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Persepolis and Shiraz

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Ah, Shiraz; the city of poetry, of gardens and roses, and the city of wine. Well, not so much of the last bit since 1979, but the others are intact. We spent a couple of days in Shiraz to wind up our grand tour of the big name sights of Iran, and found it to be a nice spot even if not up to the high standards of Esfahan and Yazd.

Our trip to Shiraz from Yazd was a bit wearing. We ended up with no option but to take a night bus down there. We got the VIP service, which gave the standard of comfort we have come to expect from Iranian buses, but the driver seemed to be a frustrated rallying fan who threw the bus around the twisting roads for the whole night. At one point we swore the bus went airborne over a particularly steep rise in the road! When we stopped at daybreak for a prayer/pee break, Grant got out to stretch his legs and discovered that two guys were sprawled out sleeping in the baggage compartment under the bus.  One had a plaster on his leg and crutches, so perhaps this is the definition of disabled access?!


On our first day we took a local guide for a look around Persepolis, the ancient ruined city near Shiraz. This is one of THE tourist sights of Iran, showing even in its ruins the magnificence of the Achaemenid Empire. The city was built as a showpiece by the empire around 518 BC, and took almost 200 years to complete. It is thought the city was only used for about one month a year, for new year celebrations. The whole city was burned to the ground (at least the timber parts – the stone survived) by Alexander the Great, when he invaded Persia in 330BC and then was lost for centuries, only being excavated in the 1930s!

Persepolis was to prove the sight of the downfall of another Persian regime much more recently: in 1971, the Shah invited the leading dignitaries of the world to Persepolis for a party that redefined extravagance. The occasion was the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy and no expense was spared in housing visiting monarchs in lavish “tented accommodation” and flying in catering from Paris. It was to be one of the last anniversaries the Shah would celebrate as opponents – disgusted by the wastage - overthrew the monarchy before the decade was over.

Persepolis is a ruined city so a certain amount of imagination is required to picture how grand it was in its day. However, our guide, Sara, knew the place inside out and spared no explanations as we went around the site.  Also, the detail of the carvings that have been preserved is miraculous, although it seems that the best pieces (with original colours intact) have been seized by museums in London, Paris and Chicago.

We started at Necropolis (Naqsh-E Rostam), next to Persepolis, where the remains of four Persian kings are buried in tombs high up on a sheer mountain face. The carvings on the mountain face date from 1000BC and the oldest grave is that of Darius I (died 486BC). The site is overpowering not only for its age, but also for the details that are still clear three millennia later. People carved these tombs and reliefs by hand and the work still makes your jaw drop today.

Necropolis, where four Persian kings are buried – the scale of the carvings and the age of the site are mind-boggling

From Necropolis it was a short hop to Persepolis where we were greeted by a pair of sphinx-like creatures at the entrance to the ancient city, which sits on a platform of enormous odd-shaped stone blocks, all still perfectly intact.

The entrance to Persepolis is guarded by these ancient sphinx-like statues

Our guide took us through each section of the site in exhaustive detail, talking through the significance of all the carvings, how the city was built block by block, and how it was run. A few photos below give a flavour of the place.

Only a few of the original pillars still remain in place – still standing after all these years

Some of the beautiful carvings remain incredibly well preserved

“Yes, very interesting…” – Sara’s descriptions were perhaps a bit too detailed for Grant

While at Persepolis we witnessed a funny exchange between a Chinese tourist and an Iranian guy. We saw them from a distance sharing a laugh and swapping contact details, then as we approached we overheard the Chinese bloke tell his guide in English: "he wants to be Facebook friends with me". We thought it was hilarious that two guys from countries whose regimes ban Facebook should be adding each other to their friends lists! Of course, we have discovered through travelling in these places that everyone can access banned sites through VPNs - but then why do these regimes spend so much money and effort swimming against the tide? 

Shiraz city

We enjoyed a couple of days wandering Shiraz in pretty hot conditions. It is known as the city of poets, as two of Iran’s national poets – Hafez and Sa’di – are buried here, and generally has a reputation for sophistication.

Initially, we didn’t find the Shirazis to be as friendly as people in other parts of Iran but that perhaps had more to do with us having just stepped off a night bus than with the residents themselves! Unsurprisingly, we ended up meeting lots of friendly people when we spent more time in the city. One young guy with better English than most started chatting to Grant on a square on the last day. He asked, as always, what we thought of Iran and was clearly happy to hear how much we like the country. He became serious as he lamented the government and the bad image they create of the country overseas (a common theme in conversation with people here – even people with the most limited English can still exclaim to us: “Iran good, Islamic Republic bad!”). He asked us earnestly to tell everyone in Europe how much we like Iran and that it is not like the media portrays it; we said we would, and he left us with a smile and a wave. Imagine our surprise when our new friend returned two minutes later from a shop across the square brandishing two bottles of cold mango juice. “It is so hot, I thought you would like these”, he told us as he insisted we take the bottles he had just bought. We gratefully accepted and he left us with a smile: no strings attached, just another random act of kindness by a friendly citizen.

When we saw this comedy sign, we just had to sample the ice cream – Helena was happy to join in “the experiment”!

Typical friendly Iranian greetings at the ice cream parlour

On the first night, we hit a traditional restaurant where we were serenaded by a resident club singer and his backing band, playing Persian classics.  The guy at the table next to us started translating the lyrics of the love song for us, and explained that the lyrics were about as explicit as the regime would allow to be played in public. He also clarified that, of course, only men may sing in public. We listened and only after a while the words started to sink in and we got increasingly agitated. It may seem like a trivial example to be upset about when there are so many to choose from in I.R. Iran. But singing is part of what makes us human, and by banning women from doing this, the regime effectively dehumanises women. Some people with power consider women to be second rate citizens and will therefore deny them the right to sing in public. Moments like these remind you of the incredibly repressive and evil regime of the country you are visiting. 

We took in a lot of sights in Shiraz, but a few are worth particular mention. 

Hafez, a national poet of Iran, is buried in a private cemetery/park on the north side of the city. It is said that the works of Hafez often sit alongside the Koran in Iranian homes and are referred to for spiritual guidance by the people of this country (notwithstanding that most of his poems deal with lusty romance themes and contain copious references to wine – not exactly “on message” with today’s regime!). We wandered up there one evening to watch streams of pilgrims visit his mausoleum and the surrounding gardens. We did not see any people moved to tears by the combination of poetry and ambiance, as reported by the guidebook, but perhaps we didn’t stay long enough.

Hafez’s mausoleum and surrounding gardens

You might have thought we would be through with mosques after the mosque-fest of Esfahan, but we were very glad to see the Nasir-al-Molk mosque in Shiraz, which has an incredible Winter Prayer Hall. In this room, light passing through the ornate stained glass windows falls on beautiful carved pillars and ornate ceiling tiling to give an amazing effect.

Winter Prayer Hall in Nasir-al-Molk mosque

The outside is pretty nice as well, especially the pink colours of the tiling

We also hit the Aramgah-E Shah-E Cheragh, one of Shi’ism’s holiest sites. It is a huge mosque complex with an interior covered in various shades of reflective mirrors and glass - deco that looks more like a 70s night club than the usual Iranian mosaics we have become used to. Men and women are strictly segregated but we both made it inside to see pilgrims flocking around the tomb of Sayyed Mir Ahmad, martyred on this site in AD 835.  At the front of the mosque, an Imam sat behind a desk with a microphone spoke a sermon that reverberated around the whole complex over loudspeakers. We obviously had no clue what he was saying, but in any case many of the worshippers seemed more keen to snooze in corners of the mosque than to listen.

Aramgah-E Shah-E Cheragh

We also saw the fort that sits in the middle of Shiraz, the Arg-E Karim Khan. It doesn’t look much from the outside, but inside it has some tranquil gardens and really beautiful old hamam area in the basement. We also stood and watched a craftsmen demonstrating how to make intricate Iranian wooden accessories. It was funny that the technique and result seemed to be almost identical to what we had admired in Hakone in Japan – two ancient civilizations independently producing the same craftwork.

Inside Arg-E Karim Khan’s gardens

The Iranian handicraft and the craftsman – strikingly similar to what we saw in Japan

The beautiful hamam area underneath the building

After a couple of days in the heat of Shiraz we felt we had done the sights and were happy to board a plane back to Tehran and the comfort of Eric’s home. We were booked on Air Mahan and were pleased to see that our plane was an old Airbus and not one of the ubiquitous Russian planes used in Iran. “In the name of God, welcome to Air Mahan”, the captain bellowed over the PA at 35,000 feet: a strange greeting to European ears, but it felt good to have God onside under the circumstances. The inflight entertainment on the big screen was a bizarre mixture of live shots from the Air Mahan cockpit showing our flight in progress, spliced together with archive footage of fighter jets pulling hair-raising loop-the-loops. It was hard to keep track of which clips were the live ones from our flight and which were part of the featured kamakazi entertainment: needless to say, quite disconcerting! We were relieved to land in Tehran without having pulled any actual 360 degree loops, as far as we were aware…

Posted by Grantandhelena 10:30 Archived in Iran

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What cultural and historical experiences you get. Here you hike in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. (However, you seem to not burn down cities.) You see a lot, and also have time to write so interesting travel stories. To say the least, very impressive. You have warm weather. In contrast to our conditions. This morning we had + 10.6 degrees, windy and rainy, not exactly summer weather.

by Gunhild & P G

Again so much culture to take in on this trip to Shiraz and as always so well written to hold our attention! xx

by Anne and Bill

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