Sunday, April 23, 2006

Four Amazing Days!

April 20 7:30 PM
Ahvaz

An amazing day in Tehran!

After a fitful sleep (Jetlag improving, but still not over it.) we went past the old American Embassy, photographing damage to the walls from 1979 and the anti-American murals and slogans. Then on to a series of museums.

The Museum of Archaeology had some beautiful Elamite and Achemenean pieces. Some went as far back as 5000 BCE. The pieces that most caught my interest were the bull figurines that spanned the Taurean age (roughly 4,000 – 2,000 BCE) and then the ram figures that started appearing just after 2,000 BCE, beginning the Age of Aries! There were other pieces that were fascinating for their design and beauty, and some for their amazing playfulness.

Next to it was the Museum of Islamic History. Again, a wonderful collection, but the sweet surprise was a small section devoted to astrological tools and relics. They had quite an exhibit of 12th century astrolabes, including a few disassembled to give a clue as to how they work. There were also some gorgeous lacquered plaques showing the signs of the zodiac and a medieval Arabic astrology text. Say what you like about Iran, but what other government sponsors a permanent astrological exhibit in one of their major national museums?

Another surprise – at the main entrance to the general exhibit was an illuminated page with an icon of Muhammed (peace and blessings be upon him) at the top of the page.

After that we went to the Museum of Glass and Ceramics. Housed in what used to be the Prime Minister’s residence – a building with a very 19th century Persian façade and a gorgeous interior partly inspired by art nouveau, the collection was nearly upstaged by its setting. But the collection was brilliant with glassworks covering seven millennia of local history. For all the beautiful works, my favorite was a small monochromatic pitcher in shades of mauve, ranging from the nearly black of its handle to the nearly white of its widest diameter. There were also some sin-haft trays. Sin-haft is a Persian new years’ tradition collecting seven traditional items that all start with the letter S. Our guide, Reza, confirmed my suspicion that each of the items corresponds with one of the planets, but he was not clear about what item invokes which planet.

After a full lunch (grilled quail) we went back to Mehrabad airport where men and women have separate entrances. At the security gates, if there is any frisking necessary they have women guards for the women, and men for the men. Not that it seems to matter at that point, everyone just barrels through the metal detectors, peeping away, and are told to continue through. Once checked in we go through a more serious security gate, also gender segregated. I would have loved to get a photo of the big yellow sign that located the “Men Inspection,” but photography is very strictly forbidden around airports.

The one-hour flight to Ahvaz took us over desert and the Zagros Mountaints. Descending we saw the ruins of an old town – but how old? When Iraq invaded they bombarded hundreds of towns. Discussions of the Iraq-Iran war that stretched through so much of the 1980’s reminded me of how hard the US had worked to organize a military response to Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait. But the US had supported and supplied Saddam when he invaded Iran. Of course any talk about American commitment to international principle is ludicrous. Here such hypocrisy is especially obvious and rankling.

As we approached Ahvaz we could see oil wells with towers burning off… waste? “excess”? The city itself looks dirty and run down. No tall buildings. Some gorgeous mosques. Our hotel is right on the river which makes for a pleasant walk. Throughout the riverside park there are groups of young men smoking hookahs. Some were lying all over in piles like puppies. In the US that would look so gay. Here, of course, nobody thinks anything of it. The men are all around 20 years old, slim, and beautiful. By and large they are darker then the Tehranis and most of the people here are Arabs, which helps me to communicate a little more easily. If I were into younger men, the temptations could be very dangerous. A very few older men, and fewer women, the women always accompanied by a man and sometimes children, would walk down the path, but none had stopped to hang out.

After a while one of these boys called out to me, “Hey, Mister!” and offered me a hookah. “Na Merci” I called back to him and mimed taking a hit off the hookah and coughing horribly. Then I noticed two or our group, Maggie and Brian, sitting on a mat, sharing a hookah. I joined their company, and some boys came over. The handsomest of the lot started asking questions – in his very poor English, which he seemed intent on improving – about us (Age? Married? Religion? Maggie, who is single and Jewish decided it would be smarter here to be married and Buddhist.) and he asked about America. The boys agreed heartily when I made derisive gestures about Bush. They seemed no fans of local government either.

Throughout this exchange the crowd grew, and after awhile one guy said he needed his mat back. We got up and then one kid started demanding money. Brian offered him a small bill, but the kid rejected it and all the guys lined up confrontively. One wanted to be paid for use of the hookah and the mat. Seems Brian and Maggie had offered to pay at the beginning, but were told they didn’t need to pay. (One way or another you always have to pay!) Brian pulled out a 10,000 riyal note (about $1.00) and one of the guys shook his head, yelling “Five” in Arabic. Brian fished out 50,000 riyals and everything was fine. The whole thing was momentarily a bit scary, but easily enough resolved.


April 22 Leaving Ahavaz

We’re in the Mesopotamian River Valley, the birthplace of Western Civilization. It’s a broad flat fiver valley with rich, fertile soil. Fields of wheat, barley, and sugar cane line the roads, waving green and yellow on the way to Chogar Zabil, said to be the best preserved ziggurat remaining. The ziggurat’s base is a perfect square 105m. on each side. It was surrounded by three walls of which now only some rudimentary ruins remain. We approached the ziggurat through one main eastern entrance in the remains of the inner wall. While one can come close, access onto the ziggurat is very limited. Locked gates bar access to the entrances – at the center of each side – to stairways to the upper levels We were able to go into a series of rooms leading into a cul-de-sac. Some of the bricks have cuneiform inscriptions.

On the eastern and southern sides by the entrances are sundials made of brick, large squat cylinders with tiered recesses at each of the four points of the compass. Looking at it, the geometry is obvious. Anyone familiar with the system could measure the shadows of these recesses very easily and exactly. The question came up why an agricultural people would need to know the time so exactly? I explained the importance of the Ascendant, especially in ancient astrology and how this exact time keeping would facilitate calculation of the Ascendant. The southern sundial was much larger and served as the base of a sacrificial altar. The circular top of the sundial was divided in half with a platform to stand on and one side raised for the altar. The dividing line, in effect, a low brick wall, was lined up at a diagonal to the strict compass points of everything else there. After some haggling with the local guide through our guide interpreting we were able to figure out that the line of the wall was exactly aligned to the horizon point of the setting sun at the Winter Equinox.

Driving around Khuzestan, the Mesopotamian province of Iran, we’ve seen people herding goats, sheep, water buffalo, and camels. There are also cattle in pens, including the hump-backed Brahmins. This region is largely ethnically Arab so my Arabic – such as it is – has come in handy. The central government is very much ethnically Persian and not supportive of minority cultures. All public education, throughout a very ethnically diverse country, is conducted in Persian. There is an Arab separatist movement in Khuzistan, and some people call it Arabistan. This is where all – or at least a huge amount – of the oil is pumped and it is also the agricultural breadbasket of Iran. If this province were to secede it would be bean economic shock like California leaving the US. Local Arab loyalties are also suspect in part because of the 8 Year War that Iraq waged to try to capture this province. Handsome young soldiers are portrayed in murals all around here, fallen war dead, hailed as religious martyrs. Khomeini is also shown with quotes, exhorting people to good behavior and patriotism. Many of the quotes are in English along with Persian, to benefit foreign visitors.

Liz is a tall slim woman of a certain age, a retired facilities manager, who remembers the fifties well enough to have a full appreciation for the accomplishments of the feminist movement. She’s been here before, and wears her scarf without complaint until some man makes it out to be a small imposition. She’ll let you know at that point what a bother it is. A long drive through the country allowed her to let it fall back, but at one point we passed a man and two women on a motorcycle who pointed and laughed at our bus as if something were very funny. Liz’s bare head? A little later we drove through a small town and into a traffic circle where the honking, traffic, and commotion seemed excessive even by Iranian standards. (Like male beauty, we are again dealing with a heightened level of expectations!) Sitting right behind Liz I suggested that she might want to put her scarf back up. She did so and there was no more fuss. That night a Greek tourist sauntered across to the salad bar with her head uncovered – the shameless hussy! Our tour guide had some words with the Greek group’s tour guide. Secret police are everywhere and this could be trouble. If one group draws bad attention, it makes it harder for all of us. The other leader, a young woman who was letting her own scarf slip back pretty far, seemed confident that she knew where the rules could be bent, and that hotel, in the basement restaurant was safe. She came over and chatted with us, shaking hands (The heterosexual handshake is tabu here as is any cross-gender touching outside the family!) and offering great hope as an example of a young Iranian woman who doesn’t take crap.

From Chogar Zanbil we went to Shush, an ancient Achaemenian capital where some meager remains sit atop a hill top. In the late 18th century French Archaeologists took control of the hilltop and built an Omani style castle to protect the archeologists from Arab raiders. The castle was interesting, although we couldn’t enter. Air conditioning units showed it still in use. Best of all was the view from up there down over the city itself and the look into the courtyard of the Mosque of Daniel’s Tomb. We had gone there first and I was able to pray with the other faithful who were there as we all faced the tomb of the Biblical prophet Daniel. After my salat I played tourist and photographed the tomb the best I could in such a cramped space.

Our hotel in Ahwaz had decent dinners. Uninspired kebabs seem the rule so far, but the fish and shrimp kebabs here were good. Salad bars here offer varieties of yogurt, plain, one withchopped cukes and garlic that would be called tzatziki in Greece. Here it’s called masosir. A third variety appears to have chopped spinach. Breakfast at the Brand Pars Ahwaz features the usual choices plus a porridge with fine pits of beef. It’s eaten with sugar and cinnamon. There’s also a thick gloopy soup of mystery greens with garbanzos and lentils. Any description of it must be scary, but it really was delicious. After yesterday’s breakfast I was looking forward to more of the same this morning. Of course I want to try a full range of varieties, but more of the same of these breakfasts would not be a terrible disappointment.

On the way back from Susa we stopped off at Shushtar, a city of extraordinarily beautiful men (Iran already sets a high standard there!) and a hydroelectric dam in the middle of town. Instead of the usual dull spillways they’ve created a series of cascades and walkways making a beautiful aquatic park.

At night Nick, a brilliantly flirtatious man of 40, took me on a riverside stroll. People were very friendly, and quite a few of them were visibly drunk. Almost all the men here are stunningly gorgeous, so the one who greeted me on the stairs from the hotel to the walkway could have saved me the walk. But he quickly lost interest, perhaps due to language difficulties. We went a short distance and Nick was telling me of his adventures the previous night, ending up in a dark park on the other side of the river, apparently left alone for illicit activities. As we chatted a pair of young straight couples weaved up to us, one of the girls took the lead introducing herself as “Fifi” in a tone suggesting the whole thing was a huge joke, and we played along. After they left in a fit of giggles we met Mustafa, whom Nick fell in lust with instantly. He took us to a gang of friends who were amazingly friendly. They asked what seem the usual questions about our religion and, “Bush?” My standard response of a raspberry and a thumbs-down gesture always gets a laugh. Especially with my declaration, “Bush is a schmuck!” which these boys learned and repeated eagerly. “Boosh – a shmahck!” They kept offering whisky and puffs on the hookah, and flirted outrageously. One caught sight of the edge of my tattoo and wanted to see the rest of it. I rolled up my sleeve to show as much as decency in an Islamic Republic allows, indicating the extent of it. Issa, the real prize of the bunch, indicated that he wanted me to show him the rest and I allowed that I would be glad to show him as much as he wants to see if we could find a right place for it. Someone with a phone took some pictures of my arm, and Mustafa told Nick that we should go. We made our hasty farewells as gracefully as we could, with lots of hugs and kisses.

A decent night’s sleep, Alhamdulillah; another fine breakfast of green gloop and porridge with meat and cinnamon, and maa-salaama to Khuzestan, the birthplace of Western Civilization and home of beautiful, beautiful men!

At a small town we stopped for a quick break. An ice cream shop there prepares a small plastic dish loaded with seven tiny scoops of ice cream. Along with chocolate and “nescafe” I got coconut, saffron, and carrot. Saffron is plentiful here, and relatively cheap.

We’re making some close passes by oil wells. Flames atop the rigs are burning off natural gas. It seems terribly wasteful, but any effort to retrieve the gas would risk some of it getting caught into the oil pipelines, which could cause an explosion. Flame is very important in the Zoroastrian religion which is as suffuse in local culture as pagan traditions are in American Christianity. The fires here offer great beauty and a sense of purification. Unfortunately we’ve only driven by the wells at day. At night they must be very striking!

Bishipur was the first capital of the Sassanid dynasty. What little that remains of King Shapur’s city is mostly undulating stone walls. One interesting feature is a temple 6 meters below ground level, at the level of a nearby river, which fed a shallow pool in the square temple. Like the ziggurats this temple had entrances to the main room from each of four sides. Each of these doorways led to a corridor surrounding the temple, but only one doorway led to the stairs back up to the surface. This was the temple to Anahita, goddess of water and fertility. The city had stood at the opening of a narrow, lush river valley, and was obviously nurtured by the river as it flowed out to the larger valley of which the city had a commanding view. The king’s palace featured a dome with four iwans. The dome, covering a room of 25 meters squared was the first significant dome in Persian architecture. This style of dome and iwans is a common pattern now in Iranian mosques. Close to this was a “sex temple” where guests of the emperor were offered erotic companionship. The Persians are still famous for their hospitality, but nothing is what it used to be!

Up into the river valley, are bas-relief carvings honoring Sassanid victories, and one showing the emperor receiving a ring of power from the Zoroastrian god, Ahuru Mazda. Across from those were walls built of rock into the steep wall of the river valley, made more visible by the perfectly round windows and narrow slits (For archers? Or for air and illumination?)

Out of there just in time for sunset we are continuing our ascent up mountain roads through passes to the city of Shiraz, where wine has been made for 5,000 years.
There are still vineyards and wine is made for Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews (Oh, My!)

April 23, 4:30 pm

Persepolis beggars description. Our tour guide, Reza, asked me how it compares to the Roman Forum. The Forum was a collection of temples and related buildings in the heart of an urban center. What remains of the city of Persepolis was a magnificent palace complex. One of the palaces there was the home of King Xerxes and his wife Queen Esther. A ceremonial entrance to the palace complex has on either side giant bull figures looming over the portal. Both figures have been partially destroyed, and one of the heads is now in the museum at the University of Chicago. When Reza said that, I realized that I have a picture of it. It’s from a National Geographic from the early 50’s showing a picture of that bull’s head being admired by my mother, then a teenaged student at the U of C.

The figures that predominate in the art are bulls and lions. An image that appears frequently is that of a lion biting into a bull’s haunch. The lion’s mane radiates with a regularity that makes the lion’s head suggest a solar disk. A curve in the bull’s horn makes it look like a crescent moon. The Sun rules Leo and the Moon is exalted in Taurus so the astrology of it confirms Reza’s explanation that it represents day conquering night. Bulls, Lions and Men are the commonest figures, suggesting three of the four fixed signs of the Zodiac. What, no eagle or scorpion? Perhaps they thought Scorpio should remain hidden.

One figure Reza pointed out as King Ataxerxes killing a lion, a boast of his strength. Actually that would exactly describe another bas-relief very near by. I noticed that this particular “lion” had eagle’s wings and claws, a scorpion’s tail, and bull’s horns, features from three of the fixed signs. Is Ataxerxes than supposed to be Aquarius? But here the image of the gryphon-like figure being killed by the King appears to assert his majesty’s control over the order of the universe.

At a wonderful lunch Jerry showed us how to wrap some cheese, leaves from a savory herb, and a piece of raw onion into a piece of flatbread, and dip it in yoghurt. Delicious!!! Seriously!

Then on to the necropolis where Xerxes and three other kings were buried. (Esther is somewhere else with uncle Mordecai.) These tombs were high up in a cliff wall with carvings that make one think of Petra or the Valley of the Kings in Egypt – at least from photos of those places I’ve not yet been. Buried high above they were supposed to be closer to heaven. Beneath them large carvings into the rock depicted coronations and military victories.

A tall narrow square building, in the necropolis had been called the Zoroastrian Ka’aba, but its purpose remains unknown. Some scholars suspect an astrological connection, and archaeologists have invited astrologers to help figure it out.

On the way back into Shiraz we stopped off at an Imam Zahdeh, a shrine to… well this one featured a grandson of one of the 12 Imams in a crypt identical to the one holding the prophet Daniel, except that it was out in the open in the center of the shrine, not in a small room like Daniel’s. The courtyard of the shrine was paved with gravestones identifying those buried beneath. In the center a goldfish pond was lined with spigots and stools for wudhu (ablutions necessary before prayer) The crypt was exactly under the center of the dome in a slightly cruciform building. The interior walls, ceilings, and iwans were entirely covered in patterns of small pieces of mirror. It is easily the glitziest place I’ve ever prayed!