Only Here for The Poets
Waking up in Shiraz, I felt that our trip had taken on a different mood. During the night a calmness had descended that had so far been missing from what, after all, was a holiday. Despite having a population of one and a half million the city was relatively peaceful in comparison to the urban turmoil of Tehran. Birds could be heard singing in the fruit trees that lined the streets and gardens near to the hotel, and gone was the sun’s struggle to shine through traffic pollution as dense as the atmosphere of Saturn. To Iranians Shiraz was known as the city of poets, literature and flowers. Its description alone was a balm to the brain after the demanding schedule of the previous two days, and having had a good night’s sleep had made a big difference too.
I enjoy a good capital city but they tend to be a bit busy and sometimes pretentious so I’m usually more comfortable when I’m away from them, and looking on the map I saw that we were a long way from any of them; Kuwait City being the nearest at that point. So I feel more of an accomplished traveller when I have explored a country’s provincial areas. It saddens me a bit when I hear foreigners saying that they’ve been to Ireland, England or Scotland when they’ve only actually seen Dublin, London or Edinburgh. In my opinion these cities, although interesting and well worth seeing, aren’t truly representative of the countries that they sit in and any determined tourist should try to set foot a bit further afield. For me the sign of a real traveller is one who has visited Sligo, Hartlepool or Inverness and gone rooting around to find better things to see than the top ten must-see things that the glossy guide books prod us in the direction of. Consequently, as I was awakened by the sunrise azan (Islamic call to prayer) from the minaret that formed the centrepiece of the view from the window in my hotel room, fond memories of being off the beaten track in Dundee came flooding back to me.
As well as being the city of verse and flowers, Shiraz was also the original home of the Shiraz grape. But since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 alcohol had been strictly forbidden and all the grapes produced there had been made into raisins rather than wine. Such a great shame as Shiraz was one of my favouite red wines, along with all the others. For decades the city was in a dispute with the town of Jerez in Spain over having the honour of being the birthplace of sherry but, as a consequence of the installation of an Islamic regime in Iran, this bitter argument was dropped. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say.
Reflecting back at my life in Britain, was it a coincidence that some evenings at home when I fancied a glass of wine but knew that for health reasons I really shouldn’t, I would instead have a bowl of Kellogg’s Fruit ‘n’ Fibre breakfast cereal which usually contained a generous quantity of juicy raisins? I liked to think that it was some sort of calling to the lands of the East and not just gluttony.
Despite the city’s dried fruit claim to fame there was no Fruit ‘n’ Fibre on the breakfast buffet table that particular morning. I came very close to having my second fried egg of the trip but the man in front of me in the sunny-side-up queue must have been a bit peckish as he took the last fifteen that remained in the serving dish. Cursing, but only to myself in case the Muslim cleric at table number six heard me, I wondered why on earth anybody would want that many eggs. Perhaps Imodium tablets were another commodity that had been outlawed in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution and eggs were the next best option to block up a runny system and cure a bit of traveller’s tummy. I consoled myself with a pita the size of a dustbin lid and a plate of mushy dates and lemon curd.
What I found more incredible than the no wine and no eggs situation was the contents of Mahtab’s mind. Whatever question we asked her, she had an immediate answer to, or an opinion about. Extremely well-informed and erudite, what she had to say was always made even more interesting by her wonderful sense of humour. As she wrestled with her own slab of pita at the breakfast table she told us that Mahtab was only her nickname and that her real Moslem name meant wise and innocent and then she gave a hearty laugh, adding a bit of mystery to her persona.
At the front of the hotel we said our first salaam (meaning ‘hello’, but which translates literally as ‘peace’) to Vahid, our new coach driver. Those of us who had managed to keep our eyes open the previous evening on the journey from the airport had seen him before but hadn’t known this word to say it to him. Smiling and relaxed but able to speak only Farsi, he was there to transport us in his trusty shiny blue and yellow Iranian-manufactured Volvo B7R MKIII for the remainder of the trip and eventually all the way back to Tehran, ishâllâ (which was the word for ‘if God will allow’ and used extensively in the conversations I had heard).
A sixty-minute drive into the Bamou National Park was our first experience of rural Iran. I would never have imagined that an area of rock, sand and dust could have been so interesting to look at. Wonderful geological formations poked out of the ground in all directions in an arid landscape dotted with occasional clumps of juniper and pine trees. We didn’t see any of the park’s protected wildlife and we were told that it wasn’t advisable to go looking for it as it included a lot of sharp teeth and deadly venom.
The only sign of life was from what appeared to be a gypsy encampment about a kilometre from the main road but Mahtab told us that there were no gypsies in Iran. So added to the list of things that couldn’t be had in the country were handmade wooden clothes pegs, sprigs of lucky white heather and palmistry. How did they get by? Iran did, however, have Armenian nomads who camped just wherever they liked and did the manual work that Iranians preferred not to do themselves. Calls in the Iranian Daily Mail for them to be sent back to where they had come from were largely ignored.
Persepolis, located in the Plain of Marvdasht, was our second UNESCO World Heritage Site of the trip. Originally called Takht-e Jamshīd, meaning 'Throne of Jamshid' it apparently served as the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire from the fourth to the sixth century BC. We saw breath-taking ruins of a palace complex and citadel in the apparently unique Achaemenid architectural style. It was taken over in 330 BC by the army of Alexander the Great who destroyed much of it. I’ve heard this a lot about other places that Alexander had been and wonder if he really deserved the title ‘the Great’.
The complex had been built on a walled platform with five palaces varying in size, monumental staircases, grand entrance gateways and stone sculptures of horses and mythical creatures. Many archaeologists believe that it was primarily used for celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, coinciding with the spring equinox, and which continues to be an important festival in modern Iran. A lot of the things that had gone on there back in the day were depicted in exquisite reliefs hand-carved in black marble that remained in very good condition despite sitting exposed to the desert sun and wind for more than two millennia. I could write a lot more about this incredible place but readers might find it a bit of a dry subject and, for those who are really interested, it would be easier for me to let them have a loan of the book I bought in the small museum there.
A truly remarkable feature of Persepolis was the total absence of tourists apart from our group. It is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the world but it is in Iran, a place that few people know about and even fewer visit. The ticket office was a small wooden hut, there was no parking area crammed with cars and buses, no café or restaurant, no souvenir shop and no fridge magnets. It was simply history in its purest form.
My mouth was still agape from what I had witnessed at Persepolis when we rolled up in the bus at Necropolis, ten kilometres down the road at Naqsh-e Rostam. Here we saw a series of ancient Persian rock reliefs carved into the face of a mountain that also had hand hewn caves forming the tombs of four Achaemenid kings, notably King Darius the Great and his son, Xerxes. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Indiana Jones emerge from one of them but I was surprised to see local young men playing football on the flat area of ground in front of them as the midday heat approached 40° Celsius.
Equally enjoyable but in a totally different way was a lunch of local cuisine in a quaint little garden restaurant that Mahtab had often frequented in the past. Lamb cooked in spinach, and spiced aubergine with stewed lentils were just two of the sumptuous dishes that we had. Some members of our group were unable to eat as the heat impaired their appetites. Mahtab told me the Farsi slang word for ‘wimps’ (which I can’t remember). I hadn’t asked her. She provided this gem from her native tongue without any prompting.
Following this magnificent repast, Vahid hit the highway like an Achaemenid out of hell and we were soon back in Shiraz to see more monuments. First of all we visited the tomb of Hafez the poet. He had lived from 1325 to 1390 and unfortunately we had missed the celebration of his birthday by a couple of days. He was a man still highly revered in Iran with the majority of households owning at least one book of his verse and his writing being constantly in the minds and on the lips of Persian speakers to be used in proverbs and as suggested solutions to day-to-day problems. The tomb, built in 1451 was surrounded by beautiful, oasis gardens which managed to retain an air of serenity despite being crowded with hundreds of admirers paying homage to the great man. It was amazing how much respect Iranian people had for him in the twenty-first century, seven hundred years after he had lived there.
I felt sorry for Saadi, who had been another great Shirazi poet from medieval times but who didn’t command the same respect from the local people. This was largely because soon after finding fame he had abandoned the place that had made him. His head had been turned by the bright lights and big money on offer in Baghdad; a bit like Gareth Bale’s move from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid. I also pitied the man who I had seen working in the ticket office at Persepolis. Although his historical site was phenomenally more spectacular than the lovely gardens surrounding the tomb of Hafez, he had very few visitors to keep him occupied. In this respect, I looked at the throng of literature lovers gathered in Shiraz, thinking to myself that by being there they were neglecting their country’s rich archaeology. I had an almost uncontrollable urge to raise my hands in the air and chant ‘You’re only here for the poets!’ in their direction, as rowdy football fans might.
Sitting on the back seat of the bus, guzzling great quantities of alcohol-free nectarine beer (my favourite) and singing our favourite Hafez ghazals, we passed by the imposing eighteenth century Karim Khan Castle (used as a twenty-first century prison) to arrive at the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque. This gorgeously colourful building was otherwise known as the Pink Mosque because of the beautiful way that sunlight shining through the many stained glass windows illuminated and embellished the hue of its ornate tiling.
‘Hurroo!’ I said to myself as we entered our long awaited first mosque, the inside of which became the scene of a frenzy of photography. It was here that I noticed that my fellow group member, eighty-six-year-old Tony, was taking more pictures than I was. On my travels I have often been considered a bit of a nuisance because of my obsession with photography. Having Tony there made it unlikely that it would be me who would be the target of mild abuse as the last person to get back on the bus each time we were leaving a place for the next destination. Over the course of our adventure through Iran I really enjoyed talking to him about photography and sharing opinions on what would make good shots.
We were all pleased that our long day didn’t extend into the evening. Perhaps Mahtab had already had enough of us. So upon alighting from Vahid’s Volvo directly opposite the front entrance of our hotel, four of us set off on foot to explore the labyrinth of busy streets awash with Shirazis doing their evening shopping and promenading. We were in search of a suitable cheap and cheerful fast food outlet where there might be a table to sit at and where we could see the food we were ordering because none of us had the faintest idea what to ask for. After an hour of tramping hot pavements and dodging menacing traffic we ended up at a rather upmarket slow food outlet directly opposite the front entrance of our hotel; and there we ate like Shahs.
Whilst wandering, the cherry on the yazdi was making the remarkable discovery that when trying to cross what a level headed local person might call a busy street but which I saw as a vehicle-infested portal to hell, it was a good idea to adopt an Iranian family and to tag along with them for a few minutes. They seemed to be quite good at making sure their kids weren’t mashed to a pulp by buses or trucks so I found that if I crossed the road just a metre behind them I had a decent chance of avoiding a horrible death, on most occasions.
Such an outing on any other trip would, I was sure, have involved the consumption of alcoholic beverages; a glass of cold beer at the very least. So, no matter what we talked about as we ate, the conversation generally came back round to alcohol. Liz, an orthopaedic surgeon from Oldham, confessed to having had the temptation to drink her nail varnish remover.
Being so far from home, in a busy old city, on a warm night, where absolutely everything was so completely different to what I was accustomed to, and being in the company of three like-minded travellers who I had known for less than forty-eight hours was my ideal way to spend time away. With my tendency to feel like I’m only in my comfort zone when I am out of my comfort zone, these were special and unforgettable moments.
Arriving back at the hotel I was dismayed to see that on a television in what could be loosely described as a bar, ITV (Iranian Television) was showing an association football match between Newcastle United and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Men sat open-mouthed on the edges of their seats as their womenfolk grumbled ‘Football, football, football. All we get is bloody football!” whilst asking the bartender if he could switch channels so that they could watch Middle Eastenders.
Neither Kidderminster Andy nor I were fans of Newcastle, Wolves or soap operas so we went to our room where I wrote my journal. While we were there the earth moved for us, not violently but not insignificantly. This happened several times during the next two to three hours. I wondered if it was my body shaking in its craving for strong drink but eventually I realised that there were small earthquakes going on. I was a fan of plate tectonics but I had never experienced one of their movements before. Thankfully there were neither casualties nor structural damage but I did encounter a little difficulty in holding my pen steady as it wandered across the pages.
To celebrate the day’s events and the evening’s shudderings, I drank a bottle of beer from the well-stocked minibar in our hotel room. It was alcohol-free melon beer… my favourite!
Previous instalment (Part Three) - Lovely Palace, Must Fly
Next instalment (Part Five) - The Iran - Tie Rack War
My own photo of an Achaemenid-style grand gateway at Persepolis.