So we left Isfahan on Saturday morning in what would be my last roadtrip in Iran. I was extremely sad at the thought of leaving this wonderful country and its people, but as Bahman told me when we worry about what lies ahead we fail to experience the wonderful present. So I put aside my melancholy feelings and looked forward to the day and sites we planned to visit.
Our first stop was about an hour and a half north of Isfahan in the tiny town of Natanz at the foot of Mt. Karaka (which means vulture or pray bird mountain). Now while Natanz was one of those “blink and you will miss it” kind of towns, it had amazing charm with old tree lined, hilly streets and numerous upscale residences, which Bahman told me were the second homes of the wealthy from Isfahn. It was simply lovely.
The main attraction in Natanz was the Jameh Mosque and Tomb of Sheikh Abd-al Samad Isfahani. The mosque was an old Zoroastarian fire temple that had been converted to a mosque sometime in the 10th century A.D. But the mosque’s dome I was told dated to the 14th century A.D. The interior of the mosque was beautifully preserved and included a lovely portal with turquoise, black and white tiles covered in calligraphy. However, the true highlight for me was the tall brick minaret covered in turquoise that dominated the mosque. In addition, I found the door to the mosque simply exquisite. (As many of you many know, I love, love, love doors so this was a real high point for me.) The door was made of wood and had intricate carvings with gorgeous patterns covering the entire door front.
We took a short stroll down the street and met up with a local pottery guru who I was soon introduced to as Mr. Ebady. He kind of reminded me of Tevy from Fiddler on the Roof, but without the hat. Anyway, Mr. Ebady showed us around his workshop, which was almost cavelike in the set up and included what I can only describe as an ancient kiln. The technique that Mr. Ebady uses to make and paint his pottery is centuries old, but is a dying technique. He doesn’t just shape the clay, fire it and paint it. No. Instead, Mr. Ebady shapes the clay and fires it. Then he covers the pottery in a white substance he mixes himself made of ground up quartz and some kind of ashy substance. The covered pottery then goes into the kiln for firing. After the second firing, Mr. Ebady then etches the design on the pottery, paints it and fires the design at a high temperature. The painted white substance then is rubbed off leaving a beautiful glazed piece of pottery. It was a wonderful old technique.
Bahman and I wandered around Mr. Ebady’s workshop and I found a lovely vase etched in Farsi. I learned that the words etched on the vase were a poem by Hafez, but I am not sure which poem. And before I could get Bahman to translate for me or tell me which poem was etched on the vase, my vase was wrapped for shipping. So at some point when I get home I will take the vase to my Iranian friend Mike and have him translate it for me.
Anyway, we also visited Mr. Ebady’s main store, and Bahman ended up buying a bowl for himself and a bowl for Hamid. I also found a cute little oil lamp and so with purchases done, we said goodbye and walked down to a small arena of sorts to say hello to some men who had invited us to visit while we were in the mosque. I am not sure what the facility was used for, but we said hello, made a donation to the site fund (not sure what that was for either) were handed wraps filled with a bean paste and feta (rather delicious) and said our salams and khoda hafezes (hellos and goodbyes) and were back at the van in about 10 minutes.
The next stop was Kashan, about an hour further down the road. The drive to Kashan took us past an area that is of significant interest to the Western world as well as to the Israelis (and I will leave it at that) and through an arid, mountaineous region. The freeway was, as usual, very good, but becoming increasingly busy as we made our way north to Qom and Tehran.
The town of Kashan is most famous for the Bagh-e Tarikhi-ye Fin or Fin Gardens, which Bahman told me were built during the Safavid period and featured ancient cypress trees, a number of pools and fountains that were surrounded a beautiful pavilion, residence and bathhouse. Unfortunately, the cypress trees have been infected by some sort of bug recently and many have been either detroyed or are dying. As a result, Bahman suggested that we alter our planned visit and instead go to see the Tappeh-ye Seyalk or Sialk, an ongoing archeological site that is believed to contain a ziggurat (temple) of the size and magnitude we saw at Chogha Zambil. Uh … archeology versus gardens…. Bahman you know my answer!
So we took a pass on the gardens and continued into the town of Kashan, past new contruction and remodeled homes and finally down a narrow dusty lane to the site. Just as we pulled up it started to rain. The first rain we had encountered on the trip!
No worries. We got out of the van and went inside a trailer like building, said our salams and wandered around the display cases filled with pottery and earthen wares uncovered at the site. I looked outside and it continued to rain. I finally looked at Bahman and he looked at me. We shrugged and walked out into the rain. (Hey I live in Seattle. I don’t even carry an umbrella.) We walked up the wooden steps to the partially unearthed mound containing the ruins, and I was fairly jumping for joy. I thought my days of walking around old ruins were done for this trip. I could have hugged Bahman I was so happy.
So as we walked, Bahman told me that the site is believed to be the oldest archeological site in Iran and some have speculated that the partially unearthed structure may be the world’s oldest ziggurat dating to 3,000 BC. It is believed the structure had three stories, was constructed of mud brick and the ascent to the top was by ramp.
As we wandered around, we saw two in tact skeletons in display cases that had been unearthed at the site: one was of a 37 year old male and the other of a 10 year old child. The skeletons were believed to be over 5,000 years old. I was fascinated and could not take my eyes of the skeletons. In fact, I later learned from the proprietor that they have actually unearthed two cemeteries at the site, including one the folks from the Louvre Museum have excavated, which is believed to date back 7,500 years. Wowza!
As we continued to walk in the rain, I could see that there were actually two mounds: a north mound where the alleged zigguart lay and a south mound about a 600 meters away which was not excavated. Oh the treasures that lay beneath my feet!
I could see that Bahman was getting a little fidgety (and a little wet) so I told him that we could go. He protested and told me to take my time, but I knew he was just being kind. I told him it was fine and with that he almost sprinted down the slippery wooden stairs. (Oh these Persians are so not used to the rain!) I followed suit, but not before I spotted the most amazing piece of pottery in a large glass enclosed case. The giant pot was absolutely huge and in pristine condition.
Once back in the trailer, I learned that the elderly proprietor, who I had been introduced to when we arrived, had worked with French on the original dig who had unearthed the site in the 1930s. Incredible. I then learned that he had been the one to unearth the large piece of pottery at a more recent dig. Simply amazing. The man was a living legend and I was absolutely fascinated by him.
I was so interested in the site and in the proprietor, that the proprietor sent one of the guards off in rain to bring back something for me. About five minutes later, the young man handed me two pamphlets in English for me to read that described the excavations and the history of the site. It was so typical of the Iranian hospitality I had encountered over and over again on this trip.
Bahman finally dragged me out the trailer and back to the van. As we were leaving, we saw a group of students walking into the site and we immediately recognized one of the students as the son of Mr. Fotowat, the miniaturist we had seen in Isfahan in the previous days. We stopped and said hi (of course) and could not believe the strange coincidence running into him.
We finally headed out of Kashan (which Bahman told me we will spend more time in on my return visit) and the last 300 km of our drive to Tehran. The road continued to wind through the mountains and into the sunshine shortly before we reached Qom, the religous capital of Iran. We decided to stop for lunch just outside Qom at a lovely little rest stop. Bahman wanted us to have lunch at the Iranian version of Subway that was located in the rest stop, but I must say that this place was head and shoulders above any Subway I had ever visited (sorry Jerad).
The sandwiches were made of freshly baked bread, contained fresh ingrediants and included some fabulous spices. The sandwiches were simply delicious. I also managed to purchase butter cookies at the rest stop, which the area is apparently famous for … and let me tell you these cookies are yummy (of course … what has not been yummy for me on this trip). The cookies were buttery of course, but also filled with and covered in chopped pistacios. I bought two tins to bring home with me. (I will begin the diet after consuming all the food I am bringing home!)
After lunch we continued the drive northward and drove past Lake Namak, a salt lake that is normally a dry lake bed in the summer. And since it was just nearing the end of the dry, hot season for this area of Iran, the lake bed was indeed dry salt flats. It was huge and actually quite pretty to look at as we continued north.
We finally hit the outskirts of traffic infested Tehran around 2:30 p.m. Although it was Saturday, it was a regular workday in Iran and the roads were packed. As we entered Tehran, we passed the Ayatollah Khomeini memorial. It was an enormous site and came complete with a large Iranian flag at the entrance. Although we did not stop to visit, I did manage to get a very nice picture. Bahman told me that in addition to the memorial, the site contains eductation and teaching centers for Islam.
Anyway, we continued on in the traffic and managed to snake through the mess to find ourselves in a very smog free city. In fact, driving into Tehran I had a magnificent view of the mountains that surround the city and could only imagine how beautiful the city could be with less people and less smog.
Once in the city, we wound our way through the packed streets of southern Tehran teeming with sidewalk vendors and shops and back to the center of the city to the Laleh Hotel for my final night in Iran.