YAZD, IRAN. Ancient fire

September 2013. Yazd Iran

Zoroastrian Fire temple – Towers of Silence – Wind-cathers – Hiking in Iranian mountains.

yazd.jpgTHE ROAD from Teheran to Yazd took us eight hours across the desert lying in the middle of the Iranian plateau. Farzan, the factory driver who picked me up at the airport before dawn, seemed as tired as myself. For the look of his face grey hair and mustache, I’d say he was thinking in retiring soon.

On our way to yazd Farzan told me that I was expected to work as soon as we got to the Factory, without even having a little rest and that were urgent things to be solved. I hadn’t have any sleep during the night-fly from Istanbul, and that made me angry, a feeling that gets amplified when you are tired. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be a good idea to begin my first day of work in Iran with an argument. I had wanted for many years to visit Iran, specially Yazd, were a living culture coming from ancient times still survives, one that has always fascinated me, the Zoroastrians.

The car didn’t have air-conditioner, and the heat and dust of the road made any sleep quite difficult. It would not be a good idea all the same, especially in a country with such a high record of car accidents.

We stopped by an old tea-house to have some breakfast. We sat down with some local shepherds, and had some delicious goat cheese with a flat bread they call “naan” and red tea. Iranians are proud people, descending from the ancient Persian civilization. They are hospitable to strangers and well-mannered, some of the friendliest people I have ever met in my travels around the world.

Once in the factory I was greeted by Shokoufeh, she was about 20, had big black eyes, and wore a black veil that showed a bit of fringe. Her task that afternoon was to show me the factory and the facilities before I began my work.

Many people in the West think that Iranian women are very reserved and submissive toward men, due to the appalling political conditions under which they live. Not exactly. Most people with higher education in Iran are young women, in many companies they hold positions of relative importance, and are very assertive and tenacious.

Shokoufeh and me connected very quickly. She was very pleased that I was asking questions about her culture and her ancient city. She told me that some western technicians did not show much interest in her culture, and were full of prejudices. She had never travelled outside Iran, but she had studied languages and loved architecture, so we had plenty of topics to talk about. At one moment, when nobody was around, she offered me a guide through Yazd’s old city, but we could not go together alone.

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The next day we met in the cafeteria in a hotel restaurant. It is not legal for a woman to be with a stranger, much less a foreigner, so she brought some friends with her. The restaurant was surrounded by paintings of the Shahnameh, “The Book of Kings”, the longest epic poem ever written by a single poet, the Persian Ferdowsi, more than a thousand years ago. The national epic of Iran, it tells the mythical-historical past of the Persian Empire, from the creation of the world until the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century.

After the Arab conquest, the Persian language was about to disappear, but thanks to the saga of the kings of Persia, it survived. It is also important to the Zoroastrians, the traditional religion of the Persian people, and the first monotheistic religion. since it traces the historical links between the beginnings of the religion with the death of the last Sassanid ruler of Persia during the Muslim conquest and the of the Zoroastrian influence in Iran.

We spent the day visiting the gardens and wind-cathcer towers. Then they offered me to go to a traditional Iranian restaurant. I begun to think that I was  Jumped in the car , they were extremely daring , if a policeman had discovered we would have been in serious trouble , especially the girls.

They drove through the streets of Yazd very aggressively. To go unnoticed, and to have some laugh at my expense, they put a veil over my head. While waiting at a stoplight, one of the girls shouted, Mullah Mullah!… The Mullah turned his head and stared frowning. He was a wiry man, serious face and white beard, wearing a white hat that showed many deep lines crossing his forehead. For a moment I thought he was staring straight into my eyes, we were all silent, but it was dark, and he probably thought that I was just a very ugly girl, a and kept driving when the lights went green.

Strolling through the narrow, winding streets of the old town of Yazd, we arrived at a mud-walled neighborhood where there was a traditional restaurant, hidden amognts the adobe houses and narrow streets. At the entrance a woman with a blue veil greeted us. On the counter was a replica of the Cyrus cylinder. Made in the 6th century BC, it was written the first set of laws known where the rights of religious freedoms are recognized and even the abolition of slavery. Inside the restaurant we entered a room where we sat on carpets, brought some chicken dinner with various sauces. Inside the room, all got more relaxed and I could see they enjoyed laughing and playing. I saw a desire to live and to be free I do not always see in young westerners. Sometimes I think that one can only know what is freedom if you have lived under a dictatorial regime. It’s more. I think many Westerners are less free than those girls, with their defiant and confident attitude. The hide of the regime, it becomes almost a game.

Zoroastrian Fire Temple

Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta (Good thoughts, Good words, Good deeds. Zorostrian Creed)

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The next day, we head to the Fire Temple, there was a round pool of water in front of the entrance, inside, there were images of Zoroaster, and through a glass I could see the bronze cauldron that holds the holy fire. A man with his nose and mouth covered with a white fabric was keeping it. They claim that fire is being lit for 800 years. I cannot meet the fire keeper but Shokoufeh asked a Zoroastrian priest if I could ask him a few questions regarding his faith. He didn’t look very talkative, but he assented to talk to us. They spoke pharsi, and she translated my questions. He told us about Zardusht (Zoroaster), the prophet that lived 3000 years ago, in the eastern mountains of ancient persia.

‘There are two opposing forces in the world’ he said, ‘Ahura Mazda the “Wise Lord”, that embodies wisdom and is symbolized by light and fire, and Ariman, a kind of shadow, or negative force that opposes the progress of Ahura Mazda.We humans are cough in between this two forces and have to choose in what side we are in.’

There are no obligations or prescriptions in their religion, The fire is sacred to them, because it represents the light of Ahura Mazda. They believe that what are important are our actions, but prayers, are important to, ‘prayer helps us to remember, Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta; good thoughts, good words and good deeds, that is our creed. You cannot make good deeds if you first don’t have good thoughts’ Each individual is gifted with a good mind, they say, a mind that is able of grasping the moral nature of the world. In their ceremony of initiation into the Zoroastrian community, children wearing white robes receive three threads and put them over their body with three knots, each one representing one of the three parts of the creed.

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Zoroastrian Towers of Silence

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The Towers of Silence were the places where the Zoroastrians exposed the bodies of their dead, so thy would be eaten by birds of prey. Zoroastrian religion considers the human body as an impure element, they should not be buried or incinerated, otherwise they would pollute the classic elements of earth and fire. The practice is now prohibited.

Those days I was reading The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron a great eccentric traveler that set out on a journey through the Middle East via Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Teheran to Oxiana. At some moment Byron arrives to Yazd, I found interesting to read his impressions of the city, one hundred years before I did;

Approaching Yezd in the early morning, after another all-night journey, we met a Zoroastrian funeral. The bearers were dressed in white turbans and long white coats; the body in a loose white pall. They were carrying it to a tower of silence on a hill some way off, a plain circular wall about fifteen feet high.

Windcatchers

DSC_0385Wind-catchers are traditional Persian towers build to create natural ventilation in buildings. Wind-catchers come in various designs: uni-directional, bi-directional, and multi-directional. In the city of Yazd, all wind-catchers are four- or eight-sided. The construction of a wind-catcher depends on the direction of airflow at that specific location: if the wind tends to blow from only one side, it is built with only one downwind opening.

Yezd is unlike other Persian towns. No belt of gardens, no cool blue domes, defend it from the forbidding wastes outside. Town and desert are of one colour, one substance; the first grows out of the second, and the tall wind-towers, a witness of the heat, are such a forest as a desert might grow naturally. They give the place a fantastic outline, though not so fantastic as those of Hyderabad in Sind. The wind there always blows from the sea, and the towers project canopies to meet it. The towers of Yezd are square, and catch the wind from all four quarters by means of hollow grooves, which impel it down into chambers beneath. Two such chambers at either end of a house set up a draught through the length of it. The Road to Oxiana. Robert Byron

DSC_0366Masjed-e Jameh mosque.

Hiking in the mountains

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We meet on that Friday before at 5 a.m.. We waited in a square, with some of her friends, there were some men from Loristan, wearing black loose pants. She seemed afraid of them for some reason. There was a group of mountaineers. Iranians love hiking in the mountains, they all seemed very exited about the trip, there guys and girls were hanging  out and relating to each other in a free and natural way, impossible in the streets were police would punish them. The road to the mountains was rough and serpentine, but inside the little bus it was a party, were Iranian girls and boys were dancing and singing.

The way up, was really steep, it was hot but there were springs of fresh water running gown the mountain that they called “House of Ice”, so we could refresh and fill up the bottles. I remember an eagle, the same color of the rocks, gray and brown, flying in circles between narrow and sharp peaks, and the sound of the wind. It was a majestic view, a landscape clean and untouched, like the times of the prophet Zarathustra.

DSC_0341Up in the mountain, we joined other mountaineers. I could enjoy firsthand the proverbial kindness of Iranian people. When they heard me speaking in a foreign language, the immediately wanted me to join for some tea and conversation. They seemed delighted that I was there, and I was overwhelmed by their hospitality.

They begun to unpack the food they had brought for breakfast, I hadn’t anything all the way up, which took four hours and I was starving. I was rewarded with homemade food that was absolutely delicious. We sat on the ground and had bread, goat cheese, honey, yogurt, vegetables, nuts and tea. I don’t remember having  enjoyed a breakfast more than that time.

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I suddenly understood why they wanted so much to be up there. Something was radically different in the mountain. Suddenly men and women were interacting so freely and respectfully, that it seemed another country. There no police officer nor Mullah could punish them for talking to a estranger or dancing together without been married.

DSC_0299Two weeks passed by very quickly and it was time to leave the country. Farzan, the old driver was to take me back to Teheran. On the road we spoke about many things, but there’s something I recall him say that stays with me. It was the beginning of sectarian violence in Iraq and Siria, there had been a Shia mosque blown up by some group, causing dozens of deaths and hundreds of injured people. I asked him what was his opinion about such matters.

‘Look, I am a Shia muslim, you are not, but we are going both to Theeran, aren’t we?’ Yes I said. ‘There is this road to Theeran, but there are many other roads. But all of them get to Teheran. Some people just can’t understand something as simple as that.’

I left Iran wanting to come back. It is a country full of interesting places and people, living under extremely difficult circumstances.