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)
He planted them in his home province of Lahijan near the Caspian Sea where the climate and soil proved perfect for Camellia sinensisand 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:
Finally, another view from the Azadegan Tea House of ‘sisters doing it for themselves’
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’!
There is also a superb, little museum that chronicles the Armenian’s way of life and contributions to their adoptive country.
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.
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!
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
local restaurant – again, we are not talking transfers
in the end, we were glad to jump a cable-car, head for the mountains and photograph . .
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)
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!
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.
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.
You can read about the desert bit of our stay here, now for some mountains and flowers – but mostly flowers!
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!
Sometimes, ‘Nice!‘ is so much nicer than ‘Amazing!’ or ‘Fantastic!’
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)
Enthusiastic 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.
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!
It’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.
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
It’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!
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!
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.
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.
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)
J 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.
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.
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.
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.
So, ‘What a relief’ I hear you say, ‘that’s the end of that!’
This is a story that epitomises why J and I avoid group travel and prefer to wander off from any designated path or route – why exploring ‘off the beaten track’ is so much fun and far more enriching than following the person with the coloured flag or umbrella or t-shirt around the same old tired touristic sites!
As I posted earlier, the flight to Mashad near the eastern border was a real disappointment. The 120km road trip to Neishabour in Khorassan-Razavi Province to the tomb and shrine of the great Omer Kayham and an adjacent shrine to yet another pious nonentity was a real non-event and all we wanted to do was get away from the place. Our guide was deeply concerned that this part of our tour was such a disappointment – ‘What can I do to make it better?’ I’d vaguely remembered a sign along the road that pointed off to a ‘wooden mosque’ – let’s go there I said. It took a bit of driving around in circles, but eventually we found the road and drove the 10km or so to the site.
It was a delight, especially after all the past (and still to come) disappointment surrounding Mashad. Named Choubin Village (choubin means wooden), the place is a large compound full of trees, flowers, running water and bird song – a haven. Scattered around were wooden or adobe constructions – all of them simple, home-spun and all of them a delight to the eye.
The wooden mosque and library, in particular, were a pleasure to be in and explore. The village is the brainchild of an engineer by the name of Mojtahedi and is said to be earthquake-proof. It is certainly constructed using unique principles of web-like lattices. Compared with the wonders of Iranian construction and design; from amazing mosques and religious buildings to fabulous gardens, qanats, wind-towers and adobe palaces, Choubin Village is a very modest, under-stated affair. That said, in many ways, it out-shone many places for its quirkiness and the peaceful atmosphere and beautiful birdsong.
A few shining needles from the disappointing Mashad haystack!
Urgent and important – sometimes there just isn’t enough time (or inclination) to deal with both. To do another ‘Iran Life’ post (urgent – well, sort of) or bog off for a couple of days head-rest (important)? To clean up the workshop after building Gülay’s exercise machine (again, sort of urgent when you consider the state it was in) . .
(rescued from Archers first posted June 2014)
. . or go walk a mountain with a friend, photograph some flowers (even though I forgot my main camera); eat fresh-caught trout in a village restaurant in the mountains; visit an amazing eco-project and generally chill?
Sod the urgent, we said . . let’s do the important!
So, off we went to Burdur which is a rather unlikely place to escape to, even if it is for only a couple of days. Actually, the town and province is now home to a certain ranking bureaucrat of our acquaintance and visiting him is not just a pleasure, it is always an interesting experience. We had often said to ourselves that we really ought to go and explore the ‘other side’ of Burdur lake and the mountains and so it was that with a little ‘official’ guidance we spent the day doing just that.
We started at the Lisinia Project, a private initiative founded by veterinarian Öztürk Sarıca and manned by a team of enthusiastic volunteers. The project aims to resurrect the barren soil of the area and return it to full, organic production. So far they are doing a great job! Using organic foods, herbs, etc they research and demonstrate the links with processed foods and artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides to cancer and other diseases. As a vet, Öztürk also takes in injured and sick animals and birds and treats them, either readying them for release or providing a permanent home. From an over-friendly wild pig to injured raptors to a stork with an artificial leg – from organic herbs and fruits to organic rose essence, you can find it here. We loved the place and we will be going back. Here’s a link to learn more.
From Lisinia we clambered a small, rocky hill overlooking the lake – a chance to blow the cobwebs away, photograph the view and enjoy the relationship between J and our bureaucratic ‘son’.
Then it was off, up the big mountain for a long way on roads that do not appear on maps or Tom-Tom devices! J and I love villages and village people, a fact well known to our host. Eventually, the track ran out at a smallholding cum fish farm cum very basic restaurant – the sort we love – no frills, no fancy waiters trying to be witty and no fancy prices! Salad made from veg pulled from the garden and fried trout that had been looking forward to a future ten minutes earlier! No GMO, no added hormones, no nasty chemicals – trust me, there is no finer meal than that!
We set off for an after-luncheon walk but were rained off by the same storms that flooded parts of Denizli and Aydin, although we only caught the edge of it. So, a lot more tea and coffee was drunk and much talking and dossing about done. Later, we moved back to the city side of the lake and climbed the mountain there. J and our host made it to the top and I got to within a few hundred metres – with so many photos of flowers to be taken, a few hundred metres was not a bad price to pay. Anyway, they used the tracks whilst I was scrambling about in the rough – well, that’s my excuse. A few pics because I know you love this stuff!
Finally, in order to ensure that the important didn’t get in the way of the urgent, we detoured to a certain winery of our knowledge and filled the car with cases of the finest to restock J’s decidedly bare cellar. Now that really does smack of efficiency – combining the urgent and the important with the essential!
Alan in Okçular
ps workshop’s done too – forty winks before the boss breezes in and catches me – fat chance!
Our itinerary included the once magnificent Bam Citadel – but it didn’t seem right somehow. Much of Bam, along with its citadel and thousands of its inhabitants was destroyed in an horrendous earthquake at 5.26am on 26th December 2003 . The quake was only 6.6 on the Richter Scale but was shallow at just 10 kms depth – the devastation was immense and the loss of life almost incomprehensible at 26,271 dead and more than 30.000 injured.
Bam citadel and city are constructed of adobe – the largest mud brick fortress on Earth – they have stood against natural disasters for in excess of two thousand years – yet such was the scale of this catastrophe that the authorities even considered moving the capital city from Tehran which is also subject to earthquakes. The Bam disaster marked a turning point in building and earthquake planning in Iran, and a turning point for us – even though the citadel at Bam has had a lot of restoration, to spend time gawking as a tourist just didn’t seem right. So, we decided to visit the Citadel at Rayen instead.
The Arg-e Rāyen lies in Kerman Province at the base of Mt Hezar which, at 4420 mts, forms an impressive backdrop. The age of the citadel is unknown, it had been inhabited for at least a thousand years until it was abandoned about 150 years ago. Gentle, considerate restoration began in 1996 and the site has since attained UNESCO Heritage status – it is well deserved!
Parts have been restored to full functionality, especially the Governor’s houses, which clearly show the splendour and grandeur that once existed here. Adobe walls at least three metres thick protected the inhabitants from external threats. Great towers provide views over the surrounding countryside and the present day town where many still live in houses of a style that is unchanged over hundreds of years.
Describing the sheer scale of the place is difficult – the intricacy of the adobe brickwork domes and arches is amazing, the durability of straw and mud astonishing and the glow of the place in the sunlight is enchanting. It really is a vision from another world. It may not be quite as grand as Bam but it has been spared the destructive power of the moving earth and it is, in its way, just as impressive.
Picking out a few photos from the masses taken was never going to be easy – here is a feeling for this amazing place:
I have not found it easy to convey the sheer size and majesty of Rayen Citadel, it is an amazing place. The balance between restoration and preservation can be a very fine line indeed – Rayen has succeeded wonderfully in this regard. It is well deserving of its UNESCO Heritage recognition and should be on your itinerary when you get around to visiting the ancient lands of Persia.