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.
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.
The next stop was a short one to see a flame that burns in the honor of the highest deity in the Zoroastrian religion Ahura Mazda – the lord of Light and Wisdom
The fire found inside this temple in Yazd has been burning continuously since 470 AD. It came to this simple building in 1932. The fire is of the highest grade and is referred to as the Atash Behram or Fire of victory. The flame is composed of fire from 16 different sources which have been collected from various flames. This massive flame continues to burn behind the glass for us all to see.
When visiting this site it is more for seeing the modern-day impact of Zoroastrian faith in Iran. There is nothing more here then a simple building with signage only in Persian – this is where Mahmoud – our wonderful guide- came in very handy. The purpose of our visit was to both pay homage to those who still practice this ancient faith and show support for the community. Of course, this encouraged me to learn more about something I knew little about before our visit to Iran. Yazd has many of the few surviving followers of the ancient religious practices of Zoroastrianism in a country dominated by Islam. I wish them well and hope their faith continues to prosper in the days ahead.
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.
Naqsh-e Rostam doesn’t look like more than a few holes in the side of a hill of limestone. This hill is where four great leaders of Persia once laid to rest – Darius the Great, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I and Darius II. These men lived at a time where brother killed brother in order to gain the power they thought they rightfully deserved. It was survival of the strongest or the greediest perhaps. Murdering to gain position became a common practice in the Achaemenid household.
These cross-shaped tombs look as if they were constructed at the same time since they are all built to almost the same specifications. The first Darius the Great – said to be completed around 493 BC and the last was built for Darius II – great-great-grandson to Cyrus the Great – around 400 B.C. when he passed. So, these were all built in a span of 90 years – give or take a few years.
Tomb of Darius the Great (son-in-law of Cyrus the Great 522-486 BC)
A few scrappy puppies stand guard at the tombs of Naqsh-e Rustam. They couldn’t be bothered on this hot September day in southern Iran. This impressive but little visited site is a 20 minute drive from its more popular stepbrother Persepolis. Darius the Great – son-in-law of Cyrus the Great was the first occupant of this Necropolis. The cliff side cemetery was his idea. His tomb’s was built during his reign and was completed seven years before his death in 486 BC. He had many wives but the most important one was Astossa who is the daughter of Cyrus the Great and mother of Xerxes I was king after Darius. Darius became king after Cyrus’ son Cambyses II died of a leg wound that was either self-inflicted or happened during battle. Bardiya, younger brother to Cambyses II, succeeded him but later murdered by a group of seven nobles who then made Darius their king. Darius the Great was best known for completing many of the construction projects started by his father in law Cyrus the Great.
Tomb of Xerxes I (son of Darius the Great 486-465 BC)
Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes I, grave is found next to his father’s. Xerxes I wasn’t Darius’ eldest son, but the only one “born in the Purple” or of royal blood. Xerxes fought many battles and is best known for building the largest structures at Persepolis, the Gate of all Nations and the Hall of a Hundred Columns. He also completed the Apadana, the Palace of Darius and the Treasury all started by Darius. He added on his own palace which was twice the size of his father’s. Xerxes I and is young son Darius were both murdered by his royal guard Artabanus the Hyrcanian.
Tomb of Artaxerxes I (son of Xerxes I 465-424 BC)
Artaxerxes I came into power after the assassinations of his father Xerxes I and his young brother Darius. Artaxerxes I lived until he was 54 and all that is known about his death is that it happened sometime in between December 424 B.C. and March 423 BC. He is known as Artaxerxes Longimanus. He had the nickname Longimanus because his right hand was longer than his left. He fought battles against the Greeks. He continued to support the rebuilding of the Jewish community in Jerusalem which had begun under Cyrus the Great. He died by natural causes unlike most of the rulers of the Achaemenid Period.
Tomb of Darius II (son of Artaxerxes 423-404 BC)
Vahuka, letter becoming Darius II when king, came to power after the death of two of his elder brothers. Xerxes II was the only one “born in the purple”. He was the crown prince and son of the Queen. His other two half brothers, Vahuka – later known as Darius II – and Sogdianus were born out of the royal line. Xerxes II was next in line and was given the throne. His brother Sogdianus murdered him 45 days later. Sogdianus lasted only six months until he was also murdered by the commander of the cavalry who didn’t recognize his rule. Historians can’t agree about what really happened. It doesn’t help that Sogdianus married his half-sister and both murdered sons Xerxes II and Sogdianus declared themselves king before their father’s body was cold.
In the end, the next brother, Vahuka or Darius of Ochus became king. He was the son of Artaxerxes and a Babylonian concubine, hence the nickname of Nothos which means the child of unmarried parents. He had a lot of help from his wife and half-sister. He is said to have taken care of things and got rid of the rest of his relatives in secure his seat. Artaxerxes I had 18 children. There are very few details of Darius II life. He fought and survived many battles and held on to power much longer than Xerxes II and Sogdianus. Unlike the two, he does have a place at Naqsr-e Rustam and one must assume he was a great leader.
Is it a Zorastrian fire temple? Not a fire temple but an ancient flood light that eliminated the tombs at night? A royal tomb that was never occupied? What this building was except an uncanny Doppelganger to one found at Cyrus the Great’s Tomb at Pasargadae. Whether it was a depository for objects of dynastic or religious importance or tomb is a mystery that may be solved someday. Much of the area of the site still remains buried and there are many objects, carvings and perhaps larger segment waiting to be discovered. I’m looking forward to returning back – especially when it’s not over 100 degrees F.
side note: The sources I used to get information in this post was found from various places ranging from my guide Mahmoud to online sources to old-fashioned textbooks in the library. I have found the history about Naqshr-e Rustam or Naqshr-e Rostam has many versions. Please let me know if I have made any mistakes with the facts I have gathered. Many of the facts are ones consolidated by larger accounts found in Wikipedia.