Before travelling to Iran, I usually do a little homework so that we have some interesting places to see whilst we are here. It is amazing what a little planning and forethought can produce and today was a diamond. I had read about Pir-i Bakran in both of my guidebooks about Iran/Esfahan and decided that I would like to pay a visit as it is not far from where we are based although we did need a taxi for the day. Taxis are no obstacle as some of the family own a taxi business so not only did we get a great guide in Ramon who we know well, but also he could join in the fun and have lunch with us.
When he picked us up at 9am, I could tell that Ramon was not convinced that there was anything to see at Pir-i Bakran but all that changed when we arrived 45 minutes later at the first site, the old Jewish synagogue and cemetery.
The write-up in my Brandt Travel Guide was not promising saying that the guardian of the site “is monosyllabic and unhelpful” and “as yet, Jewish colleagues in the UK can find no information about the complex, known locally as Esther Khatun ( Lady Esther).” However, they clearly didn’t have the advantages I had today being that hubby’s father was the highly regarded Mayor of Esfahan province and the guardian remembered him from childhood. In addition I was accompanied by two charming Farsi speaking gents so that all paths and doors to the usually closed and hidden rooms and gardens were opened before me. We also got a full description of each room which was translated into English by my husband.
The synagogue itself is derelict but pilgrims from all over Iran gather at the site once a year in September staying in the side rooms built in a quadrangle. None of the maintenance and upkeep of the site is paid for out of Iranian Government funds as it is paid by the Iranian Jewish community and families of those buried at the site.
Whilst we were free to walk around the synagogue gardens, all the gates to the interior were padlocked but after some persuasion, the guardian agreed to unlock them and show us around for which I was most grateful.
The first room we were able to enter was the main domed room at ground level which contains the torah stand. Small prayer rooms are found upstairs.
In the corner of this room there is an arched doorway hung with a heavy stone door carved with Hebrew text. The door is opened and locked by a “secret” handle hidden in the hole in the wall to the right of the door. The guardian told us that women who cannot conceive or cannot find a husband enter the doorway and crawl along the narrow and low chamber all the time praying and asking to be blessed with children or a husband by next year’s pilgrimage.
The guardian then took us through to a blue room where he told us that the son of Jacob had disappeared through the walls never to be seen again. My guide-book tells me that it was Esther (or Sarah) who disappeared so a little more homework to be done methinks.
We spent a good couple of hours at the site and I felt privileged to have done so. It is not well-known that this is a sacred place for the Iranian Jewish community to gather every year, and neither my husband nor Ramon were aware that Jews who have been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem are afforded the same title and respect of those Moslems who have been to Mecca on the Haaj. Unless you know the area very well, or have read the guidebooks you’d never know that this place existed as it is so well hidden from the road. In fact, there is no direct access to the site from the road and you have to attract the attention of the guardian by knocking at the big metal gates before you can get in.
But it is well worth the effort.