Iran Stories and Tips

An Iranian A to Z : Qajars to Zoroastrianism

~ Q is for Qajars ~

There were many dynasties in Persia but the Qajars were one that I can't remember too much about - but at least the provided me with a Q. Wikipedia tells me that they were around from 1781 to 1925 and that reminds me that these were the family who built up the amazingly rich collection of Crown Jewels that are now held in the basement vaults of a bank in Tehran. The excesses of the family were incredible - even their horses had jewelled ornaments to keep the flies out of their eyes and to decorate their tails.

~ R is for Religion ~

Iran is a majority Shia Moslem country - I think it's the only one in the world. They aren't popular with their Sunni neighbours and I won't attempt an explanation of the philosophical difference other than to say it goes back a long way to the issue of who got to take over as boss when Mohammed died. In addition to Shia's there are pockets of Zoroastrianism - the majority religion of the pre-Islamic days - and there are tiny numbers of Jews and Christians, the latter mostly Armenians. We visited a small Jewish shrine and a few churches. The religion that's most persecuted in Iran is the Baha'I faith - officially and legally, they don't exist.

~ S is for Shiraz ~

"Shiraz, hmm," you may be thinking, "isn't that a red wine? Surely not".

Shiraz is the city of poets and a grape growing area that gave its name to the red wine - not that there's any wine making going on today, more's the pity. Two of the main attractions are the tombs of two great Persian Poets – Hafez and Saadi. The city is also the closest to two significant ancient cities - Pasargad, the city of Cyrus the Great, and Persepolis, the city of Darius and Xerxes.

~ T is for Temporary Marriage ~

The rule is no sex outside marriage - and in Iran that's a rule you don't break or the penalties are severe; as a minimum it's a good flogging and then you are marched off and forced to marry or if it's adultery then the penalty is death. But people (i.e. 'men') have 'needs' or so we are told and there's a weird little loophole that's allegedly been around since the time of Mohammed - it's called 'temporary marriage' and it utterly does my head in. Our local guide told us that a Temporary Marriage can last for a minimum of a year and gives the woman some kind of legal protection. He claimed it was 'better than prostitution or having a mistress' but I couldn't quite figure out the logic behind that if no man will want a woman who's not a virgin.

You can apparently renew your temporary marriage three times and after that you have to go ahead and do a proper one. I think there's also some facility for having more than one wife but by that stage of the conversation he'd lost me. It was certainly a bit of a shock.

~ U is for Underpasses ~

There don't seem to be any and this leads to the widespread art or sport of playing chicken on busy roads. Maybe all those paintings of martyrs on the roundabouts were actually for those killed trying to cross the road? I don't know but being a pedestrian in Iran is a dangerous business. In order to reach the famous Azadi Monument (the big white four legged arch you tend to see in news reports) we had to take our lives in our hands and run for it. I'm still shaking about the experience more than two years later.

~ V is for Visas ~

Whatever you do, don't go over your allotted time limit. The authorities don't have a sense of humour about such matters and you may get a free extension to your visit - in a jail cell. Allegedly if you expect to have problems the best place to apply for a visa extension is 'anywhere other than Tehran' where the tourist police will make you sweat. Esfahan is recommended.

To get in you will of course have to apply for a visa. This is relatively unproblematic if you travel with an approved tour company but can be tricky for individuals especially if they have no local 'sponsor' to endorse their visit.

~ W is for Water ~

It's probably more precious than oil - they've got plenty of the latter. Over the millennia people have devised clever ways to store water in underground 'cisterns' and to maximise the effectiveness of its collection. Amazingly though as a tourist you don't have to drink bottled water; Iran is rightly very proud that the water straight from the tap is completely safe.

~ X is for Xerxes ~

One of the great Persian emperors who got his arse well and truly whooped by the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae and subsequently failed to take Athens. It's a great shame to me that the recent film '300' focused on the one big battle that the Persians lost and there aren't enough films about the amazing feats of warfare that led to the creation and expansion of the Persian Empire.

~ Y is for Yazd ~

The desert city of Yazd is a tourist attraction with fabulous mosques, spooky Zoroastrian 'Towers of Silence' and Fire Temples and clever cooling systems using wind towers called badgirs. We of course got into some fairly silly discussions about badgers instead which led to a lot of giggling over the alcohol-free beverages. In Yazd we found some bizarre attractions, not least of which was the chance to watch an exceptionally sweaty group of men doing their exercises in a pit. I forget what this was called but I don't forget the stink.

~ Z is for Zoroastrianism ~

Inevitably it's snuck in a couple of times already but Zoroastrianism practised by followers of Zarathustra (cue the music from 2001, a Space Odyssey) is thought to have been the world's first monotheistic religion. The god of Zoroastrians is called Ahura Mazda. Some of the basics of the religion were sacred elements (fire, air, earth and water), and an ongoing battle between light and dark and good and bad. The religion is perhaps best known for its tradition of leaving dead bodies out in the 'Towers of Silence' to be eaten by vultures so that the bodies didn't defile the earth or fire. Bones were then incarcerated in rock tombs such as those at Naqsh-e Rustam.

Zoroastrianism is a fascinating religion that believes the hedgehogs are excellent little beasts that gobble up slugs and spiders and 'other manifestations of the shadow'. How could you fail to like a religion that rates the little spiny critters so highly?

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