11/25/2008

Kish, Shiraz & Persepolis



Kish Island was developed by the Shah as Iran's very own Vegas. It's been a prime vacation spot for Iranians for years, but unless you're all about duty free goods, lavish hotels and restaurants, and an exclusive (foreigners only) co-ed section of beach, don't go out of your way to visit. We arrived late in the evening before being treated to a grandiose banquet. I had heard of our place before I knew we were staying there; the Darius Hotel is famous for its ancient architecture, designed to look as elegantly immense as if Darius himself had built it. This time I enjoyed about seven or eight full hours checked into five-star luxury before taking to the road again.

After being whisked to the island's zoo and treated to--randomly enough--a dolphin show, we checked out Kish Island's prime archeological site, where I spent some time underground in the ancient ruins of Harireh. An extensive network of cisterns was built here over a thousand years ago, providing the island's only source of water. I broke loose from the group again to explore the cool dark tunnels before surfacing into the humid heat of the sun-drenched island.

We took a short flight over a slice of the Persian Gulf, landing outside Shiraz, city of flowers and nightingales. Upon arrival, our Iranian hosts literally rolled out the red carpet for us at the airport. Traditionally dressed children--possibly hand-picked for their unbelievable cuteness--stood by with flowers. 

With barely enough time to pinch myself, we were jetting towards Persepolis, ancient capital of Persia, an hour to the northeast. In a race against the setting sun, I sprinted the kilometer from the parking lot to the ten-meter high man-made platform of the city, which lifted its ruins above the golden plain to the west. I did my best to catch the last light of day in some pictures of the spectacular site. Even though the vast majority of the stones in Persepolis have crumbled to the ground, it takes little imagination to see what this city once was. Perhaps in retaliation for the burning of Athens, Alexander the Great destroyed it when he passed through Persia. Still, busts and reliefs of lions, horses, eagles, and kings can be seen almost everywhere you look, and the stonework is delicate, smooth, and artful on an enormous scale.



Here at the supposed birthplace of the Iranian monarchy also appears the remnants of its demise some 2500 years later: rows of tent poles and tatters are all that is left of the Shah's ridiculously opulent party back in the 70s, when he invited dignitaries from all over the world, much as Cyrus had brought them here to the Gate of All Nations, to celebrate the millenia of Persian monarchy. He spent millions on the most expensive of imported luxuries, even tiling some of the tent floors with marble for the single event. Of course, the Shah's popularity, at the time already very low, never bounced back after the party and just years later the monarchy was dead.

Back in Shiraz, after yet another feast, I explored the city in what little time I had. I walked around the ancient city wall, explored the night market, and paid a visit to the tomb of Iran's greatest poet, Hafez. I met a bunch of cool kids hanging out in the market, most of them surprised to hear I was from the USA. It's clear that not a good number of Americans find their way to Shiraz. At one point, away from the crowds and getting harassed by an old beggar, I handed a note to get him to leave me alone. A full minute later I realized I'd just given him money from Qatar instead of Iran, meaning the note was worth a good deal more than I'd intended to give; I turned around to find him holding the strange currency under a street light, enchanted by the mystery of its worth. I approached from the side and snatched it out of his hand, slipping him a more appropriate amount. He yelled some nonsense at my back as I walked away, relieved, and caught a cab to the hotel. I think he was actually trying to chase me down, but he was old enough that a brisk walk was too much for him to handle.

Shiraz is known as the "city of mysteries and secrets," and I feel as though I haven't even scratched the surface here. But the whirlwind tour must continue: tomorrow in Esfahan.

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