Iran Life – One Lump, Or Two?

Iranians drink tea. ‘So what!’ I hear you say, ‘Doesn’t everyone?’ Probably, but in Iran they do things differently, there’s also good news and then there is bad news. I’ll start with the good news . .

Iranians have drunk tea or chai for around six hundred years. With China just up the Silk Road, tea proved to be cheaper and easier to obtain than coffee and soon surpassed coffee as the drink of choice. In 1899 Prince Mohammad Mirza did the dirty on the then Global Empire and smuggled 3000 saplings out of India under the noses of the Imperial British.

(rescued from Archers of Okcular and originally posted September 2014)

Camellia_sinensisHe planted them in his home province of Lahijan near the Caspian Sea where the climate and soil proved perfect for Camellia sinensis and so was born what has come to be accepted as the healthiest tea in the world. The terraced tea gardens of Lahijan have never been treated to the delights of pesticides or fungicides or any other ‘cides’. They have remained organic and free from any intervention from the day of their birth until the present. Now the bad news . .

A study carried out in Golistan Province in northern Iran and published in the British Medical Journal established a link between drinking very hot black tea (65*C or higher) within  2-3 minutes of pouring, a common practice in northern Iran, and a marked increase in the risk of developing oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma! Not many people know that! As someone who takes their tea drinking at a seriously leisurely pace I shall not be dwelling on the study.

So, what about the ‘differently’ bit? Well, there are the tea houses – châihâne or châi-khooneh that range from back street one-room affairs to some of the most elaborate and evocative that you can imagine. Then there is the amazing rock-sugar (qand) that was always served – sometimes loose, often on sticks that made dunking a childish, lollypop-sucking pleasure. Here are a few photos to let you see what you are missing:

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Azadegan Tea House, this amazing place is down a back-street in Esfahan

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J with her châi . . in the park . .
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. . in a ‘normal’ châihâne . .
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. . in a ‘posh’ châihâne . .

Finally, another view from the Azadegan Tea House of ‘sisters doing it for themselves’

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(from trekearth.com)

Alan in Okçular

Surprise! Surprise!

There is a tendency, fuelled by the media, to regard Iran as a rigid, unbending, theocratic Shia Islamic monopoly. Whilst I would be one of the first to stand up and say that, in my opinion, religion has no place in the governance of state or community, Iran, for all its overbearing theocracy, is far more religiously diverse than you might think.

As you may have read in an earlier post, Zoroastrian fire-worshippers, whilst small in numbers, approx 28,000, are free to follow their ancient rituals. Likewise, Iran has a Jewish population of around 35,000 that defies all entreaties from Israel to migrate from Persia where they have lived for thousands of years. After Zoroastrianism, Judaism is the second oldest religion in the country with references to the Persian Jews in the Book of Esther.

Larger by far than either of the above religious groups is the Armenian Orthodox community. After their deportation following the Ottoman War in the early 1600s, Shah Abbas I gave sanctuary and settled many Armenians in the New Julfa district of Isfahan. Edicts from Shah Abbas and his successors forbade any interference in the lives and customs of these new Christian citizens – they were even exempt from taxes on their churches!

The subject of this post, the Holy Saviour Cathedral aka Vank Cathedral or The Church of the Saintly Sisters, was commenced in 1606 and completed in 1665. It has remained in constant use ever since and is the site of worship and street procession as well as touristic gawping at the amazing interior ‘iconography’!

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Vank Cathedral courtyard
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Armenian Orthodox street procession – Isfahan
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from the amazing, iconic interior

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J and guide Feraidoon discuss the merits

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There is also a superb, little museum that chronicles the Armenian’s way of life and contributions to their adoptive country.

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edict of Shah Sulaiman not to interfere in religious and matrimonial affairs of Armenians
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Persia’s first printing press
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early printed bible
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illuminated bible
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at the third drip . .

Alan in Okçular

Iran Life – All Ceilinged Out

I guess you’ve cottoned on to the fact that J and I think that Iran is a pretty amazing place – so amazing that within a few days I was struck down by a mysterious malaise much akin to battle fatigue. It was a mixture of vertigo; aching neck muscles; blurred vision and a sort of cerebral numbness. Before you make any smart comment about being ‘at it again’, I wish to state that in Iran a request to a waiter for ‘a glass of malt’ gets you something that looks like beer and tastes like ‘Vimto’ – if you are lucky! If you are unlucky it tastes like peaches!

(another ‘rescue’ from the very broken Archers blog first posted August 2014)

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes – my mysterious malaise – Ceilingtoliosis. I’m pretty sure that the bug got me on our first day in Iran, here, at the Golistan Palace in Tehran as I stood open-mouthed in amazement.

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and ‘Yes’, that really is all crystal

What follows are just a few photos from part of one day in Esfahan. I’ve thrown in a couple of ‘other’ pics to reduce your chances of catching this incredulity-dulling infection – enjoy!

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by way of variety, a painted marquetry ceiling
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we’re lucky if they paint the concrete where I come from

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this is the amazing acoustic ceiling of the 6th floor music room, created from gypsum plaster, in the palace on Imam Square – mini-concerts take place here still

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a bit more painting and marquetry
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I feel myself slipping under
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so a quick whiff of smelling-salts
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even the famous bridge
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. . our hotel room (free-hand, not stencil)

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local restaurant – again, we are not talking transfers

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in the end, we were glad to jump a cable-car, head for the mountains  and photograph . .

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. . some mosses, lichens and liverworts!

Alan recovering in Okçular

Iran Life – Shãhrud Is Nice

Shãhrud is a little bit betwixt and between! It lies roughly halfway between the cities of Mashad, 500kms to the east, near the Afghanistan border and Tehran. As the crow flies, the Caspian Sea is a little over 100kms to the north west over the Arborz Mountains. South, as far as the imagination can imagine, lies the Dasht-e- Kavir, the mighty Salt Desert with the oasis cities and adobe fortresses of Yazd and Rãyen and Bam and the delightful Zein-o-din Caravanserai.

(rescued from Archers blog and first posted August 2014)

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these might give you a better feel for it

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After the disappointment surrounding our time in Mashad, J and I were drawn to Shãhrud from the moment we stepped from the train. It felt . . ordinary, nice! That feeling was reinforced by our taxi-driver, Mansour, who readily agreed to be our guide-cum-country chef for our forays into mountains and desert over the next couple of days. What a pleasure it was to be with him – quiet, dignified and a superb barbecue chef!

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guide Feraidoon and Masoud, the best chef-driver in Iran

So, what does Shãhrud have to recommend it apart from being . . nice . . and not being Mashad? Location! Drive out of town one way and you’re in the greenery of well-watered mountains – drive the other way and it’s sand and camels! There’s a very nice old Sufi mosque complex that’s been restored and a nice park with a man-made waterfall where J got taken over (in a very nice way) by a group of nice Turkmen ladies.

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The town has water everywhere which is really nice and would have pleased Charlie Dimmock no end. Our hotel was nice too, although they didn’t have much idea about dealing with customers. Tourism has been slow for a number of years and not many travellers stop by. As we dragged our bags and gazed up at the sweat-inducing steps to the entrance, the porter-cum-reception guy helpfully pointed out the long-winding footpath before wandering back into the air-conditioned lounge! Nice!

Anyway, enough of this chit-chat – let’s get on with a few of our impressions of Shãhrud. I don’t know if we’ll have the chance to wind down our flowers, mountains and village life trip here when we return to Iran next Spring. That would be extra nice.

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the restored Sufi shrine – before and after (or the other way round)

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You can read about the desert bit of our stay here, now for some mountains and flowers – but mostly flowers!

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yellow tulip
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red tulip
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white tulip

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fritillaria
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forest rangers arrive for tea
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Scarce Swallowtail
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white violet
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violet violets
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Anemone blanda
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southern Arborz Mountains in the distance

I could go on and on with flowers – finally, the very best little restaurant in Shãhrud – the ‘Ariatin’. Lamb shank, buttered rice, green salad, borani (yogurt with mint) and ayran – simple and utterly delicious!

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It’s easy to find, just look out for the Little Chef!

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Sometimes, ‘Nice!‘ is so much nicer than ‘Amazing!’ or ‘Fantastic!’

Alan in Okçular

Iran Life – Dangerous Liaisons

Iran is a fabulous place to visit – wonderful sights (and sites) to see, terrific food to enjoy and delightful people to meet. So good is it that J and I are going back again early next year to spend three weeks wandering the mountains and villages to seek out flowers and people and the rural lifestyle.

(salvaged from Archers blog and first posted August 2014)

ezanEnthusiastic as we are to return, we were never allowed to forget that this country is in the grip of an authoritarian and pervasive theocratic regime. In Shia Islam the ezan is called only three times each day and I have never before heard it made with such gentle and melodic voices. That said, you cannot escape it because even on a train in the depths of the metro system it will insinuate itself almost subliminally, like Muzak, over the speaker system. Public buildings are adorned every few metres with verses from the Koran in Farsi and English and the eyes of the Supreme Leaders, past and present, watch you from giant bill-boards!

With the election of the present ‘more liberal’ regime things are rather more relaxed – we saw no overt presence of the morality or thought police.

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There are certainly clergy without number to be seen and I’m sure this must have a dampening effect on those who might want to express an opinion that differs from the party line. Despite 35 years of Jesuit-like control (‘Give me the child and I’ll give you the man!’), there is plenty of kicking back going on.

Rules that state that women must cover their hair for fear that the sight of a loose curl will turn men into ravening beasts is a case in point. Standing out from the crowds of conformists there are women sporting outrageous 60s beehive hair-dos with a strip of material clipped to the back! They are deliberately pushing the boundaries of stifling authoritarianism in the name of individuality – at least until the next clamp-down.

Alcohol is forbidden! That’s why Iranians do a lot of partying at home and I can tell you from personal experience that the stuff they brew under the kitchen sink might not win a gold medal in Paris but would certainly get a very honourable mention in despatches!

IMG_1It’s the same with art. As long as it fits into neat, narrow, conforming boxes it’s OK. Try and be different and those baleful, dark-rimmed, Ayatollah eyes will be turned upon you – followed by a knock at the door. Dissent is dangerous!

So, imagine J and my delight when we were guided by friends to a location that they and a few artist buddies have turned into a monument to alternative expression – a real ‘Art House’. The building was scheduled for demolition but a kind-hearted, open-minded owner had let them hang out there and free their talents. The results are astonishing! Powerful! Deeply disturbing! Every part of the house, from the cellar to the toilet to every room and passageway is a statement – every one of them dissenting from the stifling, imposed norms. Contributors include street/graffiti artists; musicians; sculptors – some have spent time in prison for pushing back. Many of the rooms/works include sound which you, of course, can’t hear – strobe lights and other unconventional light effects. Faces have been blurred for obvious reasons – I apologise to you and our ‘rebels’ for turning them into zombies.

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‘Children of the Light’ (luminescent)
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‘Mobile’

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‘Cut Out’

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the black and white piece of ‘art’ now hangs in our home in Okçular

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‘. . it’s downstairs, second on the right’

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critically endangered Persian Leopard – protected and hunted to death – a guardian faces execution for killing an armed poacher!
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‘Indoctrination’ strobes and white noise

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this is not up there – it’s down here
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‘Gotcha!’
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teaching the guys ‘pip-squeak’

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the most dangerous street/graffiti artist in Tehran aka ‘Blackhand’ is No1 Sponge Bob fan not many people know that!

We had a great day with some great people – individuals bucking against the system. These photos look pathetic when compared with our actual experiences in the ‘Art House’. Wonderful memories and some pretty memorable gifts to bring home (ceramics; music CDs; ‘Blackhand’ original) – thanks guys – see you next time – either here or there. Oh, and do try and stay out of trouble!

Alan back in Okçular

ps safe to put this up now as the place has been demolished

Blue Heaven

oldest-chewing-gumIt’s more than two years ago since that class travel and blogging act Natalie Sayın sent me a photograph attached to a ‘what’s this?’ Now, Natalie has some seriously good camera skills, but this pic looked like a lump of ancient, peppermint flavoured chewing gum stuck on a rock! (I know about these things and att a photo of the oldest bit of chewing gum ever found – it’s from Finland and is about 5000 years old complete with Neolithic teeth marks!)

(saved from Archers blog and first posted July 2014)

Anyway, Nat’s photo looked a bit like a Carpathian Blue Slug – Bielzia coerulans, a creature that is supposed to live up to its name and stay in the Carpathian Mountains where it is described as endemic. I sent a copy of the photo and location to my good mate Murat who has made such creatures the study and passion of a lifetime. He also works out of the Dept. of Malacology at Harvard University, it’s safe to assume that he knows about these things!

Such was our joint excitement at Natalie’s find that we decided to mount a field trip to the area between Çamlıhemşim and the Ayder plateau to see if we couldn’t find some more ‘lumps of chewing gum’.

We were expecting to do a lot of scrabbling about under rocks and bushes before we got a result – if we got a result at all! It didn’t quite work out as expected. Shortly after we picked Murat up from the airport and brought him to our hotel the four of us, Murat and E, J and I went for a leg-stretch to explore Çamlıhemşim. With a population of 1500 and one street it didn’t take long! The town sits in a bit of a ravine – it’s vertical rock face; retaining wall; narrow street; row of shops/houses; river; vertical rock face!

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photo by ESR

We stopped to admire a flowering shrub growing out of the retaining wall when Murat said ‘Hey, look at this!’ and there they were – Blue Slugs – adults and juveniles! So much for the intrepid search for an elusive species that shouldn’t be there. Considering how easily these creatures were spotted it is astonishing that they have never been previously recorded outside of their range in the Carpathians from southern Poland to Romania!

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Carpathian Blue Slug – Bielzia coerulans adult (top) and juvenile (below) isn’t the colour wonderful?

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Later, we tracked down the route that Natalie had taken when she saw that first ‘lump of chewing gum’. The walk to Tar Deresi Şelalesi (waterfall) is a very pleasurable one and the waterfall itself is spectacular.

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aren’t they amazing!

Natalie had said that she saw her slug near to the waterfall and right on cue two were spotted and photographed. We saw a couple more near some rubbish bins in Çamlıhemşim but although we spent time searching other likely and unlikely places that was the extent of our finds. We spent the rest of our time exploring winding back roads, soaking in hot springs, eating fine village and roadside food and enjoying being together in a still beautiful part of Turkey.

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J and me and E
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this was for the dog (seriously) – it tasted great! (pic by ESR)

finally, something completely different

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Alan in Okçular

Iran Life – What A Relief

Persia and Persepolis – two sides of the same coin. You cannot think of one without the other! (this post has been saved from Archers and first appeared in June 2014)

shahJ was there in autumn of 1978, just a few months before the revolution that overthrew the despotic regime of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his queen, Farah Diba. In 1971 Persepolis was used as a backdrop for the celebrations of the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great. Whilst most Iranians lived in poverty, crushed under the heels of the hated, US-trained, SAVAK  secret police, the Pahlavis squandered an estimated $200,000,000 (at 1971 values) on this recreation of the grandeur of a once-great empire. J, was performing at a festival organised by the Shah’s sister and, I hasten to add, was not paid what I consider she is worth and neither did she get a sip of the Château Lafite Rothschild 1945 champers that had flowed so freely seven years earlier! She has wanted to go back ever since.

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1971 – the ‘tent city’ created around the ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’ theme

Anyway, let’s get back to the touristy bit. Persepolis, I have to say, is a pretty impressive place. If one has just a modicum of imagination it is impossible not to gasp at the size and grandeur of this monument to ancient imperial might.

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an aide to a modicum of imagination

There is a mass of information and photos available online so I’m going to concentrate on one particular angle that blew me away – the staggeringly detailed relief work that gave a real insight into the scale and complexity of the empire. That these amazing monuments to the power and reach of Cyrus and the skill and artistry of the masons have survived in such pristine condition is a miracle. If you plan to visit Iran before you die, and you should (visit, that is), then Persepolis is a must.

J and I had the benefit of having a young archaeology student by the name of Vahil as our guide – he was wonderfully enthusiastic, very knowledgeable about his subject and good looking to boot, or so J informed me.

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J and guide Vahil with the iconic monumental entrance behind
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the ‘Gate Of All Lands’
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the Armenian delegation – prominent partners of the Persians
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Median (military) nobleman
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astonishing detail from a scabbard
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J pointing out the Ethiopian delegation bearing gifts

The reliefs you are looking at are carved into a type of black basalt rock that is incredibly hard – I imagine it is difficult to work but has resulted in a durability that has sustained them for 2500 years. UNESCO World Heritage status ‘rules’ forbid anything other than brushing away the dirt of centuries. There are, however, one or two places where part of the carving has been polished back to how it would have looked in Cyrus’ time. The Armenian delegation above is an example.

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the iconic lion attacking a bull theme that appears in many places
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old Persian cuneiform script
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Cyrus’ elite troops, the Immortals
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finally, a few kilometres away lie the Tombs of the Kings (WikiCommons)

So, ‘What a relief’ I hear you say, ‘that’s the end of that!’

Alan in Okçular