Monday, May 18, 2009

Iran & Syria - Part 2

Saturday, April 4 began with a visit to the Karim Khan Citadel and Baths. King Karim Khan ruled during the Zand Dynasty in the mid-18th Century. He built this fortress and lived in it. Later it served as the governor’s headquarters and then, in the 1920’s, was converted into a prison. Now it is a museum.

What most captured my attention at the Citadel was a display of old black and white photographs. They provided a glimpse of life in Shiraz a hundred or more years ago. Or at least life for those at the top end of society. It was reminiscent of the way Indian maharajahs and nawabs lived in those days.

Karim Khan was also responsible for building the Vakil Mosque and Bazaar, both of which I found impressive. As a generalization, every major mosque in Iran is a wonder to behold. This is not the place, nor do I have the requisite expertise, to discuss each mosque we saw in a way that distinguishes one from the other. For that I suggest you consult books or articles on the subject and look at pictures.

It is possible, however, to provide a short primer on Persian mosques. Typically they have a dome and an entrance eivan, a barrel-vaulted structure, that leads into a large courtyard surrounded by arched cloisters. Behind these are four inner eivans, one for each direction of the compass. One eivan includes a mihrab that faces toward Mecca. Sometimes the roof of the inner chamber is held up by dozens of columns.

What makes Persian architecture unique is the lavish use of surface ornamentation and color. Tiles decorate the walls and domes not only of mosques, but also shrines, tombs, and more. The peak period for tile making was the Safavid era (1502-1722). Tiles are made in two ways. The best tiles are mosaics, tiny pieces that fit together to form a whole. Less prestigious are square tiles with a painted surface, called “seven colored” tiles. No matter how the tiles are made, the array of colors and overall impact of these structures is staggering.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that bazaars are where life happens. Call them by whatever name suits you – bazzars, souks, markets, malls – their common purpose is to entice people into (usually) tight spaces to facilitate shopping. These are the places where everyday tasks are done. But it’s more than just doing business or buying things. In the bazaar people relate to each other. They trade information, gossip, argue, brag, opinionate, laugh.

I love these markets. I may not be able to speak the language, but I can observe what’s going on, see how people behave with each other. I can feel the energy, the pulse, of the place. Always, no matter where in the world I am, I’m struck by how much the atmosphere is at the same time foreign, alien to me, and familiar. Walk through a bazaar in Asia or the Middle East and you’ll see how much people are both different and the same. Watch the children at play. The games may be different but their enthusiasm is universal. Watch the women talking to each other. They may be covered head to toe in black chadors in the Vakil Bazaar, but as they lean toward each other in an animated conversation, they could be anywhere. Have I mentioned that I love these places?

U.S. economic sanctions against Iran have been in place for 30 years. In some ways trade and financial restrictions have had an impact. For example, even though Iran is OPEC’s second largest oil producer, most of which it exports, sanctions have made it difficult for Iran to maintain its refineries, so domestically petrol is in short supply. Also, high oil prices helped Iran provide subsidies for its people, but as the price of oil has fallen the subsidies have been reduced.

Even with these negative economic realities, in the Vakil Bazaar and the other marketplaces we visited in Iran we saw few signs of scarcity or a lack of willing buyers. The shops were stocked with a wide variety of items, many of which were imported. Obviously we didn’t conduct a serious research study, but our impression was that at least at the bazaar level Iranians were doing OK.

Having said that, we did hear complaints from younger people that it is hard to get ahead financially, that jobs are hard to get, that salaries are not high so it is hard to save, that real estate to buy or rent is expensive so they have to continue living with their parents when they’d rather be out on their own, that they had to delay getting married because they can’t afford it.

We followed our Bazaar stroll with lunch at another impressive eating establishment, the Sharze restaurant. We had a table upstairs, looking down on an attractive central courtyard and musicians who were doing a great job of entertaining us.

After lunch we went to the Shah-e-Cheragh Shrine. The shrine houses the remains of Sayyed Mir Ahmad (brother of Imam Reza, who was a descendent of Mohammed and the 8th of the 12 Imams of Islam), who died in 835 AD. Now, this one is a serious piece of work.

Mehdi kind of hustled us into the place without really explaining what was going on. First, Sandra needed to go off to the side and get a chador to wear. It was typical of what is provided for female visitors at many mosques and shrines – a brown, tent-like garment that is worn over the clothes you have on and covers you head to toe. It is difficult to keep closed, so for the novice it is clumsy to wear.

Then he headed her off to what turned out to be an entrance for women. Until then we hadn’t realized we would have separate entrances. Sandra, not knowing what to do next, went inside. As it turned out once she was inside some women took her in tow and guided her through the process.

Mehdi then hurried me off to the men’s entrance. He was obviously concerned about how Sandra would fare, so I spent less time inside than I would have liked. He didn’t want her to come out before we were finished and not know where we were.

I’d never experienced anything like this shrine. The inside was reminiscent of the Hamze Shrine in that the walls and ceiling were covered with countless tiny mirrors that gave off multicolored reflections that were dazzling. There was a decorated floor to ceiling wall in the middle that divided our side from the female side and in essence made one half of the tomb itself available to be seen and touched by each sex.

For Shiites, visiting Shah-e-Chergagh is an important pilgrimage. It is clearly an emotional experience, and many people were quite vocal in expressing their emotions. I was fully occupied in just taking it all in. I would have liked to take pictures but photography is not allowed.

Mehdi gave me just one instruction: when starting to leave I should back away toward the exit so as not to turn my back on the revered tomb. I followed his instructions, and all too soon we were outside again. Sandra, of course, was in no hurry, so we waited some time before she appeared. For both of us, Shah-e-Chergagh was one place we’d have no trouble remembering.

Our final stop of the day was at the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque. It won’t surprise you to hear that it, like all the others, is lovely. But in just two days we’d overloaded on Islamic monuments of various types. It was time to relook at our schedule with Mehdi.

We were originally scheduled to stay in Shiraz the next day, April 5, and see more mosques, palaces, gardens, etc. Then on April 6 we’d head out of Shiraz toward a small village, Bavanat. En route to Bavanat we’d stop at Persepolis, Iran’s best-known ancient site dating back 2,500 years, and the nearby necropolis, i.e., rock tombs of the Persian kings, and the tomb of Cyrus in a place called Pasargadae.

Our favorite lover of old stones, Ms. Marsh, had a different idea. How about we go to Persepolis and environs tomorrow and then if the spirit moved us we’d have time for a second stop on the way to Bavanat? While Persepolis itself gets the most attention, the necropolis and Cyrus’ tomb were on her agenda and she wanted to make sure that we left no (old) stone unturned and saw everything. Accepting this plan would require Mehdi to alter his idea about what we should do and when (a challenge for him) and he would also need to make some logistical changes. After some conversation the new plan was accepted. We’d go to Persepolis (about an hour drive from Shiraz) tomorrow.

But we still had dinner in front of us today, and it was to be a special one. We’d been invited by Mohammed Yazdanpanah to dine with him and his family at his home. Mohammed owns and manages our tour agency, Let’s Go Iran. We realized that for him this was a business dinner, but for us it was another chance to have a meal in an Iranian home.

Mohammed is an impressive guy. He’s about 35 and very entrepreneurial. When I was investigating various tour agencies to decide which one to use, I didn’t realize that several agencies with different names are owned by the same person. It turns out Mohammed owns about six agencies and has a number of other tourism-related businesses.

My assumption is that Mohammed was particularly interested in taking good care of us because we’re Americans. Compared to tourism in other countries, even though Iran has much that could attract tourists its tourist industry is small. And in terms of American tourists, it is tiny. Most of the people traveling to Iran are Europeans. If relations between our two countries improve it is likely that the American market will open up. Mohammed is well aware of this.

He lives with his family in a large house passed down to him through his family. His living quarters and furnishings are upscale. The first thing we noticed upon entering was a huge flat-screen TV tuned to a Los Angeles-based Iranian station. Also at dinner were Mohammed’s wife Lada, Mohsen, his younger brother who had been our driver for the first two days, and a friend who owns a well-known Shiraz restaurant, Teen.

Lada was wearing western dress and told Sandra she was free to take off her “uniform.” Sandra was thrilled to be rid of her head scarf, at least for a few hours. Then Mohammed offered us drinks. I was surprised, but probably shouldn’t have been. I’d heard that in the privacy of their own homes many Iranians disregarded the prohibitions in force when they were elsewhere. He had vodka and scotch. I opted for vodka over ice. It would be the only booze I had in Iran, and I totally enjoyed it.

The dinner and the evening were also totally enjoyable. Mohsen is just finishing an engineering degree and will soon go into the military for his 2-year mandatory service. Lada seems quite westernized and bemoaned the fact that she hadn’t been given permission to travel to Sweden, where she has a married sister. The Teen owner (I can’t remember his name) brought the food from his restaurant, which was delicious. Had I not known otherwise I would have assumed it was home cooked. We must have had a good time. It was almost midnight by the time we got back to the hotel.

For our drive to Persepolis and for the next 10 days until we flew back to Tehran we had a different car and driver. It was now Mahyar and his bright yellow cab. Mahyar is 29, married and expecting his first child. He has studied computer science but hasn’t yet found a job that allows him to use the skills he learned in the university. He fancies himself as an English speaker but has only limited facility in the language. Mahyar is a very nice guy but is not the brightest light in the chandelier. He lacks whatever it takes to learn from the past and not make the same mistake repeatedly. But our relationship with him was as a driver, and he’s very good at that job. I doubt there’s a person alive who could drive a vehicle I’m riding in and score at the top level on everything I care about, but Mahyar would come close.

Which reminds me – what is it like to drive in Iran? Well, the answer comes in two parts. There is driving on the highway and there is driving in cities. About the former, not many problems. The highways are easy. They are well maintained, the traffic is light, and there seems to be an acceptable level of courtesy on the road.

Driving in the cities inspires a one-word description: insane. Traffic is heavy. There is a winner-take-all mentality. There is no readily apparent concern for the other guy irrespective of whether the other guy is in a car, on a motor scooter or is a pedestrian. In a society where the rules of the game are different for men and women, I saw no sign that sex matters in urban traffic. Nor does being young or old make any difference. Everyone is fair game for the traffic predators, and to be out on the streets assures that you will be either the hunter or the hunted – or both. The only possible exception is large vehicles. Trucks and buses have an advantage and they make full use of it.

As an observer, the only thing that surprised me was that there were not more accidents. Vehicles entering a line of heavy, moving traffic barely slowed down. They forced their way in. And once in the traffic they constantly maneuvered for an advantage, forcing the car next to them to move over, slow down, speed up or stop. The process was never ending. And it seemed to be done without emotion. When someone lost their little mini-war with the next guy they didn’t show any anger. I didn’t see fist waving or hollering or horn blowing. It was just on to the next battle.

As a pedestrian I was a frightened novice. Intersections and crosswalks guaranteed nothing in the way of safety. On a busy street I’d ally myself with others who were waiting to cross, and then move out when they moved out – hoping that our numbers would act as an inhibitor for the bad guys. It must have worked; I didn’t get run down or injured.

Mahyar’s car wasn’t the newest item on the highway, but it was medium size and under most circumstances would have been acceptable. But I had a concern about whether all our luggage would fit in the trunk. We had two large and two small suitcases. If you know me you know that I don’t assume everything is going to be OK. When my instinct tells me that something may be wrong or could go wrong I want to find out in advance whether my concern is justified or not.

I looked at the trunk space. I didn’t think it was large enough. But both Mehdi and Mahyar assured me there would be no problem. I expressed my doubt that they were right, but since we wouldn’t be packing up and leaving Shiraz with our luggage until the next day I decided to let it go until then. I’ll return for the conclusion of this saga in a little while. Today would be about going to Persepolis.

We went to the rock tombs, called Naqsh-e Rostam, first. They are magnificent. Cut out of a cliff high above the ground are four tombs. While there is some debate about it, they are believed to be the resting place of the Archaemenid kings who ruled from 522-404 BC, Darius I, Artaxerxes I, Xerxes I and Darius II. The openings of the tombs lead to funerary chambers where bones were stored after vultures had picked them clean. Alexander sacked these tombs in 330 BC. Below the openings are impressive, well-preserved bas-reliefs that honor monarchs from the Second (Sassanian) Persian Empire that began in 224 AD.

Facing the cliff is a half-submerged stone cube building thought to have been an ancient fire temple. In a fire temple (Surprise!) fire is worshipped. This is in contrast to other temples in which an image is worshipped. I think Mehdi and Sandra were more fascinated by this old cube than I was.

Our final stop before lunch was Naqsh-e Rajab, nearby cliffs in which were carved more large, monumental Sassanian bas-reliefs depicting various military campaigns and victories. While the scenes themselves were impressive, I was amazed that after something like 1,700 years these out-in-the-open rock carvings are in such good shape. I would have thought that erosion and/or earthquakes plus destructive conquerors would have destroyed them.

We ate lunch at Cane Tavoos (don’t know what it means), an open-air eatery that exists solely to feed Persepolis visitors. It is an attractive space, with the tables set among trees and next to a pond. Here, as elsewhere in Iran, two things were ubiquitous – music and birds. Rarely were we in a public space in which no music was playing, and most of it was traditional Persian sounds that I found pleasant, not intrusive. So too with birds. They were everywhere. Mostly small birds with small tweets that were easy to enjoy.

For a lover of old stones it doesn’t get much better than Persepolis. As you know, I find it hard to visualize how ancient ruins might have looked in their heyday. What I see, to repeat myself, is old stones. But even for an ornery resister like me, what remains today at Persepolis is sufficient to get a sense of what it was like between about 518 BC when Darius the Great began building his empire’s capitol city to when Alexander burned it down in 330 BC. It was obviously extraordinary.

The columns, gateways, staircases, statuary, palaces, bas-reliefs, and the sheer scale of the city combine to leave the viewer awestruck and maybe even a little humbled by it all. I’m told that while Persian in ideology and design, Persepolis incorporated architecture and artistry gathered from throughout what was a vast empire.

I won’t go into detail about our visit to Persepolis. There are more than enough words and pictures easily available online and elsewhere. We spent both an afternoon and the morning of the next day wandering through the site. It may be the most memorable part of our exploration occurred as we walked down the main staircase of the Apadana Palace.

The wall of the staircase is covered with three tiers of bas-reliefs that depict a procession of 23 delegations bringing their tributes to the king. At the top of the staircase Mehdi told us where the first delegation was from, described the unique aspects of their dress, pointed out the various gifts they were bringing, revealed the little-known symbolism that could be seen in the panel, and more. I thought, “Well, that’s interesting. I wonder if he’ll do that for any of the other delegations.” I should have known. He talked about each and every delegation in detail. All 23 of them. We heard about the Arabs, Thracians, Indians, Parthians, Cappadocians, Elamites, Medians, and the rest. If was a tour de force.

We called it a day about halfway through what there was to see. Sandra had been brilliant in suggesting we organize this day and the next so there was time for a return to Persepolis if we wanted. Which we did. We finished our walkthrough in the morning and then went to Pasargadae to see the Tomb of Cyrus, which was also on the way to Bavanat. I could have done without Cyrus and other ruins in Pasargadae. Maybe it was because they paled in comparison after Persepolis and the rock tombs. Maybe it was because I was over my limit of so many old stones jammed into two days. Maybe it was because they were just boring. Any explanation will do.

On our ride to and from Persepolis I noticed trash and litter everywhere I looked alongside the highway. At first I thought it might be an isolated instance that could be explained. But the more we traveled the more it became clear that this is just the way it is in Iran. It’s really a shame, since the natural beauty of the countryside is phenomenal. It’s like a massive garbage dump has been spread out to cover every nook and cranny. There were some places, like deep into the desert, where the trash thinned out, but that was a rare exception. Even when we drove through unpopulated areas we saw a lot of debris. I can only assume it is the result of decades of irresponsible behavior and neglect.

We were about to spend our final night in Shiraz. We realized that this was our only stop in Iran where we’d be able to settle into a four-night stay in one hotel. For the next ten days we’d be in each place only one or two nights. Barely enough time to unpack. But we’d knowingly set it up this way, so we weren’t inclined to complain.

The itinerary also required many hours of driving most days. I’ve mentioned my concern about whether Mahyar’s car had enough room for our luggage. It turns out when we were preparing to leave the next morning my fears were realized. One of our large bags and the two small ones would fit in the trunk, but not both large ones. “Don’t worry,” Mehdi said, “we’ll put it on top of the car.”

I didn’t like the idea – at all. But I couldn’t see another way other than changing car and driver, which didn’t seen like a practical solution at this late date. There’s a subplot here. We had contracted to have one person who would be both a guide and driver. It was clear that the agency was having a problem finding such a person. We learned later that there are very few guide/drivers, and Mehdi isn’t one. He’d told us at the beginning he wasn’t sure if he’d be with us for the entire trip. He didn’t say that they hadn’t been able to find a guide/driver (this was the high season and guides were in demand) but we could figure out what was going on. Our hope was that even though we’d paid for one person we’d end up with Mehdi and a driver, which is what happened. Thus my conclusion that changing car and driver wasn’t a practical solution.

Back to the lack of luggage space. Mehdi and Mahyar started to tie the suitcase to the luggage rack on top of the car. They were hopeless. No way would the bag not fall off. One of the men from the hotel came to the rescue and did a competent job of securing the suitcase. So now we were ready to go – almost. I asked if they had a cover for the bag, since the weather was changeable and it was sure to rain, if not today then someday soon. No, no cover. So we had to stop to buy a tarp. With that in hand we were ready to head to Persepolis and on to Bavanat.

The ‘let’s put the suitcase on the roof of the car’ chapter only lasted for the first leg of the drive. By the time we arrived in Persepolis, even though the thing was securely tied on and we were (kind of) prepared for rain, my displeasure with this solution boiled over. We had to find a way to get the bag inside the car with us. We found that we could wedge it into the space between the two seats in front, which meant it was partially between Mahyar and Medhi and partially between Sandra and me. For us, we now had less space in an already limited back seat area. But it was better than leaving the bag on the roof. Sandra and I switched seats every day to distribute the discomfort fairly.


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