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Iran Trip Diary: Part 2, Esfahan


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Part 1: TehranPart 2: EsfahanPart 3: YazdPart 4: Shiraz
Sunday 19 October 2008یک شنبه ۲۸ مهر ۱۳۸۷

I checked out of the Hotel Atlas and caught the metro once more to Tehran’s southern bus station. When I arrived, I went to the counter where I’d bought my ticket and asked where the bus would be leaving from. The man came out from behind the counter ... and took me over to the counter of a different bus line, where he exchanged my ticket for one from his rival. I had no idea why, and obtaining an explanation was beyond me; the only possibility I could imagine was that my original choice of carrier had, for some reason, cancelled their own service to Esfahan that day, and the other company had agreed to take their customers for them.

On the road to Esfahan
On the road to Esfahan

When I took my place in the bus, the seat beside me remained empty. The boy who walked down the aisle giving out free juice and snacks for the trip handed me mine, then left the same items on the empty seat. A few minutes later, the driver came to me, asked for my ticket, took it away, and brought back yet another one. The boy returned, glowering at me as if I’d tried to cheat him, and took back the extra provisions. Somehow, when I’d been transferred between the bus companies, my single ticket had turned into a booking for two seats.

Later, an hour or so into the trip, an old man carrying his own huge thermos of tea boarded the bus and took the seat beside me. He dispensed tea to everyone around us, and I had one of my longest conversations in Farsi. Where are you from? What work do you do? How many children do you have? What is your country like? I managed to explain that the landscape around us, and even the weather at this particular time of year, was very similar to Australia’s.

Do you like Iran? Are the people good? I could honestly reply that I liked the country very much: Iran kheyli doust daram. One man who spoke some English added acerbically, “The Iranian people are good, but we have problems with the boss.”

At the bus station in Esfahan, I went with a man in the throng of drivers calling out “Taksi!” only to find that he was actually driving his own private car. Probably unwisely, I didn’t back out and go looking for an official taxi; I later heard from a shop-keeper that several tourists had recently had their luggage stolen that way, though any thief would have been sorely disappointed by my dirty underwear and dog-eared language books. When we arrived at the Hotel Julfa, the driver at first declined to accept any payment — the Iranian custom of ta’arof, where it’s appropriate to keep insisting nonetheless — but when I offered him a sum that was much more than proportional to the metered fare I’d paid for the long trip into Tehran from the international airport, he was offended and I had to increase it.

In the hotel restaurant I scanned the menu and found that they were offering vegetable kebabs, but when I tried to order this they turned out to be a mirage: unavailable. Iran would be a paradise for a vegetarian with access to their own kitchen; there are small shops everywhere selling every kind of cheap, fresh provisions you could possibly need — every legume, every vegetable, every spice. For a vegetarian traveller living in hotels and eating out, though, it’s an easy place to lose weight. In Tehran I hadn’t found a single restaurant that actually served a vegetarian meal, and it looked as if Esfahan wasn’t going to be any better.

My room was comfortable, but it wasn’t easy to get to sleep: the window looked out on an intersection without a traffic light, which meant a constant beeping of horns until long after midnight.

Monday 20 October 2008دو شنبه ۲۹ مهر ۱۳۸۷
Zayandeh Riverbank, Esfahan
Zayandeh Riverbank, Esfahan

The city of Esfahan is divided by the Zayandeh River; the district of Julfa, where I was staying, lies to the river’s south, while the commercial and historical centre is on the north side.

I managed to get disoriented leaving the hotel and walk south for half an hour, until it was finally clear that I was never going to hit the river; I retraced my steps and headed north. Between my hotel and the river I passed some kind of militia compound; the armed sentry at the entrance was one of the few people I saw with a gun for the duration of my trip. (In recent months, in mid-2009, the situation on the streets has been very different.)

The Zayandeh River is extraordinarily beautiful, with elaborate gardens along the banks and a multitude of bridges, ancient and modern. The Si-o-seh Bridge was built around 1600 (si-o-seh means thirty-three; there are thirty-three arches).

Si-o-seh Bridge, Esfahan
Si-o-seh Bridge, Esfahan

In the city centre, I tried to reconfirm my ticket home with Iran Air; the peculiar default being that — despite having paid for it in full — a failure to explicitly reconfirm would lead to the booking being cancelled and the fare forfeited. But yet again this turned out to be something where my passport was needed for ID purposes; I’d have to extract it from the hotel reception and try again.

For lunch I bought a bowl of fereni, a sweet made from rice, flour and sugar — not the healthiest of meals, but one of the few filling things I could find without meat in it. Then I walked up to Imam Square, the site of two great mosques.

While I’d barely seen another Westerner in Tehran, Esfahan is the hub of all the tourist trails, and Imam Square and the shops that surround it is Tourism Central. Walking around the square I was followed by a carpet seller, speaking English, who persisted in inviting me into his shop until I explained that I had neither the money nor the wish to purchase anything so grand. A few minutes later, a young man approached me and asked if he could talk to me for a while to practise his English. At first I thought he was selling something too, but that turned out not to be the case; he really did just want to polish his language skills.

Khaju Bridge, Esfahan, at night
Khaju Bridge, Esfahan, at night

His English was already good enough to pass for a native speaker; he found my Australian accent hard to follow at times, though, having learnt his own pronunciation from American movies.

He loathed the current Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but was resigned to his likely re-election the next year by whatever means that took. He was keen to hear about Iran’s image abroad, and wanted someone to explain what George Bush’s statement about “the Axis of Evil” could possibly mean. After struggling with the concept for several minutes, we concluded that it didn’t mean anything at all.

We ended up wandering around the city, talking, for five or six hours, until the lights came on in the bridges over the Zayandeh River. My generous host was one of the most candidly racist people I’ve ever met, telling me flat out that Arabs, Afghanis and black people were “wild”, but he was very keen for Barack Obama to win the upcoming US elections and introduce some sanity into American foreign policy. He had relatives living in Canada, and hoped to get a student visa to go there one day.

Tuesday 21 October 2008سه شنبه ۳۰ مهر ۱۳۸۷

I spent the next morning on logistics — reconfirming my ticket home, changing money — and buying some souvenirs: no carpets, but some beautiful lacquered boxes in a style known as khatam. The shop-keeper who sold me the boxes invited me to dwell on the fact that the bazaar I was standing in had existed for longer than Australia had been settled by the British.

Khaju Bridge, Esfahan
Khaju Bridge, Esfahan

Finding vegetarian food was still a struggle; I was filling up on pistachio nuts and banana milkshakes. But at least I could finally navigate from my hotel to the centre of Esfahan without getting lost. I’d discovered a disconcerting feature of some of the maps in my guide book: their distance scale was marked in kilometres ... but unless my usual walking pace really had slowed by more than fifty percent from sheer hunger, these “kilometres” were actually miles. It was as if, to make the maps metric, they’d just renamed the units without bothering to change the distances.

In the afternoon I walked along the river, taking in all the bridges, going as far as the Shahrestan Bridge, which dates from the 12th century.

Shahrestan Bridge, Esfahan
Shahrestan Bridge, Esfahan

Walking back along the riverbank at dusk, I kept having to avert my gaze from couples lying on the grass — nothing too shocking was going on, but I’m sure they did not want an audience. Having read that morality police could arrest couples merely for holding hands on the street, this was a bit of a surprise; no doubt that has been, and still is, true at various times and places, but in Esfahan in late 2008, no one appeared too inhibited about public displays of affection.

Wednesday 22 October 2008چهار شنبه ۱ آبان ۱۳۸۷
Masjid-e-Jameh, Esfahan
Masjid-e-Jameh, Esfahan

On my last day in Esfahan, I managed to squeeze in all the major historical sights I’d missed, starting with the Masjid-e-Jameh, the “Friday Mosque”.

Apart from being a beautiful, tranquil place with architecture dating back (in parts) to the 11th century, this mosque held one very particular, mathematical attraction for me.

Until recently, Western mathematicians’ ideas about the symmetry of tilings centred on a proof that no exactly periodic tiling could look the same when rotated by any fraction of a turn other than one half, one third, one quarter or one sixth. Imagine a courtyard paved with tiles shaped like rectangles, equilateral triangles, squares, or hexagons. Now imagine trying to do the same thing with pentagons or decagons; the angles aren’t right, and it just won’t work.

That proof was perfectly valid, of course, but there is nonetheless a sense in which it doesn’t quite capture all the possibilities for this kind of symmetry in art and nature.

Quasiperiodic tiling, Masjid-e-Jameh
Quasiperiodic tiling,
Masjid-e-Jameh, Esfahan
Subdivided shapes
Subdivided shapes

In the 1970s, Roger Penrose discovered a famous tiling with approximate five-fold rotational symmetry; the pattern did not repeat exactly, but in a statistical sense it looked more or less the same when rotated by one fifth of a full turn. About a decade later, naturally occurring “quasicrystals” were discovered that also exhibited this form of symmetry.

Recently, it has come to be understood that Islamic artist-mathematicians had found a very similar kind of quasiperiodic ten-fold symmetry, centuries ago. [See “Decagonal and Quasi-crystalline Tilings in Medieval Islamic Architecture” by Peter J. Lu and Paul J. Steinhardt, Science 315, 1106 (2007). This paper can be downloaded from here.]

Esfahan’s Masjid-e-Jameh has an example of this; the tiling here is based on the subdivision of a decagon and some other shapes into smaller versions of the same set of shapes. (Note that while the diagram shows the underlying geometry, the shapes here don’t match up directly with the tiles themselves, which result from a further modification.)

While it might seem that this kind of tiling can’t stretch on forever like Penrose’s (since in Penrose’s scheme you can keep adding tiles to the sides of the pattern, whereas here the pattern you start with fixes the boundaries) by carrying out a sufficient number of ever finer subdivisions and then enlarging the result — a technique known as “inflation” — the pattern could, in principle, be made arbitrarily large. There is a formulation of Penrose’s own tiling in exactly the same terms. You can watch a demonstration of the recursive subdivision of these shapes in this Java applet.

And Do Not Be Sarcastic to Each Other and Do Not Insult Each Other By Unpleasant Nicknames; Do Not Let Your Hatred For a Group Make You Depart From Justice
Maxims in Sepah Street, Esfahan

I wandered around the bazaar near the Masjid-e-Jameh, which was one of the most crowded places I encountered in all of Iran. Having been extremely careful ever since I’d entered the country not to bump into women on the streets — assuming that it would be terribly impolite to make even the briefest inadvertent physical contact with a stranger of the opposite sex — it was amusing to discover that in this densely packed bazaar, Iranian women in black chadors showed not the slightest hesitation in grabbing me by the shoulder and shoving me out of their way.

As I was leaving the bazaar, I noticed some people carrying big stacks of fresh flat bread, and I followed the route they seemed to have taken back to a bakery. When I asked the men there for just one piece, they found this so funny that they gave it to me for free.

Walking down Sepah Street on my way to the Chehel Sotun Palace, I saw these maxims from the Quran on the fence around a garden. It’s quite common to see passages like these on various public buildings, but the second one, especially, seemed like a suggestion that the Iranian government should probably take closer to heart.

The Chehel Sotun Palace was undergoing renovations, as you can see from the scaffolding in this picture, but that didn’t really interfere with the view of the delicate frescoes. There are dozens of these, depicting various historical scenes from the Safavid period.

Fresco in Chehel Sotun Palace, Esfahan Fresco in Chehel Sotun Palace, Esfahan
Frescoes in Chehel Sotun Palace, Esfahan

From the Chehel Sotun Palace I returned to Imam Square, which I’d visited on my first day without actually going into the Imam Mosque.

Imam Mosque, Esfahan Imam Mosque, Esfahan
Imam Mosque, Esfahan

Later, in a tea house under the Si-o-seh Bridge, I finally tasted ash-e-reshte, a delicious soup made from noodles, beans and vegetables. I’d walked past another establishment mentioned in my guide book that supposedly sold ash-e-reshte ... but that place had featured a huge picture of the head of a butchered sheep above the shopfront, which didn’t inspire much confidence that they were sticking to the vegetarian version of the recipe.

Finally, just before closing time, I visited Vank Cathedral, a mere fifty metres or so from my hotel in Julfa. Historically, Julfa was where Shah Abbas resettled Christian Armenian craftsmen from a town of the same name, so they could work on various buildings in Esfahan. While Vank Cathedral looks like nothing special from the outside, the interior is full of vivid frescoes of Biblical scenes and the tortures and tribulations of Saint Gregory. Photography wasn’t permitted when I was there, but you can see several pictures in the gallery attached to this Wikipedia article.

In the accompanying museum there are oil paintings from Europe by Annibale Carracci and others, and a collection of Armenian religious manuscripts from as early as the 13th century.

On my last night in Esfahan, I dozed off watching a 1970s TV version of the Faust legend, in Farsi, with a female Mephistopheles.

Part 1: TehranPart 2: EsfahanPart 3: YazdPart 4: Shiraz


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