Day 163 – 30.10.2016
Shiraz to Yazd

We left Shiraz in the morning for Yazd, following directions on maps.me
We drove through winding lanes, a forest of badgers, mud-brick old town. Yazd, the capital of Yazd Province, located 270 km southeast of Isfahan with a population of 1,074,428, is wedged between the northern Dasht-e Kavir and the southern Dasht-e Lut. Though it did not have the big-ticket sights of Isfahan and Shiraz, it was equally enchanting. This was a place to wander and get lost in the maze of historic streets and lanes.
Yazd is known for its silks and other fabrics even before Marco Polo passed through here. It is also home to Iran’s second-largest population of Zoroastrians.

After checking in at the Hotel, we contacted our guide, who arrived at the hotel within half an hour. He drove us all around the city to various places of interest.

The first place we visited was Bagh-E Dowlatabad. This place had an abundance of fountains, cypress trees, and pomegranates, capturing the quintessence of the Persian garden. The 18th-century residence offers an abundance of shade and some beautiful buildings, attracting tourists all year round. The 33-metre central badgir, as well as the kaleidoscopic array of stained-glass windows, make for a magically idiosyncratic aesthetic, the likes of which you won’t find elsewhere or soon forget.

Because of generations of adaptations to its desert surroundings, Yazd has a unique Persian architecture and is nicknamed the city of windcatchers.

It is also very well known for its Zoroastrian fire temples, Persian handicrafts, Termeh (Iranian handwoven cloth), silk weaving, and its high-quality Yazdi confectionery.

Yazd has a history of over 5,000 years, dating back to the time of the Median empire when it was known as “Ysatis”. The present city name, however, is derived from Yazdegerd I, a Sassanid ruler of Persia. The city was a Zoroastrian center during Sassanid times. After the Arab conquest of Iran, many Zoroastrians migrated to Yazd from neighboring provinces. By paying a levy, Yazd was allowed to remain Zoroastrian even after its conquest, and Islam only gradually became the dominant religion in the city.

Because of its remote desert location and the difficulty of access, Yazd remained largely immune to large battles and the destruction and ravages of war. For instance, it was a haven for those fleeing from destruction in other parts of Persian Empire during the Mongol invasion. In 1272 it was visited by Marco Polo, who remarked on the city’s fine silk-weaving industry. In the book The Travels of Marco Polo, he described Yazd in the following way:

It is a good and noble city and has a great amount of trade. They weave their quantities of a certain silk tissue known as Yasdi, which merchants carry into many quarters to dispose of. We noticed a lot of fine woods producing dates upon the way,

Under the rule of the Safavid (16th century), some people migrated from Yazd and settled in an area that is today on the Iran-Afghanistan border. The settlement, which was named Yazdi, was located in what is now Farah City in the province of the same name in Afghanistan. Even today, people from this area speak with an accent very similar to that of the people of Yazd.

One of the notable things about Yazd is its family-centered culture. According to official statistics from Iran’s National Organization for Civil Registration, Yazd is among the three cities with the lowest divorce rates in Iran.

The Majority people in Yazd are Muslims. There is also a sizeable population Zoroastrians in the city. There was once a relatively large Jewish-Yazdi community, however, after the creation of Israel, many have moved there for varying reasons.

Built in the 12th century and still in use, Jame Mosque of Yazd that we visited was an example of the finest Persian mosaics and excellent architecture, constructed on the site of the Sassanid fire temple. The mosque is crowned by a pair of minarets, the highest in Iran, and the portal’s facade is decorated from top to bottom in dazzling tile work, predominantly blue in colour.

The elegant patterns of brick work and the priceless inscription of mosaic tiles bearing angular kufic all create a sense of beauty. The main prayer niche, the one which is located below the dome, is decorated with elegant mosaic tiles. On the two star-shaped inlaid tiles, the name of the builder and the time of construction of the prayer niche sparkle beautifully. The two towering minarets dating back to the Safavid era measure 52 meters in height and 6 meters in diameter.

We then visited Yazd’s architectural centerpiece, the Amir Chakhmaq complex located in the heart of the city, in a square of the same name.

The stunning three-storey facade of this Hosseinieh makes it one of the largest such structures in Iran. Its rows of perfectly proportioned sunken alcoves are at their best, and most photogenic, around sunset, when the light softens and the towering exterior is discreetly floodlit. Recent work has added arcades at the side to keep traffic away from the structure. We climbed to the 1st floor of the structure and we could look over the square. However higher levels were not accessible. Underneath the complex was a bazaar where kababis specialise in jigar (grilled liver).

We were then driven to the Atashkadeh/Fire Temple, which was the most important sights, containing a central fire that has allegedly been burning since the 5th century A.D. The Atashkadeh is a Zoroastrian fire temple located in Yazd and the present structure dates back to 1940, but the fire in it is said to have been burning since 470 AD.

The original Atashkadeh was converted into a mosque when the Arabs invaded Iran. Only the Mouabad, the Zoroastrian high priest, a descendant of the Magi, has access to the Moubad-e Moubadan, the inner core of the temple where the fire is burning. According to the Zoroastrian faith, the fire in the temple is an agent of ritual purity. The temple is accessible in the mornings until 12 and in the afternoon after4 pm. The temple is in an enclosure in front of a circular water pond.

Zoroastrianism, an ancient monotheistic religion that dates back to around 3500 years ago, was the principal religion in Iran before the Islamic conquests, and the community still lives on in some parts of the country. Yazd is the centre of Zoroastrianism in Iran and is home to several sites of religious and historical interest.

Another fascinating Zoroastrian site that we visited, the ominous-sounding Towers of Silence located just outside the city. Rising from a solemn desert landscape, these two circular, raised structures sit atop adjacent hills.

Until 40 years ago, corpses could still be found on top of the Towers of Silence in Yazd, Iran, slowly disintegrating or being picked apart by desert vultures. In the Zoroastrian tradition, once a body ceases to live, it can immediately be contaminated by demons and made impure. To prevent this infiltration, Zoroastrians purified the dead body by exposing it to the elements and local fowl on top of flat-topped towers in the desert called dakhmas.

According to a tradition dating back over 3,000 years, bodies were arranged on the towers in three concentric circles. Men were placed in the outer circle, women in the middle, and children in the innermost ring. Bodies were then left until their bones were bleached by the elements and stripped by the vultures.

After the process of purification, bones were placed in ossuaries near, or inside, of the towers. Ossuaries from these rituals have been discovered from the 4th and 5th century BCE.

As Iran developed and urbanized, dakhmas became increasingly closer to city limits, severely curtailing their use. Since the 1970s, the use of dakhmas has been illegal in Iran, forcing orthodox Zoroastrians to adapt to new burial methods. Many in the Zoroastrian community have moved to burying bodies beneath concrete, to keep out all contaminants.

Although the towers are no longer used in the ceremony, they can be visited along with a number of the ossuaries in the area.

We then walked through the well-preserved, still inhabited Old Town in Yazd, with its warren-like streets and intriguing nooks and crannies. The yellow-brown of the mud-brick buildings demonstrate just how dry this city is, and the badgers which poke out periodically are a scenic reminder of the ingenuity of Yazd traditional architecture.

Yazd is a city that essentially blossomed out of the desert, and one of the major issues was getting water- so much so that it has a museum dedicated to explaining how it was obtained. The location is magical and it’s just got good energy. We visited the museum where they have explained all about qanāt, an elaborate tunnel system used to extract groundwater. The tunnels were hand-dug and just big enough to fit one person. Water from the qanat is stored in “ab anbar”, water reservoirs, which were usually adorned with badgir, wind catchers, to keep the water near ice cold temperature. As we made our way around Yazd, we could see these all around. From the courtyard, we went downstairs into the basement for the actual Museum.

Yazd Water Museum was set up in 2000 in the wake of the first international conference on qanat in Yazd. The Museum building has once been a merchant’s house built in 1929. Two qanats were running beneath the Museum at different levels, which are reachable through a special stairway called “Payab”. Some parts of the house structure represented some part of water history in the region. The stairway to qanat that we climbed down and a reservoir on the roof showed how water technologies and everyday life were interwoven in the past.

We then drove down to the centuries-old village of Kharanaq inhabited for over 1000 years. Found the mud brick village practically deserted except for a few farmers still pottering around.

Our guide and driver then took us for dinner to a lovely restaurant called Silk Road Hotel which was a beautifully restored traditional house located in the historical center of Yazd (Iran), about 100 meters away from the 13th century Jameh Mosque. From the rooftop we could get an amazing you will be amazed by the panoramic view of the surrounding mud brick buildings and ancient wind towers.

While the Iranian food here was very good, the delicious sub continental curries were the most popular dishes among travellers, particularly those who were absolutely bored with kababs. The sociable courtyard atmosphere was very pleasant.

Day 164 – 31.10.2016
Yazd to Tabas

We started from Yazd after a lovely breakfast for Tabas. After driving for more than 5 hours about 366 km, we arrived in Tabas, the name Tabas usually refers to the city under discussion.

We noticed Tabas was a desert city with lots of date and citrus trees. Since this was a small city there was no guide arranged. We, therefore, booked a vehicle which served both as a guide cum driver who took us around Tabas.

He drove us to a 300-year-old public garden called Baghe-golshan.

There was also a shrine in Tabas that is visited every year by thousands of pilgrims. Tabas has two universities, with 2500 to 3500 students. The city has hot summers and people rarely see a winter snowfall.

The people of Tabas speak a Khorasani dialect of Persian that sounds somewhat different from the standard Iranian version (“Tehran Persian”)

Day 165 – 01.11.2016
Tabas to Mashhad

We drove 554 km for about 7 hours from Tabas to Mashhad the second most populous city in Iran and capital of Razavi Khorasan Province, close to the borders of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. It was a major oasis along the ancient Silk Road connecting with Merv in the East. We reached our hotel Cinoor and after checking in realised that the Guide did not turn up. She then arranged for someone else to take us around Mashhad.

We were informed that Imam Reza Shrine was the only place of interest that could be visited in Mashhad. However, he still drove us to Kooh Sangi Park. Though the place beautiful, we were not keen on spending the little time that we had on hand at an urban public park in Mashhad. This massive park was at the end of Asadi Avenue (Kooh Sangi) in south Mashhad, surrounded by the Binalud Mountain, known as a resort area and a very popular destination for tourists, residents and pilgrims alike.

The driver also informed us that Mashhad city was most famous and revered for housing the tomb of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia Imam. Every year, millions of pilgrims visited the Imam Reza shrine and pay their tributes to Imam Reza. The Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid was also buried within the shrine. Mashhad is mistakenly known as the city of Ferdowsi, the Iranian poet of Shahnameh, which is considered to be the national epic of Iran.

By the end of the 9th century, a dome was built on the grave and many buildings and bazaars sprang up around it. During more than a millennium, it has been devastated and reconstructed several times. Mashhad was relatively left intact in the hands of Mongolian commanders because of the cemetery of Ali Al-Rezza. Thus the survivors of the massacres migrated to Mashhad.

The only well-known food in Mashhad, “sholeh Mashhadi”, ( a traditional soup in Mashhad, which contains rice, meat, beans, and spices, more like Halim but denser. The taste is unique and traditionally it is served with vegetables and cheese), dates back to the era of the Mongolian invasion when it is thought to be cooked with any food available.

When the traveller Ibn Battuta visited the town in 1333, he reported that it was a large town with abundant fruit trees, streams, and mills.

The vast majority of Mashhadi people were ethnic Persians. Other ethnic groups include Kurdish and Turkmen who have emigrated to the city from the North Khorasan province. There is also a significant community of non-Arabic speakers of Arabian descent who have assimilated into the Persian culture and no longer speak their own language but have retained a distinct Arabian culture, cuisine and religious practices. The people from Mashhad who look East Asian are of Hazara Turkmen, or Uyghur ancestry or indeed a combination of all other ethnic groups as racial mixing has been widely practiced in this region. Among the non-Iranians, there is immigrant population of Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. The divorce rate in Mashhad has increased by 35 percent, while Khorasan and Mashhad ranked the second in violence across the country.

The holy shrine and its museum hold one of the most extensive cultural and artistic treasures of Iran, in particular, manuscript books and paintings. Several important theological schools are associated with the shrine of the Eighth Imam.

The Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, is a complex which contains the mausoleum of Imam Reza, the eighth Imam of Twelver Shiites. It is the largest mosque in the world by dimension and the second largest by capacity. Also contained within the complex are the Goharshad Mosque, a museum, a library, four seminaries, a cemetery, the Razavi University of Islamic Sciences, a dining hall for pilgrims, vast prayer halls, and other buildings.

As we arrived at the Holy Shrine and as customary a woman is required to wear a Chador before entering the Shrine.  I was escorted by the women serving at the Shrine on the side where only ladies were allowed to visit, while Louis went along with the guide on the other side meant for Men. We were absolutely astonished to see the interior very beautifully done up.

We understand every year the ceremony of Dust Clearing is celebrated in the Imam Reza shrine. The pain of Imam Reza’s death is still felt very personally well over a millennium later and more than 20 million pilgrims converge here each year to pay their respects. Witnessing their tears is a moving experience, even if you’re not a Muslim yourself.

 

The Carpets laid on the floor inside the Shrine were made with Turkish knot by craftsmen who emigrated from Tabriz to Mashhad in the nineteenth century and are very famous in Mashhad.

The driver then dropped us back to the hotel. He was insisting on taking us for dinner, but we refused. After arriving at the hotel, we had some dinner and then went to our room. As it was our last night in Iran, we were looking forward to leaving Iran and entering Turkmenistan the next day.