A Travellerspoint blog

These churches rock!


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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Perhaps it's a sign of our ignorance, but at first there weren't many obvious stops for our tour around Ethiopia. But, if there was one place we knew we wanted to see, it was the rock churches of Lalibela, allegedly one of the most impressive sights in the country. To get there, we could choose between an uncomfortable and lengthy two day bus ride or a quick and inexpensive flight with Ethiopian Airlines. We quickly decided on the latter option.

At Lalibela airport. In the background the type of propeller plane that would take us around Ethiopia

The rural town of Lalibela has the most beautiful setting, surrounded by rolling hills and mountains. The town itself is quite typical,  with dirt roads, simple houses and lots of cafes and movement. There is a constant accompaniment of Ethiopian pop hits being blasted out from the local music shop.


Tourists come to Lalibela to see its rock churches which date from the 11th century. According to legend, King Lalibela had the help of angels in making at least one of the rock churches in "the new Jerusalem" (established to avoid Muslim/Christian clashes along the pilgrimage route to the actual Jerusalem in those days). Angels or not, the work put into making these churches is just astonishing. They are not built but rather carved straight out of rocks in the ground. In other words - where there once were huge rocks, there are now churches. You can see all over the constructions the marks of the hand tools used to scrape the rock away.

Our guide Sata - a.k.a. "The Deacon" - and in the background, Bet Medhane Alem, the first church we entered and the biggest monolithic rock-hewn church in the world

Inside Bet Medhane Alem

With us we had our "deacon-turned-tour guide" Sata, a nice and knowledgeable man with a sometimes challenging accent (we believe we got around 60% of what he said). In addition to having the various sights explained to us, another benefit of having a guide is that he could phone and find absent priests to have them unlock the doors to the churches. No priest, no entry here! Over two days, we visited the 13 churches within Lalibela, as well as hiking up to a monastery on a mountain next to the town.

It is impossible to describe Lalibela without getting into the history of the place and well as that of Ethiopia. The history of Christianity is very old in Ethiopia. It was one of the first countries to convert to the new religion in the fourth century AD (that's earlier than Scotland and Sweden for example!). The Queen of Sheba, who is mentioned in the Old Testament, was from Cush, the old Ethiopian kingdom. She apparently got on so well with Salomon the Wise that they had a son,  who became the first emperor of a dynasty which ended only (according to legend) with Haile Selassie and his death in 1975. 

Today's Christian Orthodox Church has changed little since 400 AD. It is interesting to see the similarities and inevitable differences from the types of Christianity we know from Europe: Jesus has dark skin in all the pictures you see in churches here; priests can marry here, but only once; women cannot be ordained in Ethiopia and are banned from various religious sites; homosexuality is deeply taboo and homophobia abbounds. It is also interesting to see the obvious similarities with muslim practices: the call to prayer is a feature of Ethiopian christianity, only that it lasts considerably longer than the Muslim equivalent and hence keeps you up for longer early in the morning; the chanting you hear in Ethiopian churches sounds closer to Islamic chanting than European hymns; many Christian Ethiopian women wear headscarfs. The similarities with Islam are hardly surprising given the proximity to the Muslim region and the relative isolation from Christianity in Europe.

Jesus and Mary as depicted by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Different types of crosses

Women wearing headscarves

Priests chanting

When we walked around these impressive sights we couldn't believe that we practically had them all to ourselves. As we were thinking what a luxury it was, our guide said: "you're probably happy that you're alone here. Tourists like when there aren't other tourists around." We briefly contemplated the possibility of Sata being a mind reader, but quickly discarded that option. Truth be told, we're just typical tourists, i.e. people who do touristy stuff but want to feel like explorers. Despite us enjoying the quietness of the place, however,  we still couldn't help feeling sorry that more tourists do not make it here. It is an incredible sight and if people make it to the Pyramids, Petra, and Angkor Wat, they should make it here, even during low season.  God knows the Ethiopians could do with the money.

The interior of the churches is very simple and not what we would call beautiful. If Islamic architecture is all about symmetry, this Christian architecture is the opposite: squint walls, uneven pillars and uneven surfaces that show the hand carving work of 900 years ago. They are dark and cramped, often with only a single shaft of sunlight to illuminate the interior (most have had tasteless strip lights added in recent years as well!) Still, they are full of ambiance and once you can get your head around the fact that you are standing inside what used to be a solid rock, truly impressive. The different priests often took pride in showing us their particular church's icons gladly posed for photos!

Inside the rock churches of Lalibela

Priest with the pride of his church

As you will see from the photos, there are no benches in these churches. People attend two hour long services standing up. At best they have a prayer stick which they can lean on, or if they are really smart, they make sure to stand next to a pillar so they can lean on that.

There are also sights around the churches. Infertile women jump into this pool at Christmas and should have a baby within a year

The one church which perhaps more than any other has come to feature in stories about Lalibela, is the Bet Giyorgis (we know him as St George). The church is carved in shape of a cross and is 15 metres high.  

Bet Giyorgis

The construction of the church started with carving it from above straight into the ground, then the windows were made and all the rock from inside the church was emptied out through these windows. It was by far the most impressive of the sights we saw in Lalibela.  You have to see it to believe it! 

A recurring feature of these churches is that there are no fences between you and a 15 metre drop - you better just not walk to close to the edge!

This close, but no closer

Leaving the church, we made a quick stop the deacon school where young boys loudly recited parts from the Miracle Book, supervised by their priest/teacher who immediately  picked on any mistakes even though there were lots of boys reading different texts at the same time (and the fact that the priest was painting pictures while listening!). Incidentally, this was another clear similarity to Islam - reciting scripture repeatedly in order to learn whole passages by heart.

The deacon school next to Bet Giyorgis

No mistakes escaped this priest

On the second day we started early with a hike up the mountain Abuna Yoseph to visit the monastery Asheton Maryam. It was more the hike and the views rather than a visit to the monastery that appealed to us. Our guide Sata was with us here as well, as it apparently was "impossible" to hike it ourselves. 

On the hike up, we kept meeting people on the way to the Lalibela market with their goods. If they were lucky they had a mule to help them, if not, they carried everything on their back. Several times we would meet groups of men and women, where women did all the carrying. Not very impressive.

These ladies were on their way to the market

We also saw lots of people working in the fields, ploughing with the help of cows. The plough equipment was a couple of planks with a single ploughshare - medieval equipment. Not a tractor in sight. Also here, we were sometimes followed by children asking us for money and school pens, but the benefit of having a local guide is that the hassle was much smaller than it otherwise would have been.

Hard work in Ethiopian agriculture

The views were every bit as good as we had hoped. The rolling hills and the mountains, lush and green, makes this one of the most beautiful place we have been to. 

Quick break on the way up

Some of the views

The monastery itself turned out to be quite an impressive spot. In order to enter, we had to pass through an almost impossible opening in the cliff wall. On the other side was the monastery, extremely simple but with a great view. The priest proudly showed us all the artefacts of the monastery, expecting us to take a photo of each. We could nothing but oblige!

The view from the monastery

The priest of Asheton Maryam Monastery and his artefacts

The walk with Sata gave us lots of time to chat as well and it was interesting to hear his views in Ethiopia and its place in the world. For the most part, we sympathised with what he said, but admittedly it became a bit awkward when he told us that he and Ethiopians don't like Obama anymore after his stand on gay marriage. We could only say that we disagreed but realised that a discussion most likely wouldn't change the views of either of us, so we let the discussion end there and then. There are considerable cultural differences here, which don't manifest themselves only in the views of homosexuality. The most obvious and prevalent difference is in the views and treatment of women. One of the lures of travelling the world is to experience different cultures, but just as often as it can be fascinating and rewarding, it is frustrating and a source of helplessness. 

Back in Lalibela, it was time to visit the last churches in the town. Several of these are believed to have been secular in origin, and only made into churches later. To enter one of these churches, we had to walk through a pitch dark tunnel under ground. When asking Sata whether we should use our torches he just smiled and said no. The tunnel was around 70 metres and pitch black, walking with eyes closed or open didn't matter. The idea is that you should walk through darkness, or "hell" and then arrive at the church. It was a little bit scary, but mostly a cool experience and we were glad that we hadn't used the torches when we arrived.

Entering the cave...

...and coming out of the cave

More views of Lalibela churches

On our way back to our hotel from the churches we were caught in a heavy rain  storm and with our guide we sought shelter in a family's hut. They were extremely welcoming, insisting on us taking the good seats and together we could only sit and wait. We watched the lady of the house spinning a cotton thread as we were listening to the rain and watching the hens seeking shelter in the doorway. This is probably one of the most relaxing moments of our trip. 

Just like the chicks, we were caught in the rain - luckily a kind family let us sit in their hut to wait it out

We left Lalibela thinking that it is an incredible place. Not only is it situated in the most beautiful surroundings, it is also full of awesome sights and it is astonishing that the place is not more famous. Hopefully that will change. 

Posted by Grantandhelena 01:44 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (3)

Hello Africa

Heading to Addis Ababa

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We were sorry to leave Iran after such a brilliant stay there, but excited at the prospect of seeing a new continent.  From Tehran's Imam Khomenei airport we took an Iran Air flight down to Dubai. We were relieved to arrive in one piece and switch to a significantly nicer Gulf Air flight to Bahrain, where we would connect to our flight to Addis. On arrival in Bahrain, we received the bad news that there was a seven hour delay to our connection. It was already midnight, we were tired and the prospect of spending the night on a departure lounge chair was depressing. 

After a bit of an argument with the Gulf Air staff, they agreed to send us to a hotel for what was left of the night. First, though, we had to get temporary Bahrain visas. We filled out the necessary forms and gave them to a burly, grumpy Bahrain border guard. He asked us to take a seat and the took our passports away for an "in depth analysis". Meanwhile, an Ethiopian guy travelling with us breezed through and off to the hotel. Apparently in-depth checks are only needed for Europeans!

We watched as the border guards stood around bantering and looking through the foreign passports they had gathered. We were growing increasingly frustrated. After almost forty minutes, we saw our border guard in an animated discussion with a senior security guy, dressed in the long white robe and checkered head scarf that seems to be reserved to the upper class here. The senior guy seemed to have concerns, as he occasionally glanced our way, then disappeared. When our passports were finally returned to us, the border guard asked Grant: "what kind of lawyer are you?". Resisting the temptation to say "human rights activist", Grant told the truth. He was then asked to write a declaration on the back of the immigration form that he would not undertake any activity related to the legal profession during his six-hour stay in Bahrain. Given the recent history of repression in Bahrain, it is clear that these guys do not mess around. Suddenly Iran felt veritably liberal!!

Grant resisted the temptation to practice any law, and we both managed to grab about three hours sleep in the nearby hotel.  We were woken at around five to head back to the airport for our flight. After dealing with the highly unpleasant border guards we found the other citizens of Bahrain we met - hotel staff and drivers - to be very pleasant, which isn't surprising since they were all Indians!

A place to rest our heads and strictly not practice law - our hotel in Bahrain for four hours

A glance of the Bahrain skyline was all we got as we were whisked from airport to hotel and back

Our flight left on time and we were in Addis by late morning. The successful landing was met by loud and happy cheers by the Ethiopian women onboard, many who work for families in Saudi Arabia. It was strange to have left Bahrain in a humid 40 degrees and arrive to Addis where the air was fresh and the temperature only around 15 degrees. This is Ethiopia's rainy season and that, combined with Addis' situation at almost 2,500 metres, meant it felt quite chilly. Susanna, Helena's good friend, met us at the airport in her huge Ford 4x4 and took us on a cruise around town before heading back to her home. It was great to see Susanna, who is working for the EU representation to the African Union here.

We had under 24 hours to enjoy Susanna's company before she headed off to a conference in Cape Town, leaving us to relax in her house. A guard opened the gates for us - there are always two on duty around the clock. Susanna's house is a very nice two bedroom bungalow and very homely - all the more so since her cook had left lasagne for our lunch! In the afternoon, we headed to the Addis Hilton, a social hub and also home to travel agencies. Benefitting from Susanna's organisational brilliance, we went to Ethiopian Airlines and booked a few internal flights to get around the country for the next ten days. Roads are so poor here that travel time can take days, hence flights are a good option and incredibly cheap as well.  Sorted for flights, we relaxed with a cup of tea at the bar by the Hilton pool, where the wealthy locals were enjoying a Saturday afternoon splash.

Susanna flew off to Cape Town on Sunday, leaving us to fend for ourselves in the big city. We did some organising for our trip into the country for the morning, then ventured out into the city in the afternoon. We managed to time our exit with the arrival of the day's rainstorm, and then compounded our misery by walking around for almost an hour bargaining with various taxi drivers. Ultimately we found a guy to take us back to the safe ground of the Hilton for a reasonable price. His taxi was ropey even by Ethiopian standards. After about two kilometres, one of the back wheels started grinding noisily and we pulled over for ten minutes for the driver to tighten up the wheel nuts. Five hundred metres later, the grinding was back and as the driver pulled over again the back left wheel collapsed, leaving the axle scraping along the ground. We climbed out to inspect the damage; the taxi was not going anywhere fast so we opted to walk the last bit.

Something's not quite right with this taxi...

After a cup of tea at the Hilton, we returned to Susanna's area and had some dinner at the local Korean restaurant. The food was surprisingly good, and we saw Korean expats coming in for dinner - always a good sign. The choice of music was slightly bizarre though: a ghetto blaster in the corner was pumping out reggae beats as we ate. A truly Ethiopian experience.

The best Korean restaurant in Addis Ababa. People come for the food but they stay for the reggae beats

We didn't see a whole lot of Addis as we left early Monday morning to see the country, but we will be back for a few days at the end of our trip. First impressions of Addis: A sprawling city strangely devoid of any impressive buildings - the most striking building is a recently built Chinese skyscraper. Traffic is relatively quiet and calm. The city certainly feels like a poor place with roads of very variable quality and plenty of shacks and huts mixed with poorly constructed buildings. It will surely feel like the centre of civilisation after a bit of time out "in the sticks" though!

Posted by Grantandhelena 11:19 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (1)

Iran: reflections, US Den of Espionage and a Persian carpet

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 First, a few thoughts on Iran

A man opens something as rare as a restaurant that does not serve kebab in Tehran. Not only the food, but also the interior is tastefully different to the usual Tehran style, making the place popular and successful with wealthy locals and expats alike. One day some men enter his restaurant. He can immediately see who they are and before they have spoken he knows what they want.  The Revolutionary Guard has seen that his restaurant is doing well, in their eyes too well, and is asking him for an extra "tax". He can either pay or close. Rather than paying, he chooses to close his restaurant and return to the Western country where he also holds citizenship.

The Revolutionary Guard

Outside one of the banks close to the Tehran bazaar, it's busy, very busy. The Iranian currency, the rial, has fallen in value yet again and people are understandably worried. There is a law to prevent people from taking advantage of this - currency exchange can only take place in certain designated state offices. Still dozens of men on the street are calling: "Change money? US dollars?" as we pass. The policemen standing just some ten metres away are turning a blind eye. It is obvious that this is not a priority for the law enforcement, which is odd given that it affects the state economy. 

Should, however, a woman walk past those same policemen or, if she is very unlucky, the Revolutionary Guard, without a head scarf or wearing inappropriate clothes, they will interfere immediately and she is risking lashes for her crime. We have seen regular road blocks where "Basiji", the morality police, are spot-checking citizens for dress code violations. Inevitably women are the main target of these checks. The morailty police are generally young men, swaggering in their green uniforms and enjoying wielding power.   A woman is also in serious trouble if she rides a bike - women are not allowed to do so as some apparently think it is too revealing. If she wants to get a passport, she needs the signature of her father until she's married, then her husband thereafter. If she has neither, a brother or a male cousin will do. 

Why are the police spending so much time enforcing the moral and dress code, stifling successful business (lining their pockets with extra taxes is more understandable), and yet turning a blind eye to serious infringements of the laws that govern their economy? These are true stories: we ate in the restaurant and spoke to the owner who is closing his business rather than paying the Revolutionary Guard bribes; we walked through the crowd of blackmarket money dealers in central Tehran and past the police car parked just twenty metres further down the road; and we have lost count of the number of morality police road blocks we have passed by. When a regime sets up such significant enforcement machinery to keep itself in place, that machine needs fed; nowhere is that clearer than in Iran. 

Freedom in Iran is, as everyone knows, severely limited. Women and men suffer as a consequence. Still, many things that are banned are going on behind closed doors. Iranians keep track of news through banned satellite dishes and VPNs allow them to acces blocked sites on the censored internet. Unmarried men and women flirt in car queues on a Thursday night, have parties with alcohol as long as it is kept a secret, and cuddle up in the corners of parks at the week-end. However, even with our limited time in the country we hear stories that make our blood boil. It is a tragedy and an incredible waste. A country with so many resources (not only the oil) is wasting so much potential because so many resources are being spent on suppressing, controlling and terrorising. And it gets even worse as more and more skilled people leave seeking freedom elsewhere - Iran suffers from the biggest brain drain in the world. The millions of Iranians who have left the country tend to be well educated and disproportionately successful in the lands to which they emigrate. What could these people be doing for the Iranian economy if they had stayed?

Despite all this, the people in Iran are warm and friendly and often very sophisticated. We cannot describe the enormous positive attention we have received during our stay. We have been approached by so many people, many strangers in the streets, who are appalled and embarrassed by their government's actions and who want to ensure that we like their country. They are asking us, even though they are afraid to be too outspoken, to tell our friends that "we are not like our government- Iranians are friendly". Hence we leave this country being overwhelmed and positively surprised by the friendly people, the awesome sights, the rich culture (in how many countries can people cite poetry?) and beauty, but frustrated by the waste and lack of freedom that affects its citizens.

We would recommend everyone to visit. The main concern people may have is safety. We have never felt unsafe (we've made sure to follow written and unwritten rules, and to avoid taking photos where it seemed to be a bad idea) and in addition to seeing and experiencing some amazing things, we feel like just us being tourists there meant something to a lot of people. Being a tourist in Iran is completely different from being a citizen. If and when things change for the better in Iran, it will no doubt become a huge tourist nation.

Last few days in Iran
After our tour of Iran, it felt great to come "home" to Eric in Tehran.  On the agenda was some Tehran sightseeing, some welcome relaxing time and, of course, the purchase of a Persian carpet.

We did some independent sightseeing on Wednesday, with mixed success. Tehran is so huge that just trying to convince a taxi driver to take us all the way to the centre of town was a task. We finally found a taxi to take us but ended up finding many of the museums we wanted to visit were closed. We saw the National Museum, which contained some incredible artefacts displayed in an unbelievably unimaginative way. Rows and rows of plain glass cabinets contained an eclectic mix of displays: a completely intact water pot from 5000 BC here, a 1700 year old mummified head - discovered intact, beard and all, in a salt mine - there.  

We tried to go to the Ebrat museum, which was the torture centre of the Shah's government before 1979, and now an important piece of anti-shah propaganda.  Unfortunately, it was closed but we enjoyed the photo display outside: the leaders of the current regime had been photographed on visits to the museum looking suitably appalled at the treatment of prisoners. We wondered if they had perhaps taken any tips for questioning techniques from the displays. Unsurprisingly, there is no public exhibition of the methods employed against enemies of the state in the Iranian prisons of today.

On Thursday, we met up with Eric's Farsi teacher, Chokou, outside the Swedish Embassy, ready to start our tour around Tehran. Chokou is a lovely lady and we had a great time with her as our tour guide. We started down at the bazaar which is simply huge.

A very busy bazaar

Having seen quite a few bazaars we didn't linger too long and instead walked outside to the mosque that connects to the market area. The bazaaris is historically a very wealthy, powerful and conservative group. They have been instrumental in several of Iran's revolutions to date, the most recent the 1979 revolution. These revolutions have started on the square between the Tehran bazaar and the Bazaar mosque, on a Friday after the prayer, with the bazaaris marching out of the gates, demanding change. 

Chokou and Helena outside the Bazaar mosque

One wonders whether the bazaari could start yet another revolution from this square. History would say yes. However, the power of the bazaaris has diminished over the last years due to competition from supermarkets and being squeezed by the current government. What is more, less and less people go to the mosques as they find the sermons too political. It is ironic that one consequence of a religious regime is that people become less, and not more, religious. Finally, there are so many more powerful ways to communicate today with social media, as the Arab Spring has proved. Despite the regime's efforts of creating a "Clean Internet", the people find their way around it.

The square between the Tehran bazaar and the Bazaar mosque has seen the birth of several Iranian revolutions

Our closest encounter with Iranian police so far (and this shows how fortunate we have been) was a police woman dressed in a full length black chawdor with a red sash, positioned outside the bazaar. She followed us and our guide around the square, obviously eavesdropping on what our guide was telling us. When she spoke it was only to ask our guide the random question if she had been in Esfahan, to which our guide gave a short reply and we then left. 

We visited the Golestan palace where the shahs used to receive dignitaries and guests. It was interesting, but nowhere as impressive as sights we have seen in Esfahan.

Golestan palace

We also stopped at two former embassies. The UK embassy was stormed by the Revolutionary Guard as late as November 2011 and resulted in a rupture in diplomatic relations between Iran and the UK. One can only imagine the terror for those working at the embassy during the assault. At the time we were worried that it would affect Grant's chances to get a visa, but luckily it didn't. It did, however, mean that Eric lost a huge part of his local football team!

The gates of the British Embassy - not much to see since we had to take this shot clandestinely from across the street

Next up - the American Embassy, or "the US Den of Espionage" as it is officially called today.Everyone has heard of the American Embassy in Tehran and the diplomats taken hostage in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution and held for 444 days, which saw a failed attempt by the US to free the hostages. It was also from this embassy that the US planned and supported the coup in 1953 (meaning the regime's new name for the building is not so far fetched!!). Today it is home to the Revolutionary Guard.

Only after Chokou had asked the guards inside if we could take some photos did we snap away. This is one of the few places in Tehran where you still can see this type of anti-American rhetoric. Most of it was removed during the former President Khatami's rule. We must emphasise that we met no-one in our time here that expressed anti-American views, but the murals are an interesting picture of US-Iranian tensions at government level.

Outside the American Emb... Sorry, the US Den of Espionage

The Defaced Great Seal of the United States

Hand's up!

And this pretty much sums it up

And when in Persia, do as the Persians and get a nice rug. Thanks to Eric's contacts, we saw a trustworthy carpet salesman and after some time in his "den" we found the one!

A few cups of tea later - proud owners of a Persian carpet

What better way to end our stay in Iran? It's been fantastic and it wouldn't have been possible without Eric, who was, as expected, an amazing host, and also our Iranian friends Ali and Fatemeh and family, who showed us such extraordinary hospitality.

"Every day you don't have kebab is a victory", Eric claims - after two weeks in Iran we understood why. Here at dinner in Tehran

Posted by Grantandhelena 07:10 Archived in Iran Comments (4)

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 Comments (2)

A stop on the Silk Road


sunny 32 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

There are some places that ooze history and few more so than the town of Yazd in central Iran. Some claim that Yazd is the oldest inhabited city on Earth and it is widely believed that Yazd has been continually  inhabited for an astonishing 7000 years. Alexander the Great is said to have been here, Marco Polo passed through, saying of Yazd that it "it is a good and noble city, and has a great amount of trade". We couldn't have put it better ourselves. Yazd has always been a stop on important trading routes, including the Silk Road, and unlike many other old cities in the region, it has been spared destruction by the Mongols (largely because of its remote, desert location). Throughout the centuries and millennia, it has been fighting the unforgiving desert, using every trick at hand. As a result, the city has unique architectural features. The setting is absolutely stunning, with the open desert and 4000 metre mountains that appear as if from nowhere as a backdrop. It is known fondly by many other names such as "Bride of the Desert", "Pearl of the Desert" and "Crossroads of Iran".

As if that wasn't enough, the desert city is also the centre of Zoroastrianism in Iran, the ancient religion whose followers used to give their dead to the animals and the main religion in Iran before the Arabian conquest in the 7th century brought in Islam. In short, there is plenty to explore in Yazd and it was hence a given stop on our tour of Iran.

Our Yazd adventure started already in Esfahan. When Fatemeh and Ali heard we were heading to Yazd, they offered to show us around the city where they had grown up. As if that wasn't enough, they insisted on picking us up in Esfahan and giving us a lift to Yazd - a six hour drive. During our two days in Yazd, Fatemeh and Ali showed us around, took us for meals, and invited us to their parents house for lunch.  We can not stress it enough - if there was a world championship in hospitality, the Iranians would win, thanks to people like Fatemeh and Ali.

On the long, flat road to Yazd

Ali showing us the old Narein Castle in Meybod, outside Yazd - like most other old structures around here, built of mud

Yazd is full of fantastic historic accommodation. The "khan-e sonnati" are traditional houses that have been turned into hotels. We had booked ourselves into the Silk Road Hotel and were not disappointed when we arrived. A beautiful courtyard surrounded by the different rooms - just what you want when you are stopping on the Silk Road!

Silk Road Hotel - an atmospheric stay along the road it has taken its name from

The hotel was full of travellers and even a few Westerners. There were even two Swedes there, a father and his daughter. The father's accent gave him away -  it transpired that he originally was from Sollefteå, hence practically a neighbour! 

As mentioned, Yazd is full of historical hotels and while ours was more of a budget option, there are plenty of options for those who want to spend a bit more (still being very reasonably priced) and stay in more luxurious khan-e sonnati. A VIP suite in one of the top hotels will cost you USD 150 per night. This place should be packed with tourists!!

A recurring experience during our tour was that Ali and Fatemeh would stop in front of a simple, modest door of what looked like a simple, modest building and say "let's go in and have a look here!". We would follow, not really knowing what to expect and then suddenly we would find ourselves in the most beautiful courtyards, surrounded by lovely hotel rooms. Yazd really is full of surprises and thanks to our guides, we got to see a lot of these hidden treasures.

Now this might not look massively impressive from the outside...

...but inside it is a completely different story

Touring the hotels was also a good opportunity to look at one of the famous features of Yazd - the ancient and ingenious air conditioning systems. Being in the desert, there was always a need for a cooling system. In Yazd, they constructed wind catchers ("badgirs") that would collect the desert breeze and channel it down to cool water basins, then circulate around the building. It still functions and it's completely environmentally friendly - how cool is that! The towering wind catchers are part of what gives Yazd its distinct look and yet another nickname: "The City of Badgirs".

The Yazd ancient air conditioning system

A wind catcher/tower

Yazd is a city full of atmosphere, and we really enjoyed wandering the narrow streets of mud architecture, feeling like nothing there had changed for thousands of years. We also walked through the old bazaar and saw the squares where the caravans used to arrive with their camels and goods. We also noticed that Yazd felt much more traditional than Tehran. Most women were dressed in long black veils and many also covered their faces when walking the streets. We probably shouldn't be surprised that the capital feels much more modern than the rest of the country.

The streets of Yazd

Sadly some of the shops are not in use anymore, it's been a while since any bike was repaired in this shop

Iranians love their nan (yes, same word as in India) 

And these are the pans on which you make one kind of nan

We stopped into a Hamam (bath) that has been converted into a restaurant - again, didn't look much from the outside but inside, massively impressive - the light passing through the coloured glass in the cupula is reflected back off the water and onto the ceiling

It wouldn't be sightseeing in Iran without visiting a mosque. We went to the beautiful Jameh mosque where we got into conversation with  an Iranian documentary film team, who were filming a "drama documentary" about a holy man. They were extremely friendly and very happy to see foreign tourists in Iran.

In Jameh mosque with the Iranian TV team

The Zoroastrians

While feeling more conservative than Tehran, it is also said about Yazd that it is more tolerant thanks to being the centre of Zoroastrianism. We admit that we didn't know much more about Zoroastrianism before than that it existed. Now we know a bit more. It is believed to be the first monotheistic religion, founded in Iran around 3500 years ago. It has influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam (and the three wise men are believed to have been zoroastrians). As mentioned, it was the dominating religion in Iran until the 7th century. One remnant of Zoroastrianism in the Iranian society today is the Iranian new year, when Iranians jump over fire. 

Today, there are estimates that there are around 200 000 Zoroastrians in the world, of them around 5000 in Yazd.  However, the real number both globally and Iran could be higher as many keep their faith a secret.

The woman on the left is Zoroastrian, which you can tell from her type of clothing

Zoroastrian morality is summarised in: "good thoughts, good words, good deeds", good transpiring for those who do righteous deeds. Those who do evil have themselves to blame for their ruin. Their god is Ahura Mazda. 

The Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda

Of the four elements, fire is the most important to Zoroastrians and they usually pray in the presence of fire. In Yazd we visited one of the Zoroastrians most holy sites, the Fire Temple. The fire is believed to have burnt for more than 1,500 years.

The Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd

The very old fire

The purity of the elements is very important for the Zoroastrians and therefore they would not bury nor burn their dead, as it would contaminate the soil and the air respectively and "spoil the good creation". Instead they would put the dead bodies on high towers called "The Towers of Silence" and feed them to the birds. This tradition ended in the 1960s (yes, health and safety legislation seems to extend even to Iran!). Now their dead are instead buried in special, lime mortar-sealed cemeteries.  

The view from the Yazd Towers of Silence is impressive, which admittedly would have been wasted on those who occupied the towers. Today it is totally deserted. There is no museum, no entrance fee, and anybody can visit but still we were the only tourists there. A recurring feature in Iran but nonetheless  sad for such an extraordinary sight.

On the way up to one of the Towers of Silence

Ali and Helena

Ali and Grant

Impressive views!

Our last day in Yazd had quite a busy schedule. In addition to our Zoroastrain sightseeing, we were also invited for lunch at Fatemeh and Ali's parents' house, with some of their friends. Just like the previous week in Tehran, Fatemeh cooked for us. The food was delicious and plentiful, and we had lots of laughs.

Lunch in Yazd

Ali showing the impressive watering system in his father's garden - this is the first garden in the neighbourhood to receive ice cold water from an underground well before it flows on to neighbouring properties

Fatemeh and her father

Tea in the garden

A trip to the desert

We couldn't come so close without properly going to the desert. Together with a Swiss couple staying at the same hotel, we booked ourselves in on a desert tour which would include camel riding and sunset over the sand dunes. Fabienne and Ruedi were three months into their cycling tour - going from Switzerland to Mongolia along the Silk Road! We were obviously massively impressed while perhaps not so jealous. They are far from the only travellers doing this and mentioned many cyclists they kept bumping into along the way. In addition to exchanging travelling stories, we talked about stupid people mixing up Switzerland and Sweden.

The excursion, however, could have ended before it had even started when our car suddenly got a puncture. A quick check confirmed what we suspected - no spare tyre. Our driver insisted on driving on until what was left of the tyre suddenly rolled out in front of the car. It was definitely time to stop.

Puncture along the highway in the desert

Our guide/driver couldn't have handled it any better. Within 20 minutes we were in a taxi with a driver who knew where to drop us and our guide would join us later with the car.

We arrived at a tiny village in the middle of the sand dunes and without our guide we had no means of communicating with the villagers. He had obviously phoned them up as they quickly found a few camels for us and off we were!

Camel ride in the desert

Our fellow tourists for once in a camel saddle rather than a bike saddle

Next up was the sunset. We had been warned that the sky might not be clear due to "sand from Iraq" but it was clear enough. We trekked up the highest dune and sat and enjoyed a  beautiful sunset before drinking a cup of tea and heading back to Yazd, where the night bus waited to take us to our next destination.

Scenes from the sand dunes from where we watched sunset

Posted by Grantandhelena 05:27 Archived in Iran Comments (3)

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