Road trip through ancient Persia

To the ends of the earth with Nick Smith

Looking out over the Dasht-e Loot salt desert in central Iran (self portrait). it may be only the world’s 25th largest desert, but with temperatures reaching as high as 70C, it is one of the hottest

With its desert landscapes and magnificent architecture, Iran – or Persia as it is still sometimes called – is somewhere you have to see to believe. Virtually untouched by tourism and with a relaxed, friendly atmosphere, this really is the place to take an old-fashioned photographic road trip. Bay’s Nick Smith spent two weeks of high adventure driving across the land of nightingales, from Shiraz in the south to Tehran in the north …

Roses, wine and nightingales are the most common symbols of ancient Persia, although there is no wine to be had today

The Night Prayer Hall (Shabestan) of the Regent’s Mosque in Shariz

My adventure started in Shiraz. Ancient city, beloved of the classical poets, fabled metropolis of wine and roses. Well, not quite, because today there’s no wine, no matter how hard

Smoking a ghalyan in a tea house in Shiraz. Dating back thousands of years, this is the earliest known form of vaping technology

One of two ‘iwans’ (open halls) of the Regent’s Mosque, heavily decorated with geometric and calligraphic glazed tile work. This style of architecture comes from the third century Parthian period of Persia.

you look, although admittedly there are plenty of roses. In the heat of the evening I sat outside a tea house with a glass of sugary infused mint, smoking an apple-scented ghalyan (more commonly called outside Persia a sheesha, hubbly-bubbly or water pipe), contemplating my brush with a granite-faced soldier at the airport only hours before. An unfriendly chap, he’d interrogated me while rifling through my gadget bag, insisting I took the caps off my lenses before holding each one up to the light, in the process covering the glass surfaces with fingerprints. “You’re supposed to put them on the camera first,” I ventured with ill-concealed sarcasm. Silence was the stern reply. Welcome to Iran, I thought. The soldier detained me a further half-an-hour, after which, and in the mood for a glass of Shiraz, I took a taxi to town, only to find that wine in Iran is a thing of the past.

Mountain roads in Iran can be a bit rudimentary, often with dizzting precipices. This one close to Chak-Chak was easier than some

Happily, that was to be the only shadow to fall across my desert safari. As morning broke dazzlingly bright, there was a whiff of excitement in the air. I enjoyed visiting the tombs of the great poets Hafez and Sa’adi as well as the Regent’s Mosque, of course. But what I really wanted was to get on the road and into the desert. By lunchtime arrangements had been made, and although it might have been more in the spirit of things to have hired a Land Rover, there were none to be found, so the slightly comical metallic green minivan that pulled up to collect me would have to do. I can’t exactly say that I felt like Don Quixote, setting forth to tilt at windmills on his faithful steed Rocinante, but I was able to draw the

One of the first things you learn about the desert is that it isn’t deserted. There are towns, roads and people. These kids followed us for miles in the hope of scrounging cigarettes and American dollars

comparison that my van was probably going to prove just as slow, lazy and stupid as his horse.

The oversized rock reliefs at Naqsh-e Rostam include the Investiture of Ardashir (left) as well as the Triumph of Shapur 1 over the Roman Emperors Valerian and Philip the Arab

We three kings: the Great Hall at the ruined city of Perseopolis is festooned with bas-reliefs illustrating royal guests from the 23 subject nations paying tribute to Darius the Great, ruler of the Achaemenid Empire. Darius ruled 44% of the world’s population, and more than half of the known world in terms of land mass, making him the most powerful emperor in history

Finding the necropolis of Naqsh-e Rostam wasn’t easy. All the road signs pointed to Persepolis, and since I was driving away from that most famous of Persia’s ruined cities, it was as though my compass had got stuck on an unhelpful bearing. As we stopped to spread the map out over the steering wheel yet again, I could make out in the distance the giant cruciform tombs I was aiming for, towering over the desert. After going around in circles a few more times, I made the executive decision to do exactly what I supposed every intrepid desert traveller of yesteryear must have done when faced with similar circumstances: I followed a busload of Italian tourists heading up the main highway from Shiraz. After which, it was the work of only a few minutes to find myself at the Tomb of Darius, marvelling at how stonemasons of two millennia ago could have worked such architectural wonders with no more technology than a pulley and an adze.

Italian tourists at Naqsh-e Rostam. Doesn’t matter where you go, Italians will always be more stylish than you

After a disrespectfully short interval my Italian friends disappeared into the sunset in a cloud of dust, leaving me to wander the funerary grounds alone. And that was when I found, carved into the rock face, an elaborate and imposing bas-relief of the Roman Emperor Valerian, paying tribute to Shapur the Great, Second Sassanid King of the Persian Empire, whose military victories over Rome were so crushing that, according to folk-lore, Shapur was able to further humiliate the Emperor by using him as a footstool from which to mount his horse.

Interior of the 16th century Zein-o-Din Caravanserai on the ancient Silk Road network of trading routes

Any road trip through Persia’s desert will almost certainly lead to Yazd, a tiny city almost exactly in the middle of Iran. As desert cities go, it is about as remote as it gets, and from wherever you set off, getting there is guaranteed to be a time-consuming affair. The road from Shiraz to Yazd is long and dusty and, for all the salt-desert’s beauty, endless and empty. Pistachio and walnut trees that seem interesting at first start to blur. Even pomegranate-chomping goats only dimly register after a while. Before I set off for Iran, I visited a friend who had spent decades riding camels across the Empty Quarter. “Watch out,” he warned: “In the desert you hear the inner workings of your mind. It may not be what you want to hear”. He was right. The desert is no place to get an annoying tune stuck in your head. Despite breaking the trip with a few nights at the Zein-o-Din Caravanserai, there were no longer any illusions about just how mentally draining desert travel can be. People say it’s a small world. They’re wrong.

These three lads acted as my unofficial guides around Yazd and escorted me to the Friday Mosque.

Exterior of the Zein-o-Din Caravanserai. Buildings such as these were rest houses for merchants travelling by camel and is one of 999 built by Shah Abbas 1

And so it was a relief to fetch up at Yazd, where I went straight to a tea house to relax with a ghalyan Watching the hustle and bustle of the city, I remembered an anecdote by the English travel writer Michael Carroll who, in his book From a Persian Tea House, describes how he had wanted to take a photograph of the Friday Mosque in Yazd as a recreation of an earlier photograph by Robert Byron that had appeared in the latter’s much celebrated book The Road to Oxiana. As I didn’t have anything much more constructive to do, I decided there and then to finish the job Carroll had started, but failed to finish because, by the time he’d argued with a policeman over his travel papers, the sun had gone down. When I got to the mosque I realised that the best place from which to get a clear shot was the roof of a nearby bazaar in the small square facing it. And so in the blazing sun I strode up to the bazaar’s proprietor to see what could be done.

TV aerials now obscure the view of the Friday Mosque

“Salaam,” I started. It was a good start, and although I speak very little Farsi, I thought we’d already established a good line of communication. Over the minutes that followed I managed, with hand ges-tures and a certain amount of waving my camera about, to convey the following: “I would like to take a photograph of the mosque from the roof of your bazaar.” He obviously understood every word I had said, because within minutes he was propelling me gently by the elbow through the dark recesses of his shop and to a flight of rickety stairs. He guided me past a scruffy ginger cat that was choking on chicken bones, past heaps of plastic bags full of charcoal and through piles of wasp-infested, decomposing pomegranates. After such un-pleasantries, it was disappointing to find that the view was less than mag-ical. The recent rise in popularity of the television in Iran meant that I couldn’t get a shot of the dome and minarets that wasn’t marred by an aerial. I packed up my tripod and retraced my steps to the shop, where I was hoping to thank the man.

Herodotus said of the Persians that they thought the most disgraceful thing in the world was to tell a lie, and the next worse was to owe a debt. And although I hadn’t lied to the man to get onto his roof, I felt that I probably owed him a few dollars for his pains. But he had gone. In fact every one in the square had gone. It was as though Yazd had fallen asleep. I stuffed a large yellow 50,000-rial banknote (about £1) into the nearest alms collection box and dawdled back along Emam Khomeini Avenue, past a spinach seller who waved to me.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, showing the arabesque tiling on the dome’s 13m interior, often thought to be the finest Islamic tiling in the world

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but Yazd was but a taste of things to come. My next stop – Isfahan – is without doubt one of the wonders of the Islamic world. The city came into its heyday at the end of the 16th century under the rule of the great Shah Abbas, who commissioned many of the city’s mosques and much of its other grand architecture. He made the desert town his capital, and ever since it has been described by those who live there as ‘half of the world’, and it is easy to see why. My guidebook tells me that “nothing can prepare you for your arrival” at Isfahan, and this is, oddly enough, one of the few occasions when guidebooks have actually got anything right. In failing to put into words just how magnificent this place is, these hapless authors have probably done it a service.

Detail of the dome and one of the minarets of the 400-year-old Royal (shah) Mosque in Isfahan, noted for its seven-colour mosaic tiles. This mosque appears on the 20,000-rial banknote

And that’s because it truly is magnificent. No other word for it. Central to Isfahan is a massive square called the Maidān-e Naqsh-e Jahān, which is dominated by the Royal Mosque, the Lotfollah Mosque, the Imperial Bazaar and Ali Qapu, or the Great Persian Palace. It was Shah Abbas that created the maidan to impress upon the people of Persia and the rest of the world that he had absolute control over the three things that counted most: the power of the clergy, the power of the merchants and, lastly the power of the ruling Safavid dynasty, of which he was the fifth and most powerful king. If you want to see architectural ceramics at their absolute best, there are none better than those of Shah Abbas’ Isfahan.

The 23-arch Khaju Bridge spanning the Zayandeh river in Isfahan is considered to be one of the most beautiful bridges ever built

By the time I’d got back into the green minivan and driven, via Kashan, the remainder of the 800 miles to Tehran, I was beginning to think that the many splendours of Iran knock spots off those overcrowd-ed, over familiar and over-commercialised honey traps of Greece, Turkey and even Egypt. When you go to Persepolis today, or for that matter Pasargadae, or any of Iran’s other sites of archaeological history, you will almost certainly find yourself alone, free to roam as your heart dictates. As you wander around these old rocks and stones you can mentally reconstruct the scenes of the great kings in their summer palaces, undisturbed by tourists and untroubled by ‘keep out’ signs.

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