Our first stop is a henna factory. A large stone wheel grinds the henna as it rolls around a track. Formerly, donkeys powered the wheel, but it is motorized now. A worker shovels henna into the path of the grinder. The smell is intense, and henna dust fills the air.
Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Persia and the world’s first monotheism. Yazd is a center of Zoroastrian culture and home to some of the finest Towers of Silence. Zoroastrians believe it is profane to pollute the earth with decomposing corpses. Until recently, they built open towers on the highest peaks and lay the bodies inside. The vultures would clean the bodies, and the bones were then interred in pits. If the vulture ate the right eye first, the person had been virtuous; if the left, then he or she had been bad. Sixty years ago, putting bodies into Towers of Silence was prohibited because the cities were expanding too close to the towers, and the odor of the decomposing bodies could be smelled in the towns. Also, there is an urban myth that the buzzards would fly over the cities and drop body parts onto the streets. Zoroastrians now put the bodies into concrete chambers, thus avoiding polluting the earth.
Hossein then takes us to the magnificent Amir Chakhmagh. This early 19th century tiled edifice was built to serve as the grandstand for the traditional passion play, Ta’zieh, recording the martyrdom of the Shiite third Imam, Hossein, and also provides an imposing entrance to one of Yazd's bazaars.
This stunning three-story facade of the ‘takieh’ is one of the most recognizable and unusual buildings in Iran. Hossein shows us a nakhl, a huge palm-wood structure representing the iman. It is carried by believers during the passion plays along a procession route. It is so large and heavy that sometimes the men carrying it are crushed when it topples.
We then went to a 11th century shrine inscribed with the names of the Twelve imans, one of the earliest proofs of Shi'ism in Iran. After that, off to the so-called “Alexander's prison”, a 15th-century domed school so named because of a reference to this apparently dastardly place in a Hafez poem. Whether the deep well in the middle of its courtyard was in fact built by Alexander the Great and used as a dungeon is extremely doubtful.
Lunch is in the Malek-o Tojjar, a delightful restored mansion with a wide courtyard, a canopied, 'tent'-style ceiling, and areas in which to sit on cushions and eat. The mansion is part of one of the many walled compounds in which extended families had lived. The entrances always were at an angle to the door, so passers by could not see in.
The traditional technology used to cool the place is remarkably efficient. We eat on a carpeted platform directly under a wind tower (badgir); the draft caused by the air drawing up the tower cools the room we are in, which was below ground level (as was most of the house–the street-level entrance opens onto a small reception room from which one proceeded downstairs to the family quarters). Family groups all had lodging opening off the courtyard. The patriarch had the place of honor on the large platform at the front of the courtyard. This communal, hierarchical social structure is the opposite of our western individual lifestyles.
After lunch, we explore the quiet winding alleys of the old city among the adobe buildings. The thick walls create shadows and keep it cool.
The Jameh mosque is crowned by the highest pair of minarets in Iran. The portal's facade is covered in dazzling blue tile work. Inside is a long arcaded courtyard and a sanctuary chamber with exquisite faience mosaic and a gloriously beautiful Mihrab. Sheltered hallways to the left and right of the Mihrab allowed women to ask the Imam for guidance on personal matters without being seen from the chamber.
A bold teenage girl asks my name. I ask if I can photograph her and her friends; the others giggle and run off, but the brave one smiles for the camera.
Thirty-six-mile qanats end their journey from the mountains under the Mosque courtyard and still supply water to the whole city.
We have a quick look around a Hammam, or bathhouse, that has been converted into a restaurant (Hammam-e Khan) . It is lovely and peaceful inside, with still pools of water and lovely tiles.
Tea is at the Silk Road Hotel. The man who established this place was the initiator of the renovation of old structures for tourists in Yadz and has since renovated many buildings, including the Orient Hotel where we ate last night. The Silk Road is a remarkable place; very serene yet friendly. Visitors from all nations interact over tea or meals. This successful business is remarkable because it is run with such generosity - people can stay indefinitely for free in the hostel downstairs and work in the hotel to earn money, which provides a free-spirited youthful, international atmosphere. We chat with two young, footloose artist wannabees from Sweden and check out the book exchange. Much to our amusement, we spot a German translation of “Portnoy’s Complaint” (a comic novel with sexual themes) and wonder what the Iranian authorities would make of it.
In the evening, we wander around the bazaar, then we walk back past Amir Chakhmagh. At night, the fountains and facade are beautifully lit.
We encounter our dinner companions from the previous night. They take us to a non-touristy kebab place, with little atmosphere but tasty kebabs of koobideh (ground meat, onion, salt, pepper, turmeric, and other spices), chicken, and lambs' heart (!). Our companions explain some of the difficulties of life for young Iranians. Most live at home with their parents until they marry. The problem is that a very elaborate, costly wedding with hundreds of guest is expected, which many young people can’t afford. Once married, finding a place to live can be quite expensive, especially in the cities, so many newlyweds end up living with one set of parents.
During dinner, a loudmouth holds court with three Slovenian women at the next table. He claims to be American; it turns out that he is Slovenian but spent many years in Santa Barbara (or as he said, 'South Dickistan') and was now pretending to be the arrogant swaggering American for the benefit of his less-than-impressed female companions. He complains loudly to the staff about the food, water not cold enough, etc. Perhaps the ‘ugly American’ stereotype is being used by other nationalities to protect their home countries’ reputations!
On our way back to the hotel we see a women in wildly patterned, very bright clothing leaning on a car in classic 'working girl' pose, looking at men in cars passing by. Later, we ask Hossein; he does not think there is any prostitution in Yazd, but we think she was one.
I go to check my email at the Dad Hotel and encounter a very friendly Anglo-Iranian woman and her daughter. The woman left Iran for the U.K. at the time of the Revolution and is bringing back her very British daughter to see the old country. She is a bit shocked at all the changes that have occurred in Iran during that time. They are enjoying their vacation but have been plagued with bad weather: rain has followed them around the country. On the other hand, George and I are blessed by perfect weather for our entire stay; it drizzles a bit only on the days we arrive and leave but otherwise is sunny and mild.