2010
03.07

SYNOPSIS: Mah’sa and I explored the historical sites in Hamadan.  We both learned a lot.  A full range of pretty and not so pretty historical monuments.

We broke two records today for Mah’sa.  She had never been inside a church or a synagogue and we went to both today and more.  She was one of the young women whom I met on the bus yesterday.  Mah’sa is the one who speaks English and who studies electricity.  She had classes from 8-10 and from 4-6 and spent the hours in between exploring town with me.  This is not her home town.  She came from Teheran to study here.  To her Hamadan is a boring town.  Nothing is going on after 8 PM.  No big city flair.  It certainly is not Teheran with its mere 500,000 inhabitants.  Teheran has between 13-15 Million!  But she was surprised to find out what Hamadan has to offer after all.  Lonely Planet, lead on!

I had studied Hamadan’s unique layout yesterday and was quite familiar with the downtown and the location of the main attractions.  It is a fascinating city plan; one that was devised in the 1920’s by a German city planner.  Much of the old town was razed to give way to a new city which was built from scratch around a central square.  It displays a bronze memorial of Imam Khomenei.  From there, like spokes of a wheel avenues go out into every direction.  After about 1 km, there is a circular road and further out another one each of them connecting the spoke-avenues that have come out from the center.  The circular roads are residential.  The spoke-avenues are commercial.  Further out, the city has grown more organically; but at the level of the first circle, residences look like cookie-cutter images of one another creating a uniform and rather boring look.  What is noticeable is that every road and avenue is lined with trees.  Hamadan must be very pretty in about a month and for the rest of the year.  Now, for the most part trees are still bare.  But some fruit trees are beginning to bloom.

Hamadan’s history goes way back.  Pitifully little remains to attest to that rich past.  From the 5th Century BC two rock-cut inscriptions remain about 8 km outside of town, at a place referred to as Ganjnameh or Treasure Book.  People were convinced that these inscriptions referred to a hidden treasure rather than being the self-glorifying, tri-lingual prayer of Xerxes and Darius to a Zoroastrian God – which translations revealed them to be.   This place was located in a pleasant valley with a waterfall and a view of Mount Alvand (3580 meters) which towers over Hamadan and can be seen on a clear day like today.  In the summer, pollution and hazy weather conditions obscure the view.

From there we went to Hegmateneh Hill, an excavation area which shows some mud and brick walls covered under ugly corrugated metal roofs.  These are the sad remains of the once mighty Achaemenid capital city of Ecbatana from the 6th CB whose walls were said to have been lined with gold and silver.  Objects found during excavation are now in the small site museum or at the National Museum in Teheran, which I still have to visit.  A more tangible leftover of those days gone by is a smudged up stone “lion” which once guarded the entrance to the city.  Whether it ever was a lion or not is hard to say.  It is a lump of stone with some eyes in the basic shape of an animal.  It could be a hippopotamus for all I can tell.  It is a few kilometers away from the excavation hill displayed in a small city park.

When housing was cleared from the hill in the 1980’s for archaeological digs, a church was left standing that once had belonged to the Armenian community.  According to Mah’sa, all Christians have left Hamadan at the latest about 30 years ago.  But the church has recently been restored and is now part of the cultural heritage park.  The interior is not very inspiring as small copies of famous religious paintings such as Raffael’s Sistine Madonna and Michelangelo’s Pieta, give it a tacky and fake look.   But Mah’sa was deeply moved.  This was her first visit inside a “real church” as she said.

Hamadan boasts an array of fancifully tiled and gilded mosques and shrines dedicated to various revered imams.  Most notably is the Imamzadeh-ye Hossein shrine.  He is credited with miracles and any first-time visitor like me, can have a wish and it will be granted.  So I wished for… I guess, I am not supposed to tell.  Women and men’s sections in these monuments are separated and marked by curtains.  In the women’s section I observed old and young sitting in prayer, bowing, and kissing the silver grid of the shrine.  Devotion to these imams runs deep, particularly in the Shiah tradition.

The hit of the town is the tomb of BuAli Sina, known in the west as Avicenna.  I admit, I had never heard of him.  He seemed to have been a genius of the 10th Century responsible for significant advances in medicine.  Too bad, that the original tomb was dismantled to give way to a heavy 1950’s stone tower monstrosity placed over an Egyptian inspired colonnade.  I would have preferred a ram shackled 10thC tomb.  A remaining 12thC tomb commemorating two family members of the Alaviyan dynasty almost makes up for that loss.   But it is dome-less and therefore an incomplete example of its type.

My visit at the Esther-Mordecai Tomb yesterday was unfinished as the tomb itself was closed for the weekend.  Today, I went back with Mah’sa, who had never been inside that tomb either.  With two more visitors we waited patiently for Rabbi Rajad’s belated return from his lunch break.  How different this visit was!  He did not open the synagogue to the visitors at all.  He was very formal.  There were no blessings.  All we got to see today was the actual tomb of Esther and Mordechai and a rehearsed speech.  That is the standard program.  I got so lucky yesterday!

Mah’sa was impressed.  In one day she crossed two religious lines.  She told me that her parents are not religious at all.  She is the only one in the family (she has one more sister) who gradually became more and more religious inwardly and out.  She wears a hijab which does not allow any hair to show because she wants it that way.  She does not shake hands.  She will not wear T-shirts or western clothes even when she travels to Dubai or places in Europe.  She is a sweet young woman, highly educated and searching for a path.  What is hardest for her is knowing that even after she finishes her studies, chances of finding a job – any job – are slim to none.  From what I hear, a whole generation of young Iranians is facing this problem.    I wish her luck!

I take back what I said yesterday about the guys in Iran.  Today I was approached by a young man who wanted to join me on my walk.  I politely declined.  And in the market I was pestered by a hoard of teenagers who uncomfortably crowded me in and yelled at me who knows what, until I had to use one of three Farsi words I know:  Gomshow! Get lost.  That did the trick.

Good night.