Yazd (27 September 2015)
We were quite obviously in the middle of the desert. The weather was very cool, and maybe even chilly, early in the morning. And then after a while the sun started scorching. N our guide emphasised that Yazd was a very dry city. I felt a tinge of guilt about that long wasteful shower I gave myself that morning.
To ensure that we would not be baked alive, we started our visit of the city at the local towers of silence. We were starting our city tour with a Zoroastrian immersion programme and with quite a bang. The towers of silence were meant to be used by dead people.
These towers were circular structures (not quite towers in the usual sense but looking more like forts) on hills where the dead were brought to be eaten by vultures or other scavengers. Zoroastrians do not like to bury their dead because they believe that dead bodies contaminate sacred earth. They also do not cremate their dead as this will contaminate scared fire. The most practical way therefore is to allow scavengers to eat their fill of the corpses and allow whatever that remains disintegrate away.
The remaining bones of the dead are placed in an ossuary pit at the centre of the tower and exposed to the sun and wind. After the bones have been bleached, lime is mixed in to help with their disintegration. Any remains after disintegration will be dealt with by the wind and rain.
It may sound quite gruesome to some of us who are more accustomed to burials and cremations, but the Zoroastrian way actually seems more environmentally friendly and it does help save a lot of space.
A ban was however placed on this age old custom a few years ago for sanitary reasons. It did not help that, according to N, stray dogs were known to drag corpses, or parts thereof, back into the city. Nowadays, the Zoroastrians in Yazd bury their dead in concrete spaces in the ground to ensure that they do not touch the earth.
We could find no trace of any human remains in the tower anymore. That seemed to have encouraged C to climb into the pit to examine it more closely. It was not a big pit, about two metres in diametre and one metre in height. N claimed that in her six years as a tour guide she had never seen anyone climbing into the pit.
We were fortunate to meet a Zoroastrian pallbearer outside the gate leading to the towers of silence. He had been responsible for moving bodies up the hill to one of the two towers there and he is the last of such pallbearers in Iran.
Our Zoroastrian immersion continued at the fire temple. It is renowned for housing a sacred fire that has been kept burning since around 470 AD. I should also add that there are many different grades of sacred fire in the religion and the one in this temple is of the highest grade.
There is a museum next to the temple building that tells a little of the Zoroastrian story.
It is probably a common misconception because N emphasised to us that Zoroastrians do not worship fire although it is sacred to them and is an important feature in their rituals. AH pointed out that in the Chinese language Zoroastrianism is called the fire worshipping religion. It is a very unfortunate mistake that started I am sure in ancient times and which still misleads many people in the Chinese speaking world today.
Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion and its followers believe in a supreme being called Ahura Mazda. The religion is remarkable to me also for its tolerance and liberty. No one is compelled to believe in the religion, not even the children of Zoroastrian parents (this is according to N who is Muslim), not even when it was the state religion. The powerful rulers of the ancient Persian empires never required their people to worship the same god as they did, or in fact even to believe in any god.
There are not many Zoroastrians left in Iran, although Yazd remains an important centre of the religion and there is still a significant but small group of them living in the city. However, India is now home to the largest number of Zoroastrians in the world where they are known as the Parsis.
Iran is of course predominantly Muslim now. Its grandest buildings now are probably mostly mosques. One good example of this in Yazd is the city’s Jame Mosque.
We reached the mosque in time for the mid-day prayers. It was kind of special for us because a cleric was leading the prayers that day. I have to admit that I felt a little uncomfortable, worrying the whole time that I would do something to disturb the proceedings. Perhaps it was just the way I had felt about religion in general, that worship was inviolable and the tiniest wrong move would be offensive to someone.
Despite my worries we were all, including the ladies, allowed to stay and watch the men at prayer. The people were definitely more relaxed about us non-Muslims than I had imagined.
The area where the Jame Mosque was located was really fascinating looking. Old Yazd is one of the largest cities in the world built almost entirely of adobe. We took a short walk through a small part of the old adobe city, but this was mainly for us to visit a mausoleum and then get onto the roof of another building for the view.
N had told us that the people of Yazd were religious. I was reminded of this by the nakhls placed at various points in the old city. A nakhl is this large wooden structure that represents the coffin of Imam Hussein. During Ashura, it is covered in black cloth and used in the public commemoration ceremonies. Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and scenes of bloody men flagellating themselves on the streets always come to mind whenever I hear about it.
I wish we could have had more time to explore the old city but the sun was baking really hard. The heat might however have been more bearable if everyone was not having an almost intellectually stimulating discussion about how red and sunburnt I was looking.
The Amir Chakhmaq Complex must have been the most interesting building for me in Yazd. I had been looking forward to seeing this one. This one building is a mosque, tekyeh (a place where Shia Muslims gather for the Remembrance of Muharram), bathhouse, water well and bazaar.
We ran off to the Dolat Abad Garden in the late afternoon to cool down a little after the heat of the city. The garden plays host to the tallest windcatcher in Iran.
We were however distracted by a couple who were at the garden with a whole troop of people doing their wedding photo shoot. I am embarrassed to say that most of us behaved as if we had never encountered a wedding in our lives. And the couple was not even doing their shoot in traditional Iranian costumes.
After all the excitement with the couple, our attention finally went back to the windcatcher. It was indeed a marvellous invention. I only truly understood why it was called a windcatcher when I approached it from beneath. The tall and narrow shaft, which is itself divided into multiple segments, ‘catches’ the wind and causes a continuous breeze to blow into the pavilion. Despite the heat in the city, it started to feel chilly after a while in the pavilion. It was effective natural air-conditioning.
The Iranians have another invention that was very practical and useful in the correct context. The doors of traditional Iranian houses have two different knockers, one to be used by male visitors and the other by lady visitors. Each sounds slightly different when knocked so that the people in the house could get ready appropriately to receive their visitor.
I thought that the reason for their respective shapes seemed quite obvious.
The heat and dryness of the region meant that water management is of utmost importance to Yazd. We learnt a little bit about this at the Yazd Water Museum which is in an old traditional Iranian house in the old city.
One important contribution made by Iran to the rest of the world is qanat technology. Qanats are a system of underground channels used to transport water across distances in the hot arid climate. The system was first invented by the Persians in the 1st millennium BC and has proven to be so effective and useful that it is still used today in not only Iran but many other countries.
Digging a qanat is very hard work however and diggers have to endure claustrophobic spaces at long stretches.
Yazd I understand is also famous for its confectionary. After the faloodeh episode in Shiraz, everyone thought that I had a sweet tooth (I do not), and expected me to be really excited when we walked by a confectionary shop. It just so happened that this was one of the many outlets of an old established local brand so N brought us in and got a box of assorted sweets for us to try.
I was appointed the official taster by the group and had to try every single variety in the box and let them know if the effort was worth the calories. Iranian sweets are almost all so sweet that eating them made me worry a little about diabetes. That however did not stop me from buying a small box of one variety because I thought that it was quite tasty.
I decided after the sweets that it was going to be hard to be healthy in Iran. Meals for us were still all about heavy meat dishes with copious amounts of rice and then there were the sweets to worry about. I suppose I could avoid the sweets but it is a cultural phenomenon in itself that I really have to experience.
Iranians however did not in general look overweight. How did they eat like I thought they did and not look like Jabba the Hutt? Maybe they exercised a lot?
Although it was not in the itinerary N thought that it would be a good experience for us. She took us to a zurkhaneh, a local gym, to watch “Iranian wrestling”. I was quite excited about it and was hoping for a really good time watching men try to hurt each other.
We were warned about the smell in the gym. It was a circular room in the basement, maybe about ten metres in diametre and air-conditioned (maybe they used a windcatcher). I was however more concerned about the smell of feet in the room from the shoes piled near the entrance and everyone’s bare feet. We opted to pack our shoes in plastic bags provided by the gym and carried them with us to our seats which were in one row along the edge of the gym.
The action took place in a pit in the middle of the room. When it was showtime, two men in a raised area started beating their drums and one of them began singing. A group of men and some boys, whose ages ranged from maybe eight to fifty, climbed into the pit and started what looked like warm up routines.
The routines consisted of a series of push-ups, stretching, weights training, twirling around like dervishes and other exercises. Some heavy props, such as meels weighing up to ten kilogrammes a piece were used. The stars of the show were the kids. After twenty minutes of these I began to think that maybe the wrestlers would not stop warming up and get to the violent action I was waiting and hoping for.
Another twenty minutes passed and they were still not even touching each other. By then we had become bored and decided to leave. I made it clear to everyone in the group that I was disappointed by the total absence of violence!
It was only on the bus when N clarified that the whole thing was not supposed to be a fight at all. It was just what we had seen, a set of exercises.
Even though I did not get to see it happening, I finally got a bit of the drama, and near-violence, I was hoping for during dinner. And it was a TVB-esque drama yet again involving another lady from Hong Kong JH. We would discover during the tour that the tiny middle age feisty and hyperactive lady was simply too prone to drama.
JH was at the table while the rest of us were at the buffet table. Another Iranian guide had thought that she was sitting at the table reserved for his group. So this guide, quite a burly man, told her to get lost in no uncertain term. I have no idea what had happened to Iranian hospitality in his case and in any case, according to JH, one of the tourists in his group came to apologise to her after the incident and explained that he was “like that”.
JH was terribly good at making people feel embarrassed about themselves and this was what she did to the burly guide. I think it helped her cause a great deal too because it was her birthday and she made it very clear to him that he had spoilt her birthday.
The drama was a good appetiser for me. We dined under the stars in the garden of the quaint Moshir Al Mamalek Hotel with the pets and other tourists. We celebrated JH’s birthday while laughing at her frequent rants about her drama that evening. The burly guide was sorry for what he did, apologised to JH and tried to be nice to her. His German group sang her a birthday song. It was a lovely end to a lovely day in a lovely city.