Thursday, June 13, 2013

Yazd's Earth, Wind and Fire

FAQ #6: Is it a dry country?!! They do have alcohol, don't they? (This question came primarily from my bar buddies.)

A: I'm sure they do.  They tell me they do. I heard many a story about house parties where contraband spirits flow, but with the exception of some homemade hooch that a local guide offered me early in the trip, the ban of all things alcoholic appears to be working all too well (at least for the non-connected visitor).  I went to veg restaurants, art galleries and every other place I could think of where a non-religious drinking-type person would hang out (in other words, my usual scene) but did not encounter anything stronger than near beer.

In lieu of actual ales, most stores and restaurants sell something called "Islamic beer" ( aka 0% alcohol near beer), which is essentially a malt soda.  A quick tip: when someone points to a particular brand and tries to tell you that it tastes like real beer, be assured that this person has not had beer in a very long time.  But if you want a golden-colored beverage, served in a frosty glass, it will do the trick and thus, it became my go-to beverage for those 17 days of forced sobriety.

That is not to say that I abandoned hope on finding an underground speakeasy right around the corner.  I thought that the isolated, relatively liberal no-head-scarf requiring caravanserai might be willing to break a rule or two, but I was wrong.  My expectations then turned to our next stop, the quiet desert town of Yazd.  That was a (dry) wash as well but it compensated by providing a great base for exploring some really cool nearby sights.
Before we even got into town, we stopped at the Towers of Silence. Contrary to what their name implies, this is not a monument to Iran's librarians.  This is a Zoroastrian holy place. Zoroastrianism was Iran's chief religion during the Achaemenid and Sassanid periods (up until the 7th century when Islam took over).  Today, there are some enclaves in Iran, Yazd being one of them, where the religion in still practiced.

The Towers of Silences were a place to purify the dead.  Up until 1970, when the practice was banned, a deceased (presumably naked) person's body would be placed atop one of the towers so that animals and birds of prey- primarily vultures- could feast on the corpse. They remained up there until all that was left were the bones. In this way, the bodies, which were thought to be impure or possibly riddled with demons, would not taint the earth or the sacred fire.

The families of the deceased would wait out that period in a compound immediately beneath the hills.  Only the priest would be permitted to go up to the towers to see the birds' progress.  Among his responsibilities would be to report on which eyeball was consumed first.  If it was the right eye, the person was going to the happy place.  Left eye- well, he was kind of a jerk, anyways. I'm thinking that if I were ill or seeing that semi-illuminated tunnel,  I would find a honey-based eye cream and start applying it liberally to one particular side of my face, just in case. Otherwise, there is a good chance those buzzards would be ordering up a plate of left eye bruschetta as their starter.

Once nature had done its job, the bones would be collected and buried.  When you think of it in a 'circle of life' kind of way, this is actually kind of perfect.  The birds of prey need to eat, these bodies are no more, why not put them to a useful purpose?

Since the practice was banned, ostensibly for health reasons, the Zoroastrians have adapted their methods. Now, a layer of concrete is poured onto the earth before the body is placed in its burial site.  In this way, the earth remains untainted.  The towers, no longer serving their original purpose, have become tourist sites and anyone can climb all the way to the top.

The hole is the spot where the body would be placed.

View of the second tower from the first.

The housing and waiting areas have since been permitted to turn to ruin.  Really cool looking ruins..

The Zoroastrians considered water and fire to be purifying and built temples to worship these elements.  One of the holiest is the Atash Behram, a fire temple just outside Yazd.  The fire burning within has been going for over 1500 years and is the holiest 'grade' of fire possible.  From wikipedia:
The highest grade of fire is the Atash Behram, "Fire of victory", and its establishment and consecration is the most elaborate of the three. It involves the gathering of 16 different "kinds of fire", that is, fires gathered from 16 different sources, including lightning, fire from a cremation pyre, fire from trades where a furnace is operated, and fires from the hearths as is also the case for the Atash Adaran. Each of the 16 fires is then subject to a purification ritual before it joins the others. 32 priests are required for the consecration ceremony, which can take up to a year to complete.
A temple that maintains an Adaran or Behram fire also maintains at least one Dadgah fire. In contrast to the Adaran and Behram fires, the Dadgah fire is the one at which priests then celebrate the rituals of the faith, and which the public addresses to invoke blessings for a specific individual, a family or an event. Veneration of the greater fires is addressed only to the fire itself.

We visited both sites before we ever even got to our hotel, which was located right by the Jameh mosque, or I should say a Jameh mosque.  It didn't take long to realize that every city in Iran has a Jameh (or Friday) mosque, which is generally their nicest one.

This particular one had some really beautiful blue tile work.  I know while within this place of worship, I should have been focusing on divinity, the meaning of life or some such thing but to be honest, I was wondering how this tile would look in my bathroom and how much of it could I fit in my bag.  What??  I'm an atheist with a new home and a fascination for Persian decor, it was inevitable.

After a leisurely afternoon, Yasna and I visited the Water Museum, which focused on the qanats, or man-made underground waterways, which were used to irrigate and provide water for this and many other desert towns.

I noticed that my reflection showed up in a lot of the Yazd pics.  This was not always intentional. 

While the process of digging these canals was interesting and the engineering ingenious (it all relied on gravity), the real highlight of this stop was the mansion where the museum was housed.

It and many other buildings in the area featured wind towers, used to provide much needed coolness and ventilation by directing the wind downwards and into the structure itself.

Unfortunately, due to ongoing restoration and a couple of unbribe-able security guards, we were unable to climb atop any of the structures within the nearby Amir Chakmakh complex for better photos. Instead we visited a couple of the many sweet shops in the area.  This may have been the moment when I officially abandoned all pretenses of maintaining my diet.  From here on in, it was all ice cream, all sweets, all the time..

Not an actual sweet, just pure sugar, intended for dunking into tea but quite tasty when just eaten on its own..or so I hear.
As attractive as Yazd is, the truth of the matter is that there is not a whole lot to do there, other than roam around its multitude of alleyways, so that is what I did.

On my final day, I visited a stunning 19th century merchant's house.  The Lariha Mansion, originally a convent, built in 1286,  was eventually converted into private residence and later into a museum and home for the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization.

As I mentioned earlier, the best thing about Yazd was its surroundings.  I will soon be posting photos of one of my favorite days in Iran...or if you do not want to wait, just look me up.  I'll show you the pics over some beers- some real, strong, tasty, tasty beers.

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