We left Ahwaz around 7:30 a.m. headed to Shiraz (with a stop in Bishapur) in the southcentral portion of Iran (and to the east of Ahwaz). We spent the first couple hours driving through endless gas fields to the south and east of Ahwaz (including the largest natural gas field in Iran) as well as a couple military bases (no pictures please). Not the prettiest scenery, but quite frankly it was the first landscape in Iran that did not wow me. And yes, the air was a little smelly.
Once past the gas fields, we headed east into the foothills of the Zagros mountains where I saw a lot more farm lands including rice fields. It was surprisingly green while surrounded by arid mountains. Apparently there are a lot of underground water systems in the area, which makes for a very fertile region. The assent through the Zagros mountains was a gradual climb and as we drove, Bahman told me we would be driving from an elevation of around 64 feet in Ahwaz to around 10,000 feet at the highest point in the Zagros mountains before settling into Shiraz with its elevation of 5,200 feet.
The drive through the mountains was gorgeous. As we ascended, the landscape became dotted with hundreds and hundreds of giant oak trees that are now on the Iranian protected list. (Bahman told me that the trees had each been given a number and they are regularly checked to ensure their health and to make sure no one was harming the groves.)
The traffic on the road was the usual chaotic mess with truck drivers weaving in and out and cars zooming by at high rates of speed. As Bahman commented “these hillbillies get rich and buy fast cars when they are only used to riding a donkey”. CLASSIC line. I adore my guide! We have had some fascinating and really insightful conversations that I will not be writing about (the one time I am afraid I must censor my commentary), but I am happy to talk to anyone about this very misunderstood country and its wonderful people when I return home.
Anyway, another interesting thing about the traffic. There are speed bumps through virtually every town and village, seat belts are mandatory and police radar is always out in full force. In addition, truck drivers are fitted with a gauge for their rigs, which keeps track of the speed of the trucks to ensure the drivers do not speed. (Too bad they can’t do anything about the weaving in and out.) In addition, we pass though many “welcome” arches along the road and passing through them is supposed to bring you good luck. (With the way some of these drivers move about the roads, you need it!)
So we continued on through the mountains. We had our usual tea and date stop at a rather interesting gas station (bathroom was a 2.5 star) with one driver rolling his window down and asking Bahman in Farsi where I was from. When Bahman told him, the driver looked at me and said “love Canada” love America” and waved. So much for “Death to America” from the “Axis”.
Our lunch stop was supposed to be a picnic, but it was very, very hot so we found a nice little restaurant and bought a couple side dishes (saffron rice and this amazing tomato eggplant dish) to eat with our packed lunch of chicken, baked potato, tomato and yogurt. (And yes Mom, they do grow a lot of tomatoes, but tomatoes are a staple in all of the middle eastern countries I have visited as well as in Greece.)
After lunch we continued on the drive and arrived at Bishapur around 3. Bishapur is about two hours from Shiraz and is just off the ancient royal road we would be driving to Shiraz. (More about the road later). Bishapur is the site of two fascinating ancient ruins. The first is the old city of Bishapur, founded in 266 BC by Shapur I who ruled from 241-272 BC and was the second Sassanian king. Bishapur restored the Persian borders of the empire to where they had been in the Archamenian Persian period by defeating the Romans three times. In Bishapur’s native province of Fars, he built a new capital to go with his impressive victories: Bishapur or Shapur’s City.
The city has been partially excavated but you could see that the area was vast. If the proper excavation work was done, I would guess that the city would rival Ephesus (in southern Turkey) in size. It was enormous. The city had been built by Roman slaves captured by Shapur (just like the dams in Shushtar) using tan coloured rock cut from the nearby mountains and hauled to the plains. According to Bahman, the stones were kept together with a mortar made of egg white, sand, clay, goat hair, and ash. HUH? How the heck would someone come up with that combination?!!! (Yea I know I’m a geek when it comes to history and archeology, but you gotta love this stuff!)
Anyway, Bahman and I were able to wander through the Palace of Shapur, a reception room, the harem court and of course the magnificent Anahita Temple (shrine to the water god), which really was the best preserved remains at the site. (And yes, we had the site all to ourselves!) In order to get to the temple, we had to walk down a narrow stair case and entered into a square courtyard of sorts surrounded by four standing walls. One wall was topped by a triangle on which the remains of two lions stood guard. Some believe that a giant dome dominated the temple. It was really gorgeous.
As we walked around you could make out carvings in some of the ruined columns that remained as well as what was left of the palace throne. There were mounds everywhere of unearthed “treasures”. If I were a billionaire, I would hire an archeology crew and have a field day at sites like these!
After walking the site, we went inside (which was a bit of relief from the heat – the weather continues to be unseasonably hot) to a small museum that housed some relics found at the site. There was some amazing pottery, carvings and the head of a man. Loved it!
We wandered back to the van, got in and Hamid drove us two minutes back in the direction from which we had just come to the next site: the Tang-e Chogan rock relief carvings. Bahman and I grabbed some water and walked the 1/4 mile along the Shapur River in the Chogan Gorge. It was a gorgeous walk. And yes, when we reached the site it was another of those “Oh wow” moments. As we walked around a bend on the path, we caught the first glimpse of the huge historical rock reliefs Shapur had carved into the stone commemorating his triple triumph over Rome.
The first relief was in a semicircular shape and showed Shapur in the middle of rows of soldiers and horses, captured Roman soldiers and elephants and camels. The second showed Shapur on horesback in front of the vanquished Roman emperor Valarian surrounded by soldiers and camels. The more you stared at this relief the more you could see. It was awesome!
The third relief showed Shapur’s investiture in Sassanian imagery that was ultimately copied by other Sassanian kings (and was similar in imagery to what I saw at the rock reliefs outside Kermanshah). Shapur was on horeback face to face with the the god Ahura Mazda who was holding the royal diadem (a circular ring) out to Shapur to crown him king. Below is a vanquished soldier lying dead on the ground. What was particularly comical about this carving is that a successor king had carved his face into this relief – no idea who it was, but it really looked out of place.
The last relief was the hardest to see as it was so high up the mountain, but it depicted Shapur’s victorious soldiers. I ended up climbing part way up the slippery rock face to get a better look at a couple of the reliefs. My kind of afternoon.
We hiked back to the van (despite my protests that we should just stay here) and Hamid had tea waiting for us in a little shady area (he is THE sweetest man). Unfortunately, Bahman and I were too hot so we climbed back in the van, turned on the AC and each guzzled a bottle of ice cold water. Then it was back on the road.
We doubled back about 10 km in the direction we had just come from and then turned right passing through a number of villages filled with nomads who had put down roots. The womens’ clothing was very colourful with larged hooped skirts, but not surprisingly, many were covered with black abyas making it difficult to fully appreciate the clothing.
The villages we passed through were typical of the middle east for their open air street markets and the homes were squared stoned buildings that defined the term “ancient”. It was a really enjoyable drive. As we passed through a final village, we came face to face with a huge gorge where the divided highway became just two lanes and we began driving a series of switchbacks allowing us to zig zig up part of the ancient royal road that at one time connected Babalyon to Shush (Susa) to Persepolis (which is near our destination of Shiraz). You could just feel the history as we drove through the mountains.
And talk about a view …. simply stupendous. By the time we reached the highest point (around 10,000 feet) you could see mountain peaks in the distance and valley far, far below us. The landscape was very green with trees everywhere. It was a really lovely way to end a pretty cool day.
Two hours later we arrived in Shiraz, the “city of gardens”, at sunset. Bahman had changed my itinerary somewhat so we could spend two full days and three nights in Shiraz … his favorite city. For now we would call it an early night and get ready for two glorious days in Shiraz.