Iran Part 1: Testing the Persian waters

So this was Iran. It was 3am, and I was in a dark cab alongside a driver with two word of English in his vocabulary, driving me in complete silence through the dark streets of Shiraz.

Thirty years of animus, amplified by unending media coverage, has led us to believe that Iran is our enemy. Maybe they are. I don’t know, but things are seeming to warm up a bit. That’s why I went. I wanted to see Iran for all it had to offer: a foreign culture rich in history and tradition, ancient ruins, beautiful mosques and gardens, colorful bazaars. I went as a tourist to see Iran as it as, before it changes, and to educate myself as history continues to unfold there.

Shiraz Iran

Street scene in Shiraz

Americans are not permitted to travel to the Iran independently; they must be sponsored by an Iranian tour company and be accompanied by a tour guide. I don’t normally like to travel with a guide, but I would find out later that having one is a must anyway in Iran if you don’t know the language or your way around. Quite amusingly, I ended up being the only one on the organized tour I booked, but that didn’t matter. It actually turned out to be a good arrangement. Sure, I would have preferred to go with my wife (who couldn’t go due to work) or my travel buddy (same reason) but I made the most of it. My tour guide was my age and we got along really well.

My ten day trip would take me to five cities: Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan, Kashan, and Tehran, but I had the freedom to see what I wanted to see along the route. The tour was entitled “Iranian Delicious,” and was designed to provide an introduction to the culinary practices and traditions of Iran (I’ll write more about that at a later date). So in addition to sightseeing at mosques, museums, ancient ruins, and gardens, I would pay visits to bakeries, sweet shops, noodle shops, sesame oil factory, henna making factories, spice stores, and several others. It was my intention to fill up my days as much as possible with activity and make the most of my trip.

Shiraz, my first taste of Iran

On almost every light post along the four lane road heading into downtown Shiraz hang the photos of young men. These are not modeling pictures, but the identity photos of some of the hundreds of thousands of young men killed during the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980-1988. I was to find out that Shiraz was not the only Iranian city that followed the practice of adorning its streets with the photos of “martyrs” as a way to remember the sacrifices these young men made. Some Iranian cities—they tended to be the smaller ones—even hung up posters and billboards with the photos of old men—veterans of the war who had died of natural causes decades after their service.

Iran martyrs photos in Shiraz

Pictures of martyrs killed in the Iran-Iraq War, Shiraz

You might think the USA sets the standard by treating its veterans and war dead with veneration. Try visiting Iran. They make a national pastime of it. They use billboards for advertisements just like we do, but many are dedicated to martyrs and make a point of reminding everyone of the collective shame they should feel for not having also died during the war. One billboard in Yazd showed a happy soldier gearing up for battle on the left, and a jeep headed to the front on the right. In the middle the words “We Are Ashamed,” reminding people that as they go about their days made possible by the martyrdom of these soldiers headed to the front, they should pause to remember the sacrifices of those young men.

I checked into my hotel for a few hours rest and met my guide in the lobby the next morning. Shiraz, a city of two million people in the south central part of  Iran, used to be the capital of Persia during the Safavid period (1500s-1700s). The city is known for its poetic tradition going back hundreds of years.  Poetry is a thing in Iran. Virtually any Iranian you meet is able to spout of a few lines from the revered poets Saadi or Hafez. Shiraz is dotted with tombs and mausoleums dedicated to the legacies of these poets. My itinerary in Shiraz was centered around visiting these sites and viewing the beautiful gardens that dot that city.

Nasir ol Molk Mosque, Shiraz

The tiling around the courtyard of the Nasir ol Molk Mosque, Shiraz

I knew right away that my tour guide knew what he was doing: he took me first to the gorgeous Nasir-ol-Molk mosque, hidden behind high mud brick walls in the old part of Shiraz. The mosque is a must visit for anyone with an interest in photography. Beautiful tiles patterned with pink, violet and blue flowers adorned the front entrance. On one side of the courtyard is the main prayer room, about the size of a basketball court and supported by thick columns. Its stained glass windows sprayed colorful beams of light all throughout the room and onto the intricately designed tile walls and red Persian carpets.

Nasir-ol-Molk prayer room

Nasir-ol-Molk prayer room

Shiraz Nasir-ol-Molk stained glass

Nasir-ol-Molk stained glass window

Our next stop was the  Qavam House (also called “Narenjestan e Ghavam”), a traditional house of an upper class family. Built in the late 1800s, Qavam House is fronted by a beautiful garden of orange trees set within a large courtyard surrounded by high mud brick walls. Date palm trees loomed over me as I explored the grounds and wonderful mirrored walls and intricate tiling of the main building.

Qavam Shiraz Iran

The front of the Qavam “Naranjestan,” or Orangerie

Shiraz Qavam House

Me posing with Iranian tourists at the Qavam House

Some might recognize in the city’s name the famous grape varietal, shiraz. Though this type of grape is not actually grown here—that varital is grown in Australia and is the same grape as the French syrah—Shiraz is still an excellent location for growing grapes. In fact, the city enjoyed a big wine trade in shirazi wine since the 9th century, reaching a peak in the 17th century, but after the Islamic Revolution, wine is not grown here anymore, at least legally. Grapes are still grown here, however, but only for processing into raisins or for plain eating.

Valik Bazaar in Shiraz

The first stalls at the Valik Bazaar in Shiraz

I received my first taste of Iranian bazaars in Shiraz’s Vakil Bazaar and was instantly hooked. The huge piles of turmeric, cardamom, dill, barberries, macadamia nuts, mint leaves, basil were dazzlingly beautiful.

Shiraz bazaar

Shiraz Bazaar scene

Interestingly, Iranians don’t served cooked food inside the bazaars. If you want a kebab you have to go out on the street. As I was to see, the typical bazaar in Iran is a covered arcade winding through the old section of the city. I don’t think they want kebab smoke wafting through the aisles, sullying the beautiful fabrics and carpets being sold within.

Spices in the Valik Bazaar

Spices on display in the Valik Bazaar in Shiraz

Spices in the Valik Bazaar

More spices in the Valik Bazaar

Iran pomegranates

Pomegranate’s were everywhere in Iran

In the city’s north is a mountain pass through which a six lane highway pulls and pushes vehicular traffic into and out of Shiraz. This is the location of the Qur’an Gate, a sort of Arc-de-Triomphe rebuilt several times over the ages. People and horses used to actually go through the gate back in the day, but there’s a huge highway now, so the gate is simply a tourist attraction.

Qur'an Gate Shiraz

Shiraz’s Qur’an Gate in the northern part of the city

There’s a park clinging to the hillside next to it, with a huge man-made waterfall pouring down rather dramatically onto floodlit cliff. It was dusk now, and we were rewarded with a wonderful vista of over the entire city. The noise from the nearby highway met my ears in a low roar as the sun began to set over the city.

Sunset in Shiraz Iran

Sunset near the Qur’an Gate in Shiraz

The next day we visited the mausoleums of two of Iran’s most famous poets, Saadi and Hafez. These are venerated places that draw thousands of tourists every year. Saadi’s, situated north of the river that bisects Shiraz into a northern and southern sections, consisted of a twenty foot tall blue dome fronted by a granite portico. Surrounding the shrine is a line of palm and cedars providing shade and a little color to the scene.

Tomb of Saadi Shiraz

Me at the Tomb of Saadi

The Tomb of Hafez was even more beautiful and gave me a good introduction to the layout and design of a Persian garden. Pools, fountains, and orange groves surrounded a large outdoor courtyard centered by the tomb itself, which even in the low season was crowded with visitors shooed away from getting too close to the tomb by a young employee of the Ministry of Culture, dressed in camouflage and sporting aviators. In the late afternoon sun in the nearby orange grove, I snapped a bunch of pictures of oranges that had been knocked down from the trees by a gardener. Nearby two young women in black coverings called chadors were doing the same thing, but they were also taking selfies and of each other, posing very seriously for their shots.

Hafez Tomb in Shiraz

Tiling at the Tomb of Hafez

The Ruins of Persepolis

Persepolis Iran

The ruins of Persepolis against the foothills of the Zagros Mountains

We left Shiraz the next morning, steadily climbing elevation into the snow-covered hills that surround the city. We were headed to Persepolis, UNESCO World Heritage site and former capital of the Achaemenid empire. I remember reading about this 2,000 year old city as a teenager and was really excited to be finally seeing it.  Just like many archaeological sites I’ve been to, its presence sneaks up on you. In ancient times, there would have been signs of civilization approaching the city—pedestrians, horse and caravan traffic, food stands, roads, etc. Those are all gone now–what you see is a simple road sign on the highway leading towards a ridge.

modern entrance to the Persepolis ruins

The modern entrance to the Persepolis ruins

After the parking lot and front entrance, where there’s a table model of the ruins, there’s a almost quarter of a mile stretch of pavement leading to the ruins themselves, which sit at the foot of a craggy sand colored hill. Persepolis is built atop a 20 foot high platform overlooking the desert, which afforded its former inhabitants a commanding view of the surrounding area. Behind it is a steep rocky hill that gives climbers a rough-going; I imagine that Darius the Great (521-486 BC) didn’t expect a huge assault from that side.

Tourists at Persetpolis Iran

Persepolis on the day I was there in late December 2015

Persepolis - Hall of 100 Columns

Hall of 100 Columns

I’ve been to a lot of ancient sites, but Persepolis deserves its reputation as one of the most impressive. About the size of two Manhattan blocks, it is studded with huge columns, stone staircases, and relatively well preserved walls. Though most of the columns are no longer standing, and all the wood has rotted away, you can still get an appreciation for how the city used to look. To think that the columns used to support roofs, likely painted with beautiful patterns and colors, you need a little imagination. But what a city it must have been.

Gate of All Nations at Persepolis

Gate of All Nations

Most people enter the site through the Gate of all Nations, an passageway flanked by 15-foot high stones carved into the shape of winged bulls. The Gate has been defaced by the etchings of tourists over the ages. However, the very age of the graffiti lessens any animus I have towards the people who etched theirs name on such an archaeological treasure, So, “Malcolm Meade, HBM Consul General 1898,” “39th K.C.O Central India Horse 1911”, and “McIlrath, Chicago Inter-Ocean 1897”:  I forgive you.

Persepolis graffiti

200 year old graffiti on the Gate of All Nations

The best part about visiting Iran in December is that there are virtually no tourists clogging the most visited attractions, and the weather hasn’t yet turned too cold. Having Persepolis, one of Iran’s biggest tourist attractions, basically to myself heightened its wonder. It was so quiet that I could hear the rocks crunch beneath my every footstep and the light wind battering against my face. The sun, not yet high, blanketed parts of the ruins in shadow, providing the perfect contrast for photography.

Apanada Staircase bas reliefs

Apanada Staircase bas reliefs

The highlight of the site was the eastern side of the Apadana palace, where a long set stairs had been buried under a millennia worth of sand. Almost 100 feet long, the wall abutting the gently rising staircase contains bas-reliefs depicting 23 delegations of foreigners bringing gifts to the king: Ethiopians bringing an antelope, Libyans bringing a chariot, Arabs bringing textiles, and so on. There are other intricate bas reliefs like this one around the city, but the staircase is the best preserved.

Apanada staircase bas reliefs

Bas relief on foreigners bringing gifts to the king

About 5 minutes away from Persepolis is another spectacular site called Naqsh-e-Rostum, a series of four tombs carved high up on the side of a 200 foot high cliff. These aren’t just any old tombs, though; they are the resting places of Persian kings Darius II, Antaxerxes I, Darius the Great, and Xerxes I, from left to right in that order. Some of the bas reliefs below the tombs are unfinished, a sign that the work long and the artists couldn’t finish their work during the many invasions that Persia experienced during that time period. The most interesting bas relief was the one depicting a Persian king Shapur I conquering the Roman Emperor Valerian.

Tourists at Naqsh-e Rostam outside of Persepolis

Tourists at the base of Naqsh-e Rostam

Me at Naqsh-e Rustam outside of Persepolis, Iran. The tomb of Darius I is at right; the tomb of Artaxerxes is at left.

Me at Naqsh-e Rustam outside of Persepolis, Iran. The tomb of Darius I is at right; the tomb of Artaxerxes is at left.

The tomb of Xerxes I at Naqsh-e Rostam near Persepolis, Iran

The tomb of Xerxes I at Naqsh-e Rostam

Continue on to Part 2: The Heart of Persia


Kevin is based in Washington, DC and writes about his travel adventures in the Mid-Atlantic region and around the world. Through entertaining writing and eye-catching photography, he aims to provide readers with useful information as they plan their next trips.


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