Sede, like many Iranian towns, has grown up and expanded around what is known as “old town” and I love the cracked mud and straw walls and buildings that still stand and evoke such a sense of history. Old town to me means dusty narrow streets, high walls and perhaps a tethered donkey or two watching the world go by. Nothing like “new town” with modern shops, 24-hour lighting and numerous cars “peeping” you out of their way.
When Feri’s sister suggested that we visit the Sarteep’s House in old town on our final Saturday I assumed that the site would be somewhat like an archaeological dig and there would not be much to see. In my ignorance not knowing what a Sarteep is I was not entirely convinced that this was how I wanted to spend my precious morning but gladly trusting her judgement I was more than pleasantly surprised when we arrived.
Surprised indeed I was, but it began to make sense when Feri explained that we were here to see “Sarteep’s” House, and not, as I thought, MR Sarteepi’s House. Big Difference as I soon discovered.
“Sarteep” is a rank higher than Colonel in the Iranian Army, and 200 or so years ago a Sedehi was Sarteep during the reign of Naser-Odin Shah (King Naser) a good friend and ally of Britain. Whilst serving as Sarteep/Chief of Staff this Sedehi became very good friends with Zelle Sultan the Governor General of Esfahan and son of King Naser who often came to stay with the Sarteep in Sede. The Royal family stayed with the Sarteep’s family for long periods to the extent that the once modest house in Sede was upgraded substantially to Royal standards and much of the redesigned splendour remains today as we were privileged to see.
The house and substantial gardens are divided into private and official apartments and we started our tour with the private rooms and living quarters. Most of the rooms have glass cabinets filled with exhibits relating to the house and it took us some time to visit all the rooms whilst my husband translated the information cards.
One of the most fascinating buildings for me was the baths and considering that these were designed and used more than 200 years ago, the facilities are impressive and I’m sure that the bathing and personal habits of the Persians at this point in history were far in advance of us in the West. I could be mistaken but I haven’t seen anything like these communal family facilities anywhere else but I’m happy to be proven wrong.
The resident guide was extremely kind and very helpful and fetching his big bunch of keys, unlocked the baths especially for us. I had to bend down to enter through the low-hung door and was surprised to see how large the bathing area is. Apparently, the families and their attendants were a large group who often bathed together and this explains why the bathing area is much bigger than I expected.
In addition to the hot bath which has a reinforced area under which a fire was lit to heat the water continuously, there is a smaller cold bath adjacent where bathers could cool down if necessary. (An early version of a plunge pool springs to mind.) The guide also told us that bathers were soaped down and rinsed off by their attendants in the central bath area then, unless they had further personal hygiene matters to see to, would sit and relax in the warm surroundings probably drinking tea and reciting poetry.
Most of the larger recesses and platforms carved out of the wall around the central rest area were for relaxing and socialising but I found out that one of the compartments was reserved for hair removal. Apparently, both men and women would be covered with a hair removal linament (17thC Veet) which would remove the body hair. I find it fascinating to think that they were so organised to have a designated area to carry out this procedure at home although I understand that this procedure was also carried out in public baths and maybe still is! I’m not about to find out either.
When we had finished our tour of the baths, the guide asked me what I thought of them. I explained that I was really impressed by the facilities and functionality of the baths but not surprised due to my previous knowledge and experience of Persian culture and he laughed. Why did he laugh?
He laughed because a tourist from a North European country, which shall remain nameless, had been surprised, nay, amazed that the Persians had baths 200 years ago. He didn’t realise that these Middle Eastern “savages” even washed!
To be continued.
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