Shiraz - City Of Poetry
Written by Brian Johnston
Persian poetry celebrating Shiraz speaks of nightingales and roses, love, summer, and the produce of its eponymous grape variety. With a glorious past blending with bustling, contemporary city life, and Qatar Airways launching flights to the city this month, Shiraz is a destination not to be missed.
The sun is setting over the tomb of the great 14th-century Persian poet Hafez. Water tinkles from fountains and the air is filled with the perfume of roses. At the centre of the gardens, the tiled dome of an elegant green-and-blue pavilion glows in the honeyed light. Iranians circle the marble tomb beneath, reciting ghazals. “Sit near my tomb and bring drink and music,” goes one of these. “Let me contemplate thy beauty.”
In a city of many sights, the tomb of Hafez is perhaps the most extraordinary. Few nations have such veneration for poets, and there’s something very moving and tranquil about this nightly visitation by locals, here to appreciate the cool air and summer beauty of the gardens, to enjoy a cup of tea, and show their appreciation for one of Iran’s cultural giants. They place two fingers on the tomb of the poet and recite a verse or two, faces calmed by the moment.
This is Shiraz, a sophisticated place of poetry and quiet passions. The city has another poet’s mausoleum, that of 13th-century writer Saadi, celebrated for his compassionate work The Rose Garden. Devotees place roses on his tomb in tribute. The 8km drive from the airport into the city is lined with roses. Omar Khayyam also penned odes to this city’s flowers, and to its nightingales and now-vanished vineyards. “The Shirazi are people whose thoughts dwell upon passionate love, and shades of trees,” enthused 19th-century English traveller H. M. Stanley. “They are people of sleepy eyes and melting moods.”
Shiraz certainly benefits from a soft climate, innumerable parks, and impressive monuments and mosques. Among its impressive historic gardens is Bagh-e Eram, the Garden of Paradise, with its avenues of stately cypresses and groves of orange trees. At its heart, a pink-and-blue palace gazes into a pool, around which students from the adjacent university gossip and make eyes at each other. The gardens are now owned by the University of Shiraz and, for those with a scientific bent, its trees are labelled in Farsi and English, making a wander around an educational as well as a poetic experience. Shiraz had its heyday in the medieval period, when it was renowned as a great Islamic city and major centre for literature and poetry, as well as architecture, painting, and calligraphy. An 18th-century revival under Karim Khan of the Zand Dynasty saw the city flourish once more as the capital of Persia, a title it retained until 1789. Many of its most prominent buildings were erected during this period, with earthquakes robbing Shiraz of many of its early architectural gems. Karim Khan’s citadel dominates the city centre, its façade punctuated by four towers and an interior courtyard opening onto lemon trees and fountains.
The square around the citadel is just the place to relax in the cool of evening, slurping an ice cream and chatting to locals keen to practise their English, a living part of a Shiraz tradition that has seen it produce centuries of scholars and artists. It’s also a reminder that modern Shiraz remains a bustling city focused on education – its medical faculty is especially prestigious – and trade. The rambling, covered bazaar was built under Karim Khan but remains just as vibrant today, crammed with coffee houses and carpet shops, clothes stalls, and vegetable barrows. A murmur of conversation mingles with the patter of shop-owners and the chirping song of caged birds, resounding off the bazaar’s splendid vaulted ceilings.
This is a place to get happily lost: the bazaar stretches over many city blocks. In contrast, the Vakil Mosque at its gates is serene in twisted columns and pink tiles depicting stylised versions of the birds and flowers – especially tulips and roses – seen in Shiraz’s gardens. It vies with Nasir-ol-Molk, with its stunning stained glass panelling, as the city’s most beautiful mosque. Anywhere else in the world such dazzling sights would be jammed with tourists. In Shiraz, you may spot only a grey-haired caretaker or a local family snapping photos in the courtyard. Take time to soak up the beauty: another opportunity for poetry in a city that has been inspiring travellers for 2,000 years.
The day in ruins
A short drive into the barren landscapes outside Shiraz brings you to Persepolis, one of the world’s great archaeological sites and a mighty reminder of the power of the ancient Persian Empire – and the decline of a once-glorious dynasty. There is a haunting sense of history in the monumental stairways, fallen columns, and mighty gateways of the city, commissioned under Darius the Great, who reigned from 518 BC. The ruins are still dotted with winged bulls, sculpted friezes showing the peoples of the vast empire, and depictions of its great rulers. Evening sound and light shows are splendid and evocative.
SOUL OF A NATION
The poet Hafez – or Khw?ja Šamsu d-D?n Muhammad H?fez-e Š?r?z?, to use his full name – spent most of his life in Shiraz and died there in 1389. He is considered the greatest exponent of the ghazal, a poem in which verses are linked by symbolism and inspiration, rather than by a logical sequence of ideas, and many have a strong religious and mystical quality. Yet Hafez used simple language, familiar images, and proverbial expressions that make his poetry popular, accessible, and still commonly quoted by Iranians to this day.