Nasq-e-Rustam, Pasargadae, Abarkuh, Yazd and Meybod
On our way to Yazd we visited two more historical sites near Persepolis; Naqsh-e Rustam and Pasargadae. First we drove to Naqsh-e Rustam, an ancient necropolis located about 12 km northwest of Persepolis. Four tombs belonging to Achaemenid kings are carved out of the rock face at a considerable height above the ground. The tombs are known locally as the "Persian crosses", because of the shape of the facades of the tombs. The entrance to each tomb is at the centre of each cross, which opens onto a small chamber, where the king lay in a sarcophagus. The horizontal beam of each of the tomb's facades is believed to be a replica of the entrance of the palace at Persepolis. One of the tombs is explicitly identified by an accompanying inscription as the tomb of Darius I the Great (c. 522-486 BC). The other three tombs are believed to be those of Xerxes I (c. 486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (c. 465-424 BC), and Darius II (c. 423-404 BC) respectively. These tombs were also looted following the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great.
Pasargardae, the first capital of the Achaemenid Empire, lies in ruins and was the first dynastic capital of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great who had issued its construction in the 6th century BC. Cyrus the Great began building his capital in 546 BC or later; it was unfinished when he died in battle. Pasargadae remained the capital of the Achaemenid Empire until Cambyses II moved it to Susa; later, Darius I founded another in Persepolis.
The archaeological site of Pasargadae covers 1.6 square kilometres and it’s most important monument is Cyrus the Great’s tomb and it is said to be the oldest base-isolated structure in the world. Despite having ruled over much of the ancient world, Cyrus the Great tomb had an extreme simplicity and modest design when compared to those of other ancient kings and rulers.
Next to that there are many other monuments such as the Royal garden of Pasargadae, Gate palace, bridge, Bar-e-Aam palace (Audience palace), Mozaffari caravansary. Luckily we do not need to walk everything as they have electro cars to drive you between the to places where most of the ruins can be visited. And with the summer heat of more than 50 degrees in the sun it is a no brainer…we took an electro car. When Wilfed bought the tickets, but when he wanted to pay…it was already paid for by an Iranian man who stood in line before us.
On our long drive from Persepolis to Yazd we passed a small town, renowned for one of the oldest cypress trees in the world. When we tried to visit they wanted to charge us a lot of money to see a tree…say what?! Yes, just to see a tree!
Luckily the town has a historical centre and we passed some really nice buildings, such as the ice storage house, the citadel and the caravanserai.
We arrived late afternoon in Yazd and parked our truck on the public parking before the Silk Road guesthouse. We were allowed to use the bathrooms free of charge. The next day we walked around in Yazd and visited the Dolat Abad garden where we saw the highest bagdir (‘windcatcher’) of Iran, standing over 33 meters; though this one was rebuilt after it collapsed in the 1960s. A bagdir a traditional Persian architectural element that creates a natural ventilation in buildings, hence the ancient version of air-conditioning. Judith stood below the ventilation opening in the room and the wind would blow her head scarf up in the air.
After that we walked through the old city, also passing Alexander’s prison. There are two stories of how the name of the building came about: its is a mosque and some believe that this is known as Alexander’s Prison because of a reference in a Hafez poem. Or its name comes from the claim that it was built by Alexander the Great as a prison for some Persian protesters. Our money is on the last one!
When we walked back to our guesthouse back through the bazaar many stores were closed. We wondered if that was because it is Ramadan or were many shops empty? After some small talk with our waiter later that evening it turned out to be the latter…parts of the bazaar have been restored but there are no new tenants. Hopefully over time this will be a lively bazaar again, like the one in Shiraz.
Our second day in Yazd we went to the water museum that gave us a good insight in the qanat’s work but also how these were build and maintained by workers. Very deep and small passages…we could not image going into such a small space. Afterwards we bought some sweets at the famous store ‘Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar’ on the corner of Amir Chakhmagh square. Here we bought some sweets, such as pistachio nuts covered in powder sugar mixed with rose water and coconut mixed with rosewater. We watched the sunset there as well and walked past the Amir Chakhmagh complex (as you are not allowed to visit the inside). The complex includes the three-storey tekye which used to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein. In the corner of the tekye, there is a Nakhl (Palm), best described as a "strong, wooden object with very large metal fixtures and studs". This palm is a big one named Nakhl-e-Heidari (Palm of Heidari). The history of this palm dates back to 450 years ago in Safavid dynasty. It is said to be the oldest palm of Iran. It was venerated during the Shia commemoration festival of Ashura. In the evening we ate dinner at one of the many roof top restaurants in town with a nice view towards the floodlit mosque and its minarets.
The next morning we left Yazd, after a short visit of the Fire Temple and the Towers of Silence, for two day stay in the dessert.
Meybod and route through the dessert.
Meybod is a large town an hour or so from Yazd and has a compact historical centre. Here we visited Narin Castle, an ice storage, the restored caravanserai and the post museum.
Narin Castle is a mud-brick fort or castle in the town of Meybod. This monument like many other mud-brick stronghold dates back to Medes period and Achaemenid and Sassanid dynasties. Although there are some bricks from Medes period, there are rumors that this castle was built around 7000 years ago. This castle is actually a sort of city in 3 different floors. At ground level you will see common people life form, then commercial and business part and then royal part (except the military part on the roof for patrolling and watching far distances in case of military invasion).
In the nicely restored caravanserai were many arts and craft shops and some restaurants. The post museum is 300-year-old restored building served as a way station on postal routes. Fibreglass horses and mannequins illustrated the various functions of this letter exchange, and there's a museum of stamps and old weigh stations, telephones and typewriters.
The ice storage was a disappointment to visit. The concept of an ice storage is quite nice; above ground, the structure had a domed shape, but had a subterranean storage space; it was often used to store ice, but sometimes was used to store food as well. The subterranean space coupled with the thick heat-resistant construction material insulated the storage space year round. But the one in Meybod is one big open space with lots of explanation in Farsi but none in English. You can only visit the main room, and that is just one big hole, not even cool inside.
After our visit to Meybod we drove to the dessert to visit different villages on the way. Our first stop was the Fire Temple of Chak Chak. Chak Chak is a weird place. from the foot of the mountain, it looks like an (very ugly) unfinished village. It is however a place where thousands of pilgrims get together mid June and the unfinished houses are platforms that provide shade during the day and shelter for the night. The fire temple itself was a huge disappointment for us. We expected something with ‘fire’, not just a flame the size of a small candle. If only we had visited the fire temple of Yazd in the morning…we would likely have skipped to this one.
From Chak Chak we took a small detour over a dirt road that would bring us back to the desert highway that would bring us to Garmeh and its natural spring. We found a nice place to camp next to the spring with views over the date plantation of the village.
Naein, the last part of the desert and Esfahan
Naein and desert
The next morning we continued our desert trip in the direction of Naein and visited the village of Mesr with its agriculture right next to the sand dunes (!?). Intrigued by the statement of the Loney Planet that the best provincial boutique hotel was in Naein, we decided to check it out and relax the rest of the afternoon. We agree with the LP that it is a nice hotel for an agreeable price, but anno 2017, there are (much) nicer boutique hotels in Iran. In the morning we visited the old city and its old mosque. Whether it was due to the restoration of the mosque or the fact that it was Friday we are still uncertain, but we were not allowed to visit the mosque and left Naien after a short stroll through the old (mainly ruined) centre.
From Naein, we did not go directly to Esfahan. We noticed that other overlanders had stayed close to the salt lake in the desert and decided to go there for lunch. After Judith had her close encounter with a salt stream next to the road, we continued our journey over the small roads towards Esfahan. All of a sudden (and in our opinion) still in the desert, we came across a rather large river and the city of Varzaneh. A quick check in the LP taught us that they would have a nicely restored pigeon tower (we had read about them, but had not come across them yet). These towers would house thousands of pigeon, two in each hole in the wall. Many farmers relied on pigeons to supply guano as a fertiliser, especially for the watermelon production around Esfahan. At the pigeon tower, which in itself was half museum, half shop, we also found a complete set of old ‘male-female’ doorknockers for a price that apparently made us both happy, as the tower was closed as soon as we had left the building...
After our visit to the desert we continued our drive to Esfahan where we arrived late afternoon. It is the number one tourist attraction of Iran with many historical buildings, bridges, parks and gardens. The down side of this is unfortunately overpriced restaurants and bars with mediocre food and ‘harassment’ by shop owners, taxi drivers and pseudo tour guides that like to show you their city. We felt completely out of place, but of course still visited most the tourist attractions in town.
We spent the afternoon strolling along the Zayandah river, the Pol-e-Chubi and Pol-e-Si-o-Seh historical bridges. During our walk we saw that many Iranians were also visiting Esfahan as tourists, as result from the long weekend around the national holidays of June 4th and 5th. There were so many people on and around the water and bridges that it was hard to make nice overview pictures. The Si-o-She bridge (built in 1599) is the nicer of the two with its 33 arches. The bridge was especially nice during the evening when it was floodlit. The second, Pol-e-Chubi built in 1665, was mainly build to irrigate the royal gardens and has two inner parlours for the exclusive use of Shah Abbas II for entertainment.
As our campsite for the night was a very ‘picturesque’ city parking lot surrounded by office building that kept the city noise away, we went to the Armenian quarters across the river for dinner. The Armenian quarter is the area with the better shops and restaurants. The restaurant we had chosen had a beautiful courtyard and looked promising. Unfortunately, we were very disappointed by the quality of food… overcooked prawns (even after sending the first dish back to the kitchen), starters and mains served at the same time (even though we had explicitly asked for 15 minutes between the two courses!?). When our bill was brought to us by our waiter he explicitly said; ’service is not included’. We just looked at each other thinking the exact same... ’what service’?
On our way back to the parking we walked through the park next to the river and heard very loud music… a free concert to commemorate the death of Khomeini (the reason for the national holiday…). We popped in for a short time, but the music was not exactly to our taste. The Iranians however loved it…clapping and dancing the whole time.
After a surprisingly good nights sleep in our romantic parking lot, we visited the Kakh-e-Chenel Sotun palace. This palace, located beautifully inside a Persian garden, is the only surviving building of the royal precinct. The great hall still has many nice frescoes and from almost every room in the palace, there is a view into the gardens.
After the palace, we walked to the old city of Esfahan and its famous Nasq-e-Jahan square. Most of the interesting historical sites are located around this square. We visited the Masjed-e-Shah mosque, Masjed-e-Sheik Lotfollah mosque and the Khah-e-Ali Qapu palace and walked through the bazaar that is built around the square. Our aim at the bazar was to find Esfahan’s famous sweets, named ‘gaz’ (nougat with rosewater and pistachio nuts). Unfortunately, we only found small shops selling pre-packed sweets and were searching for the ‘real deal’, a shop that makes it own Gaz. With the help of some locals we finally ended up at a store that produced and sold its own gaz about three kilometres from the main square.
We also wanted to visit some musea as well, but found out that they would be closed for the coming two days (due to the national holidays). As a result, we left the city and headed towards the city of Fasan; the starting point of a very scenic drive through the Zargos Mountains.
Fasan, Zargos Mountains, Shushtar, Choqa Zanbill, Sush and Ali Sadir cave
Fasan and the Zargos Mountain range
Although pleased to leave the busy city, our timing to leave Esfahan was a bit off. The traffic was bad and it took us a while to get out of the city. Just a couple of kilometres before Fasan we started looking for a good place to set up our bush camp for the night. We followed a small gravel road from the main highway towards some trees. At an altitude of 2300 metres it became chilly as soon as the sun had set. So chilly that we had our dinner inside the truck for the first time since the start of our trip almost one year ago (with the exception of couple of rainy days). We also used all of our blankets during the night as the temperature dropped till 5 degrees during the night.
In the early morning we woke up by the sound of bells…yes, bells! Many sheep surrounded our truck at seven in the morning. When we were having breakfast the sheepherder came to our truck and gave us some fresh thyme he picked on the mountain. When Wilfred brought him some ‘kolo’ (a Ethiopian barley snack) in return he was invited for tea. Travelling through Iran during Ramadan is very different from what we expected…everywhere people still drink tea, have lunch in restaurant behind closed doors or picnic in the park (as this is not seen as a public place). We hardly saw anyone fast so far…
Driving from Fasan towards Shushtar
This is one of the most scenic drives in Iran and we passed small mountain villages, a beautiful waterfall, saw snow capped mountains and some glaciers. We filled our water tank with fresh water from a stream high in the mountains. It is a very nice area and if it were not for the many, many Iranian families camping here. This also meant that there were many cars on the dirt road. Iranians are by far the worst drivers we came across on our trip…not surprising since you get your driving license here within 15 minutes or so. But on dirt roads they drove 10 kph and they became very annoyed with Wilfred who passed them with 45kph, leaving them in our dust. We probably would of found a nice bush camp to spend the night if not so crowded with locals, so we continued the mountain road towards Shushtar.
When passed a meadow Judith noticed a Peugeot 206 attempting to get out of a ‘very muddy’ situation. And she asked Wilfred if we should help him get out. Reluctantly he agreed as he did not want to use our own recovery material (Iranian are always unprepared when it comes to things like these…). So after 45 minutes of so the Peugeot was on the main road again. After many thanks we continued our drive. Seventy kilometres before Shushtar we found a nice bush camp with a view over a small valley where we spent the night.
Shushtar, Choqa Zanbill and Sush
The next day our first stop was the ancient watermills in Shushtar, a system controlling the irrigation of the surrounding plains for many years. After that we drove to Choqa Zanbill, a unesco world heritage site. It is a huge brick ziggurat (a pyramid-like temple) in the middle of a semi-desert, but he ruins itself are not so impressive. This temple complex was build around 13th century BC and ‘lost’ for more than 2500 years. It was accidently discovered when BP did an aerial survey of the area in 1935.
On our way to Bisotun we visited the archeological site in Sush. When we arrived mid afternoon the temperature has risen to forty plus degrees. Not exactly a nice cool temperature for sight seeing. This is also a day where Judith really disliked her headscarf…it is just too hot. Wilfred had a good suggestion to wet the headscarf to provide a little bit of cool during our walk on the site. In one hour she has to wet it at least three times as it dried within minutes, but it helped a little.
Somehow this whole headscarf thing became a mutual project whilst travelling through Iran…Wilfred helping to put the scarf in place when it (again) slides down Judith’s head. Reminding her to put the headscarf on when she accidently forget when driving into a town.
Back to the archeological site of Susa; it once was one of the greatest cities in Persia. Excavations have uncovered evidence of continual habitation dating back to 4200 BCE. Susa was a principality of the Elamite, Persian and Parthian empires (capital of the Elamites) and was originally known to the Elamites as 'Susan’ or 'Susun’. There are many ruins of temples, etc. and the Chateau of Morgan, built and used by the French during excavation work of this site.
Bisotun and Takt-e-Bustan
Via Khorramabad we drove to the small village of Bisotun. We set up bush camp in a pine forest close to the Unesco heritage site of bas-reliefs. In the morning we visited this archaeological site located along a historical trade route in the Kermanshah Province of Iran, containing remains dating from pre-historic times through the history of ancient Persia. We saw a number of bas-reliefs, but the nicest one is being restored and we cannot get close to it. Somewhat disappointed we left the site as the other reliefs are not nearly as nice.
Close by are other bas-reliefs in Kermanshah, called Takt-e-Bustan.
These reliefs reminded us more of Christianity than the Sassanian reliefs that it actually is. Two alcoves depict various reliefs, some even with some color in it. We liked these bas-reliefs better than in Bisotun.
Ali Sadir cave
From there we drove into a small mountain range where the Ali Sadir cave is, the world’s largest water cave. We are impressed by the size of the cave and the water being at 15-20 meters deep at some points. But from a rock formation perspective we are (off course) spoiled by the ‘Caves of Han-Sur-Lesse’
After a long drive from Kermanshah with an overnight stop near Hamadan we arrived in Kashan, a town renowned for its extravagant traditional houses. As the temperatures were the worst of Iran so far…we searched for a nice place to stay. After some negotiations we ended up staying at the nicest hotel of town. A restored traditional house that once belonged to Ebrahim Khalil Ameri, the governor of Kashan. He was also responsible for collecting the taxes on the trade route from Tehran to Kerman. Our room was located in the ‘family wing’ of the house with a more modest courtyard than the main one. The house is the largest one in Kashan, more than 9000 square metres and eight courtyards.
We visited two more traditional houses and the public hammam. Although al restored to a certain extent, it was pale in comparison to the hotel we stayed in. We also visited Fin garden, a large garden with a summer palace, a hammam, etc. designed for Shah Abbas I. But the two reasons that Fin garden is famous for are the natural spring in a area where water is scarce and that Amir Kabir, a modernist wanted to bring change to Iran was killed, by order of a nineteen year old drunken shah, in the public hammam, though some believe he slashed his own wrists.