Hamedan (4 October 2015)
It felt strange to travel on my own again except with a guide and driver. I had grown so accustomed to the group. This was however the arrangement for me for the next four days. I started missing the bunch of them when I said goodbye to the group that had departed for the airport first.
My extension tour started at the ancient city of Hamedan. This was supposed to be the Ecbatana of the Bible. It is said to be the capital of the Medes and then the summer capital of a number of ancient Persian dynasties. The city, said to be one of the oldest in the world, is situated 1,850 metres above sea level and therefore enjoys a cooler climate than most of Iran.
The start of my extension tour was definitely interesting to say the least. To begin with the guide originally assigned to me had to spend an extra day with the group he had been guiding. The agency therefore had to get someone else to accompany me to Hamedan. That was alright except that then the driver got into an accident while on his way to the hotel to fetch me and a replacement had to be sent for at the last minute. It just sounded like a really auspicious start for me.
But we finally got on our way and left busy Tehran after a short delay. It was going to take at least four hours to reach Hamedan. I was surprised that they would send a lone female guide to spend an entire day with a male tourist and a male driver. This showed me once more how wrong I had been before about Iran and its people.
The ride to Hamedan though long was not unpleasant at all. We drove through hills that were somewhat greener and seemingly cooler than what I had experienced in other parts of the country and that was when I realised that I was nearing the city.
We reached the hotel in time for lunch. I was quite eager to start my tour as soon as possible until S the guide brought me back to earth softly. It had been a long drive and the driver should be given a bit more time to rest. I understood the need absolutely. Nevertheless I was beginning to wonder how I might be able to see all the sights on the itinerary if we were to start at 3.30 pm.
The archaeological site of ancient Ecbatana was still fortunately open for visits by the time we got there. The site was still being excavated and studied though and there was little by way of explanations of what we were actually seeing.
In the original local language, the place was called Hegmataneh. Ecbatana is the Greek name. It suddenly dawned on me that a lot of ancient Persian places were known by their Greek names and not local names. It was not just Ecbatana, but also Persepolis, Pasargadae and a number of others. This is a result of the world learning about these places from Greek writers.
It does not however look like historians are in agreement about Hamedan actually being the site of ancient Hegmataneh. If they are correct then I really wonder what I had been brought to see. The Iranian authorities however take the position that this is it.
There is a tiny museum on site displaying some artefacts found in the digs.
I told S that I hoped they would discover more from this site. S said that she hoped not for otherwise artefacts might get stolen or destroyed. Based on her reaction it does seem like the Iranian authorities still have some way to go in terms of protecting and preserving its own ancient heritage.
There were two Armenian churches next to each other on the tel. The little St Mary Church was the only one open at the time and I popped in for a quick look, and became an instant celebrity for a bunch of teenagers hanging out in there. I did a quick walk around inside and a boy was filming me with his mobile. It was so weird! S was however really amused and it all seemed like the cutest thing in the world to her.
We got back to the city to see the Mausoleum of Esther and Mordecai. There is apparently another place in Israel where Esther is said to be buried.
Assuming that this tomb in Hamedan was the real deal, I am quite surprised that Esther would be buried together with her uncle. Did they love each other that much, or is this just a sly attempt to lump the two protagonists of the famous biblical story together?
By the time we reached the Mausoleum of Avicenna it was almost closing time. We however managed to squeeze in. This mausoleum is a real monument as compared to the one that supposedly keeps Esther and Mordecai.
Avicenna is probably best known for his writings on medicine. He seems to have been a man ahead of his time and is today regarded as one of the greatest thinkers in history. In Iran he is a Persian hero.
There was a group of elderly visitors led by someone who sounded like a young Oxbridge academic who came in after we did. S and I stopped and listened while the academic gave his group a brief introduction of Avicenna before his grave. The academic gave a glowing report of the man and said that Avicenna would have been appalled by the actions of the likes of the Taliban and Al Qaeda since he was a great man who had believed in coming to conclusions based on scientific research and findings. I smirked at the comment. I do admit that the academic must know much more about Avicenna than I do. But how do we know what the man had really thought about religion which is a system of beliefs in and about an entity or entities that cannot even be seen? I know of many smart people who believe in all sorts of things that go against whatever they had been taught in school. There was a prominent elderly legal academic and practitioner who was part of a group of well-educated and capable people that had thought it was alright to sneak their way into the management echelons of an NGO to ensure that said NGO would not be involved in anything that might even remotely give an impression that being gay was alright. They had thought that they were being good Christians and doing God’s work.
We should perhaps stick to celebrating the man for his great accomplishments, which we seem to know for a fact.
It was quite dark when we reached the tomb of Baba Tahir. Whereas I had heard of Avicenna before the trip, I had never heard of Baba Tahir. He was an 11th century poet of Hamedan and renowned for writing poetry in the local dialect.
Baba Tahir’s tomb is in the middle of a little gated park but it was closed by the time we got there. S was having none of that and managed to convince the attendant to open the gates to the park for me, a visitor from so far away and deserving of the utmost Iranian hospitality. S was really a force to be reckoned with and I felt a little shy about having to make the attendant bend the rules for me.
The park around the Stone Lion of Hamedan was however not gated and we admired the lion by the light of a lamppost. This lion used to stand before a gate to the city and must have been quite a sight to behold in the old days. In the present time however, it looked like a blurred image of an owl bending too far forward.
There was still Ganjnameh to be visited but we returned to the hotel for dinner first. We bumped into K and C, and N who was guiding them for their extension tour, at the hotel. They had the same itinerary for Hamedan as I did and were quite surprised that I had not seen Ganjnameh yet. They had finished all the sightseeing much earlier although they had only left Tehran about half an hour before I did. N definitely looked quite surprised but did not comment. In any case, it was really nice to bump into familiar faces.
But we did finally reach Ganjnameh at close to 9 pm. The evening was chilly and for the first time in Iran I had actually needed a sweater. It was really nice weather.
We had come to see two ancient Achaemenid inscriptions at the foot of the Alvand Mountains although the area was more a modern entertainment complex than an archaeological area. There was a cable car leading to somewhere higher up the mountain and I noticed that the lower cable car station had some shops although these were mostly closed by the time I got there. I understand that the area provided opportunities for other exciting activities such as bungee jumping. But even if just about everything had closed for the day, even at that hour there were families hanging out everywhere.
In comparison with the modern facilities in the area, the two inscriptions of Ganjnameh looked insignificant. They are however very significant in historical value and it is a mystery as to why the authorities had decided to build an entertainment complex around them.
I could barely see the inscriptions in the light but I suppose this was immaterial since I would not have understood them anyway. In fact, it was not always that people could read the inscriptions which were in Old Persian, Neo-Babylonian and Neo-Elamite. The name “Ganjnameh” was apparently given to the inscriptions because people could not read them in the past and assumed that they were writings about a treasure.
It just so happened that a man who said that he was an history scholar was visiting as well. He said that the name “Ganjnameh” had evolved from an older name which was given to the place to mark a certain king’s victory in a war. I must say that it was an interesting experience for me although I wish that I spoke Farsi since not only would I have appreciated his explanation concerning the etymology of the name of the place better but he seemed to have said much more on the subject than was translated to me.
The inscriptions were carved by Darius I and Xerxes I and describe in a most laudatory manner the two kings’ lineage and the extent of their reigns. It was not by accident that the inscriptions were carved high up on a rock sitting by the side of an ancient highway.
Not surprisingly, I aroused the curiosity of a local man who was an English teacher in a local high school. I always enjoy talking to local people, although this man looked like one of those scary teachers with their penetrating gaze that seemed to be able to tell every time if a student had not done his homework. He asked me about my trip so far and whether I enjoyed Iran. And then he had to ask me if I thought that Persian culture was like Arab culture.
Now that last question definitely sent warning bells ringing loudly in my head and shivers down my spine. But I did have to respond. So I said something about my finding that all peoples, of whatever culture, were more similar than they might think, although I could sense somewhat the difference between Persian and Arab cultures.
I was so worried that he might ask me to explain to him those differences. He instead asked if I had been to Egypt to which I replied that I had not. That seemed to end the scary topic. Maybe he was of the view that only Egypt out of all the current Arab countries could be compared with Iran in terms of historical and cultural wealth but since I had not been to Egypt I could not possibly make a suitable comparison.
That was a close shave for me since I really did not want to offend any local person. Discussing someone’s culture, especially if that someone is obviously terribly proud of his nation’s history and culture, is frequently akin to walking through a minefield!
The teacher how seemed to like me enough to invite me to his home. He was all about that legendary Iranian hospitality and appeared determined to make himself an example of that admirable quality. I however had to decline as it had been a long day and I needed to be up early the next morning. Moreover, I did not want to step onto any more potential landmines!
I however created my own landmine later on when I said to S that someone had told me that there were restrictions on women taking up engineering courses in Iran. S told me that both herself and her sister were mechanical engineers by training and while she had chosen to be a tour guide her sister still had a successful career as a mechanical engineer. S seemed indignant that people overseas had all these strange impressions of her country and insisted that women in Iran could be anything they wanted. There was a “what have I done?” moment for me at that point.
And thus ended my visit of Hamedan, on a weird note with S, but a memorably weird one at the end of a memorable visit.