Monday, December 31

Jerusalem, Day Six: Farewell

As it was our last morning here, we were left to our own devices with the strict instruction to be back to the hotel by Asr. We took the opportunity to visit both the Tower and Tomb of David, while still being able to offer Zhur and Asr at Al-Aqsa.

But that was really it and as we left for the airport we were treated to a final view of the Old City.

It was finally time to leave, and just like my last visit a decade ago we were treated to some overly attractive airport security before I once again was held for a bit before being allowed into the departure gate area. The trip was a quick one, and perhaps a little inefficient (as was expected in being a part of an organised tour) but it was definitely a more convenient visit than my last.

Sunday, December 30

Jerusalem, Day Five: Mopping Up

As today was our last full day in Jerusalem, we spent it mopping up the remainder of the Old City. Highlights included a quick visit to Mariam's House, the paying of respects to the sahaba's buried along the eastern wall, a quick look at the pigrims at the Western Wall, another visit to the Mosque of Omar and then finally we spent some time in the Church of the Sepulchre.

In the afternoon we spent some time with one of the imams of Al Aqsa where he gave us a quick lecture.

The celebrity didn't stop there: after dinner we were treated to a session with one of the muezzin of Al Aqsa, who recited the quran, some nasheeds and of course the Adhan exclusively for us.

Saturday, December 29

Jerusalem, Day Four: A Road Trip

Today, we hit the road for what was to become a whistlestop trip to see some of the points of interest outside of the Old City.

We started relatively close, passing through the Mount of Olives, and then on to Nabi Musa on the road to Jericho (without actually going to Jericho, which was disappointing).

As before, Hebron was the most striking of the places to visit. Primarily because of the mosque, but also because of the West Bank troubles and politics that it has been the centre of.

The final two places we visited were Halhul, where the Prophet Yusuf was said to have visited for a year and Bethlehem where we visited a busy Manger Square.

Friday, December 28

Jerusalem, Day Three: Jummah

Today was mainly about Jummah. Surprisingly, we didn't need to come as early as we did for the congregation in Makkah or even my previous visit here. For all the increase in tourism, it's possible that the numbers for religious use might be more controlled now.

After Asr we visited Salah ad-Din's house which was a nice surprise and offered a unique view of the Old City from its rooftop.

Maghrib was offered in the Masjid of Umar.

Thursday, December 27

Jerusalem, Day Two: The More Things Change

Fajr at Al Aqsa did indeed bring back the memories.

By its very nature not much has appeared to have changed in the Old City - the contrast is stark when compared with the two other holy cities, which seem to change every 12 months. Today was also spent with us becoming acquainted with the Al-Aqsa complex, including a visit to the Al-Buraq Mosque and the Al-Qibly basement, as well the more obvious Dome of the Rock.

Still, even though the place hasn't changed much geographically or even aesthetically the demographic make up has. And by that I mean there are many more organised tours and tourists and the danger of the place becoming an Instagram destination are already clear - if, of course, it isn't one already.

Wednesday, December 26

Jerusalem, Day One: An Unholy Start

Even though it's been ten years since my last visit to the holy land I thought that trip would work in my favour while passing through Israeli immigration. Ordinarily I wouldn't have been concerned at all, but what with trips to both Iran and Saudi within the last few months I was expecting to be at least flagged. To be fair however I wasn't the only one in the tour group made to wait and if anything I was among those released the quickest so perhaps I did get some "special" treatment after all.

Still, the day had been written off and so we all went to the hotel to settle in. We were at the Holy Land Hotel, which happened to be the same place I stayed in on my last trip. I had a feeling this wouldn't be the last dose of nostalgia I'd receive this trip.

Tuesday, December 18

Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Click for more info

The most striking thing about Into the Spider-Verse are its visuals. They're great, striking and hit the tone of the film so precisely you'd be forgiven for normalising them by the end of the show. That said, there were a few scenes that jarred for me - mainly ones where deliberate phasing and blurred lines were introduced as style, but I suspect that this was more of a personal irritation than a universal flaw.

In fact the film looked and played so well that it was almost carried by it. The plot was weak, with a fair bit of licence used throughout to keep it going, and character development was pretty cheap too. That said the film never saw the need to apologise for it, instead offering tons of fanservice and fun instead.

So here we have a film that is clearly style over substance, and so a film easily hyped (but equally enjoyed) - but however much this makes it fine for a single viewing, it unfortunately falls quite short of being a definitive Spider-Man film.

Friday, December 14

Food: RockIt Click for more info

I first got to try RockIt a few weeks ago as part of a social event. The hosts had booked the whole place and although there were serious flaws in the experience (not least how they had to serve food till 10pm to handle the numbers), the actual steaks we received were actually really good. Since I was there under a special context (and paid a discounted rate for the food) I decided not to review the place until I attended as a private diner.

Unfortunately the first observation was with the price. At over £25 for a steak we soon realised that the place was out of our budget (although it now made sense to me why the food was so good during my last visit). We each then opted for the Wagyu Burger, which at £10 sounded like a bit of a bargain. For starters we got a mixture of chicken wings.

The food was disappointing, with the wings coming cold - not just "not warm" but actually cold to the touch which was disturbing. The burger was also not the best, with the patty tasting like something from a supermarket frozen section rather than anything that could be considered gourmet.

The price came to around £20 per head which was just about what I was willing to pay, but really the main takeaway here was to not consider the place for a future visit. On the plus note, the restrooms were quite novel so there was that.

Tuesday, December 11

Film: Creed II Click for more info

After the decent romp that was Creed, I was expecting a sold entry in the latest of the new-slash-continuing series of boxing movies. I mean hey: they even brought out Drago again which was either the work of a genius or a really lazy storyteller.

Alas Creed II fails in basic role as a boxing movie. There's a few reasons why this was the case, but for me there just wasn't enough agency offered. If you're going to make the protagonist such a weak and shallow character you need to at least make sure the boxing action is great. Creed II just wasn't good enough.

Friday, December 7

Film: Die Hard Click for more info

Hopefully it goes without saying that Die Hard (and Die Hard 2) are timeless classics. This could be taken somewhat literally too - I was mildly amused by how much airplanes and airports haven't changed since the late 80s for instance. But aesthetics aside, Die Hard is one of those movies that managed to capture a certain purity of entertainment that really doesn't age over time.

I'm glad that I go to see it on the big screen (which of course is why I get to write about it now), but I did wonder at the end whether it actually benefited from the cinema experience or not. I'm certain I had the same joy in watching as I do when I watch it in the comfort of my own home - maybe a bit more due to the Christmas nostalgia factor.

In some ways that makes this easy then - Die Hard is still an excellent romp that you should watch (or rewatch) - and better still you can get to do that in the comfort of your own home. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 4

Film: Ralph Breaks the Internet Click for more info

There's a scene in Ralph 2 which satirises exactly how volatile the Internet can be. For me this was mindblowingly meta - it's only now that CGI feature animations can be made and amended so quickly that makes such a film like Ralph possible. Take the depiction of the simple Google logo for instance: it's material and fresh and more current than the length of the film's production; there was also an updating of one of the princesses in that scene after commentary of whitewashing was made. But aside from aesthetics it's the cleverness and keeping with the trends that is the real genius here. Ralph 2 is as relevant as it could have been. Well, for now anyway.

So it's clever, it's witty and it's cute. However it's not without its flaws either. A weak and rushed third act undermines the rest of the film, while a potentially dodgy moral message teeters swamps out any other lessons that might have been learned from the film.

Ralph 2 is a great, if not forgettable, ride and a worthy entrant in the list of Disney animations. And of course those unmissable moments of genius are enough to justify the entry price alone.

Monday, December 3

Umrah 2019, Day Fourteen: Signs

In what seemed like an apt sign telling me to go home, I got asked for ID by who appeared to be immigration control on the way back from my farewell tawaf. Another first for me, and I don't know whether to be flattered or insulted by the approach.

And just like that another Umrah trip comes to an end.

Sunday, December 2

Umrah 2019, Day Thirteen: A Ziyarat After All

We spent our last night in Makkah (and Saudi) doing a ziyarat of sorts - to the local shops. Still, this did mean getting to see the less developed areas of Makkah and it served as poignant reminder of what the Haram zone used to look like before the rapid and fancy development took place. Just imagine: we used to rent rooms of private residences that used to be across the road from the holiest site in Islam. It's hard to imagine that now.

Saturday, December 1

Umrah 2019, Day Twelve: Timekeeping

Because this is me, I was keeping a fairly accurate record of how long certain rituals were taking me to complete. So in the interests of accurate record keeping, here are my highs and lows for completing a tawaf.

The fastest took 15 minutes, performed at around 915am.

The slowest took 49 minutes, and was a stroll between Maghrib and Esha on the first floor.

Just for comparison in the "good old days" a tawaf took a matter of minutes to complete. We're talking 4-5 minutes. Therefore multiple consecutive tawafs were not unheard of.

Friday, November 30

Umrah 2019, Day Eleven: Tolerance

We've reached the point of the trip where my ability to tolerate is running thin. If you smell like you've not has a shower for a few days, then I'm going to move away. If your cough sounds infectious, then I'm going to move away. If your beautiful but loud and distracting Quran recitation is obnoxiously stopping me from reading my own, then I'm going to move away.

Of course the problem here is that you'll find these annoyances in every corner of the mosque. In short... it's time for me to go home. After all, there's only so much space in the Haram to hide from the great unwashed.

On the other hand my photobomb game is strong. Selfies and videocalls be damned.

Thursday, November 29

Umrah 2019, Day Ten: A Lack of Ziyarat

I just realised that we skipped any ziyarat in Madinah and will probably skip it here in Makkah too.

Missing out on Masjid Quba is unfortunate but I don't feel that we missed out on any of the others.

Wednesday, November 28

Umrah 2019, Day Nine: More Maldivians

Looking at demographics, there does seem to be many more Maldivians visiting than I've noticed before. Many complain about the development/numbers management going on in the two holy cities but if it makes it more accessible for those who wouldn't even consider the idea of visiting then I'm all for it. And hey, if you really want to come multiple times a year you can always pay the penalty anyway.

Tuesday, November 27

Umrah 2019, Day Eight: Koshari

Today we discovered Koshari, the Egyptian street food. It's cheap, clean, vegetarian and tasted decent enough.

I'm not sure if it's a new addition to the Saudi fast food scene or if it was just dismissed by us previously, but thanks to our new friends we have been introduced to what I can honestly see as our staple going forward.

Monday, November 26

Umrah 2019, Day Seven: More Changes

Another (perhaps more welcome) change: I don't notice as many designer hijabs anymore and yet I'm not sure when the fad was finally killed off. Gone are the days when you'd see Louis Vuitton and Gucci embossed headscarves, and it's a good example of how not all changes are for the worse.

Sunday, November 25

Umrah 2019, Day Six: Expansions

Today I completed what might have been my fifteenth Umrah.

No place in my travels changes so much on a visit by visit basis than Makkah does. For example the clocktower is now ten years old, yet memories of its building are still vivid. It also broke my heart when the public access to the Zamzam pump was taken away.

The more recent work being done is in the Mataaf, with us witnessing its various inconvenient states during at least the last two visits. However now that the work is more or less structurally complete the value is clear and it's a pretty good job. The main casualty is that the direct walk from the main gates to the Kaba is now but a memory. That makes me sad as no matter how needed it is, its yet another reduction in intimacy.

Saturday, November 24

Umrah 2019, Day Five: Optimisation

It's always fun to see the novel ways pilgrims express their devotion to their belief. From Zamzam acquisition to finding the perfect place to pray everyone has their own little strategies and tricks. It's only a matter of time before they learn how to siphon Zamzam from the water buckets.

One habit we picked up during this stay is to get into the Green Dome hall for a congregation (easy enough if you either wait for the Riadhul Jannah partitions to come down or if you use the Abu Bakr Siddiq Gate early). After congregational (as well as any janazah) prayers have concluded you should easily be able to send your salutations to The Prophet with ease while the organisers busy themselves with setting up the cordons for the Riadhul Jannah again.

Umrah 2019, Day Four: Well, That Didn't Last Long

It seems that my FOMO is strong, as we subjected ourselves to a 90 minutes queue for the Riadhul Jannah. Of course it would be criminal to say that it wasn't worth it, but at least I completed a juz of the Quran while I was waiting.

My personal lack of discipline aside it does seem like the mosque authorities are doing a good job with crowd management. Aside from minor "devotional" pushing and shoving the queuing system (which was usually established between prayers) was well organised and a generous amount of time was given to those who participated.

Thursday, November 22

Umrah 2019, Day Three: Here Comes The Rain

Another first for me I think: rain in Madinah. A blessing, of course.

Wednesday, November 21

Umrah 2019, Day Two: The Fast Track

Continuing on from yesterday's theme, I seem to have successfully let go of some of the things which I've previously had the opportunity to do under more ideal (read: less busy) conditions. These are things that not only seem just plain too difficult (if not impossible) now, but could even be seen as me taking away the chance for someone else to do the same[1].

In the case of the mosque here in Madinah, we've had chances to pray in the Riadhul Jannah a fair few times with no contention - these were the times when a congregation wouldn't even be big enough to fill up the green dome part of the complex. Similarly I fondly remember being able to pass by the resting place of The Prophet in comfort as a family (ie with both of my parents) and spending as much time as we liked there. It's safe to say that those days are now over.

So spiritually there seems less profit in queuing up in the mad rush for the Riadhul Jannah and the immediate opportunity afterwards to pass salaam to our Prophet within an arms distance, when we could instead just stick to the much more effective and pleasurable fast track just 2-3m away instead. So my tip of the day is to just head to the Salaam Gate and pass your salutations in comfort and peace.

A part of me laments probably never being able to do these particulars again, but it's also liberating and perhaps even more pure of thought and intent to let go of ritual practice and find comfort in the, perhaps more genuine, pragmatic. And of course I'm ever thankful for being in the position where these things can even be considered optional to do.

[1] Disingenuous, I know.

Tuesday, November 20

Umrah 2019, Day One: So Many Flies

I don't think I've ever seen so many flies during a stay here. We've been told that it's seasonal but I can't recall that so perhaps I've just simply not visited the holy lands this late in November.

Madinah-then-Makkah seems to be our preferred itinerary now, which implies a single Umrah (as we don't subscribe to the whole Masjid Aisha thing). I think I'm okay with that considering the opportunities I've previously been blessed with (this is perhaps my seventh or eight visit and my Umrah count should hit around 15 or so). That said, the 1:30am flight from Jeddah to Madinah was a killer, even though it did mean getting settled in in time for the Fajr congregation.

I've written before that I'm no longer surprised by meeting people I know while travelling. Umrah especially: I can't remember a trip where I've not randomly bumped into people I already know. That's sort of a miracle in itself considering the scale of the place.

This trip was no different as we met and became acquainted with the cousin of a friend. Not only that but it turns out we're also travelling to Makkah on the same day where we'll be staying in the same hotel. I should be surprised... but I'm not.

Friday, November 16

Food: Tipu Sultan Click for more info

Despite its poncy stature Tipu Sultan really is as down to earth as any other balti can be. The food is solid, the pricing accessible and all this with decent decor, service and the quality you'd expect paying twice the price.

They really have managed to achieve the impossible, and the exercise of exactly how they did this is left to the reader. In the meantime it's become my to-go place when I fancy a curry in Birmingham.

Tuesday, November 13

Film: Thugs of Hindostan Click for more info

There was a few years when having Aamir Khan on a ticket would mean a film was a must-see. By releasing only a selection of films (and most of the time just the one) a year gave a sense of quality and discretion that you wouldn't normally find elsewhere in Bollywood. But I guess there's always going to be exceptions and unfortunately in this case Thugs is it.

It's not that it's a bad film. Aamir Khan himself does a pretty decent job as a Johnny Depp knock off, and the plot wasn't all that bad. It was overly long though, but the main problem was the scope and ambition of the movie - it wanted to be an epic but just didn't have the quality to hold it up.

If it was an hour shorter it'd probably get a recommendation but as it stands Thugs is probably one to skip for now.

Friday, November 9

Book: The Dark Forest, Cixin Liu, Joel Martinsen Click for more info

Book two in what is often described as The Three Body Series accelerates the story of the Trisolarians apparent invasion of Earth, covering the response of the latter over a range of centuries after the crisis first began. The real novelty here is the use of time - the distances being so great allows the author to play with time. This also allowed a bit more liberty taking than I liked, but the book's story was strong enough to see it through. Criticisms are easy to spot in the characters, but then it seems that Three Body was never about individuals but more about societies - and those spanning galaxies.

The ending was also problematic in its terseness and rushing, which really cheapened and undermined the rest of the book for me. On the positive side the volume did manage to stand on its own two feet - this is a genuine trilogy and not a single book split into three parts.

There was just enough to keep me going here, and so on we go to book three.

Tuesday, November 6

Film: Widows Click for more info

Widows is most probably the best put together movie I have seen in the last two or three years. It's such a tightly told story, and the production so clean, that it's even more of a shame that it falls so short of being a classic.

The performances are great, some of the camera shots magnificent and all this while not being bogged down in its own art. As a demonstration of what can be achieved if you stick to tried and tested film-making techniques Widows is a masterclass.

But it's the lack of depth that made the film so easy to build, and also what ultimately breaks it. Nothing really happens, and the characters aren't strong enough to carry what should have been a plot heavy film. As such Widows ends up being pretty forgettable and one of the biggest lost opportunities of this year.

Tuesday, October 30

Film: Bohemian Rhapsody Click for more info

If there's any film that could tell an interesting story it would be the biopic for Freddie Mercury. But unfortunately Bohemian Rhapsody falls a little flat, playing it a bit too safe and keeping things entirely black and white. It's a little disappointing and perhaps even a little too... American.

But the music is present and accounted for, including a full 20 minute recreation of Queen's Live Aid set. So then: for fans of their music, Bohemian Rhapsody is great. But for fans of Freddie Mercury, not so much.

Sunday, October 21

Food: Meathouse Click for more info

With Meathouse, I'm a little torn. I'll start with the easy stuff: service was alright and the cost per head of 13 quid or so (with drinks) was acceptable. No, the thing which is confusing me is the food.

It doesn't help that I didn't get the same burger as everyone else; I went for the chilli burger, waving off any warnings the server was giving me about it being really chilli™. In my head this would be the same as my friend's cheeseburger, just with some kind of hot sauce added, maybe some jalapenos. What I got was both disappointing and enthralling at the same time.

You see, the actual burger was markedly different to that which was in the cheesburger. It was clearly more processed, smaller and a bit of a throwback to the pre-gourmet era. This was the source of disappointment - it's pretty unacceptable, and even embarrassing, for a burger place to have served anything like this really.

The thing is though, that this chilli burger really was chilly. The difference in patty had a real reason behind it, and that was that the meat itself was super hot. I'm talking "one of the hottest burgers I've had" hot. That alone also made it one of the most enjoyable. Based on my own experience it really was a USP.

So yes. Torn. I think on balance I probably wouldn't seek out a reason to visit Meathouse again, but I wouldn't say no.

Wednesday, October 17

Turkey-Iran, Day Twenty-Two: From Mashhad To Tehran

I aborted my plan to catch up on some well earned sleep while my friend revisited the shrine for another pilgrimage, and instead followed in his footsteps - except instead of heading to the shrine itself I diverted to the museums enclosed in the complex. It was a decent enough way to spend some time and definitely value for money. It was also the most eclectic collection of items I've had the pleasure of visiting, one which consisted of curios like coins and stamps, to historical religious items (including some of the previous shrines used for Imam Reza), to archaeological pottery and sport and nuclear propaganda and more typical fine art - it even had a sea life exhibit. The effort and love put into the collection was admirable, but I couldn't help but think what it would have been like with the right resources to back it.

After bidding farewell to the shrine and its complex for the last time, I swung by the Bazaar Reza, whose unique selling point was its layout - a single 800m stretch of shops and stalls that you can't help but walk the length of.

And with that, our time in Mashhad had come to an end. Less than 24 hours after we had landed, we were back at the airport to catch our flight to Tehran.

The whole risk with the Mashhad plan was sacrificing our time in Tehran - it meant that we had no nights to spend there and since we were landing around 2pm pretty much just half a day to explore the capital. That said, our flight was late that night (or more correctly, early the next day), and after checking out the things we wanted to do in deciding the Mashhad plan we were confident we would cover the main things. Truthfully though I suspect we were well travelled out and by that point didn't really mind missing out on a few things at this point of the trip - especially after the win that was Mashhad.

The first casualty of our ambitious schedule was Golestan Palace, which had already admitted its last entries five minutes before we reached there. The Grand Bazaar was a bit of a washout too, and not a patch on those we had seen during our travels. At this point we were struggling a bit to fill the day - lest our time in Tehran become a glorified transit.

We decided to check out the Milad Tower and reached there just as the sun was going down. The view was just about worth it, with our birds-eye view confirming what we had heard about the horrendous Tehrani traffic.

We did think about heading to the Water and Fire park but faced with the aforementioned horrendous traffic, by that point we were well and truly spent and even unenthusiastic about more tourism. Instead we made the more appropriate decision to spend a few hours in Football House to watch the Iran vs Bolivia match. It was a great place to chill and gave an insight (cough) to Tehrani culture that we didn't see on the tourist trail.

By that point we knew we were done. The only thing left was to grab dinner. We picked Burger Zoghali, enjoyed some decent food and then headed to the airport for our AM flight home.

And that was it. Twenty two days, three countries, thirteen towns and cities and almost fifty mosques and shrines later and I was heading home. I've been lucky to have been on some epic trips but my tour of Turkey and Iran (via Baku) was special for a variety of reasons: from the historical baggage of a cancelled trip, to the range of things I saw and did, to having different company in each leg. It was always going to be an ambitious journey but I think I managed to just about pull it off and can only think of a few things I would have done differently, while at the same time the list of things that went far beyond expectations is pretty long. The synergy between the different countries and towns only served to enhance one another - each of the countries I visited just wouldn't have been the same on their own.

But for now, I'm looking to go home. Twenty two days is well past my limit... and that's especially in the context of the imminent travel to come.

Monday, October 15

Turkey-Iran, Day Twenty-One: From Shiraz To Mashhad

One of the most recognisable views in Shiraz is that of the sun streaking through the stained glass windows of Nasir-ol-molk Mosque. Embarrassingly I only realised how time dependant that view was once I went to visit - we arrived at around 8:30am and by the end of our 25 minute stay it was already clear how small a window you would have in getting the desired aesthetic.

Mosque #45: Nasir-Ol-Molk Mosque

The rest of the day was spent mopping up the remainder of Shiraz. This included the historical Qavam and Zinat Al-Molk houses, the Vakil Bazaar and enclosed mosque, a return visit to the Arg of Karim Khan and a stroll through the Eram Garden.

Mosque #46: Vakil Mosque

We were done with Shiraz, so we headed back to the hotel for a brief chill (with Coup of course), before heading to the airport for an unplanned impromptu flight to... Mashhad. Mashhad was never on our itinerary, but it turned out to be important enough religiously for my travel companion to make the attempt to go. The plan would be to spend just the night there, so that he could complete a pilgrimage and since the logistics worked (internal flights are cheap and plentiful) it was a chance to see one of Iran's biggest points of interest that I wasn't about to pass up. I had also realised by this point that time seems to run slowly in Iran and it was possible to pack a lot in. In other words it didn't feel like we'd be missing out on any existing plans by creating the time to fly to the north west.

That point of interest is, of course, the Imam Reza Shrine.

Mosque #47: The Imam Reza Shrine

To describe the shrine as big and impressive would be an understatement. The approach to the site reminded me of how the Haram in Makkah used to be before development - you could almost feel the spirituality as you walk there, and that even before you turn the corner to catch that first sight of one of the gates into the complex. And then once I was in, it was almost to the same scale and ambition as the two holiest sites in Saudi. While my friend performed his rites, I took the opportunity to explore the sprawling campus, getting lost a few times before I managed to map out the various wings and courtyards. Each passage opened up to a new mini world, each of which themselves channeled the various styles of architecture I had seen since my visit to Iran had started.

The shrine itself was as charged and electric as you would imagine, with pilgrims continually paying their respects. It was easy to just get lost in the flow of people, and soon enough I became good at finding the shortcuts and viewpoints from which I could witness the devotion without getting in the way.

It was easily worth the detour and we were crazy to not have included it in the first place.

Sunday, October 14

Turkey-Iran, Day Twenty: The Persian Empire

Another day and another early start - this time to backtrack the way we came in order to pick up what are probably the crown jewels of South-Central Iran, if not the whole country.

Pasargadae is one of those places that you haven't heard of until you actually visit. The main sight is the alleged tomb of Cyrus, although it's said that it's not as authentic as it's said to be. The rest of the complex has more than enough genuine history to make up for any potential false advertising and at the very least a visit to Pasargadae makes for a apt prologue for the day's activities.

Next up we have the Naqsh-e Rustam, or perhaps as it's more likely to be known, the necropolis. A clear step up from Pasargadae in terms of explicit views, this is a compact sight that still packs a punch as you learn about the history of the Persian kings buried there, and even the subsequent Arab rulers who followed. And once again, it serves as an appetiser for what will clearly be the main meal of the day.

For me, Persepolis was one of the clear hits of my trip so far. Nothing did as much to throw us back to the time of the Achaemenids - 500 or so BC - as this ceremonial temple complex did. We spent much more time than we were expecting to just walking around the ruin and hiking up to the elevated tombs on the hillside. Some say you can spend a whole day there soaking it up, but for me even a few hours was more than enough to get the point.

The evening brought us back to Shiraz where we mopped up the twin tombs of Saadi and Hafez, with a bonus stop off at the Ali Ibn Hamza Shrine.

Mosque #44: Ali Ibn Hamza Shrine

We decided to walk back to the hotel ourselves, where we stopped off for some night shots of the Arg of Karim Khan before a well earned dinner.

Saturday, October 13

Turkey-Iran, Day Nineteen: A Swift Yazd

One of the alleged highlights of Yazd is to visit the Zurkhaneh gym to watch some of the wrestlers train. For what might have been the first time this trip (barring perhaps the search for a Sunni Jummah yesterday), a lack of information regarding a niche event in a small town such as Yazd meant we didn't have much to go on. We did find the gym last night, but the only real plan we had was based on rumour. Long story short, we left the hotel after Fajr to see if we could catch a possible morning training session.

There was no show, so this was a pretty bad bet. We took the opportunity to walk around the old town at our leisure, spending some time in the Jameh Mosque while it still empty and cool.

Mosque #42: Jameh Mosque

We were ready to leave Yazd by 9. Unfortunately our driver wasn't ready so we hit the town one more time, even going as far to check out the Water Museum. It was a decent enough timepass, and we left for Shiraz at 1130.

On the way out of Yazd, we spent some time at the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. These were colossal squat towers built at the top of hills where the recently passed were placed in order to be reclaimed by nature (usually vultures). That alone gave the sight an air of significance, but the Towers more than held their own as places of interest if you were just interested in architecture or physical activity or having access to some decent views. Well recommended.

The drive was long, perhaps our longest, and we finally arrived at out hotel at 8pm, stopping at Abarkooh for lunch and prayer. This was a small random ghost of a town that I believe even our guides hadn't visited, and I'm glad we had a chance to spend some time in a town that wasn't one of the bigger ones.

As it was evening, we didn't have much time to do much so after dinner we visited the nearby, but no less impressive, Shahecheragh Holy Shrine, which was another deceptively small but actually sprawling religious complex that Iran seems to do so well.

Mosque #43: Shahecheragh Holy Shrine

It was also one of the best examples of mirrored decor I had seen since arriving in Iran.

After returning to the hotel we had nothing left to do but to whip out Coup for a few quick rounds. It appears that the game seems to be quite the hit with the locals.

Friday, October 12

Turkey-Iran, Day Eighteen: Jummah

As usual Friday means Jummah. Except today's congregation promised to be less a than usual one for me. But first we had some sights to mop up in Isfahan.

The Vank Armenian Cathedral was a pleasant surprise, yet one which with some thought fit in quite well with what we had seen so far. Despite a diminutive and even boring exterior, the interior was stunning, with European style frescoes and architecture taking the stage.

The cathedral grounds also housed an Armenian museum which had a lot to offer those interested in religious literature or the historical treatment of Armenians of the area.

Which brings us to Jummah. Being in a Muslim country, I automatically assumed that this would just be a matter of procedure, but it turns out that Iran does things a bit differently from other more Sunni dominated countries. Indeed my initial plan was to find a minority Sunni mosque to join for prayers, but despite my tenacity I wasn't able to find any information on where such a place might be. Asking the usual places - the hotel concierge or even our guides - resulted in an inability to even know how to find out, and it almost felt like I was offending in asking. In the UK or even Pakistan one could easily make a few calls to find out this kind of information. At one point I started to believe what I had previously read about how the Sunni minority was treated in Iran.

But it turned out that this wasn't entirely a case of sectarian conflict. After switching our plan and deciding on joining a Shia congregation finding out about where we could do even that was an exercise in rumour and hearsay. There seemed to be a bit of explicit hostility toward religious practise by those who were more secular, and it highlighted a tension I had noticed throughout the trip so far - it's as if the young secularists felt that religion was holding them back. Given the context, I'm not sure if I'm entirely surprised by the push back.

I don't mean to overstate this, and as far as I can tell there was no overt signs of persecution or hate - people generally didn't care. On the other hand they didn't seem to want to progress either and it resulted in a strikingly non-cohesive and non-diverse society. I always say how enlightening attending Jummah is in finding out about a local Muslim society and my experience here didn't disappoint.

Mosque #41: Musallah of Isfahan

The difficulty we had in finding the Musallah of Isfahan was particularly surprising once we found the place. Since Iranian custom discourages multiple congregations in the same locality, most cities have one or two Musallahs - vast halls used just for Jummah congregations. The Musallah we visited was huge and impressive, although it was disappointing to see it only a quarter full. The Khutba and prayer itself were interesting to partake in; it was like a Sunni prayer but with a few striking differences.

After Jummah, we made a beeline to Yazd where we visited the Yazd Atash Behram (the main Zoroastrian temple in Yazd) and the Dowlat Abad Garden as well as a quick look at the Amir Chakhmagh Complex closer to our hotel.

At night we settled in to play a couple of rounds of Coup. Given the peculiar and possibly insular social culture here I wondered if that was the first game to be played ever in Yazd?

Thursday, October 11

Turkey-Iran, Day Seventeen: Isfahan

As our hotel was is a decent location we decided to dismiss the tour guides for the day and set out to as much of Isfahan as we could by foot. Due to the sheer number of things we wanted to see here it was the most efficient way of getting it done. In other words, it was yet another tourist blitz we were going to do on a city.

The main centre of sights is the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, well worth seeing even if you weren't interested in the many other sights it contained. For example on the west we had the Ali Qapu Palace (the most interesting in which are the music rooms on the top most floor), while on the east and south of the square we had two mosques of varying sizes and architecture.

Mosque #35: Abbasi Great Mosque

The larger of the two mosques was laid out in the typical fashion - its own courtyard, with various wings and large domes. The Abbasi Great Mosque felt almost tardis-like in its deceptively small size - particulalry given the stature of its entrance from the square.

Mosque #36: Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque

The second mosque was much smaller and only really consisted of a domed hall (although there was a basement which I'm assuming made up for the size difference. It could have been the smaller size that allowed the mosque to be decorated and maintained to such an impressive standard.

Next we saw the two palaces of Chehel Sotoon and Hasht Behesht, the former of which was just about more interesting. Containing lots of frescoes and paintings, it was almost European in style and definitely in contrast to the places of worship from before.

Passing by the Grand Bazaar, we reached our third mosque of the morning.

Mosque #37: Hakim Mosque

Although less ambitious in stature (and decoration) than the two mosques on Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Hakim was nevertheless impressive not least due to its relative isolation and spaciousness.

After rejoining our guides, lunch was equally tourtastic with us enjoying a Beryani at Haaj Mahmoud Shefa'at. With not a single grain of rice in sight, it was unlike any biryani I've ever had. It was pretty good though!

After lunch we were back on the tourist trail. The main ticket to the north of Naqsh-e Jahan was the Jameh Mosque and adjoining Majlesi Shrine.

Mosque #38: Jameh Mosque
Mosque #39: Majlesi Shrine

It was unclear if this was still a functioning mosque - it certainly didn't seem so, but our guides did suggest that it was only used for Jummah prayer. That would certainly explain its size anyway.

The rest of the afternoon was spent checking out the Ali Gholi Agha Bathhouse and Seyyed Mosque, the last mosque of six we saw in total today.

Mosque #40: Seyyed Mosque

Another deceptively small mosque, it's well worth hunting this one down as of all the places we visited today this was the quietest and possibly the most peaceful. If you're looking for an intimate place of worship without sacrificing size and scope this is the one to see.

We did try to visit the rocking towers of Monar Jonban but arrived too late - we took our consolation prize of Iranian ice cream instead. We were then dropped off to our final sights for the day - along the river Zayanderud to see the two most famous historical bridges of SioSe Pol and Khajoo.

Quite spectacularly, the river was completely dry - we even walked along the bed at some points between the two bridges. I can only imagine what it would have been like with water actually flowing, but this as an experience in itself was pretty cool - and turned each bridge into hotbeds of socialising and music and fun as locals hung out under the dry arches.

That brought us to dinner, and then to the end of our first day in Isfahan. Even though today was pretty crammed, we still had a few items left to see - but those could wait till tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 10

Turkey-Iran, Day Sixteen: Kashan

We headed out on the tourist trail relatively early, already slightly regretting the ambitious itinerary we had set ourselves. On the way to our first proper site we visited a shrine that wasn't really on our list but was a decent bonus with which to start the day.

Mosque #32: Imamzadeh-ye Sultan Mir Ahmad

The bulk of the sights were visiting "historical" houses. This seems to be a bit of a thing here in Kashan, with home owners investing heavily in restoring their ancestral homes for visitors.

Although at first glance they were all a bit samey, looking more closely did reveal unique flavours and characters. In total we visited three houses:

  • Tabatabaee Historical House
  • Abassian Historical House
  • Borujerdiha Historical House

We also paid a visit to the Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse, which sounded more fun than it actually turned out to be. The roof was the best part to see though.

Mosque #33: Agha Bozorg Mosque
Mosque #34: Khaje Taj od-Din

Midday prayers were offered at the Agha Bozorg Mosque, an impressive enough place of worship.

Next door however there was the Khaje Taj od-Din shrine, which was worth a visit just to see a rare pictorial depiction of The Prophet (you should probably close your eyes now if you feel this an inappropriate image to see).

After lunch we spent some time visiting the final sight in Kashan, The Fin Garden. This was pretty impressive from an engineering point of view, with natural water pressure feeding the separate pools and fountains without any pumps.

It was then on to Isfahan. Although we're spending quite a bit of time in a car for this trip, this leg was an example of why road trips can be so awesome. We had some amazing mountain views on the way, all impossible to capture on camera, while for music both The Eagles and George Michael made an appearance. Good times.

Our evening was spent exploring the area local to our hotel by night, checking out trendy eating places and coffee shops. So far Isfahan, and Iran, have really not been what I imagined them to be when it comes to amenities like these.

Tuesday, October 9

Turkey-Iran, Day Fifteen: The Forbidden Land

Of course the subtitle above is meant to be satirical, but I was still surprised at how many raised eyebrows I received when telling others of my plan to travel to Iran. For me it was a no brainer - it has enough historical, cultural and political relevance to top whichever criteria a travel list might use. On the other hand, it does have a reputation of inaccessibility (probably caused both by internal and external forces) and Muslims of the Sunni persuasion seemed to have an even more averse reaction to the Shia majority country. But it was the rapidly changing state of the world (see: Iraq, Syria) and a developing Iranian tourist cottage industry that convinced me to check out the place sooner rather than later. That and a real sense of ignorance about the place - of course it goes without saying that its not the evil place western (and some religious) media tells us it is, but it would have been equally naive to assume it was the complete opposite. I was going in with a blank slate and was prepared to learn a lot.

Once I had decided to go, everything appeared to fall into place relatively quickly. I asked a (Shia) friend who had previously been about visa advice, at which point he decided join me on the trip. I was then introduced to a budding tour operator from Isfahan who arranged almost everything I would need on the the trip, from drivers and local guides to food and most importantly money - there are no international credit cards in use in Iran, and the official government exchange rate forces a visitor to use the black market if they want any kind of value from their foreign currency. Speaking of which, as the rate was so much in our favour the whole trip promised to be great value so that was a bonus.

The only real downside to the trip was its length. The eight days in total that we had was limiting, and as I always plan "as if it's my last trip" the itinerary we ended up with seemed pretty ambitious on paper. My friend had as much energy and drive as I did so it had a real chance of working out.

The first surprise of the trip was at the airport. We were past immigration and with our luggage within 15 minutes of landing, which was pretty efficient for a xenophobic and watchful regime. Although we had landed in Tehran, the plan was to head south from the airport (as it was itself south of the city) and hit the road. And so our first stop in Iran was actually Qom.

Qom is significant in being the global centre of Shia academic study but for passer-bys the main attraction is the Haram in the centre. Here we found the Holy Shrine of Fatemeh Maasoume as well as the Imam Hasan Askari Mosque, our first glimpse at Persian-Shia religious architectural styles.

I've opted to include shrines in my rolling list of sites as in Iran they appear to serve as much as a place of worship as mosques do.

Mosque #29: Fatemeh Maasoume Shrine
Mosque #30: Imam Hasan Askari Mosque

After a quick walk through the Qom historical bazaar and drive by the Gonbad Sabz Garden (which was closed) we headed south to the Jamkaran Mosque. This is said to be the place Imam Mahdi anonymously visits every Tuesday evening, bringing huge crowds with him. Although today was Tuesday our schedule didn't permit us to stay too long, but although we didn't get to experience that particular audience the mosque itself was impressive enough for the visit.

Mosque #31: Jamkaran Mosque

We then made a beeline to our next city, Kashan, where we were to spend the night. Before heading for dinner and then bed, we visited the historical bazaar here too - it was the same as Qom's but different, a feeling we were to see elsewhere in city planning and character. Although we were a fair few leagues off I was beginning to channel Aladdin, Prince of Persia and the like.

The second surprise of the day was the thunder and lightning we witnessed that evening.

Monday, October 8

Turkey-Iran, Day Fourteen: Day Tripping

A common way to spend a day in Baku is to join an excursion to the few out of town sights that the region has to offer. We kept today (which was pretty much our last day here) for this purpose and joined TesTour on such a tour.

We started with the Mud Volcanoes which was definitely novel but definitely not as thrilling as the marketing suggested. Caused by escaping gas, there is potential for things to get hairy so we may have just arrived on an uneventful day. Still, the landscape was pretty alien and it was fun to literally mess around in mud for half an hour.

The next stop was at the Gobustan National Park, where the main sights were cave paintings and dwellings dating back 5,000-20,000 years. Apart from these the park also offered a decent view of some of the oil towns and infrastructure of Azerbaijan.

The next stop was Ateshgah, a Zoroastrian fire temple that until relatively recently had a naturally burning altar that was continuously lit. Although the flame is still present, it's now supplied via pipeline, which is a bit of a shame. The educational rooms were interesting enough and gave a good background on how and when the temple was built, as well as some its the wider social implications, not always religious.

The final stop was at Yanardag, a burning mountain which unlike Ateshgah was still burning a natural source. That said it was probably the least interesting sight on the itinerary today - it turns out that just because something is on fire doesn't make it exciting.

After returning to Baku, we spent the remainder of the day mopping up the various mosques and shrines that we missed out on yesterday.

Mosque #25: Heydar Mosque

Architecturally the most impressive was the Heydar Mosque, which holds both congregational and governmental religious roles. Unfortunately although the basement was naturally open for prayer, the main building proper was closed at the time we visited so we only managed to check it from the outside.

Mosque #26: Sultanbey Mosque
Mosque #27: Teze Pir
Mosque #28: Bibiheybet

The remaining three places of worship were all very different in ages and architecture, but all three were worth a visit - Teze Pir was the only one that was closed completely which was unfortunate as it appeared to be the most grand.

It was quite late by this point, so the remainder of the night was spent walking along the promenade and streets of Baku, trying to soak up more of the vibe we had enjoyed since arriving.