Iran Be­yond The Ob­vi­ous!

Trav­el­ling through Iran, that ‘war torn, un­safe, ter­ror­ist, rad­i­cal coun­try’, turns out to be a beau­ti­ful and spir­i­tu­ally up­lift­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, in­deed

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - FRONT PAGE - By Wen­dell Ro­dricks

TWO YEARS ago, when I trav­elled the Silk Route, we paused at Azer­bai­jan. The city of Baku took me by sur­prise. It blended mod­ern Dubai with an an­cient cul­ture. But what re­ally stayed with me was the Atesh­gah Fire Tem­ple: a pen­tag­o­nal com­plex with a tetra pil­lar al­tar that once spewed flames. It was a re­li­gious cen­tre for Per­sians and In­dian Hin­dus till 1883, when the dis­cov­ery of oil ex­tin­guished the source of the flames.

The next day, I saw the Atesh­gah logo on the fa­mous Al­fred No­bel house. That same af­ter­noon, we trav­elled to Ya­nar Dag, a moun­tain not far from the city. It is an as­tound­ing site. On the ridge of the moun­tain face were fires that have been burn­ing for thou­sands of years – through rain and snow. When I stood near the 10-me­tre-long and three-me­tre-high flames, the force of the fires singed my be­ing with their sear­ing heat.

It is from this area of the Caspian Sea that fire wor­ship­pers be­gan their re­li­gion. Not far from here, in what was then the Per­sian em­pire, came the prophet Zarathus­tra. His­to­ri­ans can­not de­cide his ex­act birth year (be­tween 628 and 551 BCE), or his birth­place. It could have been in east or west Iran; pos­si­bly even north Afghanistan.

I was al­ways fas­ci­nated by this prophet who started life as a hum­ble cob­bler and was mur­dered by the Daevas peo­ple. He was the per­son who saw the One God in the sa­cred flames. His be­liefs would set the tone of Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam many cen­turies later.

So that night, af­ter Ya­nar Dag, I de­cided I must visit Iran. For the Prophet and for Perse­po­lis. The lat­ter had been on my bucket list since 1982 when I worked in Oman, just across the Strait of Hor­muz. So near yet so far.

When the em­bargo on Iran was lifted last year, I called Cox & Kings and re­quested a 10-day itin­er­ary for what most of my friends de­nounced as a crazy hol­i­day to a ‘war torn, un­safe, ter­ror­ist, rad­i­cal coun­try’. Only my Parsi friends sent me off with bless­ings.

No mat­ter what you ex­pect of Iran, ac­cept the un­ex­pected. A wealthy, cul­ture-filled coun­try with a hand­some, friendly peo­ple, in­cred­i­ble cui­sine, amaz­ing sites, chic and hos­pitable be­yond be­lief.

We breezed into Shi­raz, that rose-filled, fra­grant city of palaces, mosques and mon­u­ments. And the next day, my three-decade-old dream be­came a re­al­ity.

Noth­ing, noth­ing, can pre­pare you for Perse­po­lis. The sheer scale of the site leaves you with many dropped-jaw mo­ments. From the minute you climb the grand stair­way to the lobby of Darius the Great’s re­cep­tion cham­ber to the minute you leave the site, you are dumb­struck. Those col­umns that rise into the air pierc­ing the sky (there was a roof that cov­ered it at one time, with tim­ber and tiles from the far-flung cor­ners of the Per­sian em­pire), the grand pro­ces­sions of vis­it­ing for­eign dig­ni­taries from Egypt to the In­dus carved on stone, tem­ple af­ter tem­ple, palace af­ter palace... Perse­po­lis is Per­sian Zoroas­tri­an­ism at peak per­fec­tion.

Nearby are the tombs of Darius, Xerxes and Ar­tax­erxes carved into the cliff face of Naqsh-e Rostam: a site of im­pres­sive splen­dour that in­cludes Sasa­nian bas-re­liefs.

A one-hour drive away is the hum­ble tomb of Cyrus the Great, sit­ting melan­cholic on a vast windswept plain, sur­rounded by a few ru­ins around the main tomb.

On our Zoroas­trian quest, past Ker­man, the Ka­luts Desert, Ma­han and Car­a­vanserais along the an­cient Silk Route, we fi­nally ar­rive in ro­man­tic Yazd. This hid­den city of the desert es­caped the con­quest and de­struc­tion of Alexan­der the Great and Genghis Khan. The dry land­scape hid the fact that Yazd is wa­tered by a com­plex tun­nel sys­tem from the moun­tains around it. No one could have dreamed that there was a thriv­ing city be­hind the bar­ren moun­tains. The old city, the wind­catch­ing tow­ers, the Amir Chak­magh com­plex, the mosques, the Wa­ter Mu­seum and the world-pro­tected Dowlatabad Gar­den are all must-see sites. A one-day trip from

Yazd lies the old city of Chak Chak. It is here that the old­est ever­last­ing flame burns, from over 2,500 years ago. But we did not have a day at our dis­posal. So we set­tled for the 1,500-year-old flame at the Fire Tem­ple in Yazd.

When we ar­rived, a sand storm and rain shower col­lec­tively hit the city. Hud­dling in a build­ing op­po­site the Fire Tem­ple, we climbed to the first floor that of­fers a bird’s eye view of the tem­ple.

Later, I stood be­fore the Sa­cred Flame and felt blessed. The emo­tion is over­pow­er­ing and must be ex­pe­ri­enced. To be near a fire that has been burn­ing be­fore many civil­i­sa­tions on earth were born... in­cred­i­ble!

On the out­skirts of Yazd, you ap­proach what was once the far outer reaches of the city. To­day there are two Tow­ers of Si­lence that stand tes­ta­ment to Iran’s Zoroas­trian past. Both can be ac­cessed by foot. The au­thor­i­ties coaxed the Zoroas­tri­ans to shut down the tow­ers for health rea­sons, so since the ’70s, they’ve been buried in the ceme­tery below.

From the rim of the Tow­ers of Si­lence, you look down at a se­ries of mud struc­tures and the city of Yazd in the dis­tance. It is a lonely emo­tion. Much like what I felt when I walked through the Na­tional Mu­seum in Tehran a few days later. The many Zoroas­trian ob­jects on dis­play re­count the his­tory of a great civil­i­sa­tion and re­li­gion, which are now iso­lated, yet per­se­ver­ing.

From Perse­po­lis to Yazd and on to Tehran, what I went to Iran for was ac­com­plished. I have left Chak Chak for an­other trip. It is an ex­cuse to re­turn and com­plete my Zoroas­trian Ira­nian odyssey.


CAST IN STONE The statue of Dar­ius at the Na­tional Mu­seum in Tehran is bro­ken but still re­gal




2 ON THE TRAIL OF AN­CIENT FIRES 1. The re­cep­tion hall of Dar­ius the Great at Perse­po­lis 2. The site of Naqsh-e-Rostam with the royal tombs of Dar­ius, Xerxes and Ar­tax­erxes carved into the cliff 3. Re­cur­ring mo­tif of a bull and lion that is found at...



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