We drive south of Shiraz for what is meant to be a dramatic drive through the hills and passed the salt lakes. It is a dramatic drive, namely for the number of accidents we encounter on the road. It has been raining and apparently the wet roads that wind between the sharp mountain peaks are a challenge to the brakes of Iranian cars. With a perilous drop onto rocky outcrops, the drivers of the cars involved in these incidents have had lucky escapes though the same cannot always be said of their cargoes – a road strewn with fresh vegetables was a tell-tale sign. The traffic snakes through the pass and we wait patiently. The inclement weather certainly adds atmosphere to the drive and from the gloom looms a Sassanid fortress known as Qaleh Dokhtar (Daughter’s Castle) on the crest of a peak.
We make a brief stop just down the road to peer across a valley at a giant relief carved into the rock face. With low grey cloud and no sign of the sun it is hard to make out the detail without glints and shadows but the scene appears to be a tangle of men, lances and horses. Later, analysising the efforts of my zoom lens, I make out the figures of Ardashir and Artabanus V in a clash between the Parthian and Sassanid leaders.
The drive drops us down into the plain beyond the Zagros mountains. A stone fortress – a Sassanid Palace – rises from the plain as we walk from the bus up the road. We pass a series of small shops selling some tourist tat and the display of the Frankenstein-looking dolls with wild hairlines and mad staring eyes is a little perturbing.
We reach the Sassanid palace and inside are presented with a complex of domed rooms and a small courtyard. The domes are neatly assembled in layers of small stones and light pours in through an oculus reminiscent of the Pantheon. Squinches are mentioned again. A lot.
I wander through the grounds, under its arches and through its cool spaces while the majority of the group dissect and analyse its architecture and construction. I occasionally catch snippets of their discussion. It is a masterclass in piecing together the visible remains, in interpolating the evidence and in the understanding of spaces. It’s a joy to hear the interpretations and discussions and reminds me of the animated discussions that took place between the academics I travelled with in Algeria.
We grab lunch in the small car park opposite the site and are descended upon by a friendly bunch of nomadic travellers who find it endlessly amusing to get some of the group to wear their hats and have photos taken. We find it endlessly amusing too, to be fair.
After lunch we drive to Gur that is purported as being the Sassanid city, Ardashir Kurreh, (The Glory of Ardashir). Built in a circular form, all that remains is the spine of a stone tower marking the centre of the urban area. As we drive around the site it is soon clear that enclosing the site there are circular ramparts and a deep ditch pierced in various places by gateways. Immediately casting me back to a geography lesson at school learning about Von Thünen’s concentric rings of urban development, the footprint that this ancient city has left in the landscape is ridiculously impressive – from the ground it is visible but from the air the scale of this city bursts off the map.
Walking across the site, the cultivated fields in the outer circle give way to stoney terrain in the inner circle and the traces of walls and buildings just breach the ground surface. As we reach the centre, the tower lours over us and seems to be a solid mass of stone.
Beyond the tower the group fragments and each wanders at their own pace amongst the jumble of stones and mounds that represent the vestiges of the ancient city centre. It’s a very suggestive site and soon we find a building built of large hewn blocks of stone, some of which have toppled like a long abandoned game of Jenga.
The Zagros Mountains are never far away and the swirl of their geological banding seems magnified in the afternoon light, providing an unreal backdrop to the site. We clamber amongst the stones and discussions are raised of what work could be done at the site to understand it better. My ears are pricked. As I meander my way back to the bus with one member of the group we talk enthusiastically about doing a survey here. One day…
Back in Shiraz, having thankfully witnessed no further road disasters, we are herded along the streets to the bazaar where we break off into smaller groups to attempt entry in the bustling covered passages. Shop stalls spill out into the walkway and the place is teeming with people and from every other doorway booms some Iranian music. The smell is of spices, fresh linen and armpits. Jostled along in the general sway of people we pass cloth sellers with the most dazzling of gaudy materials; old junk shops with glass cabinets filled with a jumble of metal plates, bowls, random furniture fittings and locks of all shapes and sizes; the ubiquitous carpet sellers with their wears draped from metal hooks, and scarf sellers with a bright array of head wear. We all unwittingly converge on a spice seller whose piles of coloured spices has enticed us in. Suddenly the riyals (the Iranian currency that has so many zeros that even the most frugal of visitors is a millionaire) start spilling from the wallets of my fellow travellers and are being traded for nutmeg, pepper, mint and cinnamon sticks.
We progress further into the depths of the bazaar and come to a small courtyard lit by lights from underneath the shop awnings and from the second storey of the building that encloses this idyllic space. Jewellery is being sought and more money is changing hands in a convivial atmosphere and the haggling is done with smiles and good grace.
The evening meal is taken in the hotel next to our own and there is a general agreement as to the hideous tacky decor of each of our hotel rooms and an undercurrent of grumbling towards the unnecessary extra charge for wifi. One day, these details will probably be forgotten and all that will remain is the memories of the wonders we saw during day. Tomorrow we leave for Esfahan and an on route stop at Cyrus the Great’s tomb. I am consumed by this thought as I drift off to sleep.