Thursday, 3 December 2009

Iran: Isfahan-Yazd-Kashan

Isfahan Day 2

Today started with a visit to the 900 year old Jameh Mosque. Over the centuries additions have been made to the mosque by the various dynasties that have ruled Iran, so we saw both coloured mosaics and in the older parts the beauty was in the simplicity of colour and the geometric designs. In the original parts of the mosque there's very little mosaic work, the designs, calligraphy and geometric patterns are all formed by bricks. Each dome has a different design and the pillars are marked with patterns. The bricks that formed the huge interior walls have been arranged in designs. It amazed me that, back when there were no CAD drawings, no calculators, no electricity even, people designed these intricate patterns, someone worked out how many bricks they'd need, someone else had the skills to translate that into a precise plan and others had the skills to turn that plan into a reality – the Project Managers of the day I guess.

In the middle of the mosque's main courtyard which is surrounded by 4 porches or iwans, is a stone platform which pilgrims used to practice for the haj to Mecca. A mullah would stand on the platform and instruct the pilgrims on what actions to perform and what to say.

From there we went to see a minaret that's now in the middle of the suburbs but used to be part of a caravanserai (a place where travellers could stay overnight). Its surrounded by a small park and Hushang bought bread and we sat in the park enjoying the autumn colours of the trees. Very, very nice. From there we went to see one of the few surviving synagogues in Isfahan.

A short drive took us back to the Zayandeh River and the Khaju Bridge which was built by Shah Abbas in 1650. We were lucky enough to come across an impromptu performance by a local man singing an ancient love song in a strong and well trained voice. A small crowd of men of various ages had gathered round, including a couple of soldiers, and they listened intently as the men sang of his beloved compared the lady's voice to a nightingale etc. We he finished everyone clapped enthusiastically and it was interesting that the young people enjoyed the performance of a old classical song as much as their elders.

From the bridge we went to the “40 Column Palace” Chenel Sotun. There are 20 columns at the front of the palace but its called 40 Column because the columns are reflected in the long pool in front of the building. Inside the palace are vibrant wall paintings showing various battles scenes together with scenes of receptions for important visitors with dancing and music. The Afghans invaded in the 18th century and covered the paintings in whitewash as they did not approve of such displays of frivolity. Fortunately the paintings survived underneath and are now on view again though restoration work continues.

We then headed back to Naqsh-e Jahan Square to see Ali Qapu Palace which was built in the 16th century. Its 6 stories tall and originally served as the gateway to the park palaces, the last surviving palace is Chenel Sotun. We climbed up several flights of stairs to a large terrace which overlooks all of Imam Square, giving a wonderful view. Isfahan is preparing for the visit of Mr Ahmadinejad later in the week so we watched from the terrace as scaffolding was erected in front of the Imam Mosque and huge pictures of Mr A. and various clergymen were attached. We then went up a few more flights of stairs to the music room. The stucco walls and ceiling of the music room have cut-out shapes of kitchen items and musical instruments and its these empty areas give perfect acoustics for live performances.

To end a magical day we walked to the Abassi Hotel Teahouse to have more ashe reshre, the nomad stew.

We travelled a couple of hours by road to Naem where we visited the 10th century mosque. Under the mosque is a complex of underground tunnels used for prayer during the heat of the summer. We then travelled to Meybod where Hushang showed us windtowers and an ancient icehouse where water was frozen during winter (pretty darn easy believe me) and then stored underground for use during summer. We went across the road to visit the old caravanserarai which has been transformed into an arts centre and restaurant.

From there we continued to Yazd which is one of the oldest towns in the world. We first went to the Amir Chakmaq Complex in the central square, the main building is a takieh a building used during Shi'ite ceremonies to mourn the death of Imam Hossein. Outside the takieh is a huge palm shaped frame called a nakheel (same as Arabic) which is carried around the city during the Shi'ite Ashura ceremonies. We climbed up on to the terrace of the takieh to look at the badgirs or windtowers that are on the roofs of most of the houses in the old part of the town. We then went out of town to the Zoroastrian fire temple, where the sacred fire has been burning for 2,000 years. We'd already been out to see the Towers of Silence where up to the 1960s Zoroastrians left their dead to be disposed of by birds of prey.
From there we moved on to the Jamah Mosque which was built in the 15th century and has a gorgeous tiled exterior with mosaic inscriptions from the Quran. While Hushang went off to prayer we took lots of photos which will be on Smugmug as soon as possible when we get back to Dubai.We then went for a walk through the old part of Yazd which is full of narrow alleys, hidden courtyards and motorbikes coming at you from every angle. We visited an old traditional house which has been transformed into a magnificent hotel, then spent a few minutes at Alexander's Prison which isn't a prison and Alexander was never there........We stayed the night at the Dad Hotel, booked for no other reason than the name. Its not actually “Dad” but “Daad” which means justice and is the family name of the hotel's founder. The site was formerly a garage and photos of the restoration process are on the hallway walls. The hotel was beautifully presented, comfortable and worth a return visit.

We left Yazd for a 4 hour drive to the village of Abyaneh which is about 25 miles as the crow flies from one of Iran's nuclear reactors. The military was in evidence in the area, both in the number of checkpoints on the way to the village and also the many artilliary, tanks and anti-aircraft guns clearly visible just off the road. The village is high up in the mountains and we started seeing flurries of snow as we approached, by the time we arrived the snow as falling with a vengence. The houses in the village are all a pale red colour as they're made from local clay bricks. The area was hard to reach for years and its isolation has resulted in the residents speaking an archane version of Persian that died out years ago in the rest of Iran. We wandered around the village meeting several groups of young Iranian tourists on the way. We went to the Zeyaratgah Shrine which is dedicated to the grandson of the 5th Imam, there was a separate porch covered with photos of local boys who has died in the Iran-Iraq war. The mixture of red buildings with white snow covering every available inch of their rooftops had an almost fairytale quality.
It was a long afternoon drive to Kashan a town that's been occupied since 4th century BC. We looked around Khan-e Tabatabei, which is now a museum/craft shops and previously the home of a wealthy merchant. The entrance to the house is through a nondesecript door off an alleyway but once you're through the door it was a different world. The house is magnificent, comprising over 40 rooms and over 4730 sq metres with 5 separate courtyards. Several of the rooms had delicate leadlight windows.
As the light faded we went briefly to Tappeh-ye Seyalk (Sialk) an archaeological site dating from 4th century BC. The site is still being excavated by a German team.
Later in the evening we had dinner at an outdoor traditional Persian restaurant where we sat on a carpet on a raised wooden platform eating kebabs and rice which went down a treat. Colin and I are both now hooked on doogh which is like a mint flavoured laban. The owner was very friendly, like everyone we're met so far. Tomorrow we head for the holy city of Qom and then on to The Big City - Tehran.

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