This Sort of Thing...


The Man in the Iran Mosque



Part 9 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

Woken by the muezzin’s call, I leapt from my bed with all the vitality of a goitered gazelle from the Karakal Desert. Through the hotel room window, early but bright sunlight streamed in, dotting the walls and ceiling with small flecks of colour reflected from the debris of bottles that littered the floor from the previous night’s non-alcoholic binge. Snuffled snores in a Kidderminster accent reverberated from beneath a duvet covering a bed at the other side of the tastefully furnished chamber. From my wardrobe I made a practical selection and dressed in clothes that would be cool enough to resist the fierce heat of the Persian climate but of sufficient fabric to cover my flesh in accordance with the Sharia law that ruled the land. Then, two steps at a time, I climbed the almost regal winding staircase to the hotel’s rooftop restaurant to have breakfast. With a glass of sweet black tea and a plate containing my own body weight in naan, sheep cheese, apricots and mushy dates waiting for me at my table, I paused to take in the view of a waking metropolis as it lay before me in all directions, inviting me in. For a minute I became Frank Sinatra as I crooned ‘My kind of town, Isfahan is.’ This was going to be a great day in an exciting Middle Eastern city and I would be spending exactly none of it sitting on a bus. The X Travels trip notes even promised some free time to spend alone.

Chewing the cud with Volvo Vihad the chauffeur, it came to light that he shared my optimism in respect of the hours that lay ahead of him. Making full use of my best Farsi (all seven words), some hand gestures and the medium of dance, I asked him what plans he had for his rest day. Which mosques would he be visiting? I may have misunderstood him but the impression I got from his facial expression was that he was sick to the back teeth of magnificent ornately tiled places of worship and he had made arrangements to sit in a bar with his mates, knocking back the alcohol-free beer like it was water and watching football on television; Kaseef Leeds (meaning ‘Dirty Leeds’), I would imagine.

As our walking tour of Isfahan began, a light wind laden with hot dust from the desert brushed our faces making us feel like we were being rubbed down with a sheet of wet and dry sandpaper and suddenly we yearned for the comfort of our air conditioned tour bus. Mahtab said that if we were going to moan all day she would send us back to our rooms with some homework to do.  

Our first point of interest was the Chehel Sotoun Palace, built as a pleasure pavilion and reception hall, it dated back to 1614, though what we saw was what had been rebuilt after a fire in 1706. Mahtab told us what a nasty piece of work Shah Abbas the Great had been, which wasn’t really evident from the vistas in the magnificent frescoes that adorned the walls of his palace as they depicted scenes mostly of parties and picnics. Under his leadership, apparently, Persia introduced the Ghilman System where thousands of Georgian and Armenian slave-soldiers were forced into the army to brutally repel Ottoman and Uzbek invaders who had been a threat to the stability of the country. The inclusion of Turkish dancing girls dressed only in their vests and knickers in the later frescoes suggested that Shah Abbas II (son of Shah Abbas the Great) had an even more avant-garde taste in art and entertainment.

Walking away from this stunning building, through its gardens beautifully appointed with rose beds and ornamental pools, Mahtab stopped us and made us turn around to look back at the royal palace we had just left. She told us we should remember that no matter where we travelled in the world, and no matter what the colour, creed or roots of the people we met, there was one thing that we all had in common. And that thing was the construction workers’ scaffolding that clung periodically to our most attractive public and historic buildings. I wouldn’t have said that the framework of rusty metal tubing had affected my enjoyment of the visit to the palace but it certainly spoilt my photographs.   

Without being rude or aggressive, I usually swerve around groups of schoolchildren when I see them on school trips. However, a joyous moment of this grown-ups’ trip of ours was meeting an exaltation of Isfahani kids in a pedestrianised stretch of the ancient tree-lined Chahar Bagh Boulevard. We had suddenly been inundated with hundreds of beaming little brown-eyed faces all wanting to practice their English and have their photographs taken with us. One little girl, who said she was seven years old, asked me in very good English if I could speak Farsi because she didn’t speak very good English. She said her name was Afsoon, which apparently means ‘charm’ or ‘spell’, except in Scotland where it’s a word that people with a fondness for beer might say in their pubs as they order what they intend to be their final pint. I let her hold my camera and showed her how to take some photographs of her excited friends, causing her schoolteacher to grin as much as she did herself. But then all 683 children in the class wanted to do a photo shoot, and there was education to be getting on with for both parties, so we sadly had to bring the whole thing to an end. Looking around me it seemed that every member of our group had adopted at least a dozen Iranian youngsters. ‘Can we keep this one?’ I heard Oxford Jo plead to her Oxford mother.

Such lovely, polite children had made quite an impression on me, as children in foreign countries often did. When returning from a trip I usually take some sort of presents back for my own kids. Sometimes it’s difficult to decide what to get them. Perhaps arriving home with some more kids might have been a good idea, especially as the original ones were getting a bit big and hairy.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, that stood halfway along the eastern side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square, was built between 1602 and 1619, not as congregational religious sanctuary but as a private place for that old rascal, Shah Abbas the Great to praise his god. The building was beautiful but I knew that it would be even before I stepped inside it. It would have been wrong to describe it as exceptionally beautiful because it’s beauty was just typical of all very old mosques in Iran.

Despite its name, Shah Mosque at the southern end of the square was built for the riffraff rather than the Shah. It was equally lovely but spectacularly large, with a portal built at a bit of an angle to the main mosque so as to fit in with the design of the rest of the square. So although the portal was built to face the square, the mosque was oriented towards Mecca. I wondered which way the mosques that were actually in Mecca were oriented, especially those situated right in the middle of the city. Mahtab rolled her eyes and suggested that I ask X Travels if they’d put on a Saudi Arabia trip just for me.

The usual mosaics and countless millions of ornate tiles, the perfumed garden of roses with ornamental pools, the shady arched places for contemplation and the steady flow of worshippers were all there but what made this place unique was the peacock feature on the inside of the qubba (dome). Persians of old believed that peacocks represented the diversity of the world, the colours in their tails represented all the colours of nature and their feathers symbolized the rays of the sun which brought light and life. At a certain time of the day, as the sun shone through a small hole in the centre of the dome in the Shah Mosque, it formed a pattern of light in the shape of a peacock’s tail feathers on the tiled ceiling. Nobody knew whether or not this had been a deliberate part of the design of the mosque but as we gazed up to watch its brief appearance I was so entranced I didn’t care whose idea it had been.

What a Shah Abbas the Great day this was turning out to be, and it continued along that theme as we climbed the steps to the elevated terrace of the sixteenth century Ali Qapu Palace (Ali Qapu meaning ‘Gate of the King of Kings’). Despite the construction scaffolding that disappointingly hugged sections of the Shah Mosque, the views across the square and in the opposite direction towards the Zagros Mountains were incredible. More steep, winding stairs took us up to the top floor music room where there were no views, or music, but a gorgeous ceiling. It wasn’t the sort of place I could comfortably live but I had a strange feeling of not wanting to leave.

Isfahan was a fascinating city but even when I thought that the wonders of our trip had peaked I was introduced to a plate of chicken with plums and sultana rice at the Bastani restaurant located very near to the Shah Mosque. This turned out to be a mistake as after I had finished eating I didn’t feel that I’d be able to move again for several hours. But in the face of great indigestion I showed tremendous courage and eased myself out of the mother of all comfortable chairs in congenial surroundings.

With the morning’s historical building tally having reached mosques 2 palaces 2, Mahtab said that because we had been very well behaved, we could have the rest of the day off. She was going back to her hotel room because she’d been breaking in a new pair of shoes and her corns were killing her. I enjoyed the company of my X Travels friends but when I’m in foreign places I absolutely love spending a bit of time on my own, so I sneaked away before anybody was able to ask if they could come with me.

To celebrate my newfound freedom, I returned to Chahar Bagh Boulevard where I had mingled with crowds earlier in the day. But this historical avenue with a name meaning ‘four gardens’, constructed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a place I wanted to visit alone. Some called it the Champs-Élysées of Isfahan and I could see why. I found a little café and sat at a table in the cool shade beneath tall cypresses.

A waiter brought me a cold beer. It was alcohol-free kiwi fruit beer… my favourite! He brought me a bowl of pistachios too before asking if I had ever met Margaret Thatcher and if he could have his photograph taken with me.


ABC 097


Photograph: My favourite minaret in Isfahan, complete with a bit of mosque portal and a hooded rook in flight.


Link to Part 10:

Tea with the Coppersmith



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