Elvis and Arlo In Iran
A travelogue of two American tourists during their first visit to Iran
April 16-26, 2009

April 16: Tehran
April 17: Tehran
April 18: Tehran-Yazd
April 19: Yazd
April 20: Pasagardae
April 21: Shiraz
April 22: Persepolis
April 23: Isfahan
April 24: Isfahan
April 25: Isfahan
April 26: Abyaneh-Kashan

April 20

We leave Yazd. On the way out of town, the driver stops for gas.  A man who looks like a stock movie ‘terrorist” is filling his tank and is fascinated by us exotic Americans He stares in the window of the car and says hello.  He asks to take our photo; we pose with him --making us feel like we're on the other end of the microscope for a change.

A brief stop to have a look at some old cave dwellings.  Shepherds kept their flocks there and sometimes stayed in the caves themselves.  Nearby is Eagle Rock, which really does look like a wingspread bird of prey.

eagle rock

The high desert resembles New Mexico, with mesas, reddish soil and sparse vegetation.

At Arbuqu, we stop to visit a (debatably) 4000-year-old cypress tree.  It is a very impressive tree regardless of its age, and it serenades us with a windsong through its branches. After enjoying some watermelon under the tree, we continue our journey.

arbaqu cypress

The desert becomes very flat and featureless.  We pass some nomad encampments and shepherds with flocks.  In 1920, nomads made up 25% of Iran’s total population. The number has dropped precipitously. Iran still has one of the largest nomadic populations in the world, an estimated 1.5 million in a country of about 70 million, but they are slowly disappearing.. Nomad tours are popular tourist attractions, but apparently the timeless mood is often spoiled by the ringing of the nomads’ cell phones!

iranian nomad camp

Once over the mountain pass, everything becomes much greener.  A quick lunch and on to Pasagardae, Cyrus the Great's former home and now his burial place. Cyrus the Great (c. 600 BC) was the first Zoroastrian Persian Emperor. He was the founder of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty, which was an empire without precedent— a world empire of major historical importance. 

cyrus tomb

Under Cyrus, the empire embraced all previous civilized states of the ancient Near East and expanded to cover Southwest Asia and much of Central Asia, from Egypt and the Hellespont in the west to the Indus River in the east, to create the largest empire the world had yet seen.

Cyrus was a great influence on later military leaders, especially Alexander the Great, who emulated Cyrus in respecting the customs and religions of the lands he conquered. Before coming to Iran, we saw the Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum–the first known charter of human rights.  My interest in Cyrus and ancient Persian history was one of the reasons we visited Iran.

Cyrus Cylinder

The first capital of the Achaemenid Empire, Pasargadae, lies in ruins near Persepolis. Cyrus died before it was finished.  The setting is beautiful if a bit encroached upon by the modern world. A wildflower meadow surrounds Cyrus' tomb, and the mountains encircle all sides of the valley. The winds sing through the grasses. You can no longer read the inscription: “ I am Cyrus, King of Persia. Do not begrudge me my memorial". I commune with Cyrus for a while, then Hossein shows me and George the rest of the complex. A pillar still stands in the palace, and there are carved panels of what may have been a throne, as well as the beginnings of some archeologists' reconstructions.

pasagardae palace with poppies

Only westerners visit the site.  Sadly, the Islamic Republic does not teach children Persian history that predates the coming of Islam, though most Persians know it anyway. Young people are instrumental in trying to stop the building of a dam that may flood the ancient site, and will certainly bring about greater humidity that will damage the ruins.

On to Shiraz.  On the way, we pass a pathetic remnant of Shiraz's famed vineyards, now used for grapejuice only. We check in to the Aryo Barzan Hotel, which has pretty nice rooms, tiny bathrooms, and a good location.

It is amazing to contrast the very fashionable, colorful clothes of the Shirazi women with the chadors of Yazd. Shiraz seems much wealthier and more liberal.

shiraz elegant women

We eat at a traditional Persian restaurant.  Dinner includes a bean, vegetable and rice dish, fish, and meat kebabs.  Musicians play traditional Persian music, which oddly sounds a bit like traditional Celtic music, with a bit of flamenco thrown in.  There's a violin, a dulcimer, a drummer who becomes exalted by his music, and a singer.

tehran museician

After dinner we slip our leash and wander towards the castle.  We have lots of interesting encounters. The first is with a student who desperately wants to visit Italy and hopefully asks if we speak Italian. After determining we didn't, in excellent English he quizzes us about countries we'd visited, where we lived (he was interested in attending some of the universities near us), and, oddly, told us how America was like an eagle protecting the world--but Japan was evil and he was glad we'd defeated them in WWII.

arg karim khan

Our next encounter was a smart-alec teenager who on hearing we were Americans called out "Terrorists...terrorists" trying to get a reaction from us. Next, a friendly Turkish tourist asked if we could tell him how his American friends could get visas to visit Iran with him. After a walk past the moonlit castle, the Citadel of Karim Khan, we finally found an ice cream place near the castle and the proprietor tells us how great the U.S. is. His ice cream is wonderful--saffron and pistachio, as well as a Shiraz specialty, faloodeh.  This is Persian sorbet made of thin vermicelli noodles frozen with corn starch, rose water, lime juice, and often ground pistachios.   It is an ancient frozen treat, existing as early as 400 BC. To keep it frozen, ice was brought down from high mountains and stored in refrigerated buildings cooled by windcatchers.

In the park in front of the castle are booksellers’ stalls, much like those along the Seine in Paris. Interestingly, we see books in Farsi about Hillary Clinton and Martin Luther King. We pass a drug peddler who whispers 'marijuana' in English; I suppose some of the young western backpackers we've seen are naive enough to buy his wares.

hillary book shiraz