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:

tea-house1
Azadegan Tea House, this amazing place is down a back-street in Esfahan

tea-house2

tea1
J with her châi . . in the park . .
tea2
. . in a ‘normal’ châihâne . .
tea3
. . in a ‘posh’ châihâne . .

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

tea-house-women-smokers
(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’!

vank-cathederal
Vank Cathedral courtyard
Vank_Cathedral_Armenian_Quarter_Esfahan
Armenian Orthodox street procession – Isfahan
vank1
from the amazing, iconic interior

vank2

vank3
J and guide Feraidoon discuss the merits

vank4

vank5

vank6

vank7

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

vank8
edict of Shah Sulaiman not to interfere in religious and matrimonial affairs of Armenians
vank9
Persia’s first printing press
vank10
early printed bible
vank11
illuminated bible
vank12
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.

golestan-palace

golestanpalace2
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!

Isfa1

Isfa2

Isfa3
by way of variety, a painted marquetry ceiling
Isfa4
we’re lucky if they paint the concrete where I come from

Isfa5

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

Isfa6

Isfa7
a bit more painting and marquetry
Isfa8
I feel myself slipping under
Isfa9
so a quick whiff of smelling-salts
Isfa10
even the famous bridge
Isfa11
. . our hotel room (free-hand, not stencil)

Isfa12

local restaurant – again, we are not talking transfers

Isfa13

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

Isfa14

. . 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)

iran1
these might give you a better feel for it

iran2

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!

iran3
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.

iran4

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.

iran5

iran6
the restored Sufi shrine – before and after (or the other way round)

iran7

iran8

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

iran9
yellow tulip
iran10
red tulip
iran11
white tulip

iran12

iran13
fritillaria
iran14
forest rangers arrive for tea
iran15
Scarce Swallowtail
iran16
white violet
iran17
violet violets
iran18
Anemone blanda
iran19
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!

iran20
It’s easy to find, just look out for the Little Chef!

iran21

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.

morality-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!

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.

IMG_2
‘Children of the Light’ (luminescent)
IMG_3
‘Mobile’

IMG_4

IMG_5
‘Cut Out’

IMG_6

IMG_7
the black and white piece of ‘art’ now hangs in our home in Okçular

IMG_8

IMG_9
‘. . it’s downstairs, second on the right’

IMG_10

IMG_11
critically endangered Persian Leopard – protected and hunted to death – a guardian faces execution for killing an armed poacher!
IMG_12
‘Indoctrination’ strobes and white noise

IMG_13

IMG_14
this is not up there – it’s down here
IMG_15
‘Gotcha!’
IMG_16
teaching the guys ‘pip-squeak’

IMG_17

IMG_18

IMG_19

IMG_20
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

Iran Life – Zein-o-din Caravanserai

In the blisteringly hot months from early June to the end of August, J and I tend to hibernate. We emerge early to get any jobs done in the relative cool before the sun melts over the mountains and then vanish back indoors like rats down a drainpipe!

Such behaviour is not conducive to having anything to blog about apart from the grim state of the world, a review of ‘The Untold History Of The United States’ or how difficult the last Sodutoo puzzle was! Thank goodness for our Iran trip – it means I have a seemingly bottomless pit of tales to bore you with for the next few weeks!

(rescued from Archers and first posted July 2014)

Scheherazade.tifWhen we left Kerman we headed north west in the direction of Yazd, this is the main highway from the great port at Bandar Abbas to Tehran and it was here that we were gob-smacked to see a Tesco artic truck in full company colours! Anyway, a two day camel ride, or about 60 kms out of Yazd, set back from the road is a place right out of the tales of Scheherazade’s (or Shahrzãd in Persian) Thousand and One Nights.

Our destination for one night was the beautifully restored Zein-o-din Cararvanserai. Taken over by an extended family of Iranian Baluchis it is a testament to sensitivity and a commitment to ‘doing it right’. Such is the quality and authenticity of their ‘resurrection’ that the caravanserai was granted a UNESCO award in 2005. Restoration took more than three years and some 13,000 pumice stones were used to scour centuries of grime from the walls and arched roof. The building has been returned to near original condition.

zin1

zin2

There it sits, great walls of adobe blending in with the surrounding desert; its mighty doors capable of providing security for the countless merchants and their camel trains that once trekked the route now polluted by the convoys of trucks that thunder by a few hundred metres away.

Walk inside and you are greeted warmly by the staff . . and by the loudness of silence! A refuge then and a refuge now!

zin3
the sound of silence

zin4

The accommodation is interesting – arrive early enough and you could have a room leading directly off the circular, central courtyard. Otherwise, like J and me, you will be led into the great curved chamber that once housed the trains of animals and merchandise. Here there are raised and curtained platforms that offer total visual privacy and good comfort. What they don’t offer is freedom from the unbelievably bad mannered who roll back late at night bellowing and shouting at each other – if you stay here, and I really do recommend it, then you could use some earplugs just in case!

zin5

zin6

Toilet and shower facilities are communal but very modern and sparkling clean. The restaurant is a delight of exotic proportions and excellent regional food which also comes in exotic proportions! Each evening the young lads of the family doff their waitering and receptioning mode, step into their Baluchi warrior mode and put on a show of traditional martial dance. It is an inspiring exhibition of the battle training folk dances that speaks volumes about the fearsome reputation of the Baluch who are spread across southern Iran and Pakistan.

zin7
Baluch war dance

Back to a little more history of the place – it was built more than 400 years ago and was part of a network of 999 such hostels built on the orders of Shah Abbas I to promote trade. One of only two circular caravanserais (the other is near Esfahan and is largely destroyed) Zein-o-din now stands as a unique, living monument to the importance of the fabled Silk Road trade route.

At dawn and dusk, deserts are transformed into things of intense beauty as light and shadow, colours and hues swirl and blend – the effects are often truly magical. These are times to make your way to the roof of the caravanserai, face towards the mountains and drink in the intoxicating mix.

zin8
Firebird

zin9

zin10

Iran’s tourism is beginning to boom, if you intend to visit the unique Zein-o-din Caravanserai, you would do well to book in good time.

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.

tent-city1
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.

Art-Reconstruction-of-Persepolis-8
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.

pers1
J and guide Vahil with the iconic monumental entrance behind
pers2
the ‘Gate Of All Lands’
pers3
the Armenian delegation – prominent partners of the Persians
pers4
Median (military) nobleman
pers5
astonishing detail from a scabbard
pers6
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.

pers7
the iconic lion attacking a bull theme that appears in many places
pers8
old Persian cuneiform script
pers9
Cyrus’ elite troops, the Immortals
kings-tombs-persepolis
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