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Published: November 19th 2007
Tehran - Esfahan
Tehran. Twelve million people crammed into a city carved out of the desert and ringed by towering mountains. The only city I’ve ever visited where you literally can’t see the ground as the plane taxis into land due to the intense, hack-inducing, mouth-drying pollution. You can actually see the dense hazy layer hovering just above the buildings...
And the traffic. Having been to places like Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi, I thought that I’d pretty well seen the worst that the drivers of this world could throw at you. Nothing compares to Tehran. Sure, Moscow had those Ladas weaving haphazardly across six lanes as the dozy pensioner behind the wheel swigged on his bottle of vodka. At least the Russians have booze to account for the 25 000 killed on their streets every year. Iranians, with the absolute absence of alcohol, clock upon the same number without such help. Traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, one-way streets - none of it matters. It’s an insane free-for-all as each driver tries to convince his neighbours that it actually is possible to fit six cars side by side on a road meant for three. Motorbikes regularly take to the footpaths to gain any advantage and the pedestrians barely bat an eyelid. Indicators, mirrors and turning lights are superfluous although the blaring horn certainly gets a fair work out. To make matters worse, a six lane road will have five lanes heading in one direction while the last one is reserved for buses hurtling the other way. So while you might feel relatively confident having made it three quarters of the way across with all of the oncoming juggernauts firmly set in your sights, you suddenly have to swivel around, mid-stride, to gauge this final hurdle. Frogger eat your heart out.
We crawled out of bed at 5:30 this morning to make our way to the train station and onto the express to Esfahan. The trip itself was lovely, the trains are modern, comfortable and exceptionally clean and we gazed out the window at what soon became quite a repetitive vista of absolutely barren desert, punctured by a jutting crop of mountains and then back to the desert. Barely any flora existed whatsoever and I think the most wildlife we saw where a couple flocks of sheep, the odd goat and one donkey. But despite the desolate landscape, there was something beautiful about it none-the-less.
Many Iranians don’t actually speak any English at all so the trip was spent communicating with the family opposite through a mixture of sign language and some very poorly pronounced Farsi that we’ve been trying to pick up as we go. They were lovely, continuously foisting donuts and sweets upon us, refusing our polite denials. I’d picked up a massive two kilo bag of pistachios yesterday (quite accidentally, I was actually only after a few handfuls, but my request got lost somewhere in translation. And due to international embargoes, the world’s largest pistachio producer suddenly has an excess of the local produce - five dollars for the lot…) so we all dipped into them as well. Although it did take me a while to convince them, I realised later that they were simply being polite - the Persians have a system of social etiquette called taarof
, one aspect of which is that you are obliged to refuse something when offered. This generally occurs the first two times and then when offered a third, is happily accepted. It’s meant to provide a certain amount of cover for both parties - someone might offer you something, but not really want you to partake, they’re just being polite. So this way, they can offer, you can refuse and everyone can leave it at that. If you’re sincere, you offer again (and usually once more) and then they recognise that you are happy for them to partake. It even occurs with payment for goods provided. There’s a story of a tourist going into a shop, carefully negotiating and bargaining and then finally settling on a price. When he went to pay, the shop keeper politely refused, so the guy shrugged his shoulders, picked up his souvenir and walked out. Of course the shop keeper lost it, called the police and demanded that he be charged with shoplifting…
As we got off the train, one of the aunties pulled Jane aside and passed her a letter, written completely in Farsi. Of course, we had no hope of translating it but when we arrived at our hotel the owner did. In it, she welcomed us to Iran, explained that she was a teacher and told us to ensure that we read the Persian poets, spoke to the people and most of all enjoyed our time here. It was a beautiful gesture from someone we’d just met and really opened our eyes to how generous and hospitable the Iranians truly are.
Indeed, the people are some of the friendliest and warmest that we’ve ever met. Something which would be quite surprising if you believed the Western media. As one art student, Hamid, said with a dead pan face but a mischievous glint in his eyes, after we’d commented on how nice everybody was, “Ah, but don’t you know, we’re all terrorists…” Even the touts are unbelievably friendly - we were approached by a number today who came up, had a bit of a chat, said that they sold carpets/miniatures/etc, pointed out their shop and said to feel free to stop by for a cup of tea if we felt like it, before wandering off. The people are genuinely interested in us, where we’re from, what we do, and what we think of Iran.
Absolutely shattered after a long day of wandering the streets of Esfahan. This lovely town differs greatly from Tehran, although the traffic is still chaotic, at least there is considerably less of it to deal with. Trees line the streets and around almost every corner another spacious park suddenly appears. And maybe because, unlike Tehran, the uni seems to be in the centre of town (at least, there’s definitely an art school near by), there also seems to be many more young and funky Iranians wandering the streets, checking each other out and flaunting the vice police’s strict regulations on dress and conduct. The women’s veils seem further back on the head, ankles are often glimpsed and you even see young couples holding hands…
We woke this morning and after a breakfast of flat bread, some sort of processed feta and copious amounts of tea, we headed south into the Armenian district. As it’s a Friday, nearly everything is shut in much of the city, so we figured the predominantly Christian quarter would probably be a decent enough bet. We eventually made it to the Vank Cathedral and spent an hour gazing in awe at this magnificent building. The Shah Abbas had decided that he needed the expertise of the Armenians and their silk weaving skills when he moved the capital to Esfahan in order to assist with trading along the Silk Road and physically transposed huge numbers of them here from the northern city of Jolfa. Thus this area is now known as New Jolfa, and because of their renowned skills (and value that they added to his rule) he also decreed that they be allowed to persist with their Christian beliefs as well.
The cathedral was built over thirty years in the early 1600’s and the insides consist of some absolutely amazing frescoes depicting the Old Testament, the life of Jesus and also some fairly graphic accounts of the conversion of St Gregory the Illuminator, who after “interfering” with a bunch of nuns was repeatedly tortured until he saw the light and converted to Christianity. (See, the Americans are onto something with Guantanamo Bay after all…) The cathedral is a truly majestic architectural delight and one couldn’t help but gaze in awe at the beautiful depictions (except maybe in the case of some of those ones of St Gregory, but even those were very nicely painted). There were also a number of rooms containing various Armenian artefacts, the age of which continued to boggle the mind. Beautiful jewel encrusted bibles from centuries ago, ornate silver walking sticks and even a tile from the 12th century…
We slowly wandered back to the Zayandeh River which weaves its way through southern Esfahan and spent a lovely afternoon wandering through the parks which run along either side of it. Being Friday, the gardens were full of Iranian families having picnics and playing volleyball and football or paddling those swan paddle boat thingies. I tried to convince Jane to have a go but to no avail - if I recall correctly, the last time we rode on one of them in Dalat in Vietnam, I ended up doing all the paddling and could barely walk the next day.
There are nine bridges that span the river and we slowly made our way downstream, criss-crossing over them. A couple are modern ones built for the heavy traffic, but most are these architecturally stunning masterpieces built during the Abbas’ reign and are truly wonderful to the eye. As we neared the final one, having walked all day, we were approached by three young men, Amir, Fashad and Mehdi who took us onto the bridge and began showing us around. We were suddenly surrounded by four or five others, all of whom had special aspects to point out and our little contingent made our way back and forth as the ‘secrets’ of the bridge were revealed. Through some amazing quirk, we were shown how to talk across to each other by whispering into one rock which reverberated right over the dome and could be heard, clear as day, on the other side. The arches were also designed so that when standing at various vantage points, the crossover of the numerous arches reveals the outline of a candle. And at either end, sit two stone lions, strategically placed so that just as the sun sets, the rays glint off the engraved eyes…
Afterwards, and for a good couple of hours, the five of us perched on the edge of the river as the sun slowly set and discussed with our respectively limited Farsi/English all manner of topics. It was lovely, sipping our teas (we still haven’t grasped the locals way of placing a sugarcube between the teeth and sipping the tea through this, but we are trying) and talking about Iran, Australia, football, and of course all three of these topics combined with that bloody Iran-Australia football game in 1997 that prevented us from making the World Cup in France - I had the last word by pointing out that they didn’t make it last time in Germany and that seemed to do the trick.
Amir would frequently burst into song and although we couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying, it was wonderful to sit there in the sunshine and listen to the hauntingly beautiful songs as the world slowly flowed by. These public displays of singing are quite common, as we traversed the bridge for the last time, we’d come across man after man perched beneath the arches, head high and hands clasped behind his back, serenading a group of locals who stood with eyes shut and nodding appreciatively. We finally finished the day sipping tea in the beautiful gardens of the Abassi Hotel, surrounded by persimmon trees and gushing fountains, slowly letting our weary muscles relax and taking in the setting sun as it slowly disappeared behind the neighbouring madrassa.
There’s something about standing beneath a thousand year old dome that really blows your mind. The last couple of days have been all about mosques and bazaars, both of which make up some of the most fascinating aspects of Esfahan…
The Imam Square is the central focus of Esfahan and is the second largest in the world after Tiananmen - although Red Square in Moscow must be a close third. Built in the early 1600’s, again by the Shah Abbas, it is a magnificent architectural work, comprising of a palace, two mosques and the entrance to the Bazar-e Bozorgh. Words really can’t describe the beauty, or indeed the size, of these two mosques, indeed the photos struggle to do it justice, but the intricate tile work, soaring domes and massive pillars literally take your breath away. The Imam Mosque is a huge structure and seems almost perfect in its design and decoration, but the architect specifically included small flaws as a humble gesture, stating that only Allah had the right to create something so perfect. There’s also a darkened stone smack-bang in the middle of the prayer area where when you stamp your foot, the echoes reverberate on and on. Apparently the human ear can pick up twelve of these, but sonar devices have counted no less than forty nine.
The smaller of the two mosques, the Sheikh Lotfollah, was created for the harem (there’s a tunnel that connects it with the Palace across the square) and the mosaics on the dome here are astounding. At the apex of the dome is a peacock, but without a tail, and as the sun sets the light streams through various windows and creates a beautiful multi-feathered tail that streaks down the dome. I’ve popped a couple of photos of the mosques in the gallery, but again, they really can’t convey the beauty and immense scale of these buildings. Even more astounding was the fact that for most of the time, we had these mosques completely to ourselves which only emphasised the sheer scale of the buildings themselves.
Most of yesterday was spent wandering through the crumbling laneways of Old Esfahan and the bazaar. However, the morning began with a visit to Chehel Sotun Palace, one of many that were built in the time of, yet again, Abbas. The old and intricate frescoes on the walls, still brightly coloured, are beautiful and depicted various battles and everyday scenes. There was also one that showed a prostate man kissing the feet of a dancing woman - apparently after the revolution in 1979, the zealots were intent on destroying it due to this immodest behaviour and it was only saved due to the courage of a couple of curators who bravely held their ground.
I also discovered what it must be like to be one of the rich and famous, as a horde of thirty or so third grade boys suddenly swamped me, all shouting “hello mister” and straining to shake my hand. Their teachers had to literally grab them by the necks and pull them away, one by one, but they just regrouped and attacked again. Sweet as it was, I reckon I’ll settle for relatively poor and infamous thanks very much.
After finally fleeing the palace, we turned off the main road and weaved our way through the narrow and crumbling lanes of the Old City towards the bazaar, passing ancient mosques and houses before entering the markets itself. The Bazar-e Bozorgh probably stretches for around four kilometres along the main thoroughfare, but there are a myriad of side alleys, madrassas, courtyards and the like as well. Everything from spices to pots and pans to clothing are for sale and we spent a good few hours just wandering around.
We also met a young man who spent his days travelling to the nomadic tribes throughout Iran, buying carpets and rugs and then selling them on to the traders in Esfahan. He took us up to the roof where the recently repaired rugs were drying and we stood there looking out over the bulbous clay roofs of the bazaar and smoking rollies as he told us a bit about the nomads’ history (his grandfather was once the head chief of one of the Bakhtiyari tribes) and how that after the massive upheavals of the revolution, they were now under an even greater threat as many migrated to the cities for an education and work.
We finally emerged at the Jamah Mosque which is the oldest in Esfahan, parts of which date back over a thousand years. We’d heard the hauntingly beautiful midday call to prayer, intoned by an actual person instead of the standard pre-recorded message, as we passed through the bazaar, so allowed some time for the mosque to empty out before entering and again being completely overwhelmed. Again, words really won’t do it justices but we spent an hour slowly wandering around, and were even taken into the closed back rooms where prayers are held if it’s too hot or cold outside.
Anyway, off to another palace this afternoon, then might spend an hour or so sipping tea on the river before an early start to Shiraz tomorrow. It’s funny, I mentioned earlier how laid back and honest everyone is, even the supposed touts. Yesterday we asked a taxi driver how much a taxi to Shiraz might cost. He thought a moment, gave us his price, then openly stated how nice the bus was and that we’d probably enjoy that more…
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