SYNOPSIS:  Today was New Year’s Eve in Iran and we had very nice encounters with the locals.  This is about a few more mosques, about Iranian Bart Simpsons, a Fire Temple, and Shaking Minarets.  SALE NO MUBARAK – Happy New Year!

We just returned from the Royal Square, that’s the old name for Imam Khomeini Square and the one most Iranians still use.  It is the spot where the locals love to relax after hours. Certainly tonight, it was packed with Iranians who came with their full extended families.  Many had brought rugs – one family, what looked like a whole Persian carpet – to sit on and to have their dinner picnic.  Everyone from the youngest grandchild to the oldest family member had come along.

At 9:03 PM cheers went up and at various parts of the square fire crackers were lit and pictures were taken.  Nicola and I had just left the square, but when we heard all that noise, we turned around.  We split up and within a few minutes each of us was engaged in conversation with some Iranians.  It really is striking how quickly contacts are made when you walk around alone as a non-native. There were a few foreigners, but most of the people around were not.  I saw a young couple taking pictures of each other and I offered to take a picture of both of them.  From there it went:  First she wanted her picture taken with me, then he with me.  Before long, another couple joined us who wanted to ask me a few questions and wanted to film me.  And before I knew it, the original couple offered me their miniature Noruz table display, which they had brought along for decoration, as a gift!  I rejected and rejected, and then accepted it.  Now we had to exchange names and I was scrambling for a gift to give them in return.  At last I found a Michigan button with a pin and explained that I was German, but was working in Michigan.  That pleased them very much, especially when I explained, that all the gifts from Iran will become teaching material for my students.  Thankfully, the husband of the second couple who had joined us was an English major and translated our conversation back and forth.  Again, I was overwhelmed by the generosity and warmth of total strangers.  I had walked into this square with nothing and walked out with a gift box in hand!

This was a wonderful ending of a long, long day.  Lonely Planet in hand, we had set off in the morning with a taxi to see the Manar Jomban Shrine, also known as the “shaking minarets”.  No joke, these minarets from the 14th Century were shaking, when shaken.  People used to be allowed to go up there themselves and shake them.  These days, a professional “shaker” goes up every half hour or so to make the minarets move for about 30 seconds.  It obviously is a local spectacle and with all the visitors in town for Noruz, this seems to have been a favorite destination.  The courtyard of the shrine of the revered dervish Abu Abdullah, to which the minarets belong, was packed.  Once again, we seemed to be the only foreigners.   Nicola told me that there used to be two more famous shaking minarets in Ahmadabad, India.  One of them was taken apart to see the peculiar mechanics that made it shake, but it’s like Humpty Dumpty – once broken, you can’t put it back together again.  So that one was gone.  And the second of these twin towers was destroyed in an earthquake as recently as 2001.  This makes the Esfahan towers particularly special.  This phenomenon seems to be an unplanned byproduct rather than a deliberate structural issue.  The fun is over in 30 seconds.  You can’t capture it in still photography; only in a video.  But aside from this curiosity, it was nice to see another example of early mosque-shrine architecture.  This style predates the all too familiar glazed tile architecture we associate with Iran.  It is more austere and I find it particularly appealing.  It’s a bit like looking at a Romanesque church and then setting it next to a Baroque one.  I think that the Baroque one after a certain while gets on your nerves, whereas the Romanesque one never ceases to sooth you.  But that’s just my taste.

From there we ventured further out of town to Ateshkadeh-ye-Esfahan, a rocky hill on which remains of a Zoroastrian fire sanctuary can be found.  The origins of the site date back to the times of the Elamites.  Lonely Planet talked about a 10 minute scramble up there.  What an insult!  We are not the youngest – admitted.  But we are not that out of shape either.  This scramble takes a good 20 minutes given just one or two brief rests.  There is no path, one has to climb, slide, and slither over rocks and debris to reach the top.  There is a mud-brick circular top and a few walls; nothing much else.  The view on clear days may be nice.  But it was hazy and we did not see much but dust in the distance.  Nonetheless, this was a fun and worthwhile expedition.  Down was even harder than up; faster for sure, but more dangerous.  To see some of the older chador-clad women manage is remarkable.  Some landed on their butts, though…  Our hotel owner was so concerned that we two old ladies would go up that hill by ourselves that he personally called the taxi company and requested a young and fit taxi driver who would accompany us up there!  When he asked for young and fit, I interjected – don’t forget good looking!  You don’t want to know who came to pick us up in the taxi, but paunchy Mr. Middle Age.  No trace of any of the requested criteria.  We had mercy on him and told him on site that he could remain in his taxi and take a nap.  If we had him in tow, it would have taken us 45 minutes each way…

In the afternoon we headed out for a walking tour north of the Royal Square to see two more mosques.  The first one was another one of the “Romanesque” ones, the Hakim Mosque from the 11th Century.  It is the oldest mosque in Esfahan.  The second one is the most important mosque for Esfahani people, and the largest in town:  The Jameh Mosque, or Friday Mosque.  Something along the lines of a cathedral in Christian terms, to use another analogy.  Mosques are mosques, but only a few are classified as Friday Mosques.  It is huge, but much of it was bricked off and inaccessible, except for the main court yard with its four iwans (arched niches), which have been built over an 800 year span.  This allows for wonderful comparisons in architectural developments, but they are quite boring to write about.  I will spare you the details.  Calligraphy, the muquarnas (honeycomb ceilings), architectural designs, and tiles all developed over time.  There is no more compact space than this mosque in the world, where all of these developments comes together in one single building.  To me, this mosque was by far more interesting than the big mosque at the Royal Square.   But again, that’s just my taste.

By now it was almost evening.  Since we were close, I wanted to see just one more 14th century shrine that seemed so close on the map, yet turned out to be quite far.  Before we knew it we were caught in the thickest crowd of Noruz shoppers, moved along by black chadors, pushed into vendor’s booths, and squeezed in between the “Bart Simpsons” of Iran.  Nicola coined this term for the teenage punker guys who oil their hair into little upstanding spikes.  I had first noticed them in Shushtar.  In a hurry, I packed my camera into my bag and held onto all my belongings for dear life.  One of us went ahead clearing a path.  Every few minutes we were separated trying to find each other in the crowd.  Just today I had to wear my black scarf!  Black, of course, makes you practically indistinguishable.  We finally made it back to the closed sections of the bazaar – after all it was Noruz and many parts of the bazaar had closed for the holidays.  The contrast could not have been starker.  The covered bazaar was dark, deserted and eerie.  Except for a few motor bikes that had to roar through, we had the old lanes to ourselves.

After all of this, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner at the Royal Square to be in the middle of the New Year festivities.  We found a lovely courtyard restaurant that served local dishes and once again, had a delicious meal.  To all those who knock the Iranian cuisine I have to say that I don’t know what you are talking about.  All you have to do is avoid the dry kababs.  I had olives with a walnut paste, huge grape leaves stuffed with deliciously seasoned rice and an egg plant roasted with pieces of chicken and nuts – delicious!  Nicola had an eggplant dish.  It looked not very appealing – a sort of mush, but was very tasty as well.  With that we had one of the favorite local drinks and that is seasoned yoghurt.  Who can complain?  But wait!   If this had been served with a nice cold beer or a deep red wine…

But I am not complaining.   We spent Noruz, the most important and most Iranian of all Iranian holidays at the most famous square in all of Iran.  Try to top that one!

Good night.