Takab to Zanjan to Tehran (6 – 7 October 2015)
I always start to get this feeling of slight amazement whenever I am near the end of a trip to a place that I had previously never thought that I would ever get to visit. This was the feeling I had as we drove away from Hamedan towards Takab. That night, my last full night in Iran, we would sleep in Zanjan. We were making our way back to Tehran from where I would catch my flight home.
We had to get to Takab to visit Takht-e Soleyman. We would however not reach Takht-e Soleyman till after lunch and the drive to Takab felt like it would never end. Thankfully though we got to make small stops along the way. Takht-e Soleyman had better be worth the effort!
I never really thought about it but ever so often I would come across people who reminded me that I had in fact arrived in Kurdish country. Many men there still wore their traditional baggy Kurdish trousers called rank.
I did consider if I could wear one in Singapore as it looked really comfortable. But the trousers also looked like they were a lot of cloth.
As for the women here, it seemed like they were more conservative than the women in the big cities. In general the women here covered up more but I wonder whether like the women in the big cities they were different in private.
P told me that Iranians were conservative in public and this was something they did out of necessity. In private though they were likely to be quite different. P’s own wedding party was quite western. On one side the old folks gathered and celebrated in the traditional way. On the other they had a DJ and free flow of alcoholic beverages for those who wanted any.
It did sound really incredible that people in Iran drank, but many do and they usually know where to get some. P showed me his booze supplier on his phonebook. This is illegal of course but the practice is apparently widespread. Any booze discovered would be confiscated by the police and it is believed that the officers made good use of the free booze.
I heard from JH that day who was having the time of her life near the Caspian Sea. She sent me a picture of herself with her “ultra hip” young guide and cool driver, each of them holding a cup of vodka in his/her hand. They were trying to finish the vodka that the driver had managed to get for them.
P remarked that in the past people prayed in private and drank in public. Now people prayed in public and drank in private.
Lunch was had at a little quiet hotel in Takab. In fact the whole town was strangely quiet when I got there. It was really different from all the other lunch venues I had been to. I wonder if they had to wake the cook up to get us our lunch.
Takht-e Soleyman (or Throne of Solomon) really looked to me like it was the remotest place on earth. It lies just a few kilometres from Takab, and there is in fact a village in the area, and yet it felt so far away from civilisation.
This site used to be a walled sanctuary consisting of royal residences, a fire temple and an Anahita temple and a crater lake. The Sasanians started building on this site sometime in the 5th century.
Actually the lake, about 100 metres deep, looked more like a large pond, and there seemed to be a neverending supply of water from an artesian spring beneath filling up the pond and then flowing out and away from the sanctuary to the surrounding areas. I learnt later that the mound on which the sanctuary sits is the result of deposits from periodic inundation of this calcium-rich water.
P seemed to really love this place and said that he could always feel some mystical energy whenever he came here. I am unfortunately not that sensitive to mystical energies. But I really liked the mineral-laden water of the lake though. I dipped my hand in the refreshing water and it came out feeling baby smooth. I wish I had something to collect the water with to bring home.
The most prominent structure in the sanctuary was the remnant of this massive iwan. It was the tallest thing around and also propped up by a large metal pole structure.
I innocently expressed a little surprise about the Persians having built iwans even before the Islamic era as they seemed to be mostly found in mosques these days. It was a bad move. P was aghast. He apparently viewed it as an erroneous (and most likely sacrilegious) belief on my part that the Arabs had brought the iwan to Iran.
On the bright side, it made P go through Islamic architectural history with me. According to P, Islamic architecture owes its present forms to three cultures: the Persians (but of course), the Byzantines (as exemplified by Hagia Sophia) and the Moors (as exemplified by the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain). I am not sure which of the three traditions the mosques in my part of the world base their present forms on but P did seem to make sense.
Even the minaret was Persian in origin. Not only that, it was Zoroastrian in origin. The minar was the fire tower of the Zoroastrian temples and when the Muslims came they continued using it but for different purposes.
What P wanted me to understand was that besides the religion itself the Arabs did next to nothing for Islamic architecture except perhaps to adopt the designs of the peoples they had conquered.
From my other conversations with P, it looks like many Iranians, especially the youth, seem to blame the Arabs for their repressive society today. But P also suggested that there is this perpetual conflict between state and society in Iran. When the state became too repressive, society reacted against the repression. But when the state became too liberal, society reacted too. That is apparently the reason the Islamic Revolution was so successful in Iran. Then again the state under the Pahlavis was based on my understanding corrupt and ineffective. Society at the time saw religious values as the answer to that corruption and ineffectiveness. But now society has become unhappy with the current government too. Those who can, like P, have left the country or, like JH’s young guide, are making exit plans.
Takht-e Soleyman was first destroyed by the Byzantines as revenge for the Sasanid attacks on their territories. A few centuries later the Ilkhanids came along and the sanctuary was revived and some new structures added. The site was again left to decay after the Ilkhanids left.
Just 3 kilometres away from Takht-e Soleyman is Zendan-e Soleyman (or Prison of Solomon). This is in fact a spectacular result of the same process that created the mound that is now Takht e-Soleyman. Zendan e-Soleymen rises about 100 metres above ground and looks very much like a volcano. Indeed it has often been called an extinct volcano although it is not. Its top was the site of shrines and temples dating back to the first millennium BC but the mount lost its importance when the Sasanians came and built Takht-e Soleyman.
Local legend has it that Solomon used to imprison monsters in the 80 metre deep crater of the mount. That is why it is known as his prison (not that he himself was imprisoned as I had thought when I first came across the name). The crater used to be filled with water like in Takht-e Soleyman but is now dry.
I made the crazy choice of climbing up the mount. P wisely chose to stay below when I gave him the choice. It took me quite a while to get up to the crater but mostly because it was hard work clambering over the ruined shrines and temples.
It was pretty scary looking down into the crater.
I saw some locals doing the climb and they made it seem to easy! They had chosen a path that was freest from obstacles but looked terribly steep to me. Maybe I had made the wrong choice by going the way I did.
Anyway I was glad to have climbed up. But I will never do it again if given the chance.
The drive to Zanjan from Takht-e Soleyman was probably the most scenic on my trip. It was however difficult to get a good photograph from the car.
Zanjan is less than 300 kilometres from Tehran and seems like a natural resting stop before the return to Tehran. The city is within the Azerbaijani region of Iran and seems to be famous in the country for its knives.
The Zanjan knife is known, and has been known, for its quality for centuries. Unfortunately in the present day its fate is endangered by immense competition from Chinese knives which are far cheaper and more abundant although of much lower quality.
One of the attractions of Zanjan is the Rakhtshur Khaneh. This is really a place where people went to wash their clothes in the past. In the relatively small stone enclosure, I could imagine how noisy it must have been every morning with all the local housewives gathered there.
Zanjan also manufactures a kind of slippers called charoogh. They looked pretty cute.
We spent quite a bit of time in the bazaar that morning, especially since the Jameh Mosque of the city was closed for restoration and so we could not visit it.
Besides the usual items that one might find in a bazaar in that region, I discovered that it was the start of pomegranate season. They were huge and they were everywhere.
P bought a few for me after I told him that my mother would go mad if she saw those gorgeous pomegranates. It was an entirely innocent remark on my part and I really would not have bought any myself since I was sure that I would damage them on my long journey home. I felt really shy about accepting them but it was Iranian hospitality.
We ate one of the pomegranates. It was still early in the season and so they were not really sweet yet. P took another pomegranate and showed me how he used to get its juice. He pressed and kneaded the fruit in his hands for a few minutes and when he handed it to me the fruit felt strangely soft to the touch. I was then supposed to bite off a small bit of the skin while making sure that my mouth stayed around the hole made the whole time. And I am glad I listened to him because once I made a hole in the skin the juice came gushing out.
We headed back onto the highway after that refreshing experience and drove towards Soltaniyeh. I had gone there expecting to see another massive mausoleum with a giant dome. And of course it turned out not to be just another massive mausoleum with a giant dome.
The town of Soltaniyeh itself was once the capital of the Ilkhanids. This was the time when the Mongols ruled Persia. The mausoleum of one of the Ilkhanid kings, Oljaytu, still remains and this is what attracts visitors to the little town nowadays.
I took the opportunity to ask P what Iranians thought of the Mongols. They were admired or even celebrated by many as tough and fearsome warriors who conquered the largest expanse of land ever to be conquered by any group of people. And who has not heard of the god-like Genghis Khan? But the perspective seems entirely different in the lands between China and Europe. I think many people in those lands see the Mongols as monstrous godless mass murderers.
The Ilkhanids were Muslims though but P did not believe that religion made them any better.
Oljaytu’s mausoleum is a 14th century octagonal desert-coloured structure with a cool blue dome that is quite famous. While the building’s exterior may not look all that inspiring, its interior was quite a different story. I discovered that day that Oljaytu’s mausoleum can be considered an encyclopaedia of Islamic decorative art.
I learnt from P about how clever his ancestors had been. What looked to me like geometric lines and shapes were in fact the names “Allah”, “Mohammad” or “Ali” written in various styles. I had heard of and seen plenty of square kufic scripts in my time in Iran but I discovered here that there were other ways to use letters to create decorative shapes and patterns.
I wondered out loud why the mosques at home were not as stunning. P explained that Sunni Muslims generally did not believe in making mosques look like palaces. The Persians, not being Sunni, had no such qualms.
The mausoleum has been under restoration for some years now and I wonder when it will be completed. For the time being many parts of the interior are still covered by metal scaffoldings.
As for Oljaytu himself, he was nowhere to be found. His crypt was empty.
There was a sandstorm as we drove away from Soltaniyeh. It was like a big yellow send off party for me, to give me a final first experience for me before I went home since I had never seen a sandstorm before.
After a lovely last Iranian meal of gheymeh nesar in Qazvin, and my last saffron sugar (served on wooden sticks and are ubiquitous in Iran) with my tea at a rest station along the highway, I was back in crowded and noisy Tehran.
I had gone to Iran with the expectation of being wowed by its incredibly rich history and culture and to see for myself how wrong people had been about the country. I left the country however with a lot more than I had hoped to gain. I got to meet really interesting people, made friends, and discovered that Iran was far more incredible than I thought it would be.
The country may not appear so obviously diverse but its people seem to sometimes live double lives. There is that Muslim-religious side and then at the same time there is that alcohol-loving side.
The Persians are incredibly proud people as well. Indeed even what people serve in restaurants are influenced by that pride. P told me that just about every restaurant in Iran served kebabs because they required a lot of work to make and people went to restaurants to have people make kebabs for them. As for the other dishes, people often refused to order them in restaurants since they believed that they could do it better at home so why bother paying other people to make them. However, despite their pride, they are terribly hospitable as well. They just make you want to love them.
This had definitely been one of the most memorable trip for me so far. It gave me experiences that words cannot do justice to.
(Correction 18/6/2016: I had previously mistakenly believed that Takht e-Soleyman and Zendan e-Soleyman were volcanic in origin. This post has now been corrected to hopefully reflect the true geologic origin and nature of this wonderful place.)