Heart of Iran

2 September 2015

The journey through the heart of Iran started in Tehran and headed south for over 1,000 kilometres through the Iranian desert, leading through Qom, the religious centre of learning, and the desert towns of Kashan, Abyameh and Meybod. It included the traditional zoroastrian town of Yazd, the beautiful islamic architecture of Isfahan and concluded at Shiraz, remarkable for its yellow mosque and tomb to the mystical poet Hafez.

Four elements of a Persian garden

A beautiful feature of most cities and towns in Iran is the Persian Garden. Like Persian cuisine, the design of the Persian Garden is carefully and elaborately prescribed and is a unique cultural contribution of Iran. There are four key elements to the Persian Garden:

  • 1) the garden must be surrounded by high walls. It is an enclosed paradise separated from commerce and city-life.
  • 2) the garden must have flowing water, usually through water channels, underground systems called the qanat, and hexagonal or circular water basins and fountains. Water is the source of all life, and never is this more prominent than in desert gardens.
  • 3) the garden must be geometric, and divided into segments down north and south, and east and west axis. However, within each segment, there is room for informality, and this leads to;
  • 4) the garden must have an abundance of shade trees, preferably fruit trees, but also plain trees and palms. These features of a Persian garden are older than Islam, and their elements can be seen across the Mughal and Muslim worlds.

Towers of Silence

Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Persia during the height of the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus and Darius, and remains a living religion in Iran today. This is nowhere more evident than in the desert town of Yazd, where there is a lively Zoroastrian community, including an eternal flame. Zoroastrianism is a dualist religion – everything is either sacred or profane. This is particularly evident in their treatment of the dead, which are considered impure. To ensure that the dead did not contaminate the community, Towers of Silence were built, one for each sex: the tower had a stone base so that the dead would not contaminate the soil; and high walls to protect from wind. The bodies were laid out around the circular tower where they decomposed under the sun. Eventually the bones would be swept into the centre pit where a high concentrate vinegar dissolved the remains. Today, Zoroastrians no longer manifest their beliefs through this practice and the Towers are open to visitors. They are an evocative and tangible reminder of how religion and ritual can transform death and mourning.

Persian and Shiite culture

Travelling deeper south into Iran, the richness of Persian and Shiite culture gathers pace – from specialised local weaves to waylaid Achaemenid ruins rarely visited by tourists today.

In the dry desert heat, the deep blues and intricate patterns of Shiite mosques, the black chadors and local markets have a colour and vibrancy that is unique to Iran. This is a journey through a deeply homogenised and culturally proud society with much to see and experience.

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