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July 17, 2018, Shiraz, Iran

Shirazi soliloquy

Shiraz turns on its poetic charm and introduces Ryandall Lim to Iran’s history, culture and everyday life

Ryandall Lim

A SMALL crowd had gathered at a copper-roofed octagonal pavilion in the middle of a peaceful garden in Shiraz peppered with orange trees and rose bushes.

As I walked closer, I heard soft murmurs: People were reciting verses from the pages of a thick book they were randomly flipping through. One by one, they ran their fingers slowly along engraved scripts on a white sarcophagus in the middle of the pavilion, in which rests Iran’s most revered poet, Hafez.

A dapper young man who had just performed the ritual came over to chat with me.

He instinctively answered the question in my mind. “Hafez is our greatest Iranian poet — our hero. He wrote about love, life and things close to our hearts. Many of us come to hear what he tells us about our future,” he explained in English.

In the garden surrounding the Tomb of Hafez, people sat quietly in twos and threes, also with opened books. Tears flowed down the cheeks of some, as if they had just been enlightened by messages from heaven.

City of Poets

Shiraz, Iran’s fifth most populous city, is known as the City of Poets, Love, Culture, Flowers and Wine — the latter, a label retained from long ago when it was thriving with vineyards.

This bustling city with modern infrastructure sits on a fertile, green plain at the foot of the Zagros Mountains in the south-west of the country, and its almost 4,000 years of history makes it one of ancient Persia’s oldest cities.

Two of Iran’s best-loved poets, Hafez (1315 to 1390) and Saadi (1210 to 1292), were born, and died, here. Their tombs, located north of the lofty 18th century Arg-e Karim Khan (Karim Khan Citadel) and the Khoshk River, are important pilgrimage sites for locals.

My young companion explained that Sufi poets and their literary works are regarded as spiritual, and ingrained in Iranian culture. He shared a famous Iranian quote: “Every household must possess two things — first the Quran, and then Hafez’s collection of poetry.” 

A stone’s throw away from the Tomb of Hafez is Bagh-e Jahan Nama, one of Shiraz’s oldest and finest Persian gardens. Towering cedar trees and pretty flowering shrubs line paths that lead visitors to an antique stone building with a marble reflecting pool in the centre of the romantic, leafy sanctuary.

Its proximity to Hafez’s mausoleum is symbolic — the 13th-century garden is mentioned in many of Hafez’s poems. I learnt from a visiting couple that many devotees adjourned there after paying their respects to the poet.

They urged me to walk under the historic 10th-century arched gate a short distance away. “You’ll have good fortune,” the lady said.

It is believed that travellers who pass through Darvazeh-Ye Quran, or Quran Gate, at Shiraz’s north-eastern entrance receive divine blessings from two ancient handwritten Islamic holy books, or Qurans, kept in a small room at the top. I walked through the gate twice for a double dose of good luck.

Colourful connections

Many of Shiraz’s historical attractions are gateways into poetic realms. One fine example is the Nasir-Ol-Molk Mosque. Built in 1888, the Pink Mosque — its pink interior tiles earned it that name — is a lyrical masterpiece where spirituality, art, grace and beauty converge.

In the mosque’s winter prayer hall, sunrays seeped innocuously through ornate stained glass windows and splashed the crimson walls, pillars and carpeted floor with a thousand amazing colours.

I was the first visitor that early morning and sat in a corner mesmerised by the magical transformation of light into a kaleidoscopic rainbow of patterns, humbled that something I had taken for granted almost every day had the potential to become so gloriously stunning.

Later, I ventured further down the road to Bazar-e Vakil, one of two ancient covered bazaars located in Shiraz’s historical city centre.

The 11th-century market with an unimpressive façade turned out to be another sensorial explosion. Packed within the alleyways were crowds of locals and tourists patronising hundreds of stalls selling everything from spices and carpets to souvenirs and traditional jewellery.

Stallholders struck up friendly conversations with passers-by, especially foreigners. Building connections seemed part of the Iranian psyche; transacting was just a secondary goal.

I bought a pair of Persian slippers, handpainted enamel plates and a gemstone ring. The last was a hard-fought bargain in sign language with a jovial seller. When he realised that I was getting the Persian turquoise ring “for my papa”, he swiftly agreed to my price, then insisted I have tea with him.

Whispers from an ancient empire

On the last day, I visited Iran’s premier attraction and national treasure, Persepolis. Just 60km north-east of Shiraz, it is a grand, rambling graveyard of magnificent 500BC ruins.

The ancient gates and palaces, looming sculptures and crumbling columns of this Unesco World Heritage site are regarded as historically significant as the Roman Forum.

Each mighty structure tells a grand tale about its maker — either Persia’s fourth king, Darius the Great, or his son Xerxes I.

As the evening sun began to set, Persepolis was bathed in an orange glow. Then, as if heaven felt a need to cast one last spotlight on a former glory, sunrays pierced through the clouds, making a dramatic closing statement to my Persian adventure.

GETTING THERE

I flew on Emirates to Dubai, then took an hour’s bus ride to Sharjah for a connecting Air Arabia flight to Iran’s capital, Teheran. I travelled by bus from Teheran to Shiraz, 930km away.

GUIDELINES

- Singaporeans can obtain visas upon arrival at Iran’s airports. Check Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website (http://e_visa.mfa.ir/en/).

- Bring sufficient cash (US dollars and euros are preferred) as foreign-issued credit and debit cards are still not widely accepted at businesses or ATMs. S$1 = 28,800IR n Install VPN apps on your smart devices to get on the Internet. Some sites, including social media platforms, are blocked in Iran.

- Dress modestly; women must use headscarves when outdoors.

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