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Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana)

It’s day four swathed in headscarf and shapeless garb and I’m over it already. But Iranian women have to live with these cleric-imposed hindrances for life. While the men swan around hatless and in short sleeves, women are trussed up in a lifetime of ugly, glamourless garb. Of course the mosques are segregated (men – centre stage, women – who cares?) but buses are also segregated – men in one section, women another, unless you’re a family travelling together. Iranian men must be easily excited if the glimpse of an ankle or an earlobe sends them off into a fit of uncontrollable carnal fervour.

On our way outa town, we passed through Tehran’s industrial heartland of automobile (2 million cars/year are produced for Peugeot and Kia), chemical, textiles, steel and concrete manufacturing, marble and alabaster quarrying, and into the country. The main west road, running for 600kms to the Turkish border, skims the southern edge of the impressive Alborz mountains. We got to witness some Iranian roadkill when a car running alongside shed a wheel and went careering along the armco, shedding bits of rusted bodywork along its crashing way. We didn’t get to witness the aftermath.

On our way to Qazvin, we bypassed the Alamut Valley, encased in the soaring Alborz peaks and host to the fabled lairs and fortresses of the medieval world’s most feared religious cult – the Ismaili sect, led by Hasan-e Sabbah (1070-1124). Sabbah led a mercenary organisation, whose members’ mission in life was to murder or kidnap leading political and religious leaders, their reward for which was to be transported to paradise. Sabbah’s recruiting technique was simple: get the lads stoned on hashish, then lead them into a beautiful secret garden strewn with gorgeous girlies. Hence their nickname “Hashish-iyun”‘ (the hashish ones) – the etymological root of the English ‘assassin’. Their exploits took them to Syria to damage the Crusaders, and they supposedly left a dagger on Saladin’s pillow, just to let him know they could kill him if they wanted to.

Thanks to their impregnable ‘Eagle’s Nest’ location, sophisticated cisterns and vast food reserves, the assassins could resist years of siege (even today it’s 1,000 steps to climb to the sparse ruins, after a long and difficult journey).

Regardless, the Monguls, led by Hulagu Khan, captured the strongholds by diplomatic trickery in 1256 and systematically destroyed the fortresses. Whilst that was the end of the Ismaili cult in Iran, believers resurfaced centuries later – today Ismaili is the dominant sect in Tajikistan and northern Pakistan (and it would appear that their reward-system appeals to those modern Islamic youths paradise-bent on a short career of suicidal terrorism).

At Qazvin, we stopped to see the Friday Mosque and the shrine to Shah-Zadeh Hossein. For our mosque entry, we ladies were kitted up in a chador (my morning prayer was limited to ‘I hope the previous tourist who donned this garb didn’t have nits’) before entering the mosque, which was nicely decorated in the mirrored-tiles-&-chandelier style. But outside it was fun chatting to the local girls – Iranians are all so welcoming, charming and delighted to engage (and take photos) with foreigners.

Late afternoon, we arrived at Hamadan and a strange and scruffy hotel with astonishing plumbing, the variants of which kept us amused through dinner.

Hamadan is built on the site of the Median ancient capital, Ecbatana, which is where Darius plonked the statue of Apollo after he’d liberated it from Didyma. Ecbatana was well fortified, protected by seven walls – each a different colour. The outermost one was white, followed by black, crimson, blue, red, silver and gold. But evidence of the walls has been hard to come by. The only ancient remains discovered to date are Median mud-brick streets. It was a pretty uninteresting excursion to that excavation, apart from a quite nice little museum.

Back into the centre of town, we checked out the Mausoleum of Esther and Mordichae, a simple, beautiful brick C14th tomb-tower co-located with a small synagogue. The Old Testament story goes something like this. Esther was a beautiful Jewish girl, Mordichae her cousin/guardian. Xerxes I (aka Biblical King Akasuerus) had a skinful of booze one night and asked his wife Vashti to disrobe and display her beauty to his generals and drunken cronies. Vashti refused and was promptly ‘disappeared’, which left Xerxes in need of fresh girlie companionship. Esther won the raffle, with Xerxes apparently unaware of her Judaism. Xerxes’ commander, Haman, had convinced Xerxes that the Jews should be exterminated. Mordechai heard about the plot, told Esther, who promptly went unbidden to Xerxes (a faux pas of biblical proportions, usually ending in death), disclosed her Jewishness and told him how he’d been stitched up by Haman. Xerxes curtailed the slaughter and Mordechai ended up taking Haman’s job whilst Haman got the chop. Maybe. Biblical studies is not my strong suit.

Getting into the mausoleum requires greasing the palm of a razor-sharp, wizened Rabbi with silver. Or Rials. Dollars and Euros also accepted. Signage is a wonderful thing. Whilst it claims categorically that this is tomb of Esther and Mordechai, the blurb also mentions that it might be the tomb of Shushandukt, the Jewish consort of a Sasanian king (in which case, who’s the stray in the box next to her?). Or maybe the inscriptions that the tombs are those of the two sons of a local luminary is the real deal, but presumably the tourists and the Jewish pilgrims wouldn’t rock up and spray shekels at this little shrine just to honour a couple of local lads, so maybe it’s a case of not ruining a good story for a grain of truth, and thereby pocketing the loot from a constant stream of visiting wood-ducks.

A quick round of the town took us to the lovely statue of Xan’s stone lion, which stands in the middle of a pretty park. We got chatting to a gorgeous couple from the south, who we decided must be on their honeymoon. The lion is beautiful. Apparently it was carved in honour of Xan’s best mate (i.e. lover) Hephaestion, who died here. Heph had complained of feeling poorly so Xan’s doctor advised him not to partake of food or drink that evening. The doc and Xan went off to the theatre, while Heph helped himself to bucketload of food and wine (he was a serial over-indulger). When he took a turn for the worse, Xan and the doc raced back, but Heph carked it. Xan prostrated himself over his boyfriend’s body for days, and when he got over the initial shock, ordered the doc to be put to the sword for not warning his mate off swilling booze like there was no tomorrow (which there wasn’t).

After lunch we headed out of town to a waterfall near which graffiti-artist Darius I inscribed his rights to be king in great rock carvings. These mountains are comprised of sedimentary rock, so come Spring, the stored up snow melt feeds the waterfall for the rest of the year. Hamadan has been a haven for escaping the summer heat for millennia, but it was still bloody hot.

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