2010
03.21

SYNOPSISToday we went to the Armenian Quarter.  We observed and we broke a few rules.  We got some right and some wrong information.  What is allowed and what is not allowed all depends on what you can get away with!

We were sipping coffee at Ali’s Coffee Bar listening to American rock music overlooking a nice small city square in the Christian quarter of Esfahan.  As I looked around, I realized, if I would not know that I am in Iran, I could not tell.  Small houses lined the square with stores at the bottom, most of them closed for the holidays.  There were some trees.   Everything, as always and everywhere, was spotlessly clean.  But something did not sit right.  I finally realized what it was and asked the proprietor:  Are you allowed to play this music?  No problem he said.  Really?  What if the police came?  He shook his head in this peculiar neither yes or no fashion.  Will they arrest you, I asked?  No, he said and rubbed his fingers together – ah, they will fine you!  Yes, he said.  If they catch him playing this music – and he played it loud enough to be heard across the plaza – he would have to pay up!  Wow!  Here was another example of doing what you want and what you like and pushing along until you get caught.  The consequences do not seem to be severe enough to deter the actions.  This is what we heard about computer filters and satellite dishes.  We see it in the clothing; now music.

We had a great time at the Coffee Bar.  Nicola was ecstatic – and I really could only say that about her so far in relationship to carpets – about her coffee!  For days we had only been served tea.  It’s the national drink.  I hardly noticed.  I drink tea anyhow. But Nicola had foregone her daily dose of coffee and here it was – a real coffee shop, with an atmosphere and an attitude.  We stayed for a long time.

After that we strolled through the Armenian quarter.  If our guard Hamlet, at Saint Mary Church was right, there are about 8000 Armenians living in Esfahan, many of them in this area.  There are 13 churches and several Armenian schools, hospitals, stores, etc.  Armenians speak their language in addition to Farsi and also learn Arabic in school as well as English.  There are no tensions or problems between the people of the two religions.  In fact, Ali the coffee bar owner was a Muslim running one of the main shops at the main Armenian square.

Many of the Armenian churches are open for visitors.  Visitors have to pay a rather high entrance fee, comparatively speaking.  But the churches were frequented and the cathedral was full when we saw it.  The churches are decorated top to bottom with paintings, tiles, mosaics, frescoes and carpets.  Many of the visitors are Muslims.  They come out of curiosity and with visiting relatives.  Hamlet remarked that even though none of them knows much about Christianity, and even though there is always a guard there who would answer, there are no questions asked about their religion.

We asked him about Jews in Iran.  No, there are no Jews, none.  The government does not take well to them, he answered.  Really?  I told him that I had visited the Rabbi in Kermanshah.  15 Jews are not many, granted, but I had first-hand evidence that contradicted his answer.  He was surprised.  The rabbi had told me that there are more Jews in Esfahan and at the hotel I heard that there was a rather large synagogue from 50 years ago at a plaza south-east of the river.  In bad taste, the plaza has been named Palestine Square…  Hamlet was unaware of even that!  I am pretty sure we got our information right.  How could he not know?

As often when it comes to people, I am less interested in what the real facts are than in what the convictions and the perceptions of people are.  After all, that’s what they live by.  Mah’sa in Kermanshah was convinced that there is nothing in the Koran that encourages violence.  The four girls at Shushtar thought that Noruz is an Islamic holiday.  Hamlet thinks there are no Jews in Iran…

What was most interesting for us to observe in the two churches and the cathedral we visited, is how similar church and mosque architecture are, down to the details.  There are carpets on the floor, shoes are taken off, painted or mosaic tiles are lining the bottom and the exterior of the buildings.  The imagery is quite clearly Christian with prominent depictions of hell, mother and child, picture cycles depicting the life of Christ and other saints.  Most of them seemed remotely influenced by Spanish or Italian Baroque.

As interested as we are in taking pictures, we had to struggle with some of the photography rules:  My general philosophy is don’t ask.  Do what you want to do until told otherwise.  In the first church, Nicola insisted on asking while I was inside, already taking pictures.  Immediately, I was stopped by a young female guard.  No pictures!  This came at about the same moment as Nicola returned with the information from the guard outside:  Pictures, but no flash!  We argued with the girl about her idea that the pictures would be damaged – without flash?!  We got her to go outside to ask the other guard… only to use the moment to take as many pictures as we could, without flash, of course…  You get the idea.  She came back and the verdict was:  No photos whatsoever.  OK, I already got what I needed.

In the next church the guard allowed us to take pictures without flash.  In the third church, we purchased a permission to photograph outside the buildings and inside the cathedral complex.  Inside the church itself photography was forbidden.  Yet, we noticed that literally dozens of people were using their phones to video the inside!  They must have purchased a video permission.  So, I got my camera out and photographed and was not stopped…  It goes to show what happens to rules that make absolutely no sense.  It also goes to show that you never have enough guards to stop a hoard of visitors from not observing them.   At least the cathedral staff was clever enough to extract a photo permit from us.  I was happy to pay.

Our final stop before a nice dinner in the supposedly finest restaurant in Esfahan was another old double-tiered bridge with multiple arches spanning the Zayandeh River.  Nearby was the old cemetery.  Little remains and we did not venture much into it.  But we saw a mausoleum dedicated to Mr. and Mrs. Pope, American academics who had devoted their lives to the study of ancient Persia.  They died in 1959 and 1977 respectively.  We were struck by the fact that there was a tomb identified in Persian and English as the tomb of two Americans.  Not a speck of anti-American graffiti, not a sign of vandalism.  Rather, curious Iranians were peeking in and moved on.  Remarkable!

Dinner was good again.  I had chicken in walnut sauce, Nicola had fish kabab.  The environment was distinctly Qajar – the last Iranian dynasty.  Qajar is synonymous with decadence for the revolution that followed and with gaudy as far as art historical standards is concerned.  Glass mirrors, glitter, frescoes of dancing maidens; the restaurant seems to have no trouble replicating the Qajars.  That does not seem to violate any rules.

Good night.