This is our story on Shiraz, a beautiful ancient city in the desert of southern Iran, said to be the birthplace of Persian culture and poetry. To get here, we flew from Kuala Lumpur to Tehran with AirAsia X, and then we took a domestic flight with Mahan Air to Shiraz. The plan is to return to Tehran by road via Yazd, Esfahan and Kashan. This should be the subject of these series of stories on Iran.
We are on a domestic flight in Iran, with Mahan Air flight W51087 from Tehran Mehrabad THR to Shiraz SYZ, an 80-min flight. The plane is a 17-year-old BAe Avro 146 RJ100 with its four cute jet engines hung from the wings. It is a night flight so I can’t get any good shot, except for this engine #3 next to me. I think this is my second time on a BAe 146. I love this small 4-engine jet plane!
We are putting up at this quaint hotel — the Karim Khan, named after an 18th century Persian sultan I think.
I don’t really fancy Persian breakfast — virtually vegetables, bland ones at that too, and cheese and bread. Coffee is good though.
We stay in a quieter part of Shiraz, which has a population of almost 2mil people, the 5th largest city in Iran. I thought it was a smaller place. It used to briefly be a capital of Persia in the 18th century, and was documented as far back as 2000 BC. Awesome heritage.
Virtually an oasis in the southwestern desert of Iran in the province of Fars, Shiraz is known as a city of poets, literature, flowers and wine. Well not so much the wine bit now, but for centuries Shiraz produced one of the best wines in the world (remember the Shiraz wine?). I wonder what has happened to all the precious grapevines in this Islamic republic era?
The Quran Gate, built 60 years ago, is on the site of the original Gate of Shiraz which existed since a thousand years ago. Imagine travellers and caravans arriving right here at this spot to enter Shiraz proper, for thousands of years.
Nearby is the weird architecture of the Shiraz Hotel. Looks modernist but then in an odd sort of way. I’m not sure when it was built, but definitely worth a glance for its quirkiness.
The tomb or shrine culture is deeply embedded within the Persian culture. It’s common to see them when traveling in Iran. This one is the Shah Cheragh Shrine, an important pilgrimage site in Shiraz, containing tombs of a couple of religious personalities from the 9th century.
But the jewel of Shiraz is this mosque called Nasir-ol-Molk, built 1876-1888 by Sultan Nasir-ol-Molk (of course) of the Qajar Dynasty. The typical Persian mosque design is rectangular, with a courtyard in the middle surrounded by iwans on all four sides (an iwan is the gate-like rectangular hall with a vault and three walls like below). But here there are only two iwans facing each other, the other two sides are a prayer hall and a community hall.
From the verandah of the community hall we look at the prayer hall, where the ‘magic’ happens every morning. We are here for it.
The prayer hall has coloured glasses in its facade, and in good weather and when the sun-rays strike at the correct angle, stunning colours could be seen inside the mosque, or so they say. So let’s go inside and see for ourselves!
We enter the main prayer hall, and yeah, this is cool. I have visited many old cathedrals and churches employing stained glasses, so I wonder what’s the compelling thing about this mosque.
When I glance to the right of the entrance, then everything sort of falls into place.
This is indeed a WOW! moment. A riot of colours invade the whole space, and you can only sit down and try to absorb it all. Truly spectacular but only at the right time when the bright sun-rays hit the coloured glass at the correct angle, like now. The Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque, or the Pink Mosque of Shiraz, does not disappoint us this morning.
It’s also called the Pink Mosque because of the extensive use of pink tiles on the interior walls and roofs.
The coloured pieces of glass were ingeniously designed and arranged. The 19th century designer must have been able to visualise how the effect would be like, totally meant for the morning sun at the right time of the year.
At the end of the hall where the imam leads the prayer, the slanting rays strike a beautiful pattern of vivid streaking colours on the wall. We have indeed come at the right moment, in sunny weather too.
It’s like looking at a huge colourful abstract painting, except that nature is the painter, by the grace of God, of course.
The pinkish mihrab (the spot where the imam leads the prayer), not to be outdone, is elaborately decorated, in typical Persian style — with muqarnas and tilework — said to be the finest in Persia. I’ll describe muqarnas later.
To the right of the mihrab more decorative tiles fill the walls and the ceiling. Very impressive indeed.
Looking back at the prayer hall. The pink hue is overwhelming.
Frankly you can sit here all day (well, till the colours are gone), and just relax in the serene ambience and vivid colours. That’s what some people do.
Stained glasses in mosques are extremely rare. The Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque in Istanbul has them, I’m told so too the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (which I have not visited yet). But the coloured glasses here are of a totally different story compared to the normal stained glass shows.
A really nice place for meditation and contemplation, unless a horde of tourists arrive. We have been lucky so far.
It seems the best sunlight for these colours is in autumn and winter. We are in November now, perfect. And of course you need a sunny weather too.
We leave the prayer hall as it gets more crowded, people are arriving nonstop. In the courtyard there’s a pool (with a fountain) for ablution, and of course the two iwans facing each other. This iwan is particularly interesting, so I move closer.
This is the muqarnas, a Persian decorative invention. It’s like stalactites hanging from the ceiling, giving a dramatic 3D effect. It’s made of terracotta, plaster or tiles.
This honeycomb design is quite pervasive in central Asia — we even found it at the Grand Mosque of St Petersburg in Russia (see our video HERE), brought by the Tartars. We also saw them in Andalusia, at Alhambra of Granada.
Elaborate floral patterns adorn the wall, such as this one. Typically Persian.
A close-up of the floral design. It is so fine in the details. These are tiles.
A small iwan, I guess, makes a good set for a photo. Look at those intricate designs.
More complex designs on the ceiling of the vault, both floral and geometric.
The other iwan on the opposite side is less complicated, but the muqarnas is liberally employed.
The twin minarets enhances the visual impact of the iwan.
People are always studying and discussing this uniquely Persian design. There is so much to see and talk about. Sometimes the patterns are overwhelming.
I have no clue why the minaret has the hand at the top but it looks intriguing.
This place is indeed full of photo opportunities. Just keep your eyes peeled!
Next stop is the famous Eram Garden of Shiraz. About 900 years old, it is a fine example of a Persian garden, a worthy Unesco World Heritage Site.
These are the main features of a Persian garden — beautiful pavilions (like above) with ponds and fountains, and straight small aqueducts going right through the garden, emanating in a grid-like manner.
In Eram’s case, the rectangular pond is in front of the pavilion, with the aqueduct coming straight out of it.
A little further down the aqueduct, an orchard of pomegranate trees adorns autumn colours.
I spot a ripe pomegranate amidst the yellow leaves, nice. They do grow excellent pomegranates here in Iran, just like in Turkey.
Many young Persian ladies are quite stylish, as opposed to the black garb we normally see the clerics wear on telly.
Life is as normal as it could be. Everything is peaceful, and people are very nice too.
However verdant the garden is, the sight of barren mountains so close by is a stark reminder that we are actually in the middle of a desert.
Vakil Bazaar is the main bazaar of Shiraz, started life in the 11th century, with the usual amenities built around it — mosques, caravanserai, baths, the odd shrines, etc. Part of it is now inside the original caravanserai, a place for caravans of yore to stop, rest and get supplies (just like rest areas along present highways). Nothing really exciting here unless you are into rugs, spices and stuff.
The ornate brick ceiling probably dates back from the caravanserai era, that’s hundreds of years ago.
A typical caravanserai feature, a vaulted path connecting parts of the complex, possibly for people, horses, and goods.
Exploring the maze of the bazaar, we spot a shrine of one Seyed Abdollah, an imamzadeh most likely. Which means he was a direct descendant of an imam, a revered figure in Shiism.
A typical decor of a shrine, a bit austere though. I guess that’s the tomb there. Sometimes not the whole body is interred inside a shrine, it could just be body parts.
And of course, spices, introduced by the seafaring merchants centuries ago. Maybe via the Silk Road too.
We stop for a breather and take an early dinner. Lamb kebab on flat bread is simply delicious. I say to the shop owner, very nice kebab, just like the ones I had in Turkey. He turns around, Turkey!? Tip: do not mention ‘Turkey’ in Iran, hahaha!
The sun is setting as we return to the hotel. I must admit, this is one beautiful ancient city, in the fertile plain at the foot of the Zagros Mountains, more than 900km south of Tehran. At 1500m above sea level, the temperate climate is most welcome. The barren mountains virtually all around us show how lucky Shiraz is, a huge oasis city, but full of splendour — culture, history, mosques, shrines, gardens, poetry, the lot! The Capital of Persian Art, Culture and Literature, indeed.
Two of Persia’s greatest poets lived in Shiraz, with their tombs being two of the most visited sites in Shiraz. They are Saadi and Hafez, two names every Persian would know. So I just have to write something about them here.
Saadi (13th century poet) says:
A wise man among the ignorant is as a beautiful girl in the company of blind men.
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.
Hafez (14th century poet) says:
I am in love with every church
And any kind of shrine
Because I know it is there
That people say the different names
Of the One God.
~ THE END ~