Iran: The Ancient City of Yazd and the Caravanserai

November 2016

 

After a day-long journey from Shiraz, including a 150-km desert crossing, we finally make it to our accommodation for tonight — a 450-year-old caravanserai refurbished into an inn. This is the Zein-o-Din Caravanserai, originally built to serve the ancient Silk Road caravans plying between Persia and Pakistan/Afghanistan. Nowadays the Silk Road has become a modern dual carriageway of four lanes.

 

It is freezing in the desert and with a sigh of relief we are in our warm comfortable room. It’s a small room with space for just two single beds.

 

It’s a rather spartan room with a fan heater, but the showers and toilets are in a common area across the open courtyard. That means we need to go out into the cold weather to do our business!

 

Before we retire after the tiring day, we need to do dinner first, and this sitting area is sheer pleasure. Warm and cosy compared to the subzero wind outside.

 

They have refurbished this part of the caravanserai into a pleasant dining area. I’m not sure what this spot was originally for during the Silk Road days, but a caravanserai is a place for caravans to rest and replenish supplies.

 

We choose a rather comfy corner to wait for dinner. In total 999 caravanserais were built in Persia, with one located every 30 to 50 km along the major caravan routes. Such convenience even centuries ago.

 

Dinner is served! Delicious stuff for a traveller — chicken, rice, vegies and yoghurt. Worth all the waiting, and soon we are off to bed.

 

A very cold good morning, and I climb to the rooftop to see what’s really around us. We arrived in darkness last night so I have no clue where we are … in the middle of the desert, it seems. If the sky is clear at night, a spectacular star show can be expected in the crisp cold air.

 

We are located 80 km southeast of Yazd, next to the highway from Tehran to the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, 560 km away. Only two caravanserais with circular towers were ever built in the 16th century — this one and another one (in ruins) near Esfahan. We are indeed very lucky to have the opportunity to stay at this historic place.

 

We checked out and are soon on our way north. That’s the impressive-looking ancient caravanserai we have just spent a night in — note the circular towers. We take the dual carriageway (no more Silk Road of yore) to the city of Yazd.

 

We arrive at the outskirt of Yazd for our first destination — a curious hill with equally curious structures at its foot.

 

And the first task is to climb the hill, in freezing weather. Those thousand-year old buildings dotting the plain below are very important, in the Zoroastrianism faith. Well, what we are climbing is no ordinary hill — but it’s the ‘dakhma’, the so-called Tower of Silence. This is where Zoroastrians disposed off their dead, and the corpses were prepared in those buildings down below before being carried up here.

 

There are two Towers of Silence here, and to our left, the other one, absolutely identical. Zoroastrianism is an old monotheistic religion, founded by Prophet Zoroaster some 3,500 years ago. It was the official religion of Persia from the Achaemenid Empire of 550 BC to 650 AD, when Islam arrived.

 

At the peak of the hill, there is an ominous man-made structure with a smallish entrance. I wonder how they carried the stiff corpse through there. To Zoroastrians a dead body is impure and cannot be left rotting to contaminate the (pure) earth. Hence the corpse is brought up here to be exposed to the sun and be eaten by birds of prey, especially vultures.

 

We pass through the door, climb some stairs and we are here. The corpse was laid on the floor (with feet pointing to the pit) and once its flesh had been consumed by the birds and bare bones dried by the scorching sun, they were pushed into the pit. This place was last used in the 1970s by the local community, and nowadays they opt for cremation. By the way, Tibetan Buddhists also practise something similar even now — it’s called ‘sky burial’.

 

I must admit this is one of the more macabre places I have ever visited in my travels, but hey, a traveller gotta do this. This pit must have been quite deep to fit all the human bones pushed in over the millennia. Anyway they also used lime to make the bones decay quickly.

 

Enough of dead Zoroastrians, we decide to learn more of this rather curious ancient faith called Zoroastrianism, so we head for their holiest site in the country — the Fire Temple of Yazd, one of the nine such temples in the whole world. By the way, Yazd is also a major Shia stronghold, but more on that later.

 

An apt stop after the Tower of Silence visit — Yazd Atash Behram, the Fire Temple of Yazd, built 1934 according to the Achaemenid style, but it is housing a flame lit in 470 AD. I mean, there’s a ‘sacred fire’ in there which has been burning for 1,546 years?

 

We see a familiar figure above the entrance — that’s the same sacred symbol of Zoroastrianism we saw at Persepolis — the faravahar. There’s always a figure on the wing and it depends on where the faravahar is — this one shows the founder himself, Zoroaster.

 

The interior is quite spartan, with displays on the faith itself, rather like a museum. It’s a treasure trove of information on Zoroastrianism. Of course, the main display is of the man himself, Prophet Zoroaster, who lived 3,500 years ago.

 

Zoroaster teaches that there is only one god — Ahura Mazda (“Wise Lord”), the creator of the universe, who is compassionate, just, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, among others. Then I notice a special display to the left with the wooden barrier.

It’s the Sacred Fire of 470 AD! Kept behind a protective glass, I can only see a red flame flickering in a dark room. Was it lit 1546 years ago? I’d be darned! Contrary to popular belief, Zoroastrians do not worship fire, but they believe that fire is a symbol of purity and represents God’s wisdom or light. Only the god Ahura Mazda should be worshipped.

 

This is Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism, written in Avestan script. It contains the teachings of Zoroaster. The original voluminous version was destroyed by Alexander the Great when he conquered Persia in 330 BC.

 

A verse from Avesta, telling us to be good as always. The Zoroastrians’ credo is:  “Good Words, Good Thoughts, Good Deeds”. It used to be a major religion once, but now it only has less than 200,000 followers globally.

 

Of particular interest is the way Zoroastrians pray — five times a day and in a manner similar to the Muslims. Some Muslim scholars regard Zoroaster as a true prophet of Islam after studying similarities between the two faiths. They even claim Zoroastrians are ‘People of the Book’, such as the Christians and the Jews.

 

We leave Zoroastrianism and its interesting fire temple, and head for another Yazd icon.

 

It’s another Persian garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site too, but these ripe pomegranates attract my attention first. Nope, I can’t pluck and eat them.

 

This is a typical Persian garden layout — pavilions, ponds, fountains, aqueducts, tree-lined footpaths, gardens, etc. The tower at the pavilion is a ‘wind-catcher’, an ancient Persian invention, like the desert fridge. The wind hits the holes at the top of the tower, and air is deflected to cool down rooms in the pavilion — it’s clever ventilation.

 

This pavilion is open for visitors to go in, and to climb to the first floor for a great view of the garden.

 

The garden has a long pool lined with cypress trees, ending at another pavilion at the other end. There are aqueducts at the sides to irrigate the rest of the garden. This is the Dolat Abad Garden of Yazd, built in 1747 during the Zand Dynasty.

 

Impressive interior of the pavilion, octagonal in shape.

 

Stained glass Persian style, similar to the ones we found in Shiraz. Note the fountain.

 

They built a cafe around an aqueduct. The fresh water flows while we order our coffee, careful not to step into it. Spring water is brought here to irrigate the garden via an underground system called the ‘qanat’, another marvelous Persian innovation.

 

It’s a nice cold autumn day, so we decide to take our coffee outside, in the garden itself among the pomegranates.

 

After coffee, we take a long stroll along the pool to the other pavilion. Note the majestic cypress trees at the sides.

 

This is a really fine example of the traditional Persian garden. Just look at that scenery.

 

Even this migratory White Wagtail finds the garden attractive. The fella probably has just arrived from the cold north to winter in central Iran. Possibly an Iranian subspecies.

 

It’s afternoon and we decide to look for our inn to check-in, said to be tucked in the alleyway of the old quarter of Yazd. Flags of red and black are everywhere, the sacred colours of Shia denoting sacrifice and mourning. It seems Shia values sacrifice very highly, but mourn when it happens — it’s like an oxymoron to me.

 

Truly hidden among the alleys, we enter a nondescript building, and found an impressive place. This is similar to the ‘riad’ or guesthouse that we stayed in in Morocco recently. There’s a courtyard in the middle, complete with a fountain, with rooms surrounding it.

 

That’s our room for tonight, up the stairs.

 

It’s a really, really pleasant room, which opens into the courtyard. A pity we are staying for only a night.

 

After a short rest, we decide to explore the historic part of Yazd on foot, before the sun sets.

 

This is the jewel of Yazd — the Amir Chakhmaq Square. It is supposed to be very photogenic in the afternoon sun, but we have that ugly humongous wrapped thing right in the middle. I suspect it’s something of a leftover from the Ashura celebrations a few weeks ago.

 

The pool is reddish, probably dyed red to simulate blood as part of the Ashura festival — a  symbol of sacrifice of Imam Hussain, the 3rd imam of Shia, who was killed during the Battle of Karbala in 680. The White Wagtail is oblivious to it all.

 

The complex was built in the 15th century by the Governor of Yazd during the Timurid Dynasty. This is a major site for the festival of Ashura to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain.

 

It has two slender minarets with spiral staircases inside. The minaret is so skinny that climbing it is quite claustrophobic, but you are rewarded with a great view of Yazd at the top. Of course I’m not climbing anything today.

 

Very nice architecture indeed. This is actually a ‘hosseinieh’, a structure specifically built for Shia commemoration ceremonies, especially the Ashura. It’s an important part of Shia culture, and it is not a mosque.

 

At the side of the hosseinieh, we spot a curious wooden structure. It turns out to be another sacred Shia object — the ‘nakhl’. It’s supposed to represent a cypress tree, and during Ashura, it is draped in black cloth to be paraded as a symbol of Hussain’s coffin. This particular nakhl is said to be a couple of hundred years old.

 

At the side of the square we see five wind-catchers, that ingenious ancient Persian invention. These things must have been here for many centuries — they literally catch the wind and channel the air into the rooms below to cool things down, like a ventilation system.

 

The sun is setting but we still find time to visit a shrine nearby. It’s now part of a bazaar and it is kind of funny to have modern mannequins of a fabric shop facing this old shrine. Note the nakhl there too, in the iwan. We decide to call it a day and stroll back to the guesthouse.

 

A new day, and with our Yazd tour basically done, we head for one last destination before leaving this fascinating ancient desert city.

 

A visit to the Jameh Mosque of Yazd, built in the 14th century. It boasts the tallest minarets in Iran, at 52m high. This is the Azeri style of Persian architecture — the grand iwan is crowned by the two minarets, with the whole thing richly decorated from top to bottom in colourful tiles.

 

Beautifully decorated grand iwan, with the honeycomby muqarnas.

 

These are the tallest minarets in Iran at 52m, and they are decorated with dazzling kufi art, verses and geometric patterns. The bottom part has kufi which reads:  (Prophet) ‘Muhammad’ and (Imam) ‘Ali’.

 

Across the courtyard, a showcase of local martyrs, mainly killed in the unfortunate Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988.

 

Yazd finally done, we head out of town to cross the desert again for our next stop — the elegant former capital of Persia, Esfahan. Another interesting but definitely tiring day.

 

~ THE END ~

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