World Famous in all of Iran
If I asked you to name some famous Iranian poets I think you could be forgiven for giving me a blank look and changing the subject very quickly. Unless you have some specialist knowledge in that area or have visited the city of Shiraz, famed for centuries as a city of poets, why would you know? Personally I struggle with the words 'famous' and 'poet' in the same sentence due to my general ignorance of anything that wasn't on my school's English literature syllabus. However, in the pantheon of great Persian poets, the city of Shiraz can offer you the tombs of two of the greatest – Hafez and Sa'adi - both popular not only in their homeland but in much of the Middle East.
Long before Shakespeare
Hafez lived from roughly 1320 to 1389 and his tomb is considered to be the most popular attraction in Shiraz. Personally, I find that hard to believe in a city with so many beautiful and interesting places to visit, but Iranians are romantic souls and they take their poetry very seriously. Hafez inhabits a place in the collective national identity of Iran that's similar to that of Shakespeare amongst the British. The name Hafez means 'one who is known to recite the Koran from memory' so you might expect his poems to be of a religious bent but that's not the whole story. He does have religious poems indeed, but the ones that draw the crowds are the poems that speak of love, romance, passion, visits to taverns to get sozzled on wine and ones that point the finger at hypocrites. You can see how the latter might come in handy in modern day Iran. Hafez was, in short, the kind of poet it would probably have been quite good fun to hang around with and drink a few beers.
Our visit to Hafez's tomb was our first stop when we arrived in Shiraz, the city that gave the world the famous red wine and is still even in the alcohol free world of Iran, famed for its grapes. We'd left Yazd earlier that day and had done a long drive, stopping off for tea and coffee at a famously ancient tree and for lunch at the burial spot of Cyrus the Great. We could have been expected to be more enthusiastic about getting to our hotel for a shower than checking out a long dead poet. It was with a certain air of 'Oh do we have to?' that we stepped down from our bus, crossed the traffic and headed to see what all the fuss was about.
On our approach to the tomb we came across a character we dubbed 'Saddam the Canaryman'. Apparently this chap has been providing one of the world's most unusual fortune-telling services for so long that we were able to conclude that despite looking rather too much like Saddam Hussein to ever feel totally comfortable living in Iran, he couldn't possibly be the man himself. The fortune-teller's canary – or it might have been a budgerigar, I'm not an expert on small birds – hops onto the shoulder of passers by. If you give his handler a small donation, the bird hops down to the tin of rolled up fortunes and picks one for you. They are of course all written in Farsi – but who cares? It's just the idea of a soothsaying-budgie that had me parting instantly with a few small notes.
With the blessings of a small bird bestowed upon us, we then entered the gardens where the tomb can be found, walking past a long narrow lawn and some unhappy looking pot plants, then up some steps to the tomb. Apparently the original tomb was erected about 20 years after Hafez's death but the current mausoleum dates back to the 1930s and was designed by a French architect called Andre Godard. The tomb is made of marble and has lines from one of his poems carved on the sarcophagus. This stands under a tall eight-legged pavillion which is reached up a set of small steps. Wistful-looking young men sat on the steps reading their poetry books and looking decidedly dreamy. This was clearly the place to sit and think about the girl you admired from afar and of unrequited love.
Tea shop tourism - not just for the National Trust
After a long drive, we were also happy to learn that it wasn't a bad place to think of more immediate needs and there's a very acceptable little tea-garden where we were able to get some delicious cakes and a near legendary lemon vermicelli ice-creams and some less acceptable hot drinks, all served by a man with the most outrageous of felt hats. If you check the photos you'll see what I mean. If you are so inclined, you can also puff on a hookah whilst you read your poetry books. We whiled away nearly an hour just sitting around, eating and drinking, watching the locals having fun, and watching the local girls eyeing up our ginger-haired Scottish tour leader in a distinctly indiscrete manner. Whoever would have imagined that visiting dead poets could be so much fun or could inspire such licentious behaviour.
The site is open from 8 am to 9.30 om daily and entrance is 3000 Rials. I forget the exchange rate but that's so little as to be almost insignificant.