Islamic Republic of Iran • Islamic Republic of Iran • Islamic Republic of Iran
Map of Iran
Ewa's Funny Story:
Ewa's "secret weapon"
My travel companion or a guide, or a translator, or a driver, etc., etc., Whatever his title is, I call him my dearest friend. I am sure that there are many other guides who are as competent as he is but rarely you can find someone with such a big heart and a lot of patience. And patience is what everyone needs when traveling with me. Let me put it bluntly: at the beginning of my trips all guides want to marry me; at the end, most of them look for a place to bury my body. Not only did my "secret weapon" accept me, but he and his family welcomed me to their home and their hearts.
As a guide he was fantastic! Being a great guide does not mean having information to share since most guidebooks have them too, but be able to show and explain things that only natives are familiar with. He understood that my budget was limited so he agreed to stay with me in the cheapest Iranian hotels we could find, was never concerned about his comfort and was "fearless" exploring new territories. Our relationship was full of respect and of mutual learning, in spite of disagreements (as an outsider I view Iran differently than he does as an insider). While he has an extensive knowledge of Islamic and modern Iran, I am more interested in pre-Islamic past. We shared our knowledge and explored as much as we could during this very tiring but fabulous trip. If you are planning to go to Iran, let me know. If my "secret weapon" is not too busy, he might be able to help you too!!! .
Iran: An Axis of Evil or Paradise?
There are many other misconceptions about Iran. The one which aggravates me the most is that many Westerners believe that Iranians are Arabs. They are NOT! Modern Iran consists of different ethnic groups but Arabs constitute only about 3% of the modern population of ca. 69 million people. The largest group are Persians (51%) who are Indo-Europeans i.e., their language belongs to the Indo-European group of languages which includes, among other languages, English, Polish, Latin, Greek,and French. Persian is also an official language of Iran, not Farsi which is one of its dialects. The other Indo-European group of people inhabiting Iran is Kurdish (7%). 24% of Iranian citizens are Azeri (Altaic group of languages including such languages as Turkish and Kyrgyz). Arabs are of the Semitic origins i.e., not related to both Indo-European and Altaic people but closely related to Hebrews (remember: being Jewish is a religious, not ethnic or language, affiliation). What Iranians share with the Arab world is a location in the Middle East, an alphabet (of the Arabic origin), and religion -- Islam. However, being a Muslim in Iran has a different meaning than in the Arab countries of the Middle East.
In addition to traditionally holy places of Islam such as Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, the Shi’a recognize sanctity of numerous shrines in which their Imams are buried. The most important of them, Najaf and Karbala, are located in modern Iraq. The holiest shrines of Iran are located at Mashhad and at Qom. While I was unable to visit Mashhad (the shrine of Imam Reza, poisoned in the 9th c.), I went to Qom to see the shrine of Fatemah, who died of natural causes on her way to see Imam Reza, her brother. Though both are closed to non-Muslims, occasionally exceptions are made. Not only was I allowed to visit Qom but I was also invited to a communal meal prepared for pilgrims out of town. At Qom everyone is treated with the utmost respect and even dervishes are not pushed aside. Dervishes are Sufi practitioners who are known for their wisdom but whose customary begging is not to the liking of mullahs. Although always poor themselves because of their vows of poverty, dervishes take care of other poor people for whom they collect money. They never beg for themselves.
While Mashhad and Qom are considered the holiest places in Iran, there are hundreds of shrines known as Imamzadeh (imam-born) all over the country. Some of them are spectacular, others are very simple. The Iranian government spends a lot of money on their construction and/or restoration (the same applies to mosques) while often neglecting needs of the living. Thus, many Iranians remember with fondness positive reforms of the Shah and his heavy investment in the Iranian infrastructure and education. They contrast the Shah's reforms such as granting voting rights to women, nationalizing forests and pastures, granting land to peasants and profit-sharing to industrial workers with mullahs' attempts to either take these rights away or to control all of them. This does not mean that the corruption of the Shah's government and his strong pro-Western views are forgotten. However, the very same people who point out to the Shah's mistakes are quick to comment that modern Iranian theocracy is even more corrupted and less responsive to its people. Actually, the government itself often points out to its own corruption as evidenced by official newspapers printed in English (yet another paradox of life in Iran!).
Constructing an enormous and very expensive shrine for Ayatollah Khomeini between Tehran and Qom is considered by many Iranians to be an excess so much NOT wanted by the Ayatollah himself whose wish was to be buried in a modest imamzadeh. I visited this shrine where Ayatollah Khomeini rests with his son.
Although I was not allowed to take any pictures inside of Imam Khomeini's shrine (security of this site is much tighter than, for example, at the Iranian airport at Tehran, due to numerous bomb threats), I had free access to all other imamzadehs in Iran. They come in all sizes and all degrees of wealth but they are always peaceful and remarkably kept even if, in some cases, locals are not even sure who is their occupant.
While occupants of imamzadehs are revered for their dedication to Islam and good deeds they performed in its name, Iranian soldiers who are buried at Behesht-i Zahra, "Martyrs' Cemetery" near Tehran, are remembered for their bravery and young lives cut short by the war with Iraq (1980-1988) started by Saddam Hussein. The Iranians have never forgotten that the U.S. and the West in general supported Saddam Hussein against Iran fearing a possibility of the Iranian Islamic Revolution spreading outside her borders. The war cost ca. 1,000,000 Iranian lives and 375,000 Iraqis were killed. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons (obtained with the help of the U.S., France, and Germany) killing 20,000 Iranian soldiers, injuring 80,000. Behesht-i Zahra is the resting place for ca. 200,000 soldiers whose graves are marked with boxed displays of their pictures, some memorabilia, as well as pictures of the Shi'a imams (technically forbidden by Islam). Since almost every family in Iran lost their loved ones in the war, the cemetery is frequently visited and a site for family picnics where good and bad news are "shared" with the dead. I met some such families and friends with whom I paid my respect to those who died in this senseless war.
Thousands of civilians died in chemical attacks on Iranian villages and towns. The city of Dezful, near the border with Iraq, was almost completely (90%) destroyed, including great ruins of the Sassanian period. One of my new friends, a retired colonel of the Iranian Air-Force who fought in Dezful, said: “I am not a violent man but I would tear out Saddam’s liver and eat it watching him die.” Almost all Iranians share his feelings.
Iran: cradle of civilizations
The mystery of Iran is in her past and paradoxes it created. While most Iranians would identify themselves with the Persian culture, tradition, and empire, the outside world focuses on their religious affiliation with the Shi'a Islam. However, Iranian identity is much more than Persia and Islam. It has been created and developed through tumultuous history of Iran, full of incredible achievements, saturated with wars and dictated by its geographical reality. The following is just a short review of the civilizations which have shaped the hearts and intellects of many Iranians. They are among the most educated and hard-working nations whose success in Iran and outside of her borders is undeniable and often envied.
When in Tehran make sure that you vist at least two Museums: the National Museum of Iran and Reza Abbasi Museum if you are interested in archaeology. Of course, you can only do it if you are brave enough to cross a street in Tehran. The traffic in Iran is unreal and Iran claims the leading position in the world traffic accidents. Although I am used to maneuvering through the crazy streets of the Middle Eastern countries, I had never seen cars driving FIVE directions on one way street. What do I mean? How about a motor-bike trying to bypass the traffic by driving over a truck? In some twisted way the Iranian traffic reflects the Iranian past -- almost everyone wanted to be there, pass through the area, or just stop for a brief time to "explore" it.
The oldest civilization of Elam, located in south-western part of modern Iran, has been inhabited since at least the 6th millennium B.C. The great Elamite (Elamitic) civilization around two most important cities, Susa and Anshan, started to be formed in the 4th millennium B.C. Elam as a country is mentioned in Mesopotamian sources referring to ca. 2650 B.C. and the reign of the Sumerian legendary king, Enmebaragesi of Kish. According to the Sumerian King List he subdued Elam. The name “Elam” (“highland”) is of the Akkadian origin (also used in the Bible) while the Elamites called this land “Haltamti” (later “Atamti”).
This civilization has been mostly known from excavations at Susa (left) and Tepe Sialk (near Kashan; right). It appears to be a combination of different local traditions since there is no evidence of significant migrations to the region at the time. The local character of this civilization was enhanced by its contacts with neighboring (to the west) leading culture of the period, Uruk, in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).
The most important structure found at Tepe Sialk is an alleged ziggurat. Though still a topic of many debates among scholars, this ziggurat has a claim to be the oldest ziggurat in the world as it is dated to ca. 2900 B.C. Ziggurats were introduced by the neighboring Sumerians, and are considered to be one of the main characteristics of the Mesopotamian civilizations in general. They were also built in Iran which, as of today, claims the oldest (Tepe Sialk), the best preserved (Choga Zanbil from the end of the 2nd millennium B.C.; see below) and the biggest (Jiroft; see below) ziggurats in the world. Unfortunately, only the Choga Zanbil ziggurat's claim can be proven as of today. The others may not even be ziggurats.
Susa has survived as long as the Elamitic civilization did, becoming one of the important "capitals" of the Persian empire (others [see below]: Persepolis, Pasargadae, and Eckbatana [Hamadan]). One of the definitions of Elam as a territorial entity refers to Elam as including the entire Iranian plateau in the 3rd millennium B.C. to Susiana (a small area near Susa) in the first millennium B.C. Some scholars point out that Susa was independent of Elam most of the time, although they shared similarities in material culture as well as variety of languages spoken in the area. Susa has been excavated by the French mission who built an interesting castle as their dig house. Unfortunately, as a part of the building material, the French used ancient bricks, many of which are inscribed.
As mentioned above, the best preserved ziggurat has been found at Choga Zanbil (ancient Dur-Untash). Its original height was probably ca. 54 m. It was built to honor the “Lord of Shush,” Inshushinak, in the 14th century B.C. by king Untash Napirisha (one can see his inscriptions in ca. every eleventh row). Unlike other ziggurats it has internal, not external stairs. It is believed that this ziggurat was richly decorated with glazed tiles, glass and ivory. A child must have run through the pavement when still wet so one can even see the imprint of his/her little foot stuck to the ground.The city itself had many temples (at least 11) and three palaces. Vaulted tombs for cremating remains of the Elamite royalty have been discovered under the ruins of Palace I. A complex water system with reservoir and channels has also been found near the ziggurat.
While the ziggurat is quite famous, other remains of this civilization are not only less known but also difficult to find. It took me a few hours before I could locate Elamite reliefs at Sar-i Pol-i Zuhab. The best preserved relief dates from the end of the 3rd millennium B.C. and represents King Anubanini of Lullubi in front of goddess Inana.
Jiroft was discovered (or rather re-discovered since the area of Kerman has been investigated already in 1930) in 2001 when a local peasant found an ancient artifact floating on the water. Next day thousands of villagers with picks and shovels began digging an ancient cemetery. Within 9 months 10,000 holes were dug illegally. Within 15 days a hectare of an ancient site was destroyed by villagers in search of treasures. What they left behind was a maze of holes, broken pottery, and broken hearts of archaeologists who eventually learned about this discovery. It is reported that a single grave contained up to 60 objects. Known cemeteries which have been robbed are Rig Angar, Ala-edini, Kenar Sandal, Mahtoutabad, and Nazmabad. All - between 28 to 53 kilometers south of Jiroft. Hundreds if not thousands artifacts have been stolen, mostly stone vases and other objects carved from steatite as well as bronze and marble objects. They were inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones and such metals as silver and gold. The recovered Jiroft artifacts have been published and republished by numerous Iranian sources (brochures, websites, etc.). The most complete illustrative material can be found in “Jiroft. The Earliest Oriental Civilization,” by Dr. Yousef Madjidzadeh (2003) who is a chief archaeologist on the Jiroft project. The demand for Jiroft objects is so high that it created yet another industry: production of the Jiroft fakes. No longer anyone knows what is real, what is not.
Modern excavations focus on four main sites but hundreds, if not thousands, other sites are being identified in the process of surveying the area. Two of them, Konar Sandal A (left) and B (right), are most famous since claims have been made that the first one is the oldest ziggurat and the second one is a citadel of the same period of time (the 3rd millennium B.C.). However, these identifications are still debated.
The alleged ziggurat measures 400 m by 400 m at its base and 250 m by 250m on its next level. This means that it is supposed to be bigger than the Great Pyramid (Khufu’s) at Gizeh, Egypt, as the anonymous source suggests!!!
The evidence for writing in Jiroft is a subject of many disputes regarding claims made by Dr. Madjidzadeh, number of objects and their authenticity. Below, two examples believed to be discovered at Jiroft.
Is Jiroft the lost kingdom of Aratta as suggested by Dr. Madjidzadeh? This identification is made as based on the Sumerian texts of the 3rd millennium B.C. Enmerkar, the legendary king of Uruk, asked the people of Aratta to build a sanctuary at Uruk since they were famous for their workmanship and raw materials of their land. He specifically requested gold, silver, semi-precious stones, especially lapis-lazuli (from Badakshan). To reach the kingdom of Aratta, Enmerkar’s messenger had to pass Anshan (south-west Iran) and then to cross seven further “mighty mountains,” probably going east. Was his final destination at Jiroft? Who knows?
THE MEDIAN EMPIRE: 728-550 B.C.
The Medes (known as “Madai/Mada” in Assyrian and Hebrew sources) are first mentioned by the Assyrian sources of 836 B.C. when Shalmaneser II boasted of extinguishing them. This did not happen because the Medes, known as “dangerous people,” not only did not disappear but under a leadership of Cyaxares (624-585 B.C.) in alliance with Nabopolassar, King of Babylon, destroyed the Assyrian Empire by the end of the 7th century B.C. (612 B.C. -- the fall of Nineveh). The spoils from conquering Nineveh were used to expand the empire from the ancient territory of Elam through Assyria to Central Anatolia. Unfortunately, the friendship with Babylonia did not last for long. The war weakened the Median empire which became an easy prey for one of its vassals, Cyrus (the Great) of Persia, who assumed the Median throne as the King of Anshan in 549 B.C.
Not much is known about the Medes themselves because they did not leave any written records. They seem to be one of the nomadic Indo-Iranian groups who started to infiltrate Iran already by the end of the 2nd millennium B.C. They practiced Zoroastrianism and other polytheistic religious beliefs, had a priest caste known as “magi,” and focused on fire and sun worship.
PERSIA: THE ACHAEMENID EMPIRE 550-330 B.C.
Persians are of the Indo-Iranian origin (a sub-group of the Indo-European group of languages). They speak the Persian language which is more related to English than to Arabic (see above). The ancient Persians were nomadic people infiltrating Iran with other Indo-Iranian groups since the end of the second millennium B.C. The Achaemenid Dynasty is the first Persian (Iranian) Dynasty. Their center of power in Iran was the Fars (Parsa) province (Farsi is a dialect of Persian) where its capitals of Pasargadae and Persepolis were founded.
Darius I, also known as Darayarahush or Darius the Great, commanded the army of the so-called Ten Thousand Immortals during the campaign of Cambyses in Egypt. He emerged as a ruler after a period of upheavals in Persia (521-486 B.C.). He expanded his empire as far east as the Indus River Valley and as far west as Thracia in Europe. His attempt to conquer Greece was stopped by a famous Battle at Marathon in 480 B.C. His empire was not only the biggest empire the world has seen but also the best organized (divided into 20 satrapies) and very tolerant. The main religion was Zoroastrianism but there were no persecutions of other religions. The Persians did not even try to impose their language as the administrative language of the empire and let others to continue their traditions borrowing from them freely in the process.
Darius I built (or rather improved, connected, and expanded) the famous Persian Royal Road from Susa (a summer capital) to the western reach of his empire -- Sardes. It took messengers only seven days to traverse its 2699 km. This road was marveled by Herodotus who is our main source for the information regarding its course.
Behistun (Bisitun) is located on this original Royal Road (the modern one is on much higher level). The famous trilingual (Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite) inscription of an enormous size (18 m by 7 m) was carved on the rock face over 100 m above the ground for everyone to see and recognize the greatness of Darius I. “This is what I did,” says Darius I, “by the favor of Ahura Mazda in one and the same year after that I became king [521 B.C.]. Nineteen battles I fought by the favor of Ahura Mazda I smote them and took prisoner nine kings. One was Gaumata by name, a Magian; he lied thus he said ‘I am Smerdis, the son of Cyrus;’he made Persia rebellious.” Gaumata can be seen on this relief as being crushed under the foot of Darius I. This great carving provides more information about Darius and his kingdom.
Darius the Great began construction of Persepolis ca. 515 B.C. His successors continued adding to it but it was still unfinished when Alexander the Great destroyed it in 330 B.C. This site is simply splendid covering the ground over 13 ha (33 acres). Its wealth was described by Plutarch who noted that it had taken Alexander 10,000 mules and 5,000 camels to carry the booty away from Persepolis. While it is still unclear what was the main purpose of Persepolis (Susa: a summer capital; Hamadan: a winter capital; Pasargadae: a monument to Cyrus’ victory over the Medians), it is known that it was used for two festivities requiring gifts offered to a Persian king: an annual sacrifice to Mithra and the official imperial birthday.
The largest structure of Persepolis is Apadana (an audience hall) which could accommodate 10,000 people. Its roof was supported by huge columns: 72 columns total. 13 of them and stone doorways are still standing today. Each column was 20 m tall topped by a capital with double-headed animals to support wooden roof beams. Monumental staircases decorated in relief depicting ceremonial processions led to the Apadana built on an elevated platform. These processions constituted of representatives from different nations (Persians, Medes, Elamites, Babylonians, Lydians, etc.) bringing gifts to the king.
Darius III (Codomannus) was the last Achaemenid king (380-330 B.C.) who was deposed during the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great. He tried to stand up to Alexander but at Issus (333 B.C.) his much larger army not only was defeated but he was forced to flee alone. His family, his whole camp, etc., were captured by Alexander. The final blow came in 331 B.C. at the Battle of Gaugamela when his troops panicked after seeing him falling off his chariot. His last efforts to regroup in Eckbatana (Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis were in the hands of Alexander) were stopped by his satrap, Bessus, who first deposed Darius III and then murdered him in July 330 B.C. In recognition of Darius as a great adversary Alexander the Great “treated” him to a fabulous funeral, married his daughter, Statira, and “inherited” a loving relationship with Darius’ favorite male concubine, eunuch Bagoas. The great Achaemenid empire was officially over.
While Darius III was probably buried in one of royal tombs at Persepolis (above), Darius the Great, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I and Xerxes II were buried in nearby Naqsh-i Rustam in fabulous rock tombs. Naqsh-i Rustam and its "neighbor" Naqsh-i Rajab also have a spectacular display of the Sassanid (3rd to 7th c. A.D.) reliefs.
Odds and ends...
The ruling religion of present Iran is Islam (98%). The remaining 2% is of Zoroastrian, Baha’i, Jewish and Christian beliefs. While Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions have been transplanted to Iran through different historical, political and social circumstances, the Zoroastrian (Zaratushtrian) and the Baha’i religions are “native” Persian religions. While the Bahai religion is among the youngest independent religious movements "born" through the writings and teachings of Bab (1819-1850), Zoroastrianism (Zaratushtrianism) is among the oldest still practiced beliefs. It originated with the teachings of the first “Prophet” (the first revealed religion) Zoroaster (Zaratushtra) who lived "between" the end of the 2nd millennium B.C. and 600 B.C. in Iran. The holy book is “Avesta.” This was an official religion of the Persian empire but today only ca. 140,000 followers remain, mostly in India. It focuses on dualism (good vs evil) and Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd), the ultimate goodness and creator of everything who, at the end, will win the battle with his opposite, Anghra Mainyu (Ahriman), representing evil. Although this religion recognizes the existence of other deities, its preoccupation with Ahura Mazda (emerging from a winged sun--an iconography "borrowed" from Assyria) as the high god suggests to some its monotheistic character. However, this religion is, at best, henotheistic.
Zoroastrians believe that the sun and fire (or actually any source of light) represent life-giving energy of Ahura Mazda. Thus, they often pray in front of them (e.g., Fire Temples/Towers) although they don't worship them but "keep them going." The oldest continuous flame is in the Temple of Fire at Yazd.
Their burial practices are also very interesting. They build dokhmas, "towers of silence," where bodies of the dead were placed on special stone “platforms” so the dead would not pollute the earth, water or fire. After bones are stripped of their flesh, then they are disposed properly.
The famous Bam Citadel (a name given to the whole fortress) in south-eastern Iran was built before A.D. 500 and remained in use until the 19th century. It was the largest adobe structure so beautifully preserved that it was listed as the World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Unfortunately, nobody could save it from the forces of nature. On December 25, 2003, nobody cared about light tremors shaking the ground in southeastern Iranian province of Kerman. This was not unusual in a region with some of the world's most active seismic faultlines and quakes of varying magnitudes. Sixteen hours later the first earthquake struck. Sleepy Iranians ran into the streets only to return for more rest before celebrating Friday, the holy day of Islam. At 5:27 a.m. the “big one” hit. Measuring 6.6 to 7.7 on the Richter scale with its epicenter in the city of Bam the earthquake killed an estimated 31,000 to 43,000 people, injured more than 9,000 and erased 90% of this famous citadel near the modern city. The Iranians and others from 60 countries, including the U.S., rushed to the site to help tens of thousands of survivors who were left homeless without basic necessities.
Rayen Castle is not far away from Bam, also in Kerman province, but far enough not to be affected by the December 26, 2003, earthquake. Almost as old as Bam it shows the same architectural features as the Bam Fortress but is much less known even in Iran. It is still like an undiscovered pearl in the sea of wonders.
This small Zoroastrian village 70 km east of Kashan seems to be forgotten by time and by the mullahs. Although Zoroastrianism is no longer practiced there, it seems that villagers live in their own reality ignoring, for example, mullahs' dress code for women in favor of traditional garbs. Its mud-brick architecture with wooden balconies, ornamented doors, very narrow streets and the feeling of the overwhelming silence will charm anyone who takes his/her time to stop here for a few hours. And, the shortest lady of Iran lives here too.
This has been a fantastic trip, not only because there is so much to see and experience in Iran but mostly because of her people. They are very friendly and open-minded although they live in the country where almost everything 'fun' is officially forbidden. They have learned how to balance and enjoy their lives, often ignoring strict rules imposed on them. They try to stay away from the so-called religious police but, at the same time, they openly make fun of them. They recognize that, like in every country, there are good people and bad ones too. The same applies to mullahs.
Zurkhaneh ("house of strength") combines wrestling, gymnastics, show of strength (chains. clubs, etc.) with the Sufi teachings and spirituality.
Yes, some mullahs are very irritating as, for example, the guy from Yazd who is not even a descendant of the Prophet ("peace be upon him"), while others are very welcoming and patient as the ayatollah from Isfahan who even invited me to observe learning process in one of numerous madrasas. Black turbans distinguish descendants of the Prophet ("peace be upon him") from those religious functionaries who are not (white turban). One ayatollah (ayatollahs are mullahs of higher learning) in Shiraz was so "nice" that he even asked me to marry him in a temporary marriage (I have three witnesses for this marriage proposal). As tempting as this offer might have been for educational purposes, somehow I did not think he was such a good "catch." He already had one permanent marriage and a temporary wife with two years on her contract.
Ayatollah Shaikh Reza Shariati, whom I met and befriended in Isfahan, e-mailed me this letter (unedited) to be shared with all American people to show that we all might and should get along with each other, despite of official politics of any state.
If you want to...
We all know how expensive flying is these days so we all look for the best deal on Internet. I am as good as anyone else finding cheap fares after browsing through diferent sites for hours but there is a better way as I have discovered. Believe it or not but travel agents still exist and good ones get you fares you won't be able to find yourself. So, I don't waste my time anymore on Internet. I just send an email to my "new, best friend" Deep Sukhdip Kaur and she does all the work for me. For example, my round-trip ticket to Malta from Salt Lake City, Utah, through Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Amsterdam, Holland, cost me only $200.00 more than the round-trip ticket to Minneapolis alone!
Designed and maintained by Dr. Ewa Wasilewska. August 2008.
All rights reserved by Dr. Ewa Wasilewska. Salt Lake City. 2008
Let's go to: