Some of you may remember our previous travel blogs… ‘Inspirational Iran’, ‘Surprising Romania’ and ‘Romania to Slovak Paradise’… well, here’s another covering Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Greek Macedonia (much of the old Persian Empire):
The ancient Silk Road trade route linked Europe with China and India through Persia via Byzantium (later called Constantinople, now Istanbul). For millennia it was the centre of the world, though western military dominance of recent centuries had convinced us otherwise. China’s resurgence is restoring this sense of history through its Belt and Road Initiative – reviving the old Silk Road with infrastructure and investment over 68 countries, to connect 65% of the world’s people and 40% of global GDP.
In April/May, a group of nineteen from North Adelaide’s ‘Fitness on the Park’ took a hiking tour of four countries that straddle the Silk Road now occupying what was previously part of the old Persian Empire – Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Greek Macedonia. The map below shows our route:
We began in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz near Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of Persia’s Achaemenid Empire 2,570 years ago. The Empire began in 559BC with Cyrus the Great and peaked 3 kings later under the wisely inclusive rule of Darius the Great. Darius began building the huge palace of Persepolis where conquered, colonised kings would come to pay their homage to the King of Kings. Persepolis was later expanded under Xerxes his son and grandson Artaxerxes.
Alexander the Great admired stories about Cyrus the Great and in 330BC Alex conquered the Persians, looting and burning Persepolis in his wake. Almost 1,000 years later, Arab conquerors arrived and though Iran came under Islamic influence, it did not become Arabian and still today remains largely Persian. Today, Iran is 95% Shia muslim, the 18th largest country by area, occupied by 83 million – we found it a friendly and safe destination.
The modern city of Shiraz is where shiraz wine originated. But thousands of years of wine culture were interrupted in 1979 with the usurping of Reza Shah by the theocrats under Ayatollah Khomeini, who then banned alcohol.
So we abstained while visiting Iran and learned to manage head-scarves, long trousers and avoid wearing sandals.
From Shiraz, we headed steadily north through Isfahan, Tehran and Tabriz via the Caspian Sea before heading over the border into Armenia, then Georgia and finally across to Meteora and the Pelion Peninsula in Greek Macedonia.
Our previous ‘Inspirational Iran’ blog explains much of the background about Iran and its people. We all felt very safe in Iran and the locals are extremely friendly, often seeking opportunities to exchange views and take a ‘selfie’ or two. Though anxious at first, we quickly adapted to their more conservative dress and customs… (especially difficult for women)
Persian culture has long excelled in garden design and maintenance, so Iran’s gardens are particularly memorable. Trees are pollarded to facilitate strong growth in flowers and shrubs beneath and there is always clever use of fountains and running water. Despite limited rain there is plentiful water from melted snow, keeping their gardens well irrigated. Persia’s ancient ‘qanat’ system taps into aquifers high in the valleys, gravity feeding water along long distance underground tunnels.
Farsighted leaders in the lovely city of Isfahan planted and irrigated 1.5 million new trees many years ago. Now, it’s a beautifully green city with streets having that umbrella of trees feeling. Adelaide may be a well-kept secret but couldn’t it be even more wonderful if we planted many more trees!
The above photo of Safavid era (early 1600s) Naqsh-e Jahan Square in central Isfahan is taken from the Shah’s balcony where polo matches were viewed. It is rimmed by colonnades of bazaar – one of the oldest and largest in the world.
From Isfahan, we visited Tehran, a metropolis of 9 million with many museums and palaces like this one using venetian mirrors, broken in transit – it puts Versailles in the shade:
Next we headed north from Tehran on the Chaloos Road over the mountains to the Caspian Sea – a huge freshwater lake being mercilessly polluted by Russia in the north (the Aral Sea a lesson unlearned). The Caspian coast was home turf for the last (Reza) Shah and perhaps since his 1979 overthrow, it’s been relatively neglected – hampered by theocratic culture and US sanctions.
Leaving Ramsar on the southern Caspian, we ventured west to Rudkhan Castle – a medieval brick and stone fortress built long ago by Iranian locals to defend against the Arab/Islamic invasion. Tourists climb 900 steps up to find it attractively nestled between two hilltops – tough on knees! Local tourists love Rudkhan and stalls selling delectably presented fruits, BBQ and drink offerings lined the lower path as people headed on up.
Tabriz was our last stop in Iran, where ubiquitous carpet sellers finally succeeded with some of us, swayed by the intricate quality and compact packing. It’s another attractive city with a huge bazaar to easily become lost in! Iran’s Armenian border is just 3 hours away to the north. That border is just 40km long, confined by Armenia’s Turkish border to the west and Azerbaijan border to the east – both are closed due to historic disputes, forcing Armenian traffic north-south via Iran and Georgia.
Coming in from the south, we found Armenia’s roads very bumpy as their funds are limited. Armenia is stony, mountainous and only 20% arable. In 300AD, it declared itself the first Christian country, so monasteries abound. It has 3 million people but benefits from a diaspora of 7 million Armenians around the world who diligently support it from afar. One such wealthy Armenian sent a fortune home to create the Tatever Ropeway (a cable car) that now attracts tourists to southern Armenia. The ropeway top left in the photo below brings visitors to Tatev monastery, a 9th Century Armenian Apostolic one built on a basalt mountain outcrop – a chilly spot for austere monks to endure winter!
Armenia becomes less stony and greener as we head north. Its Christian history makes Mount Ararat part of Armenia’s national symbol. In 1915 covered by the distraction of World War 1, Ottoman Turks killed 1.5 million to destroy the native Armenian population in eastern Turkey – the Armenian genocide. Mount Ararat is now within Turkey though Armenia feels historic entitlement. From Armenia’s capital Yerevan, Mt Ararat is an ever present backdrop though now within Turkey. Young Armenians aspire to climb it as a pilgrimage but they are banned since the days of the Ottomans. For all that, the plains beneath Mt Ararat (left of Yerevan in this picture) are particularly fertile, providing much of its 20% arable output.
After our last Armenian bushwalk over a hilltop with ‘Sound of Music’ views to the village on the other side, we headed across the border into Georgia. There to be met by our young Georgian guide, Giorgi (Gee-or-gee) or George to us Aussies! All our guides were excellent, so it’s unfair singling one out but Giorgi was a real charmer… aged 24 or so, a liberal thinker and an excellent communicator.
Russia is on Georgia’s northern border and many conquests at Russian hands have convinced Georgians they don’t much like Russians. Instead, they feel European, though Europe and NATO are hard-pressed to reciprocate the way Georgia desires. Recent Crimean experience reveals Russia as an unfriendly, acquisitive neighbour. So Georgians live on a knife edge… but the Georgians we met were fun-loving, friendly and generous as well as proud of their agricultural prowess. In particular, Georgian wine is excellent and well regarded around the world – Saperavi being one of its red varieties now produced in Australia.
Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi (previously Tiflis) seemed like Paris of the East to us – most of us saying we’d love to visit again. In a country renowned for the quality of its farming produce, Tbilisi is well situated on a bend in the Kura River. The old part of town is truly charming and has a quirkiness that emerges frequently. The photos below convey some of this:
Greek Macedonia (northern Greece)
A ridiculously early flight west to Greece and subsequent drive north found us enjoying balcony views of Meteora. Here, Orthdox Christian monasteries originating back in the 14th Century perch high up on cliffs of rounded conglomerate rock. There’s ample climbing here to keep a bushwalker busy, though its rounded rock aggregate can be treacherous under foot, especially if wet.
Next we headed east to the Aegean Sea for bushwalking on Pelion Peninsula, about halfway between Athens and Greece’s northern city of Thessaloniki. Some say the Pelion is the most beautiful part of Greece and we do agree. The film Mama Mia was filmed here, making the most of the Aegean’s lovely azure bays. We stayed in Damouchari where some of that filming took place and the photos below illustrate its appeal:
Last on our itinerary was Thessaloniki, considered the cultural capital of Greece by many. Dating back to 315BC, it was founded by King Cassander and named after his wife, half-sister of Alexander the Great who grew up nearby. After conquering Persia, Alexander’s empire stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River in Northern India.
Thessaloniki was the 2nd largest and wealthiest city in the Byzantine Empire (eastern Roman Empire). It’s the capital of Greek Macedonia today and still the 2nd largest city in Greece. The White Tower in the photo below was once part of the city walls that made Thessaloniki the 2nd most fortified city in the Byzantine empire after Constantinople. Conquered by the Ottomans in 1430, it returned to Greek rule in 1912.
From Thessaloniki we returned home, by then having trod much of the old Persian Empire!