Friday morning, the Muslim sabbath, was going to be a light tour day. But as far as I was concerned today was going to be the highlight of Isfahan. We were off to the Jameh Mosque aka the Friday Mosque, which is the oldest mosque in Isfahan and an interactive museum to 800 years of Islamic architecture.
As I walked to the restaurant in the hotel for breakfast, I was met by a sea of flowers. And no I am not exaggerating. What the heck? I learned that there was a wedding planned for that day and the flowers were over the top incredible.
At breakfast, Bahman and I were serenaded by Farsi wedding singers warming up for the big event. Bahman told me that the mens’ reception was going to be held in the morning and the womens’ reception in the afternoon. The whole separate reception idea seems so strange to me, but whatever works I guess….
Anyway, after breakfast we headed out for our morning tours. In order to reach the Jameh Mosque we had to pass through the old quarter of Isfahan. Perfect. I always love the old quarter of a city and this trip did not disappoint. Old store fronts, produce sellers and winding, narrow lines. We hopped out near the entrance to what amounted to the “locals” bazaar and wandered down the narrow alley past clothing stores, spice shops and makeup shops. We reached the end of the bazaar and walked a few more feet to the entrance of the mosque. Because it was Friday, we had to be out of the mosque by 11:30 before the commencement of Friday noon prayers.
As we entered the mosque, Bahman gave me an overview of the incredible history of the site that dates back to the Zoraostarian days when the site was likely used as a fire temple. The first mosque on the site was built in the 11th century AD, but was destroyed by fire and later rebuilt in 1121 AD. Over the centuries rulers added to the mosque rather than the was the custom of the time of tearing a building down and constructing something new in its place. As a result, as we passed from room to room we saw the legacy of Islamic design unfold before our eyes. It was remarkable.
The original pillar and ceiling work began in simple geometric wood patterns and progressed to more intricate patterns. One of the truly interesting facts I learned from Bahman is that the ceiling and walls of one of the oldest parts of the mosque was destroyed by a bomb dropped on the site during the Iran-Iraq war. The locals almost immediately began rebuilding the site, but as Bahman pointed out the real tragedy that day was the lives lost. Those can never be replaced. In recognition, there was a large sign beside the rebuilt area acknowledging those who died that day.
We continued to move through history passing through hall after hall with virtually no one else around to bother us. We had the old site almost all to our selves.
We finally entered the grand courtyard with a square box in the center that was designed to look like the Kaaba in Mecca. The south and north iwans were constructed by different architects (a master and a pupil) but are mirror versions of one another. We walked over to the south wall and went into the Room of Sultan Uljeitu, which contains possibly the finest mihrab (like a pulpit in the church). The mihrab was made out of stucco and contained hundreds of Quaranic inscriptions and floral designs. It was beautiful.
While in the room, we ran into an Iranian family who now lives in California. They seemed amazed to see a single female from North America traveling in Iran. When they asked me how I was enjoying myself, I told them I was having a fabulous time. They asked me whether I had been afraid to travel to Iran. And I said absolutely not. I tend not to believe most of the media headlines and choose to travel to countries that I want to see and not to countries that people think I should see. I only wished that everyone felt the same way instead of being afraid of the middle east. I am pretty sure they thought I was an alien based on my answer, but the reply back I got was a big smile and a “good for you”.
After some more talk with the family, Bahman and I moved on to the adjacent Winter Room. The room was lit, but Bahman turned off the lights and the room became illuminated by natural light flowing through the skylights. It was gorgeous.
The last room we walked through included a series of fabulous pillars we had to weave around to reach the most incredible brick dome that may have ever been constructed. Bahman told me that the dome was mathematically perfect. It has survived many earthquakes and is amongst the oldest portions of the mosque. It was incredible.
The morning had been a wonderful walk through history (my kind of day). When we left the mosque, we wandered back through the bazaar, but Bahman took a detour down an alley and asked me if I wanted to try a new “treat”. Jeez I need to get away from this guy so I can go on a diet. Anyway, never one to walk away from a middle eastern sweet treat, I gave him a “you’re killing me” look, nodded and followed him down the alley. We turned into a little shop and Bahman rattled off something in Farsi. Next thing I know, I am being handed a bowl of white yoghurt looking mixture topped by brown date syrup. I took one taste and … oh my GOODness. “Fereni” was made of rice flower, milk, starch from wheat and topped with date syrup. “All natural” Bahman told me. Yea no calories here …. And of course, lacking even a scintilla of willpower, I, gobbled it down.
After my treat fix, we walked the short distance to the van and the waiting Hamid. Our only other planned stop of the day was the Hasht Behesht Palace, also known as the Eight Columns Palace. The palace was set in a beautiful garden filled with fountains and many, many locals picnicking before Friday prayers. The palace was lovely and apparently the former summer residence of the Shah’s harem. The palace was constructed in the mid 17th century and had many feminine touches, including a spa with a water spout. The colours were pale and there were many open spaces and large soaring ceilings. There was a beautiful mirrored dome ceiling and many frescoes that revealed the beauty that must have existed in this palace.
The rooms all had large open windows that looked out into the green spaces and gardens that surrounded the palace. As we wandered from room to room you could feel the presence of many women in the home and as usual, there was virtually no one in the building but us.
However, as Bahman and I were looking at lovely room with a fireplace, a young women walked into the room and over to me somewhat tentatively and asked in broken English for a photo. She was from Hamadan and commented on how tall I was. Bahman took our picture and as she thanked us and walked away, I told Bahman I figured I was going to be prominently displayed on a myriad of Iranian Facebook pages over the next few days, which got a laugh.
Anyway, we headed back to the hotel as clouds rolled in. Mmmm – maybe rain? I had not seen any rain or bad weather on the trip (other than the sand storm and the windy weather as we entered Isfahan), so it was unusual to see clouds. Once at the hotel, I rested for a couple hours before meeting Bahman in the lobby for lunch. At lunch, Bahman told me that Mr. Fotowat, the miniaturist I had met the prior night, had invited us to tea – a great honor in Iran to be invited to someone’s home. So after lunch we got back in the van and headed to Mr. Fotowat’s lovely four story home that was used for his residence and studio. In addition, his son and daughter-in-law lived on one level of the home.
As we got out of the van, we were nearly swept away in the wind and dust. I looked at Bahman and said “storm”, but Bahman wasn’t convinced it was going to rain. We walked down a sidestreet and rang the bell and were almost instantly greeted by Mr. Fotowat. He invited us inside to what was a grand entry. We immediately removed our shoes as is the custom in every Muslim home and walked into his study. The interior was lovely and included an elevator and staircase to take you upstairs. The study where we had tea was full of cabinets with many of Mr. Fotowat’s designs on display. We had a lovely visit and even were shown a book that had been published about what people of the world eat in a single day. Mr. Fotowat and his family were featured in the book.
After tea, we took our leave and headed back to the hotel and although it was cloudy, there was still no sign of rain. Looks like Bahman was right.
Anyway, Bahman left me in the hotel and went back to his carpet dealer to figure out if he was going to buy a museum quality carpet he had been looking at. (I saw it the day before, and it was really spectacular.)
After Bahman left, I ended up sitting in the lobby working on a blog and as I wrote I was approached by a number of young women who each wanted to know my name, where I was from and whether I liked Iran. Many did not speak English and many were clad in Chadors. Each and every one of them was shy to speak to me, but clearly warm and very friendly. It was such a honor to have so many people want to talk to me. And every time, I met someone new, I learned a little bit more about what was quickly becoming one of my favorite countries of all the countries I have ever visited (45 at last count).
I met Bahman later in the evening in the beautiful garden courtyard for yet more tea and some light snacks. I was not at all hungry. I have been constantly fed in this country, and I simply needed a break. I told Bahman I had enjoyed Isfahan, but for me it most certainly remained a bridesmaid behind my beloved Shiraz. The vibe was just not the same.
After some more talk about my trip and sites I would like to see on my next trip to Iran, we made it an early night. I needed to pack for the final leg of my trip back to Tehran.