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  • Shelley Dark

#13 Isfahan

Must tell you a funny Persian saying that our guide Ali told us yesterday:

'Cash vinegar is better than credit halva.' True in any language, but it gives it a funny local twist...

Warm pancakes with lemon syrup and thick cream this morning for breakfast. Then I was ready for anything!

The first visit of the day was to the biggest mosque in Iran, the Jameh or Great Mosque. It really is very big! Begun in 771AD, it's been renovated and added to right up until the present day and was rebuilt after a fire in the twelfth century. It's still in use as a functioning mosque but is also a popular tourist destination showcasing as it does so many different forms of Islamic architecture. This photo is of one of four iwans (a rectangular hall or space with walls on three sides and the other side open), one in the middle of each of the four sides of the central courtyard.

Ohhhhh those ceilings.

The holes in the domes make wonderful photos.

I never tire of looking at this exquisite brickwork - this is in the really old part of the mosque.

Marble carving in a strictly geometric Islamic pattern.

I love the wonderful calligraphy carving as well into the marble, with its patina of age. Such a cold hard stone to achieve such soft flowing lines. Note the star motif at the top - that's another feature of Islamic design.

A star pattern again.

Tile patterns in geometric design too, on the arch, star bursts, under the arch are stars too. I'm not sure of the function of the small towers on top of the walls. The muezzin (caller to prayer) is in the minaret, so surely they didn't have one in each small tower as well? Guard towers? Maybe they're just for decoration. Do you know?

On the minaret, the external brickwork is combined with turquoise and blue tiles designs and detailed woodwork.

I could look at this every day.

Here we are standing looking back inside the building. How exquisite is that muqarna, and the star inspired detail on the arched ceiling???

We had separated to take our own photos. When I spotted Hoda sitting on the ground in a square of light, it was an opportunity to play with shape and form and light as she and Michael have been emphasising. I usually use automatic settings as being the most reliably quick way to get a photo result when we're travelling, but this shot on automatic meant that I could see the details of Hoda's body and head, and into the space behind. So I used manual (ended up stopping it down 2 stops on exposure compensation) to get the shadows really black so that the parts of her in the light are the only visible details. A little photoshopping got rid of another camera and bag on the floor at her feet. Cartier-Bresson eat your heart out. Well maybe not quite.

On our way back to the bus, we passed this shop selling hijabs and chadors.

Watching me admire the dummies was the real deal.

What about this row of old shops? It looks like something out of a movie set in Shanghai.

The road had been totally dug up for a development which must be hard on business.

please click on first photo to bring up a bigger size

These construction workers were toiling in the hot sun and seemed quite flattered to be the centre of so much attention. They were using buckets on spindles to bring dirt up from deep narrow circular holes being dug by hand.

This is the Mardavij Pigeon Tower. When it was built 400 years ago it was well outside outside the city in agricultural land. Farmers and bandits used to live here and it's now an upmarket residential suburb. In the 1500's (the Safavid era) many thousands of these brick pigeon towers were built for fertiliser production all over Iran, with the most beautiful architectural details. The days when just because something was industrial didn't mean it should be ugly. Most are now crumbling.

The eighteen metre high brick and mud tower is shaped like a flower with eight circles joining at an open circle in the middle.

The nests face inwards on to the open circular centre. This one contains fifteen thousand pigeon holes - that's where we get the term for shelves in a desk! Birds can fly in at the top, through entry holes only big enough for a pigeon, as in that small dome above, to prevent birds of prey entering. There were smooth bands on the outside of the building to foil snakes, outward sloping tops, and snake traps (an area of lime to stick to their bodies) to stop them getting inside to eat the pigeons or eggs.

This void also provided light and warmth in winter and the pigeon poo dropped down into the central hole. When it was operational the entrance door was sealed for year, and then it was opened. The guano was removed mainly for fertiliser, but also gunpowder production and leather making. I'm glad it wasn't my job to open it up. Can you imagine?

Isfahan was very famous for its sweet melons, fertilised with pigeon poo.

We had lunch at a modern restaurant with a very pleasant hot soup, then salad, then barbecued meat. Dessert was a gloopy bright yellow ice cream served in a big bowl on the table. It had a very glutinous consistency, and when I saw it being spooned out it reminded me of something I had eaten before. Then I realised it was in Istanbul last year - a white dessert made from chicken. This was one made from sheep's neck.

There is a small Christian community in Isfahan centred a quiet suburb called Jolfa with its lovely Armenian cathedral. It was built with funds contributed by Armenian refugees who first came to Iran with the encouragement of Shah Abbas after 1603. The entire interior has a warm mellow atmosphere, beautifully painted with biblical scenes, the gold gleaming alongside all the colours of the rainbow. At the top the garden of Eden and other biblical stories, at the bottom gruesome torture scenes of Armenians martyred by the Ottomans.

It's as if someone had said, do not leave any surface without decoration.

The local footy team were there on an excursion.

The present cathedral was completed in 1664 AD. The paintings were paid for by an Armenian merchant and were executed by three monks.

My eyes were starting to glaze over just a little at all the gorgeousness. Sometimes you just need to stare at a plain white plaster wall for a while.

please click on the first photo to bring up a larger size

I did enjoy the museum opened in 1905. From left to right: a decree from Shah Abbas, a 19th century belt buckle, the contents of a 17th century amulet with folded prayers in it, an old jewelled crucifix, a 19th century mesh purse and another belt buckle.

An entire gospel handwritten with gold illustration in 1607. Imagine how long it took.

please click on the first photo to bring up a slide show of some of the carpet patterns we saw

A few steps away from the cathdral was a carpet showroom called ‘Armani’ where the owner and his brother explained different carpets. We loved sitting and relaxing in the air-conditioning. We drank tea out of glasses and watched everyone negotiating. The words Persian and carpet just go together don't they? There were some wonderful looking wools and silks but I filled my carpet quota in Turkey last year. It made me laugh when the owner said that many of the carpets sold in Turkey actually come from Iran. Did you know that the circular radiating pattern is called a dome pattern?

Our guide Ali had asked us back to his apartment to meet his wife, 15 year old daughter and one year old son. On our way we stopped for a quick fifteen minute photo opportunity at the Khaju bridge, said to be prettiest of the eleven. It was very cleverly designed as a bridge, a dam, a water measuring device and for pleasurable sitting and strolling. Shah Abbas could sit and watch the water flowing on the odd occasions that it did!

The series of archways on the sides of the bridge are fun to photograph. You could have a lot of fun with people putting hands, feet, heads etc into the frame.

This dear old lady (probably my age) was strolling with a grand-daughter, quite excited to meet Australians and happy to have her photo taken.

Children were running on the dry riverbed with their kites.

A grannie helping a toddler to walk.

Our guide Ali's apartment is on the 4th floor of a security-gated apartment building. It's large modern and airy with two bathrooms and 3 bedrooms. He and his wife have a 15 year old daughter and a baby boy aged 1 who is just standing. His wife was well-educated, dressed in European fashion with no hijab, very welcoming and quite charming. Every time Ali appears the baby shrieks with delight. When we arrived Ali told us we were free to take off our hijabs. That was almost confronting! And almost more trouble than it was worth, but we did. Then we spent ten minutes exclaiming over each other's hair. I thought you'd have long hair! Your hair suits you so much. You look so different without your hijab!!

We were served tea and coffee, nibbles, cake and ice-cream. It was such a kind gesture and we appreciated the hospitality very much. And filling enough that now we don't want dinner.

Then it was on with the hijabs and back to the hotel by 9. I'm going to fall into bed.

After our Hafez quote for the day:

Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.

I bid you shab bekheir my friends......

shelley dark, writer 

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