Monday, July 18, 2011

Yazd: Iran's Zoroastrian Heart

Iran. A country misunderstood at best, a nefarious enemy at worst. Yazd is a bustling city of half a million people and a center for the for the Zoroastrian faith for over 2000 years. The Ateshkadeh Fire Temple, dedicated to the prophet Zoroaster, houses a flame believed to have been burning since 470 CE. Zoroastrianism predates Islam and was Iran’s official religion for 1000 years until invading Muslims conquered in the 7th century. Sai, our guide, wears a Faravahar around his neck, the Zoroastrian symbol of a half-man, half-eagle emerging from a disk with wings spread wide. Sai admits he prefers Zoroastrianism to Islam as it connects him to his Persian origins, but he is wary of exposing his pendant publicly. “Etiquette” police charged with enforcing the Islamic republic’s strict dress codes could be anywhere. The current regime views Iran’s pre-Islamic culture with suspicion, frowning on any open displays of support.

Yazd is also one of the largest cities in the world built from adobe. Everywhere there are windcatchers, the small towers used for cooling buildings. They are a household necessity in a desert where some of the earth’s hottest surface temperatures - 71° Celsius - have been recorded. From the top of the huge Amir Chakhmaq Complex in the city center, countless windcatchers poke up above the rooftops like periscopes in an ocean of bubbled adobe homes.

Jameh Mosque
Yazd’s city center is alive with people rushing home from work. We pass shops selling sugar crystals and bakeries crammed with pastries before arriving at the Seljuq shrine, the city’s holiest Islamic site. Some ninety percent of Iranians identify as Shiite Muslims. There are separate entrances for men and women and I wrap a borrowed robe around my bare legs before entering. Light reflects off the mirrored ceiling and walls and the shrine is bathed in lime green, the Prophet Muhammad’s favourite colour and the one opposition forces adopted in protests that shook the country in 2009.

Yazd is famous for its silk carpets and we step into a shop for a peek of the gorgeous tapestries on sale. I soon get lured into buying one after a bit of bartering and a few cups of tea. Back at our hotel we dine on the rooftop patio in the cool evening with a stunning view of the 14th century Jameh Mosque’s 48-meter high minarets poking above the skyline like two enormous fingers pointing to the heavens. In the distance the muezzin call for evening prayers sounds.

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