Shiraz - former home of the fine red wine

Trip Start Jun 15, 2009
Trip End Sep 09, 2009

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Flag of Iran  ,
Monday, July 20, 2009


Shiraz has a reputation as an enlightened city that has been at the centre of Persian culture for more than 2,000 years, and was at one time the country's capital. It was the hometown of the most famous Iranian poet Hafez, and each year huge numbers of Iranians still make a pilgrimage to Shiraz to visit his mausoleum. Shiraz is also renowned for it's parks and green space, and of course the variety of grape that was taken back to Europe centuries ago and is now made into the famous Shiraz red wine. Our main reason for coming to Shiraz however wasn't actually Shiraz at all, but the Achaemenid ruins at Persepolis, 42km to the north-east of the city.

Persepolis was founded in 518 BC by Cyrus the Great's grandson, Darius I. Cyrus had already built an impressive capital 50km further up the road at Pasargadae, but upon taking the throne Darius obviously felt the need to carve out his own niche in the world of palace building, so construction of Persepolis was started. The result of Darius' urge to go his own way, which was added to by his descendants for another 150 years, was a huge city of palaces, meetings rooms, a treasury, harem (of course), grand staircases and amazing stone reliefs. In its day it must have been one of the most impressive cities in the world. This makes the fact that the city was really only used for ceremonial purposes even more incredible (the day to day running of the empire was carried out in nearby Shush). Persepolis' golden age came to an abrupt and devastating end at the hands of the armies of Alexander the Great in 330 BC, with historians still not sure if the destruction occurred after a drunken party got out of hand, or as retribution for the Achaemenids sacking Athens years earlier.

Our driver, who had lived for many years in Wellington before returning to Iran, guided us around the site for 3 hours, explaining the relevance of the ruins and relics that Sim and I were busily photographing. Although much of the structure was in ruins, enough remained (or had been restored) for us to get a real sense of the grandeur the city must have had in the time of Darius I, almost 2,500 years ago. While much of what we'd seen since arriving in Iran had been brand new to us, many of the stone reliefs and statues found in Persepolis we had seen before, in books or online. Seeing these incredible slices of history right before our eyes, literally within touching distance, was another pinch yourself moment for a history nerd like me.

After we had completed our tour of Persepolis we drove out to the rock tombs of several of the Achaemenid kings at Naqsh-e Rostam. These tombs are cut into a cliff overlooking the same river valley as Persepolis does, and housed the remains of Darius I, Darius II and Xerxes I (the son of Darius I). As the Achaemenids were Zoroastrians the kings that were interred here had first undergone a sky burial, before their bones were brought to the rock tombs. The site felt a lot like a side-street in Petra, and were similar to the tombs there in terms of size and complexity, if not in total number. Each tomb had a cruciform design, which is believed to have represented the 4 cardinal points.

Although Shiraz has a reputation as a cultural centre we found it felt like a young city on the make; some of the old romance had given way to modern commercialism, and many of the locals on the main street, while remaining unfailingly courteous, had a Persian Delboy Trotter air about them.

Our first full day was spent touring the city itself, looking over the citadel, mosques and medressas. The Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque in particular was stunning, with the evening light streaming in through the stained-glass windows to light up the prayer space within. While Sim took a few snaps of the mosque I chatted to a local soldier who was visiting the mosque. He was very young, and was very upbeat about Iran's prospects for the future. While not stating a preference for either the hardline or more moderate of Iran's leaders he seemed to believe that by keeping the right (positive) attitude the people of Iran would pull the country in the right direction. It was hard not to be caught up in his enthusiasm. He was also extremely helpful while we were there, happily answering the barrage of questions I had about Shiraz and it's major attractions.

From our apartment (our hotel had been full so had kindly put us into a nearby apartment at no extra cost) we grabbed a cab to Eram Gardens (Paradise Gardens in Farsi). Shiraz is also known as a city of green space and public gardens, and Eram Garden was said to be the pick of the bunch. The gardens themselves are maintained by the local university botany department, and from what we could see these must have been all straight A students. The garden was a good mix of local and exotic species, and was a great place to while away a couple of hours, away from the heat and the mid-city rush.

That night we went for a wander in the Shiraz bazaar, soaking up the sights and sounds of the stalls as locals and tourists alike haggled over goods or simply passed the time of day. Despite having our Perisan carpet buying radars in what we thought was standby mode we were soon haggling over the price of a set of 4 Persian carpet squab covers with a local salesman. Having agreed a price we both found acceptable we took our purchases and continued on. Not for long as it turned out. About 50m down the lane we were in I turned around to see where Sim was to find that she had vanished. Wandering back to where we had bought our squab covers I found her in animated discussion with the carpet seller from across the street. Spread out in front of us was a 2m x 3m carpet, which like the Shah appeared to be about 30 years past it's prime. While the colours and design were close to what we were after, saying the carpet was tired was a serious understatement – I've seen mayflies with more life left in them. I couldn't understand why Sim was still talking to the guy until I heard the price she had talked him down to - $75!

We both knew another carpet was the last thing we needed (especially with a 7am flight to Tehran booked for the next day), but we also knew we'd regret not buying it once we got back to the land of the vastly marked-up Persian carpet (i.e. anywhere outside of Iran). We had a quick team-talk and decided that we would take the carpet and work out how to post it home later (not to mention get it onto the plane to Tehran the next morning). By the time we walked out of the bazaar, with our Persian carpet buying radars once again in standby mode, we were the proud owners of 5 Persian carpets and 4 squab covers.
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