We reached our beautiful old hotel in Yazd, a converted caravanserai, around 6:30 p.m. Bahman had informed me the day before that Iran was playing South Korea in a World Cup qualifier the night we were to arrive in Yazd so all day long I had been giving him a hard time about “keeping his eye on the clock”. He insisted it was no “big deal”, but I could tell it WAS a BIG deal. Anyway, he needn’t have worried about missing the game because it didn’t start until 8:00 p.m. so we arrived in plenty of time to have dinner and watch the game.
The game was being played in Tehran and South Korea was heavily favored. (And oh yeah … no women allowed at the games ….) The score was 0-0 midway into the second half when Iran put the ball in the net off a corner kick. The dude who scored the goal literally ran off the field, behind the Iranian team bench and looked like he was not going to stop running. In the mean time all his teammates were chasing him. It was quite the sight. (And the real kicker was the song they played in celebration was Gary Glitter’s Rock & Roll Part 2 … cracked me up.) Needless to say when the game ended 1-0 for Iran there were a lot of people banging pots around the neighborhood in Yazd!
Next morning we got an early start on sightseeing. Yazd is an ancient city and is said to have been continuously inhabited for 7,000 years (yes I really mean seven thousand). Yazd is perhaps most famous for its Zoroastarian sites. Zoroastarianism was the primary religion in Persia (dating back to as early as 1500 BC) until the Arabs defeated the Sassanians and brought Islam to the country. Zoroastarians were the first to believe in one supreme being, Ahura Mazda (not the car), and the principals of dualisim – good versus evil. They also prayed to Ahura Mazda in the “direction of the light” so they used fire to keep the light burning and built many fire temples for prayer.
Zoroastarians also believe in purity of the elements so they refused to bury their dead (pollutes the earth) or burn their dead (pollutes the atmosphere). Instead, the dead were placed on towers of silence or “Silent Towers” where the bodies were “cleaned” by the vultures. The bones were then placed in a large pit at the center of the tower and acid was tossed on the bones to dissolve them forever. Zoroastarians stopped using Silent Towers about 50 years ago and now bury their dead in concrete or rock enclosed graves so as to not contaminate the earth.
With this background provided by my lovely guide Bahman, our first stop of the day was to the two of the Silent Towers, which were over 800 years old and located on the outskirts of Yazd. The towers were built on the top of two barren, sandy hills and surrounded by barren, sandy land. There were a series of ancient buildings including hotels and a bazaar built on the land surrounding the hills. Apparently, when the family brought the deceased to a Silent Tower, they were not permitted to accompany the body up to the tower. As a result, the family would stay in a hotel at the base of the tower while the disposition of the remains took place.
Bahman and I decided to first hike up to one of the towers before visiting the rest of the complex. It was a very, very steep 5 minute climb straight up the hill and once we got there we found out we had company…. the German tourist, Nadia who I had met is Shiraz, her guide and another German couple had already made the climb to the top. While we caught our breath on the terrace overlooking the complex, the German group entered the open air tower where the dead body would be brought and laid out on the stone floor. A couple minutes later Bahman and I entered the stone tower as well and found out we were just in time to see German theater at its finest.
The German guide had just begun to reenact the death and disposal scenes as they are depicted in Zoroastrian history. And what followed was far and away THE funniest thing I have ever seen. (I am even laughing as I type this, and I am sorry to say I doubt the hilarity of the moment will translate, but trust me when I say it was simply the best.)
Now I speak zero German, so I did not understand most of what the German guide was saying. However, I do know just from watching what played out in front of me that the guide proceeded to act out every part in the death and disposal of some poor Zoroastarian father, including acting out the parts of the wailing son, the Zoroastarian priest in charge of disposing of the father, the mourners, and of course the vultures complete with flapping arms aka wings. The only part the guide did not play was the dead body. And kids, I have to tell you that you have not lived until you have heard someone wailing and yelling at the sky in German, and then shifting parts and screeching and flapping his arms.
What was also comical was the look on the German tourists faces. Nadia looked highly amused and the other two were clearly trying not to laugh.
Bahman and I stood to the side watching this Oscar worthy performance all the while trying our best to suppress our laughter. Periodically Bahman would lean over and whisper something to me about what part the guide should play next, which would send me into uncontrollable giggles. We did not want to be rude and leave in the middle of the performance, but we were both shaking so hard from trying not to laugh Bahman finally nudged me and we both literally ran over to the other side of the open air tower so we could finally explode with laughter. Then Bahman made it worse by lying on the stone floor and pretending to be dead and then springing back to life while speaking some limited German. We were both out of control and had to get the heck out of there before we embarrassed ourselves further.
For the next twenty minutes we couldn’t do anything without laughing. We laughed all the way down the hill and all the way around the site. Bahman tried his best to be tour guide showing me the hotels and the bazaar and giving me a history of the site and I tried my best to be tourist, but we would just look at each other and start laughing all over again at the memory of “Death of a Zoroastarian”. My sides hurt, and I was completely out of breath from laughing so hard.
Eventually we got ourselves under control and we climbed back in the van and drove back into town for our next stop, Ateshkadeh also known as the Zoroastarian Fire Temple. The temple is said to house a flame that has been burning continuously since 470 AD. The flame was apparently transferred to Yazd in 1474 and then to the present site in 1940. The flame was burning in a caldron and was visible through a pane of glass in the middle of the temple. It was interesting, but the skeptic in me wondered if someone doesn’t just light the caldron every morning….
Once we were back outside the temple and in the courtyard we ran into … you guessed two of the Germans. They were apparently amused by the performance (but not nearly as much as Bahman and I), but didn’t have time to speak to us for long … they wanted to get inside and see the site before Nadia and her guide showed up and her guide started another one act performance. This comment sent Bahman and I into another fit of laughter. And no sooner had they left than Nadia and her guide walked into the courtyard. Apparently the guide was impressed by our audience because he told Bahman in Farsi that he wanted to thank us for staying and watching his performance when we did not speak German. (I told Bahman we should have thanked him for giving us the best laugh of all time.)
We moved on from the temple to a walking tour of the city of Yazd. We walked through Beheshti Square (the main square in town) down Imam Khomeini Street and stopped in the Yazd Traditional Cookie shop. They apparently made the best shirin (sweets) around, including my favorite, baklava with pistachios and honey. The line was really long so Bahman called Hamid to stand in line for us while we went to the Yazd Water Museum. (I ended up with two tins of goodness!)
The Yazd Water Museum was a really interesting place and provided a complete history of the qanat, the underground tunnel systems used by the Persians for almost 2,000 years to bring water from the mountains to the cities and towns with no existing water supply (an which Bahman had showed me in the desert the day before). The museum was housed in a centuries old former residence of a wealthy Yazd family, and the place was gorgeous and included a beautiful courtyard and its own qanats.
The process of building the qanats was brutal with men going down shafts just like a mine and digging out a tunnel as wide as a man and sending the dirt back to the surface via a series of buckets and pulleys. I cannot imagine how hard the work must have been. The museum featured semi-modern pictures of the men working as well as original buckets and pulleys and samples of the clothing the men wore while working, including an unusual 4 layer cloth hat.
Bahman and I walked around the museum and walked down one flight of stairs to see qanats used by the former residents of the mansion. It was a pretty impressive system that had been in use for centuries.
After the trip to the Water Museum, Bahman and I strolled down the boulevard past past open air spice shops, clothing stores and just about everything else in between. One of the interesting sites was the display of fancy, decorative mirrors lining the street outside the many home furniture shops we walked by. Bahman told me that when an Iranian couple are married, they purchase a mirror which is set upright on a table and surrounded by two candles, a Quoran, rice, and other personal items. These are traditional items that all couples should have when they are married and they display these things in their home when they are married.
Another quirky marriage tradition in Iran is to have separate, formal receptions for the men and the women. The women are able to dress as they like, wear make-up and go without their hedjab. The receptions may occur in adjacent rooms or they may occur at different times in the same room. After the formal reception there is family reception at the home where close male and female friends and family members gather to celebrate together. Interesting.
Anyway, we continued our walk past dozens of buildings and Bahman pointed out the badgirs or wind towers that dominated many of the buildings. The wind towers are multi-sided structures, ancient in design and constructed to capture even the slightest breeze and send it down a shaft to cool the rooms below. Air shelves are used to capture some of the hot air and keep it from circulating below. The system is nothing short of genius and a whole lot cheaper than A/C.
Eventually we made it to our last stop: the bazaar in the old quarter of Yazd. This bazaar was located in a very old building and housed everything from shopkeepers selling pots and pans, (including men making the pots by hand and hammering them flat), to bags of raw cotton and cloth to the standard spice shops. We stopped in one spice shop to pick up some dried figs (YUMMY!) as well as some freshly popped popcorn coated in some kind of spice. I tasted it before we bought it and to say it was delicious is an understatement. I told Bahman I would eat the entire bag and I don’t think he believed me. But, by the time we finished our drive to Isfahan later in the day, I was true to my word. (Eating my way through Iran continues!)
We finished up our walking tour and headed back to the hotel to grab a late lunch and hit the road for our next stop in Isfahan. Our drive took us through a lot of flat lands and desert. We passed dozens of ancient caravanserais, which had been used as rest stops and hotels of sorts for centuries by merchants traveling the silk road. Along the way, we even passed a field of camels, which delighted Bahman because he had been telling me throughout the drive that camels were often seen in the area. However, the camels were on the opposite side and a considerable distance from the road so they were too far away for me to get a picture.
Late in the afternoon we pulled into the little town of Na’an (pronounced Ney een) where we stopped for a little walk around the town. The town was dominated by an ancient fort that dated to 200 BC and was used by the Parthians. It was a huge sandstone red colored structure and had been added to and rebuilt over the centuries. It was a relic and pretty awesome to see.
As we walked, two little girls followed us yelling hallo hallo. They spoke limited English, but rattled off some Farsi to Bahman who told me the girls were friends, each of them had a brother and they lived nearby. They were very cute and apparently were bored because they continued to follow us for a bit as we walked.
The roads through Na’an were very, very narrow and we passed centuries old houses with old Islamic doors. We knew they were from the post Islamic era because the left side of the door contained a doorknocker for women and the right side of the door contained a doorknocker for men. Seriously. The different doorknockers are necessary so that women are warned when a man has arrived at the house. Many of the buildings had wind towers like we saw in Yazd and I was struck by how quiet the town was as we walked. This dusty little town was the definition of old.
We finally stopped at a 17th century residence that had been converted into an Ethnological Museum. It contained interesting artifacts, amazing pottery also dating to the 17th century, murals on the walls, and displays of traditional clothing. I met the caretaker who immediately proclaimed to me that he was 70 years old … and I swear to God he could have passed for 50. He was in amazing shape.
We moved on from the museum to the Jameh Mosque that dated to the 10th century. The interior of the mosque was in remarkable shape for such an old building. The stucco work was also beautifully done and was considered innovative for its time. The star of the mosque, however, was the mehrab (like a pulpit for a church) and contained exquisite carvings and designs. The mosque was really interesting and unique.
We went outside and noticed that it had suddenly clouded over. I have not seen any rain on my trip to this point, but it sure looked like rain. When we reached the van, Hamid had tea ready for us so we stood in the ancient street, drank tea, ate dates and watched the chador clad women walk by. I continue to receive endless stares and this town was no different.
After our tea break we got back in the car and hit the road to Isfahan. We had about two hours to Isfahan and while I took a bit of a nap, the winds picked up. One gust was particularly loud and woke me. It was blowing pretty hard and the sky was dark. We could see a sandstorm swirling in the distance on the left side of the road, but fortunately we avoided it and made our way into Isfahan with only a smattering of rain drops hitting the car.
Unfortunately, we hit rush hour in Isfahan and the drive to the hotel was slow going at nightfall. We finally reached the Abassi Hotel, a former caravanserai that is supposed to be the best hotel in Iran, checked in and got ready for a night of walking around what has been said to be the most beautiful city in Iran.