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I will soon be able to resurrect my other Blog “Persian Posts” as we have now booked our tickets for our next visit to Iran. This time we are taking William with us and I am relieved that his Visa came through just this week so we can plan properly.
It will be an amazing experience for him especially as it is his first time in Iran but we will try and prepare him as best we can. Of course, nothing can prepare him fully for the different culture, food, weather, family, customs etc but there are certain things we do need to go through with him before we land in Esfahan.
William is looking forward to his trip, as am I, and I hope he loves the country and its people as much as I do. There are not many Western boys of his age that get this opportunity and we will try and show him as much of the country as is possible in the 3 weeks we are there and in temperatures up into the 90’s.
The good thing is that Feri’s nephew is exactly the same age and they will be housed together on the self-contained second floor-God help us! I have packed a spare English-Farsi vocabulary book so here’s hoping they manage to communicate! We will be there during the World Cup and as both love football I am sure that we will witness the evidence that football is a truly global language!
In the meantime, Will has his A Level exams to finish and his last school Prom to navigate so he is going to be busy. I have marked out a few things and places that I would like to see this year so look out for more Persian Posts coming soon!
After an interesting visit to the old Jewish Synagogue and Cemetery we made our way to the shrine of Pir Bakran, a Sufi saint and mystic who died in 1303 and after which this small town is named. On arrival the gates were locked, but the phone number of the guardian was posted on the inside gates. We called the number and within 5 minutes the guardian arrived on his motorbike.
The shrine is noted for the stucco work which is particularly ornate and it’s amazing to think how long ago these carvings were done. The mihrab and entrance doors are fine examples of the famous stucco and I hate to think how long it took for the craftsmen to complete them. The shrine is also famous for the surviving Kufic script which, when written in blocks as it is here, looks very much like a maze.
As Pir Bakran’s fame spread, so the building in which he preached was extended to accommodate the increasing number of followers who came to listen to him and several rooms were added. From the outside the shrine looks like it is a 4-story building but in fact it is only 2 storys high which is reminiscent of the Ali Qapu Palace in Esfahan which appears to be 7 storys high but is only 4. This is no coincidence as the architect and project manager of the Ali Qapu Palace was inspired by Pir Bakran’s shrine design and carvings 200 years later and some of the designs are reproduced in the royal Palace.
One of the rooms has a circular area carved out of the floor where apparently Pir Bakran used to sit and meditate for up to 40 days at a time eating and drinking nothing and surviving only by touching sacred stones which provided him with the sustenance he needed to see him through these lonely periods.
In an adjacent room Pir Bakran’s tomb, together with that of the shrine’s architect Mohammad Naghash rest side by side covered in green cloth.
The guardian was extremely helpful and very knowledgeable and again, this site is well worth a visit if history, Persian culture, architecture and design are what interest you. Unless you speak Farsi however, it is advisable to travel with a Farsi speaker who is able to ring the guardian and ensure that you get the most out of your visit. You won’t be disappointed.
Times, they are a-changin’ in Iran and sadly and gradually the traditional shops are giving way to more modern retailers. But on a more positive note and if you look closely, you will also notice that more than the local high street is changing. People’s attitudes and outward behaviour are changing and it is very noticeable to us after only a year away.
It is more noticeable to me as probably the only westerner in the town and being fair-skinned I have always been the subject of many stares. There is no malice or rudeness just curiosity. But this time, there is something more. We experience an openness not seen before, a more relaxed feeling on the street with the women wearing their brightly coloured hijab further away from the hairline and daring to wear tighter fitting manteaus. Men and women are now openly holding hands as they walk along the street and a number of inquisitive Iranians have stopped to talk to me both as I walk along and in the restaurant/ tea house.
They want to know where I am from, what do I do and all welcome me to Iran/Esfahan. They love foreign visitors to their country and if I accepted their kind offers of tea I would be doing nothing else but visiting until we leave. I spoke to a young couple who stopped us in the Bazaar and found out that the husband works for the Iranian Inland Revenue. I explained that my first job was with HMRC and we laughed that as expected, Tax Inspectors are universally disliked. A woman with her two sons stopped me further down the street to welcome me to Iran. “It is very nice to see you here” she says as her eldest son keeps repeating “Hello, how are you?” He is learning English at school and determined to make the most of his opportunity to practise. A girl started a conversation whilst in the tea house and during lunch, a girl studying English at Esfahan University came over and asked if she could sit with us and and ask some questions.
This direct approach from strangers has never happened on previous visits although you could see that they wanted to. Something has changed so that people feel willing and able to open dialogue between us.
This can only be good for everyone and I welcome it.
This time next week I will be in Iran. Being the second month of the Persian calendar year, “ordibehesht” we can expect gorgeous spring temperatures of between 70-80 degrees with plenty of blossom on the trees and a general feeling of positivity following the end of winter. I have resurrected the Farsi lessons on my iPod, my case is 3/4 packed and I have chosen the places and sights that I want to visit whilst there.
It will also be interesting to see how the economic sanctions imposed on the country are affecting families and local businesses day-to-day. How much extra do we have to pay for fuel, rice or meat? Are there obvious shortages of certain food stuffs and what do I get for my Rials this time round?
I don’t want to spend all my time with family and friends talking politics and it is something I usually avoid but the opportunity to hear out their views on the current situation and how it affects them directly puts me in a privileged position of seeing things how they really are and not how they are portrayed on the news. It also gives me a dilemma. Undoubtedly the bullish attitude towards the sanctions would be to deny their impact on the Iranian people and to “Keep calm and carry on” regardless. However, this is unrealistic and a bit more transparency and openness will go a long way to us understanding what is really going on behind the façade.
In the meantime I know that I want to see more of Esfahan’s famous pigeon towers, go down to the Gavkhuni swamp where the Zayandeh-Rud (river) at places 800m wide dissipates into salt marshes, and visit the Flower Garden (Baq-e-Gol).
All this before breakfast on day 1!
The two mountain ranges of Sala and Sofeh shelter the city of Esfahan which nestles in a verdant plain irrigated by the silver ribbon of the River Zayande-Rood winding its way through the district. The plain itself is fairly well developed. Clearly the city of Esfahan, described by Fitzgerald as “Half the World” because of its wonderfully varied history and culture, has been built up over many centuries and there are now signs that the smaller towns and villages are themselves becoming suburbs of Esfahan rather than remaining individual settlements.
Driving into Esfahan from Sede, however, you are suddenly faced with a rocky outcrop which appears from nowhere. There is no gradual build up to this 13th Century citadel, and it rises from the plain with a suddenness that takes you by surprise. This bastion includes the remains of a Sasanid Koh-Ateshgah Fire Temple right at the top, and once seen from the road below, the urge to climb the dusty, rocky mountain to sit in the Zorastranian temple becomes an irresistible challenge. I recommend an early start to ensure that you make the most of the cooler conditions and there are fewer people around to interrupt the peace, quiet and photography. The dry heat in October however does not sap your energy nearly as much as the humid damp that we experience in the UK and I found the climb, which rises to 1600m above sea level, much more comfortable than I anticipated.
The religious philosophy of Zorastranianism still exists today and some of its best known beliefs are those of living by the very humanitarian values of “Good thoughts, good words and good deeds”. Out of the three, I am perhaps best at the good deeds, whilst the good thoughts and good words sometimes need more work!
The views from the top of Koh-Ateshgah make the sometimes tricky and earthy scramble well worth the effort and there are plenty of flat rocks along the way where you can admire the ever-widening views, drink some water, enjoy the cooling breeze and catch your breath. It takes surprisingly little time to reach the top, whereas the trip down I found much more hazardous and time consuming. Mountain goats get my respect.
Altogether, a couple of hours well worth spending at this historic monument and all for 65p for the both of us. This must be the bargain of the day.
For a number of reasons which will become clear, my favourite restaurant in Esfahan has to be the Naqsh-e Jahan Traditional Restaurant (or Banqueting Hall as the sign outside reads).
Now this is not the most sophisticated place to eat, but I love it because it is situated right next door to the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and if you manage to get a “tahkt” or eating platform on the terrace, the dome of the mosque overlooks you whilst you eat. It is a wonderful view.
A tahkt is a raised eating platform surrounded on three sides by a frame and supporting cushions for your comfort. To eat on a tahkt, you first remove your shoes then climb aboard and wait to be served. The service in this particular restaurant was excellent, very quick and attentive. Nothing was too much trouble and photographs were invited which was handy.
The toilets were very clean, but the sign on the wall was amusing!
The view and the eating experience more than compensates for the limited menu; a choice of 8 starters and 8 main courses all traditional Iranian dishes and all delicious if my choice was anything to go by. The main meal is followed by “chayi nabaat” typically Earl Grey tea served without milk but with saffron infused crystallised sugar. Yes the opening hours are a little erratic, but it is well worth taking the small diversion from the main Naqsh-e Jahan Square to see whether it is open and serving lunch. I recommend a visit not just for the food, of which there was plenty for even those with large appetites, but also to admire the view and the internal décor.
A must-do experience for me and only a stones throw away from the Bazaar. The perfect location!