Shiraz is a large city in the south of Iran, and the capital of Fars Province. Its early roots are perhaps 4,000 years old.
I flew on a short flight from Mehrabad Airport in Tehran to Shiraz (flights are cheap in Iran, and distances can be long and time-consuming by road), and stayed at the upmarket Homa Hotel located on the north side of the aptly named Dry River (رودخانه خشک /rood’khā’neh khoshk/) – it was bone dry on this visit, just like the Zayandeh River in Esfahan. This river (or river bed) splits the city into two more or less from northwest to southeast. The north side contains the Tomb of Hafez, the Eram Garden, and the Tomb of Sa’adi. The south side, which is much larger, has the Vakil Bazaar, the Arg of Karim Khan, museums, and so on. Soon after checking in, I started out on an excursion of my own.
At this stage in my learning Persian and learning about Iran, I had heard of Hafez, but I knew nothing about him beyond him being an Iranian poet. (This was to change later at Dehkhoda where I spent three very happy terms learning about Hafez, reading and learning to read his poetry in a very fulfilling experience). His tomb, shown below, was built in 1935, and this replaced his previous tombs which were much older. It is one of the landmarks of Shiraz located north of the river.
Arg of Karim Khan
Karim Khan, an army commander, came to power at a very difficult time for Iran: there were seemingly endless wars; rebellions were springing up like mushrooms; agreements and treaties amongst the warring parties were made and broken. Eventually Karim Khan emerged victorious and brought with him much-needed peace and stability. He seems to have been mostly generous to those he defeated. He ruled Iran from 1751 to 1779, and was intelligent and capable.
In addition he was modest. He declined to proclaim himself Shah, and instead took the title وکیل الرعایا /va’kil al’ro’a’ya/. Vakil has several meanings including ‘representative’, ‘advocate, and ‘deputy’. Together these two words are commonly understood to mean ‘representative of the people’. After he died, Iran was briefly ruled by one of his sons, but again descended into wars and instability. Eventually the Qajjars came to power and dispossessed the Khan dynasty. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when the names of Iranian kings were mostly removed from streets and buildings, Karim Khan Zand’s name remained.
Karim Khan’s Arg, which served as both a castle and a palace, is located in the centre of Shiraz – as one might expect of the ruler’s palace. In contrast to other palaces, this one looks very much like a castle.
Shah Cheragh, meaning ‘King of Light’, is an important mosque and tomb in Shiraz located close to the Vakil Bazaar. The tomb contains the bodies of Ahmad and Mohammed, brothers of the eighth Emam in Shia Islam: Ali Reza. One cannot overstate the importance of this Ali Reza in Shia Islam, and by extension in Iran – Iran overwhelmingly follows the Shia branch of Islam. Ali Reza’s tomb is in Mashhad. His brothers, Ahmad and Mohammed, are important characters too but not with quite the same prominence.
This bazaar, located near the Arg of Karim Khan, is perhaps 900 years old. It was renamed in honour of Karim Khan Zand, who had taken the title ‘Vakil’. It is a great visit in the middle of Shiraz: the people are friendly and welcoming; there are all manner of shops; the bazaar is not so huge (like the Tehran Grand Bazaar – about 6 miles long) that one becomes overwhelmed and lost.
There does seem to be a little bit of confusion in the United Kingdom about what a bazaar actually is. An Iranian bazaar is mostly a collection of small shops selling all manner of goods from groceries and fruit, cloth, shoes, tailors, homeware, luggage, souvenirs, tools, cafes, and so on, and even furniture. In addition there are businesses which service those shops and their customers such as money changers (صرّافی /sa’rrā’fi/), banks, and transport services. The shops are arranged in passageways some of which are straight and some are winding according to the local geography. So really a bazaar is like a elongated marketplace.
In the bazaar, or right next to it, one can often find a specific mosque (rather than a mosque). During religious festivals, this mosque will become a centre of attention. With the exception of certain clothing brand names (which in Iran tend to be sold shops in the upmarket shopping centres), and very large items such as cars (for practical reasons), one can buy pretty much anything in the bazaar.
Not all Iranian bazaars are old, but some are very old. Not all bazaars in their architecture have vaulted brick ceilings, but many do. Bazaars are not only for ‘traditionalists’, but for everyone. They don’t solely sell variegated spices and other exotic edibles which are unfamiliar to British eyes.
Iranian bazaars are not mysterious places full of skullduggery and ne’er do wells waiting to pounce on unsuspecting westerners. They may be equivalent in many ways to the suq in Arab countries, but there is far less haggling (particularly for tourists and other foreigners) in Iranian bazaars than in the Arab analogues. There is also far less hassling that one has experienced in both Morocco and Tunisia, where some of the ‘invitations’ to drink tea in a carpet shop are intrusively persistent and unpalatable.
In all the times I have visited bazaars in Iran, not once has somebody tried to charge me three times the true price for an item which I am then expected to bargain for. Indeed nobody has ever overcharged me at all in a bazaar (or elsewhere) in Iran.
Back on the north side of the Dry River, I took a walk to Eram Garden which is located not too far from the Homa Hotel. It was a hot day, the sun beat down relentlessly as can be seen in the photographs below where the sky is completely obliterated.
Eram Garden is listed as a World Heritage Site.
View from the Homa Hotel
The back of Homa Hotel, in addition to its own grounds, overlooks Azadi Park towards the hills in the near distance. It has a very green and pleasant and peaceful aspect. Musicians and a singer were performing in the hotel grounds in the evening. I hadn’t encountered this until now in Iran – another unexpected event.
Shiraz is a city full of history and it is a great place to visit. There are many important and interesting tourist sites, with information available in English. When I left Shiraz I realised how much I had not seen, and also what I had not begun to understand – the list was not short. For my later trips I was far better prepared.