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  • Shelley Dark

#11 Yazd

Here at the Garden Hotel the staff spray the walkways with water several times a day and there is the constant cooling sound of swiftly flowing water. The very quiet macaws are a source of fascination and entertainment to everyone. The front door is manned by a duo of giant in fancy dress who looks like a cross between Bluebeard the Pirate and a what I imagine a sultan to look like, and a 23 year-old man about 3 feet tall. It's like something out of a movie.

When I got up this morning, our bus driver Habib was out on the walkway beside the water channel exercising. When he saw me coming he started lifting up huge pieces of sawn logs above his head - they're stools. He's a natural clown. I thought he'd pull a muscle. We had a meeting at 8.15am and Hoda explained that we were to each choose 2 images to submit this afternoon to identify our principal interest in photographing Iran, for a power point this afternoon. I think for this purpose I'll focus on people or water.

Today is the first day of hajj. In Muslim countries like Iran, hajj is the most important holiday period, when those who can afford it make the pilgrimage to Mecca in the centre of Saudi Arabia. Thousands of worshippers converge on the city and perform a series of rituals. All Muslims should do this once in their lifetime if they can and it's a great celebration when they do. Even for those who aren't going to Mecca, the holiday lasts over a five day period and is like our Christmas when everyone goes home to their families.

But for us, it's a day to investigate Yazd, with a local guide called Ellie, first to the very old Zoroastrian Tower of Silence. Zoroastrians have always believed that dead bodies (along with hair and nail clippings) are unclean or polluted and put dead bodies high on a hill on these towers, for them to be carried off by birds of prey. They've practised it since at least the 5th century BC.

Tower of Silence British Library via Wikimedia Commons

The bigger bodies of men were put on the roof in a ring around the outside, women inside that, and children at the innermost part of the circle. Any bones remaining were left for a year to bleach and are then collected at an ossuary pit at the centre of the tower. The practice was outlawed in Iran in the 1970's and now days burial or cremation is the norm. Graves are often lined with rocks and then concrete to prevent bodies from coming into contact with the soil.

When we were in Mumbai last year, our guide told us that the practice is still carried out there and that the Tower of Silence is on a hill at the top of a very upmarket suburb. The vultures were dying out from environmental chemical poisoning and steps have been taken to increase their numbers again. Body parts are often dropped by the vultures on to people's balconies - it's stayed in my mind ever since. At first I thought the guide was joking.

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The two Towers of Silence here are outside of the town on a bare site, with a long walk up to the top in the white glare of the hot sun with abandoned buildings at the base.

This is Mohsen, an Iranian guide leading another tour group. We saw them yesterday at Pasargardae, they're at our hotel, and we'll probably continue to see them at hotels and attractions on our tour. He is married but said that being a guide away from home for long periods is hard on any marriage.

Next the fire temple containing a sacred fire. This is not just any fire. There are only nine of these fires in the world.

For Zoroastrians, fire is a sacred element and there are fires which have been going for centuries.This icon on the building is part of the Atash Behram or a fire temple containing a real fire which has been unextinguished since 1542 - over 470 years!

For this type of holy fire, you need fire from 16 different sources, including lightning, a cremation pyre, a trade furnace, a domestic hearth, a dyer, a king, a potter, a brick maker, an ascetic, a goldsmith, a mint, an iron smith, a armourer, a baker, a brewer, a soldier and a shepherd. Each fire goes through a consecration process before they are all joined - 32 priests are needed for the ceremony which can take a year.

This particular fire has been moved several times to protect it.

Worshippers face the fire to worship, or light a fire if there is no fire. The significance of fire is that it goes upwards which is seen as progressing, it's non-polluting (or so they thought) and sterilising, it gives heat to each man equally, and it's part of the worship of nature. Zoroastrians have one god, and each person must think good words and do good deeds each day.

As we were leaving the museum attached to the Atash Behram, the young man on the right was sitting in a shady spot in the garden on a low concrete bollard. He asked with sign language and in Persian, if I would take his photo. Then his brother asked. We had a funny moment when I tried to get him to stand up to allow his brother to sit. I thought he didn't understand. In the end he indicated crutches on the ground behind him. He couldn't get up by himself. We both burst out laughing.

An official writing out a parking ticket on the street outside. The same the world over.

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Yazd relies on the textile and mining industries but our next stop was at a henna factory. We were cautioned against getting any henna on our clothes as it stains. Thank goodness for no humidity or it would probably just stick to you anyway. I stepped in a pile of henna dust six inches high and spent ten minutes trying to whack it out of my shoes. It doesn't seem to have had a lasting effect, apart from still feeling as if my shoes are full of dust.

It was like stepping back in history to see the primitive work conditions and amazing light. Bags of henna chaff were stored against the walls, shafts of light streaming down from the ventilation and light holes in roof domes through air choked with fibres. A man-sized stone to grind the henna was once turned in a huge circle by a camel. It's now driven by a noisy engine, grinding the plants into powder to be used in hair products, coffee, and henna paste for body decoration.

The young man held some henna chaff out for me to see.

I felt so sorry for the young man who posed for us and his father alongside him. He was covered in green dust and the mask he wore would do little to stop him inhaling it. I couldn't stay in there for more than ten minutes because I couldn't breathe.

We returned to the city to walk around the Amir Chakhmagh complex. It's a large city square bordered at one end by the beautiful building I photographed last night with my phone. It has shops underneath, a bathhouse, a circular stair to the top, and that lovely series of hidden alcoves which are lit at night. I haven't researched this, but I keep noticing that things are rarely totally symmetrically placed in Islamic architecture - I mean the way the pond isn't centred on the central part of a building or mosque, or a doorway isn't centred in relation to a line of pillars. Things like that. I don't know if it's a deliberate thing or just incidental. I must find out!

This strange structure is used once a year to commemorate the death of a martyr Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Mohammed and the son-in-law of the last Sassanid king. He went to Iraq to establish his claim to the throne. While he was there, his 72 followers and family faced 10,000 enemy troops who denied their caravan water. He was beheaded and all his family and followers killed.

To commemorate his death, 2 people get on top of this wooden contraption which is is hoisted by 100-200 people on their shoulders and marched around the square 3 times because he was left for 3 days without being buried. On that day everything closes, all meals are free and people queue in the street for them. Women overlook from the alcoves above to mourn loudly. So the Amir Chakhagh building also functions as a hosseinieh or tkeiye, a place for mourning.

There's a mosque on one side of the square, where this holy man was reading aloud the Qoran, deep in concentration, lips moving. When he looked up briefly, I indicated my camera and he very kindly nodded. We were there at noon when the beautiful sounds of the call to prayer echoed around the mosque courtyard.

The mosque carpet with a repetitive arch pattern.

The brickwork always takes my eye - simply masterful.

We left the mosque to walk to lunch through the bazaar. This perfume bottle display caught my eye.

A Persian notice board.

It was a very long and hot walk to lunch through the corridors of the gold and jewellery bazaar and back streets. I would have loved to explore this antique shop but we were falling behind the group.

A great variety of seeds and nuts.

Pools of light make patterns on the ground of the bazaar corridor used as a parking space for motor bikes. This one is being renovated and will probably be an upmarket development when it's finished.

A home made sign outside our restaurant.

We were hot and bothered by the time we had climbed to the second storey rooftop restaurant Art Gallery Cafe cooled only by fans. This is the terrace outside with a view of the next door wind catcher.

This curtain on a glass window made a pretty abstract picture.

Our lunch menu was a little different from the typical kebab meal we've been having. First we were served a cooling and hydrating bowl of mint yoghurt (Al Dogh Khiyar) with the normal unleavened bread. Ellie our guide said that at home they add walnuts. Then we had bowls on the table: Sholi (* Yazdi soup) of lentils and beef vegetables, vinegar, mint. Red Lentil tomato, potato and caraway tagine which Ellie had not eaten before. A type of deep fried vegetable pastie - John called it an Iranian chiko roll. Then Kashko Bademjon: a green flattened mush of eggplant, garlic, and mint with Kashk (yoghurt) spiralled on top. The freshly squeezed pomegranate juice was delicious. (I can't say freshly squeezed without thinking of Dame Edna who famously told a waiter that she'd prefer some a few days old)

After lunch we caught a taxi back to the hotel to escape the heat and to download photos for this afternoon. Others went on to a water museum.

We met Michael and Hoda in the meeting room at 5.30 to see a powerpoint of our images with a constructive critiquing.

We had dinner tonight at a coffee house at the far end of the hotel garden. I retreated to the comfort of the familiar and had fillet mignon with a mushroom sauce - it was simply delicious. Oh for a glass of wine with it!

The gardens here at the hotel have ground level paths with big densely planted squares or rectangles of soil two feet lower which can be flooded to retain moisture. There are lots of birds swooping and diving through the thick foliage.

And always the sound of water. When you are really hot, it’s the most wonderful noise.

In the morning John and I are going to go up to the fourth floor roof top to photograph dawn over the city before we leave for Esfahan. I'm looking forward to that.

Until then, I wait you....

shelley dark, writer 

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