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  • Shelley Dark

#7 Shiraz

We left the hotel at 5am this morning to catch an early flight from the domestic airport to the southern city of Shiraz on the desert plateau, population 1.8 million. The hotel packed this picnic breakfast for us - boiled egg, tomato, cucumber, cream cheese and flat bread. The freshly baked unleavened bread straight from the oven at the hotel has been very palatable, but this particular manufactured flatbread bears a strong resemblance to light cardboard! -:)

Shiraz is the city of poetry, flowers, love, mysticism and nightingale song. I haven't yet heard the nightingales (I wish I could!), and sadly there's no longer wine. Shiraz grapes, also known as syrah, take their name from this area, which by the ninth century was producing the finest wines in the Middle East.

The drink on our breakfast tray in the aircraft on the Iranian carrier was a small carton of milk - it's common to see people drinking plain unflavoured milk here as well as soft drinks.

Shiraz was the capital under the rule of Karim Khan, the most famous ruler of the Zand dynasty which lasted from 1751 to 1779 until it was toppled by the Qajars. Shiraz is also famous as the birthplace and tomb of Hafez the poet. Ali told us that the people of different cities have typically been assigned personality traits. For example people from Shiraz are reputedly lazy, from Esfahan stingy.

We travelled into Shiraz on a big comfortable bus which will stay with us now for the rest of our journey. In the bumper to bumper traffic, the trip into town took longer than the flight. Our driver Habib demonstrated his driving skill by backing into the driveway of our hotel with only inches to spare. Impressive!

Our first stop was the Afif-Abad Garden (side view then main view), one of the oldest gardens in Shiraz. It was used as a palace by the Safavid Kings and the present mansion was constructed by a Qajar king in 1863 who bought a nearby qanat to water his garden. After his death, the garden was eventually inherited by his sister Afife and the garden is named after her. In 1962, it was restored by the army and there is now a weapons museum on the lower floor.

I'd like to issue an 11th commandment: Thou shalt not put random pots, particularly plastic ones, or lunar shaped standard lights in any famous garden anywhere in the world. (remember the terracotta pot at the Caravalet museum in Paris last year?)

Mughal garden painting 16th century based on Persian design

Persian gardens have been famous through history and are all the more amazing because they were created by taking underground water into deserts where garden creation would appear to be impossible. They were copied by many other civilisations. Imagine the wonder of travellers in the time of the Persian Empire to arrive at a green city of lush gardens after travelling for weeks through desert. No wonder these gardens and the people who made them were famous throughout the ancient world.

They're based on the following features, although not all gardens have every feature, and there is an endless variation on the theme:

* Chahar Bagh design (chahar = 4, bagh = garden), a rectangular area with a geometric quadripartite design (area divided into four parts) representing the Zoroastrian division of the universe into four seasons and four sacred elements: water, wind, soil and fire.

*there is a strong symbolism relating to life after death and they aim to represent the gardens of paradise

*slightly sloping gravity-fed water channels (ie no pumps needed) following the intersecting lines of the garden for physical, visual and accoustic cooling

*low bubbling jets of water in the channels (gravity supplying the pressure)

*walkways along the water channels

*dense depressed plantings within the four geometric sections

*flood irrigation of depressed plantings from the qanat

*a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees planted closely together to cast deep cooling shade *a central pavilion at the intersection of the four lines for quiet contemplation, or a palace at the end

*a large pond in front of the pavilion or palace to reflect the heavens and the building

*introspective thick walls surrounding the garden - an internal paradise hidden within the desert

*an arched entry building without direct vision of the garden, to give brief respite from the glare outside before entering into the garden itself

By Mcginnly (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Taj Mahal at Agra India (plan above) is one of the most famous gardens based on the Persian model. The diagram shows the river behind the taj mahal in blue. The emphasis on four squares is obvious here.

In the Afif Abad garden the house is situated at the end of a long rectangular pool, and the main central entry staircase leads up to a portico on the first floor. The long front pool has a walkway either side leading to the mansion, and a line of palms.

click on first photo in gallery above to bring up a slide show of images

There was a surreally festive atmosphere with people of all ages parading through the gardens in period costume, with friends and relatives photographing them. The costumes are for rental from a bedouin-style tent in the grounds. Even a baby princess with dummy!

I gave a cursory glance to the armaments, and went to the living floor, where the furniture was unremarkable but the ceiling plaster work and tiling was quite beautiful.

These school boys on an outing were jostling and laughing when they asked if they could have a photo taken with us.

We were greeted by these two girls and the brother of one (who took the photo), who spoke perfect English and asked us to visit their home for a meal. We explained regretfully that it wouldn't be possible. A couple of days later the girl on the left sent me an email with this photo.

Our next stop was the Arg (castle) or citadel of Karim Khan, a huge one-metre-thick walled compound with a squat round defensive tower at each corner. Remember we saw Karim's cozy corner at the Golestan Palace?

You can see the fine brickwork on one of the towers.

click on first photo in the gallery above to bring up a slide show of images of the Arg bath house - I loved this one!

I'd seen photos of the bathhouse above before we left home and was sure this would be my favourite - it's very elegant in restrained grey and white, red highlights muted by age. It didn't disappoint me. I think I could live here!

The compound has a central Persian garden, with a long rectangular pond leading to Karim Khan's living quarters. Because it's empty for renovation you can see the construction with line of gravity-fed bubbling jets in the middle leading the eye to the palace at the end. This type of plan has only one long rectangular pool and doesn't feature a central pavilion at the intersection of the 4 segments. Notice the small wind catcher above the roofline?

Inside the living quarters in the home at the end, a series of doorways.

Beautiful ceilings in elegantly faded colours.

Bright windows have retained their vibrance.

Details of some of the quite lovely wall decorations.

Citrus trees provided shade in the garden and they're used as street trees in Shiraz, laden with fruit.

We walked past this old corner store with a great personality to a basement restaurant a couple of blocks away with live music.

To see a video of the restaurant: