THE KAERU KID: Iran and the Persian Empire

bioline_KaeruKidEditor’s Note: This is the third part of a series.

We spent our last full day in Isfahan at the World Heritage Site Imam Square, the second largest square after Tiananmen in Beijing. This square is vastly more attractive, with grass, fountains, adjoining palaces, several mosques and enclosed bazaar shopping lanes. Shah Abbas chose Isfahan as the site of the capital of the Persian Empire. It was surrounded by arid desert, protecting it from enemies who would have had to cross vast stretches of desert before reaching it. Meanwhile, the Zayanderud River nourished Isfahan. Unfortunately, the river has dried up during the summer months in recent years. 

Shah Abbas started the square in 1598 as a polo field so he could watch matches from his palace balcony. He had a tunnel built from his palace to a private mosque across the square, so he, his family and harem could go to the private mosque without having to be with the public. This mosque is considered one of the most beautiful. It has no minaret because there was no need to call the shah to prayer.

After lunch, we went to the Old Town area where the lower classes have their bazaar. The oldest mosque in the city is located here and inside there was a column that was tilted by an Iraqi rocket attack.

Dinner that night was at an elegant restaurant located at Imam Square. I ordered fesenjan, a stew containing poultry that’s cooked with pomegranate juice and walnuts and served over rice. It was delicious.

Our leader, Jerry Dekker, recommended a carpet merchant. Several of us took him up on the suggestion. Mine were sent to my home without problems. Merchants, it seems, are thus able to circumvent the American embargo. 

The flight to Tehran was only $28, but we opted for a long bus ride to see small villages along the way. We passed through the town of Natanz that is renowned for its fruit orchards and for the site of Iran’s main nuclear enrichment program. We were told not to take photos near here. Fighter jets were seen flying overhead, but antiaircraft batteries appear to be rather old. 

A walking tour of the Abyaneh village revealed only a few hundred residents who still cling to their old traditions. Women wear a white scarf with floral patterns and a pleated pants of under the knee skirt. Some authorities have unsuccessfully tried to make them conform to wearing the all-covering black abaya cloak. It is called the Red Village because the houses are made of red clay and built in a stepwise manner up the steep hillside. The roofs of lower houses serve as the courtyard for the higher ones. This village is a UNESCO World Heritage site and both foreign tourists and local Iranians visit.

Next, we went to Kashan, which some claim was the home of the three wise men that saw Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Bagh-e-Fin, a gorgeous garden, is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is fed by springs from a nearby hill. The water pressure is enough to supply fountains without a power source. Pools and channels of water are lined with turquoise colored tile giving the effect of an abundance of water in this dry area. This is also the historic site where Amir Kabir, a modernizing prime minister, was assassinated in 1852.

About 25 miles from Kashan, we stopped at Ardahal, a recent UNESCO site where Sultan Ali, son of the 5th Imam visited from Medina, Saudi Arabia in 734 when he was murdered by another Muslim clan. His bloody body was washed in a nearby stream, wrapped in a rug and brought to the burial site where a shrine was erected. Every year in August, more than 200,000 pilgrims gather to participate in a ritual of beating the original carpet signifying beating of the murderers and then washing the carpet in a stream before returning it to the shrine.

We returned on a highway to Tehran with a rest stop where there are gas pumps, water closets, cafeteria and other fast food outlets. An Iranian who visited the U.S. saw how popular such places along the U.S. interstates were and built a similar one. It has proved to be a popular stop for Iranian motorists, too.

After an overnight stay back in Tehran, we set off to the Caspian Sea, a six-hour drive over mountains and through tunnels. A modern highway has been in the works for 20 years but is only 20 percent completed. When finished, the trip is supposed to take only an hour. 

Upon arriving at the Caspian Sea, we went to the guide’s mother-in-law’s home, which cost $150,000 cash. There are no mortgages here. We were served cake, fruits and tea. Inside their home, women do not have to wear the all-covering abaya. The mother wore stylish Western clothing.

The Caspian Sea is the largest lake in the world; five times the size of Lake Superior. It is important to determine if it should be considered a lake or sea since the rules governing its use by adjoining countries is different. Some of the world’s largest oil reserves are located here. If it is designated a lake, the five countries bordering the water would have to share equally in the oil revenue. If it is a sea, the oil profit would be determined by the percent of land bordering the water. Iran only has 13 percent of the water border and understandably would prefer to share the “lake” equally with the other four countries. Other bordering countries are polluting the waters causing a drop in the sturgeon population, the source of the world’s most expensive caviar.

Many fancy homes and hotels are being constructed here. Our hotel was mediocre with poor service. We were told it used to be one of the finest hotels, but then the government took it over. Dinner that night was a delicious whitefish. 

The next day, on our long drive back to Tehran, we visited the town of Masouleh. It is built on hillsides and again the courtyard of the higher home is the roof of the lower building. Streets are narrow, so no vehicular traffic is allowed. A flood swept away many structures here in 1998. Older buildings here, as elsewhere, have doorknockers on each of the double doors that are different from the other. One is heavier and when used is louder. Men use this one to warn women inside of their presence at the door. Women use the smaller lighter one.

We arrived at our Tehran hotel late in the evening, but had to depart shortly after midnight to catch the plane to Uzbekistan ending a fabulous journey through the Persian Empire.

A few miscellaneous observations on Iran: Satellite dishes are illegal, but I saw a few. We were able to access English programs on BBC, Al Jazeera and Bloomberg on hotel TV. Few dogs are seen because they say Muslim culture considers them unclean. Women are required to be covered in the black chador and some older women say it is easier to decide what to wear. Some feel their daughters are also protected from men’s stares, whereas the young chafe against this rule. Few women wear the hijab, the veil covering their face, as in Saudi Arabia. People are not seen praying five times per day as in other more conservative Muslim countries and attendance at Friday prayers does not seem to be well attended. I was told drugs, sex, alcohol and sexual encounters among members of the same sex are all available surreptitiously. I could not get the high exchange rates noted in news broadcasts. If a money exchanger openly tries, he can be arrested. Praying men place a small clay tablet on the ground so when they bow, their foreheads touch it. The preferred clay is from Karbala, Iraq where Mohammed’s grandson was martyred and is one of Shia Muslims most holy sites. Iraq has a majority of Sunnis and they have threatened the mosque and holy sites in Karbala. This infuriates the Shiites and they are willing to die to protect these holy sites. Shiites from around the world would also consider this a holy duty. Sunnis frequently pray on special prayer rugs and do not use the clay tablet. Military service is compulsory for 24 months unless you are a college graduate, and then service as an officer would be for 18 months. There is a Persian custom called ta’aroof. When one offers something, it is declined. One must insist a second time and it is again declined. Only when offered the third time will it be accepted, much like the concept of enryo in Japanese. When asking the price of an article in a store, the merchant may say it is nothing so you have to ask again. Do not take it thinking it is free. Sellers have learned not to do this with Westerners.

My impressions were hampered by limited access to the Iranian people, but they genuinely seemed to be friendly, despite knowing we were Americans. There seems to be growing unrest especially among the young with the strict theocracy rules. The present president, Hassan Rouhani, seems to be trying to allow more relaxation of these strict rules but is limited by having to have all his decisions approved by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and hardliners close to him.

My advice is to visit Iran and many preconceived ideas will prove to be erroneous. Iranians are a hospitable, friendly people even if some of those in power are not.

Onward to Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

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Las Vegas Tidbits

The Ramen Tsunami continues as the large Japanese ramen chain, Hiromaru, recently opened a branch in Las Vegas at 5300 Spring Mountain Road, Suite 101; (702) 534-7878. Here are several others that recently opened: JINYA Ramen Bar, 4860 West Flamingo Road; (702) 868-8877; Ramen Sora, 4490 Spring Mountain Road; (702) 685-1011; Fukumimi Ramen, 4860 South Eastern Ave.; (702) 631-2933; Ramen Tatsu, 3400 South Jones Blvd.; (702) 629-7777; Ramen Misoya Tomi, 4300 West Spring Mountain Road; (702) 998-9781, among others. I am just not a big ramen fan but I am looking forward to a place rumored to specialize in tempura that is being planned. I loved Ten-Ichi in Tokyo.

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