Seek­ing The Prophet

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - TRAVEL - By Wen­dell Ro­dricks

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 from China to Georgia, 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.

On the walls of the com­plex, you can see cou­plets in Per­sian and San­skrit, and 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 from gas that have been burn­ing for thou­sands of years – through rain and snow. When I stood near the 10-me­tre­long and three-me­tre-high flames that erupted from the bow­els of earth, the force of the fires singed my be­ing with their searing heat.

“Imag­ine what early in­hab­i­tants thought of Ya­nar

Dag,” said our guide. “They were so fright­ened by this force of na­ture that they be­gan to wor­ship the fires. They saw the fires as a sa­cred sign from God”.

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 for 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 were de­nounc­ing as a crazy hol­i­day to a ‘war-torn, un­safe, ter­ror­ist, rad­i­cal coun­try’. Only my Parsi friends sent me off with bless­ings.

When I did the Ev­er­last­ing Flame Par­zor show in Delhi this May, Sh­er­naz Cama of the Par­zor Foun­da­tion of­fered me the famed Gaz nougat of Yazd as a sweet in­tro­duc­tion to Iran, even though my itin­er­ary did not in­clude all the Zoroas­trian places I wanted to see. No fire tem­ple at Takht-e-Suleiman (Solomon’s Throne) from where the Magi left fol­low­ing a star to find the baby Je­sus. No Chak Chak where the eter­nal flame has been burn­ing for over 2,500 years.

“Never mind,” cho­rused my Parsi dikra friends. “As long as you see Perse­po­lis and Yazd, it’s enough for a first trip.”

No mat­ter what you ex­pect of Iran, ac­cept the un­ex­pected. A wealthy, cul­ture­filled coun­try with a hand­some, beau­ti­ful, friendly peo­ple, in­cred­i­ble cui­sine, amaz­ing sites, safe, chic, mod­ern and hos­pitable be­yond be­lief. Its Is­lamic her­itage and history is fab­u­lous: mosques of in­cred­i­ble dec­o­ra­tive el­e­ments, sen­sa­tional mir­rored palaces, fab­rics, cal­lig- ra­phy, fine art and po­etry.

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 size and 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 (yes, 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, Scythia to Ara­bia carved on stone, the vo­lu­mi­nous trea­sury, 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 lonely and al­most 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 of wa­ter­ways from the moun­tains around it. No one could have dreamed that there

The statue of Dar­ius at the Na­tional Mu­seum in Tehran may be bro­ken now, but it is still very re­gal

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