07.03.2008 - 12.03.2008
Being a mourning weekend most of the tourist attractions are closed whilst we are in Tehran. To give us a further insight into the differences between the Shi'a and Sunni burial and mourning practices, we are taken to a cemetery.
Following on from this experience of mourning in Iran, we go to Qom. Qom is one of the holiest cities in Shi'a Islam. It also is a centre for religious studies, and has many theological universities located there. Qom is the mausoleum to Ayatollah Khomeini, the former Supreme Leader of Iran from 1979 until his death (1989). Having overseen the revolution of 1979, and being both a religious and political leader for his country, Khomeini is perhaps the most significant figure in Iran. His picture is displayed in every public space, along with the current Supreme leader Ali Khamenei. His image is omnipresent in public and private spaces. For a man who is said to have led a simple life, his mausoleum is vast and still under-construction. It stands at 91 metres; one metre for every year he lived. From a distance, the entire complex looks like a giant box faced with marble. It is imposing and aptly parallels the impact Khomeini made on life in Iran. Women are kept separate from the men within the vast hall containing Khomeini and his son's remains. Women also get a bad view of their tombs from the side. The emotional state of the women is astounding and intense, as they actively mourn his passing as if it were still a recent event.
In the area of Kashan we stop to visit the archaeological site of Sialk dating from c. 8000 BC. It was a mud-brick settlement with a Necropolis on a height with an interchangeable defensive structures. It is well-preserved, but there is little explanation of its true significance.
Many are cautious of Esfahan after hearing it described as "the most beautiful city in Iran...after Tabriz". However, it does turn out to be far more beautiful than I had expected. It is modern yet retains the character of its past. The bridges crossing the waterway are main focus of socialising in Isfahan/Esfahan. The people are far friendlier and there does not appear to be any hostility towards us as we wander along the banks of the river. Not even the fact that a group of young girls dressed in the all-enveloping black burka spitting at me the following day, can take away from the overall hospitality and enjoyability of this city.The main squares and bazaars are quieter than usual as it is a holy day. An evening spent playing bumper pedaloes on the river lifts the mood even further. From speaking to a few locals, I get the impression that Khomeini's changes to the Iranian lifestyle are not as appreciated among the younger generations. The advent of the internet is making them all the more aware of other choices. They told me of how they feel that Iran took a step backwards by accepting the subjugation of women. This is not a matter which is possible to discuss openly for the majority of Iranians, as their nationality and religion are so intertwined.
The 'Towers of Silence' may sound ominous, but there were the main feature of burial in the Zoroastrian culture. Yazd was, and remains, a centre of Zoroastrian culture. We pay a visit to 'Old Yazd' to learn more about these structures and their function. The 'Towers' consist of three concentric circles of increasing height. The bodies of the dead were left exposed on these platforms to the elements, and vultures, to allow their degradation. The remains of the men were placed on the outer platform, on the next platform those of the women, and on the highest the remains of the children were placed. Once the bones were completely exposed they were gathered and placed in a 'well' of lime at the highest point of the 'tower' where there are left to degrade further until the 'powder' is washed through a filtering system and washed far from the area. The other fascinating feature of this site is the underground water system, which has wind towers to keep the water fresh. Once in Yazd our insights into traditional structures continues in our luxury accommodation at the Mehr Traditional Hotel. The rooms are opulently decorated with stained-glass windows, allowing light in from the courtyards around which the rooms are based. It is not surprising to hear that the hotel has an honorary UNESCO award.
The following morning we are taken to a Zoroastrian Fire Temple. It contained fire which has remained lit for over 1500 years. It's location has changed throughout history as the fire temples were often destroyed by Islamics. The outside of the temple has imagery that parallels iconography from the Cult of Horus. For me it was a highlight, and made a welcome change from the geometric decoration of the mosques we have visited.
Along the road to Kerman we also see 'Pigeon Towers'. They may look like castellated forts with a small windows at the top, but they are safe places for pigeons to roost. The dropping are then collected from the 4000+ birds, and used as fertilizer. In Kerman, we wander through the Bazaar, only to find that the people are far more 'hands on' in how they approach you. It is also the first Iranian city in which I am openly offered drugs. The advice is to stay indoors tonight.
Off to Bam we set the next day. The 'hanging gardens of Babylon' are said to have been based upon a Persian garden. We pay a visit to Eram Garden (aka Prince's Garden) to see an example of a Persian Garden. Persian gardens are walled; to keep sand and devils out!We must use our imaginations as the stepped garden is not fully in bloom when we visit it.
As we were now travelling along the main opium route we will have armed escort from now on throughout the remainder of our stay in Iran. The danger increases towards the border. Whereas Kerman is famed for pistachio nuts, saffron, and copper, Bam is famed for dates, oranges, earthquakes, and smugglers!
In 2003 a 6.4 earthquake struck the city of Bam. Our guide is able to give us a first hand account of the trail of destruction this left; as he was a key figure in the relief effort. Over 50,000 people perished. Entire streets are still under construction. Many shops are set up in the steel shipping containers which were used as temporary accommodation following the disaster. Ozbus 3's accommodation is not the 4 star hotel in which previous tours stayed, but the 'motel' down the road. It is only a disappointment as many of us had read the previous groups' blog descriptions of the Bam accommodation.
A German man and a Danish woman join our entourage the following day. They are extremely interesting people who have been travelling for over 18 months through Europe and Africa. They hope to get as close to Australia as possible in their own modified transport. Their addition to the group makes us far safer as we are now a larger convoy. We reach Zahedan, 80 km from the border, in the early afternoon. It has a population of over 450,000. The majority are Sunni and refugees. It is not a safe city. We are not allowed to leave the hotel at all that day or night. We enjoy our final Zam Zam cola, and Nani bars and rest our heads for the upcoming Pakistan border.
I do not regret my journey through Iran. I may not agree with many aspects of their culture, especially those particular to women, but I respected it at all times. Although much of this respect was bolstered through fear. Iran was a truly compelling country to travel through. The larger cities convey a sense of imminent change. I feel I have gained much insight into Iran and Islam as a result of my visit. I am also more appreciative of the choices I have in my own society. A visit to Shiraz would have been a bonus, but it would have entailed to much of a detour. The people, as in many places, are extremely friendly on a one-to-one basis.