SYNOPSIS: Nicola arrived.   We had arranged for a guide and a driver to take us to the nearby yet remote ziggurat of Choqa Zanbil, a UNESCO recognized monument by the Elamites.  A guide with a history and a few amazing tales to tell.

Choqa Zanbil is the ziggurat that was dedicated to the Elamite god Inshushinak.  You just got to love those names!  It dates back to the 13th Century BC.  It worked in conjunction, in fact tried to outdo, the concurrent capital of the Elamites in Shush, which I visited a few days ago. (Day 55)

It was rediscovered in the 19th Century and picked over by a few archaeologists from various countries.  The exposure to the elements now endangered its survival as comparative older photographs demonstrate.  A nice display of the excavation history can be found at a small museum at Haft Tappeh.   That’s a “Seven Hill” burial site about 25 km from Choqa Zanbil we visited at dusk.

What you see today at Choqa Zanbil, are heavily protected and in some cases reinforced walls.  But much of the original brickwork of the lower levels is still intact.   The might and the importance of this monument can still be sensed.  It is a tranquil site today with nightingales and a few sleepy dogs roaming the sandy hills. At the time, of course, it would have been a bustling center of town with secondary temples lining the vicinity of the ziggurat, with houses nearby, and a palace for the king.

Some walls of the palace have been excavated as well.  Beneath the palace and all around it, the most curious burial tunnels were found in which men and women were buried in separate areas.  Much of the area has not been opened but lies beneath rolling hills in a two square kilometer range.  Our guide saw the tunnels at the time of their discovery.  He described them as spooky.  At one part of the palace he stomped his feet in a way that made the ground shake!  That these tunnels have not collapsed by now is amazing.  Nicola raised the question of grave robbers and thieves.  The answer we got (as many other answers) was a bit confusing.  Supposedly, there is no problem with grave robbers in Iran according to our guide.  However, a few sentences later he reported about a couple of people who were caught and imprisoned because they did an unauthorized seismographic survey of the site.

We saw a few other visitors at the ziggurat, but at a 400 hectar site it still felt as if we were alone.  We, that is of course Nicola and I, and our guide Mr. Rashidi.  Nicola arrived this morning as planned – that is as far as I was concerned.  She came exactly at the time I thought she would arrive.  Her own story has a few more, less pleasant details, starting with the fact that her original flight was canceled.  She was put on an earlier flight but then made it out of the airport as one of the last passengers because her luggage was on a cart which for a good while was believed to be lost.  Agony and frustration for her, in other words, but she made it after all.  But seeing Choqa Zanbil on the day of her arrival, made up for all the trouble.

We spent the morning exchanging money at a local bank.  You have read about this ordeal in my blog from Hamadan. (Day 52)  Again, we spent about 40 minutes in the bank.  The paperwork was less this time and it wasn’t bad.  But it is anyone’s guess, what the clerks have to discuss once you hand them a form and your money and all the information they need.  They disappear, take your form, your money, and your passport from one person to the next, put their heads together and you wonder what they think they will discover.  This time they had a new trick up their sleeves.  After we filled out three copies of our information on one side of the form – carbon paper placed in between – they turned the form and the carbon paper around and made us copy it all again on the back!  Go figure.  But we now are ready to face Noruz, a time when likely no bank or office is open for business.  To pay with Dollars in Iran takes a lot of persuasion.

Nicola is a light eater; fruits for her all day seems to be sufficient and of course, at least one if not two refreshing, cold cans of non-alcoholic beer.  She had offered to bring me Nutella, but at a moment of good sense, I declined.  I have resorted to chocolate too many times on this trip.  I think I am having a healthy two weeks ahead of me.  Thanks, Nicola.

I do have to say just a few more words about our guide Mr. Rashidi:  He is a little man with white hair, a dark face and lots of missing teeth.  He has been in the business of working with tourists for a long time.  At one point he claimed to be 54 years old.  That would put him between Nicola and me.  I swear when I saw him first, I thought that he could be my father.   Well, perhaps, he wanted to impress us with his youth.   At a different point he claimed that he had shown the underground burial tunnels to some British ladies 47 years ago!  When we questioned how old he was at the time, he claimed that he was just a little boy … Showing around British ladies?  On a believable level he told us that he lived with a British woman for two years, was married three times and has three children by two different women.

But the best of it all was his crocodile story!  He insisted, as we were crossing a sandy hill, that this is where the crocodiles live.  He took a photo with his own camera of a big one some years ago he claimed which we could inspect at his house.  He stretched his arms as far as they would go and insisted that that’s how big the crocodiles were and that they could knock you over with their wagging tales!   He went on to exclaim that at night they come out to suckle the milk from the sheep!  That’s about when I lost it – crocodiles suckling sheep’s milk?!  But he was seriously insulted when we both said that we could hardly believe this.

At the museum, where I found a list of flora and fauna of the region, crocodiles were nowhere listed.  When I pointed that out to him he said that these people who put the chart together just don’t know any better and when they made the charts, perhaps they did not see any…  He even pulled over the museum guide to confirm his sightings and the existence of these animals.  And the museum guy backed him up!  Is this a matter of translation subtleties?  Are there perhaps, large lizards that he mistakenly calls crocodiles?  His English really was not that good.  Perhaps, one of you trusted readers could help us out here if you know anything about animals in this region.  Our access to the internet is very limited, or I would do a Google search on this.  On a serious note, he mentioned that many years ago, he had spent four years in prison for making the wrong political statements and that ever since, he does not engage in any political discussions any more.  But he certainly will talk about crocodiles!

Good night.