Isfahan (28 – 30 September 2015)
From Yazd, we had to drive about five hours to get to Isfahan. The long drive (made somewhat dull by everyone insisting on drawing the curtains because the sun was too glaring and therefore I had nothing interesting to stare aimlessly at) was punctuated by a tea stop at a public park in Nain.
The ladies caused quite a commotion at the public toilet. Some local gentlemen were crowding around it and one of them gesticulated and said something to me which I did not understand. It was only after the ladies had left the toilet and a man walked right in after them that I realised what had happened. The ladies had used the gents. It also dawned on me that the guys, myself included, had used the ladies. Whoever thinks that women are cleaner than men must be mad.
Isfahan is a big city, the third largest in the country in fact, and the first city in Iran so far that gave me the feeling of somewhere bustling. Isfahan was described as a city of artists and its people had created gorgeous monuments and art works all over the city to be marvelled at. This apparently led to the saying in Persian that “Isfahan is half of the world.”
Even the hotel that we stayed at was quite lovely. Well, at least the courtyard anyway which was a charming Persian garden. The interior of the Abbassi Hotel on the other hand looked fifties gaudy and the rooms needed some major overhaul.
Chehel Sotoun is a little palace built by one of the Safavid kings for entertainment and receptions. It was actually hardly palatial in terms of size but the quality and extent of the wall paintings inside it showed that they could only have been there by royal will.
Another little Safavid palace left in Isfahan is Hasht Behesht. This did not have the eye-catching paintings of Chehel Sotun but still charming nonetheless. In fact I would have preferred to sleep in this palace than the other since in the latter there would be plenty more eyes looking at me while I slept.
Hasht Behesht is situated in the middle of a Persian garden that is now mainly visited by retirees.
There were two pretty bridges on the Zayandeh River that N brought us to towards the end of our first day in the city. It was the dry season however and it did not help that the government had diverted water away from the river upstream for irrigation. Everyone could walk across the almost bone dry riverbed at ease. Can one really appreciate a bridge properly without the river under it?
The disappearance of the river however seemed to have infused a different sort of life into the bridges. They were popular hanging out spots and the additional space under them afforded by the non-existent river was actually useful.
We were supposed to be admiring the bridges but we were more keen on admiring life. Local life that is. In the end we hung out at the Khaju Bridge for far longer than we should have.
There was a group of young men playing volleyball on the dry river bed and a group of older men sitting together talking over cups of tea. Other groups of people were just hanging out everywhere among the arches underneath the bridge.
An elderly man sang a heartfelt Persian tune for us and the ladies in the group returned the favour with a Teresa Teng classic. Then two young man sang the latest Persian hit also just for us. A girl was singing to her boyfriend in a spot where she thought she would be safe but little did she know that we stroll by and she would become an instant celebrity for ten minutes.
We started on our way to the Allahverdi Bridge just a short distance way when it was already dark. It was just as lively there but we could only manage a quick visit as dinner reservations had been made for us.
Quite unexpectedly, we spent almost the whole of our second day in Isfahan at the Imam Square, or the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. I was surprised that we could have taken all that time there since the square did not seem all that big or full of sights in pictures. Even then it was 560 metres long and 160 metres wide.
The Safavid era square is surrounded by arcades with four important buildings in the city one on each side of the square. They apparently also used to play polo in the square. Nowadays the square is a public space with neatly mowed grass lawns and flowering shrubs and the necessary water feature in the form of a pond that shoots water. I do not suppose they play polo there anymore.
On the south side of the square is the Imam Mosque. This is perhaps the showiest building at the square.
The mosque is notable for its brilliant mostly blue mosaics with dizzyingly beautiful patterns and two other features.
Its dome, the largest in the city, is created to produce fantastic acoustics. N demonstrated this by snapping a piece of paper underneath the dome and the sound was not only amplified but at least seven echoes could be heard if one listened hard enough. According to N, modern equipment had been able to detect even more echoes.
The entrance to the mosque from the square does not face Mecca like the rest of the mosque. This is meant to ensure the symmetry of the square itself although the mosque itself looked skewed.
There is a madrasah in the compound of the mosque where we met a religious teacher. He is always there to speak with tourists. I however was more fascinated by his colleague, although he did not really speak to tourists. He was wearing a black turban which meant that he was a descendant of Mohammad himself.
The other mosque at the square, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, is on the east side. This was built by royalty for royalty. It was in effect the private prayer room of the royal family during the Safavid period. And being used by royalty it was exquisitely decorated. The Imam Mosque may be considered by most to be the crown jewel of the Imam Square but the Lotfollah was more to my liking. It was no less ornately decorated than the bigger Imam Mosque but definitely cosier.
Just across the Lotfollah is the Ali Qapu Palace. For the royal harem, getting to the Lotfollah for prayers meant having to walk all 160 metres of public space. Their path however was guarded by two rows of soldiers. One king strictly forbade the soldiers from looking at any one of his women and anyone who dared defy him was put to death.
The royal family might have lived there but it seemed like only a small portion of the palace was available for visits. I doubt that the royal family of a rich and powerful with its harem would live in such a seemingly unassuming residence. What I saw did not even match up to the splendour of the royal private mosque but did provide a little hint of the possible lavishness of the past.
The rest of the square is given up to shopping. All the arcades surrounding the square shelter shops and the shopping opportunities continue all the way to the north past the Keisaria Gate, the fourth main feature of the Imam Square, into the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar. The shops in the arcades seem to cater more to tourists and were noticeably neater and quieter than those in the Grand Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar was a humongous maze of a market. I have no idea how N managed to navigate her way through the many alleys but she did. She even managed to get us to this teashop which honestly looked hardly like a teashop from outside. It could have been a storeroom from the looks of its entrance!
We had a good break sitting there in the tiny room and sipping tea with the locals. There was a couple on a date seated next to us. They really looked no different from the young dating couples in most other countries in the world and the man placed his arm around his girlfriend, just as modern people often do, when they posed for pictures for us. Although having said that I understand that they were still expected to be more discreet in a more public place. But this country, at least in its major cities, was hardly the repressive one that the media might often make it out to be.
The fame of the Imam Square and its monuments however were to me no match for the subtlety and perhaps historical importance of the Jameh Mosque. The structure that stands at one end of the Grand Bazaar today takes its present form after generations of additions, modifications and rebuilding. It is therefore an encyclopaedia of Iranian architecture and decorative art through the ages. The mosque was also one of the first to adopt the four iwan architectural style which places four vaulted rooms on each side of a four-sided courtyard facing inwards. This particular style was followed in many other countries. I do recall the great Mogul mosques of northern India looking quite similar in layout.
I told N that the Jameh Mosque was the most charming mosque in Iran that I had visited. And I have to say that this was also my favourite place on the trip after Persepolis. It was beautifully decorated but more subtly so than many other important mosques in the country.
Impressiveness soon turned to incredulousness at the Shaking Minarets. I had thought that the shaking was attributable to some unintended causes like the lean of the Tower of Pisa but the reality was far curiouser than that.
A man had to climb into one of the minarets and shake it with the might of his entire body. The shaking of one minaret caused the other to shake as well. Although it was a monument built over a Muslim man’s tomb, it sounded like there were bells ringing when the minarets were being shaken like it was at a church.
But why even bother shaking the minaret to begin with? All of us in the group stood there shaking our heads in tandem with the shaking minarets in disbelief. Maybe we had overanalysed things.
There is an Armenian quarter in Isfahan called Jolfa, named after the town in Nakhichevan where apparently the first Isfahan Armenians had come from. It was a quarter that felt quite different from the rest of the city. It actually reminded me somewhat of West Jerusalem (pardon the thought!).
Besides going to Jolfa for some of our meals, we visited the Vank Cathedral located there. This was a decommissioned church with amazing frescoes. It was really quite a sight to behold, standing in the middle of the little enclosure.
Next to the church is a museum dedicated to the history of the Armenians in the area. There is a section on the Armenian Genocide, which Iran recognises, and various items used or created by the local Armenians on display. The only exhibit in there that truly intrigued me however was this strand of hair which had words engraved, neatly I must add, on it. One had to use a microscope in order to see the engraving. It was something that had to be seen to be believed.
The engraving was made in 1974 in Tehran using a diamond-tipped pen said to be twenty times thinner than a strand of hair. The strand of hair used came from a young woman who was between eighteen and twenty years of age. The engraving, in Armenian, reads “To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding.”
As promised in our itinerary, we were given some time in the afternoon of the third day in the city to shop at the Imam Square. But quite incredibly, all of us asked to spend only an hour at the shops. This was in stark contrast to the Hong Kong group who had asked to squeeze all the sightseeing into a day and a half and have the rest of their time in the city for shopping. But I do have to admit that the Isfahanis produce some pretty good craft work. I would have bought something but where could I put them?
Some of us spent our shopping hour mostly at this shop selling lovely copper plates covered in, mainly blue, paint that would not be scratched. Both F and J wanted one. F managed to get a plate for USD 10 despite the shopkeeper having originally asked for USD 26! He was however desperate to make a sale because according to him he was going to attend a party that evening and needed some cash. You could sense his ju-on as he wrapped the plate for F. He even called her an Isfahani. We had been informed by N about the supposedly miserly penny-pinching Isfahani. I guess it takes one to know one. Anyway I was really impressed with F although I would have been too embarrassed to do the same.
We met more patient shop attendants at the carpet shop opposite our hotel. N knows the owner and he closed the shop just to attend to us. C was actually not too keen on having another item in their home, but Singaporean wives often get their way. So K got one albeit small carpet and there was not to be any protest.
Carpet after carpet was shown to JH who seemed to be there only for the fun of shopping. It was always “too big”, “too small”, “too bright” or “too dark”. The floor of the shop was filled with carpets that did not please JH by the time we left and she walked out empty-handed.
LH on the other hand was the real big spender. She bought three carpets from two visits to the shop.
I learnt about something quite amazing from N in Isfahan. Apparently up to 80% of girls and 50% of boys in Iran have had cosmetic surgery, mostly on their noses. I had to hear it twice from N before I was satisfied that she really meant those statistics. This was really incredible to me since it sounded like too many people in the country disliked their noses and were conscious about them. I learnt that they wanted their noses smaller and sharper. Actually we East Asians thought that Iranian noses were quite wonderfully shaped. But I guess there could always be room for improvement.
N claimed that she could tell easily who had had nose jobs and she pointed one girl on the street out to us. Her nose did look pretty sharp and straight. I then spent the rest of the late afternoon looking at people’s noses.
N, by the way, informed us that she had not had a nose job. I can believe her as I thought that her nose looked quite natural.
The Iranians are however not shy about their nose jobs either. In fact, having a piece of plaster stuck on one’s nose is effectively a status symbol, that they are rich enough to afford nose jobs, and their proudly wear their plasters about town. There are some who had not actually had a nose job but wore plasters on their noses anyway.
A girl we met at the bazaar at Imam Square told us that she paid 8.5 million tomans, or almost SGD 4,000, for hers. I think a nose job can also be had for a couple of hundred dollars but I doubt that they are safe.
I finally got to eat something other than lamb, beef or chicken in Isfahan. The Abbassi Hotel did quite a mean quail and there was this restaurant at the Imam Square that served tasty camel stew. My first spoonful of camel had however barely touched my lips when I suddenly remembered about MERS. Anyway, I survived.
The Abbassi Hotel by the way serves something even better than quail. A million times better than quail in fact. Their saffron ice cream was to die for!
I do feel that Isfahan was the one city in Iran, at least on this trip, that offered the most variety of stimuli to my senses. There was a lot of culture and beauty to be enjoyed and not to mention the food (i.e. ice cream). I wonder how much more we could have seen if we had stayed longer than two and a half days.
And the people. They were not all that ‘Isfahani’ at all!