I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Final encounter

I think this is an appropriate place to stop. For now, anyway -- I still have stories to tell and I'll try to write them over the next few weeks.

We met this girl while walking across the bridge this afternoon. She spoke excellent English, as many young Iranians do. And when I could, I answered in Farsi, and she didn't understand anything I said. I was just using the same basic expressions I've been using for weeks -- my name is Kathleen, I'm American, I'm from New York, I understand a little Farsi -- but every time I said anything she frowned and looked confused, and her mother would repeat what I'd just said. Maybe she was just expecting to hear English, and wasn't sure that she was hearing me correctly, but it was very funny.

Back to English-speaking for me.

Khaju Bridge

This bridge is built atop a dam. The steps by the sluices are apparently a popular place to hang out.

More random things

Random things I saw in Isfahan

Woman in the Armenian quarter, domes and mountains, the ceiling inside the Palace of Forty Columns.

Back to reality

It was more than usually jarring to leave the quiet contemplation of the mosque and stagger out into the dust and sunshine of shops and crowds, the bustle of daily life.

One more

This is probably my favorite of all the squinches we've seen.

Two squinches

Let there be light

One of the domes.


This mihrab, fashioned of stucco, though it appears to be carved out of stone, is one of the mosque's treasures.

The calligraphy, rather controversially, is not the usual verses from the Quran but rather a long press release for the shah who commissioned the piece.

A ceiling


Jameh Mosque

We've been inside at least a dozen mosques now, and there is a common pattern: a central courtyard, often with a place for ablutions before praying, and usually four iwans, the large vaulted rooms with one open wall, one on each side. There are arches, and squinches and domes, and beautiful tilework  and mosaics, and usually, though not always, minarets.

The Jameh mosque in Isfahan has all of those elements, but it's unlike anything else we've seen. For one thing, it's much older -- most of the mosques we've visited are only a few hundred years old, but parts of this mosque date from the 11th century, and every school of Islamic architecture since then is represented.

It's also the largest mosque in Iran. I could spend days there, looking at the brickwork and the evolution of the squinch. The pictures will give you some idea, but there's an atmosphere a photograph can't capture, of a place that's been regarded as holy for a very long time.

The altar

Okay, you would never see this in a mosque. But you might see very similar decoration in a palace.

Armenian church

The Armenian quarter in Isfahan dates from the 16th century, when Shah Abbas persuaded a colony of Christians to relocate from northern Iran because he wanted access to their skills as craftsmen. There are still approximately 5000 Armenian Christians living here.

The church was built in the 1650's, and except for the crosses and the human figures painted inside, could almost be just another mosque. (Though the Shiites don't have the same strong feelings about portraiture that the Sunnis do -- the Qajars produced some beautiful portraits, and we've even seen depictions of Mohammed -- there are never any human or animal forms used in decorating mosques.)

Last day

A musician playing the local version of the bagpipe in the Armenian quarter.

It's fascinating to me -- and oh so frustrating -- how sometimes the best photographs take no work at all, just point and shoot and maybe clean up the exposure a little afterwards. 

As opposed to the picture of the bridge last night, where I had no plans or equipment for taking night shots and ended up improvising by setting a long shutter speed and setting the camera on a garbage can. For so-so results.

Iran has made it easier than usual by offering interesting subjects everywhere I look, and sometimes I get lucky.

Like here. All I had to do was take the picture.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Bridges of Isfahan County

One of the things Isfahan is famous for is the many bridges crossing the Zayandeh River.

We walked down to the river after dinner to enjoy this view, the Si-o-seh bridge by night.

Okay, but this is a little creepy

I can't help thinking Chuckie Goes to Woodstock.

Where does paisley come from?

One more stop on the artisan tour of Isfahan -- visiting a fabric store where we got to see the process of creating the elaborate paisley designs.

The patterns are stamped onto the fabric, one color at a time, with amazing speed and accuracy.

Abstract scaffolding

One more picture of the Imam mosque, just because I can never resist taking pictures of scaffolding.

And that is some impressive scaffolding, on a scale with the mosque. There were men stretching sheets of fabric over the top, so I assume it's to provide shade for worshippers as the weather gets hotter.


The lines inside the stars in this mosaic are not just a geometric design -- they're calligraphy. In addition to the very elaborate, beautiful calligraphy used for the Quran quotes (like that around the dome and along the portal in the photos below) Persian architecture frequently uses kufic calligraphy in mosaics. It usually says Allah or Mohammed or Ali, in a stylized square that just looks abstract unless you know what it is.

Prayer rugs

The picture on the left unfortunately is not that clear, but I'm posting it anyway because I like the bright light from outside and the piles of carpets in the shadows inside.

Color coordination

Here's a different kind of detail inside the mosque, these intricate wooden doors. My favorite part of this image is that the mortar between the bricks is blue, presumably to coordinate with the mosque tilework and mosaics.

A little of both

This is the conundrum

A section of the dome inside the Imam mosque, the other mosque on the square.

It's a section because there's so much detail that if I try to post a photo of the entire dome it will just be a slightly mottled blur. And yet by focusing on only one section, I lose the grandeur of the whole. I've run into that over and over again on this trip -- the details, the patterns are so exquisite, but the scale of how they are used is just as impressive. You can't really photograph both, and most of the time, you can't even capture the scale with a mere camera.

So I guess you'll just have to go to Isfahan yourself if you really want to see the majesty of it. The details are yours for an extra click.

A few more carpets

Let's give the last word to Rumi:
            I can't stop pointing to the beauty.             
 Every moment and place says,
            “Put this design in your carpet!”

How to buy a Persian carpet

There's a ritual involved that's almost as detailed as the carpets.

First you're invited to sit on these stools and offered coffee or tea. While you sip, you make small talk about your travels, what you've seen, where you're going. (Which, sadly for us, is home the day after tomorrow.)

Then you watch a video about how the carpets are made, how the wool and silk is dyed with indigo and pomegranate and madder and a dye made from insects similar to cochineal, how the patterns are planned and then the actual knotting done, and how each region has its own distinct styles of carpet-making.

Finally, some of the actual merchandise is displayed, carpets brought out one or two at a time, and gently unrolled on the floor.

After a few dozen carpets of different sizes and styles have been displayed and discussed, someone will ask about the prices. Which, when you now consider how many months of work it takes to produce one of these beauties, suddenly seem perfectly reasonable.

Magic carpets

Now for a brief commercial break.

Obviously it would have been almost criminal to have spent any length of time in the former Persia without learning about and admiring Persian carpets. Sadly, it's also almost criminal to buy them, thanks to the sanctions, although it is possible to get around this by conducting the transaction in Dubai.

In which case that exquisite hand-knotted 100% silk runner can be yours for a mere $11,000 U.S.

In which I elect not to take the stairs

The Ali Qapu palace is across the square from the Lotfallah mosque. My knees felt very strongly that I should not be making the climb up the six flights of steep stairs to get a closer look at the famous music room, but here's a look from street level.

The ceiling inside the entry is below.

Artists at work

In the shops around the bazaar, a woman paints enamel on a dish, and a man adds decorative texture to a metal plate.
I love her bare feet.

Peacock tail

This is the inside of the gold dome in the photos below. It's designed to have the sunlight coming in through the hole at the top of the dome create that peacock tail effect.

The Lotfallah mosque was built for the use of the royal family, and was not open to the public. A tunnel leading under the square from the palace directly opposite allowed the women of the harem to come without being seen.


Our last stop.

Isfahan is often described as the most beautiful city in Iran. I'm not sure it's more beautiful than Shiraz, but it is certainly jaw-dropping.

For example, here's Naqsh-e Jahan Square, the second largest square on earth after Tiananmen. It's a third of a mile long, with a palace and two beautiful mosques, and galleries along the entire perimeter. When it was first built, 400 years ago, it was a polo field, and you can still see where the goal posts were.

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