Category Archives: Photography

Iran: Persepolis and the Persian Empire

Fereydoon is a Sufi "mystic," which seems to entail a lot of public philosophizing.

This guy identified himself as Fereydoon.  He’s a Sufi “mystic.”  We found him  philosophizing in front of the tombs of the ancient Persian Kings at Naqsh-e Rustam.


When Alexander the Great conquered Persia and ransacked the palaces of Persepolis in 330BC, it took 20,000 camels and mules to haul off all the looted treasure. His armies then set fires that left the place in ruins – ruins you can still see today just outside the city of Shiraz, Iran.

Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire.   In the 4th to 6th centuries B.C., the empire spanned territory from modern-day Turkey and Iraq in the west to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the east, with ancient Iran right in the middle. If the historians are right, Persepolis was the richest and most luxurious palace complex in the world. One of its palaces was the size of nearly three football fields, with soaring ceilings held up by 65-foot columns, topped with gilded statues.



A school group from Shiraz visits the 2300-year-old ruins at Persepolis.


Naqsh-e Rustam

The most pervasive and iconic image at Persepolis:  A lion attacking a bull.  Supposedly it symbolizes day (lion) attacking and defeating night (bull).  The big ceremonies at Persepolis were on the first day of spring — the time of year when “day” first becomes longer than “night.”


Cyrus the Great founded and expanded the Achaemenid Empire in about 550BC. Notwithstanding his aggressive imperial conquests, he’s mentioned several times in the Old Testament as the heroic, benevolent king who freed the ancient Jews from their enslavement in Babylon. Cyrus’ successors included Xerxes I and II, and Darius I, II, and III, the last of which was in power when Alexander pushed his way eastward from Macedonia.

Cyrus’s 2500-year-old tomb is still standing in Pasagarde, about 25 miles (as crows fly) away from Persepolis. Xerxes I and Darius I & II are buried in hillside tombs at nearby Naqsh-e Rustam.

The Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis, with tombs of ancient Persian kings Darius & Xerxes.

The Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis, with tombs of ancient Persian kings Darius & Xerxes.

The beige of the hillside sculptures at Naqsh-e Rustam made for relatively bland photography — until a Sufi “mystic” named Fereydoon walked up. Fereydoon was impeccably dressed with a perfect beard, lots of jewelry, and a black and green hat. He apparently travels around the country just sharing his philosophy and wisdom. So he was eager to talk (except that he was also eager to take a minute for another cigarette). A lot was surely lost in translation. Other than a general endorsement of peace and unity and the like, about all I could really understand (I think) was his point that we spend too much of our energy defending and fighting about identities that we did not even choose. That is, groups of people fight because they are of differing religions, nationalities, races, or tribes, but we are all just randomly born into one group or the other. We fight for our team, even though we didn’t even get to choose which team we were on.   Or something like that.

In any event, he was a colorful character and he didn’t mind having his picture taken. At one point he stepped back and paused the conversation, lifted his head, let out a whoop-like shout and then stood motionless for a few seconds. I was sufficiently startled that I failed to get a picture of this happening. He later explained that sometimes he’s just “moved” to do that. I wasn’t sure what it was that moved him. I’m assuming that’s just how you roll when you’re a roving Sufi mystic.

Iran: Kashan

My trip through Iran included a little bit of everything: from ancient ruins and nomadic shepherds to a ride on the Tehran subway and a weird visit to the former U.S. Embassy.  Lots of blue tiled buildings, lots of desert, and lots of eggplant and chicken kebabs with rice. Some fun and lovely sites and stories; some wacky experiences. I even came home with a couple of real Persian rugs. The small city of Kashan was actually the last stop of my trip around Iran, but the pictures are handiest so I’ll start at the end.

Agha Bozorgh Mosque and school. From the back (near the volleyball court!).

Agha Bozorgh Mosque and school. From the back (near the volleyball court!).

People have lived in what’s now the Iranian city of Kashan for 8,000 years, making it one of the oldest known human settlements. It’s been a hub for royals and merchants for at least 2,000. By some accounts, it’s where one or more of the biblical “three wise men” of the nativity came from. Kashan’s location on the historical Silk Road network allowed the merging of Asian silk with Persian wool rug-making skill.  Lots of VIPs have come through Kashan.  Now I have, too.

Unfortunately, a 1778 earthquake mostly leveled the place, so most of the structures you see around town are “only” a couple of hundred years old.  That photogenic two-level mosque is Agha Bozorg, built shortly after the earthquake.During the 1800s, the local mega-merchants built some sprawling, luxurious private homes so they could host their travelling merchant business associates in grand style. One of those old houses had been remade into my very snazzy hotel, which was a welcome respite after a couple of weeks that had included multiple nights on a mat on the floor — or in an open-sided tent in the desert.  More on that later.

Like most Iranian men, this guy's name was Ali. He's wearing black to commemorate the two-month mourning period for Imam Hussain, a descendant of Muhammed who died a hero 1300 years ago. Ali spoke perfect English and was eager to give this American a quick tour of the shrine of Sultan Amir Ahmad, another descendant of Muhammed.

Like most Iranian men (half-kidding), this guy’s name was Ali. He’s wearing black to commemorate the two-month mourning period for Imam Hussain, a descendant of Muhammed who died a hero 1300 years ago. Ali spoke perfect English and was eager to give this American a quick tour of the shrine of Sultan Amir Ahmad, another descendant of Muhammed.  He also asked if I’d pose with him for a selfy (so I got one, too).


Agha Bozorg at night

Agha Bozorgh, just after dark


Abbas told me about his family in the U.S. and said his neighbor in Kashan was somehow related to the Sultan Amir Amad (whose neon-lit shrine is in the background). Abbas insisted that I join him for hot tea. That led to meeting the other elderly gentlemen shown in some of the pictures below.

Abbas told me about his family in the U.S. and said his neighbor in Kashan was somehow related to the Sultan Amir Amad (whose neon-lit shrine is in the background). Abbas insisted that I join him for hot tea. That led to meeting the other elderly gentlemen shown in some of the pictures below.


The old Hamam (bathhouse).

Inside the Amir Ahmad  Hamam (bathhouse).


Artsy, huh? This is the pond atop a natural spring well at Fin Garden in Kashan.

Artsy, huh? This is the pond atop a natural spring well at Fin Garden in Kashan.


Seriously, this is the courtyard of my hotel.

This is the courtyard of my hotel.  I’ll bet you weren’t expecting something this nice in a small Iranian town.




Tsomoriri, Ladakh: Nomads, Altitude and Yaks

I’ve been terribly delinquent at organizing my pictures from last fall’s trip to the Ladakh region of India. The trip was originally intended to include Kashmir, but last summer’s rioting and stonings convinced my group to stay east of there in Ladakh. The upside was a more in-depth tour of Ladakh.


Our local driver convinced this nomad lady to put on her ceremonial formalwear for us to see. She wasn’t eager to have her picture taken, so she wouldn’t come fully out of her tent, and I only had a minute.


Compared with the U.S., India has 4 times as many people on 1/3 as many square miles.  But Ladakh — the very mountainous far-north region near the Pakistan border — is mostly isolated small towns and villages.  The mountains were bare and stark — not simply like mountains above a tree line, but like a mostly barren desert that happened to have 23,000 foot peaks.  I spent a few nights in tent camps at 13,000 to 15,000 feet.

The sparse villages of the various areas within Ladakh have very distinctive and varied tribal cultures and ethnicities.  One of the more interesting stops visited a nomad camp near the remote village of Korzok on Lake Tsomoriri, a long day’s drive southeast of Leh. These nomadic people move a couple of times a year – taking their herds of sheep, goats, and yaks to better grazing   Their tent homes are made of yak-wool, and when it’s time to move, the yaks themselves carry the tents (and everything else).

We camped just one night at the lake; it’s at 15,000 feet elevation and chilly even in the fancy tents they had set up for us. One of our drivers was from the area, so he knew their dialect and convinced them to let us into their tents to really see how they lived. They were surprisingly roomy and full of rugs. My brief curiosity about where the rugs came from was immediately satisfied when I saw one of the women patiently weaving a yak wool rug.



Those pictures of the young mother and her kids around their tent make me think of the Dorothea Lange iconic depression-era photograph of the “Migrant Mother,” Florence Thompson. Lange’s work was famous for showing the world the startling struggles of 1930s American nomads. The living conditions of these Ladakhis may appear to be surprisingly similar, but that’s probably deceptive. Lange photographed people in a crisis, but this is a way of life for the Ladakhi nomads, and they seem very capable of providing food and shelter much as their ancestors have for centuries.





Ladakh, India: Buddha on the Indus

Most of my September trip to India was in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir, in far north India near the Pakistan border.  Everything there — the people, the terrain, and the religion — looks more like Tibet than India.


Golden prayer wheels and images of a musical Buddha at the temple entrance at Themisgan Buddhist monastery in the Ladakh region of India.

Hinduism was a primary defining feature of modern India as it was partitioned from Muslim Pakistan in 1947. The names “India” and “Hindu” both come from the same Sanskrit word for the Indus River, which runs through the Ladakh region of far northern India. Somewhat ironically, though, Ladakh is unique in India: most everyone is Buddhist – except for a few Muslims near the Pakistani border.



A young monk serves tea as part of the early morning prayer service at Thiksey monastery in Leh, Ladakh, India.


Morning prayers inside the assembly room at Rangdum Gompa in Suru Valley, Jammu & Kasmir, India.

The Buddhism practiced here bears little resemblance to the Buddhism I saw last year in Myanmar (Burma). As I described last year, Myanmar’s Theravada Buddhism is a simple philosophy and barely a religion at all. They learn to think good, peaceful thoughts and try to do good things. To the Theravadas, neither Buddha nor anyone else is divine, immortal, or supernatural. They don’t really pray; they meditate. The Burmese monks are humble and quiet, and their monasteries are modest community meeting halls. But everything Buddhist looks very different in Ladakh.


The statues with 12-armed, horned, and 3-headed Buddhist “protector god” icons are kept covered in drapes.

India’s Buddhism is mostly a form of Mahayana Buddhism – sometimes called Tantric, Tibetan, or Vajrayana. The rituals are elaborate (think chants, horns, drums, and bells). The monasteries are often castle-like (indeed, some are actual former castles), their temples decked with colorful and elaborate tapestries and paintings. Worshipers prostrate themselves as they arrive. There’s a hierarchical pecking order among the cloistered monks and lamas (up to and sometimes including the powerful Dalai Llama). Prayer wheels and prayer flags are everywhere. There are idol-like statues or paintings on the temple walls of various “tantric deities” or “protector gods” – some with multiple heads, a dozen arms, horns, swords and blue skin, wearing voodoo-like human-skull-decorated hats. And that’s not even the strangest part (let’s just say there’s a good deal of unsubtle sexual symbolism). They believe in reincarnation generally, and believe that their high priests are literal reincarnations of their ancient priests. We even heard their version of an end-of-the-world apocalypse.

To most Americans and westerners, the complicated tales of how they scour the region’s villages to locate a 3-yr-old reincarnation of the supreme religious leader are hard to fathom — much less accept and believe — as are the seemingly convoluted explanations of those statues, symbols and rituals. But of course, all the themes of Christianity and Judaism that are familiar to us surely sound bizarre and ridiculous to them. As is so often true in international travel, learning about other cultures can teach you as much about your own culture as it does about the foreign one.



This voodoo-looking Buddhist gargoyle is on the roof of Deskit monastery, overlooking the Nubra River valley in northeast India, just a few miles from Pakistan.



Buddhism expert Dr. Khenpo Konchok “Lama Ji” Rigzen, through some of the Buddha tapestries at Thiksey Monastery in Leh, India.


A Buddhist chorten (monument) and prayer flags, underneath one of the 20,000+ peaks in the Suru valley. This marked our return to Buddhist territory after a day or two in the muslim region near Kargil.





Late evening sun on Thiksey monastery, seen from the “Shey Palace” monastery, a former ruler’s castle near Leh, India.



Monks return from their visit to the “throne” (upper right) of His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa during the 1000-year Naropa Festival in Hemis, India.



NAROPA 1000: Once every 12 years, the Drukpa Order (a sect or denomination of Buddhism) celebrates its Naropa Festival in Hemis, just south of the small city of Leh in Ladakh.  By coincidence, I was there during part of the festival.  I missed the highlight — when His Holiness Gyalwang Drupka (this sect’s equivalent of the Dalai Lama) dons the 1000-year-old crown and jewelry of the sect’s founder, but did get to watch His Holiness receive gifts from pilgrims and deliver a long, monotone sermon. That’s him sitting on the golden throne, atop that pyramid temple.  No kidding. Somehow I stumbled into a front row position for a few minutes (with thousands of monks and worshippers up the hill behind me). It was definitely one of those moments when I pause, laugh, shake my head, and marvel at the wacky situations I’ve been getting myself in the middle of.



Crown of Palaces: The Taj Mahal in Agra, India


If you get up early in Agra, skip the most popular viewpoints near the reflecting pools, and hurry around to the west side by the Yamuna River, you can find yourself mostly alone, watching the sun rise over the Taj Mahal, with the world’s most famously beautiful building seemingly all to yourself.







Muslim Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the white marble “Taj” in the 1600s as a mausoleum and memorial for his favorite wife (and mother of 14 of his kids).  A probably-apocryphal legend says Shah Jahan planned to build a similar black marble Taj directly across the river as his own eternal resting place. But it’s tough being a Mughal emperor, and one of his sons took over and sent Jahan to a far less glorious prison cell for his final days.  The Shah’s final tomb is wedged into the Taj beside his wife, the only thing asymmetrical in the whole place.

“Taj Mahal” means “crown of palaces,” reflecting Jahan’s intent to make it the fanciest place in the world. The signs say he spent around a billion inflation-adjusted U.S. dollars on it, and from the perspective of a visitor 400 years hence, that was a billion bucks well spent.











The red out-building to the west — from which some of these pictures were taken — is still treated as a mosque (no shoes allowed), though the identical red building to the east is not.   If you put booties over your shoes, you can go up on the balconies of the Taj itself, which is a fine spot, but the best views are “of” the Taj, not “from” it. Unfortunately, there was some maintenance work going on when I was there – thus the scaffolding on the east side and on two of the minarets.







I also visited the Agra Fort across town. It’s an interesting complex, but the only real photo opportunities there were its hazy views of the Taj Mahal.








+ + + + + + + +


A final Agra amusement: I knew the days ahead in northern India would include more than a few nights in cold tents and without showers, so I’d decided to spring for an unusually nice room for the two nights in Agra, with a balcony that overlooked the Taj Mahal complex. The place must’ve been nearly full (or nearly empty?) because they instead upgraded me to a ridiculously lavish top-floor suite with two big balconies, seating for 18, and Taj views even from its glass shower and bath tub. A further amusement was that most of the hotel staff had no idea that I was in Suite 512 only through a flukish free upgrade, so they treated me like a Maharaja! They also let me know that Prince William and Kate Middleton had been in the same suite in April when they were in town.  Pictures of the hotel, and of or from my snazzy suite at the Oberois Amarvilas Agra: