The Jewel of Persia

According to an old rhyme repeated by several of my hosts today, "Esfahan is half the world." Although an infant compared to the other great cities of Persia, Esfahan was beautified by the Saffavid Shah Abbas in the 16th century, given a plenitude of mosques, palaces, gardens and pretty bridges that remain today.

Arriving on a charter plane this morning, we received a red carpet greeting, complete with small, colorfully dressed children smiling and holding out flowers for their guests. I almost had to pinch myself. Without wasting too much time, we loaded onto the bus for another speedy session of sightseeing.

We began with a visit to the grounds of an old Armenian Christian church. Shah Abbas had 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 loiterers. 

An hour before sunset, we arrived at the Chehel Sotun Palace, a giant reception hall surrounded by manicured gardens built by Abbas II. Its thin wooden pillars are at least ten meters tall, supporting a giant carved wooden roof covered in exotic colorful frescoes, a combination that makes it appear to belong much further to the east. But as I walked through the gardens I realized my sunlight was fast disappearing. I had yet to reach the main attraction: Imam Square. Again I escaped the group and made it on foot to the opening of the giant complex.

When I arrived, panting, at the mosque's grand entrance, the brilliant blue tile of Imam Mosque was still reflecting the warm light of the sunset. 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 most often earned a look of surprise, the answer to the second a warm smile, and the third a laugh at hearing that a few of my friends fear for my life in this country.

All seemed eager to speak with an American. Among the questioners tonight was a crew from Iran TV. Alireza, a new Esfahani friend, recognized the TV host and was excited to see her in the flesh: "She's famous!" 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, 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 famous Esfahani treat. He insisted it was delicious as I nodded in convincing agreement. We talked about 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. Hailing from a conservative home, even by Iranian standards, Alireza expressed his own desire for change within his country, echoing several others I'd spoken with: "Obama!" he laughed, "Yes we can!"

I made it back to the hotel before midnight to try and get a few minutes of internet time before yet another abbreviated sleep. The program had said our departure was at 8:00am, but I'm guessing they simply didn't have the heart to tell us, until tonight, that it's actually 4:30am that we set out for Tehran. Not sure at the moment what comes next, or even where I'll sleep. The important thing is that I do sleep, at least for four hours.

Tomorrow in Tehran.


Nate said...

kef halek? your blog is beautiful. Stefan Kazacos showed it to me today, a faraway treat of travel on my laptop; making me want to instantly be in Esfahan. Safe travels and enjoy the day.


Anthon Jackson said...

kwayis, shukran. thanks Nate - really glad it was interesting to someone. Say hi to Stefan for me.