Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a series.
On the second day, we visited the late shah’s palace high in the foothills of North Tehran in the high rent district where it is cool and above the smog. The complex has been made into a museum for the public. From there, we returned to the city center to see the impressive Golestan Palace complex with a hall of mirrors where several coronations took place. No photos were allowed, at the World Heritage site.
The jewelry museum displayed some of the finest and largest gems I’ve ever seen. The famed peacock throne here is encrusted with precious stones. Again, no photos were allowed.
We had dinner that night at Ali Ghapoo, a restaurant that the guide said only the wealthy can afford. The entertainment was mediocre and I thought that the food the night before tasted better.
Speaking of the wealthy, I guess I can say I am now a millionaire — because of high inflation, the exchange rate was 120,000 rials to the dollar, but our guide was happy to give us 200,000 rials to the dollar. Notes start at 100 rials, but we used mostly 50,000 and 100,000 notes. Five dollars equalled roughly 1 million rials.
The third morning, we met in the lobby at 5:30 a.m. to catch the 7:30 a.m. flight to Shiraz from the Tehran domestic airport, which is old and dilapidated. The newer international airport that opened five years ago also appears old. We were told it is because construction started 20 years ago but took 15 years to complete. Men and women’s entrances are separate. Security seems to be quite lax. We were informed that the flight was changed to 9:20 a.m. and our guide was not notified in advance so we had the opportunity to have a mediocre breakfast in the airport.
Shiraz, which is known as the city of poets, literature, wine and flowers, has clear skies and pleasant temperatures in the 70s. Syrah wine owes its origin to this area. We stayed at the Chamran Hotel, which is part of the Marco Polo chain, and said to be a five-star establishment. They charge $1.25 an hour for Internet access. Slow food service and unappetizing offerings caused me to skip lunch. Our hotel was also located far from the center of town, preventing me from venturing solo to seek other restaurants. The elevator system was very confusing and seems to have been designed by either a mad or drunk engineer.
Our hotel was a high rise, but most buildings in Shiraz are one and two story brick. Our tour visited the mausoleums of famed poets Hafeez and Saadi, where many young people sat reading the poets’ books.
The afternoon visit was to the Arg of Karim Khan, which resembled a medieval citadel and is now a museum, but we only glimpsed the exterior as it was getting late. For dinner that night, we ate at the Soufi Comple restaurant, which served less-than stellar kabobs. Online reviews ranked it high, but I would only give two of five stars. Their music accompanying the meal was too loud, preventing easy conversation.
Shiraz’s once sizeable Jewish population has been gradually dwindling and now there are less than 30,000 Jews in all of Iran. Jews are considered a protected minority with one representative in the Iranian parliament, but they still must endure anti-Semitism. Christians are also allowed to practice their religion, but not to convert any Muslims; any Muslim who converts is subject to severe punishment, including death. The Bab, co-founder of the Baha’i faith, was born in Shiraz in 1819 and the city is considered holy by their followers. Howerver, Baha’i is one of the most reviled beliefs in Iran. The Baha’i faith endorses a prophet that followed Mohammed, whereas Jews and Christians are tolerated because they preceded the arrival of Mohammad, the last true prophet to Muslims. Muslim prophets include Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.
The famed UNESCO World Heritage site ruins of Persepolis are on the outskirts of Shiraz. One can get an idea of how wealthy and powerful the Persian Empire was at its peak. Darius the Great founded it in 518 BC. Alexander the Great was celebrating his victory over the Persians in 330 BC and the famed wines of Shiraz were flowing freely when a Greek woman named Thais convinced Alexander to lead a procession and destroy the greatest symbol of the Persians. Some say it was revenge against the Persians for sacking the Athens’ Parthenon in 480 B.C. After Alexander set the first torch, Thais threw hers and encouraged the other women to do the same. Much of the structure was wood and the entire palace was destroyed. Unfortunately, only a few columns and gates are standing in a vast complex, which requires a great deal of restoration.
About 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) northwest of Persepolis are impressive tombs for Darius the Great and four other rulers. These huge structures are carved high above the ground into the mountain and resemble those in Petra.
We made an interesting stop at the Qur’an Gate, which was originally built around the 900s. It sustained earthquake damage throughout its existence and had to be rebuilt several times. During a reconstruction in the 1400s, a room was added at the top where the pious Sultan Ibrahim Mīrzā placed two volumes of the Qur’an that he had personally copied. It was believed that travelers leaving through the gates received the blessings of the Qur’an and would return safely. The books were removed for safekeeping in 1937 and now reside in the Pars Museum in Shiraz.
The fourth morning we took a long bus ride from Shiraz to Yazd, where we stopped to visit Tomb of Cyrus the Great (576 B.C. to 530 B.C.), a World Heritage site. It is said to be the oldest base-isolated structure in the world. Base isolation construction provides protection against earthquakes, but is not earthquake proof. It seems to have worked quite well here since the tomb appears in good condition after all this time. Legends about Cyrus as a newborn resemble that of Moses and make for interesting reading.
Along the way, we saw a 4,000-year-old cypress tree called the Zoroastrian Sarv, an Iranian national treasure. We visited the site of a Zoroastrian fire temple that is said to have kept a fire continuously lit for more than 500 years. Jewish customs require an eternal flame before the Ark and many Christian religions have an eternal flame known as the sanctuary or tabernacle lamp.
The Iranian money exchange rate was soaring, but price controls prevented merchants from raising prices for food, rent and gas, etc. We stopped at three different restaurants, but they were all closed because meal prices were fixed and did not provide for high inflationary food cost. We finally found a place that was willing to serve us lunch. U.S. dollars are highly valued because that was the only currency allowed to purchase international airfare since it does not suffer from the inflationary rial rate.
I tried to access some bank accounts and brokerage accounts on the Internet, but was denied access. In fact, one company froze my credit card use, and when I returned to America I had to fill out notarized forms saying I was now in America. They claim it was due to the American embargo against trade with Iran, but it seems each company makes their own rules. This is a word to the wise: avoid contacting any financial institutions in America when visiting Iran.
After lunch, we stopped for a short time in the town of Meybod to see old adobe buildings that once housed ice formed during the winter and kept for summer use. It was interesting to see how they solved the problem of providing ice even during the hot summers. We walked to a crumbling citadel and a pigeon tower where the birds would nest and produce fertilizer.
Nain was the next afternoon stop. It is famed for carpets bearing its name. There are many interesting sites in this city, but because of time constraints, we were only able to visit their ethnological museum and visit one of the oldest mosques in Iran. There is an ingenious system called qanat that transports water underground (to avoid evaporation loss) from the higher mountainous areas to lower areas and through a series of shafts water is brought to the surface in needed areas by the water pressure. The Persians invented the system in the first century BC. This allowed people to live in dry desert areas.
After a long ride through mostly desert landscape, we reached the city of Isfahan, the former capital of Persia. A Persian proverb states that “Isfahan is half the world.” Its lovely parks, pleasant weather (at least during this visit), delicious foods, sweet candies, luscious fruits, interesting architecture and history lend credence to that proverb. It is also famed for its carpets and miniature paintings. It is the third largest Iranian city with 1.5
million inhabitants. Some say that there are almost 4 million people, when including those in the outskirts of the city. Isfahan is the most interesting of Iranian cities and should not be missed when visiting Iran.
Hotel Abbass, where we stayed, is said to be the finest in Iran. The public areas were indeed luxurious and the courtyard had beautiful gardens and fountains, but our rooms were rather ordinary. This five-star hotel had signs saying do not throw toilet paper in the toilet, but into a special receptacle (as is done in Mexico and other Latin American countries because of plumbing problems).
During our few days in this lovely city, we drove over some of the famous bridges crossing the dry river that now runs only during winter and early spring. We went to the foot of a mountaintop fortress, but when our guide informed us there isn’t much to see except for the view, I declined the long climb. A few people from our group did go, though. While waiting for them, a taxi drove up and deposited a young couple that quickly began their ascent. The cab driver came up to me, nudged me and said, “That climb is for young folk not old guys like us.” Hmm.
The Isfahan Armenian Orthodox church here has beautiful murals, a printing press, and a portrait of Father Abraham that is attributed to Rembrandt. Shah Abbas I invited (some say forced) Armenians located in another area of Iran to move here in 1604 because they were noted for their artistry and construction of beautiful buildings. These Armenians were also famed traders, especially along the Silk Route. Abbas correctly guessed they would bring benefits to Isfahan. They were given land, freedom to practice their religion and tax exemptions. They had two seats in the Iranian Parliament.
The quaking minarets in Isfahan are a popular tourist attraction. Supposedly, when one minaret is shaken, the opposite one also begins to shake. We went to see this phenomenon, but there was scaffolding to repair some damage.
Our return to the hotel for a few hours break allowed me to wander alone to some nearby shops and look for better money exchange than what our guide was offering. I found one, but there was a language barrier, so the moneychanger brought an English-speaking merchant to interpret and I received 280,000 to the dollar. The interpreter asked if I needed any other help and I asked for a good lunch spot. He said he would personally drive me to his friend’s newly opened restaurant where the food was tasty and inexpensive because he wanted to practice his English. I wanted to buy some miniature paintings on camel bone, and he offered to interpret. My friendly interpreter said he would drive me to the afternoon tour destinations, but when we arrived back at the hotel our guide was livid and began yelling at the interpreter that he could have him arrested, so I said farewell. I guess we are not allowed to mingle with the public.
Las Vegas Tidbits
Bambu, a franchised chain of Vietnamese desserts has opened a branch here in Las Vegas, at 4810 Spring Mountain Road, Suite B; (702) 629-7726. There are Vietnamese-style desserts of iced drinks, like smoothies that might contain sweet beans, jellies, exotic fruits that are similar to Filpino halo halo. It’s best to try in the afternoon or during the warm season. They are large and two people can share if this is your first experience.
The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.