My current home town of NYC has some pretty amazing museums. The city is fortunate to have the world’s history and art come to them instead of traveling many time zones away to see it.
When I’m traveling I’m always up for checking out the ones that get a little less attention and are somewhat off the beaten path. I’m in search of what will never reach any museum close to home because it’s just impossible to really appreciate something that is thousands of miles away from its origin. It’s pretty hard to move an entire building as well. Some have been somewhat successful. For example, the MET in NYC did do a great job of bringing the Islamic world back after being in storage for a decade.
I usually find places that are more known for both their architectural beauty and small collection of art inside. Here are a few of my favorites from my travels over the years. Trips to Russia and Iran just require a pricey and lengthy visa approval process and Syria is considered very unsafe for foreigners and nationals alike. Things will hopefully the violence will end and peace will resume in days ahead. Here’s just a little look inside a few.
Yazd is oldest city in the world and to get to know it a visitor needs to see it from all angles
The adobe alleyways in the old city keep the dwellings protected from the sun, large vehicles out and water fresh and cool below. My visit started on a thursday after noon and ended a couple of days afterwards. It is considered the weekend here and it was quiet for the most part. The doorway found along the alleyways are modest entrances to the beautiful homes which lie behind. They traditionally contain a courtyard filled with plants and a pool of water and have rooms circulating around it.
Plenty was open and available to see since the weekends are times when families spend time together and also visit tourist sites. We arrived in the late afternoon on thursday. We got to see a couple of sites before getting a bite to eat at the Silk Road Hotel. The food was pretty good there. The standard menu of kebab, Kookoo Zabzi, Rice, salad and Doogh. Fridays get pretty quiet here. Most activity ceases until after the evening prayer. At least we can find a place to get a cold drink as we explore the empty bazaar.
We left Sunday and found out that this was a good choice since most shops are closed in this conservative town. This includes the famous Haj Khalife Ali Rahbar Confectionary Shop near the Amir Chakhmaq square. I luckily got to it on Saturday and bought my 1/2 kilo of Qottab – it’s sort of like Mexican Wedding cookies with cardamom.
Our days were filled with visiting mosques in town; visiting Zoroastrian landmarks; taking day trips to the UNESCO sites of Chak-Chak and Kharanaq; and eating and sleeping in between. Yazd is definitely on the list of places to come back to when revisiting again in the future.
I usually like to find attractions along the way which are overlooked and ultimately not overcrowded. My interests are more than checking off a list which usually means seeing what many don’t stop and see. I found many things in Yazd which may seem to be boring because of their name but ended up being quite interesting. Here’s my top things to see in Yazd list:
Yazd Heidarzadeh Coin Anthropology Museum:
It’s a museum that isn’t listed on most group tours going to Yazd which says to most “Don’t Go” but to me it goes on my “Must Do” list.
Sounds geeky right? It’s really in name alone. This museum is home to a large collection of coins which date back to the beginning of the first century. A jewelry shop assistant and part time teacher named Mr. Hussein Heidarzadeh collected 5,000 pieces of different items including coins, banknotes, scissors, lantern, rosary, seal, scale, knife, samovar, silver ornaments, etc over his lifetime and donated most of them to the Cultural Heritage Organization here in Yazd. The coins and bills are not the only attraction here. The interior of the building has been well attended to and is much more attractive then the water museum. This could partially be because they get less traffic then the Water Museum.
It was late in the afternoon when we set out to find the Museum located in the old quarter of Yazd. The LP guide to Iran has the museum listed as a part of there walking tour of Yazd. It was one of the few things open at 2:30pm on a Saturday afternoon. We followed the LP map and discovered a helpful english sign once we got past the closed tourist office. It’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of covered alleyways of the old city but we finely made it to the museum. A young man and another friendly armed gentleman dressed in military fatigues answered the door when we knocked. It’s good to know we and the coins are safe. It was just us, the coins and our minders. How wonderful – we had the place to ourselves.
The Coin Museum located inside in a similar building which includes a well-kept central courtyard minus the crowds. The only draw back is that you can’t take pictures. I managed to get some because I accidentally hit my camera and wellah..I got a couple of shots. No harm done.
Yazd Water Museum:
I happened to visit in mid-day along with a large group of rather loud Castalian retired and hearing impaired visitors. Let’s say I was a bit put off by the crowd inside the narrow chambers. It was hard to hear what Mahmoud had to share with us while the group passed us by and spoke amongst themselves. At least the museum had a few visual aids to help explain the museum and the building it occupied.
Many go to the Water Museum so they can check out how wealthier Yazd residents lived 100 years ago. The former home is in excellent condition and it’s great to see how the cooling system worked in the home, but there was one big drawback. It gets crowded. I would suggest to skip it but try to find an off-peak time to visit. Possibly when it first opens and large groups are still having breakfasts or late in the day when they are on the bus and rushing on to their next destination. It’s located just across from the Amir Chaqmagh Complex and Hajj Khalifeh Rahbar Confections Shop.
The top two things that come to mind when I think of my stay in Yazd are Windcatchers and its ancient Qanat water systems. Further confirming that I am a travel geek.
Just off of the Ancient Silk Road Highway
It survived Mongol invasion and its famous visitors include explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century and later in the 19th century British writer/traveler Robert Byron. Byron wondered why others hadn’t noticed its beautiful architecture and asked the question, “Do people travel blind?” Seems strange that one could visit Yazd without noticing its unique Windcatcher filled cityscape. But, it’s something I have asked myself more than once. Marco Polo probably would have begged to differ since he found Yazd to be “a very fine and splendid city and a centre of commerce” when he traveled through it earlier in the 13th century.
It’s possible that most were merely distracted by the hustle and bustle of the streets and just safely going about their business. There are many things to contend with when walking the streets of Yazd. The locals going to and coming from daily prayer, car and pedestrian traffic, lack of safe crossways, potentially hazardous centuries old water channels, and narrow sidewalks – just to name a few. I imagine Yazd was just as bustling centuries ago as it is today. It also as become a stop-off for modern-day explorers who participate in the Mongol Rally in the dead of summer.
Windcatchers and water
The first thing that stuck me as a visitor in Yazd was the field of windcatchers which rise out of almost every structure in the city. There are hundreds of them to be seen here. Many are not in use today but are reminders of Yazd’s industrious past. They along with the qanat helped keep the city’s residents cool during the summer months when temperatures can get above 100 F.
Yazd is thought to be the oldest inhabited cities of Iran thanks to the qanat water system made during the Sassanian Period (224-651 AD). The qanat along with the windcatcher systems keep the lower levels of many buildings and homes cool. This gives residents comfortable rooms to escape to during the steamy summer months and provides a safe place to store food within their home.
These water systems made centuries ago is the main reason this city still remains as it does today. Water is scarce in this area found in the heart of the persian desert. The climate is contradicting in the fact it is so dry but it’s full of pomegranate and date trees and fresh water streams still flow from the mountains. The locals take pride that they and their ancestors have managed to have a water supply without the help machines and modern technology.
Today, Yazd is just as popular stop for travelers on the Silk Road as it was centuries ago. It remains the center of the Zoroastrian faith in Iran even though the numbers have dwindled. They are allowed to continue to worship as they please since Zoroastrians are ironically considered a religious minority even though they are the oldest known organized faith in the world. The basic three tenets followed by Zoroastrians are: Good Thoughts; Good Words and Good Deeds. Very good tenets to live by.
Ancient Kharanaq is like a scene out of an old western with tumbleweed and the only signs of life are some lonely donkeys and feral kitties. The townspeople have moved into new housing just meters away.
The town itself is filled with winding covered passageways with rooms branching off of them. It’s easy to lose your sense of direction while venturing around. The maze of passages deters thieves since it is difficult to make a quick getaway here. I imagine that it also helps with keeping spaces inside warm in the winter since there isn’t a direct cross breeze to push warm air out of the interior space.
The buildings themselves are basically made of mud and straw and are in a bad state. Some renovations are going on now but I imagine that there is little funding and the process is slow. Visitors are allowed to roam freely about the place. Some visitors have actually fallen through the ceilings since they are naturally unaware of how fragile this place is. The central minerat used to be open to visitors but it’s been damaged due to visitors carelessness. This minerat is not flexible and isn’t meant to be shaken. It’s just as fragile as the rest of the place so resist the temptation while visiting.
It was a friday so things were pretty quiet in Yazd when we arrived. The fire temple is a popular spot for families to visit on the weekend and it was busy but the stores were closed and only a few doors were open for visitors. The Dolat Abad Windcatcher complex was one of those open doors.
Yazd is famous for its many windcatchers. The malqaf or tall tower has an opening at the top which faces the prevailing winds. The tower catches the wind where it is cooled by flowing over an underground water source called the Qanat. The combination of the water and cooler walls located in the lower parts of the building cools the air and provides natural air conditioning. It seems like a pretty green technology right? I wonder why we don’t see more structures like this in use today.
The tallest wind catcher standing in Iran is the one here in the Dolatabad Garden in Yazd. It’s 34 meters in height. The building was the residence of Mohammad Taghi Khan in the Zand era. The interior contains a pool which is under the windcatcher. The water seems to connect to the long rectangular pool that is outside and in front of the windcatcher. The outdoor pool is surrounded by fruit trees, flowering plants and of course several traditional cypress trees.
The building is very attractive and contains beautifully designed ceiling plaster work and colorful glass pained windows. It’s a great site to end the day and begin the days we will have in Yazd and the surrounding area. Time to finally check out our hotel and have a late lunch and tea.
It was hard leaving the chill environment of the Zein-o-din but the journey north continued. Our next destination was Yazd known to be the center of Zoroastrianism. We of course had a few Zorastrian highlights to see before the end of the day. These included the ancient burial platform called the Tower of Silence on the southern end of town; the Yezd Atash Behram; and the Dowlat-abad Windtower was our last stop before checking in to our hotel – the Orient Hotel.
Tower of Silence or Dakhma – Yazd
The Sassanid era was were the practice of placing the dead on top of the the Tower of Silence began in 3rd — 7th century BC
The dead body was thought unclean and to bury it or burn it would pollute the earth either way. The body was instead placed high on top of the tower and left to the elements until all that was left were bleached bones of the departed. The remaining bleached bones were placed in a center well which contained lime and phosphorus. The bones then turn to dust.
Today, this practice in Iran has been abandoned due to the shortage of vultures, population growth in the areas close to the towers themselves and falling out of favor with modern Zoroastrian followers. The burial ceremony is quite elaborate and for more details check out this link.
Biggest Surprises and what surpassed my expectations in Iran
There’s only so much blog reading and picture browsing a future traveler can do before setting out on an adventure to a foreign land. Information that’s out there via blogs, pictures news articles – reliable and current on travelling to Iran isn’t as prevalent as say Europe or South East Asia. The official news publications are just full of endless stories that conger up fear and bloggers tend to be on the opposite side saying how hospitable the Persian people and how beautiful the landscape and architecture is. I sorted through it all and did the trip. This is the basic likes and dislikes about what I personally witnessed while traveling a well beaten trail through central Iran.
Wonderful hospitality despite the constant bullying and bickering going on between other nations and theirs
It is said over and over again on various blogs, articles and travel shows that Persians are undoubtedly the most friendly and welcoming cultures of the world. I also immediately comfortable when arriving 2 hours late after a 30+ hour journey from JFK to Shiraz International. I’m an amateur hijab wearer who is both jet-lagged and half conscience – where am I? I’m alright but I’m concerned that my semiconscious self is not going to notice if the scarf falls off my head. At least it’s a very odd hour and not the middle of the day. I, as a guest, am little nervous about offending anyone at this point. At passport check we are the only ones in the “Foreigner Line”. The officials get all the locals done and soon start to check out our credentials. They apologized for not having the finger printing device working immediately. No worries. It only took a few minutes for what seemed like just a quick warm up and connection to the computer. It was a short wait and I wasn’t moving too fast anyways.
Our start was much easier then the worst senario I had in my head before departing almost a day and a half ago. I never had any close wardrobe malfunctions and very little culture shock. The people I met along the way were wonderful. It was not all great but what trip is perfect? Here’s some general thoughts – both good and bad to be balanced- about my experience in Iran.
Amazing Architecture anyone can enjoy without a PhD in Ancient Architectural Studies
This region is full of buildings, archeological sites, ancient texts, art and textiles which date back thousands of years in some cases. It’s amazing what still remains to be seen today after countless wars and military conflicts have damaged and destroyed so much in this region over the centuries. Many things have been taken or sold as some claim to museums in western Europe and North America. It’s great to be able to see it in person like the permanent exhibit of Islamic Art that recently opened up at the Met here in New York City, but there’s nothing like seeing it in person where it came from.
Much more is being uncovered by those working hard under skilled architects and hopefully more will be available for the public to see in the future despite current political conflicts.
Too much to see in too little time
Isn’t that always the case? We were allowed 14 days since that was how long our required tour was going to last. No tour – no guide – so no more days are needed on our visas. Tours are not cheap so we’ll have to go back. The rumor mill says that once the first visa is granted then the next is easier to acquire, it’s faster and more days could be granted.
Lots of bad music
Blame the US embargo for this one. Our guide mostly played traditional persian music as well as Persian Pop music while we traveled along. One day the subject of what kind of music we liked came up. Of course, we are fans of Led Zeppelin, Silversun Pickups, Radiohead – just to name some better known acts that he might be familiar with – well Mahmoud just smiled and gave a few nods – he more than likely heard of them but not a fan. He said he was a fan of Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and the Eagles – all of whom sing about romantic new love and getting dumped – sound familiar? Mahmoud was a big fan of the poet Hafiz like many Persians. He also was being his hospitable self and decided to give us a break from Persian music – which I add was enjoying – and put sometime on that he thought we would like. Not sure if it was Celine or the Eagles but the CD player was busted and the Persian music resumed.
Persians feeling they needed to apologize for their government
Not many people are happy with what either side has been doing lately or the last 30 years for that matter. I hope there is a time that the region will be at peace. Our countries governments and political powers that be must start looking forward. The Persians still harbor resentment of the Muslim conquest of the Persian empire hundreds of years ago. The decline and fall of the Sasanian Empire led to the rise of Islam in a region whose religion was dominantly Zoroastrian religion in Persia. and just about eliminated their form of Islamic faith and Zoroastrianism.
The new generations want more freedom to do little things like sporting fashionable hairstyles and wearing clothes and jewelry that express their individual personalities.