price would be half of what was originally quoted, so battled to get down to US$340. In the course of our discussions, when I mentioned the finite amount of US dollars I possessed, he told us that he accepted most major credit cards. Things began to look up, maybe I could walk out of this shop today with this carpet. The haggling continued until we reached US$300, only managing to discount 10 dollars at a time, after much hard work. When Javad was on his hands and knees, thumping the floor with his fists, screaming, 'No, not another ten dollars off!' we realised that we could go no further. The final price was agreed at US$290, two and a half hours and many cups of tea after we had entered the shop for a quick look around.

Wouter and I left the shop and walked back out into the bright square, almost blinded by the brilliance of the afternoon sun after spending so long in the Iran Carpet Showroom, and made our way back to the hotel with our prized purchases. That evening we found another restaurant in a traditional merchants house a couple of streets over from the Hamum-e Khan. The tables and bed couches were set around the pool and fountain in the central courtyard and the food was even better than at the Hamum. After dinner we retired to a bed couch to relax, smoking a pipe and drinking a pot of tea. It was the perfect way to end the day in this beautiful desert city.

Yazd is the main centre of the ancient Zoroastrianism religion in Iran, with an estimated 30,000 Zoroastrians living in and around the city. I was surprised to learn about this now minority religion, I had not previously heard of before, surviving in the heart of the Islamic Republic. The religion dates back to around 550 BC and was the main religion across the Iranian plateau, becoming the state religion during the Sassanian period. The religion thrived until the Arab conquest defeated the Sassanians in 637 bringing with them Islam to the region. Zoroastrians are followers of Zoroaster, who is thought to have been born at Mazar-e Sharif in Afghanistan. They believed in an invisible omnipotent god, symbolised by fire, which they worshipped at their temples where eternally burning flames were kept; hence their temples are referred to as fire temples. Zoroaster preached about the battle between good and evil and believed in the two principles, Vohu Mano, good mind and Ahem Nano, bad mind, which were responsible for day and night, life and death. These principles were represented in the Supreme Being, Ahura Mazda, as well as all living things.

There are a number of Zoroastrian sites in and around Yazd. One of the most important fire temples is about 50km northwest of the city at Chak Chak. There is an annual festival here, which lasts ten days and attracts thousands of pilgrims. Unfortunately it is a difficult place to get to on the southern fringes of the Dasht-e Lut along a rough stretch of road. A trip out there takes the best part of a day and it is off any public transport routes. We tried to hire a taxi to take four of us out there, but unfortunately had left it too late in the morning. No taxi drivers were prepared to take us for the price we were offering. After much negotiation in the street outside the Hotel Amir Chakhmagh all we managed to achieve was to attract a large group of questionable Afghans and Pakistanis, plus a few locals around us. These characters seemed to spend all of their day hanging around the square, gathered in small groups. So instead we decided to visit the Towers of Silence later that afternoon to watch the sun set.

Arranging a taxi that evening to go to the Towers of Silence was easy, compared to the earlier debacle of trying to get to Chak Chak. We drove out to the southern outskirts of the city where the sprawl of modern, half completed concrete apartment blocks finally gave way to the desert. The desert appeared at times to creep up along the road into the city; small drifts of orange sand were blown up alongside the curb stones. The taxi dropped us off where the relatively smooth tarmac surface of the road gave way to sand and desert. The large circular Towers of Silence are set on two rocky, barren hills overlooking the city and are open to the elements.

Zoroastrians believed in the purity of the elements and did not bury there dead so as not to pollute the earth, nor did they use cremation so as not to pollute the atmosphere. Instead they brought there dead up here to the Towers of Silence, Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun, where the bodies would be placed in a sitting position, exposed so that the vultures could pick the bones clean. A priest would keep watch on the dead to see which eye the vultures would pluck out first. The right eye would mean the soul faced a good future; the left eye meant that the future for the soul looked grimmer. The towers have been disused now for over forty years and today Zoroastrians mostly bury there dead in concrete lined graves, so as to preserve the purity of the earth.

Unfortunately the Towers of Silence were far from silent as the hills and desert surrounding the towers had become an impromptu scrambling course for every male youth with a motorbike. The peace and tranquillity of the location was completely destroyed by the incessant roar of motorbike engines as bikes battled with tourists up the narrow paths leading to the towers. If they weren't tearing up and down the hills they raced in the small valley, which separates the two towers, pulling wheelies and leaving clouds of dust hanging in the still air. To say I felt disappointed would be an understatement, but in Iran you came to expect that wherever you went there would be a motorbike close behind you. We sat on the wall of the eastern tower watching the sun go down behind the mountains and the city becoming cloaked in darkness. Getting back to our hotel was easier than expected. We walked back along the road we had come, there was very little traffic, just a few motorbikes returning from the towers now it was dark. We began to expect that we were in for a long walk back into the centre of the city when an empty bus appeared out of a back street. The bus took us back to a busy intersection in the city from where we hired a taxi back to Amir Chakmaq Square.

Paul left Yazd a day before Wouter and myself, as he soon had to be back in Tehran to catch a flight back to Europe; we agreed to meet again the following day at the Amir Kabir Hostel in Esfahan. Meanwhile on my last day in Yazd I walked down to Ateshkadeh, a Zoroastrian fire temple at the southeastern edge of the old city on Kashani Street. This small temple is set in a relaxing garden walled off from the busy main street. A number of steps lead up to the main entrance of the temple above, which is the symbolic birdman representation of Zoroaster. In one hand he holds a ring symbolising loyalty, while the other hand is held up as a sign of respect; the three layers of feathers in the wings reflect the belief that you should speak, act and think decently. From the hallway inside you can see the sacred flame burning behind glass, which is reputed to have been burning since 470 AD. The flame has been burning at its present site since 1940 after first being moved to Yazd in 1474; previously from 1174 it had burnt at Ardakan, a small town 60km north west of Yazd.

Continue reading this journey: Esfahan