The Second Oldest Continuously Inhabited City in the World

In November 2006 we took a tour of Iran. The second city we visited was the desert city of Yazd, the second oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

Desert life & Zoroastrianism - the Ancient City of Yazd

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by koshkha on March 28, 2009

It's my guess that you are probably NOT thinking 'Hmm, Yazd, that sounds familiar' because to date I don't think I've met anyone who hasn't been to Iran (or thought of going) who's even heard of this fabulous city. It might ring some bells if I mentioned that it was historically known by the rather more glamorous name of Ysatis - yes, as in the perfume by Givenchy. You can't help thinking that when the marketing people at Givenchy sat down to brainstorm new names, they probably weren't thinking of women in chadors when they came up with that name.

If I were to categorise the cities of Iran in terms of touristic appeal, I suspect that cities like Esfahan and Shiraz would be the giants of Iranian tourism, Massad and Om the famous centres of religious pilgrimage tourism and poor old Yazd would be the sort of place you might well miss if you were in a bit of a hurry. And that would be a shame, because this bizarre city squeezes a mind-boggling array of attractions into what's really quite a small place and offers us an insight into architectural adaptations for living in an extreme climate. It’s also the best place in Iran to get exposed to the bizarre and ancient religion of Zoroastrianism.

Where is Yazd?

If you look at a map of Iran, Yazd is pretty much slap-bang in the middle of the country. You can reach it by road if you really want to but air fares in Iran are so cheap that they make European and North American budget airlines look really expensive. A one way ticket for the flight from Tehran costs around $20 – Iran’s got a lot of oil, you see, though undoubtedly, you’ll be aware of that already. In terms of proximity to the other major cities, it’s about 430 miles from Tehran and 175 miles south of Esfahan.

What is Yazd?

Geographically speaking, it’s a high altitude (1200m) oasis surrounded by mountains and deserts. In the summer it’s exceptionally hot with temperatures consistently 40C or higher and in the winter it’s cold enough to freeze your bones with temperatures down to minus 20. But regardless of the time of year, it’s always very dry. The annual rainfall figures of 2.4 inches can easily be exceeded on a wet day in Manchester so water management is as big an issue as the challenge of staying cool.

Why is Yazd significant?

The city was recognised by UNESCO’s world heritage listings as the second oldest continually inhabited city in the world. I've heard other places claim that accolade but if UNESCO say it's true then that's good enough for me. For those of you who are now thinking "which was the oldest?" I’ll leave you to dwell on that and the answer will be at the bottom of the review*.

Records of the city date back to more than 3000 years to the time when it was part of the empire of a Zoroastrian tribe called the Medes. Over the millennia since it was founded, the harsh and inhospitable climate meant that few invaders could be bothered to fight over it. Consequently it was left undisturbed by the ravages of war and its ancient architecture and traditions survived the passage of time – even though much of the city is constructed from adobe (mud).

When Gengis Khan stomped through the Middle East in the 13th Century, many artists and intellectuals fled to the city as a safe haven and even Marco Polo dropped by in 1272 and described it as a "good and noble city". (As a further clue to the identity of the oldest city, unlike Yazd which survived by being ignored, the other city has been fought over almost constantly and still is today).

Adaptation to climate

Water, as you'd imagine, is exceptionally precious. If you only get two and a half inches per year, you'll want to make sure that not a drop gets wasted and so a vast system of underground cisterns was created to store water and is still in use today. Tall chimney-like towers called badgirs catch even the lightest of breezes and somehow convert them into cool air in a form of ancient but rather effective air-con. Houses are built to keep the elements out, often with thick walls, small windows and inner courtyards. Ice-houses are also common and were used to store ice from the nearby mountains.

Our visit

We flew in from Tehran on an internal flight which took less than an hour and then drove from the airport to a hotel complex called the Caravan which was to be our base for a couple of days. On the first day we had time for little more than nipping out for dinner in a converted hammam (the Iranian authorities closed down the country's bath-houses for being a bit too racy for their liking and many are now restaurants).

Over the two days that followed we had a fantastic time exploring the narrow streets of the old city, the Zoroastiran highlights of the Towers of Silence and the Fire Temple or Atashkadeh, the Muslim delights of the spectacular Jameh mosque with its 48m high minarets, the semi-mythological intrigues of Alexander's Prison, the bizarre local sweet makers with their quite disgusting concoctions and most oddly of all we spent one evening watching a group of very loud wrestlers shouting, grunting and sweating in a pit surrounded by tourists. Two days really was the perfect amount of time to be there - any shorter and we'd have had to really cut back on what we saw, any longer and I think we'd have had enough.

We didn't manage to see everything the city had to offer - I confess we skipped the Water Museum (though I'm told it's very good) and we didn't climb the 33 m high 'badgir' (or 'wind catcher') though in retrospect we probably should have made the effort. We did get giggly on the 100% alcohol free fruit beer and make up lots of bad puns based around 'badgirs' and 'good-girs' and far too many stories about evil badgers - jokes that were far too esoteric to ever put down in writing and required the gallows humour of alcohol withdrawl and too much sand in order to be funny. However, after the rather 'full on' nature of Tehran, Yazd was a very calm and gentle way to leave the big city behind and get to know desert life in Iran in a city where people live today with technology developed over the past 5000 years.

* The oldest continually inhabited city in the world is of course Jerusalem.

Shhhhh - all Quiet for the Towers of Silence

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by koshkha on March 28, 2009

I've been intrigued about Zoroastrianism for a long time and I think it's fair to say that one aspect of this fascinating religion that excites the most morbid interest for many people is the way in which Zoroastrians dispose of their dead. Since fire is sacred and earth should not be contaminated by the dead, bodies are laid out to be stripped by vultures in what are known as Towers of Silence. Once the birds have picked the bones clean, the bodies were historically interred in rock tombs. Now I think you'll admit that's pretty fascinating.

One of my very favourite authors, the Canadian-Indian writer Rohinton Mistry, writes about Indian and ex-patriot Parsees (the Indian form of Zoroastrianism). Consequently I had read a lot about the Towers of Silence and the disposal of the dead though most typically in the city of Mumbai. Morbid reports are often made in Mumbai suggesting that the vultures in the city sometimes drop limbs on the balconies of the posh areas of the city near the Towers after stopping for a snack. I’m not convinced it’s true but it’s the kind of myth that make you want to know more.

Zoroastrians account for about 10% of the local population in Yazd – the highest level in the Iran. Like the city itself, they were left to their own devices for a long time and escaped the persecution of other groups. I was very excited at the prospect of visiting the Towers because in my imagination, I had always supposed that they would be tall elegant buildings like the towers of Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I was – as is often the case – completely wrong. The towers are actually two brown earth and rock mounds, shaped like conical hills. They are completely bare of any vegetation and rise up against a flat desert background. The towers have not been used since the 1960s when the city's Muslim rulers decreed that having bodies left around to be eaten isn't exactly 'hygienic' so today the dead of the Zoroastrian community in Yazd are buried in concrete lined graves in the small graveyard near the Towers.

We parked the bus and headed off to explore. At the base of the towers were a covered well and few buildings for the family of the dead to prepare and wash the body and to stay during the mourning period. There were a couple of ‘badgirs’ or wind-towers to keep everything cool. We passed these buildings and headed towards the towers and started with a climb of the smaller of the two towers which was for the male bodies. For some of the group it was a bit of a slog but the views from the top were worth the effort – you could see for tens of miles across the desert with the mountains behind. Inside the round walls at the top of the male Tower we found a circular hollow where the bodies were laid out for the birds and the priest would have performed the rituals for the dead. The bodies would always have been laid out on stones so that they didn't directly touch the earth and contaminate it. They would be placed in a sitting position and the priest who oversaw the process would watch to see which of the bodies' two eyes were plucked out first - apparently it's good luck if the right eye goes before the left.

The ladies Tower was even taller and a few of the group decided to give it a miss. It was a hard walk to the top – especially when decked out in the local clothing - and when we reached the top it took a scramble to climb up through a hole in the wall to get inside. Of course we had our photos taken lying in the pits. In retrospect, perhaps that was a little disrespectful though after a climb like that it was nice to rest for a while.

Moving at a fair pace, you'd need at least an hour to get up and down both towers and have a good look around, take lots of photos and drink in the atmosphere of the place. If you aren't so steady on your feet or struggle with climbs, it's still worth a visit just to understand the reality of Zoroastrian 'funerals'.

After we headed down the women's Tower, we walked over to the cemetEry and came across the guardian of the site - an elderly gentleman with a very pretty donkey who we were told always appears to have his photo taken and collect a few donations to help with the upkeep of the immaculate site.

Whilst the Towers were completely different from how I'd imagined they would be, they were every bit as fascinating as I'd expected.

Feathers and Fire at the Atashkadeh

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by koshkha on March 29, 2009

Zoroastrians believe that fire is pure and sacred and must be preserved and protected along with water. The place where Zorastrians go to worship is called the Fire Temple or Atashkadeh which means literally the 'House of Fire'. There are nearly 20 fire temples in Yazd but the one on Atashkadeh Alley, off Kashani Street is most popular with tour groups. I've read that this isn't entirely typical of an Atashkadeh because it's less of an active temple and more of a tourist attraction but it's a good place to get an introduction to the religion and its iconography.

Zoroastrianism was the religion of the great Persian emperors including Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great and was the main religion in Iran/Persia until the rise of Islam. It is one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions and has a god called Ahura Mazda who created the world and everything in it and a prophet called Zarathustra (probably more widely known for the theme music to 2001: A Space Odyssey which is Richard Strauss's 'Thus Spake Zarathustra). It's been around for about 3500-4000 years but despite its longevity and great history, today there are believed to be only a quarter of a million worshipers world wide and most of these are either in Iran or India (where they are known as Parsis).

We had just had a fascinating visit to the Towers of Silence on the outskirts of the city before our visit to the Fire Temple so we were having quite an intense morning of Zoroastrian influence. We parked up at the end of the street and walked into the grounds of the Fire Temple where our guide took us through some of the tenets of the religion and explained to us the history of the temple. We were told that the building dated only back to 1934 but the flame inside had been kept constantly lit since 470 AD. In front of the temple there's a pretty courtyard with a large pool. Both fire and water are used for ritual because of their purity.

Standing in front of the temple by the pool we learned about the symbolism of the image of Ahura Mazda as represented above the entrance to the temple. This image is known as the Farohar or Farovahar. He is an elderly (and so wise and experience) man with a long beard and one of his hands is raised towards god. . His face is that of a human which indicates his connection to humankind. He stands inside a circle which represents the universe and holds another ring in his hand which may represent loyalty to the religion. The large circle has two 'legs' which represent good and evil - the good 'leg' is on the side to which the figure is facing representing the choice to follow good and leave evil behind. He has wings with three layers of feathers which represent the three principles that all Zoroastrians should follow : good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Only by following all three principles can a worshiper 'fly' and advance. Beneath the circle of the universe are another three layers of feathers which represent the opposite of the wing feathers - so bad thoughts, bad words and bad actions. (it might help to have a look at my photo in order to understand this better).

We stood quietly listening to the explanation and looking up at the figure standing out against the bluest of November skies before going up the steps and into the temple. Inside we found a few dozen people crowding round a glass wall behind which we could see a large metal urn with fire inside. An elderly man was minding the flames and feeding the fire whilst we stood watching.

Even though tourists are welcomed and encouraged to visit the Fire Temple I did feel a bit uncomfortable as if we were just a bunch of stupid foreigners gawping at this strange religion in a somewhat intrusive way. I'd enjoyed our trip to the Towers of Silence and really felt able to relate to the role of the towers in the religion but the Fire Temple didn't really feel quite real. It was an attractive building with a neat pleasant courtyard and a great place to learn about the symbolism but somehow it didn't 'touch' me in the way that other religious buildings and shrines tend to do.

"Miss, Miss, Do you know Cristiano Ronaldo?"

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by koshkha on March 29, 2009

Iran has plenty of mosques and almost all of them are pretty spectacular. By the time we got to the Jami Mosque in Yazd we'd only seen two other mosques, neither of which was particularly typical of the Persian architectural style. The massive and as yet unfinished mausoleum to Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran had resembled a concrete abatoir and the tiny old and rather decrepit mosque to the Twelve Imams which we'd visited in Yazd that morning was largely undecorated. Neither had prepared us for the visual onslaught of a top notch city mosque.

The Jami Mosque or Masjed-e Jameh is what's known as a congregational mosque , that is one that's designed for worship on a large scale and it would normally be very busy for Friday prayers in particular. Visiting outside the main worship times we found it almost empty except for several groups of identically dressed school girls. It's a strange aspect of tourism in Iran that you frequently come across school groups but almost always groups of girls. I can't recall that we ever found a group of schoolboys. Perhaps art and history are considered to be more 'pink' topics - I hate to think what the 'blue' pupils are doing whilst their sisters are our looking at architecture and museums.

The mosque as it stands today is about 700 years old but it stands on the site of an earlier mosque which in turn was built on the site of the ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple.

We parked our bus in the square outside and headed towards the tall and highly decorated gate of the mosque with its pair of tall thin minarets which reach up to a dazzling height of 48 m, making them the tallest in Iran. Standing before the immensely tall doorway you can look up at the blue tiled decoration of the minarets or step under the doorway and admire the intricate tiling inside the arch. Once through the arch there's a domed roof with a fascinating pattern of interlinked sand-coloured bricks, lit up by small holes in the roof.

The tiling in the mosque is spectacular with both painted tiles in which the decoration lies beneath the glaze, and tiles that have been cut and placed together in an elaborate form of mosaic. There are panels of single coloured turquoise tiles, tall panels of geometric lego-like patterns, beautiful panels of floral and geometric patterns intertwined and of course panels of exquisite calligraphy.

The mihrab where the holy man who leads the prayers would stand had a fascinating acoustic effect in which the preacher's voice is magnified by reflection and vibration so that it can be heard clearly at a distance without the need for artificial amplification. It's a clever idea - imagine if you went to church and the vicar had his back to you the entire time and you'd appreciate anything to help you hear what he was saying.

After our guide had given us a bit of an introduction he left us to wander around with our cameras to soak up the atmosphere. I was standing with an Australian lady looking at the ceilings and the tiling when we noticed that a nearby group of schoolgirls had their eyes on us. The bravest few sidled over and said hello. Once they'd realised we were English speakers they called their friends over and the onslaught of questions began. At first it was simple - "What's your name? Where do you come from? How long in Iran?" - then it moved to the more personal questioning of "How old are you? Are you married? Do you have children?" At this point they clearly thought we were quite unusual. I am married but have no kids, my companion has neither a husband nor children. The questions were not unexpected but were quite personal "Why?" they asked. And "Which is your husband?" they quizzed me (probably thinking my poor hubby must have bad seeds since the idea of choosing not to have kids is completely alien in their culture.

We'd survived the first onslaught of questions and now we were on to more cultural questions. I live in a part of the UK that foreigners have never heard of so when they ask where we come from we always say 'Manchester' because at the time that's where I was working and I lived there for many years. Several of the girls started to giggle - "Manchester?" they enthused "You know Manchester United then miss?" This is always a conversation starter the world over and my travels are marked by discussions of great players from my favourite team. I can track the history of my travel according to which footballer the locals want to talk about. David Beckham was massive in Vietnam and on several trips to India though when I first travelled we still got questions about Bobby Charlton who played before I was even born. "Miss Miss" they cried "Do you know Cristiano Ronaldo? He's SO handsome" said one and they all started to giggle.

It's a hard question to answer. "Do you know?" Sometimes it means 'Have you heard of?' or maybe 'Does he come round your house for tea on Sundays?'. There really was no way of knowing but either way it was unlikely that they could check up on me. "Yes, of course" I replied, "I know Cristiano Ronaldo". And suddenly their attitude changed from looking at me as a poor childless old woman (well they were 14 years old so anyone over 30 is in that category) to seeing me as someone who knew the world's best footballer.

The excited chatter continued and the girls followed us out to our bus, saying hello to the three other women in our group, lowering their eyes modestly when seeing our men folk until their teacher caught up with them and told them to stop bothering us. I'm sure they would be surprised to find they're the subject of an Igougo 'experience' about visiting the mosque - or maybe I'll find out one day that there's a review on an Iranian travel site about meeting the woman who 'knew' Ronaldo'.

No Wheels on my Caravan

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by koshkha on March 28, 2009

On a group tour of Iran, we spent two nights at the Caravan, a large hotel located a few miles outside the ancient desert city of Yazd. The Caravan is close to a large but surprisingly quiet road and takes the form of lots of small white single-storey apartment-style chalets set back from the road and surrounded by gardens. There was nothing else anywhere near the hotel so be aware that once you are there, unless you have transport, there's nothing to see or do nearby. Pulling off the highway from the airport, the driveway brought us past a large building that housed the reception, the restaurant and other shared amenities and then to the accommodation area. Our tour leader hopped off the bus to go and get the keys whilst we unloaded the bags from the bus.

Earlier that day, we had left a rather stuffy and formal hotel in Tehran and so we found the Caravan very different. Each couple were allocated a really large chalet. These were gathered in rows of 4 or 5, each with its own front and rear terrace with small flower beds. Opening the door to ours we found a really large room with high sloping ceilings and plain tiled floors. The décor was very basic but the room was clean and bright. The room was so large that our tour leader had told us that he considered the rooms at the Caravan to be 'Three Cartwheel' rooms - i.e. big enough to do three cartwheels between the door and the French windows. Since he was a practitioner of that odd Brazilian dance/martial art whose name I can remember, he always appreciated having plenty of space to fling his legs around.

For furniture we had twin beds with a table between holding a telephone and bedside lights. There was a large built-in wardrobe and dressing table with a stool and a table with a TV on top. We also had a lounge area with a small sofa and armchair and a coffee table. Tucked just inside the door was a small kitchenette area with a sink and fridge which we didn't need and so didn't use. When I say fridge, I don't mean mini-bar; this is Iran and you won't find beers or spirits in your fridge! There was air conditioning but it wasn't hot enough for us to test it out. At the back of the room the French windows opened onto a small tiled terrace but there were not deck chairs to sit out on and whenever we had any spare time, the sun was in the wrong position and the terrace was in shade.

The bathroom was a bit shabby with several broken tiles and a broken toilet cistern that meant it didn't flush very well. The shower had good water pressure but some bright spark had reversed the hot and cold taps just to confuse everyone. The toiletries on offer were basic with just soap and shampoo.

We didn't eat in the hotel restaurant in the evenings but did have breakfast there each morning. By Iranian standards there was a good spread with enough choice but don't expect anything too exciting.

Getting into Yazd from the Caravan took about 10 to 15 minutes in our tour bus. We took hotel cards with us (with the address in Farsi in case we needed a taxi and couldn't find a driver who could read Roman script) so we could come back when we'd had enough. A taxi only cost a couple of dollars.

I can't say anything about the cost of the hotel as it was obviously included in our tour price but it was unlikely to be more than £10-15 per room per night. Yazd is a very busy 'full-on' sort of town and it would have perhaps been fun to have stayed somewhere more central. However, after a couple of days of very intense sight-seeing, we all rather enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of the Caravan and I slept like a dead-person both nights.
Caravan Hotel
Azadegan Airport Blvd
Yazd, Iran
+98 (351) 7210511

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