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“From little acorns big oaks grow” is a traditional saying and I am hoping that my series of musings about my travels in Iran which are now being published in our little village magazine will go some way to illustrating an Iran much removed from the politics and sanctions dominating the news,  instead focussing on the “real” Iran and its wonderful people.

I never fail to be amazed by comments I receive about my writing however mundane I feel it is. It is important to describe and explain how people live in Iran even if my observations are based on a small rural/urban population around Esfahan. I cannot and will not pretend that my experiences of traveling in Iran are representative of the population. They cannot possibly be so with a country the size of Iran but I hope that I can give comfort to readers that Iranian people are just like us. They have families, jobs, go on holiday, eat and drink, enjoy themselves. They are not all extreme political or religious animals. They are normal. Just like us.

Let’s hope that by writing about my experiences, more people will begin to understand and appreciate the Iran not publicised by the western media.

Fingers crossed.

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Still roaming round the private apartments at Sarteep’s House I was intrigued by many of the exhibits displayed behind the glass cabinets. Unfortunately, the sun was pouring in just at the wrong angle which meant photography was difficult but I did manage some recognisable pictures.

Wedding attire, hair conditioner resembling Octopus legs, tooth extractors, kohl-liners (Surmehdan) and even a chain-link suit of armour mixed with other household memorabilia to make a fascinating exhibition of life in those times. History at school was so boring….social history is something else.

  

My favourite exhibit, although with very sad connotations, was the Zangouleh-paa-Taboot (literally meaning “the bell that accompanies the coffin”.) I had previously walked passed ignoring this exhibit not understanding its significance but when we had been talking to the guide for a while and he understood how genuinely interested I am in Persian/Iranian culture and everyday traditions, he took us back to the room where the exhibit was and made a point of explaining what this item meant. I found it very sad at the time, and remembering it now I still do. For some reason I was and am very touched by this old tradition but I understand that it is a concept still alive and kicking in modern day Iran. (See below*)

Zangouleh-paa-Taboot-then

It was explained to us that in days gone by when a less-affluent man had a child late in life and died whilst the child was still young the child would walk in front of/beside the coffin carrying this item to signify he was an orphan and needed “help”. I found it sad to think that children were expected to demonstrate their need so openly but perhaps as part of the culture it is an accepted practice and there is no stigma attached to this. I hope so.     

*Zangouleh-paa-Taboot-now

The phrase is still used in Iran now to signify the status of a child born of an elderly father so, as I tease Feri, should by some miracle he has a child at this late stage in life (he’s 57 this year) I would say “Oh Feri! You don’t want a “Zangouleh-paa-Taboot!”………..  

Do you?

To be continued……

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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!

How sad.

To be continued.

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Many of our friends and family in Sede have a family orchard which has been passed down the generations and where we go to spend a day together once a week. Our family orchard is set up perfectly for a day out and is totally self-contained. The orchard is in the old part of town which means that we have to negotiate narrow and bumpy roads which get progressively narrower as we near the orchard gates and car wing-mirrors have to be folded back tightly so we can get by safely.

      

A day in the family orchard in the spring/ordibehesht is a very different day from a day spent picking fruit and fighting off the wasps in late summer/early autumn.

The Orchard in October

At this time of year the fruit trees are in leaf and the blossom is only just turning into what become the apples, pears, apricots and cherries that we return to pick later in the year. Harvesting the fruit keeps us busy, so what do we do when there is no fruit to pick?

We make our own entertainment of course, or to be more precise, “the boys” entertain us admirably. My knitting and reading was soon abandoned as I watched wheelbarrow races and in the general mayhem that followed they formed a “band” comprising Mammad on the watering-can, Amir playing the tin box, Feri blowing away on a makeshift trumpet and Mansour banging two metal plates together. Ali joined in later to demonstrate his musical prowess and natural rhythm and so “Bonkers” was born.

Introducing “Bonkers”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Wb72mYMNyE

     

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Esfahan Bird Garden (Paq-e Parandegan) is not far from the Koh Ateshgah Sasanid fire temple which I climbed on a previous visit and first impressions were that it didn’t look much but initial impressions belied what we found inside the extensive grounds.

 

Founded in 1996 the garden covers more than 50,000 square metres, most of which is enclosed by a net suspended high off the ground giving the 125 or so species of birds plenty of room to fly around freely whilst making sure that they don’t escape their environs.

We saw parrots, budgies, cockatoos, ostriches, owls, pheasants, peacocks as well as the aquatic birds in the large pool; pelicans, flamingos and storks and cranes all balancing on one leg and black and white swans paddling smoothly along in the clear water.

 

My favourites were the toucans which reminded me of those Guinness adverts of long ago and in Farsi they are known as Fala-Fala. Two toucans perching on the branch; Fala-Fala, Fala-Fala.

Esfahan Bird Garden made a perfect outing on a beautiful sunny and warm early spring afternoon. The trees were just breaking into leaf giving the hedgerows and woodlands a lovely hazy-green appearance. The Zayandeh-Rud however was extremely low as there was a drought in this area threatening the production of those gorgeous melons and other orchard fruits that we picked in abundance at the end of last summer. I can now report in May 2012 that the drought conditions have eased and the melons are just as sweet and juicy as ever!

  

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I am by nature an early riser but it has to be something pretty special to coax me out of my bed at 4.00am and I was hoping that today wouldn’t disappoint as I rolled out of bed and into the shower this morning. We were off to Abyaneh, a famous Iranian “historic village” and UNESCO world heritage site, then skirting the central desert via Natanz to Kashan. I was not to be disappointed.

 

Abyaneh is a remote settlement nestled high in the Karkas mountains and it’s red. The houses are built from the red-ochre coloured mud which gives them their distinct appearance and they butt into the steep slopes so that there are no back gardens and the emphasis is very much on the house fronts. We didn’t get to see inside a house but apparently there are no stairs because they use the natural slope of the mountain to climb between stories. 

Most of the original carved wooden doors remain intact and when you look closely you will see that most doors have two knockers-one for men the other for women. This enables the person indoors to tell by the knock whether the visitor is a man or a woman (rarely is the “wrong” knocker used).

     

Unusually for an Islāmic community, women enjoy equal rights with men and traditionally this has meant that many have not married until they are at least thirty and no more than three children are born to a family. Perhaps this emancipation is why the ladies of Abyaneh are famous for their bright coloured clothes an unusual feature for Islāmic women and something which the colourful women of Abyaneh have resisted despite several attempts by the government to change this.

     

Sadly most of the houses are deserted now and the younger villagers have moved away, many abroad. Tourists flock in droves to see the village and its remaining residents, especially the colourful women and whilst when we arrived at 7.30am there were few other visitors by the time we left at 10.30am hundreds more had arrived and there was nowhere to park. It was clearly good planning to get up at 4.00am and I was pleased that we had done so.

Some of the women are more willing to be photographed than others and I always asked before taking a photo respecting those who did not want to be. I fully understand their reluctance. At best it’s a nuisance, but it can be invasive and inappropriate so asking first is a must even if you don’t like the answer. One particularly bright and bubbly lady happily posed for photographs and even insisted that we join her on some of our pictures. Her enthusiasm became clear when she asked if we could send the pictures by email to her daughter who lives in Europe! I had to laugh but gladly we wrote down the email address and tonight I will be sending her pictures to someone, somewhere in Italy! She was also a little cheeky when she thought that my husband was in fact my travel guide, and when I showed an interest in purchasing a souvenir, she told him to “inflate the price” so he could make a bit of profit too! So beware the sellers and be prepared to barter…….you’ll save yourself a fortune.

Other attractions in the village include the Congregational Mosque with a fabulous inlaid door. Sadly the mosque was closed so I was unable to see the painted ceiling which I had read about. The mausoleum ( “Holly Shrine” per the road sign) is also worth a visit if only for the views across the mountains from the verandah and its blue mosaic cone roof also shines out among the mass of red.

Another fascinating feature of the surrounding countryside were the sheep holes which are carved into the hillside so that the sheep can shelter from the extreme heat in the summer months and I presume huddle together for warmth in the winter.

Abyaneh is an interesting place to while away a few hours and I was surprised to learn that we had been there for three hours. I was sad to leave without seeing more of the buildings further up the hill but it was getting very busy and we had places to go and things to see in Karshan.

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Before travelling to Iran, I usually do a little homework so that we have some interesting places to see whilst we are here. It is amazing what a little planning and forethought can produce and today was a diamond. I had read about Pir-i Bakran in both of my guidebooks about Iran/Esfahan and decided that I would like to pay a visit as it is not far from where we are based although we did need a taxi for the day. Taxis are no obstacle as some of the family own a taxi business so not only did we get a great guide in Ramon who we know well, but also he could join in the fun and have lunch with us.

When he picked us up at 9am, I could tell that Ramon was not convinced that there was anything to see at Pir-i Bakran but all that changed when we arrived 45 minutes later at the first site, the old Jewish synagogue and cemetery.

The write-up in my Brandt Travel Guide was not promising saying that the guardian of the site “is monosyllabic and unhelpful” and “as yet, Jewish colleagues in the UK can find no information about the complex, known locally as Esther Khatun ( Lady Esther).” However, they clearly didn’t have the advantages I had today being that hubby’s father was the highly regarded Mayor of Esfahan province and the guardian remembered him from childhood. In addition I was accompanied by two charming Farsi speaking gents so that all paths and doors to the usually closed and hidden rooms and gardens were opened before me. We also got a full description of each room which was translated into English by my husband.

The synagogue itself is derelict but pilgrims from all over Iran gather at the site once a year in September staying in the side rooms built in a quadrangle. None of the maintenance and upkeep of the site is paid for out of Iranian Government funds as it is paid by the Iranian Jewish community and families of those buried at the site.

Whilst we were free to walk around the synagogue gardens, all the gates to the interior were padlocked but after some persuasion, the guardian agreed to unlock them and show us around for which I was most grateful.

The first room we were able to enter was the main domed room at ground level which contains the torah stand. Small prayer rooms are found upstairs.

In the corner of this room there is an arched doorway hung with a heavy stone door carved with Hebrew text. The door is opened and locked by a “secret” handle hidden in the hole in the wall to the right of the door. The guardian told us that women who cannot conceive or cannot find a husband enter the doorway and crawl along the narrow and low chamber all the time praying and asking to be blessed with children or a husband by next year’s pilgrimage.

The guardian then took us through to a blue room where he told us that the son of Jacob had disappeared through the walls never to be seen again. My guide-book tells me that it was Esther (or Sarah) who disappeared so a little more homework to be done methinks.

We spent a good couple of hours at the site and I felt privileged to have done so. It is not well-known that this is a sacred place for the Iranian Jewish community to gather every year, and neither my husband nor Ramon were aware that Jews who have been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem are afforded the same title and respect of those Moslems who have been to Mecca on the Haaj. Unless you know the area very well, or have read the guidebooks you’d never know that this place existed as it is so well hidden from the road. In fact, there is no direct access to the site from the road and you have to attract the attention of the guardian by knocking at the big metal gates before you can get in.

But it is well worth the effort.

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