A month of regular hookah smoking and a strong local version of the water-pipe in Bushehr, triggers a bad chest infection which leaves me lying low for a week in Shiraz. While slowly recovering, I take in some of the city’s sites including the Tomb of Hafez. My local host, who used to be a tour guide, tells me a bit about the life of the Shirazi poet who never left the city. Since he died 600 years ago, Hafez is highly-revered in this country and lines from his poems are still quoted in everyday speech. Iranians in general love poetry. Unlike in the West, everyone here seems to have a favourite poet. The Tomb of Hafez is a fitting tribute to someone so highly revered by the people; the surrounding serene gardens are a welcome oasis of calm from the husstle and bustle of the city outside the gates. Students come to read poetry and study by the tomb, while in the evening it’s a popular place for young couples to come to sit in the gardens where they don’t have to worry about getting in trouble. It’s a place I return to a few times during my stay here, as it has a special atmosphere. My host gives me a bi-lingual book of his poetry as a gift but I’m told that the translations don’t come close to the lyrical Farsi of the originals. Wine is a common theme running through his poetry, suggesting he was something of an alcoholic but religious interpretations claim it’s a spiritual metaphor (my host says most people know that Hafez was expressing his love of actual wine). After the revolution, with alcohol being made illegal, Shiraz wineries were all closed down but most young people I’ve met enjoy drink (of home-made rocket fuel, usually made and distributed by the Armenian community) when they can get their hands on it.
The charm of Shiraz, its bazaars, old streets, history and people, means I end up staying a lot longer than I intended. Instead of going off to different part of the country like the desert or Kurdistan, I feel more at ease staying in this city for much of my remaining time in the country. I vow to return after a trip back to Tehran (more on that in the next post) to see it one last time and visit nearby Persepolis.
Seventy kilometers from Shiraz, the major tourist attraction of Persepolis is something I don’t have high expectations about seeing. Fellow travelers described it as overpriced and not that impressive, as much of it wasn’t as preserved and looked after as it should have been. When I arrive, my expectations are initially confirmed, with fast food and the worst coffee (if you could call it that) I’ve ever had in my life, costing double the normal price. The cafe inside the complex blasts out trashy Persian pop music and I wonder why the hell people don’t complain about it. Later though, from a distance I hear the music has changed to better traditional music. I spend the afternoon amongst the ruins of ancient Empires and the longer I stay the more I enjoy and appreciate the grandeur of this advanced civilisation.
The old Kings of Persia built Persepolis as their ceremonial capital, beginning construction around 2500 years ago. The amount of hand crafted stone work is immense and one wonders how and where they got so many skilled workers. The Achaemenid Empire which stretched throughout much of the Middle East and further, was the cultural and political precursor to the later Greek Empires and the Roman Empire which were influenced by the Persian system of government. Walking through the imperial ruins on my last day in Iran, I think how this place should be held in greater importance and how history is nearly always looked upon as something we’re detached from. The evils of modern imperialism could arguably be traced back to places like this, with mass-exploitation and plundering creating concentrations of wealth that only benefit the few. Once the world’s dominant power, Iran is now on the wrong side of today’s global Empire. For the past few centuries, it has been trapped between competing geo-political powers and this recently culminated it the remnants of their own imperial past being overthrown. Not long before the Shah fled to the US with his tail between his legs, he threw an almighty party at Persepolis for many of the monarchs and head statesmen of the world (the ruins of the tent city for the event are still there). I’m sure not many of those who attended thought that it’s the last time it would be possible for them to visit Iran. Empires fall; I think that’s the most important lesson Persepolis offers.