17.06.2012 - 20.06.2012 25 °C
Esfahan is top of the Iranian tourist trail (a trail that is light on traffic these days) and a place that according to a famous 16th century rhyme is "half the world", due to its abundance of magnificent sights. Unsurprisingly, it is also a UNESCO world heritage site.
Esfahan is about five hours drive south of Tehran and we took a bus along the pristine motorway to get there. Unsure what to expect, we turned up early on Sunday at Tehran's central bus station. We were pleasantly surprised at the array of sparkling modern buses that greeted us. A guy called us over to his Volvo bus for Esfahan and then a rival tout came over to tempt us with his alternative, "VIP" bus service - we opted for the latter, which prompted friendly banter and a kiss on the cheek from the winning tout to his losing colleague. The VIP service lived up to its billing - huge reclining seats, generous leg room, air con, free snacks and sour cherry juice. The price? EUR 5 each. You can hardly buy a Mars bar in Sydney for that!
VIP service at budget prices - comfortable travel in Iran
Even Grant could stretch his legs out on the VIP bus
Scenery along the road to Esfahan
We stopped at a service station along the way for snacks. While Grant was standing looking at the wares on sale, an Iranian girl our age in full black cape and head scarf came up and started chatting to him. It turned out she had travelled in Germany and she asked if we needed any help, recalling that she had felt very lost on her European travels and hoping we were not feeling the same in Iran. We had a good chat and thanked her for the offer of help. What we have found extraordinary is the fact that Iranian girls and women regularly come up to us and chat like this; contrary to what one might imagine, women in Iran are not afraid to speak up. This contrasts starkly with India where precisely one woman approached us to initiate conversation during our five weeks there. As we are quickly learning, you can take your preconceptions about Iran and discard them: nothing here is as you expect.
Helena and a group of young Iranian girls in Esfahan - Iranian women and girls are constantly approaching us for chats
When we started walking around Esfahan, we discovered that all Iranian people love chatting to foreigners. As we wandered around Imam Square - the focal point of the city - on our first evening, we were constantly being approached by friendly locals, keen to shake hands, practice their English, and above all welcome us to Iran. There are people selling handicrafts here and the odd amateur tour guide, but overwhelmingly the people who speak to us are just ordinary Iranians, delighted to see foreigners visiting their country. They give us sweets, cherries, and invite us to come shopping with them (one couple was on their way to buy an engagement ring and asked if we wanted to join them!). One lady silently insisted that Helena take the unopened ice cream bar the lady had just bought at a stall - she would not take "no thanks" as an answer!
Everyone wants to know where we come from. Sometimes we say Sweden, sometimes Scotland, other times Belgium. The reactions are always the same: "welcome to Iran!" and (to Helena) "sorry about the football!". We had imagined the reaction to Brits here might be lukewarm given recent events; nothing could be further from the truth. Once again, when in Iran leave your preconceptions at the door. One interesting thing is that many Iranians know a surprising amount about Scotland's independence movement and upcoming referendum - perhaps the Iranian media likes to gloat about the break up of the UK?!!
As a foreigner wandering in Iran, expect a lot of friendly welcomes and random acts of kindness! Top shot in Imam Square, underneath at the local bird market
As for the sights of Esfahan, it is hard to know where to begin. Having just seen the palaces of Rajahstan, we can now see the heavy Persian influence in the architecture of western India. However, India has only one Taj Mahal; in Esfahan, everywhere you look there are buildings to rival the Taj, and all in the most sublime colours. The intricacy of the cupolas and the "stalactite" features under the arches of the mosques are breathtaking - you quickly run out of superlatives when looking around here!
Imam Square, Imam Mosque and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
The focal point of Esfahan is the enormous Imam Square, second only to Tiannamen Square in terms of size. It contains the spectacular Imam and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosques, as well as bazaars on all sides selling Persian carpets, tea sets, fabrics and all the usual kind of things tourists love. We really enjoyed wandering here at different times of day, admiring the buildings and - yes - haggling over souvenirs in the bazaar.
Imam Square and the maze of the bazaar
We also found lovely cafes and restaurants around the square to escape the heat and enjoy fresh fruit juice. We saw less than five other western tourists on our wanderings. The sights were not only the most spectacular we have seen on our journey so far, but also the quietest. It is distressing to see a city so perfectly set up for tourism that is devoid of non-Iranian tourists. This is the squandered potential of Iran.
We also met a group of Malaysian businessmen in one of the cafes. Due to their work they travel a lot. They happily told us that business with Iran is especially beneficial these days when more and more countries (but obviously not Malaysia) sign up to the embargo.
Imam Mosque - built between 1611 and 1629. Apparently the architect put some mismatches into the design to show humility before Allah, but our untrained eyes only saw perfect Persian symmetry...
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was built between 1602 and 1619 and originally was exclusively for the use of the shah's harem, hence the "feminine" colours of the building and perfectly rounded shape of the cupola
Jameh Mosque is another of the main sights in Esfahan, and is a spectacular mosque built on the recurring theme of a central courtyard with four iwans (or gates) at each end. It began life in the eleventh century but most of what you see today is from the 15th century. We spent a good hour just taking in the beauty of the iwans, and watching the place come to life as the midday call to prayer echoed around the courtyard. Helena had to put on a robe covering her whole body and head, but she did also get an invitation to join the women in the prayer room; Grant, on the other hand, was turned away for not being Muslim!
South Iwan of Jameh Mosque
West Iwan of Jameh Mosque
Helena joins the ladies for prayers inside
The Armenian quarter of Jolfa
You don't expect to find Christian churches in Iran, but that is exactly what there is in the Armenian quarter of Esfahan. Armenians were resettled to Esfahan by Shah Abbas in the 17th century, and have been here ever since. We took a trip across the river to this attractive quarter for a wander around Vank Cathedral, the focal point of the Armenian Church in Iran. We also checked out the Church of Bethlehem, one of the other churches next door. These buildings are incredible and make you realise how closely related the architecture of mosques and Orthodox/Catholic churches are: the domes, pillars and arches of the buildings are exactly the same. In fact, the Armenian churches include Persian tiling at the base of their walls, exactly the same as you see in the mosques, and Persian carpets all around the altar. However, the ornate frescos adorning the walls are unmistakably Christian, showing gruesome scenes of the passion of Christ among other things.
Vank Cathedral, built 1606-1655, is the centre of Armenian Christians in Iran - the buildings look Islamic at first glance from the outside
Inside, the Cathedral is magnificently decorated with Christian art but with a blend of Persian decoration including tiling and rugs
Jolfa lies on the other side of the Zayandeh River - these days, just a dried up river bed!
We wandered around the Vank Cathedral museum, which had a very interesting exhibition about the Armenian genocide carried out by Turkey in 1915, in which 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were systematically killed. Many Armenians fled, among other places to Iran. To this day, Turkey has never recognised its action as genocide, and when the French National Assembly recently did so, France incurred the wrath of Ankara. Here is yet more food for thought: within the last century, Turkey - today a "secular" ally of the west - eliminated its Christian Armenian population in the 20th century's first holocaust; many Christians obtained shelter in Iran. Today, Christians such as the Armenian population continue to openly practice their religion in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Moreover, the same Islamic Republic whose leaders call for Israel to be wiped off the map run a country that is home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel. Not to sound like a broken record, but remember what we said about preconceptions?!
It would be disingenuous to claim that Iran is a bastion of religious tolerance - any quick research on the subject will show you it is not. For example, Muslims may be punished with death in Iran if they convert to another religion - citizens of other faiths are always free to convert to Islam, though! It's just interesting to see that the story is not as black and white as one might think.
In some cases, preconceptions hold true - a picture we saw hanging over a shop in Esfahan's bazaar. However, we have yet to meet any Iranian who expresses these anti-US views
In other cases, western culture and theocracy seem to blend almost seamlessly - scene from a local coffee shop in Jolfa
Palaces of Esfahan
Esfahan is also home to some impressive palaces, in varying states of repair, which can be accessed at ridiculously low prices, even as a foreigner. We really enjoyed the Ali Qapu Palace on Imam Square, which dates from the end of the 16th century and gives a nice view over the square.
Shots from Ali Qapu Palace
Hasht Behesht Palace was also a very nice spot, built in 1660, and we had the whole place to ourselves.
Hasht Behesht palace
It's understandable why Esfahan is at the top of every Iran tourist's itinerary: the range of beautiful buildings is extraordinary. Between seeing all the sights and shopping in the bazaar, we were kept pretty busy for our three days in the city. Next stop: the desert!