Impressions of Iran

Impressions of Iran
Persian culture surviving the Islamic Revolution.

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During the last fortnight of April 2018 a group of mainly Civic Trust members toured Central Iran, a journey planned by Christine Russell. Christine was not allowed a visa – presumably as it was feared a retired Member of Parliament might trigger the Second Constitutional Revolution. Nothing daunted, the group set off – we women putting on hijab, (scarves over cover-up tunics and trousers), as we landed in Tehran.

There will be an illustrated talk tracing our Iranian journey through the timelines of iranian history in BLP on Friday 27th July. So this article outlines what we saw on our visit – archaeology and architecture, Paradise gardens and poets, Iran under the Ayatollahs.

As President Macron appreciates, while President Trump does not, the history of civilisation in Iran covers 6000 years. Our first stay in Tehran allowed us to visit the Bastan Museum with exhibits from the Elam civilization, 3300 to 550 BC – a time of ziggurats, animal statues and decorated pottery, some inscribed with cuneiform script.

From 550 BC the conquests of the Achaemenid rulers Cyrus and Darius formed the First Persian Empire – the largest the world had ever seen. The museum holds the original bas-reliefs from the Royal Palace at Persepolis, showing ambassadors coming to give homage at the Zoroastrian feast of Nou Ruz.

The Shah of Persia in 1971 had a huge edifice built in Tehran – the Azari Tower – to commemorate 2,500 years of Iran monarchies. He was then toppled in 1979 by the return of Ayatollah Khomeini bringing in the Islamic Revolutionary Government. Although religious laws are strictly enforced – traffic laws including zebra crossings are ignored and crossing the road to get to the Tower – to get anywhere – was a hazard.

While in Tehran we visited the Carpet Museum set up by the Shah’s Queen, Farah Diba, with a replica of the Pazyryk rug, the world’s earliest carpet dated from C5 BC and found wrapped around the body of the Scythian prince in the Siberian permafrost in the 1940s. The skill of the carpet making and the horse design also found in the bas reliefs in Persepolis allow it to be claimed by the Iranians…..

We also were given a whistle stop tour of the Jewel Museum in the vaults of the Central Bank of Iran. This fabulous collection, including a globe of gold with countries picked out in precious stones and the golden Peacock Throne, is the reserve for the national currency. More bling was experienced at the Golestan palace built in the C19 with impressive mirror work, chandeliers and collections of priceless gifts given to various Iranian rulers.

We next travelled to the railway station, built by a German engineer in 1930 as part of the first Pahlavi Shah’s modernisation programme, where we took the train to Kashan. Unlike the buses – where men sit in the front – women behind a barrier in the back, we could mix freely on the train, and met some charming teenage girls. At Kashan we saw our first – and possibly the most impressive – Paradise Garden, built by Shah Abbas as a private retreat. We were later to see in Darius’ palace Pasargadae the archaeological remains of the earliest known example of the Persian garden The four-fold design with pavilions overlooking stone water courses feeding pools is 1000 years older than its depiction in the Qu’ran. In all we visited five Unesco Heritage Persian Gardens, each very beautiful and each appreciated by the Iranians who love flowers, trees, fountains and nightingales.

At Kashan we stayed in a C19 “traditional house” now a comfortable hotel. Designed to keep cool, even the ground floor with its shaded central patio and pool was below street level with further steps going down to subterranean rooms built over a quanat – underground water channel. Fresh air was brought in from a “badgir” – high wind funnel.

We then travelled to a remote and ancient mountain village called Abyaneh, whose Zoroastrian fire temple, now ruined, dates from C3 BC. Following the Arab conquest in 637, Sunni Islam was generally accepted as the state religion. However, to avoid conversion, some Zoroastrians left Kashan for Abyaneh, today regarded as a “living museum”. The houses are made of ochre coloured clay with wooden balconies and decorated doors. The people speak Middle Persian and wear distinctive costume.

We saw many examples of pre-Islamic buildings being passed off as Islamic to prevent their destruction when the Arabs conquered Iran in 637 AD. Cyrus’ tomb, where we were greeted by a group of schoolgirls, was renamed the Shrine of Solomon’s mother to save it – the engraved stone is still there. Many fire-temples were re-designated as mosques – their towers for burning the sacred flame being altered to minarets.

Another link between a fire temple and a mosque is the dome over the prayer hall made possible by the invention of the squinch, whose arches alter a square chamber to an octagonal base able to bear the weight of the dome. The squinch was first used to support domes in fire temples. The UNESCO – listed Friday Mosque in our next stop Esfahan was first built in the C10 on the site of a fire temple. In the C11 two domes were built of near perfect proportions, each resting on squinches to take the weight.

The glory of Esfahan however is Naqsh – e Jahan square where in C17 Shah Abbas built a public and a private mosque, a royal palace and an imposing gateway entrance to the bazaar, all around a huge assembly and polo ground – the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen. The Shah Mosque is magnificent, each section exquisitely decorated with mosaics, tiles and stalactite mouldings all coming together in a beautiful harmony. Above the main prayer hall is a double dome, the inner dome distributing the structural load to allow a tiled outer dome 54 m high – 14 m higher than the inner one.

Work on the mosque began in 1612 and was painstakingly slow. Shah Abbas grew impatient and ordered that the time-consuming mosaic decoration be replaced by seven colour tiles. However, the tiles have a shorter life-span than mosaic and need to be replaced frequently. We met the craftsmen using a curved segment template of the outer dome to lay the tiles in their pattern before fixing them outside the dome. We stayed in a caravanserai built by Shah Abbas – now a hotel with magnificent gardens with views of the repairs on the dome of the Shah Mosque.

My favourite mosque however was the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfallah, the small private mosque for the women of the harem. The single dome of the prayer hall is decorated with rings of diminishing sized patterns – when hit by a shaft of day light this represents a peacock with comet like feet and an outstretched tail.

Another joy of Esfahan is the Armenian quarter – the most socially relaxed area we visited in Iran. In 1604 Shah Abbas ‘persuaded’ the Armenian community of the border town of Jolfa to move to Esfahan to help with his massive building projects. We visited the 1648 Armenian Cathedral or Vank with its beautiful frescoes of the lives of Christ and the Saints.

And the sadness of Esfahan is the loss of its river – the water being taken off up-stream for industry and new housing developments. Three historic pedestrian bridges cross the dried up river bed and people still come to walk along the river banks, to picnic, to fly kites and to sing under the archways of the central bridge.

From Esfahan we travelled to Na’in, a desert village of adobe clay with a beautifully simple C10 mosque built over a fire temple. Shah Abbas had introduced Shia Islam as the national religion. Here we visited a Hosseinieh – shrine where the story of the martyrdom of the Shia Imam Hossein is re-enacted. A funeral had taken place that morning and the shrine was decked with tulip shaped commemorations to the dead person. We were then greeted warmly by the funeral party and invited to share their tea, cakes and stuffed dates.

From there we visited a caravanserai at Maybod – now a craft centre – and a carpet factory where local women sat chatting as they knotted each colour of wool according to the intricate patterns.

Our next stop was the Towers of Silence near Yazd, wall encircled hill tops where Zoroastrians came to lay their dead to be eaten by vultures – a practice that continued until the 1960s. Zoroastrianism is the earliest religious philosophy that survives to this day. The messages of Zoroaster – or Zarathustra – have been dated to about 1400 BC. Although there are now fewer than100,000 practising Zoroastrians in Iran, New Year / Now Ruz is still the most important Festival for all Iranians – the ceremonies incorporate jumping over fire. At the Zoroastrian Temple in Yazd, we saw the sacred flame kept burning there since 470 AD. Here we met a couple from the nomadic Baluchi people. The wife proudly showed us the hand embroidered traditional dress she wore under her black cloak.

Yazd has a old town of alleyways and traditional mud brick houses with two door knockers – one for men to use, the other for women. And a skyline of baghirs – wind towers. The highest badgir in Iran is in the beautifully decorated pavilion of the large UNESCO-listed Paradise Garden in Yazd. We stood under this badgir and were nearly blown over by its blast of cold air. This garden is a favourite place for local Iranians – with traditional costumes from the time of Shah Abbas for hire for photo opportunities.

We next stayed in Shiraz – a centre for wine-making from the C9 to C19. In the C13 and C14 Shiraz was the home of outstanding poets including Sa’di (1213 – 1292) and Ha’fez (circa 1315 – 1390) both of whose shrines we visited. Iranians know many of their poems by heart – as we saw when at Ha’fez’ shrine Sohrab our guide read some of his poems aloud in Farsi – with Val reading the English translation. People gathered around us, mouthing the words along with Sohrab.

“Wine in my glass and roses in my arms – my lover near me
On such a day the world’s great king would be my slave and fear me” (Ha’fez)

The most charming mosque we visited was in Shiraz – the Nasir el Molk mosque, built in the C19. The tiles are painted with landscapes in multi colours including, unusually, a rose pink. Stained glass windows fill one columned prayer hall with multi-coloured light. Girls in white chadors kneel – perhaps to pray – but certainly to be photographed.

Shiraz also helped me understand the Iranian culture better. Above the gateway of its C18 fort is a huge tiled panel depicting a story of hero and demon from the Shahmaneh – or Book of Kings – written in Farsi by the poet Ferdosi, around 1000 AD. This epic poem reflects Iran’s history, cultural values, its ancient religion (Zoroastrianism), and its profound sense of nationhood. The Shahmaneh is credited with ensuring that Iranians are aware of their pre-Islamic culture and that Farsi (and not Arabic) remains the national language.

More poetry in the beautiful Eram Gardens built around 1823 where we played hunt the nightingales, iconic birds for Iranians and their poets.

“Once more the banished lovelorn nightingale will bring
His passion to the rose and there sublimely sing” ( Ha’fez)

In the quieter parts, in shady shrubberies of pomegranate bushes, we did hear the nightingales sing.

Persepolis is near Shiraz and was one of the highlights of our visit. On the approach to the site we saw women dancing to drum beats – and then heard the nightingale again. Persepolis was built on a man made platform built on the valley floor. Ascending by a grand stairway, visitors enter beneath the imposing Gate of All Nations and progress again up steps to the Apadana Palace. Bas-reliefs on the staircases depict important Medes and Persians together with clearly distinguishable ambassadors from the 23 tribes and peoples of the vast Empire. They came to Persepolis to celebrate Now Ruz – the New Year Festival of the Zoroastrians, held at the Spring Equinox.

The Achaemenid empire came to an end when Persepolis together with its archives was destroyed in 330 BC by Alexander the Macedonian – definitely not called the Great by Iranians. The ruins of the site were then covered by wind-blown sand, to be rediscovered and excavated in the 1930s. Persepolis was almost destroyed again after the Islamic Revolution when in 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini’s right hand man Sadegh Khalkhali and his “band of thugs” arrived to annihilate the site. He was only stopped by local residents and clergy lying in the road in front of the bulldozers.

And here is the dilemma. The most friendly and welcoming people I, and others in the group, have ever encountered, are ruled by the religious element of a government where orthodoxy is more important than caring for the population, for their culture, for nature and for the environment. It is very sad to see the posters of children and teenagers who were sent to fight in the Iran – Iraq wars and are hailed as martyrs. In spite of images not being allowed in Islam, pictures of the two Ayatollahs stare out inside the mosque courtyards. In over 2,500 years the Iranian people have survived a range of rulers and have maintained their culture and their love of gardens, fountains and nightingales. May they come safely through this repressive regime.

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