Sunday, December 6, 2015

First post on Iran: amazing landscapes, people, architecture (click on photos for greater detail)

I had no preconceived notions about being a tourist in Iran, other than that my parents had a great trip there in the early 1970's.  Several things surprised me. Much of Iran is at the height of Denver, with spectacular mountains rising out of deserts, plains, forests. Our guide described Iran as being the shape of a cat: the head up in the northwest, the body following the twin mountain ranges the Alborz and the Zagros, ending with the tail at the Persian Gulf. We spent 18 days and nights in the country, covering around 4,000 kilometers.

The map above shows our general route: Tehran north to Masouleh (on the map Masulé), to Ardabil-Sareyn, Kalaybar, Tabriz, Zanjan via Takab, to the Ali Sadr Caves and Hamadan, Kermanshah, Broujerd, Kashan, Esfahan,Yazd, Persepolis, Shiraz. We hiked to ancient castles in the forested mountains near Masouleh (Roodkhan Castle)
Roodkhan Castle
in the pouring rain; to ancient castles in mountainous sheep country outside of Kalaybar in the driving wind, hail, and lightning (Babak Castle);
Babak Castle
to the Towers of Silence where Zoroastrians left their dead for the vultures (near Yazd). We drove through orchards of apple, almond, and other fruit trees. Through desert populated by goats and sheep. We saw the history of the ancient Greats: Darius, Xerxes, Alexander. The mosques (and many, many fewer than what we saw in either Syria in 2010 or Turkey in 2012) of every era with incredible tilework and, my favourite, brickwork. The Temples of Anahita and other Zoroastrian sites. A synagogue with the Tomb of Esther. And amazing traffic and air pollution. The effects of sanctions on the general populace are to be seen everywhere. The effects of sanctions on the wealthy and the ruling class, not so much: we saw plenty of Mercedes, BMWs, other luxury vehicles in both Tehran and Shiraz.

Some of the highlights in particular were our interactions with people. We only were able to have a few substantive conversations with strangers, but those we had were most insightful. We encountered singing and dancing Kurds in the Ali Sadr Caves. Attending a demonstration of traditional Iranian body building/conditioning dating back to the archers of Darius the Great puts Crossfit routines to shame.
Zanjan to Hamadan
These two photos are of the landscape driving from Zanjan to Hamadan and of spices in the bazaar: a riot of colour: incredible!
There are visual treats wherever you travel in Iran, whether they are natural or man-made. Attention to design and detail are evident in the domes of mosques, the traditional houses of Kashan and Yazd, the displays of wares in the shops and bazaars, magnificent carpets, pottery, enamel work, stained glass windows, textiles, and copper. It is surprising then, that in general modern architecture is lacking in interesting design and very much lacking in the quality of finishes. It is not clear if this is the result of sanctions (exit of talent and lack of access to quality materials).
Spice shop in bazaar in Esfahan
Domes play an important architectural, engineering, and artistic/cultural role in Persian society. Mosque domes can be plain or decorated with tiles on the outside and the interior of these domes are usually tiled, sometimes bricks and tiles, but in earlier times were decorated with only brick patterns. Palaces have domes. Merchant houses have domes. Hammams (bath houses) have domes. From an engineering point of view, domes are important for maintaining interior climate controls in buildings.
Brick designs in dome, Blue Mosque, Tabriz
Dome in Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmed, Kashan

Kashan is a city with a number of traditional houses and buildings restored and maintained for both private use and public visits. The Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmed is a traditional bath house with examples of beautiful interior domes; these domes are also used to maintain comfortable interior temperatures.  From the roof of the hamman the domes and water tower can be seen. Water towers (the most numerous and famous are in Yazd) are also used for cooling interiors: at the base of the tower, underground, is a cistern.
Hammam domes & water tower, Kashan
There are two mosques in the Naghsh-e Jahaan Square in Esfahan, the Imam and Sheikh Lotfo-Al-Lah mosques. The exterior and interior of the latter are phenomenal. The interior dome has the design of the feathers of a peacock tail.
Sheikh Lotfo-Al-Lah mosque, Esfahan   

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