Stage 6 – Iran: Classical Persia [3/3]
Leaving Abadan, on the 24th December 2007, I set out on a new bearing. Since leaving Siberia six months ago I have been moving steadily southwest, across the plains, mountains and deserts of Central Asia, and along the old trade routes of Iran. This final stage of my journey through Classical Persia marks the beginning of a long, six month progression to the east, and will take me away from the warm coastal plains and to the wild and stony deserts of Baluchistan.
Once out of the environs of Abadan, the terrain becomes monotonous and featureless; for many kilometres a rank, salinated plain of drained and cleared marshland which reflects a blinding white in the sunlight. There is nothing on which the eye may settle, except for the straight road and a line of electricity pylons stretching in a perfect line into hazy infinity, and I settle into an almost meditative state. I pass after some time the port of Bandar-e Khomeini, an apocalyptic oil-refinery complex with an array of smoke, steam and flame-belching towers set around ten kilometres from the road. Even in this archetypal wasteland it’s a frightful eyesore, but a reminder that Khuzestan is the main oil-producing area of Iran. It was in Khuzestan that oil was first extracted on a large-scale by the British, who made millions of pounds from Iranian oil through the Anglo Persian Oil Company (APOC) until the industry was nationalised by the pro-democracy prime-minister Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1951 to huge and lasting (and understandable) popular acclaim. In retaliation, the British managed to convince the Truman administration that Iranian oil might fall into communist hands, and the CIA engineered a coup to throw out Mosaddegh and return the Shah to power, thus curtailing any chance for democracy to take root in Iran. The APOC became the British Petroleum Company, the forerunner of BP. Despite this massive oil wealth however, the region remains less prosperous and less-developed than many other parts of Iran. As Mehdi, (Reza’s uncle) told me in Shush, ‘Khuzestan is like a camel. We do all the work, suffer poor conditions, yet get few rewards’.
After the refinery, some signs of life start to re-appear; sparse acacias and huge flocks of wetland birds wintering away from the freezing lowlands of northern Asia. The road skirts a high escarpment to the north, and on the opposite side I catch glimpses of the sea. Small, fly blown villages and towns appear and goat-herders dot the rocky terrain.
In the afternoon I reach my destination, the port city of Bushehr. The city is picturesquely situated on the northern edge of a curving headland which juts out into the Persian Gulf. Like Abadan, Bushehr has a more relaxed and worldly air than most Iranian cities. The presence of the sea with its suggestions of neutrality and internationalism seem to moderate the often stuffy and restrictive atmosphere of this auto-theocratic state. The fortunes of Bushehr had been in decline following Shah Abbas’ decision to make Bandar-e Abbas the country’s premier port, and since the various European powers ended their colonial occupations of the city. Today the city is famous for the nearby nuclear power plant which lies at the centre of the international dispute. Most Iranians feel their country has every right to nuclear power, though some have concerns about to what ends the regime is developing nuclear technology, in a country with such vast fossil-fuel reserves. Some in Bushehr also resent the degree to which the government is enriching the Russian engineers who have taken over from the Germans in the completion of the facility, construction of which began in 1975. Despite the controversy, Bushehr is a very likeable city with a distinct air of faded grandeur, with rambling old streets of Bandari (a style of the Persian Gulf coast) buildings with strong colonial features, lying in various states of charming decay. There are few obvious remnants of the two episodes of British occupation, though there are a few British graves in a neglected old cemetery in the city centre.
My host here is Peyman, a twenty-eight year-old upper-middle class businessman who meets me in an imported car – a sure sign of wealth in Iran – and at home he introduces me to his attractive young wife Leila, who does not cover her hair in front of me in the house. They are not religious, and it’s a world away from the strictly segregated and conservative homes of the Arabs and Kurds I have met in the last weeks. Once out of the house, Peyman is very much a bachelor, cruising around town and stopping by his various businesses, some of which I see, and others of which I don’t. After a hot-dog from Peyman’s own fast food restaurant, we head off to a pool hall and meet his friend Reza. I meet Reza again the next day at the premises of his business, a small engineering firm which maintains marine diesel engines. We go back to his family’s house. They are clearly rich, with a comfortable, well equipped and bespoke-built house and a big, luxury car. They are the old rich; before the revolution, Reza’s father was a high-ranking engineer in the Navy, a well-respected and well-paid job.
Reza takes me out in the evening in his car to find petrol; petrol is currently rationed in Iran, with each driver getting a three litre allowance per day. The reason for this is the ludicrously cheap, heavily subsidised price of petrol. One of Khomeini’s pledges in the lead-up to the revolution was that the basics of life would be free to everyone. Although they are not quite free, gas, petrol, diesel, electricity and water are extremely cheap by any standards. With petrol just a few cents per litre in the past (and unrestricted), demand was huge; people would get in their cars and drive around aimlessly when they had nothing better to do. Demand far outstripped Iran’s capacity to refine crude oil, requiring that it export crude and re-import refined petroleum. The government, faced with the choice of putting up prices to market rates or limiting the amount people could buy, decided upon the latter, and issued every car owner with a ration card. This move of course proved highly unpopular. To buy extra above the three litre allowance, one needs to go to the black market, where taxi drivers and boat owners (who have a far higher allowance) run a neat sideline as petrol merchants.
So off we go to the harbour to meet a friend of Reza’s. We drive to a scruffy small house, where some young boys bring out a few plastic drums of petrol, and siphon it into Reza’s thirsty car. It has the furtive, sordid nature of trying to acquire alcohol or opium, or some other banned substance. It seems faintly ludicrous in a country with the world’s second largest oil reserves. But I learn later that evening that this isn’t the only illicit business in which Reza engages. As we’re sitting on his sofa back at his flat, he walks to the bedroom and returns with two handguns. He tells me about a recent deal he had set up with some British private art collectors. He and two friends had come by a few pieces of old Persian art – the nature of which was not clear – which must have been important as the art collectors had agreed a three million dollar price tag for getting them out of Iran. He and his two accomplices had been caught in the act, and Reza also found in possession of an Israeli handgun. He was put in jail, on a severe term, perhaps facing the death penalty, until his father paid a sum of several hundred-thousand dollars to get him out. Reza just about broke even in the deal in light of the up-front the art-collectors had given him, but two accomplices remain in jail.
Having had my taste of the underworld of an Iranian port (and contemplating the fact that my fingerprints were now on two illegal handguns), I head north, climbing up once again to the cold heights of the Iranian Plateau, for a final taste of Classical Persia. Near the city of Firouzabad, the road passes an unmarked Safavid-era stone bridge, which spans a deep-blue river in several elegant arches, with small trees and clumps of grasses sprouting from the gaps between stones. Today it no longer reaches the far side of the river, but stands idle, a relic of a bygone age and empire. Such unexpected finds are a wonderful part of travelling in Iran– no other country in the region has so much history, so visible and accessible across the landscape.
My destination is an archaeological site around 50km north of the city of Shiraz, known as Takht-e Jamshid (Throne of all Peoples) or to the Greeks as Persepolis (City of the Persians). When I first visited Iran, aged twenty-one, I somehow had no motivation for visiting Persepolis, something I regretted in the years after. Perhaps I was too keen to enter the great deserts of eastern Iran, and get into Pakistan.
The 2,500-year-old city was built by Darius I, and was the pride of the Achaemenid Empire until it was burnt down by Alexander the Great in 327 BC during the reign of Darius III. The jury is out on whether the city was destroyed by accident in an orgy of drinking and celebration, or if Alexander deliberately put it to the torch in reprisal for the destruction of Athens by Cyrus I. For scale and grandeur, it’s on a par with Palmyra or Jerash in the Levant, but it is in the sharpness of her details, in the magnificence of her history that Persepolis exceeds either of the Roman sites.
“By the favour of Ahuramazda, these [are] the countries remote from Persia, of which I was the king. I ruled over them; they bore me tribute. What was said to them by me, that they did. My law, that held them. Media, Elam, Arachosia, Armenia, Drangiana, Parthia, Aria, Bactria, Sogdiana, Chorasmia, Babylonia, Assyria, Sattagydia, Sardis, Egypt, the Ionians who dwell in the sea, and those who dwell beyond the sea. The men of Make, Arabia, Gandara, India, Cappadochia, Dahae, haoma drinking Scythians, the pointed helmet Scythians, the men of Skudra, the men of Akaufaka, the Carians, the Ethiopians”. -Xerxes I
The highlight of the physical remains of Persepolis, and the thing which sets it apart from other ancient ruined cities, is the Apadana Staircase, a long staircase leading to the royal audience hall, the sides of which show in strikingly clear bas-relief supplicants from across the Persian Empire, from Persia, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia, Arabia, Turkey and Central Asia. All come to pay homage to the King, Darius I in the festival of No Ruz, the Iranian new year, which is still very much celebrated to this day on the vernal equinox. Ancient pillars dot the site, some with beautiful carved capitals of lions and horses. Persepolis was built before the first Greeks (i.e. the armies of Alexander) reached Persia, though the pillars show evident cultural contact beforehand. With such a vast swathe of Asia under their control, the Achaemenids were bound to acquire influences from the far corners of their empire. In Tehran’s national museum stands a stunning Achaemenid-era carving of Darius—the largest statue ever found in Iran—from Susa. It shows not only the trilingual Old Persian-Elamite-Babylonian inscription, but Egyptian hieroglyphs linking Darius with the Egyptian God Atum of Heliopolis (near modern-day Cairo). It’s difficult to conceive how far-reaching the influence of Persia was in ancient times. For example, to Herodotus, the world was simple; there was west and east, Europe and Asia, Greece and Persia. Persia was Asia in the days before India became known to Europeans. It’s not really surprising that today Iran is trying to re-assert its influence; in Iraq, Afghanistan and Central Asia particularly. But such is the turbulent and seemingly rapid cycle of Persian history; of great empires and brilliant leaders each followed by periods of invasion, internal fighting, and incompetent and corrupt governance. The last Shah – in his final years at least – certainly embodied the last two qualities. The Iranians are waiting for the next golden period.
Nearby, and still within the central Fars Province of Iran which the Achaemenids made their home alongside Susa in Khuzestan, is the site of Naqsh-e Rustam, a cliff face containing four Achaemenid-era rock-hewn royal tombs. It’s far less impressive than Persepolis, but is a neat example of the layers of Persian history; cut beneath the facades of the tombs are 4th century Sassanian bas-reliefs, created over the top of Elamite carvings from the 8th century BC – a thousand years of history from three separate civilisations on one cliff face. A little further to the north is the site of Pasargadae, which was the Achaemenid capital of Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) prior to the construction of Persepolis. Here lies the simple yet imposing tomb of Cyrus (Kourosh in Persian) the Great, on a tall stepped plinth. In a country so overwhelmed with politico-theological rhetoric, this elegant tomb of the founder of Persia’s first great empire, long before any revelation had come to the Bedu of the Arabian Peninsula, is perhaps the most common national and cultural emblem for the non-religious proportion of Iranian society. It’s a portion of society whose existence the clerics in Tehran don’t like to admit (it’s a crime for to refute one’s faith in Islam in Iran, for which one can be executed), and a history who pre-Islamic nature the government are not keen to promote.
The nearby city and capital of Fars Province is Shiraz, and it’s the favourite city of many Iranians. If Esfahan is a city of splendid architecture, Shiraz is a city of culture, of the revered Iranian poets Hafez and Sa’adi, of gardens and, of course, shrines. It enjoyed a stint as capital of Iran before it was moved to Tehran, and remains one of the country’s major cities. Shiraz has a particularly fine bazaar, with lanes covered by towering vaulted ceilings running through the heart of the city between mosques and shrines. The high plains of the Zagros Mountains which surround the city are host to a number of nomadic Persian and Turkic tribes such as the Lors, Bakhtiari and Qashqai, who are famous for their carpets, which are displayed in the splendid old lanes of the bazaar, folded in great piles or strung high across the passageways.
In the evening I take myself to the shrine of perhaps the most beloved of Iranian poets, the 14th century bard Khwaja Shamsud-Din Muhammad Hafez-e Shirazi, known popularly as Hafez. His outdoor tomb is covered by a simple eight-columned pavilion and is a popular evening haunt in Shiraz. Hafez seems to be a great uniting figure in modern Iran, almost universally loved by all strata of Iranian society. It’s a rare chance to see young and old, liberal and conservative, secular and religious come and enjoy the very same place. Visitors stand around the beloved man’s gravestone and musically recite his poetry in beautiful tones of Persian.
My next destination is back on the Persian Gulf; the port of Bandar-e Abbas, referred to simply as ‘Bandar’, meaning ‘port’. The drive there is arduous; I get lost and end up on a dead-end road in a dusty village in the middle of the desert, almost run out of fuel, am detained by police in a small town, sleep the night in their mosque, realise I have a loose wheel from a ‘mechanic’ who didn’t tighten my wheel nuts, and arrive in Bandar-e Abbas more than twenty-four hours after leaving Shiraz. The scenery however is striking, once off the high plateau around Shiraz I enter a landscape of harsh, waterless desert; a huge arid region which extends all the way east from here to the Indus River in Pakistan. The road cuts across a long series of parallel dry valleys, punctuated with the odd domed water cistern and sparse acacias, and villages of shabby hovels, goats and camels, then descends to the barren coastal plains of Hormozgan Province.
‘Bandar’, unlike Bushehr, is a thriving port city, and handles much of the region’s sea freight. The roads around the city’s vast port complex are choked with unimaginable numbers of jostling articulated trucks. There is a definite air of seediness and iniquity to the place, and peoples’ faces are strikingly different here, with clear Arab and African influences from a long history of trade and contact with the outside world. The people of this region are referred to as Bandaris and speak a dialect of Farsi (modern Persian) which is spiced-up with words from neighbouring cultures.
There is nothing specific to detain the traveller in Bandar, but a little further to the east is the small port city of Minab, famous for its masked women. I visit the bustling Thursday market, which is a world away from the regal elegance of the long, vaulted passageways of Shiraz’s bazaar. This colourful weekly market takes place on a large, dry riverbed, with stalls spilling out quite haphazardly on the gravely surface. A crowd gathers around one young man, who wrestles a viper, then wraps himself in chains and appears to break free by his own strength, all in the hope of some donations from entertained passers-by. The atmosphere is far removed from the police-state feel of the central Iranian cities, and in the backrooms of the city there is a flourishing trade in smuggled alcohol (which is illegal in Iran). Most striking by far however, are the masks which some Bandari women wear here. The colourful embroidered masks, most commonly in rich shades of burgundy or vermillion cover the small part of a woman’s face which is exposed by her chador, and seems to be some kind of old fashion peculiar to this region of the gulf coast. They seem hugely impractical, with a central vertical ridge dividing the sight of left and right eyes, but they are a striking dash of colour and novelty in a country where people generally dress in very conservative and plain clothes.
Back in Bandar, with my Bandari host Mehdi, we make the short journey out to sea and to the tiny deep-red island of Hormoz, at the northern edge of the highly sensitive Straits of Hormoz. The island had long been occupied by the Portuguese, who have left a large castle, and an underground church and water cistern hewn out of the native red coral. Whilst enjoying the warm sea breeze (in the first week of January), we meet an Iranian woman with her daughter and her (female) friend, with whom we take a taxi to drive us around the island. On the south coast, where deep-red rocks cause the seawater to take on a blood-like colour, we paddle with the girls, who even go so far as to remove their headscarves. In a country where it is technically illegal for unmarried or unrelated men and women have any kind of social interaction, this feels like a rare treat indeed. In more than two months in Iran, it was the first time I saw a women’s hair in public, and the only time where a young woman had felt comfortable enough to open up to any degree in public without continually looking over her shoulder.
From Bandar, it’s a drive of about 750km of the most marvellously inhospitable terrain, climbing initially north back up onto the Iranian Plateau through a range of purple mountains and down onto a vast, endless gravely plain of wonderful desolation. Heading east across this endless expanse, distant ridges of barren, lifeless mountains dance over the horizon, advancing slowly as the hours pass, and I enter the far south-eastern province of Sistan-va Baluchestan, a wild, bleak and economically marginal region which every Iranian without exception had told me not to set foot in. Whilst I realised this was partly hype from people who had most likely never visited the region, there is a thriving industry of kidnapping in the region, which occasionally makes international headlines when foreign tourists are held for ransom, and I was a little uneasy about driving alone through the region. In July 2003, I had arrived in the provincial capital of Zahedan after an intolerably hot bus ride across this sweltering void, and spent twenty-four hours in a hotel room with heatstroke and dysentery. Now the weather was rather the opposite; a strong, damp and freezing wind was a rude reminder that it was mid-winter, after the balmy temperatures of the Gulf.
The journey of course passes without incident, and just after dark I arrive in Zahedan, which seems a far more ordinary and unremarkable city than the thoroughly unlovable, wild and dusty town I had staggered into four and a half years earlier. Nevertheless, I stay only long enough to eat my first food of the day, and then head on in the darkness to the very edge of Iran, to the border crossing at Mirjaveh, which from my 2003 memory was once of the most wretched places in all of Asia. I’m stopped short about 25km of the border by the police, who for safety reasons make me stop and sleep the night in the car outside a police station. I’ve actually slipped through the security net – most foreigners are given a police escort in Bam, 325km away, so I’m not too disappointed to have finally been apprehended. In the morning, I’m escorted to the border complex at Mirjaveh, where I slip out of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and into the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
I leave Iran with a glut of very positive experiences, of which the most lasting impression was of the universal hospitality shown to me by very nearly all Iranians that I had met. But this seemed to be one of the few unifying themes in Iranian society. I’d met young, secular minded urban Iranians who identified far more with ancient Persian history than with the state religion brought by the Arabs. This urban youth, seeking greater freedoms in this repressive Islamic state, feel marginalised and unwanted in their own country, and many eventually emigrate. I’d met far more conservative Iranians; Persians, Kurds and Arabs, who lived far more in tune with Islamic traditions, but were not great supporters of the government, feeling that they were living at a level far below what was to be expected of a resource-rich, developed country such as Iran, particularly when compared to its oil-state neighbours. And I had met government supporters – not many admittedly – who were generally those privileged few who had become rich during the post-revolutionary period. Every Iranian I met seemed to want to voice their own opinion, and I found myself drawn into political discussions, and taking an interest in politics far more than ever before.
Similarly, Iran’s rich and illustrious history is present at every turn, and lives on in every Iranian. With such an opinionated and politically aware population, the oscillations of history, of glory and ruin, seem to turn faster here where just lying out on the high plains, or in the torrid lowlands, one can see layers and layers of successive civilisations and empires; all separate from one another, all buried in the sands of time, but all living on in the highly complex contemporary society of Iran.