According to an old rhyme repeated by several of my hosts today, "Esfahan is half the world." I now have a better idea of where the saying comes from: this city is incredible, with more than enough architectural wonder and cultural flavor to spare the rest of the country. Arriving on a charter plane this morning, we were greeted by red carpet as well as small children, colorfully dressed and smiling, holding flowers for their guests. Without wasting too much time, we loaded onto the bus for another speedy session of sightseeing.
Historically speaking, Esfahan is just an infant in comparison to the more ancient cities of Persia. It was largely developed by Shah Abbas in the 16th century, who went to great lengths to beautify the city. Most of the mosques, palaces, gardens, and bridges owe themselves to him and the following century of Saffavid rule.
We began with a visit to the grounds of an old Armenian Christian church. Supposedly, Shah Abbas relocated the Armenians to Esfahan so they could contribute as artisans on city projects. In the attached museum were some dusty relics, ancient Bibles, and some morbid memorabilia from the Armenian genocide in Turkey.
About a dozen bridges span the Zayandeh River that runs through the city, half of them from medieval times. My favorite was the Pol-e Si-o-Seh, or Bridge of 33 Arches. Only having a few minutes to check it out in the afternoon, I returned late that night to find the bridge illuminated and still humming with pedestrian traffic, its waterside teahouses and arched walkways filled with mostly young people just there to hang out.
We arrived at the Chehel Sotun Palace, a giant reception hall surrounded by manicured gardens, only an hour before sunset. Built by Abbas II, its thin wooden pillars were at least ten meters tall, supporting a giant carved wooden roof covered in exotic colorful frescoes, a combination that made it appear to belong much further to the east. But as I walked through the gardens I realized my sunlight would be gone very soon and I had yet to reach the main attraction: Imam Square. Once again I escaped the group and made it on foot to the opening of the giant complex.
The brilliant blue tile of Imam Mosque was still reflecting the warm light of the sunset as I approached the entrance to the mosque. As impressive as its bright colors was its sheer immensity, the inside roof hovering 40 meters above the ground. As I wandered alone, several people approached to ask the perennial question sequence of my visit to Iran: 1) Where are you from? 2) How do you find Iran? 3) What do Americans think of Iran? In my short experience, the answer to the first question usually receives a look of surprise, the second answer receives a warm smile, and the third sometimes gets a laugh (if I say that some of my friends actually fear for my life here). Everyone has seemed somewhat excited to speak with an American kid. Among the questioners tonight was a crew from Iran TV; Alireza, one of my new Esfahani friends, recognized the TV host and got pretty excited to see her in the flesh: "She's famous," he giggled. She interviewed me in front of the fountains in the dead center of Imam Square. And of course, before asking a few other questions, she followed the above sequence. Alireza showed me around the bazaar, which was as colorful as any I've seen, its arching vaulted roofs disappearing into the distance ahead. He bought me a strange yogurt with a bizarre consistency, a treat that is supposedly famous in Esfahan. He insisted it was delicious as I pretended to agree. We talked about our jobs, homes, families, and dreams, and as in almost all of my more extensive conversations here, we concluded that it sucks that our countries are so much at odds politically. And again, as in most of my conversations here, Alireza left me with the distinct impression that it is politics and governments alone that have caused any rift between us and, despite coming from a conservative home, even by Iranian standards, he sincerely wants to see change in his own country. As far as my country is concerned, he's hopeful: "Obama!" he laughed, "Yes we can!"
I made it back to the hotel before midnight to try and connect to the internet for a few minutes before yet another abbreviated sleep. The program had said our departure was at 8:00am, but I'm guessing they just didn't have the heart to tell us until tonight that it's actually 4:30am. All I know about tomorrow is that I fly back to Tehran--not sure what I'll do after that, or even where I'll sleep. The important thing is that I do sleep, at least for four hours.
Tomorrow in Tehran.