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Qanats

My traditional pre-holiday reading was focussed on the extreme summer heat and not just how I was going to cope but also how the Iranians manage year after year during the seeringly hot summer months when temperatures can soar over 40 degrees centigrade in many areas. Inevitably, much of my research concerned water consumption and distribution in regions where much of the land is arid or semi-arid and how crops are grown in rural areas without regular rainfall. Was I going to be eating the luscious melons that Esfahan is so famous for or would they all be withered up left to dry out in the fields? I also wondered whether we would be subject to water rationing at home and, heaven forbid, would there be a ban on hosepipes?

 

It was when reading about these problems that I came across an ingenious solution to water distribution, the Qanat system. This underground aqueduct system is known to have been developed by the Persians sometime early in the 1st millennium BC, around the same time that we Britons were fighting off the Roman invasion led by Julius Caesar. Qanats were subsequently adopted by Arab and African countries further West and the remains of Qanats can still be found in China, Pakistan, Syria, UAE, Algeria, Greece and Spain.

So what is a Qanat? Simply, a Qanat is a series of shafts connecting ground level to sloping tunnels below ground. The theory is that the Qanats tap into the water underground so that it brings large quantities of water to the surface up the shafts without the need for a pumping mechanism. The water drains by gravity as it flows downwards from the aquifer source towards its destination. Because the canals are underground, there is little or no evaporation or wasteage and contamination is kept to a minimum. Qanats are usually contructed to cover a large area/distance which means that many fields and homes can be kept watered. Qanats were both expensive and time-consuming to build but it was considered a major investment by the communities who needed reliable water supplies for many years to come. That initial investment must have repaid them many-fold and the Qanats are a wonderful legacy.

Qanat cross section

Qanat cross section-diagram courtesy of the Middle East Institute

 

Building the Qanats is a skilled occupation and knowledge was generally passed through families from father to son. The gradient of the Qanat has to be just right if it is to be successful. Too shallow and the water will not flow; too steep and the heavy flow of water is likely to collapse the Qanat by washing it away. Bearing in mind that these shafts and tunnels were excavated by hand, without the sophisticated machinery we have today, they are amazing to see. If the Qanat diggers were lucky, they would initially hit the water aquifer at 50ft. Unfortunately for the labourers many of the shafts are 200-300 feet deep. Most Qanats are between 8-10 miles long with the longest Qanat in Iran being 18 miles long.

“In Persia, blind white fish live in the qanats.” This statement led four Oxford undergraduates to Iran in the early 1950’s to look for a new species of fish which apparently lived in the qanat water system and a book detailing their travels and exploits can still be found in secondhand bookshops. Keep an eye out for “Blind white fish in Persia” by Anthony Smith. It is well worth a read.

The Old Mosque in Na’in has a Qanat in the underground chambers although it is no longer in use. When it was used, it carried water for 1.2km to the left of the town and 1.5 km to the right thus serving much of the community around. Qanats are often used in conjunction with wind towers (Badgirs) and Yakhchals (ice houses) which are separate above-ground structures combining to cool air and water-an early version of air-conditioning and refrigeration and not a watt of electricity in sight.

“Necessity is the mother of invention” [Plato]

Perhaps these ideas can be adapted for future use as more sustainable options.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pazyryk Carpet

The Pazyryk Carpet

I think that I can say without prejudice that the Persians make the best hand-made carpets in the world. The designs are exquisite and the workmanship is awesome. Carpet weaving in Iran is an ancient craft with the earliest woven carpet, the Pazyryk Carpet dating from at least 500BC and thought to be Persian (or Armenian), on show in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.

 

Persian carpets are usually made from wool, sometimes camel hair but often from silk which makes finely knotted carpets that look like painted pictures rather than rugs they are so delicate and tightly put together. Traditional Persian carpets are knotted and not woven and thousands of knots make up each row. Each knot is made by hand which is extremely time-consuming and harsh on the fingers. Carpets or rugs can have as many as 900 knots per square inch although between 500-700 is more usual.

There are many traditional designs, and each region of Iran has their own special design and colours that they use. Kashan is considered to be the Persian carpet capital and traditionally produces carpets of brick red, ivory and beige with dark blue medallions and borders. The carpet makers of Esfahan however tend to use traditional designs like the Tree of Life and contemporary items feature more pastel colours.

And so it was that Mr Aghaee, our guide at Na’in Old Mosque who we met earlier in the series, has a wife who is a renowned local carpet maker. As is typical with Iranians when I expressed an interest he rang his wife and we were invited to their house to meet her and watch her at work. I love planning my holiday trips and Iran has never disappointed me so far, but I also love the unplanned diversions usually at the behest of the wonderful Iranian hospitality.

Mrs Aghaee was every bit as welcoming as her husband but with less English and so all my questions were routed via Feri. Mrs Aghaee started by sitting at her loom and giving us a demonstration of her Persian knotting skills using a mixed silk and wool thread. The carpet she is working on is a commission from Tehran and she is expecting it to take 26 months to complete. We worked out that for the price of this carpet she “earns” between £1 and £1.50 per hour. The equivalent in the UK based on the National Minimum Wage would be £25,000.

Whilst knotting away very quickly, Mrs Aghee told us that she has been making carpets since she was 6 years old, and as the only daughter of 7 children, it was up to her to carry on the family tradition. Watching her at her craft, Mrs Aghaee used a very heavy device to “fix” the knots and she admitted that it can make her wrist very painful after a while but it is necessary to ensure the tightness of the knots. She also said that sitting at her loom for hours on end can give her back ache so whilst the carpets and rugs are beautiful and very desirable, they clearly come at a personal cost to health.

Mrs Aghaee insisted on us staying for some tea (chai) whilst she showed us some of her carpets and rugs. She also told us about her seven children, six of whom are highly educated with her youngest son being an incredibly talented artist. Sadly, none of the children are in the least interested in carrying on the family carpet making tradition and so the specialist skills learned and honed over the years and the knowledge passed on from generation to generation will be lost unless Mrs Aghaee finds someone interested in taking this on.

 

Na'in old mosque designed and woven by Mrs Ahagee

Na’in old mosque designed and woven by Mrs Aghaee

I would have loved to have brought a rug made by Mrs Aghaee home with us, but with the smallest (and the most beautiful in my opinion) was £2,000 and therefore beyond our means this holiday. Maybe next time!

 

 

Octagonal minaret

Octagonal minaret

Compared to some of the elaborately decorated and colourful mosques I have visited in Iran, being one of the four oldest mosques in the country, the Congregational Mosque in Na’in is no less beautiful for its simplicity of design and clean lines shown to perfection against the clear blue sky. The oldest part of the mosque dates from the 7th Century with the remainder built in the 10th/11th Centuries.

 

Spectacular both inside and out, some of the internal features were real highlights for me and it was amazing to find that they lived up to their descriptions in the guide books. I had read about the famous minbar [an elevated pulpit from where the Imam stands to deliver his sermons] and so firstly made my way towards it only to find that was partially screened off which restricted viewing. I could still see however that it is a magnificent example of a minbar. Standing 5m high and intricately pieced together from wooden marquetry, it is 700 years old and the most valuable minbar in the Esfahan region – hence the extra protection.

 

Another common feature of Persian mosques is the finely carved stucco which decorates the mihrab and columns. The Congregational mosque has a beautiful stucco mihrab which is the traditional semi-circular niche in the wall of the mosque directing Muslims to face Mecca when praying. These unique carvings are echoed on the fourteen surrounding columns making this part of the mosque the most ornate.

The minaret at the Southeast corner, which led us to the mosque when approaching the town, is most unusual. It is 28m high and can be seen from miles around. It is also octagonal, a feature which makes it completely different from any other minaret found in the Esfahan area.

 

Na'in old mosque

Na’in old mosque

We were now entering the hottest part of the day, and with travelling East to the edge of desert country the temperature was rising steadily to 40 degrees +. Although we were walking slowly around the stone built building and being comparatively cool compared to out in the open, it was still very hot. I was very thankful therefore when Mr Aghaee, our impromptu guide, told us about the underground prayer hall and qanats which were much cooler.

Mr Aghaee proceeded to take us down two flights of stone steps leading to the Prayer Hall. He told us that the Prayer Hall remains at a constant temperature throughout the year only fluctuating 10-15 degrees even in the hottest and coldest times of year and is mostly used during high summer and mid winter when temperatures are at their least comfortable. It was a relief to escape from the oppressive heat upstairs and I could see why this area would be popular. The Prayer Hall wasn’t built or constructed but was simply dug out of the ground together with a maze of passages and small recesses also carved out beneath the mosque’s ground floor. The underground accommodation has no electric lighting, but is cleverly lit by five marble panels placed in the floor of the mosque which refract the daylight down “lampshades” made of stone. The effect is curious and can be seen in its full glory when a picture is taken with the subjects standing directly beneath one of the panels. Mr Aghaee kindly took our photos to illustrate the lighting arrangement and we could then see clearly what he meant. He knows exactly where best to stand and take the photo for best effect and we are very grateful for his inside knowledge.

 

Some of the recesses or alcoves are used for meditation and in the absence of interested visitors like us, I could understand why. Quiet, calm and comforting, the chambers are the perfect place to seek peace and tranquillity alone with your own thoughts.

 

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit the area of Na’in was to see and learn more about the qanat water system that originated in Iran and for someone who is avidly interested in how things work, I was fascinated by this concept. I am no engineer, but even I understand how the system is meant to carry water near and far in a country of massive desert areas knowing  that there are still some working examples I was determined to seek them out.

 

Old mosque qanat

Old mosque qanat

Luckily for me, the Old Mosque in Na’in has a qanat in it’s underground area, although today it is non-working, and again Mr Aghaee agreed to show us around the underground water tunnel and share his local knowledge.

 

As usual before my holiday I spent some time researching possible trips out of Esfahan and made a list of all those things that I wanted to see. I compiled the list before I experienced the searing heat in June/July and therefore some of my plans had to be changed to suit the temperature once we arrived in Iran. One trip which I didn’t have to change however, even though we were due to head South-East towards the desert, was a visit to Na’in. I read about the old mosque with its minbar, the carpets, the citadel and the qanats in this town and convinced Feri and Will that they would love to spend a day in Na’in too.

Rahmon (see previous post) was duly roped in to our adventure-willingly as usual- and we set off early on Sunday morning with our normal supplies of  iced water and tea. Although this was the first day of Ramazan we were hopeful that we would find somewhere open to eat lunch later and we left the nun and panir at home.

As we traveled out of Esfahan to the East, the landscape gradually changed and we saw several pigeon towers dotted across the fields; herds of goats and their herdsmen were sheltering from the sun under the tree-shade by the roadside, the large guard dogs were also trying to keep cool by lying in the ditch. As we traveled towards Na’in, the soil became more sandy and the already sparse green shrubs became fewer and farther between. The passing cars left a thick dusty trail behind them as they disappeared into the distance.

After a short stop for a drink, we continued the long and winding climb through the mountains as the sun started to get really hot and intense.  We arrived in Na’in and drove straight to the old mosque-Masjeed-e Jame which we found easily by its tall 28m high octagonal minaret. We parked the car close to the mosque and walked towards the entrance.

The 28m high octagonal minaret

The 28m high octagonal minaret

Mr Aghaee

As we approached the mosque a man came towards us and greeted us in both Farsi and excellent English. I clearly understood the English but strangely, Feri and Rahmoon had difficulty in understanding the Farsi dialect. It appears that he was speaking the Pahlavi Old Persian which is not widely spoken in Iran but at least they understood more than they were able to speak!

Now they know how I feel 🙂

This very polite man introduced himself as the curator of the old mosque and Pirnia House (Pir= old, nia= ancestry) an Ethnographic Museum which Mr Aghaee has built up almost single-handedly, and was particularly proud of his mention in the Brandt Travel Guide to Iran. I actually had a copy of this guide with me and turned straight to page 112 where I read; ” Do persuade the knowledgeable curator, who speaks very good English to take you round; his wife is a noted carpet maker in the locale. He has persuaded the townspeople to lend him interesting archival material, such as marriage contracts, as well as metalwork and ceramic objects.”  

Feri & Mr Aghaee

Feri & Mr Aghaee

I can vouch for both his extensive knowledge and his excellent English and he was more than happy to escort us around the site. There was no persuasion required but if you visit and he is not there, do try and find him as it will make your visit much more meaningful.

During our initial conversation he explained that he is 73 years old (that was a surprise-he looks much younger I think), he has 7 children (must be the secret of eternal youth!) and his wife is a renowned local carpet maker. He corresponds with several ex-visitors by email, including an eminent professor from Oxford University. He has learned 22,000 verses of Persian poetry including some from Rumi and Hafez, and proceeded to recite some for us.

One of my favourite sayings of his was;

“Grey hairs are not a sign of growing old.

Growing old is when you have no love left in your heart”

As one who is cultivating grey hair at an alarming rate this was rather comforting.

Once we has listened to some of his poetry, Mr Aghaee offered to take us round the old mosque. This was too good an opportunity to miss as he was clearly both very knowledgeable and passionate about both the mosque and the museum of his and so it turned out to be.

Next time: Na’in, the old mosque.

Learn the lingo

Goat              Boz

Mosque             Masjeed

Museum         Muze

Carpet           Farsh

      

 

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026Having seen the dry river bed in Esfahan, and being used to seeing a healthy flow of water previously, I decided that I wanted to go and find the Zayandeh Rud however far upstream it may be. I didn’t include river hunting on my “would like to do” list before our holiday but it became a priority for me and I was determined to find it. When I discussed this with the family, it appeared to be a great idea not only because we would be satisfying my mission to track down the river, but also we would be heading North West out of Esfahan into cooler climes. This was welcomed by both Feri and Will and therefore I had no resistance to my on-the-spot decision made at the Khaju Bridge two days before.

Feri duly contacted our trusty chauffeur, Rahmon, who was, as always, up for an adventure, and at 8am the next morning we heard the toot of his taxi outside our door. We packed the car with a thermos of cold water/ice, tea, biscuits and bread and cheese (nuno va panir) for when we couldn’t find an eaterie open during Ramazan, and of course, the inevitable picnic rug. The Iranians are “Kings of the Picnic” (and BBQ) and no household is complete without their rug/s. They do have an advantage of course in that the weather is far more conducive to outdoor pursuits and al-fresco dining than the UK where we would struggle to get good value out of said picnic rug each year.

011Our 2-hour journey in the search of the Zayandeh Rud began with a drive through the mountains. Hot and barren with the dust swirling around the car as we drove across the wasteland, I was pleased when we began to detect a slight drop in temperature the further North and West we drove. After 2 hours in the car, we finally arrived at the Zamankhan Bridge on the Zayandeh Rud. This is the first accessible bridge on the river and is an amazing place to stop and take in the beautiful scenery. We had found the Zayandeh Rud which was missing in Esfahan.

Here the river is beautifully clean, free-flowing and powerful as the water cascades through the two-arched bridge with tremendous force. A magnificent sight to see.

We initially settled for a rest on the bank of the river, a cup of tea and a snack before exploring the area so Rahmon found us a lovely cool and shady spot under the trees where we could relax for a while.

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After a rest we went exploring. That sounds rather intrepid and actually it merely involved walking up and over the bridge to the other side of the river! But nevertheless, it was worth doing. Walking up to the bridge itself there were several tradesmen; a few selling postcards and typical tourist merchandise, but most selling dried herbs, fruit, nuts and kashk in lots of different shapes and forms. Whilst I adore Iranian cooking and all the different herbs, dried fruit and nuts, I am not a fan of kashk. Kashk is made from drained sour milk or yoghurt by forming it and letting it dry. It can be made in a variety of forms, including rolled into balls, sliced into strips, and formed into chunks all of which were on sale here. I don’t like this stuff as to me it smells and tastes like vomit. If anyone has had a baby throw up 3-hour old half-digested warm milk on their shoulder you will know what I mean.

Kashk is used quite a lot in Iranian cooking but I tend to give it a wide berth.

Walking along the opposite riverbank gave us a beautiful view of the Zayandeh Rud as it wound its way around the corner towards Esfahan. At some point the flow was dammed and we asked about access to this area but were told it was cordoned off. Shame as I would have liked to have seen how they stemmed the flow and diverted it to other regions as part of the summertime water management plan.

After yet another glass of tea (chai) we got back into the red-hot car and started the long drive home. On the way back, we came across a waterfall, only there was no water! We stopped for a look-see and were not disappointed.

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Next time: The waterless waterfall

Learn the lingo:

Car                               Mashin

Picnic blanket        Patu ye picnic

Water                         Ab

Bread                          Nun

Cheese                        Panir

Tree                              Derakht 

 

 

Some of the most impressive and enduring memories I have of Esfahan are of the amazing bridges and the vast  and mighty Zayandeh Rud river that runs through and over the arches and piers. Zayandeh Rud means “the life-giving river” and by the time the smaller tributaries and feeder-rivulets further upstream come together at Esfahan, the river is between 100m and 200m as it flows through the city.

In Spring and Autumn when we have made our previous visits, the river flows freely and is clean and clear. The reflections of the bridges add to the picturesque scene and the view is stunning. The river enhances the architecture of the bridges and in return, the bridges reflect in the river in all its glory. This is especially true of the Khaju Bridge at night when it is illuminated to perfection, but I also love this bridge during the day when I can see the amazing decor and experience the “tea-room” on the plateaus.

This visit however I was shocked and disappointed to find that this mighty river had run dry-albeit by enforced water management plans. There was no water, no reflections, no soothing swish of the small waves upon the river banks. Instead, a bare and barren river bed was stark against the same majestic architecture of the bridges. At first I was sad to see this sight but then I began to think differently.

The Zayandeh Rud, living up to its life-giving name, had been dammed upstream and its water diverted to more needy areas. A sacrifice. Giving up its beauty and impressive appearance to give life and help to other cities. What a privileged position to be in and how mighty. A temporary loss of beauty and magnificence in Esfahan to rescue other lands. The Zayandeh Rud for me came to life that day and I really appreciated its versatility and generosity.

In addition, being more practical, it is not every day that you get to see a river bed! I could see now why the river is so clean and clear. The river bed is devoid of detritus and only a few formations of rocks litter the route. It was still an impressive sight but one I don’t want to see again.

 

I came away from the river wondering where the river was. Where could we find it? At that moment, our next trip North-West of Esfahan was born and we soon arranged to go and track down the mighty Zayandeh Rud further upstream.

Next: We go in search of the Zayandeh Rud.

Learn the lingo:

River                      Rud/Rood

Bridge                    Pol

Tea house             Chai-khane

Night                      Shab

Day                          Ruz 

 

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