Thursday, August 20, 2009


The most beautiful city I have visited is Ishfahan in Iran. I went there in 1970 when the Shah still ruled. It is 340 kilometres south of Teheran. After the small low-flying Friendship flight there, all that barren earth sliding underneath, it was a surprise to see lush greenery and sparkling fountains while brilliant turquoise tiles on mosque and minaret soared towards the sky. At one stage we’d flown over an army convoy -. Alexander, Timur, Genghis Khan and all the rest - sunsets on forgotten empires.

Ishfahan, Iran’s third largest city, was once the country’s capital. It’s world-renowned for its glorious buildings - boulevards, covered bridges, mosques, minarets, palaces. Many date from the reign of Shah Abbas 1587-1629. In the centre of the city is a huge square or Maidan. Our guide told us they used to play polo there – with the heads of defeated enemies. I recall luxuriating in the splendour of the view - rose beds everywhere.

On the square south side is the Shah Mosque with its twin minarets – a masterpiece of Persian architecture. On the west side is the royal palace. On the east side another mosque. And on the north a massive covered crowded bazaar – carpet stalls everywhere, we bought camel bells as our souvenir. The only unpleasant aspect were the ever-present raucous crows.

Our guide hired a car and a driver for a day in the country. On the way out of the city we stopped to admire Pul-e-Khaju, the famous arched bridge and weir. In the centre of the bridge there was a hexagon pavilion, decorated in the characteristic turquoise tiles. Buses laboured across the upper span, men and boys clinging to the outsides. Downstream, women dressed in churdar washed clothing and bedding, spreading it on the steps to dry in the winter sun.

Shah Abbas had built it at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The sight drove home the sense that the New World lacks a sense of architectural past. Several camels, bells tinkling, ambled across the bridge, and overburdened donkeys; as it a little piece of the past had been preserved intact into the quarrelling present. .

We explored a qanat, an ancient underground water channel. It was by a small village, walls of sundried brick, topped with rough thatch, and several tall pigeon lofts. Food and fertiliser. A blindfolded donkey circled endlessly a primitive wheel from which water flowed to a few green fields. We negotiated a visit with a group of men who had come out to welcome us. Discussions and barter were held over cups of sweet black tea which a procession of boys, trays around their necks, brought out. Under a thorn tree another small boy watched a few scrawny sheep scavenging for food.

An old lady waving a battery torch led us down the narrow, gentle slope. Bats fluttered around. Down by the flowing water, about a dozen women, the light so dim you could hardly see them, were beating the hell out of their washing. A noisy lot, chuckling and chattering away, they used a surprising amount of detergent - modern plastic squeegee bottles. I identified the lingering taste from the tea.

The guide took us to a high mountain village where his widowed aunt. "a cross between Mother Teresa and a battle-axe", welcomed us. Her grandson moved forward offering water from a goatskin bag. I realised I had to push aside thoughts of hygiene. I took a small sip. The old matriarch beamed. "She is honoured by your presence," he translated. One of the many grandsons started pouring sweet tea as we settled into bargaining over our wish to take photographs,

We asked to see carpet-making. They took us into one of the clustered mudhuts. Two thin teenage girls squatted cross-legged on the floor, worked rapidly at a large loom in the poorly lit room. "This is how our world-famous carpets are woven." "How much does the family get for such a fabulous carpet?" we asked. It was a pittance; age-old, each middle-man takes his whack, the producers get little. I recalled the fat stall-keepers of the previous day’s bazaar. The only part of the girls we could see was their sunken eyes, but they appeared emaciated, they coughed all the time. the room stunk of urine, blood and sweat. The experience put me off ever buying a Persian rug.

One of the youths appeared with a platter of freshly-baked unleavened bread. A half-grown donkey, nudged me, the soft muzzle quivering hungrily at my bread. Without thinking I broke off a piece and shared it with the animal. Even as I did I sensed the villager's consternation. My explanation that at home I’d fed horses like that eventually mollified them. How many horses does your father have? Three! I obviously came from a rich family. Shame drove me to a fairly generous tip.

It sounds like I did not enjoy that day. I did. It was fascinating. And it must be remembered this was forty years ago. Today Ishfahan is one of the centres for Iran’s nuclear programme. Saddam Huissen’s missiles have destroyed some of the glory spots. The country is a very different nation now. But I recollect the hospitality of the people. And the magnificence of those buildings, a reminder that at one time Persia led the world in architecture, science, mathematics and literature. I am pleased to have seen them.

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