The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged Iran

The Peaock Throne

The Peacock Throne

The Tehran National Jewels Museum is truly over-the-top, with a staggering collection of gem encrusted artifacts.

I had missed this when I was in Tehran in 2008, so I made sure to catch it this time.

The collection is in 37 large display cases, full of many lavishly decorated items. There are bright crowns, covered in pearls, a red and green encrusted globe, endless small artifacts covered with small red, green, and white stones.

OK, my first reaction on seeing all of this was to assume it couldn’t all be real. There is just too much stuff. And too many bright colors. It looks like costume jewelry. It can’t possibly all be real. Can it?

Reza Khan Crown

Reza Khan Crown

Then I stopped, and thought, and read the guide book. This is the accumulated collection of the Shahs of Persia. For several centuries they were the wealthiest potentates of the region, avidly buying up the best gems for their treasury. And that collection was never broken up. The 19th c. shahs added to it, including many large South African diamonds. The 20th c. Pahlavi shahs added further jewels and the collection survived the 1979 revolution intact. So, yes, the Museum is hosting the centuries old accumulated collection of very wealthy rulers. So, gulp, it is probably mostly real. (Even the best museums have the occasional imposter.)

Some of the more striking pieces include

  • the Reza Khan crown (with 3380 diamonds and 368 matched pearls)
  • Jewelled Buckler

    Jewelled Buckler

    the Darya-i-Nur “Sea of Light” 182 carat pink diamond

  • a large globe with the land marked with rubies and the seas with emeralds
  • a sword scabard entirely covered in 1869 rose-cut diamonds
  • a circular shield decorated with giant rubies and emeralds
  • just outside the vault proper is a display room holding the jewel encrusted Peacock Throne.

Oh my.

Jewelled Globe

Jewelled Globe

Some items do look rather gaudy: I guess when you use large emeralds and rubies, it is hard to look restrained.

The Museum is not sign posted. It is in a bank vault underneath the Melli Bank on Ferdossi Street, but to reach the Museum you need to enter via the the Central Bank building just to the North. They store your bag (and camera), run you through a metal detector and then send you South across a courtyard to the vault.

The Museum hours are 2:00-4:30 pm on Saturday to Tuesday. It is definitely worth trying to visit if you are in Tehran.


The Caged Queue

The Astara border crossing from Azerbaijan to Iran turned out to be a bit of a zoo.

The border crossing is very slow, and to maintain order the Azeri authorities have created a special queuing area with four distinct queues separated by cage-like walls. Every 30-40 minutes the authorities would open the steel door for one of the queues and let 20-30 people into the main immigration area. Each queue might only move every couple of hours.

Ahh, but the Azeris do not like to queue. Especially not for 4+ hours. So when a door opened some people in adjacent queues would frantically climb up through the roof and try to force their way down into the moving queue. And as the authorities tried to reclose the steel door, people would frantically try to force their way through anyway, sometimes using planks of wood to try to reopen the door!

Queue Jumping

I arrived at 8:15am. There were already several hundred people queued. By 11:45 I was still stuck in line and I climbed up and traversed out for a bathroom break. But of course, at that very moment our steel door opened, my queue started to move, and I had to frantically start climbing back in. Luckily people saw that I was just reclaiming my earlier place and made it easy for me, which was nice of them.

But woops, I was spotted by the authorities. You! I was waved angrily to the head of the line. I don’t speak Azeri, but the gist seemed to be a rather annoyed “You’re a foreigner!” I was ushered through into the immigration area and then ushered to the front of the inner queue. I felt simultaneously guilty for queue jumping and also slightly silly for not having played the “foreign tourist” card earlier.

I was quickly processed through Azeri immigration, with only a short discussion of British football teams. But the Iranian side was more interesting.

I was stamped into Iran fairly quickly. But then after a short pause, I was escorted upstairs to the immigration police headquarters. Where everyone was very nice, but my papers were very carefully checked. The chief himself reviewed all of my many passport stamps, no doubt looking for the dreaded I*****i stamp. He exclaimed in mild amusement when he finally deciphered “Paraguay” and the mood got a little lighter. Eventually he was done, everyone seemed happy, and I was handed off to a soldier with a rifle, apparently to show me out. Ah, but not quite.

The soldier escorted me out of immigration. And then into town. And then towards the local police station. And then into an interview room. Woops. But everyone seemed pretty relaxed and the police merely rechecked my passport and asked the usual “where are you from” kind of questions. And then I was carefully fingerprinted. This was probably the main reason for my visit to the police station: UK immigration fingerprints Iranians, so Iran is determined to return the favour.

After fingerprinting, I was led out to wash my hands and then waved onwards. Amidst the enthusiasm to check my passport and fingerprints, I had somehow bypassed customs, so we were all done. Hurrah!

After all that, I splurged on a taxi to Ardabil, and then took a bus on to Tabriz.

Practicalities: I think my timing (8:15am on a Saturday) was especially bad.  I arrived after the locals had already mostly joined the queue, and very few people were joining behind me.  By the time I finally got through, there was only a fairly short queue behind me.   If I had arrived at (say) 2:00pm I might have had only a fairly short wait.  Also, I should probably have played the “foreign tourist” card earlier.  There seems to be an area to the left (East) of the caged queue where some officials were housed and maybe I could have talked my way through there.

Zoroastrian Yazd

The city of Yazd is the main remaining Zoroastrian center in Iran.  Zoroastrianism is (along with Christianity and Judaism) one of the three recognized and protected religious minorities under the Islamic Republic’s constitution.  So worship and pilgrimages are officially  tolerated, although probably not exactly encouraged.

ZoroastrianTower of Silence

"Tower of Silence" near Yazd

I hired a car and guide for the trip out to the Zoroastrian shrine at Chak Chak.  We stopped first at one of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence atop a steep hill near Yazd.  The Zoroastrian religion forbids the polluting of the pure elements (especially water, earth and fire) with a corpse.  So both cremation and earth burial were disavowed.  Instead, bodies were exposed to be devoured by vultures in these “towers of silence”.  This is an odd inversion of the normal Christian or Muslim customs: the emphasis is not on preventing disturbance to the body, but rather on preventing the body disturbing the elements.

The tower was much lower and flatter than I expected.  It is really a circular wall, around 15-20 feet high,  around a raised platform.  This example is about 180 years old.  According to my guide, after the bodies had been devoured by vultures, the bones were collected in a central hole and then periodically dissolved by nitric acid.  It is now disused: the modern practice is to perform burials in concrete lined tombs.

Road to Chak ChakThe Chak Chak site is about 73 km from Yazd and is revered as a miraculous place of refuge for the pious daughter of the last of the Zoroastrian Persian Kings.  In 640 AD the Princess and a few retainers were fleeing in despair from the Arab invaders, across the Iranian desert.  According to the tale, they were close to death from thirst when the Princess tapped her staff on a rock and miraculously a tiny drip-drip of water appeared.  That drip-drip, in Persian “chak chak”, gives the name to the site.

The Chak Chak  ShrineThe site is on the side of a forbidding craggy mountain, a long drive from Yazd across an arid gravelly desert.  The mountain side looks entirely dry and desolate. I can well imagine that after emerging from the desert, the discovery of an entirely unexpected tiny spring, literally only drips, may have well seemed like a miracle to the pious.

The shrine, at the top of many steep steps, is covered by a fairly recent dome and protected by a modern stone wall and stout bronze doors.  Tree trunks grow sideways out of the wall in front of the entrance.  Inside, there is still a drip-drip of water, now being caught in silver bowls.  It is a small site, but it is both simple and charming.  The shrine is the target for annual pilgrimages each June and various Zoroastrian communities have built their own hostels near the site, to shelter their pilgrims.

Yazd Zoroastrian AteshgahBack in Yazd, I visited the Zoroastrian Ateshga, or fire temple.  The current building dates from only 1934, but the holy flame is reputedly the continuation of a flame that has been kept burning since 470 AD.  The flame burns in an urn in a separate room, and we may only view it through a protective glass window.  To complement the fire, there is a large water pool in front of the temple.

Zoroastrian Holy Flame, YazdSigns on the walls carefully explain to visitors that Zoroaster preached monotheism, and they emphasize similarities with Judaism/Christianity/Islam.  We are assured that Zoroastrians do not “worship”  fire, but merely use it as a convenient focus for worshiping Ahura Mazda, the universal god.  (Well chosen messages for friendly co-existence in an Islamic Republic.)