Dazzled by the Shāh Chérāgh Shrine

‘There are in life a few moments so beautiful, that even words are a sort of profanity.’

Diana Palmer

My Lonely Planet guidebook didn’t have any photographs and the internet connection was rather bleak so, with the exception of a brief paragraph about the shrine, I had no idea what to expect at the Shāh Chérāgh Shrine. By now I had been in Iran for about 8 days; I had visited a few mosques, felt extremely safe and deeply connected to the people whom I had encountered. Even writing that I felt safe frustrates me. Am I trying to reassure you? If I visited Portugal, would I hammer on about feeling safe? It would certainly get a mention because, as a woman travelling alone, safety is my main priority, but why do I feel need to talk about Iran in these terms, particularly when discussing the beautiful of a religious building?

A few days after arriving in Iran I realised how utterly ignorant I was about the fundamental differences between Shia and Sunni Islam. I have a great appreciation for Islamic art, but was clueless about the roots and traditions of this rich religion. I knew nothing of the difference between an Imam and Mullah, the significance of the colour of turbans worn by mullahs or what was specifically said during the adhan. It was the most informative 3-week trip I could have hoped for, and a painful acknowledgement of my unconscious consumption of bias and misinformation within my own environment.

I exited my taxi, turned the corner and gasped. As the sun was setting, the light twinkled of the bulbous blue dome and everything sort of stopped. Thousands of visits to the Jameel Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Islamic Gallery at the British Museum; dozens of images on Pinterest and even after 8 days in Iran (though I hadn’t been to Esfahan at this point), nothing prepared me for what stood before me. The turquoise tiles, a combination of Arabic and Persian script, the sheer size of the shrine and the contrast of women’s bellowing jet black chadors against the vibrancy of structure left quite the impression. How could such a place exist and I hadn’t even heard of it? A year later, I met an Iranian woman in India and she, referring to the dirt, sense of danger and general poverty and dilapidation, said “this is what everybody thinks Iran is like”. Shamefully, I understood that perspective all too well.

This shrine is one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam and, according to Lonely Planet (and a few blogs I read), non-Muslims are not usually permitted to enter (obviously not the case when I went). The mausoleum was erected in the 12th century, however most of the current structure dates from the 18th century onwards.

Of the twelve imams, Imam Reza (8th Imam) is the only one to be buried in Iran (in Mashhad); 10 are buried in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and the 12th, Imam Mahdi, is believed to be in occultation.

All women entering are required to a. enter through a separate security entrance where a very touchy-feeling (don’t say I didn’t warn you!) but friendly pat down occurs and b. wear a chador. Some women in Iran wear them as standard, some do not. As such, they can be rented (my guidebook states there is a small US$1 fee but I was not charged). I noted that I was given a patterned chador whereas local women were provided with plain black one. Additionally, foreigners are not permitted to enter without an authorised (complimentary) guide from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Shoes off, I entered with Fatima, my wonderful volunteer guide. Immediately I smiled; my feet sank into the plush Persian carpets and I could see Koranic script, painstakingly carved into white marble, framing the space. At that moment, I heard the Imam speaking to the congregation and it finally hit me: I made it to Iran and, in that moment, there was nowhere else I would rather be. Why wasn’t I afraid? Iran is scary and evil, politicians and the media tells us. But, is it really? Or, like our respective countries, surely it has multitude of both flaws and strengths.  My advice: before you buy into the concept of good countries vs bad countries (yet another them vs us), check yourself and your own country. We have a proclivity to point the finger, to buy into the notion of other and to focus on what is ‘wrong’ with other people, religions, cultures and countries, and in doing so we close ourselves off to the richness of our fellow people. We need to stop this. We, mostly, need to recognise the distinction between the general population and politicians. When I listen to my own government talking about limiting immigration, decreasing funding for elderly care and failing to support those in need, I am reminded that those people do not represent my beliefs or are not remotely indicative of who I am, so why would I define an entire population based on its politics?

By now, I’d been to a few mosques in central Iran where people had prayed together. Here, men and women were segregated. I noted many women, particularly older women, were visibly emotional. One might even suggest they were in mourning. Despite their grief, people were, as they had been through my Persian adventure, welcoming. I stared in awe of the dazzling mirrored mosaics and turquoise tiling, they stared at this decidedly ‘different’ looking woman desperately struggling with her chador whilst taking photographs. I smiled. They smiled. Some asked where I came from and, again, by this point, I wasn’t too worried about sharing my British origin (which concerned me greatly when I arrived). Women read the Koran, little ones chatted and played and adolescents recharged their iPhones and people came together. I found a respectful community spirit unlike anything I had imagined. My own religious practice is (as I like it) solemn and personal, and this was pleasantly surprising.

Upon returning home, I read some reviews of other travellers who had visited Iran. Many were not permitted to enter the shrine because they had attempted to visit during a time when many pilgrims were paying their respects or there was an unavailability of guides, which highlights my privilege even more. Months after my trip I am still trying to reconcile what we are told about Iran with what I experienced. Thus far, this was the most surreal experience of my life, and I cannot wait to return and explore more of this rich country.

Shāh Chérāgh
District 8
Shiraz, 13364 -71387
Fars Province
Iran

Dazzled by the Shāh Chérāgh Shrine

‘There are in life a few moments so beautiful, that even words are a sort of profanity.’

Diana Palmer

My Lonely Planet guidebook didn’t have any photographs and the internet connection was rather bleak so, with the exception of a brief paragraph about the shrine, I had no idea what to expect at the Shāh Chérāgh Shrine. By now I had been in Iran for about 8 days; I had visited a few mosques, felt extremely safe and deeply connected to the people whom I had encountered. Even writing that I felt safe frustrates me. Am I trying to reassure you? If I visited Portugal, would I hammer on about feeling safe? It would certainly get a mention because, as a woman travelling alone, safety is my main priority, but why do I feel need to talk about Iran in these terms, particularly when discussing the beautiful of a religious building?

A few days after arriving in Iran I realised how utterly ignorant I was about the fundamental differences between Shia and Sunni Islam. I have a great appreciation for Islamic art, but was clueless about the roots and traditions of this rich religion. I knew nothing of the difference between an Imam and Mullah, the significance of the colour of turbans worn by mullahs or what was specifically said during the adhan. It was the most informative 3-week trip I could have hoped for, and a painful acknowledgement of my unconscious consumption of bias and misinformation within my own environment.

I exited my taxi, turned the corner and gasped. As the sun was setting, the light twinkled of the bulbous blue dome and everything sort of stopped. Thousands of visits to the Jameel Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Islamic Gallery at the British Museum; dozens of images on Pinterest and even after 8 days in Iran (though I hadn’t been to Esfahan at this point), nothing prepared me for what stood before me. The turquoise tiles, a combination of Arabic and Persian script, the sheer size of the shrine and the contrast of women’s bellowing jet black chadors against the vibrancy of structure left quite the impression. How could such a place exist and I hadn’t even heard of it? A year later, I met an Iranian woman in India and she, referring to the dirt, sense of danger and general poverty and dilapidation, said “this is what everybody thinks Iran is like”. Shamefully, I understood that perspective all too well.

This shrine is one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam and, according to Lonely Planet (and a few blogs I read), non-Muslims are not usually permitted to enter (obviously not the case when I went). The mausoleum was erected in the 12th century, however most of the current structure dates from the 18th century onwards.

Of the twelve imams, Imam Reza (8th Imam) is the only one to be buried in Iran (in Mashhad); 10 are buried in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and the 12th, Imam Mahdi, is believed to be in occultation.

All women entering are required to a. enter through a separate security entrance where a very touchy-feeling (don’t say I didn’t warn you!) but friendly pat down occurs and b. wear a chador. Some women in Iran wear them as standard, some do not. As such, they can be rented (my guidebook states there is a small US$1 fee but I was not charged). I noted that I was given a patterned chador whereas local women were provided with plain black one. Additionally, foreigners are not permitted to enter without an authorised (complimentary) guide from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Shoes off, I entered with Fatima, my wonderful volunteer guide. Immediately I smiled; my feet sank into the plush Persian carpets and I could see Koranic script, painstakingly carved into white marble, framing the space. At that moment, I heard the Imam speaking to the congregation and it finally hit me: I made it to Iran and, in that moment, there was nowhere else I would rather be. Why wasn’t I afraid? Iran is scary and evil, politicians and the media tells us. But, is it really? Or, like our respective countries, surely it has multitude of both flaws and strengths.  My advice: before you buy into the concept of good countries vs bad countries (yet another them vs us), check yourself and your own country. We have a proclivity to point the finger, to buy into the notion of other and to focus on what is ‘wrong’ with other people, religions, cultures and countries, and in doing so we close ourselves off to the richness of our fellow people. We need to stop this. We, mostly, need to recognise the distinction between the general population and politicians. When I listen to my own government talking about limiting immigration, decreasing funding for elderly care and failing to support those in need, I am reminded that those people do not represent my beliefs or are not remotely indicative of who I am, so why would I define an entire population based on its politics?

By now, I’d been to a few mosques in central Iran where people had prayed together. Here, men and women were segregated. I noted many women, particularly older women, were visibly emotional. One might even suggest they were in mourning. Despite their grief, people were, as they had been through my Persian adventure, welcoming. I stared in awe of the dazzling mirrored mosaics and turquoise tiling, they stared at this decidedly ‘different’ looking woman desperately struggling with her chador whilst taking photographs. I smiled. They smiled. Some asked where I came from and, again, by this point, I wasn’t too worried about sharing my British origin (which concerned me greatly when I arrived). Women read the Koran, little ones chatted and played and adolescents recharged their iPhones and people came together. I found a respectful community spirit unlike anything I had imagined. My own religious practice is (as I like it) solemn and personal, and this was pleasantly surprising.

Upon returning home, I read some reviews of other travellers who had visited Iran. Many were not permitted to enter the shrine because they had attempted to visit during a time when many pilgrims were paying their respects or there was an unavailability of guides, which highlights my privilege even more. Months after my trip I am still trying to reconcile what we are told about Iran with what I experienced. Thus far, this was the most surreal experience of my life, and I cannot wait to return and explore more of this rich country.

Shāh Chérāgh
District 8
Shiraz, 13364 -71387
Fars Province
Iran

Postcards from Tehran

Postcards from Tehran Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.

Isaac Asimov

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Last March, I spent almost 3 weeks in Iran (I wrote about the Imamzadeh Hamzeh Mausoleum and there is plenty more to come) on what was the most wonderful, life-altering travel experience of my life. It was a moment of questioning everything I had been conditioned to believe about Iranian society (particularly coming from the UK), of reinforcing my belief that being nice to others is the only way to exist on this planet and that maybe it’s time to take a break from city life and move closer to nature.

Postcards from Tehran Postcards from TehranPostcards from Tehran

Going through my photographs, I realised that I didn’t spend much time – only 4 days – in Tehran but, nevertheless, it had a profound impact on me. I arrived and almost felt scared to look at people in case I was perceived negatively. A few weeks later, after exploring central Iran and meeting dozens of local people, I returned to Tehran with confidence (and sadness at leaving).

A few months after my trip I went to India for an academic course, where I met an Iranian woman. As we talked, she said “this (meaning India) is what people think Iran is like”. I smiled because I, too, had been one of those people.  I knew Iran would be architecturally-alluring (I’m a ceramic enthusiast) but, rather shamefully, I did not expect the advanced society I found – the openness, the diverse range of languages, the expansive universities and a consistent curiosity from everybody I met. It was just fantastic. And, as with all such surprises, it led me to question my own subconscious views about the world outside the West, but more on that another time.   Who knew I would be able to find a sharp, fruity flat white in a cool, locally-run coffee shop? The streets are cleaner than most in my city (though plastic consumption is awfully high) and people are helpful, chatty and kind. From my first excursion alone to a ceramics museum and relaxing on my hotel room terrace with a view of the snow-topped mountain sipping Sencha from home to eating lavashak (dried fruit roll) for first time and strolling through the streets alone feeling safer than I do at home, everything & everybody I encountered made me look at Iran through new eyes, and what a joy it was to be there for Nowruz (Persian New Year). And fresh-pressed-before-your-eyes pomegranate juice costs 70p! In London, it’s £4-5, and tastes half as good.

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I’m not going to write a top-5-to-see-in-Tehran after being there twice because that would be ridiculous (and it makes no sense when people do that). However, I hope to provide some insight into an extremely rich, intricate culture through the eye of an explorer with a thirst for knowledge and human understanding. My way in life is to be open, to look beyond the barriers society tells us we should have and to share this world through kind actions. As it turns out, the people I met in Tehran have a very similar way of life. I loved every moment of it. It’s important to acknowledge that ‘my’ Tehran doesn’t not match with what mass media portrays, nor am I suggesting that my blissful and enriching experiences are indicative of what local people may experience.

Postcards from Tehran Postcards from Tehran

The Imamzadeh Hamzeh Mausoleum, Iran

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Shiraz is billed as the ‘capital of culture’ – a place of literature, which homes the tombs of renowned Persian poets, Hafez and Saadi. However, as I experienced, wherever you go in Iran, art and culture abound. Shiraz was heaving with young people embracing the wonders of their country, which was rather refreshing to see. The highlight of my trip to Iran’s sixth most populous city was visiting shrines which were unlike anything I had seen, and far exceeded my humble expectations.  Although I’d only been in Iran for a week by the time I reached Shiraz, my visit to Imamzadeh-ye Ali Ebn-e Hamze (Imamzadeh Hamzeh mausoleum) served to epitomes the openness, humility and kindness I experienced in those first few days.

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This is the tomb of Emir Ali who died while en route to aid Imam Reza – Shia Islam’s eighth Imam and a descendent of Prophet Muhammad – who is entombed in Mashhad, Iran’s holiest site. Here in Shiraz, the small entrance is attended by local volunteers whose smiles happily welcomed me. They have unenviable task of trying to help foreign female visitors into mandatory chadors (a full-length cloak) required to enter the shrine. After some rather intensive chador training, I still haven’t a clue! I was a little disappointed as I wanted to wear a black one (when in Iran…), but bed linen-style was the only option for visitors.

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Covered in tombstones of the lost, the courtyard is a place of contemplation tinged with the beauty of Persian script. Centred, one can find the ablution fountain dwarfed by the shrine. Rich cobalt blue and turquoise tiles stylishly combined with canary yellow ceramics decorate the bulbous dome, and Quranic script elegantly provides words of meaning to the faithful, whilst gently mocking my inability to understand Arabic. However, I can now finally differentiate between Persian and Arabic script. Small victories!

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Much to my surprise (and honour), I was permitted to enter the men’s section of the tomb. Removing my shoes, I stepped into the mausoleum and immediately my feet sunk into the plush Persian carpets; my eyes darted around as feelings of awe at the decoration, curiosity of both the tomb and prayer ritual, and fear that this foreign woman (with her bright pink nail polish) in the men’s section of a tomb in Iran (!) would cause offence.  Two gentlemen momentarily looked up before continuing their prayers. I watched them intently. I was quite anxious about taking photographs of people; even after a week of being in Iran, I still carried the weight of being British with a camera and everybody potentially thinking I was a spy. It turns out, I have never felt safer or more welcome in any country I’ve had the privilege to visit, but that’s another discussion.

It was the first time I had seen a Turbah (a prayer tablet/stone used by Shi’a), and been this close to someone praying in such a manner. It’s beautiful. Once they had completed their prayers, both gentlemen looked at me, I smiled and they nodded in acknowledgement of my presence, and one walked around me to catch a glimpse of the video I was taking on my iPad, and gave me another nod, before leaving. No animosity or annoyance; peace, tolerance and one of my favourite attributes: curiosity.

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Back out into the courtyard, my chador desperately tried to escape me as I made my way through a separate entrance to the ladies section. Here, local ladies prayed, rested and appeared in a meditative state. With their black chadors elegantly framing their faces and highlighting their hazel-coloured eyes, and covering them completely, much unlike my situation. I took photographs of the gleaming Venetian mirrored tiles, the use of green to accentuate the Emir’s tomb and felt at home with one of my real life staples – stained glass windows. I attempted to leave but a group of ladies, sitting in a private female-only area immediate outside the shrine, invited me to sit with them: they were eating a type of lettuce with lemon juice and, although I needed to go, I sat for a few minutes, munching away and feeling humbled by the warm-heartedness of these strangers. I said my goodbyes with a heavy heart.  This is the Iran I ‘lived’.

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Whilst the mausoleum’s architectural excellence, with its protuberant dome, abundant turquoise tiles, tiny mirrored collages  and deep spirituality captivates one’s attention, it has nothing on the beauty of the human souls I encountered there. A real Persian highlight.

 

Birthday beginnings

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

― Albert Einstein

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It seems crazy to think that another year has passed: it’s time to celebrate my birthday again. This time last year, I was strolling around the Temple of Literature in Hanoi wondering why it had taken me so long to get there. Today has been ever so different… I awoke to a text message informing me that my visa for India is ready for collection and to celebrate, I promptly went to my first Barre Bootcamp class at my new gym, enjoyed a delicious smoothie with a friend and found myself strolling home with a huge, happy-as-can-be smile on my face. Small, meaningful moments.

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In the last year I have been hit by the full force of the travel bug. In addition to travelling around Vietnam, I visited Cambodia, Thailand, Turkey, my beloved Iran, France and in a few days, I will finally venture towards India. I had intended to spend my birthday in Rome but life takes twists and turns: I got a place on an academic course (which I applied for in February) and had to postpone my trip as my passport was being held hostage at the consulate.

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So now, I’m sitting here at home reflecting on this year and everything feels so surreal. I finished university, submitted my applications, travelled to countries I had longed for and, most importantly, connected with myself for the first time in many years.  I joined a gym and started to put myself, my health and my desires first. With my dreams and reality; I made peace with my past and acknowledged my future whilst staying grounded in the moment. As an organiser, I’m often planning ahead – thinking about what do next, where to go, what to eat but, finally, I’ve come to realise that often the most important thing is the here and now and, even with planning, change is constant, necessary and often wonderful.  This has been a year of transformation: a moment to stop pushing against what feels right to me just to conform to what societal pressures.  It has been a year of realising the full degree of my own personal strength.

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It wasn’t all rosy though. At one point, I messaged my friend Andrea, told her I was quitting and couldn’t deal with seeing another Kanji. Japanese consumed my every thought and I just shut down. I’ve never been under so much pressure. But, never one to dwell on the negative, I got through it and celebrated over pistachio gelato with Andrea. A week later, my childhood friend completed her Masters exams and we toasted each other with champagne over a 5-hour lunch! Women achieving in every direction!

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I returned to Paris for a few days and, for the first time, the city had no hold over me. Yes, the architectural magnificence is still there in all its glory but that’s where it ended for me. I am passed the point in my life where I need to pretend; I loved my visits to the churches, the Louvre and to see my dear friend Gail and her crazy cat, but beyond that, Paris has nothing for me any more. Change where you least expect it. I went to L’église de la Madeleine for the first time since 2011. It shone like an angel. You see, I have always been fond of Saint Madeleine but, sadly, my association with this church was rather negative. I used to go there at least 4 times a week, to pray in fits of anger, suffering and sheer confusion as to why my life was as it was. As I walked in this April, I wept profusely. For about 40 minutes I just knelt down and wept tears of gratitude and understanding. Everything made sense.

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Of all the highs this year, travelling to Iran topped every possible list. That feeling of wonder and innocence as I walked around Yazd hasn’t left me. It was my first time in the desert, and it felt otherworldly. Entering the beauteous Shāh-é-Chérāgh mosque in Shiraz rendered me speechless with its ornate turquoise mosaics and endless grounds. The sense of security and the warmth of the people left me in a befuddled state; why wasn’t I scared? Should I have been? I questioned my subconscious endlessly: did I, liberal-lover-of-people, expect to be endangered? By whom? Muslims? Huh, don’t be ridiculous.  Why did Iran, a country I cannot claim lineage to, feel like home? How could everything I had been told about Iranian people be so wrong?  I loved every moment and every person and would return in a heartbeat. And whilst I know that my adventures as a 2-week tourist are not indicative of the experiences faced by millions of local people and those with dual nationality (which Iran does not recognise), and there is no debate on Iran’s abhorrent human rights record, I remain grateful and changed by all I encountered there.

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This has, undoubtedly, been the most successful year of my life. I have never been happier. However, my personal happiness is against the backdrop of unnecessary and excruciating pain within our world which often makes me question what I am doing.  I haven’t blogged as often as I could. This is, in part, because I struggle with the idea that I’m sitting here eating chocolate and sipping sencha whilst millions are under siege, starving and lost. How is it 2016 and girls and women are being sold as sex slaves, and our governments are more concerned with their legacies than helping the lives they had an active role in destroying, all while I’m sipping matcha lattes and taking photographs of my manicure. It’s not pretty but this horrific reality seems particularly pronounced in recent years. But onwards we go, right? There is no other way. So yes, I’m celebrating a year of achievements, embracing this blissful moment of my life and looking forward, and I am also invested in the plight of my fellow human beings. When you’ve always blogged about scones, fashion and travel in a carefree manner, it is somewhat challenging to change the direction and feel of one’s blog. But, if not now, then when? I am different, I have changed; my travels are no longer solely about bikinis and martinis. I love this term Travel Deeper – this is where I am, combining travel experiences with geopolitics whilst wearing pretty nail polish and maybe the odd bikini. I no longer care about curating a life that looks good on the exterior but feels empty. I’ve been there, and it wasn’t right for me. In a world where people are still judging each other based on the colour of their skin and their religion, I need to engage more about such meaningful subjects. If this year has shown me anything, it’s that we – the people – have to put our voices forward. It’s not always comfortable and some people prefer to us social media for other, less-controversial topics, which I like to see popping up in my feed. That’s good, that’s their choice. It’s just that I want to mix it up a little – good coffee, politics, the ballet, the plight of refugees and the mess that is Brexit.  I need to follow what feels right for me. Changes are afoot.

This year will be different: I have booked another trip to India for the winter (which will be purely pleasure) and then it is time to focus on my professional goals. There will be little time for travelling to far-flung destinations but I still have my eye on Scotland, Italy, Spain and maybe even good ole France. But right now, I am happily focused on this week: reading the required literature for my course starting on Monday and trying to learn a little Hindi… My year is off to a great start!