Day 63: Half the world

Esfahan Travel Blog

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having breakfast
Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Michael (Australia), Ismail (Afghanistan), Alla & Sergei (Belarus) Hamid, Mehmet, Hassan, Shabir (Iran)

Michael and I had opted not to have breakfast in the hostel. We didn't particularly like the place and didn't feel like spending another 5 bucks for breakfast. So we went into town to try and find a place serving breakfast. Well, this is another thing that simply doesn't exist in Iran, so in the end we just had a some freshly baked bread with a bit of honey at the roadside.

Esfahan is considered one of the finest cities in the Islamic world. A famous 16th century half-rhyme says “Esfahan nesf-e jahan”, Esfahan is half the world.
At the bazaar
The half the world title was happily applied to tourist brochures for centuries to come and until the Islamic Revolution Esfahan was considered on par with Rome or Athens as a cultural travel destination. Today the whole centre of Esfahan is a World Heritage site.

We had decided to stay three to four days in Esfahan, as there is so much to see in this city. So today we took it easy, we simply wandered around the northern part of the city centre, leaving the major sites for tomorrow.

We walked around the Bazar-e Bozorg, the largest of the many bazaars in Esfahan, for several hours. Inside the bazaar are several mosques and medressas (Islamic theological schools). At one such medressa I met a very nice man who turned out to be an Afghan refugee. As a kid he had fled his country with his parents during the Russian invasion.
Meeting an Afghan refugee at the Madraseh-ye Sadr
Despite being devout Muslims his family did not go back during the Taliban regime, but he was now preparing to go back to his home country, for the first time after 25 years. He needs to complete the 10-year study at the medressa and then wants to become an Imam in Afghanistan. It was quite a touching story he had to tell. There are many Afghan refugees in Iran, and most are considered second-rate citizens, not getting equal rights and often being bullied into returning home (unlike Iraqis, Arabs or Pakistanis living in Iran). So the fact that he had been admitted to this medressa meant quite a thing to him and in fact the whole Afghan community in Esfahan.

We lost ourselves a few hours in the bazaar and emerged at the northern side at the Jameh mosque. This is the oldest mosque in Esfahan and possibly all of Iran.
At the Jameh mosque
It is also one of the largest mosques in the country. This massive complex encompasses 800 years of Islamic design, as it has been expanded and rebuilt over the centuries. It is still a working mosque, but large sections now serve as  a museum. When we arrived we were told we had to wait, as prayer had just started. It was interesting to observe men and women hurrying towards the mosque in time for afternoon prayer.
Despite the ticket office being closed, one of the guides was willing to show us around once the prayer service was over. The tour was very interesting. The mosque actually consists of three mosques (or at least three prayer halls) each built in a different time.

We continued our walk through the various bazaars north of the centre and ended up at the Imam square, or, as the locals prefer to call it by its old name: Naqsh-e Jahan.
Having chay with Alla and Sergei
This is the second-largest square in the world, after Tienanmen square in Beijing (yes, that is bigger than the Red Square in Moscow) and unlike the huge slabs of concrete that dominate the centres in communist capitals, this square is actually one of the most beautiful in the world.
Two mosques and a palace look out over the square and a bazaar is built all around. Modern times have demanded a road to cross the square these days, but apart from this one road the entire square remains traffic free. The rest of the space is filled with green parks and a couple of fountains.

At the north end of the square there is a tea house which occupies a prime location on the bazaar roof overlooking the square. A perfect place to spend the rest of the afternoon as the sun slowly set behind us, casting its golden beams on the mosques and palace across.
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)
We met up with a couple of couch surfers from Belarus who we'd met before in Kashan. We had a lovely cup of tea and a qalyan, while admiring the view.

Michael and I were amazed at the lack of commercial enterprises along the square. Sure, bazaar shops are commercial enterprises, but in the Western world the edges of the square would have been lined with restaurants and bars. Oh, and probably Gucci, Prada and McDonald's - we weren't overly sad about the absence of these.
But it was striking to see the immense undeveloped potential here. Michael joked “When I become Mayor of Esfahan I will introduce capitalism to this place!”

Even the tea house, while occupying this prime spot, lacked any sense of entrepreneurship. All they served was tea, water and qalyan and the outdoor seats were anything but comfortable.
Michael and I at the Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square) tea house
If they'd serve some soft drinks and nibbles the place would be packed. Now we were the only ones here!
But what was worse, we were told to leave after a while. People are not allowed to spend more than 20 minutes in the spot, they said. We countered this by ordering some more pots of tea.

Actually, there might be different reasoning behind this as well. As I said before, the Islamic government discourages any social activities, including bars and restaurants. Ten years ago there were a few dozen tea houses at the historic bridges, but all but one have been closed now. There are different explanations for this. One fits in with Iranians being health obsessed and smoking qalyan is bad for your health. Another one is that the smoke damages the bridges (even though the structures have survived just fine these past 400 years).
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)
Yet another explanation is that the tea houses became a centre for drug trade. The explanation I believe most is that the new conservative government in Esfahan simply doesn't like places where young people are able to do all sorts of sinful things, like look at one another or -heaven forbid- talk to each other!

It's a real pity and a missed opportunity. Esfahan is Iran's most visited city by foreign tourists and a bit more infrastructure certainly wouldn't do the local economy any harm. But under the current regime the tourism infrastructure is limited to carpet or handicraft shops.

As the sun had set we wandered onto the square. We met up with two Iranian couch surfers and a little while two more joined. Esfahan has one of the most active communities of couch surfers in Iran and before we knew it we had a mini couch surfing gathering happening on Imam square with 8 people in total, as everybody had brought some friends along as well.
Having yoghurt and ice cream


They took us to a small place selling a special kind of yoghurt drink which obviously we had to try. There was much hilarity that there is a picture of the guy working in this place in the current Lonely Planet, so obviously his photo had to be taken with the book, and the foreigners didn't have to pay for their drinks.

Afterwards we went for a nice, simple, kebab dinner with two of the couch surfers. Another very packed (but great) day. Couch surfing is taking over our lives, it seems!
vances says:
I was asking about this fellow's tolerance towards non-Muslims...which I think you've favorably replied to. Thanks!
Posted on: Jul 18, 2010
Biedjee says:
The tolerance of the refugees or the tolerance towards them? In Iran Afghan refugees are treated as second-rate citizens and are even worse off than, say, Mexicans in the US or Turks in Germany. The fact that they massively join extremist groups is not entirely surprising.

This guy definitely was one of the good guys though. The fact that he didn't return to Afghanistan during Taliban rule says it all. He was a genuine spiritual guy interested in becoming an Islamic scholar and then returning to his home country to preach the essence of Islam, rather than the fundamentalist crap so many of his colleagues come up with.
Posted on: Jul 18, 2010
vances says:
So what was your opinion of the Afghan refugee's tolerance? Confess a bias that most madrassas seem to be funded by Wahabi's preaching jihad, but I am encouraged that this fellow engaged you...so he had to be somewhat accepting. In Jordan we dropped a fellow off at a madrassa, but he seemed quite tolerant so I curious what your opinion was?
Posted on: Jul 17, 2010
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having breakfast
having breakfast
At the bazaar
At the bazaar
Meeting an Afghan refugee at the M…
Meeting an Afghan refugee at the …
At the Jameh mosque
At the Jameh mosque
Having chay with Alla and Sergei
Having chay with Alla and Sergei
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)
Michael and I at the Naqsh-e Jahan…
Michael and I at the Naqsh-e Jaha…
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)
Having yoghurt and ice cream
Having yoghurt and ice cream
Jameh mosque
Jameh mosque
Jameh mosque
Jameh mosque
People hurrying for prayer at the …
People hurrying for prayer at the…
Waiting for the Jameh mosque to op…
Waiting for the Jameh mosque to o…
Detail of Jameh mosque
Detail of Jameh mosque
Maquette of the Jameh mosque
Maquette of the Jameh mosque
Jameh mosque
Jameh mosque
Jameh mosque
Jameh mosque
Taking pictures inside the Jameh m…
Taking pictures inside the Jameh …
Elaborate mihrab in the Jameh mosq…
Elaborate mihrab in the Jameh mos…
detail of mihrab
detail of mihrab
Detail of Jameh mosque
Detail of Jameh mosque
little kids at the Jameh mosque
little kids at the Jameh mosque
Winter hall with alabaster skyligh…
Winter hall with alabaster skylig…
Seeing the light in the Jameh mosq…
Seeing the light in the Jameh mos…
So this is where ladies buy their …
So this is where ladies buy their…
Interesting pictorial at the bazaar
Interesting pictorial at the bazaar
Food bazaar
Food bazaar
at the food bazaar
at the food bazaar
at the food bazaar
at the food bazaar
Little kids having lunch at the sa…
Little kids having lunch at the s…
Buying chicks and ducklings at the…
Buying chicks and ducklings at th…
Anyone for some spraypainted chick…
Anyone for some spraypainted chic…
Minaret of Jameh mosque
Minaret of Jameh mosque
Minaret of Mosque Ali, the highest…
Minaret of Mosque Ali, the highes…
Delster, proudly brewed in Iran si…
Delster, proudly brewed in Iran s…
With Hamid and his Friend at the C…
With Hamid and his Friend at the …
Imam Mosque at Naqsh-e Jahan squar…
Imam Mosque at Naqsh-e Jahan squa…
Sheikh Lotfollah mosque
Sheikh Lotfollah mosque
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)
little kid playing up to the Irani…
little kid playing up to the Iran…
sunset at Naqsh-e Jahan square (Im…
sunset at Naqsh-e Jahan square (I…
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)
Sheikh Lotfollah mosque
Sheikh Lotfollah mosque
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)
Imam mosque at night
Imam mosque at night
Taking pictures at Naqsh-e Jahan s…
Taking pictures at Naqsh-e Jahan …
This guy turns out to have his pic…
This guy turns out to have his pi…
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square)…
Naqsh-e Jahan square (Imam square…
Dinner with Hamid and his friend
Dinner with Hamid and his friend
Esfahan
photo by: genetravelling