Iran Part 1: Becoming a Zoroastrian

I have long been dreaming about making this journey!

Ever since my childhood, ancient Persia has inspired romantic ideas in our heads: a cartoon about Aladin, geography and history lessons at school, a popular game of the mid-nineties called the Prince of Persia and so on. Unfortunately, in today’s world, Iran is considered the country of evil. This stereotype is quite frightening but the ordinary people and the everyday life in this country differ a lot from what we are used to hearing and learning about it.

So, I finally lived out my dream and spent over 2 weeks in Iran, Irak, and Kurdistan last October.

The breathtaking interior of Shah Cheragh Mosque

The first on my list was Iran so this article is dedicated to my memorable stay in this country.

One can easily get to Iran by plane. You can normally receive a visa at the arrival. I was “lucky” enough to go to Iran in the autumn of 2019 when the situation and the conflict with the US intensified and sometime after I had left, it ended up in shooting down the plane, which you all probably remember. Well, it’s good that I managed to at least get there shortly before the outbreak of coronavirus.

I was flying to Iran through the United Arab Emirates. I had a one day stop in Dubai after having spent the whole previous week in Central Asia – check out my reports from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. I got together with my friend Manuel from Cyprus and we went to The Nusr-Et steak restaurant which is owned by Turkish celebrity chef Salt Bae.

There they offer guests something special called a golden steak. So I ordered one for around 300-400 euros. The food presentation is quite a show as well. The meat is cooked and cut at your table right in front of you. And besides that, I must confess it was quite tasty, too. So I definitely enjoyed my time at the restaurant but was also wondering where I should eat in Iran during the next 2 weeks.

It also tasted quite well

Apart from that, I was well-prepared for the trip. I knew there weren’t any ATMs in Iran, nor there was a possibility to pay with the card. So I had to get enough cash for my whole 10-day trip to Iran in advance. I also booked everything I could beforehand, including my accommodation and a personal driver who I was supposed to travel with – that is why I thought not much money would be needed.

Well, I was mistaken, for I didn’t count some of the expenses, like the Visa fee at the arrival and other things… Anyway, I ended up having very little money left and the problem was that you’re unable to get any more money once you’re in the country.

So for the next 10 days, I only had 300 EUR and I have to admit I thought it would be too little to survive in Iran. So I just ate 1 meal a day and when I got to Tehran I still had 100 EUR left so then I could finally afford 2 meals a day thanks to the fact it’s a very cheap country.

But apart from the problems with money, I was very happy.

Street cooling system in Shiraz

So the direct flight to Shiraz from Dubai took around an hour. Once I had landed I realized my American card didn’t work in Iran. So the first thing I did was buying a SIM card in a local store.

When I arrived at the airport, I took a taxi straight to the hotel and from that moment I had my own driver who took me all the way up to Tehran during the next days.

Shiraz is the perfect combination of old and new, beauty and grunge, desert and oasis. It has all the amenities of a big city and all the charm of a village. This city is quite often called the city of poets, art, literature, and gardens. It has been the cultural center of the region for millennia. And it is also a university city. One of the most famous medical universities in the Middle East is located here. It is located about 1,000 kilometers south of Tehran.

The Emamzadeh Mosque

Throughout the world, this city is known for the great poets Hafуz and Saadi, who were born and who died here. Many world and Iranian pilgrims come here to visit the local ancient tombs. In memory of the historical past of Shiraz, beautiful mosques, Quranic schools, elegant gardens decorated with interesting pavilions in the form of palaces have been preserved here.

I arrived in the city before noon, so I had plenеy of time to explore. First of all, I visited some famous mosques and the tomb of Hafez. The 14th-century writer, Hafez, is considered to be Shakespeare of Iran. It is one of the greatest Persian poets of all time and a source of national pride.

His collected works called “The Divan” are considered the pinnacle of Persian literature. You can find this book literally in every house in the country. It is regularly read and consulted for guidance and inspiration. People gather at his grave, especially at sunset, to pay tribute.

The tomb of Hafez also known as Hafezieh is located north of Shiraz and comprises two gardens.

October 12 is observed as Hafez Day in Iran when hundreds of his fans and scholars gather at his mausoleum to pay tributes to him.

The Hafezieh consists of four central columns, with two rooms built at the east and west end and with the north and south sides remaining open. The building split the gardens into two regions, with the orange grove in the front and the cemetery in the back.

Many Iranians use “The Divan” for fortune-telling. Iranian families usually have this book in their house, and when they get together during the Nowruz or Yalda holidays, or on any other occasion, they open the Divan at a random page and read the poem which they believe to be an indication of things that will happen in the future.

I also went out of town to see a big arch called the Qur’an Gate. It is the historic gate in the north of Shiraz, located on the northeast exit of the city. It took its name from the special room above the main passage where the Quran is stored. In the past, travelers passing underneath the gates were believed to receive the blessing of the Holy Book as they began their trip or journey from Shiraz.

Qur’an Gate

It turned out to be quite a long day. I covered around 15 km on foot. I admired the architecture of Shiraz along with some statues and the surroundings. Besides visiting the old and amazing mosques I went to a big market. There were, by the way, quite a lot of tourists strolling around in groups. I didn’t notice any individuals, though.

The Old Citadel in the background

The next day my driver Ali was waiting for me in the morning. He picked me up from the hotel and we headed to Yazd, where I planned to spend 3 days of my trip. It was actually my longest stay in one place due to the variety of sites one can see there. It takes 4 hours to get to Yazd from Shiraz.

Glimpse of the antique city of Persepolis

On the way to Yazd, we stopped at Persepolis, the ancient capital of Persia and one of the famous cities of antiquity and one of the wonders of the world, albeit unofficial. It can be easily put on a par with the pyramids in Egypt, the ruins of the Coliseum, and other similar historical monuments. Although the ancient Persian city has been in ruins for more than two millennia, its monumentality and majestic beauty shock the imagination of even experienced travelers.

The city was founded in 560 BC by the ancient Persian king Darius I, it was he who made it the capital of the entire powerful Achaemenid empire (the first capital was Pasargadae, located 70 km to the north). Over 60 years, the best architects, sculptors, and builders of their time worked on its construction. They erected walls of a ten-meter height around the city so that it was possible to get inside only through the main “gate of all nations” (or the gate of Xerxes).

There were magnificent palaces with columns, water supply, and other utilities, and imagine that it all was constructed there before Christ! In 330 BC, that is, only 200 years after its founding, the city was conquered and burned by the army of Alexander the Great. Historians believe that it was revenge for the Persians burning the Acropolis in Athens.

What is left from the ancient capital of Persia

It took me around an hour to see it. It was quite hot because the place is located under the sun with no single shade around.

The ancient city of Pasargadae is another capital of ancient Persia we went to. The city served as the capital until 520 BC, and later king Darius I moved it to the city of Persepolis, which is 40 kilometers from there. Unfortunately, there is not much left. There’s basically one big stone in the middle of nowhere. Persepolis was obviously much more impressive.


We arrived in Yazd around noon. I went straight to my hotel which turned out to be a hostel because I had to share my room with others. But I decided to rebook a single room paying a little more money even knowing that I’m short of it.

Yazd is perhaps the most beautiful town in Iran.

The view of Yard from the rooftop

The first thing we visited in the morning was the Towers of Silence, one of the most unusual cemeteries in the world. It is also called Dahme or Kale-e Hamusha, and is actually a unique burial place of Zoroastrians.

Followers of one of the most ancient world religions still live peacefully in Iran. Many of their customs are now more than two and a half thousand years old. For many of us, their cemeteries may seem like a monstrous relic of the distant past. They even look more like fortresses than places of eternal rest.

Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest world religions, which became widespread in the middle of the 1st millennium BC in Ancient Persia and some other neighboring areas. Subsequently, Zoroastrianism was supplanted by Islam but persisted in Iran and India.

The dead body of a person is considered unclean among Zoroastrians and cannot come into contact with land or water. You can’t burn the body, because the fire is sacred. For the disposal of corpses, they came up with an original idea. They built round towers with large wells inside. They also placed lattices above the wells and put the dead bodies on them. Then they released the vulture birds to eat the human flesh. Over time, gnawed and sun-dried bones, which were considered cleansed of sin, fell through the bars to the bottom of the well.

The exterior of the Fire Temple

Once we got back I had a full day to explore Yazd. It is a very old town with narrow alleys, so I spent a lot of time walking around, visiting mosques, markets, going to some rooftops to get great views of the city. And, of course, I couldn’t but visit the Fire Temple. It is quite impressive (not so much from the outside as it is from the inside). There is an altar with an eternal flame inside of it. According to some reports, it has been burning since about 470 AD. Fire is a symbol of Zoroastrianism. Visitors to the temple are allowed to look at the sacred fire only through the glass from the hall, so as not to defile it with their breath.

The eternal fire

We also went to the Dolat-Abad Garden, which has a special natural cooling system: a big tower with a certain construction inside. It is an old technology to make things cool, like a natural air conditioner. It’s a beautiful garden with lots of water, springs and trees and lots of people around.

A place to refresh

I finished my small tour at around 3 pm, had some rest, worked for a little while, and went out to some nice restaurant on a rooftop. I had a nice dinner there, my only meal (no ATMs, remember?).

The next day was my last full day in Yazd. We did the day trip to certain sites and the surroundings od the town, they are mainly Kharanaq, Chak Chak, and Meybod.

Kharanaq was the first on our list. It is a very ancient town. Its name means the ‘place of birth of the sun’, and it is divided into two parts – the Old Town, which is almost completely deserted, and the New Town, where some 130 families continue to live. The Old Town was constructed with sun-baked mud bricks, forming one of the largest collections of adobe buildings in Iran. It was once a prosperous farming village, but when water supplies dried up the inhabitants left, leaving the town to turn to ruins.

Deserted Old Kharanaq

Then we went to Chak Chak. It is a very famous, if not the most important, religious site with an exciting history. For deeply religious Zoroastrians, Chak Chak is a place of pilgrimage. Every year, on June 14 – 18, thousands of Zoroastrian adherents from Iran, India, and other countries flock to the Fire Temple in Chak Chak. According to the tradition, if the pilgrims use any means of transport, they should stop immediately as soon as they notice the temple from afar, and walk the rest of the way. According to Zoroastrian beliefs, Chak Chak is located on the spot where in 640 AD the Arab army that invaded Iran surrounded Nikban, the second daughter of the last pre-Islamic Ruler of Persia (the Sassanian Empire), Yazdegerd III. Nikban prayed that Ahura Mazda would protect her from enemies. In response to her prayer, the mountain miraculously parted its stone slopes and protected the girl from invaders. One of the amazing wonders of Chak Chack is a mountain spring, from which water constantly flows dropwise. According to legend, these are the tears of sadness that the mountain sheds in memory of Nikban. An ancient, huge tree, sprouted next to the holy spring, is believed to have emerged from the Nikban’s cane.

The Fire Temple in Chak Chak

When we were getting there, there was nothing but the desert and then the mountains emerged. Once you approach the mountain, everything gets greener because of the spring. First, we went up by a car, but then we still had to cover 200 meters on foot. It was quite tiring in the heat but after like 15 min walking I managed to reach the top of this place. Since it is holy, you have to take off your shoes before entering any sacred sites. You can stand by the spring, touch the water which is holy as well. I blessed myself with it. The place has a unique atmosphere so I really enjoyed resting there for a little while. I am quite intrigued by Zoroastrianism – but for now, I will remain a Daoist.

The next and last day was dedicated to Meybod. We went there, had lunch in a Caravanserai then went to town to see an old cooling house. In the time of the Persians, they had ice for the king in the desert.

A natural refrigerator

Here, as you might guess from the name, the ice from the wintertime used to be stored. It is some sort of ice chamber, an ancient natural refrigerator which was mainly built and used to store ice, but sometimes was utilized to store food as well. Ice was prepared for the summer as follows: in the evening, a small layer of water was poured into an artificial pond, which froze overnight. The winter cold during the night would be sufficient to produce a few centimeters of ice each night.

In the morning, the ice received was stored in an “ice house”. All this was sprinkled with lime. The room where it was stored has a shape of an eg because apparently this design, in combination with lime, maintains the low temperature and allows you to keep ice in the forty-degree summer heat. Amazingly, the surface of this ice pool expands about 8,000 square meters. The walls of the ice chamber are 2 meters thick and 8 meters tall.

We also visited the Pigeon Tower, around 200 years old building that provided nesting space for 4000 birds. The birds were very important for the Persians. We couldn’t see any pigeons anymore but there used to be thousands of these birds there and you can walk through and see how they kept them.

That’s how pigeons used to live here

We also went to the old citadel – the Narin castle – one of the oldest buildings in Iran which is made by adobe. It is located in the middle of Meybod and has a very nice view from the rooftop. This building has been built as an old fortress with 3 different floors, each for a different class of society.

After all that we went back to Yazd and had a relaxing evening there. The next day I was heading to Isfahan, but I’ll tell you all about that in my next report.