SYNOPSISNicola’s final day in Iran.  She is writing today’s blog about an excursion to Sasanian Bishapur and Elamite Kurangun.     Nicola’s final day starts badly but gradually gets better.

Tonight Elisabeth is busy with some hotel arrangements and a very slow internet connection at the local café-net so I am writing this blog, my final entry.  This morning we awoke to find that not only had it rained heavily overnight but half the tent people of Shiraz were camped in the foyer of our hotel and Monsieur le proprietor was knocking on our door telling us we had to leave.  Well, Elisabeth was not having any of that, especially as he was trying to send us back to the budget busting four-star establishment where we had spent our first night in this fair city.  Suffice it to say, a compromise was reached and we were moved to a smaller room in the same hotel.

That and the rain prompted us to decide to go on an excursion for the day to get out of a Shiraz bursting to the seams with poor bedraggled tent families and so we asked for a taxi.  Our driver arrived promptly, although it was by now ten o’clock, and seemed to understand where we wanted to go. He also knew a few back doubles to get us out of the city faster and so, thinking we were in good hands, Elisabeth and I settled down to squabble like kids on the back seat over whether we would get any decent pictures of the Zagros mountains through the lowering clouds.

We were heading for two sites, the Sasanian city of Bishapur and the Elamite rock carvings of Kurangun. These two destinations are to be found to the East of Shiraz, the first some 130 kilometers and the next a further 70. We had a pretty good drive through the mountains as the road was good and the traffic reasonable – but the view through the drizzle not up to much. It took only about two and a half hours to reach the first destination which Elisabeth had actually planned to see after heading on to the second. At this point considerable confusion arose with our driver completely at a loss to understand why we wanted to leave straight away when there was a whole cluster of sites around the royal city of Shapur the First, powerful ruler of the third century AD.  Our driver, Berouz, appeared to have mistaken our second destination with another important Sasanian site not too far from Bishapur and knew nothing of Kurangun.

At this point I capitulated and agreed to visit Bishapur first, not much caring which sequence we used and considering anything achieved to be a vast improvement on huddling in a crowded bazaar in a soaking wet Shiraz. The ruined city of Bishapur itself is extensive: with roads, palaces, humbler dwellings, fortifications and what are claimed to be baths all pretty minimally restored and comprehensively grazed by the local sheep and goats.  The site is in a remote plain where the mountains separate and the amount of stone rubble around suggested that it has not been so much used as a quarry by the locals as have similar sites in Western Europe from the same period.

The similarity of Bishapur to a Roman city can be explained by the frequent contact between the two Empires at the time and the fact that the Sasanians made use of captured Romans (including at one stage an actual Emperor) in the design and construction of many of their building projects.  Indeed, so like to a Roman site was it that, with the ruins, the rain and the sheep, I could almost believe myself back in one of the British shore forts of the fourth century.  The Romans left their mark on our landscape as well. The place was not deserted as there were several Iranian families visiting; although, for some, practicing their English on us and asking us to pose for photographs seemed to be the highlight of their day.  Well, that seems to be the price for being the only foreigners in town – even a seventeen hundred year old town.

Back at the entrance our driver had found out from the information kiosk exactly where Kurangun was and was adamant that it was too far; he appeared to be offering us various alternatives.  He should have realized that “adamant” just doesn’t work on Elisabeth and so, with an agreement to pay a higher price and only a cursory look at the Sasanian rock carvings on the other side of the river, we set off through the mountain pass in search of the elusive Elamites.  We knew by now that we would probably be sacrificing a look at the celebrated, seven meter tall freestanding figure located in some caves an unspecified distance in the opposite direction but decided on sticking to our original plan.  After all, however fine it was, it was still Sasanian and something more than fifteen hundred years older was too tempting to miss.

The road was good and the now fully visible mountains magnificent.  Our driver sped along as if anxious to labour the point that we had chosen a destination unreasonably far from home.  We saw more and more nomadic people, the women wearing beautifully coloured swirling, gypsy skirts and minimal headscarves; such a welcome change from the ubiquitous black chador.  Two small towns and an hour later we approached a wide gravel river bed surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery.  Berouz, our driver stopped to speak to a couple of locals about directions and it was charming to see how the traditional courtesies of handshakes and fulsome greetings were still employed in this remote region. After all, just how many strangers had passed that way today?  We were to have our answer soon enough.

After two more sets of directions appeared to confirm that we were heading the right way the worst happened; someone sent us back the way we had come. At this stage I thought that all was probably lost; zigzagging across the valley to look for some obscure rock carvings was just not feasible given that it was now mid afternoon and we had at least 200 kilometers to travel back to Shiraz.  Within minutes of turning back we had stopped at a small parking area beneath a steep, rock strewn hill with no signs and no apparent path to the top.  A few children were playing on a rock slide part way up and a mixed herd of sheep and goats was grazing nearer the top.  Before we could even formulate a question our driver set off up the steep climb ahead of us putting Mr. Middle-aged-spread from the Esfahan Fire Temple to shame.

The total height from the valley floor to the ridge above was about perhaps two hundred meters and there was absolutely nothing even faintly archaeological to be seen.  At one stage Elisabeth pointed out to the driver that I was a grandmother but it was just caution over not losing my footing that meant that I was bringing up the rear.  Berouz called to us from the top and just over the ridge we were treated to an absolutely splendid view of the valley and the surrounding mountains.  Then Elisabeth shouted “there it is” and we looked along the ridge to see a narrow, cut platform with low relief figures carved into the rock face behind.  We photographed them from a distance and then scrambled round to see them close up; no easy feat considering they overlooked a sheer drop to the river below.

The Kurangun relief has been exposed to the elements on top of this escarpment for three and a half thousand years; it is weathered, damaged, lichen encrusted and not terribly big but on either sides of two seated figures (whether royal or divine it is difficult to be sure) are the remains of a two tiered processional staircase.  These are the same staircases as the ones used by Darius the Great at Persepolis to show his majesty to the world, the style pre-dates him by at least a thousand years.  It was a wonderful feeling to be so in tune with ancient history in such a remote spot; it really did show no signs of any other visitors having been there in recent memory.  After all, it has the cultural distinction of not being included in the Lonely Planet guide book.

As we looked back down the hill we laughed to see a procession of local children and teenagers following us up.  They joined us at the top and asked all the usual questions which we were happy to answer while we took in the view.  I should mention that our guide, Mr Skeptic, was now snapping away with the camera on his mobile phone with every indication of delight.  In fact I would go so far as to say he was filled with national pride over our enthusiasm for such a little known corner of his country.  This certainly made our long journey back go much more smoothly, with a brief stop for tea and the purchase of fruit.

We made it back to Shiraz by shortly after seven, paid him a generous fee and agreed to call him for the trip to the airport tomorrow.  I am absolutely delighted to have finished this brief visit to Iran with a glimpse at the most ancient of its civilizations, just as it begun at the ziggurat of Choqa Zanbil.  Nearly as delighted, that is, as I am to be going back to my home and my new baby grandson tomorrow.

Good night.