We leave Yazd and travel to the modern cities of Shiraz (yes, the original home of Shiraz wine) and Esfahan, which together encapsulate 2500 years of Persian history.
An astronomical question
Our first stop in Shiraz is the tomb of Hafezieh (Hafez), one of Iran’s most venerated poets. The tomb is surrounded by a beautiful garden, and many local tourists gather here to reflect upon the life and works of Hafez. Many of the visitors mutter lines from his most famous poems as they run their fingers over his tombstone.
Just outside of the gates of Hafez’s tomb, a wizened man walks about carrying a yellow canary perched on top of a box of coloured slips of paper. For a small fee, he will give you a card inscribed with a passage from one of Hafez’s works, and then allow the bird to select a paper from the box at random. On the paper is written an interpretation for the passage that is supposed to have relevance to your life’s circumstance—a sort of poetic+avian fortune cookie. After going through the routine myself, our guide Ehsan kindly translates the poem and interpretation for me (spoken in beautifully rendered prose, no less).
I can’t discuss what I learned or the fortune will be rendered null, in the same way that wishbone wishes cannot be revealed.
Just outside of Shiraz lays one of Iran’s most famous sites, the ruins of the ancient Achaemenid capital of Persepolis. The city was the centerpiece of a grand empire that stretched from Egypt to the Black Sea to the border of China, but Alexander the Great burned it to the ground in 330 BC, breaking the power of Persia. The ruins remained half-buried and mostly forgotten for many years until large-scale excavations began in the 1930s.
While no visible traces of the surrounding city remain, the ruins of the massive palace complex still cut a striking profile. Even today, the artificial platform that serves as the foundation for the palaces must be ascended via a grand double staircase. Many of the pillars and archways that once supported the walls and roofs still stand, giving shape in one’s imagination to the marvelous structures that once represented the pinnacle of Persian civilization. Many of the doorways and approaches are covered with well-preserved carvings. One particularly impressive scene shows a long line of emissaries from the far-flung vassal states of the Persian Empire approaching the throne room with tribute for the king.
Hewn from the mountainside above the city are two shallow tombs, with symbols of the Zoroastrian religion carved into their monolithic facades. Surprisingly, for the ancient Persian kings were not known for their modesty, the carvings do not say who was lain to rest within; scholars still aren’t sure who they were constructed for.
In the early days of the Islamic Revolution the government called for the destruction of Persepolis and the surrounding ancient sites as part of a national campaign to eliminate everything “un-Islamic”. The people of Iran, proud of their history, wouldn’t have it, and eventually the government relented. Today such sites are tolerated and protected, although they are not given nearly the same level of attention as the nation’s religious sites. Nevertheless, Persepolis is easily the most impressive historical site in the country, and well worth a visit to Iran on its own.
The city of nightingales
After leaving Persepolis we drive to the city of Esfahan, the city of nightingales and roses, which is universally adored by my Persian friends back home. Although our hotel is rather shabby, and much of the old city is as tumble-down and dusty as the rest of the country, the city has an aura of vibrancy I have not felt elsewhere.
We walk from our hotel to the oldest (albeit many times rebuilt) mosque in Iran, and thence through the maze-like bazaar, where merchants sell clothing, fabric, dried fruit, spices, candy, remedies, perfume, beaten copper cookware, trinkets, and, of course, carpets. As we round a corner we unexpectedly emerge from the dark alleys of the bazaar into Imam Square, the most celebrated attraction in the city. It is so large (supposedly the second-largest square in the world, second only to Tiananmen Square in Beijing ) that coachmen offer horse-drawn carriage rides around its perimeter. The tile work in the adjacent Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is the most intricate and beautiful I have ever seen.
We spend the evening walking along the riverside, where many Esfahanis come to relax. It’s refreshing to see so many people out enjoying the cool evening air. Groups of young friends sit on blankets listening to music and enjoying a picnic dinner, while elderly couples stroll among the flowers. The roses are in full bloom and fill the air with an intoxicating perfume.
We pause for an hour under the Khaju Bridge, one of the many beautiful stone bridges that cross the river. People of all ages and persuasions sit on the jetties that jut out into the river. A young man attempts to balance on a bicycle in the flow and promptly topples over while a friend films the escapade on a cell phone. Young women chat together, their fashionable headscarves pinned high on their crown, a symbol of their liberal views. The relative tolerance on display in this sliver of Esfahan gives me a sense of what Iran might look like should the current repressive regime lose its stranglehold on moral authority.
Fabled Persian generosity
Iranians are known to treat their guests with legendary generosity. One morning we are greeted at our hotel in Esfahan by Dr. Abbasi, the father of one of my Vancouver friends. He is a veterinarian by trade, specializing in poultry, and is in high demand across the country. Nevertheless, he warmly insists on giving us a private tour of the city. And he insists on paying for everything.
Dr. Abbasi ushers us into his car and proceeds to drive the three of us—me, my father, and our guide Ehsan—to see many of the highlights of Esfahan. We start in the Armenian Quarter, which has been the home of many of Iran’s Christians since a long-ago king forcibly relocated them there from Jolfa in the north. Their main place of worship, Vank Cathedral, is flush with the typical odds and ends of Christianity—a raised alter, illuminated bibles, paintings of a lily-white Christ nailed to a cross, etc. I am utterly surprised that the Islamic government has allowed it to stand. On one wall is a mural showing the various ways Christ was tortured, including one particularly graphic depiction of a tormentor pouring hot oil (via a funnel) into his backside.
Dr. Abbasi treats us to an Armenian coffee at a nearby café, and then takes us on a tour of the outlying areas, including a hike to an ancient fire temple, a gondola ride up a popular mountainside park, a drive out to see Esfahan’s sprawling suburban steel works, and a resplendent dinner in a fancy hill-top restaurant. We spend the evening relaxing in the leafy courtyard of the luxurious Abbasi Hotel (no relation), where we sip tea surrounded by Esfahan’s elite.
At the end of the day Dr. Abbasi drives us back to our hotel, and as a parting gift gives us a box of Gaz, Esfahan’s famous nougat-and-pistachio candy. I am amazed and humbled by Dr. Abbasi’s generosity. Not only did this man spend an entire day, at no small expense, showing perfect strangers around his hometown, but he did so gladly, with a smile. I only hope that one day I can pay him back in kind.