Iran: Drinking tea in Esfahan

October 2003


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I left Yazd early in the morning with Wouter and took a bus the 300km northwest to Esfahan, an uneventful trip that took about five hours. The bus dropped us at the Jey bus terminal, about 4km from the city centre, although at the time we were not quite sure where exactly we were in the city, leaving us feeling slightly lost. We soon negotiated for a taxi, which wasn't that easy as we had no idea how far it was to the city centre. The taxi took us to Chahar Bagh Abbasi Street, the main north, south street in the city where we checked into the Amir Kabir Hostel and soon met up with Paul again as planned.

Esfahan is the second largest city in Iran, after Tehran, with a population of just over 1.2 million. It has to be one of the finest and most elegant cities not just in Iran, but also in the whole Middle Eastern region. The city is an architectural treasure trove with many exquisite blue tiled mosques and madrasehs, grand palaces and some of the most splendid bridges across the Zayandeh River you could ever possibly dream of. Undoubtedly the architectural jewel in this city has to be the magnificent Emam Khomeini Square, previously known as Naghsh-e Jahan Square. History seems to surround you wherever you go in this city; the legacy of Esfahan today comes mostly from one man, Shah Abbas I, also known as Abbas the Great.

Shah Abbas I ruled under the Safavid dynasty, which was founded in 1334 by Sheikh Safi od-Din in the northwest of Iran. The Safavids reached their peak under the rule of Shah Abbas I, who reigned between 1587-1629, and who created the third great Persian Empire, after the previous Achaemenid and Sassanian Empires. It was during this time that the capital was moved to Esfahan, which Shah Abbas rebuilt with great splendour that can still be seen today. The glory days of this great empire did not last long and after Abbas' death the empire floundered with out a clear, strong leader, which lead to an Afghan invasion in 1722 and eventually the loss of control of this great city.

On my first afternoon I walked with Paul and Wouter down to Emam Khomeini Square, a place I would end up visiting at least a couple of times a day during my visit to this city. It wasn't far to walk to the square from the hotel; a short walk south along the tree lined Chahar Bagh Abbasi Street to Emam Hussein Square and then east, past parklands along the quieter Sepah Street, which lead into the northwestern corner of the square. The shear size of this square and the uniformity of the architecture is quite breathtaking when you first enter from Sepah Street. Built in 1612 by Shah Abbas I, it measures 500m by 160m. In the centre is a large, shallow rectangular pool and fountains surrounded by gardens; shops line all sides of the square with identical large white canvas awnings keeping out the bright sunlight. Today, traffic only traverses the northern part of the square between Sepah and Hafez Street, leaving the majority of the square a peaceful place to wander about. To the north of the square alleyways lead off into the Bazar-e Bozorg, one of the largest and most labyrinthine covered bazaars in the country, built mostly in the 16th century, although some parts are hundreds of years older. It is one of the highlights of the city, walking for hours at a time, meandering along the many alleyways getting hopelessly lost for a morning or afternoon.

Some of the most beautiful and majestic buildings in the country are found in this square. Providing a balance to the entrance to the bazaar at the northern end of the square is the giant portal, about 30m tall, of the Emam Mosque at the opposite, southern end. The beautiful tiled dome (cupola), minarets and entrance portal of the Emam Mosque dominate the view to the southern end of the square. Work to build this grand mosque began in 1611 and took eighteen years to complete. It remains one of the greatest examples of Safavid era architecture, being perfectly proportioned and covered in the most stunning blue-tiled mosaic designs. Since construction finished very few additions have been made over the years and what you can see today is the original vision of Shah Abbas I.

Although the entrance portal faces the square, the mosque is angled to face Mecca. Walking through the entrance and through the north iwan you hardly notice that you have turned west through approximately 40' as you enter the inner courtyard facing Mecca with the ritual ablutions pool in front of you. There are four iwans, rectangular halls opening out into the courtyard, each leading into a vaulted sanctuary. The main sanctuary is entered through the south iwan; here the domed ceiling rises 36.3m. This is where the mihrab, the niche marking the direction of Mecca and the minbar are situated, both beautifully crafted out of marble. On either side of the main sanctuaries are two more courtyards housing the madrasehs. To protect worshippers during the heat of the day, a scaffold covered with canvas sheets had been erected across the inner courtyard. This was my only disappointment during my visit as it was very difficult to see and photograph the sheer splendour of the interior.

There is another mosque on the eastern side of the square, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque; it too was built under the reign of Shah Abbas I between 1602 and 1619. Shah Abbas dedicated the mosque to his father-in-law, Sheikh Lotfollah, a Lebanese scholar of Islam who was invited to Esfahan to oversee the construction of the Emam Mosque and madraseh. It is a lot smaller than the Emam Mosque and has no minaret or courtyard. The tiled mosaics, which adorn the entrance portal and the cupola, are just as impressive. The pale, cream coloured tiles of the cupola perfectly catch the changing light conditions as the sun sets over the square, changing to a deep shade of pink. The beautiful mosaic designs of the entrance and cupola are perfectly reflected in the shallow pool in the centre of the square. I found that the Ali Qapu Palace, on the opposite side of the square, made the best vantage point to admire this view.

The six-storey high Ali Qapu Palace was built in the early 17th century and was originally designed as a gateway to the royal palaces, which lay in the parklands between the square and the main thoroughfare, Chahar Bagh Abbasi Street, until it later became the seat of government. The name Ali Qapu translates as the Gate of Ali. Leading from the throne room, complete with some beautiful murals, is the grand, elevated terrace, which overlooks the square. Eighteen tall, slender wood columns support a wooden ceiling with exposed beams and intricate inlay work. The grandstand views of the square from this vantage point were spectacular; it gave a whole new perspective looking down on the square. It was from here that the Shah would watch races in the square and chogran, an old type of polo, the sport of kings. The most unusual room in the palace has to be the music room, on the top floor. The walls and ceiling are covered in the cut out shapes of vases and other objects, almost as if someone had become obsessed with a fret saw. It was like nothing I had ever seen before; apparently it improved the acoustics in the room.

My favourite place to relax and watch life go by in the square had to be the Gheysarieh Tea Shop, which was reached up a steep and narrow staircase just to the left of the main entrance to the bazaar. The interior of the teashop was small and traditionally decorated, doors at the back led to a rooftop terrace overlooking the square. It was here we spent many hours sipping strong, sweet, black tea while smoking apple tobacco in a qalyan (a water pipe, also known as a shisha). The views of the square as the sun set were spectacular in the changing light conditions. The place was always packed with both tourists and locals in the late afternoon and always had a lively, bustling atmosphere as clouds of tobacco smoke drifted gently on the evening breeze.

We found a number of other good restaurants and teahouses around the square. Probably the most atmospheric and bizarre teahouse I found in the whole country was a tiny little place, catering mostly for locals, down an alleyway just north of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Paul first found this teahouse when a shopkeeper on the square took him there for a cup of tea, otherwise we would have never discovered it. The only clue from the main alley that this place existed was a small sign, written in Persian with a picture of a qalyan, pointing down a narrow alleyway. A doorway led through an entrance hall, lined with old photos, banknotes of every conceivable currency and old coins. This led into a long, narrow hall with bench seats and tables running up either sides with a corridor in the middle where waiters dashed up and down delivering pots of tea and qalyans. The top half was divided off and reserved for women or couples, the rest was for men; we always had to squeeze onto a bench seat as every evening the teahouse was packed. The decor was like nothing I have ever seen before; it was like a cross between an Aladdin's cave and an antique shop. Every space on the wall and ceiling was covered in old photos and antiques of every description; it looked far more like an antique shop in the bazaar than a teashop. The owner sat on a stool near the entrance behind a wooden counter, always with a cup of tea and a qalyan gently smoking. On our last visit there a group of Syrian tourists from Damascus sat at the table opposite us. Their reaction to the teahouse was pretty much the same as ours and they too were busy taking photos while blowing smoke rings from the qalyans. We chatted briefly and they were surprised that I was here in Esfahan and that I had also visited their city many times. Being able to exchange some basic words in Arabic also brought a round of applause from the group. We always left the teahouse, grinning, feeling light-headed as though everything in the world was right; I think the tobacco in the qalyans was mostly responsible for this euphoric feeling.

There were two restaurants we visited around the square. The first we found was the Bastani Restaurant in the southeastern corner of the square, set underground. The food here was always good. On our last night we visited, it was closed for a private function, a funeral wake; this led us on a search for another good restaurant. Our search ended up very close to our favourite teashop next to the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, where we found a rooftop restaurant. There were no tables and chairs, just bed couches where you sat and ate your dinner off trays that were placed on the couch. The restaurant was packed, mostly with locals; I think we were the only tourists there that night. Without doubt I ate the best meal on my whole trip at this restaurant, an aubergine dish with sour, cream cheese, a green leafy salad and freshly baked bread. The bread was to die for and was still hot when it was served. From our bed couch we had a view of the beautiful cupola of the Sheik Lotfollah Mosque. My only regret was that we didn't find this restaurant earlier. It wasn't far to walk after dinner to the teahouse for a nice pot of tea and a relaxing smoke.

The city is divided by the Zayandeh River, which flows from the Zagros Mountains to the east, through the centre of the city and to the Dasht-e Kavir, where the river dries up in the desert. There are eleven bridges across this river connecting the northern and southern halves of the city together. Six of these bridges are new constructions, the other five are old, built in the 17th century and are some of the most beautiful bridges you could ever hope to see. As an added bonus the old bridges have teahouses built underneath them, which make them a great place to relax with a pot of tea and a qalyan after a busy day walking around the city. I think Iran has probably the biggest obsession with tea out of all the countries I have visited; I certainly took every opportunity to indulge in Iranian tea culture, there was always time for a nice cup of tea.

The teahouse we frequented most often was at the Si-o-Seh Bridge. This 160m long bridge, built in 1602, spans the river with thirty-three beautiful arches connecting the northern and southern halves of Chahar Bagh Street. The bridge is closed to traffic (except motorbikes, but you probably guessed that by now) and was a popular place to wander, taking in the riverside views of the city. The teahouse is situated underneath the bridge in the arches, at either side of the river; we always patronised the teahouse on the southern banks of the river. A walkway runs through a central arch in the first few pillars of the arches spanning the river. In each pillar on either side of the walkway steps lead up into a small room built into the pillar, complete with windows, which look out onto the river. There was no furniture in these small rooms, just a carpet and cushions lining the four walls. We spent many hours over the four days we were in the city sitting in one of these small rooms, consuming pot after pot of tea while smoking pipes. We used to smoke so much that we would end up lying stretched out on the carpet, too relaxed to even pour another cup of tea. Time would slip by silently; the sun would begin to set, casting an orange glow through the window, which faced up stream towards the setting set. By the time we usually left the city was enveloped in the cloak of darkness as day had once again turned into night. One evening we did overstay our welcome and were in there for over two hours, when the management politely asked us to leave.

Just south of the river between Si-o-Seh Bridge and the next bridge to the west, is Jolfa, the Armenian quarter of the city. Jolfa also dates back to the time of Shah Abbas I, when he resettled the Christian inhabitants of the northern town of Jolfa to Esfahan. The skills of these Christian merchants and entrepreneurs were highly valued and in return their religious freedom was respected. This settlement named, New Jolfa was outside the main city of Esfahan, which the Christians were restricted to, so as to keep them away from the main Islamic centres. By the time of the Afghan invasion, and subsequent massacre, New Jolfa had a population of approximately 60,000. In later years as the city expanded, New Jolfa became what it is today, a suburb of Esfahan, with a predominantly Christian population. Today there are thirteen churches, including the Vank Cathedral built between 1606 and 1655, in Jolfa. Again, like discovering the large population of Zoroastrians living in Yazd, I was surprised to find such a large Christian population living here in what is undoubtedly the finest city in Iran. This country was making a habit of throwing surprises at me, destroying all the false preconceptions I had before I arrived.

I visited a couple of other Islamic sites in the city during my visit. To the north of the bazaar is the Jameh Mosque, which is the largest mosque in the country covering an area of 30,000 sq metres. It seemed very different architecturally to the Emam Mosque on Emam Khomeini Square. The first mosque to be built on this site was in the 11th century, of which today only the domes above the north and south iwans have survived; a fire destroyed the rest in the 12th century. In 1121 the mosque was rebuilt and since then successive rulers have made additions to the structure so that today the mosque displays styles of Islamic architecture ranging between the 11th and 18th centuries. There are two interior rooms of note in the mosque; the Room of Sultan Uljaitu, which houses a magnificent stone mihrab and leading off this room the Winter Hall. This hall, built in 1448, is lit by alabaster skylights creating wonderful, calm lighting conditions within the pillared hall.

The last building I visited in the city, which we had walked past many times while walking between our hotel and the river, was the Madraseh-ye Chahar Bagh; it is only open to the public on Friday afternoons. This theological school was built between 1704 and 1714 and has a beautiful, quiet courtyard and gardens, complete with a pool. The courtyard is surrounded by a two-storey porch and to the south there is a prayer hall and two Safavid era minarets.

After four days in this fantastic city, indulging in good food, gallons of sweet, black tea and smoking qalyans on an industrial scale it was finally time to leave. I could of stayed for quite a few more days but my departure date from Tehran was fast approaching. Wouter and I travelled back to Tehran together, stopping overnight in Kashan, about halfway back to the capital. We had heard about the excellent Dellpazir Restaurant, which people had said was a good enough reason to stop in this small, oasis city. We had been spoilt by good food during our stay in Esfahan. The opportunity to eat at a restaurant with probably the most varied menu of any restaurant in Iran was one we didn't pass up. The restaurant looked unassuming when we arrived. Set in the basement of a small, modern, whitewashed shopping arcade it lacked any of the atmosphere of the traditional restaurants of Esfahan and Yazd. The food made up for it though; but the biggest surprise was that a British ex-pat lady, who had been living in Iran for the past twelve years, ran the restaurant.

She recommended a nice outdoor teahouse, which her friends had just opened near to our hotel. Bed couches were dotted around a garden with a giant fountain in the centre. Without doubt, we smoked the strongest pipes here; both Wouter and myself lay on the bed couch, propped up by cushions with inane grins on our faces as we struggled to pour yet another cup of tea.

One more bus ride through the desert and the following afternoon we were back in the noise and chaos of Tehran were we again checked into the Hotel Mashad on Amir Kabir Street, my home away from home. I had one day left in the city; my flight was due to depart in the early hours of the morning. There was one last place I wanted to visit before I left this country.

On my final morning I took the metro train from Emam Khomeini Square as far south as it would go towards the cemetery at Behesht-e Zahra. There are only a few trains a day that go all the way to the cemetery, but this wasn't one of them, so I had to complete my journey on a local bus. The bus dropped me at the side of a busy road, next to a gate entering the cemetery. In the distance I could see the huge dome and minarets of the shrine I had come to see, the Holy Shrine of Emam Khomeini. I began walking towards the shrine past endless rows of graves stretching off into the distance in every direction as far as the eye could see. The cemetery is also the main burial place for martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The photos placed on all these graves really emphasised the true cost of war, far more than just names inscribed into a piece of marble. The cemetery was so huge it felt almost deserted and eerily quite. Every now and then I would pass a small group of mourners gathered around a grave, all dressed in black; Quran chants drifted on the gentle breeze, sounding hauntingly like the pained voices of the dead. It took maybe 30 to 40 minutes to walk through this cemetery to reach the Holy Shrine.

The Holy Shrine is a huge sprawl of vast buildings and still resembles a building site as construction work continues on the shrine, 14 years after Khomeini's death in 1989. When finally completed it will be one of the largest Islamic buildings of modern times. The shrine is open to non-Muslims, so after depositing my daypack and shoes I entered the heart of the shrine. The shrine and final resting place of the Ayatollah is in the centre of a large marble floored hall, underneath the main dome of the complex. Building work progressed around the hall, half of which was boarded off to allow construction work to continue while pilgrims paid their respect at the shrine. There was a very relaxed atmosphere as men and women prayed while an Imam recited from the Quran; others just stood at the shrine looking. Meanwhile children did what all children around the world do; they played, sliding on the highly polished marble floor as they chased coins, which they rolled from one end of the shrine to the other. I sat at the side of the hall to watch the goings on. I was soon joined by a man and his son, whom I had briefly met while entering the shrine. Like everyone else I had met in this country, he too was interested in me, what I was doing here and where I was from. We sat there for some time talking, while his son joined some other children chasing coins across the floor.

Later that night I said my goodbyes at the Hotel Mashad and took a white Paykan taxi for the last time, to the airport. In the early hours of the morning I flew out of Tehran on a flight back to Istanbul, where I caught a connecting flight on to London. It seemed very strange to suddenly be back home in Dorset less than a day after standing at the spiritual heart of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It all began to seem like a dream. Was this country full of the most welcoming, hospitable people I have ever met, rich in culture and history the same country painted by the Western media and governments as the axis of evil? Where madraseh is another word for terrorist training school and everyone is an extremist or fundamentalist. There are political problems within the country, like there are political problems within any country. Many people I spoke to on my journey talked to me about the day when religion and politics will be once again divided. They spoke to me about their hopes for the future, about their dreams and the way they wished to see their country progress. Iranians are a very proud people and after spending a month in their fascinating country I could at last begin to understand why.

Sitting on the bus on the way back from London I just wanted to say to everyone, 'Do you know where I've just returned from?' I wanted to tell everyone about what I had discovered in the ancient land of Persia. Of course I didn't speak to anyone and just stared out of the window thinking; there aren't many motorbikes on the road over here.