This summer found me in two situations repeated from last year: (1) I was in Utah again, and (2) I was canoeing again. We hitched up with the same canoe outfitter as last year and also booked our trip with some of the same folks as last year. It was fun to see them again, and we had confidence in the quality of the outfitter, whom I would fully endorse to anyone: Centennial Canoe.
As we just got our feet wet, so to speak, last year on a weekend trip, this year we went a little longer on a 5-day excursion down a 60-mile stretch of the Green River. I had been expecting that on this trip we would find ourselves in the company of a lot of other canoeing groups, but we saw very few other people, and no rafts or other boats, just the occasional canoe. So it was very peaceful, and the landscape was simply splendid -- surrounded by high rock walls of red and gold streaked with black desert varnish, in shapes that stimulate your imagination the way clouds in the sky do. And every morning the river was lined with reflections of the towering rocks and bushy banks.
We were there in kind of “middle water.” It was no longer high water … our head guide pointed out where the water line had been just a couple weeks earlier. But it also had not receded to low water levels. This made finding campsites a little more difficult as the low water sights were still under water and the high water ones were no longer accessible unless you wanted to beach your canoe a long ways out, as you could no longer paddle to the site.
Our second day on the river was one to remember. Not necessarily in a good way except that in retrospect one always feels some satisfaction in accomplishing a difficult task. First we found ourselves in a doldrums, practically no current to ride. That wasn't bad, but we just wished for a little help. But then the sky started filling with clouds. Then the clouds turned to gray, and then the wind picked up. Then it picked up more and came directly against us as a head wind. Then wavelets started to form in the water. We steadily paddled harder and harder to stay headed downstream but our efforts became less and less effective.
The guide told us to stay paddling close to the shoreline. Anytime the wind seemed to wrap its fiendish fingers around our bow to pull us away, I started to panic and beg Erik to direct our bow more toward shore. He warned me that we might hit the shore, and once or twice we did, but I was far less concerned about dealing with that than I was about getting sucked back into the open water in the middle of the river. Well, until we hit shore once and it turned the canoe backward … in order to get headed back downstream, we had to put our nose back toward the open water and I was so damn scared of getting sucked back out there into the middle of the river and stuck sideways to the waves.
When I’m truly frightened over something or anxious or nervous, I don’t have qualms about admitting it. In fact, I mostly can’t help myself from doing so. Largely what I crave as the consequence is for somebody to tell me what to do to deal properly with the situation. I’m quite good at following instructions under duress … I don’t freak out and cease to listen; I freak out and am grateful for the direction and focus on it. We stopped again along the shore as the wind became fierce, all the canoes near one another, and this is where I confessed my fears and anxiety to the boat that had pulled up next to us. As luck would have it, the peeps inside it were very athletic types of folks and Bill had formerly been a rafting guide. I think probably they would have preferred not to barge up with somebody, but I imagine my fear and worry was palpable to anyone near me, and they sweetly offered to tie themselves to us to give us stability in the wind. Nearly everyone else coupled their canoes as well and we paddled on. Our kind paddle pals pictured here:
Being paired up like this did greatly relieve me. So this was good … only problem was, though we all gained some stability in the wind, it still took a lot of strength/effort to paddle against it and we were having some trouble locating a suitable campsite. We passed several which, to the detriment of our morale, had some shortcoming or other … like it was already occupied, or it was too muddy or some other problem. And so we had to keep going and going. I’m sorry to admit I was secretly relieved to see that others in the crew seemed as beat as I was. To look at them, they seemed to be paddling along no problem; I was feeling very wimpy … but maybe I looked the same to them. However, the confessions of exhaustion poured out once we got to camp. The next photo here illustrates what two utterly exhausted people look like when they are happy to be finally at camp.
Our first steps on shore, though, were fraught with horror, as we were greeted by swarms of mosquitoes. At that point, so exhausted, I thought it was going to be a crappy end to a difficult day and didn’t feel very happy. I half expected wolves to start howling and ghostly voices to fill the air maniacally laughing -- the place might as well go ahead and be haunted, too. But once we got more inland to where we could set up our tents out of the forested area, the skeeters thinned to a tolerable, if not ideal, level and we all relaxed.
The next morning, thankfully, was calm and gorgeous. We paddled serenely to our next destination, making a pit stop at lunch to climb up a steep hill to get to a saddle that overlooked the river at the narrow end of a giant oxbow; by giant I mean like 7 miles long from one end of the bow to the other. It was interesting to be standing in this saddle and we could see the river on either side of us, but it would be two days before we were padding through the water on the other side, as we stopped to make camp for 2 nights in the middle of the bow.
One way to relieve the heat (over 100 degrees in the daytime) while on the river is to engage in water fights. There are few things as heartwarming as a bunch of adults on the upper side of adulthood blasting each other with super-soakers at point-blank range and frenetically ladling paddle-fulls of water onto each other. Erik got the best revenge, I think, when we were close enough to our enemy canoe for him to scoop a bailer-full of water and stand up and pour it all directly onto the head of our foe. The only time our bailers are really necessary for the chore they were designed for is after a water fight … One time Erik thought he was being silly wearing the bailer on his head, but a breeze knocked it off and we spent the next 10 minutes wasting paddle strength frantically paddling 360s around the stupid thing trying to get close enough to grab it back before it sank. What’s funny is that Erik already lost is real hat in the breeze on the first day. Spent the rest of the time wearing the sweet little Holly Hobby-esque yellow hat fellow canoer Eli gave him. It covered his head/neck sufficiently but was pretty funny to behold. Normally I personally detest hearing hats; they make me too hot. But canoeing in the baking sun is about the only instance in which I will wear one and, further, be grateful for it.
There were two other fun abandoned vehicles. It was a good imaginative exercise to picture them driving up this mountainside. Such an unlikely place to find vehicles! I was pretty pleased with the self-timer shot I set up and managed to get in it before the timer ran out. You probably already know I have a fondness for self-timer shots.
That night as the sun went down and turned the heights of the canyon walls into golden spires, we began festivities for the venerated “Hawaiian Night.” A tradition among the group of folks we were traveling with. About half of the canoe group belonged to a Denver hiking club and the other half were independent folks like ourselves. But we had canoed with the hiking club last year so knew about Hawaiian Night. One fun thing about canoeing over backpacking is the amount of luxury and frivolous stuff you can bring, as there is a lot of room in the canoes. So we had not only costumes provided for us, but strings of festive paper lanterns and little speakers hooked up to an iPod to play Hawaiian music. This is a completely random thing to be doing on a river in Utah, which is what makes it so fun. In order of appearance: (1) our 3 guides, here about to serve up another delicious meal, (2) Eli and Heidi, the Hawaiian night party coordinators, (3) me and Erik in costume ... the bunny ears photo bomb professionally executed by fellow canoer Gia, you can just barely make out a few strands of her skirt behind Erik.
We pushed away from shore early the next morning as we had a fair amount of ground (river) to cover to make it to our pull-out spot by the time the shuttle vehicles were supposed to meet us there. We finally passed by the saddle which we had climbed a couple days ago at the waist of the oxbow. Along the way we passed rock formations that made Erik and I both think of Persepolis, which we had just seen a few months ago in Iran. I had been musing how they looked like ancient ruins, especially of one of the palace complexes in Persepolis, then Erik voiced my thoughts out loud and claimed they were his. The similarities in structure were striking enough I guess I'll have to give him credit for having his own thoughts like mine.
And so, dear reader, we come to the end of a short but sweet adventure in a beautiful landscape. One odd phenomenon that pervaded the trip was how Erik always ended up sitting next to the wine bags provided by Centennial every night for happy hour. I'm not sure if it's a biological thing like hummingbirds to nectar, or a physics thing like a magnetic field or some sort of gravity well. Anyway ... as I lay down in my tent each night, I had that awesome feeling that I only get every so often -- that everything is right with the world.
So the previous post focused exclusively on mosques in Isfahan ... this time I'll focus on places of residence in and near Isfahan. Might as well start at the "top." Top of the money chain and the social class, as well as the top architecturally ... the palace along the perimeter of the Imam Square (Nagsh-e-Jahan Square) is known as Ali Qapu ... a palace of the kings while Isfahan was the capital of the empire during the late 16th/early 17th century. From here they could watch the happenings and entertainment in the square ... the most popular activity in it probably being polo games (you can still see where the goal ends once were), but also things like dramatics and fireworks were staged there. The first two photos are taken outside on the roof-top deck ... looking out over the square toward the Imam Mosque (formerly the King's mosque, which was built about the same time as the palace when the Safavid kings moved the capital to Isfahan). Second photo looks up to the roof covering the deck.
Far and away the most interesting and artistic feature at Ali Qapu is the upper floor where the ceiling is constructed of two layers of wood, and carved into the top layer are myriad shapes that create hollow spaces with the second layer of wood behind. My photos can't exact justice on the craftsmanship or the feel of that 3-D artistic space all around you. But, here are some (actually quite a few) anyway:
Are you tired of pictures of painted walls and nestled arches in Iran? Oh good, I didn't think so. So here's a couple more from the palace ...
A little ways away, still inside the city of Isfahan, is the Chehel Sutun palace, which translates to the 40 Column Palace. In truth there are only half this many columns holding the roof over its front porch ... the other half are seen in the reflection in the enormous reflecting pool. Surprised? A reflecting pool, here in Iran? (if so, you clearly haven't read my other posts! haha) But I like how in this case the necessity of the reflection is acknowledged in the title of the palace. And here's your quiz to see how much you have learned of Iranian architecture: What do you suppose the walls and ceiling of the outdoor entry hall are composed of? If you said mirrors, you get your diploma!
The photo below I'm pretty proud of ... the little red spot is of course me (Waldo!), I'm looking up at the mirror ceiling in the entry hall (space between the columned porch and the interior of the palace) to take the photo ... so it's a pic of the mirrored ceiling and me on the ground. But I had to stand there with my finger on the "trigger" for ages for that magical second when there were no other people on the ground near me. Which was difficult with all the tourists and busloads of schoolkids loitering about. Then Reza wanted to try it again with all three of us musketeers in a photo ... it was a little more challenging aligning all three of us inside one square of mirror.
The inside of the palace has some impressive and brightly colored frescoes. They depict battle scenes and cultural activities such as dancing. In the bottom photo, a woman painstakingly restores the painting, matching colors and staying inside the lines with her tiny brush. It was interesting to watch her work for a little while to get a sense of "scale" of how much progress is made in a typical day. Do you think it's a lot or a little? I would say it's a depressingly small amount ... you would need to have a good sense of large-scale "vision" not to feel deflated at the end of a day.
And here's your obligatory completely random dinosaur picture. Taken at the stately Chehel Sutun palace. We've run into dinosaurs all over the world in the most bizarre places ... for instance, a partially reconstructed ksar in Tunisia, and at a sand park in China.
Now we travel outside of Isfahan to the city of Kashan. We only made a pit stop in this city to see another example of a traditional home of the wealthy and elite before the revolution. Many of these types of homes are being converted into museums and hotels ... for example, like the one we stayed in in Yazd. In truth they make good hotels because of the layout with a central inner courtyard and many rooms lining corridors inside. An interesting thing I was just reading in a book called The Cypress Tree is the concept that traditional Persian architecture puts the outdoor gardens in a courtyard inside the family compound, "away from prying eyes." Over and over the author uses this phrase, "away from prying eyes," or a similar phrase, indicating that the Iranians kept the artistry and beauty of their personal space private ... naturally it must also be tied to the fact that since the establishment of Islam in Iran, the women of any household could not be seen cavorting around their yard in public, and were hidden inside the home. However, homes could also have had exterior gardens or grandiose entrances, but seldom did. In the 1970s when "new modern Iranians" began building houses for themselves, they started to emulate the Western style of the gardens being in front of and around the house -- the complete opposite design, as we are now all too familiar with in America where suburbanites must have their lawns and gardens manicured to perfection for the benefit of the public eye which they actively invite to pry and behold. A clear exception to this "traditional" style is actual royalty, whose palaces were typically surrounded by acres of gardens and long reflecting pools (as in Chehel Sutun, above).
Anyway, behold the beautiful interior courtyard of this home in Kashan, now turned into a "historical house" museum for the public to peer into the world of the wealthy. Notice the wind tower in the background! Which you of course learned about in Yazd. As with many places we visited in Iran, you can find numerous spelling alterations. This is referred at Boroujerdi as well as Borujerdi.
The somewhat unique interior was painted by a famous painter of the time, Kamal-ol-molk. The colors were particularly vibrant and often with more European-type themes in subject. But the white textured ceiling with arched lines was classic Persian.
More gardens we visited as well in Kashan. A couple pics just to reiterate the prevalence of gardens and pools in this arid desert region. By the end of these posts, I hope you will have a consistent vision of this part of Iran, for it is nothing if not consistent. The term "ubiquitous" can be applied to many features here. Some people might find that an attribute of boredom as a tourist ... the same stuff everywhere. I find it appealing ... especially as I am visiting a place particularly foreign to me, it helps solidify an image of the Persian culture, of its persistence and fierce sense of self-identity. This is known as the Fin complex.
And now we travel to a small old village tucked into the mountains between Isfahan and Kashan (on the way to Tehran). Known as the "red village," Abyaneh is a quaint place mostly kept up in parts for tourists and inhabited by a sparse elderly generation, still living in what I imagine is to them the luxury of their old and traditional ways. Meaning those who have stayed are there because they want to be there and haven't been swept away helplessly into a more fast-paced modernity that not all people are ready to accept. There is a hotel and restaurant for tourists, which is where we ate lunch and where Erik had a showdown with the resident parrot, trying to mind-meld him into talking back to him. The bird spoke when you passed by, but if you tried to engage him in conversation, he refused. This frustrated Erik almost beyond tolerance and he got up from the table several times to go pester the bird into submission. The bird, however, stuck by his guns.
For the sake of expediency in regard to my time and for your own benefit of nice information, I'm inserting here a paragraph about the village from a nice website: historicaliran.blogspot.com, as follows: "Abyaneh has a long history which dates back to more than 2,000 years ago and has been registered on Iran’s National Heritage List since 1975. The word Abyaneh has been derived from the word "viona" meaning a willow grove. Abyaneh has been called an entrance to Iranian history as the locals are deeply committed to honoring their traditions. The language spoken by the literate people of Abyaneh is Parthian Pahlavi. The local clothing for example is in a style of great antiquity. The women's traditional costume typically consists of a white long scarf (covering the shoulders and upper trunk) which has a colorful or floralpattern and an under-knee skirt or pleated pants. They have persistently maintained this traditional costume despite pressures from time to time by the government trying to change it." Here are a few snaps of the local dress referenced:
One of the things I worried about, having never traveled with a private guide before, was if he was going to stick to us like glue everywhere we went and everything we did. We did do every thing together, that is to say every meal, every attraction, etc., we obviously would have private time in our hotel room but then would always meet again at a specified time to go out. But Reza, as a perfect guide, did not stick to us like glue and oftentimes after giving us the pertinent information from his vast store of knowledge about a place, let us wander off on our own for awhile (as in Rayen, Persepolis and other places). We greatly enjoyed meandering through this village, Erik and I not even following each other. Here are some snapshots we gathered in our meandering of this picturesque village. I presume you've already determine the source of its nickname, "the red village."
Another unique feature of the village was the sight and sound of running water as if the village was cradled in it. Along the main street, little brick-lined ditches carried clear water swiftly downhill, water ran down this stairway in the photo below. Even when you couldn't see it, you could often hear water trickling around you. The temperature here, by the way, was significantly cooler than anywhere we'd been.
You can probably guess why I like the two photos below ... the bright blue contrasted so pretty with the red-red-everywhere. The first one depicts the dome of the tiny village mosque. Regardless of how old any village might be, how tenaciously any villagers might be in holding fast to their ancient traditions, pretty much every village in the country will have a mosque. There are a few ethnic minorities (very minority) who are allowed to practice their own religion, but as an Islamic republic, everyone else is required to be Muslim. But anyway ... here is some blue for you: (and a garbage can, too!)
And chronicled below is one of my favorite moments of the trip ... nice to have occurred on our last day there. We were driving out of the village when we happened upon this man riding his donkey. As we drove past him, Erik took his camera out to snap a photo from the rolled-down car window. Rather than being offended or annoyed, nor ignoring us, the man smiled devilishly and spurred on his tiny beast to race against us in our car. We were laughing so hard in the car, and the man kept it up for a bit. I love little moments when the locals get fun and silly.
Driving back to Tehran, we actually drove by the nuclear supposed power plant currently in question in the international spotlight. They have the area guarded by a handful of pretty minor-looking anti-aircraft cannons. Like almost comically inadequate to defend against any kind of competent air strike that might come in. Kind of weird to drive by this thing that is causing such a massive disturbance in global politics and security. From the road, you would never guess it. Also weird to see guys actually manning these cannons.
And so, this post actually chronicles our last day in Iran ... visiting Kashan and Abyaneh, and it was a contemplative drive back to Tehran for me. As always, there are mixed feelings about going home. I'm confident I would have been more sad and unwilling to leave were it not for the freedom I yearned to regain as a woman ... ditching my head scarf in particular, but also the long sleeves, and the right to shake a strange man's hand in greeting, and not be perpetually surrounded by reminders of women's inferior rights, progressive as they may be in context of the Muslim world here in Iran.
We arrived back in Tehran only a few hours before we had to get up in the middle of the night for our flight ... at 3:00 a.m. the Tehran airport is completely crowded, it's clearly their rush hour. I don't know why such an inconvenient time table! We waited in line a solid hour to get to the check in counter. We grabbed a quick meal in Tehran and Reza invited us to come with him to meet a friend, but we decided to retire and pack up and grab a couple hours sleep. (I would awake with a stomach ache and subsequently suffer an unpleasant and interminable trip back home with intestinal issues, subsequently lose my appetite for over a month after getting home and lose 15 pounds ... as I write now I've recovered somewhat after a course of both antibiotics and probiotics.)
We said farewell to Reza at the passenger drop-off. He told us his first time as a guide dropping off passengers, he didn't know you can't park a car outside an airport in the drop off zone. He politely accompanied his clients into the airport and had a cup of tea with them at the cafe. And of course came back out to find his car towed away. haha. It was a slightly melancholy farewell ... Reza had been so good to us and we had gotten along so well and shared many experiences with him. Some of which I cannot write about here. But I can't imagine we could have been paired with a guide who would be better suited to us. So the threesome parted.
But my posts are not quite done! Another one from Isfahan is on the way with some final thoughts. Stay tuned!
I joked about it on Facebook, but now it's come down to actually making a post called Mosque Madness. There are just so many picturesque features in the mosques in Isfahan. I found it very difficult to whittle down the photographic offerings to a reasonable number. I ended up with so many that I decided to simply give them all their own space together. Also, I am running short on time and I can tell you that I won't complete my Iran posts before I leave for Namibia. So will have to finish when I return. There should be a total of three more posts from Iran coming your way. Meanwhile, forgive the egregious lack of text on this one. I could give you historical information on each, etc., but as I'm so short on time, I will leave you to befriend Google if you're interested in deeper knowledge of the mosques in Isfahan. (There will be two more posts from Isfahan, ultimately -- so don't worry, you will get to learn more about this city.)
In the main square in Isfahan, this was once called the King's Mosque (and his palace was right next door), but after the revolution in 1979 it was renamed to the Imam's Mosque. It was certainly built with the distinct imperial flair for size and grandeur.
Shall we step inside for a minute? First is a little nook with carpets rolled up in it that can be taken out and unrolled for prayer time.
And by the way, we had to time our visits in most mosques throughout Iran to avoid the prayer times. They would close down during the calls to prayer in case anyone wanted to use the mosques for that purpose. One thing that was refreshing was that the calls to prayer were not nearly so loud in the outdoor speakers as they were in Tunisia, where oftentimes the prayers were literally blaring through the speakers into the cities and would wake you up in the morning. We hardly even noticed them here, even when our hotel room was directly facing a mosque. We were also kind of surprised at the scarcity of praying people in the public places during these times, but then we had to remember we were in the tourist zones and locals probably avoided those and went elsewhere. You can find a prayer room practically anywhere in the country. Even gas station rest stops along the highway had them, right next to the restrooms and convenience shops in case you are traveling during a prayer time. Apparently, if you are traveling, you are technically exempt from the obligation to stop what you're doing, face Mecca and get down on your knees to pray. By and large, when we did see people observing the calls to prayer, they were either older or very young (with their parents). The young-adult age-group was conspicuously under-represented.
The Imam's Mosque is so huge and cavernous, I'm not even sure how all the rooms are used. I'm quite sure Reza explained this to us, but it didn't stick for long when I was so busy admiring the architecture and the tile-work. The acoustics were carefully designed ... below, Erik is snapping his fingers (well in this photo, he just finished doing so) in a spot that carries the sound all around that huge room. I could stand at the other end and hear the snapping. So a whisper could literally be heard around the room.
This is the most impressive room in the Imam's Mosque. The ceiling is called the peacock ceiling because when the light shafts through just right, it illuminates a wedge of ceiling in such a way that it looks like a peacock with its tail all fanned out.
In a pleasant side courtyard there are lots of little doors like the one below, each sheltered in its own little alcove ... smaller rooms that were closed off. Very quaint. And a couple more shots from the big courtyard before exiting back into the square through the gigantic doors with the giant knocker. (check out the lone guy in the second photo below for a sense of scale ... how I managed a shot with only one person in it, I'll never know)
Across town, we visited the much smaller Friday Mosque. One of its unique features was the old part which was left in austere simplicity. Though the intricate colorful tile work is always so pretty, there was something elegant about this "plain" hall. Though truthfully it's not really plain at all when you look at the brickwork designs in the pillars and especially the ceiling, which was different around each skylight.
So the photos above came from the building on the left, and then we cross the courtyard to the building on the right where the rest of the photos below come from.
Much more to come from Isfahan. But now you've had your fill of mosque architecture!
If you’re interested in traditional Persian culture, Yazd is definitely for you. As I explained in the last post, Yazd 1, there are several cultural and architectural features better preserved here than in most cities. Additionally, Yazd has always been known for its technologies in creating a cool environment in the desert and as a center of the old zoroastrian religion.
We visited a water museum, which is housed in the former home of an elite family. The courtyard was lovely with a collection of large water jars, and of course a long pool. And can I just say how torturous it was to be clad in my long sleeves and head scarf in the hot sun surrounded by cool, gloriously cool, water. I so wanted to just wade in with my clothes on and lie down.
Can you spot "Waldo" (i.e. me) in the reflection of the window? You just can't get away from reflections around here ... mirrors, windows, pools.The covered platform (second photo) is where the family would hang out in the cooler evenings.
The museum shows how “qanats” are made. These are underground canals dug from water reserves in the hills to bring water down into cities and into the homes of the wealthy. Yazd has one of the most extensive networks of qanats. Might not seem such an impressive task, but here are some photos of the process … you certainly couldn’t be claustrophobic to work in these! Look how tiny the canals are. Notice the lighting attached to the walls ... just some puny little flames of fire (presumably kerosene?).
In the hot arid climate of much of central Iran, people for a very long time have harnessed the cooling power of the earth and water. Wealthy homes and some public places had rooms dug down below ground and most of these had a pool of water in the middle with benches cut into the walls all the way around. Here is where wealthy homeowners took their siestas and escaped the brutal summer heat, like being in a cave. The temperature was definitely significantly cooler, and people would also refrigerate their food in these cool chambers.
In the alleys of the bazaars there were once public spigots and fountains where people (the common folk) could gather water for themselves.
One evening we went to a nice garden, Dowlatabad, and had ice cream. The nice thing about the Iranian equivalent of picnic tables is that they’re basically beds with carpets, so after you eat you just lie down for a nap! You can do this at tea time, too! heh. (not that I approve of Erik snapping pics of me sleeping ... but just to illustrate for you, my dear readers)
The garden had some lovely stained glass windows that once upon a time reflected their colorful light onto pools inside the garden house.
Dowlatabad has what is said to be the largest wind tower still in existence (first photo below). Wind towers, or wind catchers, are another innovation of a civilization making their home in a hot desert environment. They were invented by the Persians millennia ago.
Most wind towers are built above a cistern in order to also provide humidity indoors. You could almost call them an early-model swamp cooler, blowing air over water. The large tower is open at the top on the side of the prevailing winds in order to catch them and draw it downward. I was quite surprised at the strength of the “wind” that was created at the bottom of these towers and subsequently funneled throughout a dwelling. They can operate in one of three different ways, but you can Google it if you want to know the specific mechanics. Suffice to say, they’re great air conditioners and Yazd is one of the cities most renowned for using this technology. The photo on the left is looking up into a wind tower from the bottom of it.
Yazd is also a center for the zoroastrian culture and religion, the religion of the ancient Persians. zoroastrians don’t worship fire (they have a monotheistic god), but fire symbolizes purity to them. In the Fire Temple just outside Yasd, a flame has been burning continuously for 700 years. It’s held inside a large metal cauldron and it’s been moved several times over the centuries before ending up in this spot, but the flame itself has been kept alive the whole time. You can see it behind a glass partition. Only those who tend the fire are allowed near it.Each year, even still in present times, zoroastrians light a giant bonfire near the end of winter to warm the heart of the earth and encourage spring to come forth.
We also visited the Towers of Silence, a small ruined complex near the edge of the city. You may recall that in the tombs outside Persepolis I told you how the kings followed the zoroastrian tradition upon their death and were left in the open air on a ledge outside the tomb until clean bones remained. “Towers of Silence” were places where the other common people were left lying outside on a platform until the bodies decayed and only bones were left. You could almost mistake the round towers for part of the natural mountaintop.
At the ones we visited in Yazd, there could be as many as 10 to 20 bodies at a time lying in the open tower. This ritual was practiced until about 50 years ago when the government decided it was unsanitary and closed the towers down. It's not a very exciting picture, but below is just to show you how plain the tower is inside ... literally nothing more than a platform open to the sky.
Outside these silence towers in Yazd, an old man sits and poses for pictures with tourists. He is the last remaining watchman … he used to watch over the bodies as they decayed in the tower until their families could bury them. Can you imagine what a gruesome job … each day walking into a platform with 15 dead bodies in various states of decay. I wonder if he was ever curious enough to make forensic observations or if he simply looked on while the weather, birds and insects ravaged the soulless vessels. Perhaps he looked at them no differently than a tree fallen in the forest, slowly rotting, digested by other organisms to fuel their life.
Now we journey on to the city of Yazd, an ancient city that can trace its origins back thousands of years. Roadside scenery:
We stopped in the middle of our road trip for tea (surprise!) at a caravansary. I must admit that I only recently became acquainted with this word from extensive playing of the game Seven Wonders (nod to the in-laws). But they are common throughout Iran -- places where caravans traveling long-distance trade routes could stop for the night or to trade, and find food and accommodation. Some of these are restored and currently used as hotels with the traditional “rooms” simply separated from the main corridor by a curtain, or as tea houses.
The rooftops are designed for seating in the summer evenings. Me and the boys took a self-timer on top. Erik asked why I was taking a photo looking out at the bleak plain, but that’s precisely why I took it: to get a sense of that bleak plain stretching on past the horizon. Imagine being in a caravan with only that barren land ahead of you, getting up in the morning to plod on across it to the next stop.
Erik looks up toward the rooftop and sees me; I look down from the rooftop and see Erik and Reza. And then there is me asking admission at the front door … a safe precaution not to let the likes of me tramp on in without checking me out in the mini door first.
Many other caravansaries can be spotted as ruins along the highway. I adore countries with deep histories in which ancient ruins lie with such casual abandon in random places.
Just over the hills at the foot of the mountains behind the endless stretching plain, if you can believe it (I was surprised) lies a cheetah reserve and conservation program. I hadn’t realized that cheetahs were once native to Iran. The government now has a program that provides insurance to the local farmers/shepherds so that if a cheetah takes a goat or sheep or even many sheep, the farmer will be paid for that loss by the insurance. Or if he is injured by a cheetah his medical bills are paid by insurance. All of this is so farmers/shepherds have no financial incentive to shoot or kill cheetahs. According to Reza, the program is making an impact on preserving the cheetah population.
Our hotel in Yazd is an old palace of some wealthy dude which has been converted into a hotel. This is all the rage in Iran right now, it seems, as tourism picks up and they find themselves short of accommodations … old palaces, caravansaries, etc., rather than left to ruin or turn into a museum, they convert to hotels. In this one, the main courtyard is where the food is served in a dining room, and private rooms are just directly off the courtyard, so that if your windows didn’t have curtains, you’d look right out onto the courtyard. A friend I made through couchsurfing, Rasool, came and met us for dinner. He was invaluable to me before leaving for Iran, providing lots of helpful information both with and without my solicitation. We exchanged gifts and had a lovely evening together. Sadly, we forgot to take a photo of us together. But we have plenty of me, Erik and Reza as a threesome. This one was my idea to take in the mirror, but Erik and Reza tried it too (I think it's funny we all have our cameras out); Erik's came out the best.
So … off to explore Yazd. Another mosque, for one thing, the Friday Mosque dating from the 14th century. Relatively small but beautiful as always. One thing Reza pointed out to us here was the little corridor where women could talk to the Imam (leader of the mosque). Because men and women who are strangers are not supposed to be near each other alone, according to Islamic custom, the women had to seclude themselves behind a wall in the corridor. You can see Erik standing out in the main area where the Imam would lead prayers and preach, and I’m in the corridor.
Here is a typical city street scene in Iran, with a dazzling mosque poking into the sky with its blue minarets, squished in among a sidewalk full of stores and stalls. The only thing odd about this photo is the freakishly empty street. There are no cars besides the parked ones and just the one motorcycle nosing in on the side. I have no idea how I caught this scene ... knowing how crowded the streets usually are, it seems like an eerie ghost town.
The old town bazaar in Yazd has very ancient roots and has spread out over the centuries. There are lots and lots of alleyways, and without Reza, Erik and I would definitely have been lost. Even Reza leaked a smidgeon of doubt about where we were sometimes. Here, Reza pointed out to us the older traditional doors of residences throughout the alleys. These doors have two different knockers on them, one on each side. Can you guess what they are for? Reza asked us to guess and neither of us pegged it.
… One is for women (the round one) and one is for men (the straight one). Essentially the universal symbols of male and female, no? The two knockers make a very different sound from one another. So in traditional households (which once upon a time used to be all of them), the people inside knew by the sound which sex was calling, and women answered the door for women visitors, and men answered it for men. The glory of extreme segregation of the sexes. It’s so hard for me to imagine this lifestyle. Perhaps the door below belongs to infidels!! Oh my, the scandal!
That night we watched exercises called zoorkhaneh. There are probably more interesting things to watch than men exercising, but it is a unique type of training worth seeing. My favorite part, though, was the music – a guy impressively drumming a bodhran with his hand and singing in a loft above the exercise floor, and frankly he probably got more of a workout than the exercisers, he was the only one sweating up a storm, singing inspirational songs of historic heros. Anyway, the zoorkhaneh is the ancient training for sword fighting. So they practice with extremely heavy things like bowling pins (I tried to pick one up) in movements like you would employ to wield a sword with, and they twirl some other metal things, spin themselves around in a lot of circles, and lie on the floor and lift wooden shields up and down like weights.
That night we visited the main Yazd square and bought some sweets, a particular type that Yazd is famous for. Many cities have their own particular food they are especially known for.
Another customer in the candy shop struck up conversation with us; he was very pleased to know we were American, and he told us to tell Obama to like Iranians. Time and again we talked with people who don’t understand American animosity toward them and wish it would cease. After talking with us for a little while, he said goodbye and shook Reza’s hand, then Erik’s hand, then he looked at me anxiously and said he would shake my hand if it weren’t for Islamic custom (wherein unrelated men and women don’t shake or touch each other). I shook many men’s hands of the younger generations who don’t believe in that, particularly with foreigners. But the older folks who follow the more strict and traditional customs refrain. I could tell he was actually dying to shake my hand, and he very nearly did, but withdrew it at the last minute. Perhaps he was afraid other people in the store would see this brazen act of bravery and chide him for it.
The last thing I’ll point out about Yazd in this post are the city walls – one of the best standing examples of traditional Persian military architecture. “The city walls of Yazd have traditionally been the last shelter of threatened and eventually displaced Persian imperial dynasties. It was one of the last bastions to hold out against the Islamic, Seljuk, Mongol, Timurid, Safavid and Afghan invasions of Iran over the past millennium.” (from Payvand Iran News) It is unquestionably the city with the most interesting skyline when viewed from any of the copious rooftop courtyards, full of mud-and-straw domes, towers, walls, and wind catchers (which I’ll show you in the next post). And so to bed with our cheeks full of Yazd sweets. :)