A Tale of 22 Cities – Chapter 3


The ten hour journey was spent sleeping as there was nothing much to be seen outside the windows. Sometime after midnight the bus stopped at a gas station and the place was crowded with camels. The desert between Esfahan and Shiraz is home of the Qashqai tribe who still live a nomadic life. In the morning we passed through the peaks of Zagros mountains and reached a valley, situated between Iranian plateau and Mesopotamia. From here the Persian kings set out, conquered and ruled almost every notable living civilization of their times. The city also had been capital of Persia during 1750-79. It was about nine in the morning when we got out of the bus terminal and hired a cab to take us to any “mehmon khana” (guest house) in the city center. On our way we asked the driver about the places worth-seeing in Shiraz. Later it was decided that the cab driver would remain hired with us for the whole day and take us to the tombs of Shah Chiragh, Saadi Shirazi, Hafiz Shirazi and the Takht-e-Jamshed. The taxis cost so cheap in Iran that we could afford to pay fifteen thousand Rials for the day’s trip to all those places. He even promised to bring us back to the bus terminal next day.

After climbing a very narrow stairway, we reached a very small counter where an old woman was standing on the landing part of the stairs. Abdul Manan, the driver told her about our requirement of two small rooms. She asked us about the number of days we intended to stay. When we told her that we wanted to stay for a single night only, she started fighting with the driver. It was not profitable for her owner to change the bed-covers for the customers checking in and out every day. According to her the visitors staying for a day make the room more dirty than the ones staying for a week or so. She was a funny looking woman, and insisted on keeping our passports with her. She was drinking milk at that moment and later, I observed that a glass full of milk was always present on the counter from which she kept on sipping through out the day. After taking her time in completing the paperwork, she gave the keys to Manan and told him the numbers of our rooms. We decided to grab a quick shower before going out for sightseeing. There was only one bathroom in the inn and one of us had to wait. The woman and the driver kept on talking to each other which to me seemed like shouting which I could not understand but could hear from the bathroom, the living room and even from my bed room.

I told the driver that we were very anxious to see Takht-e-Jamshed (Throne of Jamshed or the Persepolis) and wanted to spend most of our time there. He nodded and moved on. First he took us to the tomb of the famous romantic poet Saadi Sherazi, also known as the Wordsmith, who lived during the medieval period in the ­thirteenth century. His books “Gulistan” and “Boostan” are considered as great contributions to classical literature, world wide and recognized for the depth of his social and moral thoughts.. Saadi traveled a lot throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa and spent the last days of his life in Shiraz. The region around Saadi’s tomb was called “Saadia”. Saadi being well known for his vigorously expressive thoughts had rightly said that, “If you are unsympathetic to the misery of others, it is not right that they should call you a human being.”

Not very far from Saadia, we were taken to a place called “Hafizia”. The tomb of another great mystic and romantic poet, Khawaja Hafiz Shirazi, widely known for his book “Lisan-ul-Ghaib” (voice from heavens). The period after which the Mongols left Persia, is considered to be the golden age of the Persian arts and literature. Great thinkers and poets like Saadi, Romi, Hafiz and Jami contributed a lot during these times. Hafiz though holds a key position in this era, as his poetry had the romanticism like Saadi, mysticism like Roomi and Shams Tabraizi’s, and held the same masterly position in Persian literature that was enjoyed by Jami in the later years. Persians even today use his books for fortune telling. Hafiz was known for his artful punning, to the extent that many modern scholars such as William Jones, Henry Wilberforce Clarke and Emerson have been unable to interpret Hafiz’s work and question whether his work is to be interpreted literally, mystically, or both. His works also put him in trouble more than once. One of his verses became the reason for him being summoned to the court of Timurlane to explain where Saadi had made the mole on the face of a girl more important to him than the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Timurlane’s anger was obvious since Samarkand was Tamerlane’s capital and Bokhara was his kingdom’s finest city and he had subjugated most of the habitable globe to embellish these two cities.

Later we went to the tomb of Shah Chiragh, the man who had been a companion of three famous Imams: namely, Imam Jafar Sadiq, Imam Musa Kazim and Imam Reza. The last Imam had said that if anybody after his death came to visit him and did not visit Shah Chiragh, then the pilgrim’s homage wouldn’t be accepted. A lot of people who were being seen there, must have come from or planned to go to the Northern Iran to visit the tomb of Imam Reza in Mashhad. Next to the tomb was a market called Bazaar Shah Chiragh. We bought some drinks and sandwiches from the market and headed for Tahkt-e-Jamshed (the throne of Jamshed, where Jamshed is a king from Iranian mythology). Traveling for some fifty kilometers on a lonely road out of the city we reached the ruins of Tahkt-e-Jamshed, also called the Persepolis “the city of the Persians”, the royal capital of fifth century BC Persian empire of the Achaemenids.

The excavation to unearth Persepolis was started in 1930. Alexander, after crossing Dardanelles along with an army of forty thousand men in 334 BC, conquered the Persepolis and burnt the city as a revenge or as a suggestion from his hetaira known as Thais, to the way the Persian invaders during the reign of Darius and his son Xerxes had burnt the Greek temples. It is also said that Alexander described Persepolis to the Macedonians as the most hateful of the cities of Asia. Today some 20 meter high huge columns without a roof and wide terraces could be seen, evident of the grandeur and splendor of the ceremonial capital of the King of Kings, Darius I and his son. Darius held an empire of over three hundred subject nations and divided them into twenty provinces. Governors of those provinces had full autonomy, but the king’s special secretaries called the eyes and ears of the king were responsible for tax collection and check against any revolt in the empire. We entered the Persepolis from the stairway and reached the ruins of a huge gate house which used to be called as the Gateway of all Nations. The thirteen columns, which can be seen even today were actually the columns of a twenty meter high audience hall called Apadana. The remains of a thirty six column throne-room and the hundred column palace were totally destroyed; and only the rubble and the bricks laid as foundations proved of its existence.

The bas-reliefs, which decorated the walls of all the halls, stairways and terraces of the palace were the evident source of providing the information about the happenings and the styles of the administration of those days. On the stairway the figures of men could be notably differentiated, by their costumes and head-gears, as Syrians, Ionians, Bactrins, Medeans or Persians bringing and presenting traditional gifts of their regions to the King of kings. The most significant and revolutionary aspect of Persepolis is that it fused art and architecture from various parts of the world and celebrated the racial and cultural diversity of the Persian Empire. There were not many tourists seen in Shiraz and there was nobody visiting Persepolis besides us that day. The driver told us that all the airlines were busy taking the pilgrims to the Holy Mecca and not many domestic flights were operating in the country those days.

We came back to our room at around seven in the afternoon and took an early dinner in a nearby restaurant. We were so tired that we went to sleep at once, only to be awakened by the piercing voice of the old woman, echoing through the narrow stairway, at six next morning. Manan was standing outside smiling warmly towards us as we came out of our room, to rush with the routine SSS (Shit, Shave and Shower). As we had paid him off the previous night and the pick-and-drop service was something he had offered himself, we didn’t expect him to keep his promise at all. He showed us his watch to make us realize that we’d miss the first bus if we didn’t hurry up.

At the bus terminal we took the tickets to the city of Qum and went to take a hurried breakfast in a nearby restaurant. Later, I called my friend Hameed Saeedi in Qum and his father picked the phone. He told me that Hameed had gone to Tehran to meet his elder brother Waheed, and would return by the evening. He asked us to come to Qum and if Hameed had not returned by then he would give me the address of Waheed in Tehran. Hameed had visited Pakistan last year and stayed in Mastung for a couple of days with me.

Manan wanted us to stay for one more day in Shiraz and be his guest in his house. He was standing near his taxi when we got to our seats in the bus. He vanished all of a sudden and moments later, was standing in the bus aisle, with two bottles of mineral water in his hands. “Zaroorat Naist”, (Not necessary) I tried to tell him in my broken Farsi; but he hurriedly put them in our laps and left the bus. He kept on standing outside the window until the bus started moving.

We crossed the Zagros mountains and the desert, home of nomadic Qashqai tribe once again but this time during the daylight. Almost the same kind of ambulatory life is followed by a tribe found in the dry mountains of Southern Pakistan, not very far from where I live. Clusters of gypsy houses made of bamboo shoots and colorful shreds from used clothing, which are called gidans in the Southern part of my country, were seen scattered throughout the desert. Girls running after the goats, women cooking food in sooty pots and baking wide diameter thin bread were a sight very similar to my part of the world. Very long caravans of camels were also seen once in a while passing through the dunes, probably to explore those parts of the desert which were yet to be discovered. Occasionally a lone camel was also seen walking with heavy steps. The guy sitting across the aisle, told me that there were very remote chances of seeing a single camel like that, probably separated from its caravan, or left alone due to sickness. He also told me that camels have oval shaped blood cells which is why they are able to go almost a week without drinking water. I told him that I always thought camels stored water in their humps and he started laughing. I was surprised when he told me that the humps contain fat not water.

Nomadic concepts were always a mystery to me and many a times I had wished to find an opportunity to spend some time with them in their gidans. I thought they are the ones who truly believe in the fact that there is no need to plan about the future because you don’t know and you can not choose whether you are going to live through that or not. Its not that they had no love for life, but the nomads always talk of continuity and being in harmony with their surroundings and respecting what nature offers. It was Pars, a nomadic Indo-European tribe that settled on the upland plateau that is now Iran, and their King managed to establish a super power empire of more than forty percent of the world population in the sixth century B.C.E., and was titled the King of Kings or the King of four corners of the world. No one knows the real origins of these nomads, but it is widely believed that the nomads originated from modern-day Gujarat and Rajasthan. Nomad itself comes from “nomos”, which is a word from Indo-european languages. The nomads have shaped the world civilizations in our history by traveling and telling stories from other worlds. For some of us the nomad carry a certain flavor of romanticism whereas others judge them as drifters, migrants, vagrants, thieves, people on the move or even on the run. To me the nomads or gypsies or romanis, the bakhtiaris, or berbers, or the zargars or the tuaregs have been the people we have refused to know or ignored to recognize as a part of our history. We fail to understand that some humans might not want to go to kindergartens and universities and prefer not to have nine to five jobs and carry the burden of mortgages.

We reached Esfahan at around four in the afternoon. Qum was still about four hours away, which meant that it would be very late when we reached Qum. Considering it bad manners to call on Hameed’s father at that hour of the night, I decided to call Qum from Esfahan. Hameed had not arrived yet. I could only note the telephone number because it was difficult for me to understand the address his father was trying to dictate in Persian. I wished he understood me, when I tried to tell him that I could not stay in Qum and had to keep traveling.

The bus stopped at the magnificent site of Haram park in Qum, where the tomb of Masooma Qum, the sister of Imam Reza was situated. Whole of the park and the adjoining roads were illuminated with globes like luminaries and it looked as if candles instead of electric lamps were lit inside. Qum also holds the central Islamic university of the Shiite Muslims. Students from all over the world, lot of them being from Pakistan also, go there and study Islam and its applications in all aspects of life. The moral, social, economic and scientific approach of Islam according to the Shiite sect is taught. The city is also called the city of Ulemma (the islamic scholars). Apart from these two important holy places in the city, the third one, where almost whole of Qum assembles once a week is called as Masjid-e-Jim Karan. Muslims all over the world believe that Jesus was not crucified and was lifted by God, to be sent again in the world, sometimes before the doomsday. It is believed that people would have completely forgotten about the teachings of God by then, and Jesus would come as an Ummati (follower) of the Prophet Muhammad and preach the same faith floated by Mohammad. Similarly another Ummati by the name of Imam Mehdi would also come and give the final invitation of God for “Amar bil Maroof and Nahi anil Munkir” (enjoin what is good and approved, and forbid what is evil and disapproved) before the final judgement starts. It is also believed that Imam Mehdi will have features 􀁶f the Prophet Muhammad. Imam Mehdi will be born to the parents whose names will also be sam􀁹 as those of Prophet Muhammad’s. According to the people of Qum it was believed that one of the Ulemma of the city saw Imam Mehdi in his dream, in which the Imam had directed him to construct the Masjid-e-Jim Karan. They also believed that the Imam is himself present (but can not be seen) once in a week, most probably on Wednesdays in the mosque.

ISBN 969 34 0000 3 1997