2010
03.19

SYNOPSIS:  We checked off the Lonely Planet’s list of must-do monuments around Imam Khomeini Square. This is a boring monuments only blog entry.  You might as well skip it.  Tiles, tiles, and more tiles. 

My head is spinning!  After visiting two mosques, two palaces, one caravanserai, one museum, one madrassa, and a few shops at the bazaar in between, we were completely overloaded with visual images.   I think I will dream blue tonight with a sprinkle of yellow, white and green.

There is no way I can do the history of these monuments any justice in this blog, so I recommend you Google the specific background information on each building you might want to know more about.

I will focus on some peculiarities and things we noticed in each of the buildings.  First of all, we made a good decision last night:  We got up early.  At 8:15 AM, we had the IK Square almost to ourselves.  There was hardly any traffic on the road, hardly anyone at the square, and the first few guards were just starting to remove locks from the big wooden doors to let visitors in.  Others were rolling out huge red carpets in front of the main mosque – was a famous visitor coming?  The mosque was closed in the morning – this is highly unusual on a Friday and contradicts all guidebook information.

The square as you see it today owes much to a building campaign in the 1600’s sponsored by Shah Abbas also known as Shah Abbas the Great, who moved his capital to Esfahan and who was going to show the world what he could accomplish through a number of buildings clearly designed to impress and to awe-struck any visitor.  It’s in line with the later Versailles-Dubai syndrome.  The square measures 512 by 163 meters and is only outdone by Tiananmen Square in Beijing, at least in size.

Sheikh Lotfolla Mosque at the East side of the square was our first stop, appropriately so I guess, as it was originally intended only for the women in the shah’s harem.  It is unusual because it has no minaret and no courtyard.  A great portal flanks the square and from there a corridor leads directly into the sanctuary.  The symmetrical building is illuminated by light coming into one arched opening and into a few latticed stone windows so typical for air and light flow in all of these buildings.  They create wonderful shadows on the floor as the sun shines through them.

Right across is the Ali Qapu Palace.  It is six floors high and described as a sumptuous palace; part of an assembly of palaces and royal buildings that once stretched all the way to and beyond the river in an extensive park area.  Only two other palace buildings are left.  The rest have been wiped out by the 19th Century Qajar dynasty, the revolution, and the ever growing city.  Busy roads, shops and houses did not even leave traces of it.  And sumptuous is hardly the word to describe a few faded frescos that remain.  Nonetheless, the view from the terrace over the square is spectacular.

Since the main mosque was still closed for mysterious reasons, we ventured beyond the square and visited the Museum of Decorative Arts.  It is located in a former royal stable and well worth a visit.  Even if many of the objects on display are contemporary, they deliberately display ancient techniques.  Labeling is extensive and excellent in both Farsi and English.  The displays are well lit and clean and the court yard is a pleasant and quiet place to rest.

Nearby, in a nice park – all that’s left of the royal gardens – is a small summer palace, the Hasht Behesht Palace.   It is a central plan, two-story building with porticos and open terraces in all four directions opening up into the surrounding park.  It is a lovely setting and one can quite easily imagine relaxing there, once surrounded by beautiful mosaics, fountains, decorated ceilings and glass mirrors.  In several of the mosaics fragments that are left you see deliberate destruction:  dozens of gouge marks systematically hacking away at the images.  We were told that this was damage done by the envious Qajars.  Strange; if I were envious, but in power, I would take over the buildings of my despised predecessors and use and elaborate them, rather than destroy them.  Somehow this does not make sense.  Who knows who the real culprit is?  But then, people have been known to be that stupid.

After a brief rest in the afternoon, we were ready for the remaining sights.  The main Imam Mosque at the South of the square was now open.  It is probably one of the most impressive and largest mosques anywhere in the world.  After you have seen this, it is hard to imagine seeing any later mosque emulating this type with quite the same appreciation.  The mosque is huge, but proportioned so beautifully and laid out so interestingly, that it is not overwhelming.  Madrassas (religious schools) are attached to the side of the sanctuary and form separate court yards with arched colonnades.  It is fascinating how the mosque’s entrance portal faces the square outside, but the mosque itself is turned to face Mecca.  Since you have to enter through a twisted hallway, the view of the main court is obscured until it opens up in its full glory all at once.  An unfortunate feature that was dictated by location was brilliantly used to enhance the overall effect of the building.  Just like the mosque in Damascus, this mosque was a true highlight of my trip.  I never thought I would see this in person.

As if we had not seen enough…   After stopping by our favorite carpet store to do a little more looking and a little more bargaining for some pieces we really would like to buy – we went to the Madraseh–ye-Chahar-Bagh.  Lucky for us, it is Noruz and that is the only time of the year that this working madrassa opens up to the public.  It was dark and I have no tripod, so my pictures are useless.  But the feel of this building was wonderful.  It has not been restored, yet it is in nearly perfect condition.  It has some of the old-style mosaic tiling that was used before Shah Abbas became impatient.  In that style, the patterns are made of small, individually colored squares and rectangles.  It is a time consuming technique.  Abbas insisted on faster construction of his most prestigious architectural monument.  His architect changed the small tile production to prefabricated, pre-painted larger tiles that often form a repeated set of patterns.  This technique has been used ever since.  It was a treat to see the old style and the new style literally used in one building; here as well as in the Imam Mosque.

Each of these monuments charges an entrance fee.  It was interesting for us to compare prices.  The five buildings we visited first cost less combined than the one visit of the privately operated madrassa. But still, these fees are negligible.  Syria has a different system (so did Pakistan):  Locals are charged near to nothing for visiting their monuments.  Foreigners are charged 4-10 times the price.  I approve of that system as long as the entrance fees are used to maintain and restore the monuments.  Here, there is one price for all.  It is very little for our budget.

Our final stop in the evening was a caravanserai which has been fully restored and turned into the five star Abbasid Hotel.  It has a lovely court yard where you can sit and drink tea and have that slimy green soup that we had the other day in Mr. Akbar’s carpet shop.  Here, they called it Ash (Ush).  To compare the fast food and the five star versions, I had it again.  Nicola did not care for it a second time.  This time the parts were discernable.  There was no rice, but noodles, and egg plant and nuts, beans, and spices.  And the mandatory yoghurt sauce and fried onions topped the mix.  I find it rather interesting but I don’t have to have it again either.

When we returned to the hotel it had gotten too late for visiting the internet.  They close around 8 PM here.  In Syria, they stayed open way after midnight… I had forgotten about that.  Different countries, different customs.

Good night.