Once upon a time in Shiraz.
A story about beauty, religion and a warm heart.
31-12-2017, 12 minute read
What a good, energetic and spontaneous day! Today everything seemed to be just perfect! It started when I woke up in the middle of Shiraz’ city center. An early start, as I wanted to visit the Nasir al-Mulk mosque, also known as the ‘Pink mosque’ among travellers. Famed for its stunning architecture and play with light. The structure was designed to catch the morning sun through the stained-glass windows. Projecting it’s bright colours and shapes into the prayer room. Hence the early start today. I’m excited to see this phenomenon with my own eyes, so I head out and enjoy a surprisingly pleasant walk on the way. The streets were still empty, the air was still cool. There’s something appealing about that morning quietness. To walk around in a city before it wakes, still away from the bustle of the day. When the sun slowly starts to rise I feel a bit of rush. The timing of a young man offering me a ride on his scooter couldn’t have been better! Within no time I reached my destination, paid the small entrance fee and made my way to the prayer hall.
The pink mosque
The sunlight had barely touched any glass yet, but the room was already filled with tourists. Some sitting, meditating, others walking around and taking pictures. The ambiance overall relaxed and quiet. I took a seat on the soft carpet, against one of the twelve pillar columns and waited for the spectacle to begin. It started slowly, with a touch of yellow, red and blue covering the marvellous, multi colour tile work on the short wall of the space. It looked nice, but not too impressive. Yet the best had still to come. As the sun rose it’s light hit more glass, pushing the colours inch by inch into the room. Red, yellow, green and blue, projections of different size and shapes slowly took over. Filling up the whole space in a moving spectacle. In a dance of colour and light that doesn’t stop until every inch of the walls, ceiling, columns, arches and visitors are covered in light.
As the colours are moving, so do the visitors. Most of them walking around, taking photos of each other, the structure and themselves. Consumed by the light. Their body and faces wrapped in bright colours, and minds occupied by the beauty of it. I moved among them, mesmerized, trying to capture the light and colours in their brightest form. Wandering around in a surreal setting. I almost got lost there, taking photos, but then remembered that I’m in a religious place, a place for worship and prayer. I decided to leave the photo’s for what they were, chose a place where the sunlight hit my face directly and sat in silence. Aware of the colours decorating my body. From down here the spectacle was a lot more peaceful, and a lot more still. I stayed for another hour or so, sitting, observing, enjoying, meditating and taking in. When the plurality of people had already left, I was still there in silence.
As the mosque is larger than this room only I decided to walk around a bit. And admired the beautiful, detailed tile work and design outside of the prayer room. It was outside where I met Fatima and Zahra, two ladies who volunteer as a guide at several religious sites in Shiraz, including the Nasir al- Mulk mosque. I recognized Fatima immediately as I met her before at another site in Shiraz. She was surprised to see I was still in the city. We returned to the prayer room, where she explained about the history of the mosque and taught me about the Mihrab, an oblong niche in the wall build in the direction of the Kaaba in Mekka, the direction that Muslim’s should face during their prayers. Now that we were talking about prayers she invited me to come back in the afternoon, to observe the midday prayer. Great! I haven’t attended a prayer yet and am excited to experience one.
I hadn’t eaten yet, it was time for a brunch. I walked back to the house, away from the main streets, roaming around small alleys, observing the local life and the homes, doors and streets in Shiraz. Almost every person on the way greeted me friendly, some very curious to learn where I came from. Several times I came across super old doors that look amazing and full of history. Most of them equipped with two different door knockers, one for males and one for females. Allowing the host to identify the guests’ gender from a simple knock on the door, and to dress accordingly. Quite convenient for a society in which public appearance and customs between genders are so structured and present.
The whole way back I kept my eyes and nose open in search of some delicious fresh Iranian flatbread; Sangak. Bakeries can be found in every neighbourhood, I just had no idea where. As I came closer to my destination I decided to ask the only person around; a tiny, super old lady who walked with a stick, dressed in a black chador. Full of positive vibes from the morning I greeted her with a big smile and asked how she was doing. She gave me her hand and I asked her for ‘Sangak’ making an eating sign with my hand and pulling my shoulders up as to say ‘where?!’ The lady immediately understood my question and excitedly replied ‘Sangak’?! with a big smile on her face. With her stick she pointed out straight and then right. Haha awesome! I thanked her kindly and followed her instruction. Not much later I could already smell the fresh bread and followed my nose to the bakery, where I got a warm welcome from both costumers and staff. In broken English I got invited inside the bakery, to have a look at the oven and the bread making process. There is so much warmth and kindness in Iran! With a bag full of bread I returned to the home and bought cheese on the way. Since my stay in Iran I’ve been offered and given so much food, that now it was my turn to do the favour. I offered the bread at the local store and gave some to the old lady who directed me the way. Positive vibes all around.
Prayers and rituals
Time flies when you’re having fun, so by the time I finally reached home I had to eat fast in order to make it to the Pink Mosque. Fatima and Zarah were still there and excited to see me. I asked Fatima for a chador to join her in her prayers. Her eyes opened wide from surprise ‘you want to pray with us?!’ ‘Yes, that is what I came for. I have never prayed before, but I like to pray with you’ I replied. They quickly looked at each other and their excitement grew. Zarah explained me the meaning of the Namaz while Fatima helped me with the chador. ‘Today you can pray with us’ her words soft and kindly. For the second time today I followed her to the mihrab, where the Imam, the spiritual leader had already taken place. And knelt down behind a green line with Turbah’s, prayer stones, that separated the men from the woman and indicated the places for prayer. I took a moment of silence to meditate and focus on the prayer and just in time noticed I had to stand up to perform the ritual. The imam started to sing and I followed the men and woman in their movements. Bending, kneeling, touching the turbah softly with my head. Sit up straight, bend to the turbah again, stand up and repeat this ritual during the 10-15 minute prayer. The imam’s voice, his chanting, sounded full of love. And the repetitive movements had something meditative to it. As I experienced difficulties moving around with the chador, Fatima patiently helped me out a couple of times. She also gave me the written words of the second prayer in English, so that I could understand what was said. The whole ritual felt very peaceful, lovely and sincere. I felt blessed to be with such friendly people, and to pray in such a beautiful mosque.
Warm hearts, deep conversations
The ladies invited me over to their homes, but as I needed to be around the city center I suggested to drink a cup of tea instead. They insisted to go for a traditional lunch and so we went off to the ‘Saied rest house’, located in the center of Shiraz. This cozy restaurant serves Shirazi food in a traditional setting. Waitresses in colorful, traditional costume take your order, and traditional live music is played in the background. In a country where music is largely restricted it was extremely pleasant to listen to a live performance. Two delicious meals got served; Karam Polo; rice with cabbage and meatballs. And Aloo Polo; rice with potato, eggplant, stewed meat and tomato. Although both dished looked the same, they had a very different taste. Both very delicious, rich and full of flavour! This place is definitely recommended during your visit in Shiraz!
During the meal we had lots of conversations about Iran and Islam. Before arriving in Shiraz I’d mostly been hanging out with people who are not so religious; young people ready for change, who don’t attend the daily prayers, who no longer visit the mosque and criticize the Islamic government. But today I was in the company of two lovely ladies with a deep-rooted faith in god. And a deep-rooted love too. We openly discussed female Islamic related topics like covering the body in chador, not singing and dancing in public, and other Islamic customs like separate parties for males and females in weddings and celebrations. From their answers I understood that instead of feeling limited, all can be seen as a way to get closer to god. They cover themselves with love, and can still dance and sing in private occasions. Convinced that God created us with love and that following his book leads to a better life. It was very interesting to listen to their words and to learn about the perspective on these topics from a religious point of view.
Before heading home, the ladies usually bring a visit to the shrine of Shah Cheragh, a mosque and mausoleum, housing the tomb of Ahmad and Muhammad, the sons of Musa al Kazim, the seventh Shiite imam and brothers of Imam Reza, the eight Shiite imam. Shah Cheragh, which means ‘King of Light’ in Persian is an important site for pilgrimage in Shiraz. I’d visited the structure before, but didn’t have the opportunity to go inside the shrine hall then. Today I was lucky as Fatima and Zahra invited me to join them. I wasn’t sure what to expect. During my visit to the Imamzadeh Saleh shrine in Tehran a lot of ladies were crying. Praying, asking for comfort and support. So I was curious to find out. We took off our shoes and entered through the ladies entrance. The interior so splendid that it took me to another world; a place full glitter and glamour! All walls and ceiling were covered with marble and excellent mirror work, reflecting the light of the extravagant chandeliers, and shattering reflections of ourselves in thousands’ pieces. So caught up by the design, that I barely registered the other visitors. We walked fast, faces along with numerous reflections passed by until we reached the tomb, and touched the silver bars that, as a decorative fence, surrounded the casket. It was silent. People prayed with their eyes closed, asking for their deepest desires, with their hands or head on the bars to be most close and connected, opening their hearts and soul. The ambiance was calm, quiet, full of respect, convictions and believe. Both on a personal and community level. An ambiance I’ve seldom experienced before. We walked further ahead, to another room in the complex. As we walk I feel impressed by the size and decoration of the structure; the splendid mirror work is everywhere!
In the other room there was space and time to relax, to sit down and to take in the environment. The people are calm here. Some reading, some chatting and others praying or reading from the Quran. We stayed a while, sitting, relaxing, admiring this beautiful place.
And then it was time to go, to part our ways. My body calm and relaxed and at the same time filled with experience. Today was an excellent day, from meeting two wonderful, kind, fun ladies, to experiencing new rituals, learning about Islam and the connective power of religion. An experience not soon to forget.
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