Iran Part 2: The Heart of Persia
This post follows Part 1: Testing the Persian Waters
While Yazd, a city of over 1 million people in central Iran, has all the trappings of a modern metropolis, its old quarter is almost 2,000 year old and contains hundreds of mud brick buildings. In fact, it doesn’t look that much different from Tatooine, the desert city in the first Star Wars. Through this maze of yellow buildings run winding alleyways that cut like veins though the city. These alleyways reflect a time when people transported themselves the old fashioned-way—on foot. They can difficult to navigate because they look so similar to each other, but even if you get helplessly lost within them, you’ll eventually run into the city’s huge covered bazaar and be able to get your bearings from there.
One should make every effort to stay at a traditional hotel while in Yazd. Their rooms face ornately decorated courtyards, some covered by colorful tents, some open to the air. These buildings were once the homes of powerful merchants in the city—and they still are, technically. By staying there you can get an idea of how they lived.
In Yazd, and all over central and southern Iran’s arid landscape, you can find rectangular wood towers called badgirs. These are in effect three and four hundred year old air conditioners, some intricately decorated, that act as a sort of reverse chimney to funnel something that the desert has a lot of (wind) down through the tower to create something that the desert doesn’t have much of (cool air). This air is then circulated through people’s homes and stores just like modern air conditioning.
In the winter, when the temperature drops, a door can be in place to block the cool air from entering the rooms. The technology works extremely well; I sat underneath one and felt the cold draft of air pushing down on my face. This principle was also used to cool water; outside of Yazd, we saw an cone-shaped “ice tower” that actually can create enough cool air to create ice.
Yazd is one of the world’s most important centers for the religion of Zoroastrianism. Outside of the city are two sand colored towers, resembling forts, perched upon rocky hills providing a commanding view of the city to one side and the Zagros mountains on the other. Known as the Towers of Silence. they once served a ceremonial purpose. Hundreds of years ago Zoroastrians used to bring there dead up to these towers and leave them out in the open for vultures to devour, the theory being that bodies were not to buried in the sacred earth. Thankfully there were no bodies rotting in the sun the day I was up there—the practice ended long ago.
The biggest danger in Iran was not terrorism, or being kidnapped or thrown in jail by the ayatollahs—it was attempting to cross the street. Because most intersections lack traffic lights, you have to just hold your breath and bravely step out in front of cars in order to cross major four lane roads. And because gas is cheap in Iran and so many people have cars, there are a lot of cars out there that make this even more difficult.
Following my guide’s lead, I found that the best thing to do is wait for a small break in traffic, run out to the center line, stand there making yourself very thin and tall, making sure no car runs over your toes or your heels. Keep your arms close to your side like a soldier, and watch the other way for another break in traffic. If none comes, as if often the case, wait a little longer, but don’t stand there all day. Just take another deep breath and step out in front of the cars, trusting that they slow down enough for you to cross. This is a foolish strategy, as I saw many drivers fail to stop for even women and old men. These unfortunate souls sometimes get trapped in the middle of the street. They must wait for a kind person to let them go.
Because of this unfortunate reality, I was not able to go out and run and get much exercise. I don’t think running is a big thing in Iran either-the entire time I was there I saw two people doing it, and they looked like world-class athletes training for a marathon or something.
So it was with a little jealousy that I watched Iranians getting their work out on by performing varzesh-e bastany, a traditional exercise routine combining elements of martial arts, calisthenics, and weight training. These ritualistic exercises usually take place in a bricked-roof, disused water tower called a zurkhaneh, or “House of Strength.” No visit to Iran is complete without visiting one of these places. They are truly unique to this area of the world. I sat in a chair among ten other camera-toting Iranian spectators, who also looked to be tourists.
Ten men, dressed in t shirts and sweats, hopped down into a waist-high circular pit. Taking cues from a man known as a morshed (“master”) perched in a booth above them, who controlled the action by chanting into microphone verses from Persian mythology and Shitte prayers and beating a drum called a (garb), the men began by getting their circulation going, doing arm circles and shoulder presses. They then got on the ground and did a sort of series of pushups in a way that would have been frowned upon by by-the-book U.S. Army physical fitness instructors.
After about ten minutes of these exercises, they followed the master’s call and the beat of the drum and each grabbed two pieces of wood resembling bowling pins, called mil. If you ever watched a baseball player warm up using a bat in the on-deck circle, you can visualize how they use the pins. Except they don’t really swing them; they use their triceps and shoulders mostly by bringing the pins from back to front and front to back by rotating their shoulders and arms. The next part of the exercises consists of strength training using iron weights that sort of looked like torture devices. The coolest part of the training was when one of the men jumped out of the pit to grab his young son by the hand and lead him down into the zurkhaneh to take part in the exercises.
If you ever want to feel completely hopeless, lost, and frustrated, try walking around alone in an Iranian bazaar without knowing how to say more than “thank you” in Farsi. I usually entered these nests of commerce with my guide, whose prior experience and knowledge of the language helped us navigate the maze of corridors to find particular shops in obscure corners. I’ve been to bazaars before in Dubai and Marakesh, but the one in Yazd, particularly because it’s built within the old city of mud brick buildings that follow little in the way of city planning, was very difficult to navigate.I was looking for a hotel that supposedly had a good restaurant, but all I had to go by was the name of the hotel and an approximate pin on guidebook map. After walking around in circles and noticing all the bazaar shop owners closing up shop for the night, I gave up and exited the bazaar to the modern street outside. I eventually found a way to fill my stomach in face of the very real threat of going to bed hungry for the night. For those who follow in my footsteps take note that Yazd is not known for its independent restaurants.
The next city on my route through Iran was Isafhan, the former capital during the Safavid period (1500-1700s) and the site of two UNESCO World Heritages: Naqsh-e Jahan, an enormous public square second only to Tianemmen Square and the Jameh Mosque, an exquisite example of a grand mosque inlaid with blue and white tiling. With these treasures and countless others, like the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and Chehel Sotoun, Isfahan is full of grandeur. There were so many sites to see that I came away with the impression that the city is a sort of Middle Eastern Paris.
While the side of Isfahan north of the Zayandeh River contains most of the tourist attractions, the city’s south side houses the Armenian Quarter, also known as New Julfa, a must see for those interested in Armenian culture and history. It’s also worth heading over to see how one of Iran’s several minority groups are faring.
I’m a sucker for a walkable neighborhoods with narrow streets, little to no vehicle traffic, and public squares lined with cafes. If these types of things appeal to you, the Armenian Quarter is certainly worth the trip. I suggest starting out your visit by heading to 400 year old Vank Cathedral, or Holy Savior Cathedral. The vibrantly colorful frescos painted all up and down the walls and ceilings of the cathedral are impressive in their detail and content. For those who are squeamish, avert your eyes from the back wall of the cathedral, which contains scenes depicting various sadistic forms of torture inflicted upon St. Gregory.
Also worth seeing is the Armenian Museum in one corner of the cathedral complex. There is an interesting exhibit on the Armenian genocide, which Turkey still denies occurred. The flags of countries that have recognized the genocide as an actual event are lined up below a topographical map of Turkey showing the sites of the massacres. The Stars and Stripes is noticeably absent.
Outside the cathedral are several Armenian cafes along the cobble-stoned streets. Young people in Iran are increasingly turning to coffee as their drink of choice. Tea still reigns, but coffee spots are popping up all over Iran’s cities. The Armenian Quarter was no exception; it probably had more of them per capita than other cities around Iran. I dropped into one that looked modern and appealing and had a quick double espresso for a recharge before heading back to the northern part of the city.
Isfahan was full of beautiful mosques, minarets, parks, squares, and beautiful Islamic art depicting mesmerizing patterns and colors. It also had one of the coutnry’s best bazaars, then Qeysarie bazaar. the Rather than try to explain everything I saw, here are some pictures I took:
That concludes the second part of my trip. Continue on to Part 3: Into Tehran, covering my time in Kashan, Qom, and Tehran.