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. :)
In the middle of a desert-like landscape outside Kerman, the Shahzadeh Garden sits like a little jewel – a jewel not so much for the flowers and trees as for the copious running water … a form of opulence in this dry environment. Not just an ornamental trickle of water, but a long stretch of pools and cascades and deep channels of it rushing along the sides. Standing there in the heat with my head encased in a scarf and my arms stuffed up inside long sleeves, I have never wanted more to throw propriety to the wind and dive into those clear pools of delicious, cool water. Somehow I managed the restraint.
Our visit to this lovely garden had a few lessons to it. First, about its designer: the prince who built the garden was a real jerk, and he forced his subjects to labor excessively hard to build the gardens. But eventually the political landscape changed and he fled his garden sanctuary quite suddenly to Tehran. The moment he left, everyone working on the gardens dropped their tools and walked away. Parts of the buildings were never finished. Even when just 5 pieces of tile were all that were needed to finished one of the walls, the workers didn’t even bother -- they had no personal investment in their work for the cruel governor, no pride in their craftsmanship forfeited so involuntarily. So lesson 1: being a jerk will never bring you loyalty.
Reza told us that it was too bad we couldn’t go into the prince’s private quarters because it’s so beautiful inside. But only VIP people are allowed. Reza has guided several VIP people including various ambassadors to other countries, so he’s familiar with it. We expressed our disappointment that we were not VIP enough. Made some jokes about wondering how big a wad of cash was needed to elevate us to VIP status. Low and behold, after we had eaten lunch, Reza told us he had just spotted the guy who he knows has the keys to the quarters and said maybe he could talk to him. He returned a few moments later with the man and the keys. He said a little cash in the man’s palm would be appropriate to show our appreciation. So lesson 2: being friends with everyone in the country, as Reza is, will open many doors, so it pays to be friendly.
And lesson 3: The world over, VIP status can nearly always be obtained with the right amount of cash in the right hand. The first two lessons carry clear moral standards about what it right. The third … a little more ambiguous. In this case, our admission price was pretty harmless, just getting to see a nice room typically worthy only of people above our status. And indeed, a delightful little room it was, on the second story overlooking the gardens. The man with the keys even went so far as to offer some us treats while we were looking around.
We had our lunch on the garden grounds in a cute restaurant with traditional floor seating and a canvas roof.
Then we drove to the desert to see the one thing I had requested be added to the itinerary the tour agency set out for us … the “kaluts.” These are natural sand sculptures formed by the weather elements over many, many years. It was too bad that it was a rainy afternoon because we couldn’t see the snow-capped mountains that rise up behind the desert, which would have made for a gorgeous backdrop behind the sand sculptures. However, as it was, the landscape had a very mysterious feel to it, and it looked like an ocean rather than a desert. The flat ground is covered in a layer of dark grey dirt which looks like ocean water with the large sand sculptures rising out of it like islands in the sea. It was actually pretty cool.
We finished out our tour of Kerman visiting a tiny mosque with a stunning ceiling. Of all the places I have wished for a wide angle lens on my camera, Iran is where I did it most often and most fervently.
Then we picked up some deli sandwiches to eat on the road to Yazd. Stopped at a roadside mosque/convenience store complex to eat on a bench. The scenery while driving is pretty unremarkable, partially due to the continuing haze which obscures the mountains in the distance which, judging from their outlines you can just make out, must be impressive. So I’m actually getting most of my writing done while in the car on my laptop.
Coming up next, the city of Yazd.
From Shiraz, we took a long road trip, driving to Kerman. A note about air travel … it’s like a blast from the past. In the old days, Americans dressed up to travel on a plane, and when it landed the passengers clapped. None of that is so today. But when we landed in Tehran, and again when we landed in Shiraz (having flown from Tehran), the Iranian passengers all clapped. And everyone was dressed nicely, both men and women.
But that’s actually true in general … because of the dress code for women, you don’t see any of them (nor men) wearing sweat pants and casual slobbish outfits (as I’m prone to wearing). They’re all dressed smartly or wearing chadors. I noticed fancy, stylish shoes, even very high heels, sticking out from beneath even the most plain and traditional black chadors. Women in Iran find a way to make an individual statement either in their clothes or shoes, or in their makeup (which they’re now allowed to wear) or hair. They have more personal freedoms in Iran than in some other Muslim countries. They can also drive a car and leave the country without a male escort, unlike their counterparts in more conservative Muslim regions.
I was very concerned about the hijab, or head scarf, at first. I didn’t know how strictly its use was enforced, and Erik seemed to fear I would get thrown in jail if I was seen with it off. But the rules are more relaxed than I thought. For one thing, only the very back of the head needs to be covered. Many women wear these little puffy things clipped to the back of their head (at first I thought all these ladies had a pony tail of massive tresses beneath their scarves, but then Reza explained the puffy accessory) and their scarf rests only on that back lump. Sometimes they have headbands and glitter on the front of their hair. If an official from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Custom sees a woman whose scarf has fallen off, they will point it out to her and ask her to put it back on. So the first warning is very mild. Only once did Reza point out to me that mine had fallen down (though it fell down often) and I should put it back up because we were in a mosque complex in a particularly conservative town.
I also noticed that I was not the only one whose scarf falls off from time to time; even the Iranian women were often rearranging them on their heads. Once I started to notice this, I felt better, because I was appallingly inept at keeping mine in place.
One great thing about the several road trips we made was that I could take off my scarf while driving in the car on the highways. This was such a treat. But one time a hilarious little episode happened when a car full of men passed us and noticed me with my bare head. They were a bit excited and rolled down their window and took a picture of me as they passed! Reza said we should pass them back and take a picture of them as we passed. So Erik took one while the men hooted and held up the peace sign (as I was clearly a foreigner). So Erik’s in the passenger seat in front taking the photo while Reza is laughing and driving, and I’m torn between laughing and feeling embarrassed. (but naturally, laughing won out)
So anyway, back to the road trip to Kerman. We passed by an expansive salt lake, but sadly, it was mostly shrouded in haze, we could only just make it out. The water in places looked reddish with shores of white salt, and tall mountains in the background. Such a shame we couldn’t see it better. We saw some enormous piles salt, though, which had been harvested, sitting along the road side. I imagine their technology is far more advanced than what I witnessed in Uganda.
We saw an old royal hunting lodge along the way. Like so many ruins in Iran, it seems so lonely and isolated on the plains. In days past, this area was filled with a species of zebra that was popular to hunt. Now there are only a few left in a protected reserve.
Here is an assortment of photos taken through the window of the car to give you an idea of some of the typical scenery we drove through in Iran. It was early spring, so some greenery but not tons. Most of the time the tallest mountains were obscured in haze. Reza said they usually are this time of year. The little huts are where shepherds or farmers might rest or stay for a night. Like in the cities, no one bothers to drive inside a lane on the highway either. Their technique is to straddle the dotted line until a vehicle comes up behind them, then ever so slowly migrate into the right lane to facilitate the faster vehicle's passing. Twice we were almost run off the road by large 18-wheeler trucks neglecting to migrate, or changing migration direction after we're already beside them.
We had a picnic lunch at some random little roadside store/café which had wooden beds with carpets on them outside – this is the equivalent to picnic tables in America -- just a flat surface with a rug (like you can see me sitting on smoking the hooka). Reza says Iranians are world-champion picnickers. So we often joked about competitive picnicking as well as competitive tea drinking, as they are certainly champions of tea, as well. We seemed to drink it perpetually, and Reza even had a thermos of hot tea in the trunk any day we were on the road.
We often stopped at a roadside convenience store (better termed a stall) for some water or a snack. There were often open sacks of nuts and seeds, dried fruits and sweets. It seems to be perfectly fine to graze from these sacks and bins. Many times Reza took something and told us to take some and try it, with the owners standing right there without a care. Once I tried some chocolate-coated popcorn from such a sack. I thought it would be disgusting but it was actually quite good (not good enough to buy some, though). They sell crystallized sugar in giant hunks, it looks like it’s actual rock crystal just mined from a cave or something. They often infuse the sugar with saffron (turning it a light yellow) or other flavoring. If a convenience store can’t make small change for you for your purchase, they’ll just throw in some extra goodies like a candy bar or gum roughly equivalent to the change you are owed. This happened to us several times.
So a light picnic lunch on the way to Kerman, which happens to be Reza’s home town. The nice upshot of this is that he took us to his parents’ house, where he currently lives when he is not busy guiding tourists (which is nearly all the time he is guiding). He was very excited for a home-cooked meal, and we had the honored treat of indulging in his mom’s cooking for dinner, which was outstanding. Perhaps the best meal we had in Iran.
It was interesting to see inside a private home in the city. The main room was very large but it had only a couple couches lining a portion of two of the walls, and a small TV. The rest was just open space covered in several large rug carpets. They eat on the floor, as is traditional, by putting down a cloth and then a plastic cloth on top so it’s easy to clean up. His mom’s kitchen is quite huge with a 6-burner stove. It was strange, by typical Western sensibilities, to see such a large room furnished so sparsely … as if it was meant for a dance hall or something. Like so many moms around the world, Reza’s was tiny and adorable and very kind.
Later that night, Reza took us with him to his friend’s apartment for a small party of sorts. He hadn’t seen his friends for awhile and would be traveling for another solid month after guiding us, so this way he could see his friends and we could get the experience of talking with other Iranians. All of these friends spoke English, and the hosts, a married couple who were teachers, spoke exceptional English. The guy was heavily into American television shows and movies -- it was his primary occupation outside of work -- and they had a gigantic television screen. It’s not difficult for him to download these from the internet. Many people, it turns out, even secretly have satellite dishes. They're technically illegal, as the government doesn't want their flock tainted by filthy foreign films, but just like the citizens find a way to access illegal social media, they find their way to worldwide television, as well ... the average, especially young, person in Iran doesn't live in a bubble, and they feel connected to and amiable with, not opposed to and filled with animosity toward, the Western world. This is one point I want to really drive home to my American readers in particular. Anyway, our host seemed very pleased to discuss these shows and movies with us. Reza told our hosts how much I hated wearing the hijab (headscarf) and they immediately told me to take it off ... in fact the hostess was not wearing one when she greeted us. It was nice to feel comfortable. (Reza's mom served us dinner in full-on chador garb.) We talked a lot, laughed a lot, drank a lot of tea.
It was a late night, we got back to our hotel about 1:30 a.m. but had such a nice experience, one which most American visitors to Iran don’t have the opportunity to enjoy since we are restricted to moving around only with a tour group or guide. Only by luck -- because there were just the two of us, and we happened to get along brilliantly with our guide, and we happened to be in his hometown -- did we get the privilege.
The next day we drove to the ancient citadel of Rayen, a mud-walled city over 1,000 years old and a playground of little labyrinths. We had originally planned to see the old city of Bam which is the exact same style and time period but five times larger. However, it was decimated in an earthquake in 2003 in which 50,000 people died, including several of Reza’s friends. Reza said the completion of its rebuilding is still years away.
Rayen is a walled city with watch towers spaced along the perimeter. During its time, it was a stop along a merchant route, and any merchants wanting to do business within the city had to spend a couple days in quarantine in a small building outside the city walls so they wouldn’t bring in any diseases. Pretty smart thinking for those days.
I was a bit quiet that morning … you know, some days you’re just quieter than others. Reza asked me, “Are you OK?” Erik, overhearing, said, “She’s in heaven. She loves this kind of stuff.” Haha, and he was correct. It was loads of fun exploring. Even though you could see nearly the entire complex from above where it doesn’t look very big, once you get down into it, it’s larger than it looks and really is like a maze ... got lost a couple times.
In addition to the above-ground maze, there is a whole other level of labyrinth below the ground -- of rooms and courtyards and corridors, and even secret passageways. A strange black-shirted figure kept appearing in the doorways. Must have been a Persian goblin or something.
There is a section we explored that you can’t see in the overview photos. Parts have been fully restored and other parts lay in ruins, which I always think is interesting when parts are left un-restored and you can compare it directly to the restorations … interesting also to see which parts and features are the last to deteriorate. In Tunisia, it was always the bathtubs in the ancient Roman and Punic ruins which remained in tact when everything around them had crumbled away. Here it was mostly the frames around windows and niches.
More awesome sights were to come this day, but I think you’ve had quite enough for this post. Will return with Kerman Part 2! We'll close with a common theme in our travel photos ... the "Where's Waldo" shot. For some reason I am often wearing red while traveling, and when Erik takes a picture of me from far away we sometimes call them Where's Waldo shots.
We awoke today with a sense of excitement knowing we would see one of the sights we were most looking forward to on this trip. As we both harbor a deep interest in ancient history, the chance to see the seat of the ancient Persian empire, Persepolis, was something special to us.
Persepolis was the nucleus of the ancient city of Parsa, which was the architectural center of the Achaemenid dynasty, the founding dynasty of the Persian empire. Iranians consider it the representation of “the cradle of their nationhood and culture.” Consider that a few decades ago, Iran celebrated its 2,500th anniversary as a Persian nation. Meanwhile at about the same time, the USA was celebrating its 200th anniversary. Iranians are very proud of their ancient roots and their cohesive existence as a culture through such a vast stretch of time.
Below are some pics of the "Gate of All Lands." Dignitaries and important visitors from other nations had to pass beneath these arches to the audience palace where they could be received. The hallmark of the early Persian empire was the freedom it gave all the nations under its control ... they each were allowed their own cultural freedom and national identity. One could consider Persepolis a kind of ancient "United Nations," the center where they all met for discourse and interaction.
The palaces in the acropolis were built during the years 522 to 486 BC by Darius the Great and succeeding kings of the dynasty. Parsa was burned down in 330 BC by the famous Macedonian, Alexander the Great. Animosity still seems to exist today against the Greeks for this sacrilegious act of destruction (some say it was on purpose, some say by accident, but either way, Alexander was responsible). I find it interesting how such feelings can persist for so many generations (this of course is not a unique phenomenon in the world), how a national psyche can be nurtured over millennia regarding ancient foes.
Standing among such ancient grandeur really gives one a sort of glorious feeling. As if you can briefly grasp how epic the history of human civilization is. I dunno ... I can almost hear triumphant symphonies playing in the background. It's not my nation, not my culture, not my heritage or history, but I feel so proud of it anyway -- just proud of "civilization" in general for its vision, creativity, artistry and diplomacy in the ancient world. One thing the locals are quick to point out about Persepolis is that unlike places such as Bishapour, Persepolis was not built with slave labor, it was a work force free in will.
Imagine … once all of the stone surfaces -- walls, steps and stairways, arches -- were covered in bas relief figures, like these below, and cuneiform writing. In the first photo you can see how the original stone was once a polished black. It must have looked such a splendor. How I wish for a time machine!
A short drive away is the necropolis containing the tombs of several of the Achaemenid kings, including Darius the Great and one whose name I love to say, Xerxes. The Persians were Zoastrians in religion, and a small number of practicing Zoastrians still exist in Iran today. Their ritual for burying the dead was different from any other religion (and actually, the way I personally would very much prefer to be dealt with upon my death). The tombs all have a high shelf in front of the entrance. On this shelf the body was left in the open air to decompose naturally, the flesh to be carried away by various birds and insects. Only after the bones were completely picked clean were they gathered and buried in a simple fashion in the tomb. Later we would see towers for this ritual that were still in use until 50 years ago. But the ancient kings received little more fanfare than any other person at death, excepting of course (the rather large exception) for the elaborate facades carved into the rock cliffs for the tombs.
I really liked these tombs, known locally as Persian crosses. I’ve always wanted to see the Valley of the Kings and the ancient tombs of Egypt, and this felt like being given a small taste of what that might be like. One thing I like about the ruins here and around Bishapour is the evidence of the sudden flight of the people whenever they were conquered by an invading force. In several places, large rock carvings or reliefs had begun and were abandoned suddenly and never finished, such as this large blank space which had been prepped for carving and hastily left behind. Somehow to me this gives the ruins some sort of kinetic energy ... evidence of motion.
We ended our day at the humble ruins of Pasargadae and the tomb the revered king, and founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, Cyrus the Great. Reza was keen to have our photo taken here and published on the blog. I think the monument to this legendary founder is a source of great pride to the Iranian people. Even Alexander the Great spared the tomb while wreaking havoc on the rest of the area and destroying the cities. He actually greatly admired Cyrus the Great. Sometimes it's known as the tomb of the mother of Solomon because the caretakers of the tomb lied to the invading Arab armies who would have destroyed it, and told them it belonged to a figure in Islamic history, King Solomon's mother, and it was therefore protected. Pretty clever of them, eh?
The pittance of remains of the city of Pasargadae were somewhat less than impressive except for the very worthy contemplation of the fleetingness and relative insignificance of human achievement in the face of the long stretch history, which lies ultimately at the mercy of far greater powers than humanity -- nature and weather and time. Erik and I were both thinking the same thing while there – Shelley’s famous poem (one of the exceedingly few poems I ever bothered to memorize): “'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
So Shiraz … lovely city. Reza says it’s his favorite city … among other reasons, because the girls are so pretty.
The first thing this morning, we visited a nice garden with some beautiful poppies in bloom. So nice to have a little interlude of summer, as when we fly back home we’ll be re-entering winter for another month or so. (and FYI, the poppy photo below looks fake or like I jacked up the saturation, but that's just the plain photo ... the flowers were that brilliant)
Then we meandered through the Shiraz bazaar – the old covered alleyways of the traditional market. I wanted to buy a cooler shirt, a “mantou,” which is the name for the requisite type of top for women – long-sleeved shirt that is long enough to cover your butt and buttons all the way up your chest. This is the other maddening dress code for women in addition to the hijab (head covering) … it drives me batty to already be warm inside the hotel room, then to have to don a long-sleeved shirt, of all ridiculous things, and a head scarf. I’m pretty much in a bad mood every day when I close the hotel room door behind me. But within 5 minutes the discomfort is totally forgiven as I become enthralled with the sights. For example ... these from Nasir-al-Molk.
Anyway, I wanted a mantou of lighter, cooler fabric than any I’d brought with me, so Reza helped pick one out for me as well as a new scarf. (Later I would wear that mantou around Reza’s friends and the girls, according to him, liked it and were all clamoring to get one as well when they found out how cheaply I’d acquired it [$10]).
He also mentioned that Shiraz is known for its turquoise. Somehow I ended up inside a jewelry shop in the bazaar and left with a sweet little turquoise ring. While we waited for it to get sized, we talked with the proprietor who sported a most excellent moustache and long, pointy shoes with curled-up tips. He had an interesting collection of stamps including several anti-American ones that were amusing. Too bad I couldn’t mail some postcards with “death to America” stamps on them … that would have been pretty cool. :) ha ha. But it would have confirmed the misperception that Iranians hate Americans. Nothing could be further from the truth as far as we can tell. Anyone who finds out we’re American is quick to express their pleasure at seeing us in their country, and they often express the hope that “we” (our governments/countries) can be friends. They clearly perceive that Americans view them with animosity, as they also often say things like, “See, we’re nice people, we’re not so bad!” Anyway, the anti-American stamps weren’t allowed to be used anymore.
We toured a beautiful little mosque, Nasir-al-Molk, very small compared to most we see. I think the small size accentuated the beauty – the same care in the architecture and tilework and woven rugs as in a large mosque. The rugs, individual people make them and donate them to the mosque, they can take up to several years to make. They hold up remarkably well because of the quality of materials and knots.
Later in Esfahan we would see the carpet weaving process which is quite impressive … up to as many as 169 knots per square centimeter, making for such plush carpet. The handmade carpets typically use natural dyes for the coloring of the wool which don’t fade, even in direct sun. Vegetables, fruits, roots and nuts are the primary ingredients in the dyes. At the moment we’re in Isfahan and currently contemplating buying a small carpet … very small because the prices are pretty astronomical by our humble financial standards. But they are so nice. We’ll see ……
Then we stepped into a theological school where people can get degrees in religious studies. The men walking around inside wore one of two colors of turbans to signify their completion of studies, either black or white. We learned that the color of the turban denotes whether or not you are descended from the prophet Mohammad. Black means you are descended from this line. People can trace their lineage back that far through scrupulously-kept records.
Reza then explained to us two things that I have been wondering about. First, I’ve always heard that Muslims don’t depict animals or people in their decorative artwork, only geometric designs. Why? I wondered. The Sunni apparently believe that the angels are kept away by animated depictions which is why they don’t have such depictions in their artwork. Iranians are overwhelmingly Shia Muslims, though, and don’t necessarily believe this. The second note of interest was to learn the reflecting ponds are typically so large in order to reflect heaven; there is supposed to be heaven on earth, so pools reflect the sky, clouds, heaven.
And then - surprise! - another palace of mirrors awaited us! Narenjestan (Orange Garden) Truly Iran is the land of mirrors. So opulent and spectacular the way they use cut mirror pieces and colored glass. Here's a a nice bunch of pics for you. (you can me more mirror-laden palaces in my Tehran post)
After a siesta we saw the tomb of a famous Persian poet, Hafez. The Persians take their classic poets very seriously and find them and their words and techniques still relevant today.
Then we walked through a mausoleum with spectacular mirrored interior, even more so than the one in Tehran. We met a friend of Reza’s, Samira, who took me through the women’s side of the mausoleum (most religious things are separated into women’s and men’s sides). This time I had my chador more under control than in Tehran. When I walked inside, the sparkled dome was so shocking in its sparkly-ness that I literally almost jumped back and mumbled something like “whoa.” Samira laughed and said she was always amused at the reaction of tourists who are as similarly shocked as I was. (no photos allowed) She is also in the tourist industry, which is how she and Reza know each other.
Then the four of us went out to eat at a restaurant with very modern architecture, as Samira is from Shiraz, she selected for us some signature dishes from the region. And Reza suggested we try orange blossom water, which though sweet, was pretty darn yummy. The Shiraz region is full of many orange trees. When we were staying with the nomads, Erik and I spent some time just wandering around the hillsides and we kept hearing this buzzing sound as if hordes of insects were nearby. We wondered if they could be bees, and later found out (and passed by in the car) there were 500 beehives a little ways away and they feed the bees on the orange blossoms, so the honey has a distinct flavor. The orange water was yummy but very sweet!