Day 63: Half the world
Esfahan Travel Blog› entry 89 of 260 › view all entries
June 7th, 2010 – by: Biedjee
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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