Essay Shiraz


  • center of Persian culture
  • city of poets - home to tombs of Hafez and Sadi
  • situated in southern Iran near the Zagros Mountains
  • famous for its gardens and the Vakil bazaar
  • the Shiraz grape originates from the region
  • altitude 1491m
  • population over 1,200,000


The natural base camp for any trip to Persepolis (60 km northeast of the city) and the ancient sites of Nagsh-e Rostam and Pasagadae, the bustling city of Shiraz (شیراز) has a lot to offer in its own right.

City of Poets

Shiraz is cherished throughout Iran as a city of poets. Two of the very greatest, in a nation for whom poetry is perhaps the most celebrated art, were born and passed their lives there; the great sage Saadi and Hafez, the Persian Shakespeare.

Their resting-places, known as the Saadieh and Hafezieh respectively, are among Shiraz best known tourist attractions and represent what, for Iranians, are the essential qualities of this ancient southern city: elegance, repose and gardening.

Gardening - an essential pastime

The garden might well be the ultimate symbol for Shiraz. Set in the parched hills of the dry Fars region, its inhabitants have managed to nurture some pretty fine public parks as well as their own private sanctuaries. If you're not from this part of the world and you think of countryside as pretty much an uninterrupted swath of green, you might not be particularly impressed.

A friend of mine described Shiraz, known affectionately in Iran as shahr-e gol o bulbul (city of the flower and the nightingale) as just another dusty middle eastern town. But that's missing the point. To raise a cyprus tree or a rose bush in a place where the average rainfall between June and September is precisely zero is a feat indeed, and each one is valued and marvelled over.

Shirazis, renowned for their laid-back attitude and unfailing hospitality, will probably suggest a tour of at least two or three gardens, or baghs. The most famous, the Bagh-e Eram, comprises a royal villa set in meticulously landscaped grounds. This place was a favourite haven of the Shah, and its only since the revolution that its glories have been fully accessible.

The house is not huge but its beautifully decorated and obviously fulfilled its role as a royal bolt-hole very well. In front is a reflecting pool graced by palm trees and leading off in every direction are cool gravel paths, shaded from the sun by orange trees heavy with fruit. Other Baghs to look out for are the orange grove or Narangestan of Ghavvam or the more secluded, smaller Bagh-e Afifabad. The latter was the Queen's personal retreat when she was in Shiraz. The royal quarters on the upper floor have been preserved whilst the basement is now given over to a museum of arms and armour.

Shiraz is situated in a fairly narrow valley running north-west to south-east, its easy to get up on the surrounding hills for a spectacular view of the city. Iranians are generally fond of walking, particularly in the evenings, and the municipality has landscaped a short but rewarding walk up to an old look-out post, which winds up a few hundred feet from the Bolvar-e Haft Tanan.

They've also terraced a large section of the famous Tang-e Allaho-Akbar or God is Great! pass, so-called because of the exclamation said to leave travellers lips as they see the city below for the first time. This is still the main road route into Shiraz, though the rush of cars now bypass the old gate, the attic of which contains an ancient Koran: passing underneath a Koran is said to bring good luck for the journey ahead.

The Old Town

Many of Shiraz best historic sites are within easy reach of one another. The beautiful Vakil Bazaar, named for Karim Khan-e Zand who presided over Shiraz spell as capital city of Iran and was known as the Regent (Vakil), is great for carpets.

Its also possible to buy a variety of wares made by local tribes, chief among them the Ghasghaii, a traditionally nomadic people whose encampments can still be seen dotted around Fars. It also contains the enchanting Saray-e Mushir, an old two-story hostelry now occupied by artisans and bazaaris and centred around an ornamental pool.

Next door is the 18th century Vakil mosque and nearby the stunning Hammam-e Vakil, a bath house decorated with stucco reliefs and now converted into a fine restaurant. A little further south is Shiraz's main religious site, the Shah-e Cheragh mosque complex, worth seeing for the spectacular mirror-covered shrine of Hazrat Ahmad Ibn Mousa-Kazem, the brother of Imam Reza.

Of course Shiraz isn't all walled gardens and palaces. In fact, its a town of over 1,000,000 people though thankfully it doesn't suffer from the debilitating traffic and pollution of Tehran. The most obvious effects of the population boom are some ugly housing and hotel developments on the outskirts and good transport connections to the rest of the country.

Though it isn't a great centre of pilgrimage like Mashhad or Qom and doesn't offer the same number architectural treasures as Isfahan, if the idea of visiting somewhere that captures the essence of much of what it means to be Iranian appeals to you, it's not to be missed.


Places to stay in Shiraz include the five star Zandiyeh Hotel, the popular Niayesh Boutique Hotel, the modern Sasan Hotel and the four star Elysee Hotel.

Access - Getting to Shiraz

There are flights to a number of domestic destinations from Shiraz including Tehran, Ahvaz, Kish, Mashhad, and Bandar-e Abbas. There are also international flights to Doha, Bahrain, Kuwait and Dubai.
There are buses to many destinations including Tehran (approx. 15 hours), Hamadan (15 hours), Kermanshah (18 hours), Tabriz (24 hours) and Yazd (7 hours).

David Shariatmadari

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Books on Iran

From Middle Eastern Poetry to Country Western Music

As the 21st century begins, we find ourselves in a real dilemma when we try to determine what world we live in. According to a theory that was popular some years ago, there is a First World identified with the industrial powers such as America and the leading European countries, followed by a Second World consisting of the Soviet bloc, and then an unfortunate array of countries consigned to the Third World. With the demise of the Soviet Union, however, there is no longer any Second World. So what happened to the Third World? According to some, such as Samuel Huntington in his Clash of Civilizations, there is a fatal conflict taking place between something called "the West" and the rest of the world. Huntington raises the specter of an "Islamic-Confucian conspiracy" against the West.

In reality, for the past two centuries at least we have been living in a single world. For a large part of this modern period, the primary political reality was the colonial domination of Africa and Asia by European powers (and America as well), who were favored by a superior military technology, which they believed made them culturally superior. But since the end of colonial domination half a century ago, artists have been initiating new negotiations of cultural relations.

One of the most stunning examples of this new relationship is the poetry of Rumi, who has become the best-selling poet in America, according to many accounts. Rumi was a great 13th century poet of Persian and one of the outstanding representatives of the Sufi tradition of mysticism, which has long been the backbone of Islamic spirituality. Through the translations of poets like Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, Rumi has reached new audiences, who can now appreciate his brilliant wit and his uncanny directness in a distinctly American idiom.

Rumi, although a colossus, is but one of hundreds of outstanding poets who made the Persian language flow with a genius of intense spiritual power. The Persian language was the vehicle of both politics and spirituality from southeastern Europe to Southeast Asia for nearly a millennium. In this vast enterprise of literary brilliance, one other figure stands out above the rest: Hafiz of Shiraz (d. 1392), a poet whose skill at the lyric was so definitive that he still is the standard of supreme mastery. His poetry is even used to tell fortunes -- he is known as "the tongue of the hidden world," because in the clear mirror of his verse, everyone can see their most intimate aspirations reflected with astonishing clarity.

Both Rumi and Hafiz have been afflicted with translators and pseudo-translators of appallingly bad quality. In the early days of the British East India Company, Persian was still the language of administration in India, and so colonial officers had to learn the courtly tongue in order to master the art of revenue collection. Since everyone had to pass the Persian examination, there were countless examples of classroom exercises of translation that demonstrated a bare minimum of understanding without coming close to any kind of literary sensitivity.

Among these slavish demonstrations of misguided affection, one can point to the case of Lt.-Col. Wilberforce Clarke as an example of the colonial translators of Hafiz. He undertook other translations as well, including a Persian manual of Sufi practice by `Umar al-Suhrawardi, and the great Persian epic on the Alexander story by Nizami. In neither of these can he be said to have been very successful, but he was a pioneer. The great virtue of his excruciatingly literal translation of Hafiz is that it preserves the metaphors and the figures of speech with remarkable clarity (including the convention of the male beloved, which encompasses the king, the Sufi master, and God). Clarke unfortunately attempted to imitate the rhyme of the original Persian, a language which (unlike English) is rich in short words that fall into familiar rhyming patterns; the result is not even close to decent English poetry. At the time when his book was published, at the end of the 19th century, it was still possible for Rudyard Kipling to produce thousands of verses with thumping meters and simple rhymes and be recognized as a poet laureate. But in the century that followed the publication of T. S. Eliot's poetry, not to mention Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, and William Carlos Williams, it was no longer possible to write serious poetry in bouncing rhyme. Scholars of Arabic and Persian did not realize this, however. Stuck in a time warp, they thought 19th-century romanticism was immune to changes of taste. Translators of Hafiz such as A. J. Arberry continued to write in a style that was numbingly reminiscent of the worst parts of Fitzgerald's Omar Khayyam.

To be sure, there have been those who took the opposite tack, who basically composed their own verses but pretended to be translating from some Oriental genius. So thin was the relationship between their versions and the purported originals that one can hardly call them translations. Uncritical readers, impressed with the reputations of the original authors, have accepted these travesties with a docile credulity. This is a distinctly postmodern problem, in which the text disappears into advertising and self-promotion.

What has been missing in this process is an authentic American voice based on a genuine engagement with music. The Persian ghazal is a lyrical poem that has been preserved dynamically in musical performance. Unlike modern American and English poetry, it is not meant to be read silently and privately. Instead, it is performed for a community on the basis of musical forms that have been honed for generations. What possible equivalent can we find in American culture?

The answer has been provided, surprisingly at first glance, in country Western music. James R. Newell, the audacious initiator of this trend, brings unique gifts to this project. An accomplished musician with strong Nashville credentials, he has a solid feel for both the instrumental and the lyrical sides. As a divinity student at Vanderbilt with a deep commitment to comparative religion in its most practical sense, he cares passionately about the truth of the texts that he sings. He has taken the bare bones of Wilberforce Clarke's version of Hafiz and transformed them into the living body of country Western music. This alchemy definitely turns lead into gold.

Amazingly, country Western music is one of the only places left where rhyming verse is still powerfully alive. Even the preservation of the Persian endrhyme, pushing the verb to the end of the line, seems somehow inevitable rather than artificial. The themes that are familiar in this style -- drinking, hangover, love gone bad, and the devastating effects of beauty -- are very much the chief topics of Persian poetry as well. There are differences, to be sure: Persian poetry was recited in the court, with kings providing poets like Hafiz with handsome financial rewards, while the singers of country Western music deal with recording companies, radio stations, and concert audiences. In Sufi parlance, wine stood for the intoxication of divine love, the tavern was the abode of the Sufi master, and the face and tresses of the beloved were the attributes of God. A lot of the principles are pretty much the same, however. This overall structural similarity has permitted James R. Newell to create what is basically a new American idiom for the great Persian poet. I am grateful to him for the directness of his appeal to the bartender, replacing the stiff and ornate Victorian summoning of the cupbearer. His musical inventiveness is graceful and inspired. He enters into the seriousness of Sufi spirituality, bringing with him an undeniably American directness that gives up none of its own individuality. If you know the Persian originals, you will recognize these, with a sense of aesthetic shock, as quintessential and beautiful. If you hear them for the first time in English, you will hear a damn good song.

I have heard a lot of bad fusion albums done by people with no sense of humor. This is good, it is funky, and if Hafiz were here today, he'd leave his beer at the bar and step to the stage to make a request. Let's drink to a world where artists like this can bring us together.
Carl W. Ernst
Department of Religious Studies
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill



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