Ancient Persia, Modern Iran: A Tour Leader’s Blog

Follow along with seasoned MIR Tour Manager, Michel Behar, as he blogs his way through MIR’s Ancient Persia – Modern Iran small group tour.

Spend each day with him as he recounts his favorite traditional Persian foods, his discoveries at the outdoor markets, and his impressions of the gardens, art and architecture of Iran.

  • Arrival in Tehran

    April 5, 2011

    First Impressions of Iran

    Many of our travelers who come to Iran are pleasantly surprised. We drive through the country in a big, modern and clean coach. Our two drivers, both of them called Ali, wear uniforms that remind us of a cruise captain. Our guide is an articulate woman who shows us a sophisticated country with a rich culture and sites, some going back some five thousand years.

    The roads are surprisingly good, comparable to Europe and the US. There is an abundance of food and quite some variety as well.

    But the group is truly amazed at how friendly the people are. We are stopped everywhere we go by men with trendy haircuts and tapered jeans, and women wearing sneakers and tight pants under their hijabs (veils). Also the women who wear chadors and clerics like to interact with us. Whether we walk through the cities, stop in a village, on the road or in a restaurant, time and again they stress that they distinguish between the U.S. people and the U.S. government. We say we do as well, and that is why we come. People tell us they would like to spend more time with us, and would like to invite us to their homes, people picnicing in parks encourage us to sit down and share the hookah. Youngsters and young families practice their English, and tell us about their relatives and friends who live in the U.S.

  • Tehran

    April 5-6, 2011

    Masterpieces in Tehran’s Museums
    Iranian carpet

    Visiting the carpet museum.

    The Archaeological Museum is the right way to start a tour, as all the best artifacts can be found here: bas reliefs from Persepolis and the palace in Bishapur, great vessels and pottery, many of them stylized animals, like oxen, horses, sheep and a tripod vessel of tigers. We also admired the head of a prince made of lapis lazuli and the cylinder of Cyrus, the first charter of human rights.

    We had a traditional Persian lunch: soup, yoghurt, salads, kuku (spinach omelets), kebabs and dessert.

    The Abgineh Museum has a great collection of enameled and mold blown vessels, pitchers and jars, mostly from the 10-12th century.

    We strolled on Vali Asr street, the longest street in the world, where a lot of upper class people shop, many young women dressed in jeans, and their hair cover pushed back all the way. Lots of traffic, but when we cross, they stop and give us a broad smile.

    Then back to the hotel for a few hours rest and dinner.

    The next day, we started at the carpet museum, where carpets from all regions can be seen. Most are from the 18th and 19th century, but in perfect shape.

    The former Shah’s Neavaran Palace is located in the green and pleasant northern part of Teheran, just like the other palaces, and shows how comfortably the family lived. Judging by the style of the furniture you can tell it dates back to the 70s. Nice combination of 19th century Persian and French and modern art. No condemnations, Iran considers the palaces part of the national heritage, and the palace is preserved as if the family left yesterday. The guide’s stories make this recent history come alive.

    For lunch, we went to a traditional Persian restaurant called “Shater Abbas,” popular with locals, where I had my best kebab ever. The bread from the indoor bakery is crispy.

    The abundance of fresh green almonds at the Tajrish market is that evidence spring has arrived. We count 9 different varieties of pistachio nuts. At a clothing store we take a look at the fancy dresses, scarves and veils.

    All over Iran we see the photos of martyrs of the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iranian war. Tehran is no exception, but here there are also many giant optical illusions painted on buildings, not just of martyrs, but also of religious leaders and modern art.

  • Tehran, Masooleh Village

    April 7-8, 2011

    The Snow-capped Alborz Mountains and the Lush Caspian Sea Shore
    Masooleh, Iran's oldest continuously inhabited village

    Masooleh, Iran’s oldest continuously inhabited village.

    Leaving Tehran we cross the snow-capped Alburz mountain range. The sky is bright blue, and the serpentine road offers dazzling views on the valley, some 2,000 feet below. We stop for a short break; the drivers serve us tea, coffee, cookies and dates.

    Around noon we reach the Caspian Sea shore, which has a subtropical climate. We see blossoming magnolias and camelias, cypresses, palm trees and tea plantations. Eggplant, lima beans and oranges are sold on the roads. Lots of villas-for-rent signs; obviously Iranians like to pass their vacation here.

    For lunch we have lamb chops, white fish and olives with walnut/pomegranate sauce. Our hotel was renovated recently, and our rooms have views on the Caspian Sea.

    The next day we visit the fish market, some 50 booths selling white fish. Enthusiastic reactions when the salesmen hear we are from the U.S. Speedboats bring us to a peaceful lagoon, where fishermen wave at us. We admire the water lilies with lots of bird life, ducks and swans.

    We drive inland, following a fast-flowing river. Our destination is Masooleh, Iran’s oldest continuously inhabited village at an altitude of 3,100 ft. Most young people have left, the elderly in traditional clothes have stayed. Many of them are bakers, or sell crafts. We see many women knitting socks and dolls. Masooleh is built against a green mountain, and the roof of one house serves as the balcony of the house above. Glaciers find their way down to the valley. We don’t see any foreigners, but Masooleh attracts many Iranian tourists, and we are as much an attraction as the village itself. One young man explains to us that Iran and the U.S. are friends forever.

    Some of us are invited for tea by a group of Iranian students, others go shopping. After having shopped we meet at the teahouse and walk down the winding streets.

    The shrine of Shahzadeh Hussein in Qazvin is covered with tiny mirrors, both inside and the facade. The hojatoleslam (cleric) poses with group members and then we have a spontaneous Q & A session. Soon we are surrounded by some 10 curious Iranian men. At the entrance of the shrine stands an old juke box – if you insert a coin it plays a shura Qur’an verse).

    We have lunch at a restaurant on the highway: lamb shank and rice with pistachios, pomegranate and orange. Before we arrive to our hotel in Tehran we stop for saffron ice cream.

    We are staying at the Laleh, the former Intercontinental Hotel – until the revolution of 1979;  the wastebaskets in the rooms still bear the Intercontinental logo.

  • Bandar-e Anzali, Tehran, fly to Yazd

    April 9-10, 2011

    Tehran’s Palaces, Jewels and Ceramics
    Yazd's Takyeh Amir Chakhmagh Mosque

    Yazd’s Takyeh Amir Chakhmagh Mosque.

    Tonight we fly to Yazd, and we have all day to explore more of Tehran.

    It is a very clear day, and the snow-capped mountains, including the Neravand, Iran’s highest mountain, seem a few clicks away.

    First is the Golestan (Garden) Palace. The rectangular pond lined with cypresses leads to the marble throne on the terrace. The palace is adorned with stucco and Roman arches with colorful pink, blue and yellow tilework representing vases with flowers and romantic landscapes. Angels, dragons and lions. Peacocks, swans and birds.  Hunting scenes of noble hunters on horses shooting deer with bow and arrows and bears with rifles.

    The entrance of the palace is covered with countless mirrors, including the ceiling. The interior of the palace is a combination of a fairy tale from A Thousand and One Nights and a European palace: gorgeous oriental carpets, green jade vases, paintings, giant chandeliers, satin curtains, clocks, French tapestries, portraits and busts of Khajar kings. The Shah used to receive his guests in the reception hall while sitting on the mighty peacock throne.  The presents he received from German, British and Russian royalty are displayed. On the other side of the pond are the wind catchers (an ancient air conditioning system), and a multi-storey citadel with two identical towers and a celebration hall, adorned with tiles of musicians.

    The Reza Abassi Museum has an exquisite display of figurines of oxen and people, golden beakers, rhytons shaped in the form of deer and rams,  some dating back to the Achaemenid Empire. Golden plates in the form of lions and unicorns; bracelets with lion and sheep heads, a beaker with cows and a large vessel supported by three rams. 1,000-year-old glazed cobalt blue plates with images of deer and birds, bowls of green luster, ornate bronze vessels and decanters, oil lamps and vases, and incense burners in the form of a lion and rooster. Octagonal tiles with portraits of 17th century rulers. Turquoise glazed horse riders and glazed plates of a couple in love, a king on the throne surrounded with servants. Lacquered book covers, mirror cases and pen boxes. Miniature manuscripts from the national epic Shahname (Book of Kings) displaying battles, gatherings and banquets. Colorful paintings of nobles on wooden panels from the Khajar era and 10th century Kufic manuscripts on deerskin.

    After so much art, it’s time for lunch. Our restaurant is unique in Tehran; famous for its home cooking and very popular with the upper middle class. We sampled six stews and two kinds of polo (rice), one with sour berries, the other one with orange. The best restaurant so far!

    We line up at the National Bank, together with a school class of giggling school children all dressed in black chadors. The crown jewels are probably the most valuable in the world. A mind-boggling collection of 200-year-old snuff boxes, hubble bubbles, daggers, incense burners, purses, decanters, pitchers, tiaras, necklaces and a globe decorated with sapphire, emerald, rubies, pink diamonds, turquoise, peals and agate.

    On the road to the airport we pass the former U.S. embassy, today headquarters of the revolutionary guards. 30 years after the revolution, the ideological zeal is mostly gone. Most graffiti was removed a few years ago. Further down the road we take photos of Iran’s last mural with the slogan “Down with USA.” The stars of the giant U.S. flag have been replaced by skulls, with missiles attached under the stripes.

    When I ask our group members to describe Iran in one word the reactions range from: “ancient,” “hopeful” and “friendly” to “unknown” and “surprising.”

    The Azadi Monument is close to the airport. It stands on the largest square in Tehran. The giant monument with four gates was erected in commemoration of Iran’s 2,500th anniversary and inaugurated by the Shah.

  • Yazd

    April 11, 2011

    Yazd, Cradle of Zoroastrianism
    Baking over a clay oven in Yazd

    Baking over a clay oven in Yazd.

    In Yazd we are staying in a karavanseray (an inn for silk road merchants) that was converted into a four star hotel in 1928. We visit the water reservoir with its dome and four wind catchers. Attached to it is a qanat (irrigation canal); we learn more about this technology that dates back 2,500 years. Yazd is the cradle of Zoroastrianism, a monotheist religion that is as old as the qanats and still has some 10,000 followers in Yazd. In the afternoon we learn more about this religion at their temple and the tower on which they used to leave the deceased to the vultures – up to the 1911s.

    The 211-year-old Dowlet Abad is a traditional Persian garden with white mulberry and pomegranate trees, a peaceful oasis of tranquility. The only sounds we hear are of the gardeners and of children on a school excursion. Later when we run into them, their teacher lines the thirty or so six-year-old girls up and they sing a song to us in English. We admire the highest wind catcher in Iran. Inside it is cool; the tower is connected to a room with an intricate dome and glass stained windows.

    In front of the 12th century Friday Mosque there are two giant marble candleholders. The word Allah is shown 110 times in Kufic script on the ceiling of the portal, and the 99 names of Allah appear on glazed tiles on the wall.

    Then we walk through a labyrinth of the narrow alleys of the old city, through which scooter riders find their way without any difficulty. We take a break at the covered section of the courtyard of an inn for tea and almond ice cream. Around the pond are platforms with pillows where people sit and sip tea. A long staircase down leads to a qanat. The view from the rooftop is stunning; we can see the entire old city and the remaining ramparts with the desert and mountain range behind them. We take photos of the nakhles, huge wooden structures that were emblems of Shi’ite Islam.

    After watching the process of kneading dough and putting it in the clay oven at a bakery, we sample the delicious paper-thin bread. Then we shop at ceramic stores and buy blockprint textiles and scarves from vendors at a prison from Alexander the Great’s era. We chat with a lady who will soon visit her sister who lives in Connecticut. On the way back to the bus we pass a building under renovation where the workers throw brick stones up to their colleagues standing on the scaffoldings.

    Our lunch is at a former bathhouse, where we have cold yoghurt soup and meatballs filled with rice and apricots. Then we go back for a break in the hotel so that we shun the afternoon heat.

    The best time to visit the bazaar is in the early evening, when the locals go shopping. There must be some 200 jewelers, and many other stores.

    A lavish buffet dinner is served in the hotel’s court yard.

  • Yazd, drive to Kerman, Rayen, Mahan

    April 12-13, 2011

    Colorful bazaars, Sassanid fortresses, Adobe villages and a Paradise in the Desert
    Kerman's Shazdeh Garden

    Kerman’s Shazdeh Garden

    Kerman is situated at an altitude of 5,000 ft. The city is famous for its cumin, henna and copperware. Opposite the karavansaray is the entrance of the former hammam (public bath house). The stories of the Shahname (Book of Kings) are displayed on the muqarnas (stalactite vault), which is decorated with floral designs. The octagonal hammam has been converted into a tea house and a wax museum with mannequins having tea, chatting, smoking the hookah, bathing, scrubbing and praying. We run into Iranians who live in California and come each year to visit.

    Kerman has the longest covered bazaar of Iran. On the ceiling of the dome are 19th century portraits. We walk from the beginning all the way up to the Friday Mosque. Many stores have colorful headscarves on display. Vendors sell dry lemon, lump sugar, hardened yoghurt and huge copper vessels. Baluchi women from the border region with Pakistan show us their colorful dresses under their chadors.

    On the way to the viewpoint over the city we pass the former icehouse where the city kept ice for summer – now it is a library. We arrive at the cliff overlooking Kerman just before sunset. The castle of the jagged rocks turns orange; behind it lies the city and just below us is a pine forest. Some youngsters have driven up to the panorama and listen to Iranian pop music from the U.S. while sitting in their car. On the way down we pass a waterfall that flows across the road into the valley.

    Today we drive to Arg-e-Rayen, at an altitude of 6,500 ft. This 4th century mud-brick castle from the Sassanid era has 16 towers of 35 ft. height. It was inhabited until 1850. When we climb up the narrow staircase to the rooftop of the old bazaar, a great panorama unfolds. We can see the entire city, the governor’s house and behind it the mountains covered with snow. The guide tells us about the Arab siege when the 20,000 residents had to fight for their lives.

    Shah-e-Zadeh in Mahan is the most beautiful garden of Iran. It was built for the governor of Kerman in the 19th century and is situated in the middle of the desert. Icy water from the mountains supplies a string of rectangular ponds with fountains. We climb some 100 steps up to the residence of the governor. Along the pools are cypresses, blossoming fruit trees full of birds, and flower beds. In the 19th century local people came to the garden to pick fruit from the trees. We see orchards of cherry, peach, apricot, pear, grapes, pomegranate, apple and pistachio trees. Near the residence local families are sitting on takhts (platforms with a low table and pillows) and having lunch or smoking the hubble bubble. Eight-year-old school girls in red and white uniforms sing songs to us. Local families ask if they can pose for a photo with us. Teen-age girls chat with us and spontaneously kiss our female tour members when we part. For lunch we have rice with sour berries and boiled chicken with traditional Persian music in the background.

    The 12th century mausoleum of Nematullah, a Sufi (ascetic) poet is located in a shrine from the Qajar era (19th century). It is a place of pilgrimage. He had only water and bread and prayed on the site for 11 days.

    Finally we visit Jupar, an adobe village surrounded by mulberry trees and vineyards. We ask directions for the house of the Ibrahimi family, who have woven carpets for generations. Six women work in two tiny rooms for seven hours a day. Two women are working at a loom on identical rugs. They sing-song the colors to each other. The rugs sell for $50,000 in Turkey and the Gulf states.

  • Sarvestan, Shiraz, Persepolis

    April 14-15, 2011

    Romantic Shiraz and the Intact Bas Reliefs of Persepolis
    Ancient ruins in Persepolis

    Ancient ruins in Persepolis.

    Today we drive to Shiraz; on the road we drive across mountains and steppes. We pass salt lakes, steppes, green pastures and countless fig trees. Our last stop before Shiraz is Sarvestan, a Sassanid palace with brick stones, high narrow arches and two domes.

    Shiraz is known for its mosques with onion shaped domes, but even more as the birthplace of Iran’s most beloved poet. He is buried in a garden, just as countless other poets, as a garden symbolizes paradise. Hafiz never left the city, and he was believed to be a fortune teller, so when people are wavering, they browse through his poems. In front to the entrance to the garden two men carry a box full of verses of Hafiz; on top sits a tiny green bird. For 50 cents one can buy a verse, it is a romantic version of a fortune cookie. Iranians are fond of birds, everywhere we go in the bazaar we hear them twitter. In Hafiz’ garden we have our pictures taken with six high school girls and afterwards we exchange e-mail addresses.

    Then we go to a 17th century clergy school. A Seyyed Hojatoleslam (cleric) with a black turban is sitting in a garden and questions us about prenuptial agreements and inheritance laws in the U.S. He wears a black turban, which means he is a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad. We have our picture taken with him, and a little later with two women who study renovation at the university of Shiraz.

    The mosque of Nasir ol Molk is privately owned, and 137 years old. It is famous for its tile work of vases with pink roses, and images of obviously European-influenced landscapes and architecture. The muqarnas (stalactite vault) is unbelievably intricate.

    The 19th century Naranjestan is a charming garden. The rectangular pond is flanked by various flowers, orange and palm trees. The tile work shows colorful images of women from the 18th century Zand era. The entrance faces the governor’s residence. This small palace is covered with mirrors. On top of the building are paintings of deer, lions, peacocks and cranes. The doors have inlaid decorations of birds. We talk to two couples who want to hear about our impressions of Iran.

    After lunch in a garden near Persepolis we visit Naqsh-e-Rostam, the necropolis of four Achaemenid kings. Darius, Xerxes, Artexerxes and Darius II are buried each in a huge cross-shaped niche carved out from the limestone rocks, some 100 ft. above ground level. Closer to the ground are Sassanid bas reliefs, one of them showing King Nerse, who receives the diadem from Anahita. Below us is a temple dedicated to Anahita, goddess of water and fertility; it is a dug out building of massive stones, 20 ft. by some 20 ft.

    Alexander the Great set fire to Persepolis, the lead between the brick stone melted and the ceiling collapsed. Excavations started in the 1911s and the Shah celebrated 2,500 years of Persia here with many officials in 1971.

    A monumental staircase leads to the Gate of Nations; some of the 76 columns remain. We pass eagle statues, the emblem of the Achaemenid rulers and two headed horses. Some of them are uncut, indicating that the construction was incomplete at the time of destruction.

    Through a gate of black limestone we enter the Army Road, lined by 100 columns and arrive at the headquarters of the Achaemenid empire. Unity is symbolized by bas reliefs showing Median men with round hats and Parthian men with square hats.

    Then comes the highlight: the road and staircase with bas reliefs leading to the palace. All show men, with the exception of a female lion. Many of them are dedicated to Navruz, the Persian New Year, starting on March 21st. A lion symbolizing spring attacks a bull symbolizing winter. We see high officials with distinct features and wearing national costumes from 23 nations pay tribute to the King. Ethiopians, Indians, Bactrians, Greeks, Scythians and Celicians. Cappadocians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Libyans and Armenians. Some bring camels and bulls. The bas reliefs of cypresses symbolize peace.

    Bas reliefs picture the king who is showing his strength by stabbing a fantastic animal. Then we arrive at the entrance of the reception hall of Darius II where his throne used to stand. We pass the two-headed lions and bulls. In the main room there are 36 columns of 11 ft. high. Behind is the private palace for secret negotiations.

    The next day we visit the Sassanid palace and fire temple in Firuzabad, south of Shiraz (3rd century AD). On the highway we pass herders with their cattle walking towards Shiraz. These nomads supply the city with meat and dairy products. On the road stand vendors who sell onions. We pass corn and barley fields and a Sassanid stone bridge and fortress, dedicated to Anahita, the goddess of water and fertility.

    The palace we visit was built by Artexerxes. He founded the Sassanid Empire, named after his grandfather. Sassanids were true masters when it came to building porticoes and domes. The entrance to the palace we visit has a height of 50 ft. Two of the three domes have been preserved. The palace is divided into a public and a private section and is situated near a spring and a small lake. The site is surrounded by grass and red poppies.

    Back in Shiraz we visit the bazaar, a crowded labyrinth. The bazaar is famous for its gebbe, nomadic carpets, and handicrafts such as jewelery with semi-precious stones, and boxes decorated with flowers made of camel bone.

  • Shiraz, Firuzabad, Bishapur

    April 16-17, 2011

    Via the Awesome Porticoes of Firuzabad and Bas Reliefs of Bishapur to the Zagros Mountain passes
    Ancient ruins in Bishapur

    Ancient ruins in Bishapur.

    Today, we leave Shiraz and drive through the Zagros Mountains to Bishapur. On the road we pass hazelnut, pistachio and almond trees.

    Bishapur is a Sassanite site, named after King Shapur I, and strategically situated on the road from Susa to Persepolis and Ctesiphon in Iraq. Vegetation here is clearly subtropical – no more pine trees, but instead lemon and palm trees.

    A staircase leads to the water temple, dedicated to Anahita. Some 20 ft. below ground level we reach a courtyard where water passed through a canal in ancient times. The fire and water temple were renovated from 1969 to1979. Then we visit the palace with the ceremonial hall. A few elements of red plaster remain. Valerian, one of the three Roman generals who battled the Sassanids was kept prisoner here.

    Then we visit the gorgeous bas reliefs at the bank of the river Shapur. We see Sassanid soldiers on the left and Roman soldiers on the right. King Shapur I rides his horse, whereas the Roman general Valerian kneels in front of him. King Bahram III and King Ardeshir receiving a diadem from the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda. A Parthian king and the Zoroastrian king of evil, Ahraman, are both trampled under the hoofs of King Ardeshir. At lunch we are greeted by a group of teachers who wonder where we are from and whether there are any teachers among us. Two of our tour members happen to be professors. We continue our drive, to Yasuj, a 11-year-old city at the foot of a snow-capped mountain at 5,500 ft. altitude. From our balconies we overlook the city and the mountain.

    We take a winding road, passing through tunnels and climbing up to 7,500 ft. admiring the aerial views of the Zagros Mountains. A landscape dotted with tiny green plots, apple orchards with purple blossom and jagged mountain peaks covered with snow. When we pass the tree line we see the remains of snow along the road.

  • Isfahan

    April 18-20, 2011

    The Most Beautiful Square in the World
    Isfahan's Sheikh Lutfullah mosque

    Isfahan’s Sheikh Lutfullah Mosque.

    Reaching the plains not far from Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city, we pass a karavansaray from the Safavid era (16th century).

    Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city, is at least 2,500 years old. The Elamites and Seljuks made Isfahan their capital. The city reached its zenith under the Safavids. Shah Abbas was the 5th Safavid ruler and he embellished the city like no ruler had ever done before. Most monuments we visit date back to his reign.

    Upon arrival in Isfahan, we have lunch in the Armenian quarter. There has been an Armenian community here since the 16th century. Now it is reduced to 10,000 people. The Jewish community is even older, as old as the city itself. The Jews migrated from Babylonia straight to Isfahan. There are still 2,000 Jews residing in the city.

    After lunch we drive along the tree-lined avenues to our hotel, a renovated 16th century karavansaray (traveller’s inn) that looks like a palace, as many elements have been copied from the Ali Qapu palace. We check in and are greeted by the doorman in 17th century outfit. The porters in traditional costumes carry the luggage to our rooms. The hotel has a giant, wonderful courtyard, where people come for tea and dinner.

    The city is famous for its bridges across the river Zayande. This afternoon we explore three historic bridges. Along the river banks are lush parks. The oldest bridge, the Shahrestan, dates back to the 10th century. The Khaju bridge has locks and is composed of 23 arches. The Thirty Three bridge was named after the amount of its arches. It dates back to the 16th century and is 1,200 ft. long. The bridges are full of pedestrians. Our impression is that many people come here for leisure. Even though we are in a big city many people greet us, and want to know where we are from. When they hear U.S. usually they want to practice their English and express their satisfaction and gratitude that we have come to visit their city.

    The first monument we visit the following day is Chehel Sotun, the 11 pillars palace, named after the 20 plane pillars that are reflected in the water. On top of the building are wooden mosaics, and in front of the palace stand two stone lions. The beautiful iwan (porch) and the muqarnas (stalactite vault) are covered by a mosaic of tiny pieces of mirror.

    Inside we see beautiful 17th and 18th century murals – Chinese-influenced garden sceneries, Italian pastoral landscapes and Persian miniature paintings. Celebrations with Ottoman and Indian delegations, but also battles against Indians, Ottomans and Uzbeks. The paintings have been meticulously restored and some reflect, thanks to the gold flake used in them. We also see a picture of a Hindu seti ritual (a woman who is buried alive when her beloved husband dies).

    On our way to the main square we pass the royal warehouse and stables, and a Sufi khanoqah (an inn for Sufi dervishes).

    The Meydan Naqsh-e-Jahan square takes our breath away. It is huge, 1500 by 500 ft. The 200 arches that were part of royal buildings are now all occupied by stores. Here we find the architectural highlights of our tour – the Lutfullah Mosque, the Abassi Mosque and the Ali Qapu Palace, all built under Shah Abbas I. The Meydan Naqsh-e-Jahan, or Imam Square, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    The 17th century Sheikh Lutfullah mosque was designed by a Lebanese architect and used for the women of the royal court. It took 18 years to complete the mosque. On the exterior there is symmetrical decoration in blue and green. Vases with flowers and twigs with leaves, glazed tiles with Qur’an inscriptions and very ornate muqarnas (stalactite vaults). When we walk into the mosque, we see that the center of the dome is covered by a glazed peacock tail. The dome rests on an octagon, whereas the mosque itself is square. The mix of glazed pottery with lead makes the tiles shine. Small wooden beams absorbed possible shocks, and prevented possible cracks in the tile work.

    The Abassi Mosque, possibly the world’s most beautiful mosque, was completed after 20 years. Two pillars in the form of a vase, with a small muqarnas and three spiral turquoise pillars above it form the portal of the mosque. When we walk through the giant silver-plated doors we face a stone bowl filled with sugar water.

    Geometrical designs of Allah, vases with flowers and twigs in blue and green cover the walls. The courtyard is surrounded by four iwans (porches). When you stand in the center of the mosque under the double dome and you clap your hands it sounds like a triple whip-lash. The lead layer in the stone columns protects the building against earthquakes. The minbar (pulpit) is made from one slab of white marble. On the walls we find murals of monkeys, ibex, goats and all kinds of birds, very unusual for a mosque. The Abassi Mosque functions as a prayer house three times a day. In the complex is a theological seminary, which lay people visit when they need religious counseling.

    On the way we run into a man who spent seven months in a training program working in the U.S. in the 1970s when working for the Persian Air Force.

    The Ali Qapu Palace (ali = Arabic for high and qapu = Turkish for door) contains six stories. The third story served as a meeting point. The Sultan watched polo with the royal family and his advisers from the veranda, supported by 18 sycamore columns. No nails were used for the double joined wooden windows. Finally we visit the music hall. We climb three stories up the tiled narrow staircase. The room is decorated with plastered stalactite vaults with niches in the shape of musical instruments. Musicians sat on a platform, and the acoustics were perfect.

    Then it is time to drive to lunch. The restaurant reminds us of the Ali Qapu palace. We have rice with sour berries, and fesenjan (a stew of pomegranates and walnuts and braised lamb.

    After some rest at the hotel, we return to the square in the afternoon for an explanation of miniature paintings in one of the stores and additional shopping in the bazaar, the best in Iran. In these covered streets, the best quinces and sour cherries of Iran are sold, as well as gaz, nougat with pistachios.

    The Zurkhaneh (house of force) is a gym where men gather for physical exercises with a spiritual undertone. Mutual respect, honesty and friendliness play an important role as well. The room is decorated with old photos of athletes and an image of Ali. The murshed (leader) leads the exercises. He sits on a platform and plays a drum and bells. The athletes do their exercises to his rhythm. Besides two locals, we are the only spectators. We sit in a circle, whereas the barefoot athletes do their exercises in the middle in a hexagonal sunken area of 3 ft. The Zurkhaneh has its roots in pre-Islamic Iranian culture.

    After having welcomed the visitors from the USA the murshed gives the signal by beating the drum and bells, and the men start to do push-ups on little benches, they lie on the floor lifting heavy wooden shields, they sway with wooden clubs and a device with rings above their head, juggle with clubs, and spin around – the best one spun 80 times.

  • Isfahan, fly to Tehran

    April 21, 2011

    The oldest part of Isfahan
    Colorful murals at Isfahan's Vank Cathedral

    Colorful murals at Isfahan’s Vank Cathedral.

    This morning we visit the old part of the city. Our day starts with the Friday Mosque. We drive around an underground round-about, walk through the Jewish quarter, through the old bazaar where they sell both chadors and tight jeans. We spend an hour at this fabulous mosque, the oldest of Isfahan and the largest of Iran. The oldest parts are 9 centuries old. The damage caused by an Iraqi missile in the 80s can still be seen. The interior is different than what we have seen so far: columns and walls decorated with geometrical patterns of small brick stones, Seljuk stalactite domes and arches with pointed vaults. The highlight is the Nizam al Mulk dome, some 200 ft. high. The 14th century mehrab (niche) is covered with plaster, and is decorated with ornate stucco. The tile work and the minaret in the courtyard date back to the Safavid era and reminds of what we have seen elsewhere.

    Then we drive to the Armenian quarter. Shah Abbas brought some 17,000 Armenian families to Isfahan in the 16th century to give a boost to commerce. The Armenians happily came, otherwise they would be drafted into the Janissaries, the Ottoman army. Relations between Armenians and Iranians are cordial, yet there has been a huge emigration. When we walk through the gate we come to a courtyard surrounded by a complex of buildings. The Vank cathedral is very colorful. It is completely covered with colorful murals showing events from both the Old and New Testament. It is an interesting mixture of Persian, Armenian and European style. Next door is the museum, with an interesting collection of religious books beautifully illustrated from the 10th to 16th century. Also we see other religious objects such as casks, miters, crucifixes, stoles, and tiles, but also paintings and musical instruments.

    Finally we visit the pigeon tower and the cemetery. The pigeon tower is located on a round-about. The fired brick stones are covered with plaster, so that snakes cannot climb up and grab the pigeons. Their droppings have been collected for many centuries, and farmers use them as fertilizer.

    We pay a brief visit to the cemetery where the martyrs or victims of the Iraq-Iranian war are buried.

    We have lunch at an Armenian-owned restaurant packed with visitors who have just come from a funeral. One of them comes to our table to thank us for coming to Iran and wish us a safe journey.

    After a short rest, we do our last shopping on the Meydan Naqsh-e-Jahan before flying back to Tehran and from there, home.