Light

 Yazd to Shiraz, Iran

It was quite refreshing to leave Mashhad for Yazd. Skipping over the desert in an overnight bus, I woke up to an old city of mud walls and badgirs (wind towers, designed for the hot desert summers). Though a little empty, perhaps due to the late time of year, the people there were much friendlier, beginning a trend I would see magnified to the highest level while continuing through Iran.

I also reunited with Tom, who I had travelled with in Uzbekistan. While sights in Yazd are few and the old city relatively comparable to those in Uzbekistan, we still found some enjoyment in wandering around and taking in the vibe, even if we admittedly didn’t find it all that interesting.

After a rooftop sunset and an evening at a zurkhandeh, a somewhat touristy spectacle where we watched people exercise in rhythm to an Islamic prayer, an hour involving drums, singing, weights, shields, chains, and a whole lot of spinning, we set off the next day for a little day trip around the area. Zipping through the desert, we made a quick stop to wander through the ruins of Kharanagh village, a rather underwhelming stop at the Zoroastrian cliffside temple of Chak Chak, and visited an Sassanian-era mud fortress in Meybod that could date all the way back to the 1st century AD, before returning to Yazd to take the first bus to Shiraz the next day.

Of course, no visit to Shiraz would be complete without a side trip to Persepolis, built at the height of the Achaemenid Empire, which still remains one of the largest the world has ever seen, stretching from what is now India to Ethiopia. Persepolis was built by Darius I and added to by his successors Xerxes I and II and Artaxerxes I, II, and III before being destroyed by Alexander the Great. All that’s left are the ruins, and yet they still strongly hint towards the sheer power of the empire — stone pillars that used to hold a wooden roof that Alexander burned down are incredibly tall. The Gate of All Nations along with the Palace of 100 Columns may have had their arches crumble down, but what remains is covered in Zoroastrian art and cuneiform, one of the world’s earliest alphabets.

Most impressive of all is the Apadana Staircase, with its northern panels covered in bas-relief depictions of Persian nobility, the royal procession, and delegations of nations giving gifts to the king. Tucked away in a bottom corner is a tiny delegation of three Ethiopians and their “giraffe”.

Several kilometres from Persepolis is Naqsh-e Rostam, better known as the Necropolis, as it holds the tombs of Xerxes I, Darius I and II, and Artaxerxes I. Each tomb looks practically identical, carved into a large rock face not unlike the “buildings” of Jordan’s Petra. More interesting are the stone reliefs below the tombs that depict various conquests, including two Roman surrenders. And yet… locals in the area forgot who these kings were! Seeing the impressive reliefs and making a guess, they settled on a folk hero named Rostam, then named the complex after him. Oops.

Sure, all of this stuff is cool. But for me, it’s all about Shiraz itself.

For one, the people are *incredibly* nice. After my shaky introduction to Iran in Mashhad, this is the famed hospitality I’ve heard so much about, and yet I could never have expected it to be so widespread and genuine. Asking for directions to a telecom office at a cellphone shop that could’ve sold me a sim card themselves led to the owner walking me all the way there (not a trivial distance), talking to the employees for me, staying with me the entire time, and even giving me a little snack. Walking through one of the bazaars, we couldn’t walk five seconds without a shopkeeper asking for a photo, handing us for free (and refusing to take no for an answer) some fruit or sweets or whatever they were making or selling, welcoming us to the city, or even just a simple hello. Walking along the street, we were randomly invited inside a bakery. Walking in a park, we were invited to join a picnic for tea. None of this required any sort of request on our part, or even prior interaction!

Like Mashhad, Shiraz is also home to some holy shrines, though not to the same scale. We visited one of Sayed Alaeddin Hussein, a nephew of Imam Reza, and Zahra, a friendly guide, took us into the shrine itself (the male section, even though it’d be haram for her to visit otherwise!), also encouraging us to bring in our cameras (neither of which is allowed in Mashhad). Engaging and informative, she explained that Shiraz’s mosques are unique in all of Iran, and that similarities found in other cities are mere copies: many more colours like pink are used in the tilework, and the mirrorwork inside features coloured pieces. Only a handful of people (maybe 10 or so) left in Shiraz, let alone all of Iran itself, have the ability to create such designs.

And speaking of the mirrorwork, it’s absolutely dazzling.

She then gave us a lot more about the hows and whys of these shrines. For one, they’re open 24 hours a day, unlike mosques, and are open spaces to let people pray, meditate, and reflect on God. And speaking of reflections, the mirrorwork is done to bring in the light — “light” being one of the 1001 names of Allah (with “beautiful”, “merciful” among many others). The mosque’s imam passed by and greeted us, engaging us in some philosophical questions, admirably never proselytising in the process. He then brought up that point of the mosque isn’t the architecture to dazzle, but to focus on God, and the mirrors break the reflection of anyone gazing into them — the self isn’t the important thing here.

In a quiet hall, Zahra demonstrated to us how Muslims pray, at least in Iran. Placing a flat “stone” made primarily of clay in front of her, she prostrated in a way such that her forehead touched the stone, which is said to draw negative energy away from the body. (“You can even use it to unlock your cell phone!” I think she meant it’s thermally insulating.) She described the act of prostration itself, done 34 times (17 different prayers over the course of the day, repeated twice) as something both healthy for mind and body: while religious in nature, it gets the blood flowing to the head, increases alertness, and works out the back and neck muscles all at the same time. Can’t deny that!

The Shah Cheragh shrine, dedicated to one of Imam Reza’s brothers, is arguably more famous, but due to government regulations on Muharram, visitors aren’t allowed inside beyond the courtyards. Our first visit was a little drab, and concluded in an endless discussion in a tourist “welcoming” office that included pamphlets from Ayatollah Khamenei and a whole lot of trash-talking Saudi Arabia. However, making a second visit at night during a slightly quieter time, we managed to convince a guide to take us in anyway, with cellphone cameras only and a “you guys are now Muslim for the next hour” joke. Even more spectacular than the Sayed Alaeddin Hussein shrine, with larger mirrored rooms, we were also taken to a new hall, at one point the most expensive building in the Middle East.

My favourite stop though has to be Nasir-al-Molk Mosque, better known as the Pink Mosque. In the morning light, the winter prayer hall is bathed in a kaleidoscope of colours from stained glass windows. Despite the overwhelming number of tourists, counting myself, it wasn’t too hard to sit down, get a moment of peace, and just appreciate the ambiance. (Well, at least until the loud tour group latecomers arrived!)

The rest of the mosque is an excellent display of Shiraz-style tilework, with deep blues, pinks, and yellows rarely if ever found elsewhere, plus some really, really flowery patterns and odd insets of European countryside cottages. To top it all off, it’s beautifully reflected by a pool in the center, and we snuck in again later in the afternoon for the changing light.

We filled the rest of our slow, slow time just wandering the bazaars, passing the many green spaces in the city, buying snacks, and window-shopping for clothes. Still, we felt a little bit “mosqued/ruined out” from all of the immense architectural attractions! With that in mind, we chose to head off a little off the beaten track before completing the tourist triangle in Esfahan.

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