Poetic Shiraz

By Angela Corrias Source:Global Times Published: 2015-6-12 5:03:02

A tour through beauty in Iran

The Gate of All Nations in Shiraz, Iran Photo: Angela Corrias

Qajar-era Nasir al-Mulk mosque Photo: Angela Corrias

This week's destination


"Such a spiritual atmosphere, can you feel it?"  my friend Madi asked me. A man took off his shoes, went down on his knees and, repeatedly bowing his head, performed his Namaz-e Maghreb, the evening prayer. We were not in a mosque, but instead in an open pavilion of eight marble pillars supporting an azure mosaic-coated dome, gathered around a simple stone grave Iranians call Hafezieh, the mausoleum of their beloved poet Hafez, a native of Shiraz.

It was right here, by a chattering crowd of Iranians of all ages, Hafez's poems in my hands, that I first entered into the world of Persian poetry.

Birthplace of two of Iran's finest minds, while Saadi's 13th century mausoleum will allow you to revel in his verses of justice, love and humility loyally reproduced all around his grave with a beguiling display of sinuous Persian calligraphy, it's Hafezieh that is the true romantic pilgrimage hub for all Iranians.

Ancient history and culture

Everyone is seduced by poetic flair and timeless beauty. From Imperial Rome to Ancient Greece through the Middle Ages, historians, travellers and artists have fallen under the spell of Iran's unique combination of glorious history, passionate adventures and a witty warmth. Throughout the centuries, Shiraz - capital of the Fars province as defined by Edward Browne in his book A Year Among The Persians and "the cradle of Persian greatness" - has inspired a plethora of poetic monikers, from "city of poets and nightingales" to "city of love and flowers." From time immemorial it has been the nation's fanciful soul welcoming bedazzled visitors from all over the world, thanks to its monumental gardens, local poets and the intoxicating fragrance of orange blossom so typical of Persian cuisine.

Reaching Shiraz from frenzied Tehran, my first impression was one of calm and serenity, and when my Iranian friend Madi mentioned my thoughts to our taxi driver, he smirked with the philosophical aplomb that defines pretty much all Shirazis: "We do it for tourists, we stay at home to rest so they have more space for strolling around. It's a win-win!" Leaving little room to disagreement, he welcomed us to his hometown knowing full well we would love it.

The best departure point to explore the majestic vestiges of the Achaemenid Empire, one of the first and arguably one of the most storied dynasties falling under the umbrella of the mighty Persian Empire, Shiraz lies some 135 kilometers from Pasargadae - the ancient capital of the empire built by its founder, Cyrus the Great, whose imposing tomb is the area's main landmark.

If it's true that the best way to delve into a place's cultural heritage is to dig deep into its history, no trip to Shiraz can be considered complete without visiting the monumental ruins of the Empire's ceremonial capital, the legendary Persepolis. Founded by Darius the Great with the aim to make it the sumptuous seat of the Achaemenian kings, the city was accessed through the imposing Gate of All Nations, where mythological figures of winged bulls with the heads of bearded men welcomed dignitaries and officials from the world over seeking to meet and pay tribute to the emperor.

Today in Persepolis we can admire beautiful thousand-year-old carvings, imposing pillars remaining from the bygone magnificence of one of the greatest ancient empires and the grandiose architectural features of luxurious palaces, monumental staircases and throne rooms, a view that never fails to evoke the undisputable knack for beauty to survive in modern surrounding cities.

A place for poetry and romance

Everything in Shiraz seems to exude poetry and romance, and Shirazis are by all means the masters of a sentimental way of living that never takes for granted the delicate scent of flowers whenever the seasonal opportunity arises and promotes lingering at the sight of continuously gushing fountains while sipping tea in one of the city's enchanted parks. Hafez himself, when exiled to the stunning city of Esfahan, never stopped longing to go back to Shiraz, and right until his return he mostly devoted his creativity to his beloved hometown - his sanctuary and muse.

"In Shiraz the bounty of heavenly spirit/ Amidst its wise people is an inner trait" "O God let me stay with this, my dream/ I am happy with the vision of my mate/ Brave separation Hafiz, patiently wait/ Thank God for union, time to consummate" were only some of the poet's heartfelt verses devoted to the city that epitomizes the features of a soulmate from whose arms he was painfully taken away.

Granted, in this region most romantic clichés hardly apply. For a start, there is no river to admire from a fairy-tale bridge, and for sure there is no champagne flute that would justify spontaneous flirting. Yet love poems and nostalgic verses make up for this and enter Iranians' lives in a spontaneous and routine manner. I've always been proud of my cultural Italian and French background, but only in Iran have I seen people from all walks of life opening a random page of a poet's book to seek advice for their future and love life.

As I was told, while it's common practice both at the poet's memorial and just about any time it is needed, this whimsical tradition is especially performed during the occasion of Yalda celebrations on December 21st. The longest night of the year, families gather around a sumptuously set table and rely on Hafez's wise words for clarity on the time to come, drawing a thin line between admiration for his fine verses and the ancestral need for otherworldly support. Even though largely present in Iranians' daily life, it's in his mausoleum that his poetry reaches the highest level of spirituality, and this unassuming stone becomes the perfect place to explore the nuances of his rhymes that never fail to bewitch and capture a visitor's heart.

A city immersed in nature

In my quest to immerse myself in the Iranian concepts of poetry and idyll, I was naturally drawn to the city's fabled gardens. "Our gardens always inspire us to romance," said Mahtab, a young Shirazi girl I met while meandering around the alleys of the enchanting Eram Garden, one of the most popular city parks alongside Narenjestan and a triumph of an Iranian gardening style that sees water as the main element surrounded by all types of plants, trees and colorful flowers.

 Considered one of the most beautiful green oases in all of Iran, Eram Garden's origins are shrouded in mystery. Although today's look stems from several renovations, historical research seems to establish its inception as early as the Seljuq Dynasty around the 11th century. A huge collection of plants from all over the world, Eram Garden was finally given to Shiraz University in 1963 and has been fulfilling the function of center for botanical science research since.

Similarly, Qajar-era Narenjestan Garden boasts a rich boulevard of flowers and orange trees lined up along a stream of water that leads directly to the opulent Qavam House, once devoted to public meetings and administrative duties and today open to the public for visitors to admire its paintings, mirrors and the finely inlaid decorations.

If public parks are usually considered a place to break from daily routine and relax, for Iranians they hold a whole different meaning, being the main source of inspiration for the decoration of paintings, carpets and handicraft, items seen as ways to recreate heaven and bring nature inside the home.

Here too, you won't find the usual urban park scene, no itinerant flower seller handing out roses and no violin playing near the benches, instead you have a proud ostentation of art and culture spanning different centuries and dynasties, from the Seljuqs to the Zand to the Qajari. It's here that the city's famed relaxed vibe sports its best demeanor. Instead of the sights of young couples romancing their way through the evening that you can catch in Tehran, in Shiraz a different type of carefree attitude can take place, the type that left me amused to see a young woman consider the mesmerizing interplay of mirrors and reflections in Narenjestan Garden's aptly named Mirror Hall as the perfect place for fixing her chador, rather than merely a historical monument.

But it was only when the sun began to set and we headed to the park adjacent to Karim Khan fortress to spend a moonlit night nibbling on a traditional faloodeh - a slushy semi-frozen dessert made with rice noodles, rose water and lime juice - that we realized the full extent of the Shirazis' knack for courtship. Young boys played soccer while trying to catch a fleeting glimpse of the girls chattering on the bench, the same girls casting an amused and stealthy glance back at them. Short and imperceptible flirtatious moments in a country where intimacy is usually kept indoors.

Even spirituality in Shiraz is inspired by beauty, art and grace, and Qajar-era Nasir al-Mulk mosque couldn't have been anywhere else. Going early in the morning before the crowd of foreign tourists arrived, I could enjoy peacefully the sun rays that, seeping through the stained-glass windows, created an otherworldly atmosphere that was the perfect way to round off a short yet spellbinding journey through cultural and romantic Iran. It doesn't matter how long you stay in Shiraz, because once you leave, Hafez's verses will resonate with you all the way until your return, inspiring you to get lost in poetry and rekindle the romance in your life.

Rules of thumb

When to go

The best time to travel to Iran is during spring, right after Nowruz, the one-month celebrations for Persian New Year that start on March 21, when the weather is ideal and the prices are cheaper than during the local festivities. During winter the northern regions are very cold, while from June through August the southern cities, including Shiraz, are very hot and traveling can prove challenging.

Where to stay

In Iran you can find any type of accommodation with prices depending heavily on the unstable currency rates. A double room in 4-star hotels can range from $80 to S100 per night, while in tourist areas budget guesthouses and B&Bs are becoming always more popular and common.

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