Bijo Mathew Philip
Mehran Askari was from Shiraz. He was one of my first non-Keralite friends when I moved to Dubai in 1998. It was from him that I first heard of the great Kourosh — Cyrus the Great, and of Persepolis, the ruined capital of the Achaemenid empire. When I started to travel for leisure around 12 years back, Shiraz was one of the first places I wanted to visit. But my family was not very keen. “Why Iran, of all places?”
Iran is steeped in 5,000 years of uninterrupted history. Its borders widened and shrank as the wheels of time moved on. With a population of 9 crore, it is the 17th largest country in the world, in both physical size and population. It is one of the richest in natural resources and has a highly developed human capital.
- For any guest in Iran, it is important to have a host who will take care of your itinerary.
- Renting a self-driven car may not be an option. There is reliable public transport. It is a safe and secure country.
- A traveller by mandate has to have travel health insurance.
- Have sufficient dollars, which can be easily exchanged.
- For a service rendered, it is normal for an Iranian to refuse any payment at first. They consider this trait a part of their hospitality.
- All men are expected to wear pants covering full length of their legs. Women are expected to dress modestly and cover hair.
- Public show of affection is not allowed.
- Police are not so visible on streets, but are generally helpful.
Eid holidays fell on a long weekend and since my wife was engaged otherwise, I felt it was time for solo travel to Iran. I contacted my friend Amin Bashiri, seeking his help for a visit to Shiraz (684 km from the capital Tehran).
Thanks to the US sanctions, I could not find a travel agency which would do hotel or car rentals in Iran. Amin promptly got a hotel booked in Shiraz and arranged a car. Next was the visa. No travel agent seemed to have an idea. The e-visa portal failed to yield. It occurred to me that the Iranian embassy in Abu Dhabi should be the first port of call. A tourist visa with two-month validity was issued in less than 30 minutes.
Fly Dubai flies daily morning flights to Shiraz and back; $650 for just an hour of flying looked a bit steep. I landed in Shiraz in June. The airport was an old, concrete structure nestled in a valley next to a pink-coloured lake. Immigration was fast and I was greeted outside by Farhad, my guide for the next five days. The weather was pleasantly warm, a welcome relief from Dubai’s sweltering summer. Shiraz is 1,500 metres above sea level, but receives just about 250 mm of rain.
The grand Shiraz Hotel is perched on a hillside, giving a panoramic view of the town. There were noisy groups of tourists from China. They normally land in Tehran and travel around the country in luxury buses. Raed, a young man staying next door, was from Qatar. He had come for dental treatment. Shiraz is popular for quality, inexpensive dental treatment and cosmetic procedures like nose and lip enhancement.
The first day was spent procuring a SIM card and rials. A dollar was exchanged for around 45,000 rials. Iranians now use a new currency term, toman, to ease the pressure of speaking in big numbers. 10 rials is one toman. Much to my surprise, dollars were accepted everywhere. Farhad and I had a late lunch at a posh restaurant. A live band sang popular songs in Farsi. It was a Thursday, weekend in Iran, and the restaurant was crowded with well-to-do families. Men wore a light suit or a jacket. Women in long skirts had their colourful scarves. It cost about $25 to have a three-course meal for the two of us.
Iran is a net exporter of food and is especially strong in fruits, nuts and vegetables. It has varied geography, from the forbidding deserts of Dasht-e Lut in the east to wet plains on the Caspian coast and Zagros mountains in the west. The land is generally water-scarce. Only about 12 per cent of the land is used for cultivation. I visited fruit farms owned by Farhad’s family. They took me around their vineyard and grove of fruit trees. Dryland farming using limited rain and deep tubewells has depleted ground water to alarming levels. On our way back, we stopped by a dry riverbed. Farhad recalled that it used to be a river filled with water throughout the year.
I kept a full day to go around Persepolis. The ancient citadel, raised on a high-walled platform of cut stones, is spread over 12 hectares. It was built 500 years before Christ, perhaps as the ceremonial capital of the empire that Cyrus founded. The huge winged bulls with human heads who greet you at the Gate of All Nations are filled with graffiti that runs back centuries. As you walk past these high walls, the 60-foot columns of Apadana, the 100-column hall and the still intact walls of Tachara come into view. These high columns would have once supported an ornate roof of carved wood. The walls of the high platform are filled with bas relief of men of all known nations paying homage to the great king. Alas! Persepolis fell to a vengeful Alexander in 330 BC, merely 220 years after it was built.
Alexander burned the magnificent edifice down, a colossal act of vandalism for which no Iranian has forgiven him. Persepolis was never rebuilt, a testament to the vagaries of human arrogance.
The giant, cross-shaped tombs of Achaemenid kings Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III are visible on the hillside surrounding Persepolis. Naghsh-e Rostam, the foreboding necropolis of Darius the Great and other kings, is 13 km further north on the highway to Isfahan. Rock reliefs of Naghsh-e Rostam are mainly from the Achaemenid and the later Sassanid periods. The hillside here also features the life-sized relief of a man that is said to be from the still older Elamite period.
Further down the road to Isfahan is Pasargadae, said to be the first capital of the Achaemenids, and where now lie the ruins of palaces and the tomb of Cyrus. It is a beautiful structure built on large square blocks of marble rising on a series of steps. A simple room with a gable roof made of cut stone and a doorway facing northwest is the tomb.
I met Shaheen Gourkani at a café near my hotel one night. He was from the holy city of Mashhad in Khorasan province north-east of Iran bordering Afghanistan. He worked as a chef. On learning that I had come from Dubai, he excitedly talked about his life and old times. Among other things, he mentioned that his ancestors were from Ferghana valley, Uzbekistan, and he belonged to the tribe of Babur. The old man Farhad introduced me at Persepolis was a college professor who talked to me wistfully about the times of Mohammad Mossadeg, Shah Reza Pahlavi and Ayatollah Khomeini. Farhad himself belonged to the tribe of Fars, who left the traditional occupation of goat-herding only in the last century. Cyrus belonged to his tribe, he proudly told me.
The pleasant family I met at Pasargadae had come driving from far away Sistan. People here live simple lives and drive small cars. Fuel is cheap. They are rightfully proud of their heritage, a marker of modern civilisation. What they lament is the crippling sanctions that robe their nation of opportunities. They hope for a better tomorrow.
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