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East of the Moon, West of the Sun – part 11: Ivan in Iran (Ancient Persia)

This is the story of my 5-month eastern journey through Turkey, Georgia, Abkhazia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh and Iran (Ancient Persia).

Go to: “Part 10: Johnnie in the Middle (East)

The first 10 days in Ancient Persia had passed quickly and imperceptibly, but the country was so rich in cultural, historical and archaeological sites that rather than slowing down the pace, I increased it.


Arg-e Bam dated back to the VI century BC. It was considered the largest adobe building in the world and was part of the World Heritage List. In December 2003 a massive earthquake destroyed more than 80% of the site. After a decade of restorations nearly everything except the main citadel was still in ruins.


My guide around the Arg-e Bam was Ali, a former tour guide and currently an English teacher. Only a month or two ago he had started his own private school because his wife Fatima was tired of staying at home. The groups were gender divided, the majority being girls. The children were shy, they were not used to communicating with men, let alone foreigners, but they were happy to exchange a few words with me and see use of their studies.


Located relatively close, Arg-e Rayen was quite preserved. The site had escaped almost untouched from the devastating earthquake and had become the more visited attraction in the region.


Hussein was among the most conservative Iranians I met. He took me for a ride for 20 km. and invited me to stay at his house for the night. His second wife with her three children (the first was in the nearby town) lived in the middle of the semi-desert in a small concrete house with unplastered walls and with no furniture at all. When it was time to go to bed, the only room was left at my disposal. The family spent the night on a blanket in the dust in front of the door.


The Portuguese castle on the island of Hormuz was the largest remaining colonial building in Ancient Persia and one of the largest in the Persian Gulf. The island itself was bare, treeless and brutally heated by the scorching sun. Due to the high humidity even the nights offered little relief. In the morning the tent and my sheet were drenched in sweat.


Qeshm was the biggest island in the Persian Gulf and boasted the longest salt cave in the world. Hitchhiking to it in the broiling hot was an ordeal. It included a ride in half a dozen cars, in a cab and even on the roof of a water tank. That day I drank 6 liters of liquids, but didn’t go to the toilet at all.


It was interesting to compare the mangrove forest of the Middle East with the one I had seen in South America. The difference was significant. The vegetation in the Hara Protected Area was represented by shrubs and low trees that had nothing to do with the Ecuadorian giants.


In Jahrom I had yet another curious night – I camped in the yard of the local fire brigade. The firemen on duty let me use their bathroom, the young Ali even insisted:

  • I think that your body needs a shower, it is not so clear. I think your clothes must be washed.

Then they served me with dinner while we were watching the World Cup qualification game between Iran and Qatar. At the crowded 100,000 stadium in Tehran the hosts won scoring two goals in the added time.


The Palace of Ardashir dated back to the III-IV century AD. It was a large building with huge domes, some of which were preserved. In front of it there was a small lake formed by a spring that existed since ancient times.


Qal’eh-e Doktar was free of charge, probably because of the numerous steps leading to it. It resembled the previous palace, but it was older – the first dome in the Iranian architecture. Moreover it stood atop a ridge with magnificent views. If I had visited this archaeological site first, I would have definitely skipped the other.


The center of Shiraz was dominated by Arg-e Karim Khan-e Zand. The exterior was impressive with its impenetrable wall and four massive defensive towers, but the interior was just an open courtyard. I was having a break on a bench in front of it when a local started a conversation with me. He questioned me in details about my nationality, age and profession and shocked me with the question:

  • You are gay?
  • No – I answered.
  • Why?

Since when I have to explain why I was not gay?!


The Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh mausoleum was housing the tombs of two of the brothers of Imam Ali Reza. It was considered the third holiest place in Iran after Mashhad and Qom. Foreigners could enter inside only accompanied by a guide, but could take photographs, cameras were forbidden for locals. I love special treatment, especially when it is free.


Our guide Sina was a 24-year-old weirdo – he was a veterinary student, a volunteer in the mausoleum. He had left the country only to go to Saudi Arabia for a Hajj in Mecca and to Iraq for a pilgrimage to Karbala and Najaf. In other words – he was very religiously oriented. At the same time he dreamed of becoming a backpacker and travelling around the world. I was surprised when he offered me, the German Stefan and the Swiss Lucas to stay at his home.


The most characteristic feature of Masjed-e Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque were the beautiful stained windows that let an interesting light in. As far as I know, the effect would be significantly better in winter because the position of the sun would be lower.


Persepolis was the biggest, best preserved, most impressive and most visited historical site in Ancient Persia. Of the many great palaces, reception halls and so on mostly foundations and here and there an assembled column remained, but they all were richly decorated with bas-reliefs depicting the supreme god Ahuramazda, the great kings Cyrus and Xerxes, a procession of foreign delegates bearing gifts, giant bulls, lions, etc.


Naqsh-e Rostam consisted of the rock tombs of the great kings of Ancient Persia – Darius I, Darius II, Xerxes and Artaxerxes I. The entrance of Pasargadae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, led directly to the tomb of Cyrus the Great, impressive with its size and simplicity – a large stone cube on even larger basis. There were several buildings with names like “Cyrus’s Private Palace”, “The Prison of Solomon”, … but the scrambled parts of columns or walls didn’t meet those expectations.

Persia Map

This stage of my tour through Ancient Persia was over, but I was yet about to visit the most beautiful cities in the country – Isfahan and Yazd – and another dozen of World Heritage Sites.

A short video of my Iran tour:

Go to: “Part 12: Half of the World