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
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 the Darius reception hall 4. A Sasanian relief at the Naqshe-Rostam site 5, 6. Culinary delights in Iran: chicken cooked in walnut paste and pomegranate juice served with rice and chickpeas; Koobideh lamb kebab 7. The wind catcher towers of the old town of Yazd