Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Esfahan (June 19-21)

After a long drive from Qazvin and Alamut Valley on June 19th we reach Hotel Julfa in the famous city of Esfahan. Esfahan is the second of three things that I really looked forward to seeing in Iran.

When we arrive Darius jumps out of the car to tell the hotel we are there and to ask where we should park. I’m directed to put the car on the marble floor right in front of the hotel’s main entrance, I presume for us to unload our things. But no, we are once again the honored guests and our car should stay there. Our Lonely Planet guidebook expresses it very well with “They (Iranians) are generally warm and welcoming to a degree that can be, and often is, embarrassing to Westerners.” Darius mentions to the hotel that our guide book says the rooms here are small so the hotel we gives us a gigantic room with a queen bed, 2 twin beds, a table with 4 chairs, a refrigerator, a closet and a bathroom so big that if there were more shower heads a whole swim team could shower in it at once.

The next morning we walk into the city. We walk over Si-o-she Bridge, a beautiful bridge with 33 arches, look into a madrasa (a Muslim seminary) and walk through Honar Bazaar. Then we visit Chehelsotoon Museum, which was a reception hall and pleasure pavilion built around 1647 and is completely covered in frescoes on the inside. The photo below shows the front entrance of Chehelsotoon.


Then we walk to Imam Square (Naqsh-e Johan Square), the main square of Esfahan. It is a magnificent square, sometimes described as “half of the world” because of all the majestic buildings on it: Sheik Lotfollah Mosque, Imam Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace, two bazaars and a number of shops around its perimeter. The photo below shows one corner of the square including Imam Mosque.

On the square we start with Ali Qapu Palace, the 16th century residence of Shah Abbas, where we meet two Iranian sisters whose father was a general for the Shah of Iran before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The older sister was already married and stayed in Iran. The younger one fled to the United States and lives in Miami. Now the younger sister is visiting her sibling and they are touring Esfahan like we are. Darius, who supports the current system in Iran and the younger sister who thinks the current system has ruined Iran have a very lively discussion. The younger sister isn’t afraid to speak her mind and it’s really great to watch this debate. A small example is the younger sister says women are oppressed by the dress code in Iran while Darius argues that the dress code is for the benefit of women so men don’t bother them. But to this the sister counters, “well men here should learn to control themselves.” The exchange continues on a variety of topics regarding modern Iranian culture, society and politics.

We walk across the square to Sheik Lotfollah Mosque, whose entrance and prayer hall are shown in the photos below. The mosque was completed in 1619 and was used by the women of the Shah’s harem. It is written and I agree that it is arguably the most fabulous mosque in Iran. It is unusual because it has neither a minaret nor a courtyard because it was not intended for public use. The entrance is beautiful, the hallway to the prayer room is beautiful, and the inside is absolutely stunning. This mosque is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen anywhere. It makes extensive use of cream colors, in addition to the signature blue and turquoise colors typical of Esfahan. The portal window inside is amazing.

After seeing Sheik Lotfollah Mosque, we have tea with Darius and the two Iranian sisters in Azadegan Teahouse (photo below). It is a really cool place that is overflowing with character. All kinds of lamps, paintings and stuff hang from the ceiling. Kirstin and I share a portion of lentil/sheep stew with bread and a type of relish. Darius enjoys a water pipe. It’s great to talk to the two Iranian women about Iran and its relationship with the US and the West.

After enjoying lunch at the teahouse we walk back to Imam Square and meander through two bazaars. This is where I notice the copper lacquerware vases, bowls, cups, etc., that Esfahan is famous for. The pieces are painted white, blue and turquoise, which makes them looks like porcelain. Then we head back to our hotel, where Kirstin rests (she hadn’t been feeling well), does some e-mail and visits an Armenian salon. Darius and I go for a walk to one of the famous bridges in Esfahan and enjoy some spaghetti ice cream (also famous here) and have a really great talk about why Iran doesn’t have better relations with so many countries. Darius’ main point is that Iran should be treated with more respect by the US and other countries. We also talk about what I do with the Fulbright Association and how important I think international exchange is. Darius says that God sees what I do and that I’m a good person. We also talk about Darius wanting to visit the US some day. I can’t tell him anything about getting a visa but I tell him about car rental, hotels, camping, things to see and how he may find things. It’s fun thinking about my impressions of Iran but in reverse. I hope he and his family can visit the US some day and it would be really cool to see him there. Back at the hotel we meet up with Kirstin and have a nice dinner in a traditional Iranian restaurant next to our hotel.

The next day we visit the (old) Jameh Mosque. It is an incredible mosque complex that has been built over such a long time that it is like a museum of Islamic architecture, starting in the 11th century and spanning 800 years. We tour the mosque and Darius explains some of the main beliefs and practices of Islam. The courtyard of the Jameh Mosque is shown below.

Then we go back to Imam Square to see the Imam Mosque. This is a huge, working mosque that our Lonely Plant guidebook calls one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. It has a very impressive entrance that is aligned with the square, then you turn a corner to the courtyard with four Iwans (like a gate or altar). Absolutely everything is covered with floral artwork (Islam forbids images of people or of things that make us think of this world). The size of this mosque and the amount of artwork in it is overwhelming. The photo below shows one part of the mosque. After visiting the mosque we do a little shopping, exchange money, check out of our hotel and make the long drive to Shiraz…

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