We left Kermanshah around 8:30 and began the very looooong 360 mile drive to Ahwaz (pronounced Aff was). Bahman suggested we alter our plan slightly to stop in the ancient site of Susa (or Shush if you are Iranian, which translated from Farsi means “beautiful”) since the site was on the way to Ahwaz. This would free up our day some on Friday since the original plan had been to visit Shush, Chogha Zanbil and Shushtar in one day using Ahwaz as our base. Bahman was actually worried about the effect the heat may have on me (it was unusually warm for this time of year in Ahwaz) and thought it would be easier to break up the site visits over two days. Fine by me.
The drive to Ahwaz would take us through four Iranian provinces: Kermanshah province, Ilam province, Lorestan province and finally to Khoshoustan province aka the “oily” province as Baham called it since it was the center of all things oil in Iran.
We initially drove through a number of small villages and as with all of the towns and villages we had passed through, I continued to notice posters of men mounted on long poles in the center median of the road that ran through each village. I finally asked Bahman about this, and he told me that the men were “martyrs” – they had been killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Each town or village that lost a man commemorated his life by displaying his picture on a poster in the middle of the road. WOW! Talk about humanizing war!
So as we drove, the scenery changed from a series of villages to winding mountain passes. We were still in the Zagros Mountains and would be for the majority of the 360 mile drive to Ahwaz so the road, according to Bahman, was going to have a lot of twists and turns.
What was really interesting to me was how barren and very, very dry the hillsides were. For a number of miles, there was literally nothing but dirt and rock. At one point Bahman turned to me and said “the moon” and was he ever right!
Eventually the hillsides became dotted with scrub and very old oak trees and we crested a series of what appeared to be very fertile plateaus used for farming. The plateaus were filled with numerous Nomad camps. The Nomads are an ancient population of Iranians comprised of various tribes. The Nomads primarily raise goats and sheep (in addition to weaving the magnificent Persian carpets), and each tribe uses fixed territories in and around the Zagros mountains for their summer and winter pastures. In the summer, when the low valleys are parched from insufficient rainfall, the tribes are in the higher elevations. When the snow begins to fall and cover the pastures of the higher valleys, the tribes migrate to low-lying pastures. The migrations take place each spring and fall and last about two months.
The Nomads play a very important role in the Iranian economy because the Nomads’ herds provide the main source of red meat for Iran. Accordingly to Bahman there are approximately 1.5 million Nomads in Iran based on the last Iranian government census. Because the migration is nearing, Bahman said I should expect to see a lot of Nomads with the greatest concentration around Shiraz (which I will be visiting in a few days).
The first stop of the day was for tea and a bathroom break at a local mosque built along the highway. And let me just say for the record … our tea was the highlight of this visit. Bahman and I have taken to rating our bathroom stops (which by the way only have squat toilets), We both agreed that the bathrooms at this location were a negative 1 … not the best of locations, but what the hey… we were in the middle of the Zagros mountains. (Also, I have discovered a new use for the hedjab – comes in handy when the rest stops are how should I put this … a little more aromatic than others ….)
We continued on through the windy roads and the land became much more forested and green. At some point Bahman told me I could take off my hedjab since we were only passing through villages and no one really cared. I let my head scarf fall off my head and I commented to Bahman that I suddenly felt naked, which caused a lot of laughter in the van. It is weird how my mindset had shifted so quickly to always being concerned about whether my head was covered. It is also amazing how much cooler I felt without the scarf on my head.
Anyway, our next stop (with hijab firmly back on) was to visit the Pol-e-Doaktar, a Sassanian bridge built in the 4th century AD. Sections of the bridge were largely in tact and it was a really impressive and really large display of ancient architecture.
We also decided to stop in the adjacent town for lunch. The original plan was to have a picnic by the river, but Bahman spotted a roadside kabab stand so we parked in front and sat on the picnic benches and ordered lunch. (Tourist contributing to the local village economy….) As we sat, a young man approached and proceeded to have a short discussion with Bahman. It turned out the fellow worked in the office of the Mayor of Tehran and was in town for his cousin’s wedding. We immediately received an invitation to the wedding, which we had to politely decline. Unfortunately, the wedding was not until later in the evening and we had to be on our way to Ahwaz. Bummer, although maybe it was a good thing. I would have most likely been a bit of a distraction on the bride’s big day.
Lunch of bread, chicken kebabs and tomatoes were grilled over an open flame on what appeared to be a homemade grill. The lunch was very good and our hosts were very nice (including one gentleman who kept pointing to his eyes and mine and saying the word twins – we both had blue eyes). However, the down side to eating out doors is that the food attracted an extraordinary number of flies so we did not linger over lunch and hit the road in pretty quick order.
As we drove through the afternoon we passed a number of oil tankers, which Bahman identified to me as Iraqi tankers. Apparently the Iraqi refineries were destroyed in the “American” war and the Iraqi were buying oil from Iran. The things you learn. We also passed another wide strip of asphalt that was also used by the Iranian air force during the Iran Iraq war. Needless to say the drive was one interesting moment after another.
About an hour after lunch we began our descent out of the mountains. The land became very dry again and the rock formations were spectacular. In fact, one formation looked strangely like the Grand Canyon. It was a really beautiful drive.
By mid afternoon we arrived at Shush aka Susa. Shush (which means beautiful in Farsi) is the site of the ancient city of Susa and at one time one of the great cities of ancient Persia. The original site was an Elamite city dating back to 3,000 BC. The city was destroyed in 640 BC by invaders, but was rebuilt by Darius I in 521 BC. The city continued to survive the centuries despite numerous invasions and became the Sassanian capital when Darius III came to power in 250 AD. The city disappeared following numerous Mongol raids in the post Islamic period some time after 641 AD.
Bahman and I got out of the van in the blazing sun (the temperature was 38 C), and I immediately grabbed a partially frozen bottle of water. This was going to be a hot trek. There was no else around as we climbed the path to the top of the site. I was surprised to see how little excavation work had been done at Susa and what was most visible was mounds of hidden ruins, Bahman told me that most of the mounds have been identified as the Palace of Darius, the Royal City, the Elamite Acropolis (on which the Chateau de Morgan has been built) and the common peoples’ town. The site looked quite deserted as we wandered through unearthed pillars that made up the Palace of Darius and got a really idea of the size of the site. In addition, there was a partially intact lion that must have stood guard to one of the entry points to the palace.
The Chateau de Morgan is a rather strange site. It was apparently built by the French in the 19th century when teams of French archeologists were doing some excavation work. The French apparently needed a place to protect them from raids from Arab and Lurish tribesman. Problem is they built the chateau on the mound that comprises the ancient Acropolis and when it comes time to excavate the site the chateau will have to be destroyed. Those crazy Frenchmen!
After wandering the site in the heat, Bahman and I headed into the cool, air conditioned museum where we looked at a variety of statutes, earthen ware and carvings that had been unearthed on the site and spanned thousand of years. The most impressive relics were the giant bull head (no it is not a statute of my friend Denice aka the Bull), a lion hugging Hercules statute and my favorite, three masks from the Elamite era that were over 3,000 years old. The masks were completely intact, retained some of the colouring and were kinda spooky.
As we were leaving the museum, we ran into a number of teenage boys who were … well being teenage boys. When they saw me they immediately ran over and wanted to have their picture taken with me. Five minutes and multiple pictures and lots of laughter later, Bahman and I were back in the car, out of the heat and on the road to Ahwaz.
The one thing I noticed in Shush was that the style of dress was far different from the other regions I had visited in Iran. Bahman advised me that this part of the country had been settled by Arabs and as a result, the men tend to wear a traditional gown and head scarf and the women wear the black abya. And the primary language spoken is Arabic not Farsi. I guess it is like the English and French division in Canada.
We made one more stop at a roadside mosque for tea about 50 km from Ahwaz. And Bahman finally broke out the yellow hued melon he bought the day before. The melon had a while flesh and was so incredibly sweet and tasty. I have never eaten anything like it. I think I ended up eating half the melon. The food journey through Iran goes on.
We continued towards Ahwaz, and I learned why Bahman called Khzhoustan province the “oily” province. There were oil and gas refineries and pipelines everywhere as we approached Ahwaz. This was the heart of Iran’s oil reserves and oil and gas industry.
Ahwaz is city of about 1 million and is primarily industrial, although it is so far south it has a surprising number of palm trees and tropical vegetation and lots of flat farmlands. However, there is really no historical sites in the city and the only reason we were staying in Ahwaz was its proximity to some of Iran’s historical sites an hour or so drive away. Once at the hotel, we had a quick bite to eat (I had grilled Persian gulf shrimp and it was more yummy goodness) and called it a night. I was feeling a bit woozy from the drive. We had taken so many twists and turns on the drive my equilibrium was a bit off and I kept feeling like the room was swaying. Weird.
Oh, and we were finally around some tourists who turned out to be from Belgium, Japan and Italy, We had actually run into the Belgians in Hamadan along with a handful of Australians, but the number of tourists I have seen at this point number at less than fifty. And not surprising – there has not be Canadian or American in sight! Anyway, time for bed and on to my discoveries tomorrow.