We left Tehran at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday in an effort to avoid rush hour traffic. Not sure it really helped at all as it was very slow going for the first 45 minutes until we exited the freeway we were on and began the drive west to Hamadan. After all the complaining I do about Seattle traffic, I am here to tell you it has nothing on Tehran. I have no idea how these folks spend two to three hours each way per day in traffic. YIKES.
Anyway, the drive to Hamadan took most of the day and it was very interesting to watch how the scenery changed from lush green areas to dry mountainous regions. About two hours into the drive, we stopped at a rest area for tea, biscuits and dates. Bahman told me that the rest stop was one of many run by an Iranian American who came back to Iran with an idea to build the rest stops and is now one of the wealthiest guys in the country. I have to say as rest stops go … this one was pretty nice. It sold everything from baked goods to perfume. (And yes, I did buy a tiny bottle of pure jasmine perfume oil.)
Our lunch stop was in a really cool (and very windy) village high up in the Zagros Mountains, which pretty much run the entire length of the county. The restaurant was run by a friend of Bahman’s and the quirky thing about the place was all of the chairs and tables were covered in plastic. I guess it makes cleaning a whole lot easier. Anyway, lunch consisted of grilled tomatoes, peppers and chicken kababs along with yogurt and flatbread and the requisite tea. Super yummy.
After lunch, we continued the drive west to Hamadan reaching the city by around 3:30. Hamadan is an interesting place … the city is built on a cartwheel design with six avenues radiating from the circular center square known by what else… Imam Khomeni Square. Everything flows from the square in circles. Kind of gives new meaning to term “driving in circles” (insert groan here….)
Anyway, after a quick visit to the square, we drove to the Esther & Mordecai Tomb, which is one of Iran’s most important Jewish sites. (I know what you are thinking, how could Iran have a Jewish site. Well interestingly enough, the Jews and the Muslims in Iran have gotten along quite well for centuries and live in peace with one another. It is the countries of Iran and the Jewish state of Israel that have issues.)
Once at the site, we found Rabbi Rajad and were quickly ushered into the 14th century building, through a very small ancient wooden door, down a flight of stairs and into the tomb area. (I was literally stooped over so I did not smash my head … they needed one of those British signs … “mind yer head”. Two people, Esther (for whom a book in the bible is named) and Mordecai (her cousin/guardian) are believed to be buried in the tomb, but there is no actual proof this tomb is their final resting place. Esther is believed to have saved Jews from a massacre at the hands of Haman. The visit was quite fascinating and the rabbi was a real character. Fortunately, I had been tipped off before I left home that he was a pen collector so I managed to find a couple Seattle pens to bring with me to give to him. The rabbi seemed quite thrilled, although I am certain he didn’t fully understand my explanation of the symbols on the pen (including Starbucks, the Space Needle, an orca and Mt. Rainier).
From the tomb, we moved on to the Avicenna Mausoleum, which is home to the final resting place of BuAli Sina, the man who wrote the Canon Medicinae almost 1000 years ago. (Yes, today is mostly about dead people … but what did you expect in the Cradle of Civilization….) The book was the foundation for many medical teachings in the middle ages and his work on herbs,distillary and alchemy have stood the test of time. Clearly this was one sharp fellow.
We left the tomb and headed out of the city for an 8 clicks drive up to Elvend Mountain to see the Ganjnameh, which is a pair of cuneiform rock carving writings in Ancient Persian, Elamite and neo-Babylonian languages. The rock carvings date back 2500 years and were a thank you to the Zoroastrian god, Ahuru Mazda, from the Archaemenian monarchs. The site was really quite unique as it coupled old (the carvings) with a new ski slope and gondolla. There was also a lovely waterfall and a myriad of hiking paths.
On the walk to the carvings, Bahman and I stopped for corn on cob being cooked by a young man over open coals. I have no idea if this kid does anything else for a living, but I can tell you the corn was yummy, smokey goodness.
After seeing the carvings and wandering the site, Bahman suggested we go to the teahouse by the creek. Once inside, I realized this was not just a tea house, but a shisha bar (although in Iran it went by qalyān or as Bahman called it “hubbly bubbly”). We took up a spot beside a window on an elevated seating area covered by a rug. I noticed that the place was filled with students. Apparently the joint was a hangout for the Hamadan University students and every last one of them was staring at me.
Anyway, our tea came along with a very large water pipe that was set in the middle of our rug. Bahman informed me that he had ordered “orange flavor”. Great … I had avoided this for many years now, but it looked like I was finally going to lose my “virginity”. After the coals at the top of the lamp were lit, Bahman showed me how to smoke. I could feel everyone watching me as I gave it a go and immediately coughed up not one but two lungs. OK. Clearly I need to practice this. I gave it another try and decided this was not for me. (And yes there is a picture and no it will not be posted.)
As we sat there drinking tea (and Bahman smoking the pipe), three girls sitting opposite us said something to Bahman, which he promptly translated telling me that the girls wanted to meet me. I was game so I hoped off of our rug and went and sat with them. Ten minutes and a lot of hand gestures later, we were getting on famously. The girls were beautiful (although we debated the merits of who had better eyes – I liked their brown eyes and they liked my blue). I learned that two of the girls were 4th year biology students and third girl was a 3rd year chemistry student. One of the girls was married and the other two were single. They were delightful, friendly and wanted to know all about me (Muslim? Married? Children?) and America.
I no sooner said goodbye to the three girls than I was summoned by two more girls who wanted to have their picture taken with me. (I’m beginning to feel like a rockstar in this country!) One girl said to me in broken English “love America” and she made a heart shape with her hands. Yep George … these folks are really part of an “Axis of Evil”. Lesson learned don’t use such a sweeping generalizions about a country and remember to differentiate the politics from people … because after three days in Iran, I can tell you unequivocally the average person in Iran appears to be very human, very warm and very caring.
The sun was setting as we left the tea house and headed to our hotel – the Buali Hotel. Now the hotel was not a ringing endorsement for modern features and they definitely liked using mothballs in the place, but it did have a certain charm and the people were very nice.
Before dinner, Bahman and I headed out for a walk and did some window shopping. It was a nice, cool evening, and I for one can tell you it was a welcome relief after wearing the “coverings” in the heat of Tehran. (I really have no idea how the Iranian women do this day in and day out. The coverings are hot and restrictive in the warm weather, and I am constantly fidgeting with my hedjab (scarf).
By 8, it was time for dinner, but I was not at all hungry. I feel like these folks are constantly feeding me what with the breakfast, tea, lunch, tea and dinner. Far more food than I eat back home, and I am certain that at this pace I will not be losing the standard ten pounds I normally lose when I go on my overseas trips.
Anyway, after a bit of soup and salad and some of Bahman’s trout, I called it good – even though they were trying to feed me more. I was actually just antsy to walk back down the street to a storefront where I had met a gentleman who was going to fix my computer. A short time later, I was up and running and connected to the outside world. Yayyyyy.
I got back to the hotel, promptly logged on and tried to stay awake to catch up on the news, I was simply too exhausted and ended up falling asleep at 10.
Wednesday morning I was up bright and early at 5:30, got in a work out and went downstairs for breakfast for what was now becoming standard fare. Yogurt and honey, eggs, chicken sausage, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, dates and tea. My favorite meal of the day!
After breakfast we loaded up the van and headed out to two more sites before our drive to Kermanshah. The first stop was Hegmataneh Hill, which is the ancient Median and Achaemenian city site of Hamadan. Bahman told me that the old city is believed to date back 2500 years or more. It is also believed that the city was destroyed by an earthquake (earthquakes are very common in Iran). Unfortunately, excavation has been painstakingly slow as the mullahs who run Iran do not put much priority or emphasis on Persian history and historical sites. However, the walls of former residences, salons and other buildings could clearly be seen as could the kiln baked bricks on the exterior of the buildings and the sun baked bricks for the interior of the buildings.
It was a fascinating walk that ended with a small museum tour that housed some of the artifacts found at the site. (The most important works are located in museums in Tehran). Nevertheless, we got to see some amazing earthen pots (that you could sit in quite comfortably) as well as bronze weapons and arrowheads. It was a thoroughly enjoyable visit. (I probably should have been an archeologist because I love nothing better than putting on my hiking books and traipsing through historical sites.)
The lost stop in Hamadan was to the Alaviyan Dome. Now the use of the term dome is a bit of a misnomer as the 12th century dome is no longer standing. However, the brick tower was nevertheless impressive and the carvings and floral designs inside the building were really, really beautiful. Bahman and I took a very narrow staircase downstairs that required me to bend down to clear the overhang (another mind yer head moment) to the crypt that apparently is final resting place of the Alaviyan family.
We exited the building into the bright sunshine, walked through the lovely flower gardens, and jumped into the van with the waiting Hamid to begin the next leg of our trip to Kermanshah.