Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane

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Hi-tech classic

Blogging is an ideal platform for the modern-day travel writer but it’s instructive to be reminded of the literary skills of some of the earlier practitioners of the art form. One of the most acclaimed was Robert Byron (no relation of Lord Byron) whose 1937 travelogue The Road to Oxiana detailed his travels through the Middle East and Persia – modern-day Iran- to Afghanistan.

Oxiana refers to the region around the Amu Barya River which flows along the northern border of Afghanistan, known in Greek as Oxus. The purpose of the journey was for Byron, a renowned expert in the region’s architectural treasures, to view the subjects of his studies first hand.  The resulting Road to Oxiana has been lauded as a modernist classic and described as being to travel writing “what Ulysses was to the novel”.

A weekend newspaper book feature recalled the Byron classic, especially his description of the exquisite 11th century Jameh Masjed, or Friday Mosque, one of Iran’s many World Heritage-listed treasures.  It is renowned for its elegant and meticulous architecture and engineering which cleverly combines aesthetics with cutting-edge construction: “..each element, like the muscles of a trained athlete, performs its function with winged precision..”.

The article reminded of a video recording I had made during our visit of a lyrical Koranic prayer infused into every stone of  the mosque’s soaring dome and chambers by its brilliant acoustics. Robert Byron couldn’t embed video links in his works so I’ll take advantage of current technology to go that extra step.

I have already lauded the treasures of Isfahan, including the mosque, in my post (



How bazaar

One major attraction of Middle East travel to this inveterate shopper and browser are their wonderful bazaars. In a world where shopping malls share the same franchises  whether they be in London, San Francisco or Brisbane, it’s exhilarating to step back what seems centuries to soak in the colour and chaos of the Middle East’s exotic bazaars. Sadly, browsing through some of my favourite bazaars, such as Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, is now virtually impossible. And with recent events caution would now be advised visiting Istanbul’s famed Grand Bazaar and Cairo’s labyrinthine  Khan el-Khalili. So discovering Iran’s kaleidoscopic equivalents, like Isfahan’s addictive Bazar-e Bozorg, is an exciting prospect for bazaar junkies. If you’re visiting Iran and Isfahan is on the itinerary definitely hold off until your stopover here to buy your souvenirs.

This is definitely the place to find all manner of local arts, crafts, and must-have items: beaten copperware and metal platters; colourful scarves; herbs and spices – especially prized saffron! – carpets; pistachio nougat and other sweets;  bright woven backpacks and bags; elegant Iranian fashions; ceramic tiles; hand-drawn miniatures; block printed cloth; hand-painted Islamic Persian copper embossed enamel. It’s a true Aladdin’s cave of treasures jumbled in with restaurants, coffee shops, antique stores, and outlets for virtually anything else you may want to buy.

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Hand-beaten copper cookware; decorative metal platters. 

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Scarves are in great demand in Iran. 

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Fresh veges, aromatic spices, nuts..

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Colourful and practical bags, elegant Iranian robes. 

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Eccentric tea shop in the bazaar’s back-streets. 

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Miniaturist at work. 

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Islamic Persian copper embossed enamel artists in their bazaar workroom.

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Block printing a table cloth.

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I’m not sure about the customer base for this but it looks like a taxidermied chook and chickens.


Jewel in the crown

If Shiraz is the pearl of Iran, Isfahan is the jewel in the crown. Applauded variously throughout its long history as “the Persian Florence”, as being “more cosmopolitan than Paris” or “grander than Istanbul” – or should that be Constantinople? – Isfahan has negotiated its roller-coaster past to remain a star on the world stage.  In its long lifetime this twice capital of Persia has weathered sacking by Mongols in the 13th century, the Afghan army in the 18th century and long-range missiles from Iraq late last century.

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World Heritage-listed Naqsh-e Jahan Square, or Imam Square, and Shah Mosque.

Isfahan is Iran’s third largest city after Tehran and Mashad, mainly known today for being home to Iran’s premier nuclear research facility. But significant moves are afoot by entrepreneurial locals to halt the despoliation caused by rapid modernisation and resurrect Isfahan’s hidden beauty and many charms. Apart from the exquisite art treasures incorporated into so many of its old buildings, its allure resides in its setting, nestling in surrounding hills with the (sometimes dry) Zayandeh River intersecting the city. Leafy streets and river banks lined with cooling trees and abundant shading parks are scattered throughout. Numerous elegant bridges span the river the most famous being the Si-o Seh Pol, or Bridge of 33 Arches. At night the bridges are decoratively lit and must create a wonderful spectacle when the river is running.

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Isfahan’s elegant bridges.

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Under the bridges – a popular place to escape the heat, or have wedding photos taken. 

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Young bridge visitor. 

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Leafy streets and river banks lined with cooling trees and abundant shading parks.

Isfahan’s premier site is the World Heritage-listed Naqsh-e Jahan Square, or Imam Square, famous for its size, grandeur, and gracing vibrant Safavid-era buildings including:  the Shah mosque, home to Friday prayers; Ali Qapu Palace; Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque; and the Isfahan Grand Bazaar. Measuring 160m by 560m – an area of 89,600sqm – the 16th  Century square reflects its founder Shah Abbas’ ruling priorities incorporating the power of the merchants and that of the clergy right under his watchful eye from Ali Qapu. Features of the square include the exquisitely coloured tile domes of the Shah mosque, built with no supports thanks to the outstanding architectural and engineering expertise of their designers, one of whom was rumoured to be the polymath poet Omar Khayyam. Ingenuity is also on display in the beautiful music room of Ali Qapu Palace with its finely carved walls combining decorative and acoustic qualities.

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Ali Qapu Palace music room’s exquisitely carved walls combine decorative and acoustic qualities.

The square’s impressive dimensions made it an ideal location for the popular Persian pastime of polo, a favourite subject for Iran’s renowned miniaturists, and created a pleasing space for outdoor family recreation. On Thursday evenings, the equivalent of Friday evening for Iran’s workers, Naqsh-e Jahan Square is the place to be to enjoy some family down time. No TGIT drinks though!

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Thank God it’s Thursday. 

Other outstanding venues are the Jameh Mosque (the old Friday mosque) dating from the 11th century, the largest in Iran, and the Chehel Sotoun – or Forty Columns – Palace so called because of the 20-columned portico reflected in the entrance terrace pool. Built by Shah Abbass II for entertainment and receptions it is set in lush grounds, one of Iran’s World Heritage-listed gardens, and contains a treasure trove of delicate frescoes and ceramic paintings.

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Isfahan’s Jameh Mosque, dating from the 11th century, the largest mosque in Iran.

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Chehel Sotoun Palace, a treasure trove of delicate frescoes and ceramic paintings.


Magic carpet ride

If you’ve ever been captivated by the beauty of Persian carpets you’ll find travelling around Iran like looking over the inventory of a hand knotted rug shop. Place names such as the biggies – Shiraz, Isfahan and Tabriz – stand out, but scattered across the map are so many other familiar names. A road trip will take you past places such as Hamadan, Ardabil, Marshad, Kerman and Na’in, all famous in their own right.

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Bringing the name to life can be revealing and surprising, Na’in being a case in point. A minor dot on the map between Yazd and Isfahan this world-recognised fine silk carpet hub is surprisingly unassuming for such a reputation. The main reason to make a stop in this quiet town of around 25,000 citizens is to admire one of the first mosques ever built in Iran, the roughly 1000-year-old Masjed-e Jameh (Friday Mosque).  This weathered old house of worship, still very much in use today is, unlike many others in Iran, characterised by its austere appearance, adorned by decorative stuccowork rather than colourful ceramic mosaics or frescos. Built to cope with the same trying climatic conditions as Yazd the mosque has winter and summer   accommodation, the latter underground offering significantly cooler temperatures in summer and warmer in winter.

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Beautifully austere stuccowork at the Masjed-e Jameh mosque. 

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The air conditioned sections of the mosque, with ventilation.  

Another attraction, in the old part of Na’in – well, even older than the 1000-year-old mosque – are the imposing ruins of the Sassanid-era Narin Citadel which is at least 2000 years old. There is some suggestion it may be include the remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple, many of which are scattered across the region.

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Laneways in the old(er) section of Na’in. 

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Sassanid-era Narin Citadel


Big, bigger, biggest

The almost featureless stretch of landscape between Pasargadae and Yazd, hazy with desert heat and dust, seems an unlikely place to see what our guide said was the world’s oldest living thing – a 4000-year-old cypress pine. Standing proudly behind an unassuming stone wall the 25-metre high protected national natural monument, known as Sarv-e Abarkuh, or the Zoroastrian Sarv, has been around for many of Persia’s numerous preceding incarnations.

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Trees are a little scarce in the Yazd desert.  

Remembering my early journalism training where we were advised great caution in claiming anything as the “oldest”, “biggest”, or whatever other superlative, as someone would always come up with something older, bigger, etc, I did a little checking. I discovered that the tree had certainly made some of the world top 10 lists but there were other claims to the “biggest” title. However, Wikipedia did suggest it was “likely the second-oldest living thing in Asia”. Still pretty impressive.

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Asia’s oldest living thing, the 4000-year-old cypress pine known as Zoroastrian Sarv; sign proclaiming the tree’s credentials in Arabic script. 

Apparently the oldest tree title belongs to a giant bristlecone pine in the Inyo National Forest in the Californian White Mountains aptly named Methuselah. At 4841 years it is supposedly “the oldest known non-clonal organism on earth” and its location is kept a closely guarded secret.

Australia can claim trees of 2000 years with root systems 5000 years old, linking back to the Gondwana-era cool temperate rainforests, in the Springbrook National Park on the Queensland-New South Wales border and listed on the World Heritage register.


Some like it hot

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Hot spot – mountains approaching Yazd. 

As you crank up the cooler this hot summer spare a thought for the early citizens of Yazd, in central Iran, who had to endure temperatures in the mid-50s C in pre-Air-conditioned discomfort.  Not only was Yazd stinking hot, being in the middle of the desert, water was very hard to come by. Luckily the early central Iranians were a resourceful lot adopting ingenious solutions to both problems, thus making some semblance of a comfortable life possible.

To deal with the water issue they adopted the innovative technology of the qanat, underground water channels, said to have originated in the area around 2,500 years ago.  The outward manifestation of these qanats is bricked domed structures, examples of which dot the Yadz landscape like brown clay igloos.

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Modern-day Qanat and bagdirs.

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Old bagdirs awaiting restoration in historic Yazd. 

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Inside a bagdir, looking up. 

And the solution to being a couple of thousand years away from AC development? Bagdirs, ingenious directional wind catchers, usually comprising four shafts, which cleverly guided outside air downwards in one shaft and upwards in another, with wind currents formed by the difference in inside and outside temperatures. The bagdirs were often built over cellars and underground water reservoirs with such a cooling effect that food could be kept “refrigerated” and water cooled. The technology remains in use today and numerous examples of this wonderful desert air conditioning, ancient and new, sprout like crazy chimneys from rooftops across the city.

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Narrow laneways and high walls provide shade and protection. 

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Life in the laneways – traditional baker making delicious bread. Taste tested!
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Everything old is new again – restoration work. 

Both badgirs and qanats are among the many tourists fascinations of Yazd, another of Iran’s World Heritage-listed sites, one of the oldest towns on earth and a key stop on the timeworn trading routes. Others include the old town of sun-dried mud bricks, a veritable maze of high walls and laneways, all part of the cunning plan to create shade and deflect dust storms to make desert life possible;   Zoroastrian sites reflecting Yadz’s pre-eminence as a leading centre of that religion; and the Amir Chakhmaq Hosseinieh complex, one of the largest such structures in Iran.  Celebrating the plucky town’s ascendancy over the hostile environment is the Yadz Water Museum while the Qajar-era Khan-e Lari, a fine example of a merchant’s house, now houses architectural students and cultural heritage offices.

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Historic Zoroastrian village in Yazd. 

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Doors and courtyard at Khan-e Lari merchant’s house. 
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Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd said to have been burning since AD 470.


Channeling victory

The Romans were pretty handy engineers particularly when it came to channeling water.  Ancient Rome was serviced with over 600 kilometres of aqueducts. And historic conduits and waterworks across the Roman Empire, such as Pont du Gard in the south of France, the aqueduct at Segovia in Spain, in places 60 metres high, and Bath in England, draw admiring visitors almost 2000 years later.  So it’s a little surprising to visit ancient Roman channeling that was far from a triumph for these ardent irrigators.

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Aqueducts and channels (plus graffiti signs) at Shushtar. 

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IMG_4843 edKolah Farangi Tower used to measure the Karoon River at Shushtar. 

In 259 AD the Sassanian King Shapur I conquered the emperor Valerian at the battle of Edessa, present-day Sanliurfa in southern Turkey, making him the first Roman emperor ever to be captured alive. The old adage says “to the victor go the spoils” and King Shapur did not waste the opportunity to put Valerian’s captured legionnaires to work in his barren domain on the Khuzestan Plain in southern Iran. The state-of-the-art system of channels, water mills and bridges they built under duress around what is now Shushtar was so cleverly engineered it’s still in use today.

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Impressive watermills complex at Shushtar. 

Maybe those Roman slaves would at least be happy to hear their handiwork has been recognised with World Heritage listing.  Unfortunately their captured leader was not rewarded for his men’s good work. Valerian was said to have been imprisoned by Shapur I at Salosel Castle, which looks across the irrigated plains from a hillside clifftop, and horrifically executed by being made to drink molten gold.

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Salosel Castle, the reputed prison of the emperor Valerian. 

The aquatic bounty delivered by the water mills and channels gives potent agricultural life to a parched landscape best known for its oil production. Crops turning the stark landscape green include sugar cane and watermelons, not harvests usually associated with deserts. Shapur I was not backwards in coming forwards about proclaiming his conquest commissioning impressive commemorative reliefs to be carved into the cliffs at nearby Bishapur, his capital.

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Shapur I boasts of his victory over Valerian in Bishapur rockface reliefs. 

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The regular source of Khuzetsan’s  wealth. 

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Lush cane fields amidst the desert. 


Natanz keeps its cool

If the name Natanz rings any bells it’s as the subject of frequent news items in the Western media, most recently this week, because of its role as the location of Iran’s contentious nuclear facility. The installation sits deep in the stark Karkas Mountain range in Isfahan Province in central Iran and takes its name from a nearby township of around 45,000 people. Ironically, the municipality could not be more different from this barren, rocky landscape.

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A charming, sleepy, leafy place, with the sound of channelled water running along plane-tree-and-cypress-lined streets creating a cooling retreat from the surrounding desert, Natanz township is a worthwhile stopover for the traveller heading from Isfahan to Kashan. As the informative website says: “The traveller, coming upon (Natanz) in mid-summer, might … believe he is approaching a paradise. For Natanz arises out of the dust haze as if from some vision, or from the depths of unconscious experience: a green plain stretched out like a vast Persian carpet before his incredulous eyes.”

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Plane trees and cypress pines help Natanz keep its cool.

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Greenery and channeled water grace the Sheik Abd al-Samad mosque. 

Apart from being famous for its fruit, especially Natanz pears, a product of its chilly winter climate, it is known for the historic Sufi dervish mosque built as a shrine to Sheik Abd al-Samad by a disciple at the beginning of the 14th century. A cluster of religious buildings subsequently were spawned around the shrine.  An outstanding feature is an ancient plane tree, 800-years-old and planted at the time the mosque was built, and now a vast shady umbrella with numerous large trunks. Its massive root structure is said to be completely entangled with the structure’s foundations. Nearby is a 1700-year-old Sassanian Period Zoroastrian fire temple, a reminder of the region’s diverse religious heritage and of the strong links ancient Persia had with monotheism.

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The multi-trunked plane tree guards the mosque entrance. 

A beneficiary of the tree’s shading limbs is one of the grandest architectural facades in the country, a myriad of glazed, tiled blues and turquoises.  It is said that some of the geometric symbols are scientific symbols and another the basis of Mercedes Benz’ three-sided-star trade mark.   The shrine’s sanctity has not protected it from the ravages of looters, including British adventurers. One of the most lavish mirhabs in Iran, and an exquisite carved entrance door, were spirited away and are now ensconced in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Subsequent religious zealots have also left their mark defacing decorative images of creatures such as exotic birds.

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Nearby 1700-year-old Sassanian Period Zoroastrian fire temple. 

Standing sentinal at the entrance to Natanz is a giant representation of a pottery urn, a nod to one of the town’s past glories. Whatever industry existed is now but a shadow of its former self, most of the artisans long gone, but there is said to be growing interest in the distinctive Natanz pottery in which powdered stone rather than clay is used.

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The towering Karkas Mountains, rising almost 4000 metres and meaning mountain of vultures, are part of the Zagros range which begins in northwestern Iran and roughly correspond to the country’s western border. Perching atop a peak can be seen a tower structure, a Zoroastrian fire alter where the dead were laid to be consumed by vultures. The guiding principle of Zoroastrianism is: “good words, good thoughts, good deeds”. Let’s hope these words are front of mind for those nuclear proliferation talk negotiators.

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Goatherds tend their flocks in the shadow of the Zagros Mountains nuclear facility. 


Hot property

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Not bad for a building over 3200 years old.

Something has to be really worth seeing if you have to brave 48 deg temperatures and a scorching sun in an isolated desert location to view it. Luckily the imposing Elamite-era ziggaraut – a massive tiered pyramid-type structure – at Choqa Zanbil is worth melting for.

Umbrellas aloft, and scampering to any available shade, we stood awed at the massive structure only uncovered in 1935 by surveyors from the Anglo-Iranian oil company, later BP,  after being “lost” for more than two and a half millennia.  The purpose of the tiers was to allow the high officials to be closer to the heavens.  Different entrances were used for the various levels of officials and priests. Again, the sheer audacity and genius of these circa 1200 BC rulers, and their architects and builders, boggles the mind.

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Quality brick work; ancient (autographed) hinges; cuneiform inscriptions. 

Choqa Zanbil is considered to be the world’s best-preserved example of a ziggaraut, a key factor leading to its listing in 1979 as a UNESCO World heritage site, along with Persepolis and Imam Square in Esfahan. It’s so well preserved – maybe thanks to sitting under the desert sands – that it looks like the brickies finished the work not long ago. A touching reminder of that long ago life is a child’s footprint still clearly distinguishable in the clay paving stones.

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Ancient footprint. 

The structure is floodlit at night highlighting its commanding tiers against the desert night sky. And the outside temperature by then is only…a balmy 40 deg.

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Dust to dust

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Considering it’s the final resting place of such a majestic historical figure as Cyrus the Great, Pasagardae is so low key some suggest it’s not even worth visiting. But take no heed. Somehow, viewed from a hilltop with the sound of tinkling bells from grazing goat herds drifting across the valley, low-key adds presence to this stark reminder that even great kings end up as dust.

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A few mounds, remnants of stone blocks and columns…all that remains of Cyrus the Great’s Pasagardae capital. 

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Cunieform inscription, palace column bas relief.

Despite the prominence of Persepolis, Pasargadae was actually Cyrus’ capital and remained so until his son Cambyses II moved it south to Susa, now Shush.  This modest presence belies its former pre-eminence so the mind’s eye must envision the 1.6 sq km site with its gardens watered by canals of white stone, the 30-column central hall and the Audience Palace of which the cuneiform inscription, reading “I am Cyrus the Archaemenid king”, remains. The garden is one of the earliest examples of the classic Persian design.

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Canals of white stone…the earliest Persian garden?

The Pasagardae ruins are among Iran’s swelling list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Like so many of the world’s heritage treasures the site has been degraded by subsequent conquerors, including the armies of Alexander the Great. But the actual tomb was saved from the early Arab invaders carrying the word of Islam by local villagers who played up the site as the tomb of Solomon’s mother.