So we were up early on Sunday morning (a regular work day in the Islamic world) for a full day of sightseeing in Shiraz, a city that has stood for more than 2,000 years. Bahman was clearly very excited to show me his favorite city starting with the mausoleum of Hafez and its beautiful gardens. Hafez (the nickname for “one who can recite the Quran from memory”) was a 14th century poet from Shiraz who is revered in Iran. In fact, he seemed to be a bit of a rock star. Bahman told me that most Iranians can recite his poetry from memory and many of his verses are used in everyday speech. His collection of poems known as Divan-e Hafez draws from life experiences and often includes themes about love, love lost, nightingales (a common bird in Shiraz) and wine (no longer common in Shiraz). The works of Hafez have been translated into every major language.
It was fascinating to see how animated Bahman became when he was discussing Hafez. He related to me that before Hafez died, Hafez is reported to have said that “when you pass by my tomb make a wish because my tomb will become a pilgrimage for all”. And by the looks of the number of Iranians at his tomb, he was absolutely right. Bahman also told me that Hafez wrote “when you pass by my tomb you will smell the scent of love”. For this reason, the tomb has become something of a mecca for “date night” and you will often see many couples strolling the grounds together. (My guide is definitely something of a romantic based upon our discussions to date.)
Anyway, the tomb was built in the middle of an absolutely gorgeous garden with two reflecting ponds. The marble tomb was set on a raised platform surrounded by an eight sided white pavilion. Legend has it that if you touch the tomb and make a wish, it will come true. And sure enough as I stood there and watched folks, virtually every one approached the tomb paused, touch the tomb and moved on. The location has taken on such a mystical presence that when we entered the gardens, a fellow with a parakeet approached us and asked us if we wanted to know our fortunes. Bahman paid the man a few rials and the parakeet then selected a piece of paper from a stack in the man’s hand (seriously … I would not make this stuff up). Bahman proceeded to translate my future for me from the Farsi fortune I had been given by the bird. (Apparently, great things in love and life await me in the next 5 years….) It was a wacky, strange and thoroughly entertaining way to start the day.
We wandered through the gardens for a bit, but before we left, Bahman insisted I buy Hafez’s book of poetry. The book is actually quite gorgeous and for less than $5 bucks a bargain and a half.
We finally got back in the van and drove to the old town area and spent some time walking the streets near the Nomad’s Bazaar. The aroma on the street was very exotic and filled with spices from the many shops selling everything from saffron and tumeric to every kind of curry. There were bread stands with men selling a special large Iranian flat bread and lots of freshly squeezed juices being sold in glass containers. And as we walked, we drew stares, friendly waives and “Salams” (hello) from the Iranians we passed.
Bahman eventually took me down narrow alley and told me he wanted to show me “something”. We walked about a block and stopped in front of a rather nondescript building. Bahman told me it was the Madrassa-e-Khan, which was a theological college for students started in 1615 by Imam Gohli Khan. He said that we could go inside, but I would have to cover my head completely (no bangs showing). I fixed my hedjab, and we walked through the doors and into a beautiful entry way and out into a stone walled inner courtyard and garden. It was gorgeous and peaceful. There were a few Imams in the courtyard, and I was greeted with friendly smiles and “Salams”. We walked around and and spent some time looking at the lovely mosaic tile work on the walls before leaving back through the door we had entered. The school was a far different portrait from the Islamic theological schools we see in the media.
As we were about to walk back down the alley, an elderly gentleman approached and asked me in heavily accented English where I was from. I told him and he said welcome. He told me a bit about himself. His name was Yadollah Azhdari and he was a descendant of the most populous Iranian nomad tribe, the Qashq’i. He was an engineer and wanted to go to America to study aeronautical engineering. “Never stop learning” he told me. Wise words to live by.
He was a lovely man and in true Iranian hospitality he gave us his telephone number and invited us to his home for lunch tomorrow. We spoke for a bit longer before we left for our next stop, the Masjed-e Nas-ol-Molk Mosque aka the Pink Mosque. As we entered the mosque, an elderly lady approached us and handed us a wrapped flat bread filled with a creamy bean paste. Apparently, Shia Muslims believe that if they pray to God for something and the something comes true they need to pay it back. It can be in any form really. So this lady was giving out food this morning as her way of paying it back. I accepted the gift and ate it – the taste was similar to a bean burrito and pretty darn tasty.
Anyway, about the mosque. It was constructed at the end of the 19th century. The courtyard was built around a long narrow pool and was covered in blue tiles. However, the highlight was the winter prayer hall, which contained exquisite stained glass, pale pink columns and carved and painted ceilings. It was stunning. I walked around in my bare feet on the carpets in the hall and just marveled at the beauty of the building. (If my office looked like this, I am pretty sure my stress level would be substantially diminished.)
The next stop was Bagh-e Naranjestan and Khan-e Zinat ol-Molk residences, which are restored historical residences that allow visitors to better understand how Iranian nobles lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bahman and I walked back down the narrow street towards the residences and as we walked along a tree branch caught my scarf and just about strangled me. Bahman, oblivious to my fate because he was on the phone, kept walking. All of a sudden he realized I wasn’t beside him and he turned to see me tangled up in the tree. By this time I was laughing so hard I couldn’t explain to him what happened. When I finally managed to tell him, he couldn’t stop laughing. We were still in fits of giggles by the time we reached the residences a couple blocks away.
We first entered the Bah-e Naranjestan, the former was the residence of Mirza Ibrahim Khan that was built in the 19th century (and yes I was still laughing). As I said, the home had been restored to show how noble families lived and was surrounded by lovely small gardens. The interior rooms were designed using ornate mirrored glass, inlaid wooden panels, painted ceilings and delicate tile work and included a fabulous mirrored porch. The building was beautiful.
The second residence was about a block away and was apparently at one time connected by an underground pathway. The residence belonged to the sister of Mirza Ibrahim Khan. The residence was much smaller, and the rooms now housed a museum of sorts featuring famous people in Iranian history in period costume and descriptions of what role each person played in history. The highlight of the residence, however, was the lovely garden in the middle of the residence.
Now a little about Iranian homes. The entry way to a home features an octagonal ceiling symbolizing the 7 gates that lead to heaven and the 8th gate leading to the home. Most homes are built around courtyard in the center of the building and every respectable home has a garden in the courtyard.
We moved on from the homes, jumped back in the van and Hamid drove us across the city to a restaurant for lunch. As we drove, we passed by wide boulevards with lots of trees and flowers, man made waterfalls cascading down the hillsides, beautiful old homes and lots and lots of shops. Bahman told me he wanted to take me shopping later. (I think he is worse than a woman … the man loves to shop!)
So the restaurant we went to for lunch was owned by a friend of Bahman’s. It was a beautiful two story restaurant in a very modern building, but very Persian in design. And it turned out, the lunch rocked! They first brought out an assortment of pickles, chopped vegetables and olives to choose from. Bahman selected two for the table: olives and a strange looking roasted garlic of some kind. I found the garlic a bit bitter to the taste, but not bad. Next up were some Iranian flat breads with the best spread I have ever had. It was made with roasted eggplant, garlic, beans and lots of spices. It was delicious and I could have called it good just eating the bread and spread.
The main courses featured a spicy rice and shrimp dish and a very strangle looking triangular looking food which turned out to be crusty rice stuffed with lamb. The food was without a doubt the best of the trip. The spicy rice and shrimp was over the top and the rice and lamb dish was simply perfect (I normally I don’t like lamb, but this was ridiculously good.) And Bahman ordered for me the most peculiar iced drink made from the extract of flowers. Bahman told me it was made from Bitmeshke and Masteron. No idea if I am spelling it correctly, but I insisted that he take me to a place where I could buy the extract to take back home. It was incredibly refreshing.
After lunch, we drove around the city past the University of Shiraz, the former U.S. consulate and lots and lots of gardens. It was certainly clear to me why the city was known as the city of gardens. The flower baskets, trees and gardens reminded me of my hometown, Victoria, which is Canada’s city of gardens.
On the way back to the hotel, Bahman had Hamid stop a few blocks from the hotel so that we could shop for carpets at a store he recommended. The gentlemen had been in the business for 4 generations and had shops in Shiraz, Isfahan and Tehran.
Now carpet buying is an experience in and of itself. If you aren’t careful you end up walking out of the shop with more carpets than you need. Fortunately, I had a very specific carpet in mind and I am not shy about saying no. Anyway, the process begins with you taking a seat and being served tea. This is followed by a parade of carpets that are rolled out in front of you with the history of the carpet then provided. The Persian carpets are exquisite and can be made only of silk, silk and lamb’s wool, or lamb’s wool. The quality of the carpet depends on the quality of the silk or wool and the number of knots.
So we were seated, had some tea and the men began to roll the carpets out in front of us. Now I soon learned that there are two types of Persian carpets: Nomad and city. Nomad are more countryish in design and feature lots of oranges, reds and yellows. Not my taste. However, Bahman loves them and was looking for carpets for two villas he has on the Caspian sea. Before I knew it, Bahman had bought three carpets and I was still looking for one. The city carpets (with a more floral pattern) were more my taste. Unfortunately, one hour and no carpets later it was a shut out. They did not have what I wanted. The men promised to call their other shops to see if they had what I as looking for and with that we left.
Bahman suggested we walk back to the hotel through the gardens surrounding the hotel before our afternoon rest. It was still rather hot in the mid afternoon sun, but the walk was so nice I barely felt the heat. And the gardens … wow. I actually have a beautiful view of the gardens we were walking through from my hotel room, but on the walk I could now now see up close all the fountains, and potted and planted flowers and tall leafy trees. Lovely.
Once back at the hotel, we stopped for tea. I took a seat and Bahman went to the counter and ordered. The next thing I know Bahman has placed a cup of some strange looking frozen white concoction in front of me. Bauman instructed me to squeeze lime over the top and take a taste. It was this lovely little party in my mouth bursting with flavors of vanilla and lime and frozen goodness, which tasted vaguely like a margharita. Good grief. Another fabulous tasty treat in this country. I told Bahman he was going to have to roll me on the plane if he kept this up. This trip has been nonstop food!
Around 6, when the heat of the day had passed, we went back out to visit two more sites before dinner. The first site was absolutely magnificent: the Ali Ibn-e Hamze Shrine. The shrine was constructed in the 19th century and contains the tomb of Emir Ali. The setting of the shrine was simply beautiful in the midst of a lovely courtyard and the shrine itself was magnificent with a blue dome surrounded by two minarets.
As we entered the courtyard, the call to prayer was just beginning and in the dusk it was haunting and beautiful. We walked the length of the courtyard while men to our far left knelt in prayer. At the women’s entrance to the shrine, elderly women in chadors cloaked me in a bedsheet (my substitute chador) and allowed me to enter by myself (Bahman had to stay out of the women’s side of the shrine.)
Inside, I was met by dazzling floor to dome mirror work. Wowza! Bahman had not told me what I would be walking into so it was a complete surprise. (I am learning he loves the element of surprise.) The patterns, cuts and designs of the mirrors were indescribable. I felt like I had wandered into a room covered in brilliant diamonds. I was mesmerized by the shapes, patterns and the overall brilliance. And all the while the call to prayer continued. Now I am not in any way a religious person, but the shrine was really moving and magical, and I really did not want to leave.
I finally pulled myself away and wandered outside, but as I was leaving an elderly woman in a black chador smiled at me and pointed at my camera. She rattled off something in Farsi, and I had to tell her “motavajjeh nemisham” (I don’t understand). She smiled again pointed at my camera and pointed to the doorway. Aha! She was asking if I would like a photo inside. “Bale lotfan” (yes please). The lady pointed at a young woman, rattled something off in Farsi and two minutes later I was back inside having my photo taken. The hospitality of the Iranians knows no bounds. I thanked the elderly women over and over and said my goodbyes.
I walked outside with a big grin on my face and told Bahman what had happened inside. He smiled and asked me what did I expect from a bunch of terrorists! Another classic line. (I have not written about most of Bahman’s funny lines and comments, but at this point they would fill a book.) So not only does my guide rock, he has a wicked sense of humour.
We finally left the shrine and drove to the north edge of the city to the Darvazeh-ye Quran or the “Holy Quran Gate” The gate is not a gate, but an archway that was built in 1949 and boy was it impressively lit. The structure apparently holds an old Quran and travelers pass underneath the arch before embarking on any journey.
Bahman and I took a stroll underneath the arch and came upon a group of teens who wanted their picture taken. Apparently they were having camera problems. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but Bahman took the camera turned it around, pressed a button and the camera opened and turned on. Both of us began to laugh. The teens kind of looked bewildered, but at this point Bahman and I thought that the kids didn’t know how to turn on the camera. A minute later when Bahman went to take the picture the camera shut off. Oh. Now we get it! The teens knew how to turn the camera on, it just wasn’t working. (Doubt that this translates into how funny the whole event was, but it kept Bahman and I in stitches all the way back to the car.)
We jumped back in the van and headed to Soofi for dinner and Iranian music. We had a nice dinner, but it paled in comparison to the fabulous lunch. The music, however, was fantastic. The music was far different from anything I had previously heard in the middle east and kind of reminded me of Spanish folk music. The musicians played a violin, a drum of sorts and a guitar like instrument. The singer had a lovely voice and made for a very enjoyable dinner.
After dinner, Bahman wanted to take me shopping. (I told you this man is worse than a woman.) So off we went to the mall and I ended up buying a new scarf and two new manteaus. The two I had were getting old real quick (and I am sure everyone is sick of seeing me in the same outfits.) Surprisingly, Bahman did not buy anything!
So after the shopping trip, we hopped back in the van and headed back to the hotel. I was done in and ready for bed!