Shiraz, A Blossom in the Desert (I) - The Pink Mosque (Islam's Most Beautiful?)


“Last night, from the cypress branch, the nightingale sang, In Old Persian tones, the lesson of spiritual stations.” -- Hafez

(Note: take some time and view the beautiful images far below of the beautiful al-Mulk Mosque).

In the ancient city of Shiraz, encounters with historical memories and wisdom and modern luxury and vision are natural. I visited the tomb of the 14th Century Sufi poet, Hafez, and lounged in the 5-Star Shiraz Hotel officiating on a hillside. I am overlooking the sprawling city located 500 miles southwest of Tehran.

Straddling the bank of the “Dry River”, Shiraz is one of the oldest cities of ancient Persia (founded maybe in 2000 BC). The “city of poets, literature, wine, and flowers,” is exactly that. It is a city of gardens and fruit. I asked a young Iranian tourist which city she liked best, Shiraz or Esfahan. She smiled and said Esfahan. Later, I visited Esfahan and agree with her. However, the city of Shiraz is no shrinking violet. Shiraz’s culture and its art are startling and awe-inspiring; the whirl of colors and commerce unceasing whether at night or day.

Iran’s third largest city shelters almost 2 million people, including substantial Jewish and Christian communities. Some Shirazis privately either practice Zoroastrianism or acknowledge that religion’s presence. Shiraz has the largest Baha'i population in the country, after Tehran. There are currently an Armenian and an Anglican christian church.

In the Archemenian era (BC), Shiraz was on the road from Susa to Persepolis and Pasargadae. The city was spared destruction by the Mongols of Genghis Khan, after its governor offered tribute, but then the population shrank in size throughout the Middle Ages. Still, men of letters, philosophy and religion resided here in greater numbers than any other place in Iran.

Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī (Persian: خواجه شمس‌‌الدین محمد حافظ شیرازی), known simply as Hafez (or Hafiz) 'the memorizer’ and ‘the (safe) keeper’, lived here from 1315-1390, and wrote of love and wine. He offered proverbs that are savored today everywhere in the world, even in the US. While visiting a friend’s home during a Thanksgiving party in Virginia after my return from Iran, I mentioned the name Hafez and was promptly presented with a well-worn publication of his poems by the hostess of the home. He and his theosophical style of recantation of hypocrisy can reasonably be described as influencing post-14th century Persian writing more than any other author. Adaptations, imitations and translations of his poems exist in all major languages.

Hafez's mausoleum in the Musalla Gardens is visited often. On one Friday evening I joined a formidable line of people gathered at the entrance to Hafez’s garden tomb. Young people and romantics frolic under orange trees, oaks and cypresses; one solemn gentleman with open Koran and sayings of Hafez consoles a weeping woman who afterward offers him a tip and passes on into the darkness. The current mausoleum was designed by André Godard, a French archeologist and architect, in the late 1930s, and the tomb is raised up on a dais.

According to one historical anecdote, before meeting his patron Hajji Zayn al-Attar, Hafez had been working in a bakery, delivering bread. In a wealthy neighborhood he first saw Shakh-e Nabat, a woman of great beauty, to whom some of his poems are addressed. He knew forthwith that his love for her would not be requited, so he undertook a mystic vigil in his desire to realize this union.

Instead, he encountered an angel of surpassing beauty (like Dante’s Beatrice) and his further attempts at union became a pilgrimage of spiritual union with the divine — an experience leading to cosmic consciousness.

On a more mundane plane, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has his character Sherlock Holmes state that "there is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world" (in the story, A Case of Identity). Just as Sherlock is the most popular character in all crime novel history to mystery lovers like myself, Hafez is the most popular poet in Iran, and his works can be found in almost every Iranian home. October 12 is celebrated as Hafez Day in Iran.

Other highlights of the city include Karim Khan Citadel (a large fort), Shah Cheragh shrine, Nasir ol Molk Mosque, plus Eram Garden and Vakil Bath, and the Tomb of the lesser known poet, Saadi. The Vakil Bazaar is one of the grandest in Iran.

Karim Khan Citadel

The city's central fort, built in the 18th Century, has served as fortification with military quarters, as a governor's residence, and as a prison, and today as a kind of tourist trap. The structure's one leaning tower is particularly arresting. Young college students of art may gather outside in apparent efforts to capture the simplicity of this wall and its brick aura, a distinct departure from the extreme refined complexity of the porcelains and plasters that decorate the bulk of Shiraz's historical sites and mosques.

For me, the fort was a suitable place to begin a walking tour of downtown, where crowds of residents had just disengaged from a holiday military parade held annually on Defense Day and where a shopping and eating frenzy had begun. These events also are part of a series of Muharram activities and commemorations that require a more conservative type of dress and attitude of respect for the traditions of Islam and the martyrdom of heroes.

The Blood Fountain

Drums and Cymbals (for children) and Chains (adults) are in high demand during Murharram

Eram Garden

Away from the hubbub, the Eram Garden is a world apart. ‘Eram’ is the Persian version of the Arabic word ‘Iram’ which means "heaven" in Islam’s Qur’an. The beautiful three-story building constructed in the garden is based on the Safavid and Qajar styles of architecture, and includes tiles inscribed with poems from the poet Hafez.

The Pink (al-Mulk) Mosque

The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, or the Pink Mosque, is an architectural masterpiece, and an example of purely beautiful Islam. Built from 1876 to 1888 under the order of Mirza Hasan Ali, a Qajar ruler, this building is picturesque in the morning when sunlight and stained glass windows create a kaleidoscope of colors splashed against the tiled walls, colorful Persian rugs, and modeling young women. As the sun moves and the day progresses, the intensity and tint of the colors enveloping a visitor are constantly changing.

More delights here.


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