Two years ago, when I travelled the Silk Route from China to Georgia, we paused at Azerbaijan. The city of Baku took me by surprise. It blended modern Dubai with an ancient culture. But what really stayed with me was the Ateshgah Fire Temple: a pentagonal complex with a tetra pillar altar that once spewed flames. It was a religious centre for Persians and Indian Hindus till 1883, when the discovery of oil extinguished the source of the flames.
On the walls of the complex, you can see couplets in Persian and Sanskrit, and the next day, I saw the Ateshgah logo on the famous Alfred Nobel house. That same afternoon, we travelled to Yanar Dag, a mountain not far from the city. It is an astounding site. On the ridge of the mountain face were fires from gas that have been burning for thousands of years – through rain and snow. When I stood near the 10-metre-long and three-metre-high flames that erupted from the bowels of earth, the force of the fires singed my being with their searing heat.
“Imagine what early inhabitants thought of Yanar Dag,” said our guide. “They were so frightened by this force of nature that they began to worship the fires. They saw the fires as a sacred sign from God”.
It is from this area of the Caspian Sea that fire worshippers began their religion. Not far from here, in what was then the Persian empire, came the prophet Zarathustra. Historians cannot decide his exact birth year (between 628 and 551 BCE), or his birthplace. It could have been in east or west Iran; possibly even north Afghanistan.
I was always fascinated by this prophet who started life as a humble cobbler and was murdered by the Daevas people. He was the person who saw the One God in the sacred flames. His beliefs would set the tone for Christianity and Islam many centuries later.
So that night, after Yanar Dag, I decided I must visit Iran. For the Prophet and for Persepolis. The latter had been on my bucket list since 1982 when I worked in Oman, just across the Strait of Hormuz. So near yet so far.
When the embargo on Iran was lifted last year, I called Cox & Kings and requested a 10-day itinerary for what most of my friends were denouncing as a crazy holiday to a ‘war-torn, unsafe, terrorist, radical country’. Only my Parsi friends sent me off with blessings.
When I did the Everlasting Flame Parzor show in Delhi this May, Shernaz Cama of the Parzor Foundation offered me the famed Gaz nougat of Yazd as a sweet introduction to Iran, even though my itinerary did not include all the Zoroastrian places I wanted to see. No fire temple at Takht-e-Suleiman (Solomon’s Throne) from where the Magi left following a star to find the baby Jesus. No Chak Chak where the eternal flame has been burning for over 2,500 years. “Never mind,” chorused my Parsi dikra friends. “As long as you see Persepolis and Yazd, it’s enough for a first trip.”
No matter what you expect of Iran, accept the unexpected. A wealthy, culture-filled country with a handsome, beautiful, friendly people, incredible cuisine, amazing sites, safe, chic, modern and hospitable beyond belief. Its Islamic heritage and history is fabulous: mosques of incredible decorative elements, sensational mirrored palaces, fabrics, calligraphy, fine art and poetry.
We breezed into Shiraz, that rose-filled, fragrant city of palaces, mosques and monuments. And the next day, my three-decade-old dream became a reality.
Nothing, nothing, can prepare you for Persepolis. The sheer size and scale of the site leaves you with many dropped-jaw moments. From the minute you climb the grand stairway to the lobby of Darius the Great’s reception chamber to the minute you leave the site, you are dumbstruck. Those columns that rise into the air piercing the sky (yes, there was a roof that covered it at one time, with timber and tiles from the far-flung corners of the Persian empire), the grand processions of visiting foreign dignitaries from Egypt to the Indus, Scythia to Arabia carved on stone, the voluminous treasury, temple after temple, palace after palace... Persepolis is Persian Zoroastrianism at peak perfection.
Nearby are the tombs of Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes carved into the cliff face of Naqsh-e-Rostam: a site of impressive splendour that includes Sasanian bas-reliefs. A one-hour drive away is the humble tomb of Cyrus the Great, sitting lonely and almost melancholic on a vast windswept plain, surrounded by a few ruins around the main tomb.
On our Zoroastrian quest, past Kerman, the Kaluts Desert, Mahan and Caravanserais along the ancient Silk Route, we finally arrive in romantic Yazd. This hidden city of the desert escaped the conquest and destruction of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. The dry landscape hid the fact that Yazd is watered by a complex tunnel of waterways from the mountains around it. No one could have dreamed that there was a thriving city behind the barren mountains; hence it escaped the grasp of conquerors.
The old city, the wind-catching towers, the Amir Chakmagh complex, the mosques, the Water Museum and the world-protected Dowlatabad Garden are all must-see sites.
A camel ride away, a one-day trip from Yazd will take you to the old city of Chak Chak. It is here that the oldest everlasting flame burns, from over 2,500 years ago. But we did not have a camel ride day at our disposal. So we settled for the 1,500-year-old flame at the Fire Temple in Yazd.
When we arrived, a sand storm and rain shower collectively hit the city. Huddling in a building opposite the Fire Temple, we climbed to the first floor that offers a bird’s eye view of the temple.
Later, I stood before the Sacred Flame and had the souvenirs I purchased during the trip blessed. The power of the flame is so intoxicating that I returned the next day and felt doubly blessed. The emotion is overpowering and must be experienced. To be near a fire that has been burning before many civilisations on earth were born... incredible!
On the outskirts of Yazd, you approach what was once the far outer reaches of the city. Today there are two Towers of Silence that stand testament to Iran’s Zoroastrian past. Both can be accessed by foot. The authorities coaxed the Zoroastrians to shut down the towers for health reasons, so since the ’70s, they’ve been buried in the cemetery below.
From the rim of the Towers of Silence, you look down at a series of mud structures and the city of Yazd in the distance. It is a lonely emotion. Much like what I felt when I walked through the National Museum in Tehran a few days later. The many Zoroastrian objects and sculptures on display recount the history of a great civilisation and religion, which are now isolated, yet persevering.
From Persepolis to Yazd and on to Tehran, what I went to Iran for was accomplished. But only in a way. I have left Chak Chak for another trip. It is an excuse to return and complete my Zoroastrian-Iranian odyssey.
Wendell Rodricks is a fashion designer, writer, environmentalist, traveller and foodie.
From HT Brunch, July 17, 2016
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