Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A visit to 'Half the World'

I wrote this entry, originally, on July 17, 2004.

"Isfahan is half the world," says an Isfahani proverb.

On July 12th, we set out to see what that meant. We had been to Isfahan before when Yasmine, my oldest daughter was one year old. Now, nine years later, we wondered if anything had changed. The city was certainly much more crowded, there were many more freeways into and out of the city and several more hotels. (See the last paragraph of this note on what is lacking in terms of hotels and other facilities.)

I drove my father's old BMW from Tehran to Qom to Kashan to Natanz to Isfahan to Mahallat to Abe Gharm to Saveh, and back to Tehran.

With the exception of the Abe Gharm hot water springs and spa, much of the roads between these cities and towns consisted of 3-lane
freeways. None of these freeways were around 10 years ago when Liana and I took a similar excursion with our one-year-old.

Many of the 3-lane roads charge a toll of about $0.25 for sedans. Most of them are funded by companies incorporated for the construction of the freeways or by banks such as Mellat Bank, not to be confused with a Turkish bank of the same name. In many sections, several miles long, we were the only car on the freeway.

In Qom, we visited the shrine of Ma'sumeh, the sister of Imam Reza. The shrine quarters have vastly improved in the last 10 years. Qom is currently the premier center of Shiite learning.

In Kashan, which is famous for its rugs but also has a medical school, we visited the Aga Bozorg school, built during the Qajar period for studies in Islamic jurisprudence. We stayed in Kashan Monday night and had a chance to visit the Bagheh Fin (Fin Garden) before departing for Isfahan. It is in the baths of these gardens that one of Iran's most effective prime ministers, Amir Kabir, was put to death by his erstwhile friend and brother-in-law Naser-edin Shah. Amir Kabir had started sending Iranian students to Germany before his Japanese counterparts thought of the idea. It is said that the Shah's mother, her confidants and the British embassador had something to do with Amir Kabir's murder.

The children, Yasmine and Negin, liked the Fin Gardens in particular. Most of the garden was built between 500 to 200 years ago with some maintenance work continuing. It has flowing waters and fountains from an opulent natural spring on the premises. The waterworks help produce a cool breeze in several sections of the garden, particularly one built by the Safavid about 400 years ago.

Natanz had a beautiful, old masjid going back to the time of the Buyid Dynasty, a fantastically active period in intellectual history of Persia. We had a very nice break there. We were the only ones visiting this old monument. The care taker opened the door of a sufi khanegah built on the side of the masjid. Old, simply decorated Quranic verses in Kufi surrounded the dome.

Isfahan, requires no explanation given the saying of the Isfahanis: "Isfahan, Nisfeh Jahan" (Isfahan is half the world). The proud history of Isfahanis has to do with the influence of the rulers of this city on lands as far away as India, Iraq, Uzbakistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.

The high points for us were the visits to the Naghsheh Jahan square (Meydaneh Imam) and the Khajoo Bridge (Poleh Khajoo).

During the Safavids, Polo was played in the square while the Shah watched or participated. One can still see the polo goal posts on one end of the square.

Wednesday night, many Isfahanis had gathered on that absolutely beautiful bridge, Poleh Khajoo, listening to improvised lyrics song in traditional Persian rythms. Others were taking a stroll through the delicately built caverns of this multi-level bridge. Poleh Khajoo is a bridge built for people to enjoy. Wednesday night, on the way back to the hotel, we had tea on the Choobi Bridge, less than 200 meters away from Khajoo.

The next day, we tried quickly to traverse the road back from Isfahan to Tehran. We had a short dinner stop at Mahallat and spent a night at the Abeh Gharm hot water springs. The private baths there cost $1.25.

The hot water spring baths were wonderful. Of course, the quality of service has a lot to go to reach the Japanese onsans of Izu Hanto but the quality of the mineral water and the heat was superb.

We rushed back through Saveh, where Liana bought a Russian non-alcoholic beer for me at one of our stops. It was absolutely delicious in the hot day. I will write more about this wonderful non-alcoholic beer later.

The trip in and out of Tehran megapolis was by far the most difficult part of the journey. Other than that, I'm happy we returned safe and sound. Now, we need to see whether we can make it to Sabalan Mountain for this weekend.

Before I finish, I should note the down sides of traveling in Iran. With the exception of the Abbasi Hotel in Isfahan and a few others in major cities such as Tehran, Mashhad, Shiraz and Tabriz, there are very few really good hotels in Iran. For example, the hotel in Abeh Gharm hot water springs is in need of new carpeting and the chiller kept me awake until 2 am. The management said they are trying to fix it but they also have to change carpets, install new wall papers and do something about an elevator. The Kowsar Hotel in Kashan had huge, beautifully furnished apartments for a very reasonable price but the location of the hotel, its surroundings and office facilities are wanting. While DSL is already available in Tehran and possibly a few other cities, with the exception of one or two hotels in Tehran, my guess is that almost no hotel has fast internet connection today. So, there is a lot of room for improvements in this area. The other downside is traffic within the downtown area of large cities. (Even Abbasi Hotel is really difficult to get to through the traffic on the Chahar-Bagh Blvd.) Despite all this, one thing is guaranteed no matter where you are: good food.

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