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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Shiraz - City of wine and poetry (used to be)


Monday 26 May 2008 Yazd - Shiraz
We reached Shiraz at 6pm, as correctly predicted by the bus company. Iranian bus companies are probably among the most honest in the developing world in telling their customers how long their journeys would take – perhaps even more so than those doing the Singapore-Malaysia route!
We got into a taxi with Timbord, a young French law undergraduate on his overland (including a few boat trips) journey from Australia back to France, and checked into Zand Hotel (US$15 for room of 3 beds, fairly basic) just off Zand, the main thoroughfare of Shiraz. This is a busy, bustling city of more than a million inhabitants. Lots of vehicles and people on the streets. Almost perilous crossing the streets. What a change from sleepy Yazd!
We walked around the area near the hotel. The shops opened late till 9pm. Downtown Shiraz seemed to be divided into areas each of which specializes in a particular trade and we seemed to be in the clothing area and the electronic and household appliances prescient was not too far away. Had roast chicken and rice for dinner. Raj is vegetarian and had a hard time convincing the waiters here to prepare salad and rice which was not a standalone item on the menu. I had a similar encounter with an inflexible ethnic Korean waitress in a Singapore restaurant in London who could not think out of the box.
Tuesday 27 May 2008 Shiraz
Shiraz - One of Iran's greatest and most famous classical cities (but of course, Isfahan is the most famous one). From the time of the Arab conquest, through the Mongol and Timurid periods followed by the 18th century Zand dynasty during which Shiraz was the capital, the city flourished under the patronage of great foreign and local rulers. Shiraz became known as the cradle and heartland of ancient and mediaeval Persian culture. In fact, the word "Persian" came from the word "Fars", which is the name of the province of which Shiraz is the capital today. The Iranians also use the word "Pars" or "Parsian" to mean Fars and Farsian – the latter which I initially thought was "Parisian" misspelled. But given the sophistication of Persian classical and mediaeval culture, Parisian might well have been an appropriate word.
Near Shiraz are the ruins of the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis, notoriously destroyed by Alexander the Great, after a wild night of drunken orgy and vengeance. We will visit this and other remnants of classical Persia the next day. Together with a middle age UK couple, we signed up for a day tour of Persepolis, Naqsh-e-Rostam and Pasargadae, on what was supposed to be a "special tour" for 4 persons and an English guide – 72 euros.
We walked around Shiraz. During its golden age, Shiraz was renowned as the city of wine and poets. The shiraz, which fill the wine cellars all over the world, came from here. European merchants have long stayed in this city, exporting this wonderful grape and the wine produced from it, to the world over. Unfortunately, wine has been forbidden in Iran since the Islamic Revolution. A long heritage of wine-growing and appreciation dating back to the days of the Persian Empire more than 2500 years ago was washed down the drains.
Wine was the object of appreciation for many great poets, among them, no least two of old Persia's greatest poets, Hafez (1324 – 1389) and Sa'di (1207 – 1291), who lived here. Wine, women and the good things of life – these appear in the many works of these two great poets, and their tombs in Shiraz are popular places of reverence and outings for ordinary Iranians. The Farsi language (aka Persian language or the "language of Fars") is a poetic and romantic one – an image somehow inconsistent with the cold, heartless image of a fundamentalist Iran much of the world has today.
At the tomb of Hafez, we saw Iranian families crowding around the grave of their revered poet: a father holding his young daughter's hand, touching the flamboyant carved calligraphy on the tomb's surface as if the wisdom and creativity of the mediaeval poet that reside in these words would somehow come alive; a young couple, almost certainly married or otherwise they might be in breach of the laws of the Islamic Republic (for dating without the presence of other relatives is strictly forbidden), their eyes melted in each other's stare, with their hands locked together most lovingly, stood nearby, perhaps drawing inspiration from the poet's Divan. Raj couldn't help but recite a line from a copy of the Divan-e Hafez he bought at the bookshop here. I said he should definitely hold a monthly public recital of Persian Poetry in London after the trip.
We looked for the teahouse mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Unfortunately, it was closed. Many teahouses have been closed in recent years by the henchmen of the Islamic Republic, for teahouse had been found to be the meeting place for unmarried men and women, and hence a place where scandalous and unlawful pursuits took place or could potentially take place to the sacrilege of Allah. Besides, too many men smoke waterpipes in these chaykhunehs, instead of devoting more time to the study of the Quran. The Islamic Republic could not allow such idle pleasures to take place and together with that, other idle and un-Islamic activities such as dancing, singing (though singing the Quran is strongly encouraged) as well.
Nearby, while searching for a tourist office, we walked into a conference centre where the 2nd annual conference of the Society of South Asian Archaeologists was taking place. We had an interesting chat with an archaeologist/academic from the Deccan College, Pune, India, one of the 50 archaeologists from India at this conference. She was surprised at the number of archaeological sites I visited in the last few months and said I should write about them. Interestingly, we bumped into each other at the bazaar in the morning and she said that if we meet each other again, perhaps it was a divine sign that I should become an archaeologist. (Well, we were to bump into her again the next day, in Persepolis as well as Pasargadae. Is that a sign from the Almighty?)
We also visited the Citadel of Shiraz which has an interesting exhibition of old photos of the city and municipal life. It was remarkable how similar the costume and headdress of 19th/early 20th C were to those of townsmen in the old Central Asian khanates and cities of Kokand, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand in the same period. This, together with the obvious Persian architecture (especially the intricate and elaborate rectangular gateways of mosques) of these great cities and the fact that these cities used to speak Persian (instead of Uzbek as claimed by the modern-day government of Uzbekistan), is further evidence of the extent of the Persian cultural sphere in most of Central Asia.
We explored the labyrinth that is old Shiraz, as well as the many grand old mosques including the Regent's Mosque/Masjed-e Vakil and Emamzadeh-ye Ebne-e Hamze, the mausoleum of the nephew of the seventh Shiite imam. The latter is magnificent, for it has a huge dome resembling a tulip bulb, complete with intricate geometric patterns, and its interior is a treasure house of glasswork – its inner walls are covered with thousands of small mirrors, reflecting light at different angles and intensity. The devout might well think he was at the gateway of Allah's promised paradise and many mad-eyed virgins (oops, I don't know what was promised in the Quran for ladies). The entrance of the main buildings contained a long account of the story of the imam's nephew. Basically, he settled here with his followers and lived anonymously and most virtuously to escape the persecution of the Sunnis. They were discovered one day and massacred. When beheaded, the head of the imam's nephew fell onto his outstretched palms. The head shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), and the headless torso walked a few steps before collapsing to the ground. Today, his tomb has become a shrine where the devout prayed and hoped for their prayers to be met.
Also bought tickets for our respective bus journeys to Isfahan and Tehran (on Thursday).

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