SYNOPSIS:   Shiraz – what Iranians think and what we think.    Devotion and enthusiasm for a city with a past.

We have now had two days to get to know Shiraz a bit better and we are not sure how much we are going to like it.

Today, we visited the two most important sites in town “The Shrine” and “The Tomb”.  Everyone knows what you refer to even though the city is full of both.  The shrine which stands out is the Aramgah-e-Shah-e-Cheragh shrine, considered one of the holiest Shiah shrines in the country.  It has a huge courtyard, two bulbous domes unique to Shiraz, a noticeable museum; and altogether houses three different tombs.  Aramgah was one of Imam Reza’s brothers.  Imam Reza himself was one of the twelve holy imams or saints in Shia history who is buried in the holy city of Mashad.  In fact he was the eighth imam and because he is the only one buried in Iran, he is the most important one for the Iranians; and his brother is the next best to the real thing.  Put this together with Noruz and the fact that it was Friday today and you get the picture:  a huge crowd was pouring into the shrine.

For the first time we were asked to leave backpack and cameras behind in the depositary, we were searched with the help of an interesting new device – a bright green feather duster – and as always had to wear a chador.  I had just passed muster and entered the courtyard when a woman next to me opened her purse and pulled out a huge hand gun!  My heart stopped until I realized that this was the toy gun for her son!  I could not believe my eyes and I also could not believe how this object had gone through inspection.  A toy gun is no joke, at least not a realistic looking one like this.

Inside the vast courtyard I was ordered by several female guards to cover all of my hair; hard to do as the chador kept slipping back from over the scarf I was wearing.  No photography was allowed and respectful “Islamic behavior” was requested.  But I guess that could be interpreted one way or another.  As respectful as we were, we observed little kids with baseball hats, women without socks, tons of people photographing with their cell phones, and several women with their hair showing.

We knew that strictly speaking non-Muslims were not allowed in the shrine.   But we were going to give it a try.  We debated whether I should go first, catch the usual attention so that Nicola could slip by or if she would go first unnoticed and I would go second and expect to be turned away.  As my shoes come off faster, I was in first, walking with determination and without looking at any of the attendants right in.  No problem.  I waited and waited for Nicola to follow, but she never came.  The shrine was perhaps the most splendid I have seen anywhere:  Larger and with more tiny silver mirrors than you can imagine, arranged in the honey-comb arch fashion known as muqarnas.  The silver-grid shrine was in the center.  Women had access to their half, men to the other.  A man was praying out loud on the other side and many women joined in the prayer hands held up high.  But many other women were texting or talking on their cell phones, resting, and taking pictures, of course…  Nicola had been stopped and asked if she was a Muslim.  She was not prepared to lie so she was turned away.

We noticed several interesting rooms going off the arcade around the courtyard.  Since we had been stripped of our camera you have to take our word for it.  There was the “Religious Questions (Women)” room; it was closed.  There was the “Narcotic Police” room – the problem must be significant enough to address it here…   And there was the “Ethics House for Kids and Teenagers”, whatever that could be.

The museum on site was surprisingly significant.  It housed some very fine prehistoric artifacts, lots of ceramic and silver ware but most impressively many finely illustrated ancient Korans. The museum itself was located in a mansion-style house with fine woodwork and stained glass windows.

On our way to “the tomb”, the Tomb of Hafez, Iran’s most beloved 14th Century poet, we encountered more of the tent community in Shiraz. We passed families eating dinner occupying the entire width of the side walk!  This was not a fun spot to be.  Hard stone only blocks away from a park, yet, there they were…  Lining government buildings, parks, mosques, wherever you looked, brightly colored tents were sprinkled throughout town.  It is amazing that the town is not turning into a filthy trash heap.  There is no evidence of litter anywhere.  And city ordinance does not seem to prevent or hinder any of this.  Nicola termed them Polyester Nomads; a fitting description.

The line to Hafez’ tomb was forbidding; yet it moved along swiftly enough for us not to give up.  I had heard how much Iranians love Hafez and and their other great poets.  The first time I realized how real the devotion to these poets is, was in Kermanshah.  Taxi driver Kover had taken me home to visit his sister.  I had not been in the house for more than a minute when she came to show me her stack of poetry books!  I was amazed.  I asked her which one was her favorite and she went right to the page.  I cannot imagine any German or American kid having stacks of poetry books around like this.  And she could quote these poems by heart!  We met one woman at the tomb and asked her what made her come to Shiraz during Noruz; she was from Tabriz.  She said that all of her life she had wanted to be in Shiraz and this year her dream finally came true!

The place was packed!  People were crowding the gardens and there was no way to get near the actual tomb without having to elbow your way through loving devotees.  The tomb stone itself was located under a relatively modern cupola surrounded by rose gardens.  Hafez’ poetry of love and wine seems surprisingly un-Islamic.  Yet, he lived as a Muslim during post-Mohammed times.  How this all fits together is a mystery to us.  It must be that his poetry can be interpreted in a very, very broad way.  Perhaps, he was not talking about love at all but about devotion to god?  Perhaps, he was not talking about wine at all but about paradise in which wine and rivers of honey are flowing according to the Koran?  Go figure.  There sure is no more wine in Shiraz these days, so Nicola and I resorted to non-alcoholic beer – really a kind of a lemon drink – with our pizza and sandwich for dinner.

To us, Shiraz is a noisy town with a few shrines, mosques, and tombs.  It is lacking the beauty and the artistic vision of Esfahan. It’s not a bad town, but we cannot quite share the raving enthusiasm Iranians seem to have for this city.  Perhaps, we are missing something that cannot be seen.  Perhaps, knowing the poetry of Hafez or believing in the authority of the imams would make a difference.

Good night.