Sunday, December 14, 2014

Iran | Tabriz

Caught the Midnight Special from Istanbul to Tabriz, Iran. The flight is scheduled to leave Istanbul at 12:20 a.m. and arrive in Tabriz at 4:25 a.m, with a one and a half hour time change, for a flight of about two hours and thirty-five minutes. I am flying to Tabriz instead of Tehran, the usual gateway for tourists to Iran, because I am interested in visiting various nearby sites connected with the Ilkhanate period of Persian history—the years 1256–1335—when the descendants of Chingis Khan ruled much of the Mid East, including current-day Iran. For the last four or five years I have been tracking the westward movement of the Mongols, starting with Chingis Khan’s invasion of Mawarannahr, or Transoxiania, (current day Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan) in 1219. In connection with this I visited Bukhara, Samarkand, Termez, and other cities attacked by the armies of Chingis Khan in Uzbekistan (see my book Chingis Khan Rides West: The Mongol Invasion Of Bukhara, Samarkand, And Other Great Cities Of The Silk Road), and also Merv and several other cities sacked by the Mongols in what is now Turkmenistan. 

Now I am jumping ahead three decades to the Mongol invasion of what is now Iran and Iraq by Chingis Khan’s grandson Khülegü. In 1256 Khülegü wiped out the strongholds of the Nisari Ismailis, better known to the world as the Assassins, in Iran and cemented the Mongol occupation of the Iranian Plateau. Two years later, in 1258 Khülegü sacked Baghdad and brought to an end the 508 year old Abbasid Caliphate, thus bringing most of what is now Iraq into the Mongol orbit. A new Caliphate would be initiated by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople in 1453, and solidified under the rule of his grandson Selim I, who brought the Holy Cites of Mecca and Medina under Ottoman control. This Turkish-led Caliphate lasted until 1924, when it was finally abolished by the new secular state of Turkey. As I write this, the group known as ISIS is attempting to create a new Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, thus resurrecting the Arab-based Caliphate destroyed by Khülegü Khan back in 1258. 

Khülegü Khan was the first Ilkhan, or ruler, of the Mongol state known as the  Ilkhanate. The term Ilkhan is usually defined as “Deputy Khan”, meaning that the holder of the title was subordinate to the Great Mongol Khan in Beijing and that the Ilkhanate was a part of the greater Mongol Empire. During the lifetime of Khülegü the Great Khan was his brother, Khubilai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China. The influence of the Yuan Dynasty on the rest of the Mongol Empire gradually lessened, however,  and the concept that the Ilkhanate was in fact subordinate to the Great Khan in Beijing became little more than a convenient fiction. Eventually the Ilkhanate became for all practical purposes an independent state. 

Most sources date the founding of the Ilkhanate to 1256, the year Khülegü seized the Assassin headquarters at Alamut. The Ilkhanate ended in 1335, when the last Ilkhan, Abu Sa’id died without issue, after which it disintegrated into several small successor-states. Thus for seventy-nine years the Mongols controlled much of  the current day countries of  Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and sizable portions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.There were nine Ilkhans:

Khülegü (1256–1265)
Abaqa (1265–1282)
Ahmad Tegüder (1282–1284)
Arghun (1284–1291)
Gaykhatu (1291–1295)
Baidu (1295)
Mahmud Ghazan (1295–1304)
Oljeitu (Olziit), Muhammad Khodabandeh (1304–1316)
Abu Sa'id Bahadur (1316–1335)

During the reign of Khülegü the capital of the Ilkhanate was in Maragheh, about fifty miles south of Tabriz. His son Abaqa moved the capital to Tabriz, where it remained until the reign of Oljeitu Khan (henceforth Olziit, the Mongol spelling of his name), who moved it to Soltaniyeh, about 185 miles southeast of Tabriz. 

Thus my plan is to visit the old Mongol capitals of Tabriz, Maragheh, Soltaniyeh, and other nearby cities and find whatever traces of Mongol influence may remain. I also plan to visit Alamut, the Assassin stronghold conquered by Khülegü in 1256. While my main interest is in places connected with the the Ilkhanate era I have also tacked onto my itinerary some of the more popular destinations in Iran, including Tehran, Esfahan, Yazd, Shiraz, and various towns and cities in between. I have only been able to wrangle a sixteen-day visa and so have no time to waste. I intend to hit the ground running in Tabriz.

Despite the fact that it was eleven o’clock at night the huge Turkish Airlines business lounge In Istanbul (it supposedly seats 1038) was jammed with people and I had trouble finding a place to sit down. Finally I squeezed into a chair next to some huge guys speaking Russian. The elegantly appointed (at least by airport standards) lounge had an array of buffet dishes and fresh fruit, special tables featuring only baklava and olives, and numerous coffee and wine bars. Since baklava in Istanbul is now running about a dollar a pop I decided to fill up here, washing down a dozen or so pieces with a three double expressos. At 11:40 the Now Boarding sign became flashing for Flight 0880 to Tabriz. 

The Istanbul-Tabriz flight is a milk run. The departure lounge in a far-flung area of the terminal without walk-on ramps. A shuttle bus takes passengers to the plane parked in the nether regions of the airport. There were sixty or seventy people in the departure lounge. I far as I could tell I was the only non-Iranian. About half of the Iranians were women and oddly enough only three of them were wearing head scarves (rusari). None were wearing chadors, the long black robes so often associated with Iran. At the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul where I had applied for my visa, woman, including non-Iranians, are not allowed inside unless they are wearing a head scarf. A guy at the door hands out scarves to those who come unequipped. 

We left right on time at 12:20 a.m. As soon was we reached cruising altitude breakfast was offered, but I waved it off—I was still reeling from the baklava high—and settled back with my Kindle. In Istanbul I had been reading The Book of Travels (Seyahatname) by the legendary Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi (1611–1682?) and I now concentrated on his account of Tabriz, which he visited in the 1640s. 

Evliya Çelebi (his given name is Evliya. Çelebi, pronounced Chelebi, is a title meaning, roughly, gentleman or esquire) came from a prominent Istanbul family. He claimed to be a descendant of Khoja Ahmat Yassavi (1093–1166), the earliest known Turkic poet to compose poetry in a Turkic dialect and the eponym of the Yassaviyya sect of Sufis. Yassavi was one of the four main disciples of Yusuf Hamadani (d.1140), one of the so-called Khwajagan, or Masters of Wisdom, whose Mausoleum At Merv, in Turkmenistan I had visited earlier. His father was the chief goldsmith of several of the Ottoman sultans. He himself was tutored by the imam of Sultan Murad IV. A precocious student, he soon memorized the entire Quran and was able to recite it without a single error in eight hours. Sultan Murad IV was so impressed by the young man’s skills as a conversationist and singer that he introduced him into his Court as a boon companion. Given his varied talents, he might well have made a career as a reciter, scholar, entertainer, or full-time courtier, but he soon discovered that he possessed by insatiable wanderlust:
I beseeched the Creator at every moment to grant me health of body . . . asking myself, “How can I get free of the pressures of father and mother, teacher and brother, and become a world traveller?” I was always on good terms with heart-wounded dervishes and glad to converse with them. And when I heard a description of the seven climes and the four corners of the earth, I longed to travel with all my heart and soul. So I became utterly wretched, a vagabond crying out, ‘Might I roam the world? Might it be vouchsafed to me to reach the Holy Land, Cairo and Damascus, Mecca and Medina, and to rub my face at the Sacred Garden, the tomb of the Prophet, glory of the universe?
According to Evliya, he had “always desired God’s guidance in dreams,” and “So I lay down on the pillow of lamentation, in the corner of my hovel, in my birthplace Istanbul, to a sleep of wish fulfillment. It was the night of Ashura in the month of Muharram, the year 1040 (10 August 1630), in a state twixt sleep and wake, that I had a dream.”

Ashura is a day commemorated by both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, although they have radical different views of its significance. For Sunnis it is the Day of Atonement on which the Israelites, led by Moses, recognized as a prophet in Islam, were freed from the Pharaohs of Egypt. For Shiites it is a day of great mourning marking the death of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters at the hands of the Umayyad caliph Yazid I at Karbala, in what is now Iraq, in October 10, 680.

In this dream Evliya found himself in the Ahi Çelebi mosque, on the shores of the Golden Horn in Istanbul. 
The door was opened and the light-filled mosque was crowded with a luminous congregation, who were busy performing the dawn prayer. It seems that I stood motionless at the foot of the pulpit and gazed in astonishment at this congregation with their beaming faces. “Good sir,” said I, turning to the person beside me, ”please tell me who you are, and what your noble name is? The man replied that his name was Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas, “‘the patron saint of archers.”
The other notables in the mosque, he explained to Evliya, were a whole host of prophets and Islamic holy men, including the People of the Bench, a select group of the Prophet Muhammad’s followers during his own lifetime; the first four “Rightly Guided” caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali; Hussain and the other martyrs of Karbala; and many others. Suddenly the mosque was filled with light and in through the door strode the Prophet Muhammad himself. He was wearing a yellow shawl and yellow boots and had a toothpick stuck in his turban. The Prophet then asked Evliya himself to recite various prayers. At the end of the long ceremony Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas “at once lay hold of my hand and brought me before him [the Prophet], saying, ”Your loving and faithful servant, Evliya, begs your intercession. At this point Evliya asked Muhammad to bless his endeavors as a traveler. Muhammad gave him his blessings, adding “may God give you health and well-being.” Muhammad and the other holy personages filed out of the mosque, leaving only Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas, who said to Evliya:
Be in God’s protection and safety. And receive these good tidings: Of all the spirits you met in this assembly and whose hands you kissed, you are vouchsafed to visit their tombs. You will be a world traveller and unique among men. The well-protected kingdoms through which you pass, the fortresses and towns, the strange and wonderful monuments, and each land’s praiseworthy qualities and products, its food and drink, its latitude and longitude—record all of these and compose a marvelous work.
At this point Evliya awoke. Fearing that his dream was no more than a phantasm of no significance, he sought the counsel of an interpreter of dreams named Ibrahim Efendi, who assured him that the dream was indeed a prediction of his future. “You will be a globe trotter and world traveller,” the interpreter of dreams told Evliya. “Your journey will be sealed with a good ending. You will be admitted into paradise by the intercession of the Prophet.”

Thus began Evliya’s career as a traveler and writer. He ended up wandering around the lands of the Ottoman Empire and surrounding territories for almost forty years, eventually recording his travels in his mammoth ten-volume Book of Travels (of the ten volumes, only eight have survived). His translator calls it “probably the longest and most ambitious travel account by any writer in any language.”

While in Istanbul I visited the Ahi Çelebi Mosque where Evliya met the Prophet Muhammad and other luminaries in his dream. It is located between the banks of the Golden Horn and a busy highway, just across the road and west of the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar. In a city chockablock with magnificent mosques this small edifice has little to distinguish it except for its age—it was founded by Ahi Çelebi ibn Kemal, the Chief Physician of the Hospital of Mehmet the Conquerer, sometime between 1480 and 1500—and its association with Evliya, which is commemorated by a stone plaque in the form of an open book located in front of the mosque. I sat on one of the nearby benches for half an hour pondering the impulse that leads some to incessantly roam this world in search of new sights and sensations. After all, it was Evliya himself who said, “Travel is a fragment of hell, though it be but a single parasang [a measure of length equal to about four miles].
 The Ahi Çelebi Mosque (click on photos for enlargements)
A different view of the Ahi Çelebi Mosque showing the stone book
The stone book commemorating the mosque’s association with Evliya.  Some of the text is worn off.
Evliya ended up spending two months in Tabriz as part of an Ottoman embassy to the Safavid governor of the city Pir Budaq Khan Pornak Turkman. Evliya does not use the governor’s real name (his translator provides it) but instead calls him Kelp Ali Khan, which apparently means “Dog of Ali”, Ali being, of course, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and the progenitor of the Shiite sect. Evliya’s translator insists that this was a self-deprecating nickname, although it could be interpreted as  an anti-Shiite slur. In any case, Evliya, a strict Sunni Muslim, was shocked by the Shiites he encountered in the first village he visited inside Persia (Shiism became the state religion of Persia during the reign of the Savafid Ismael I [1501–1524] and of course remains so today):
A flourishing village with orchards and gardens beyond number—may God the Avenger destroy it! Because all the inhabitants are Shiites and caliph-cursers. This was the first time in Persia that I heard them—God forbid!—cursing the Caliph Umar. I nearly went out of my mind. But I was weak and tired, not yet in a position to do anything about it. Otherwise I could easily have killed that accursed curser; because when Ottoman envoys come to Persia they have the liberty of killing up to four Kızılbaş (i.e., the Safavids of Persia) cursers for the sake of the Four Companions of the Prophet, no questions asked. For now I bore it patiently.
Evliya calmed down by the time he reached Tabriz, a city with which he quickly fell in love:
Because in the entire kingdom of Persia there is no city and no countryside as fine as Tabriz, the ravisher of hearts . . . It is a large and ancient city with delightful climate, lovely boys and girls, lofty buildings and numerous foundations and institutions. May God vouchsafe that it once again belong to the Ottomans [the Ottomans had occupied Tabriz from 1585 to 1603] . . . may God Most High cause it to flourish forever!
While in Tabriz Evliya apparently witnessed the Ashura ceremony, which as noted commemorates the death of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters at the hands of the Umayyads at Karbala in what is now Iraq. It was this event which cleft Islam into two branches, Sunni and Shiite, the consequences of which we are living with to this day. Evliya:
Another marvelous and noteworthy spectacle is the Ashura ceremony held every year on the tenth day of Muharram [Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar; Ashura means, literally, “the tenth”]. . . . The great event of the day is when the Khan pitches his parti-colored pavilion i[in an open field] and all the Tabriz notables gather round knee to knee to hear the recital of ‘The Martyrdom of Husain’ which is comparable to the recital of ‘The Birthday of the Prophet” in Turkey. All the lovers of the Prophet’s family listen with dejection and humility, moaning and sighing. Finally, at the words, ‘The accursed Shibr, the oppressor, martyred his holiness Imam Husain, the oppressed, in this fashion,’ a curtain opens behind the reciter and a severed head and trunk of a body, with blood flowing, are thrown in front of the Khan’s pavilion. Then they bring mannequins of the Imam’s innocent children, who died of thirst. The audience wail and lament and are caught up in a woeful ecstasy. At this juncture some hundreds of professional barbers circulate among the lovers with razors in their hands. Those wishing to demonstrate their love for Husain on that day have the barbers slash their arms and breasts, shedding so much blood that the verdant green ground turns tulip red. Some of the lovers brand their heads with the Mark of Submission, or brand their arms with the marks of Hasan and Husain . . . or have tattoos pricked on their arms, shedding their blood for the love of Husain . . . What a grand spectacle!
About an hour and forty minutes out of Istanbul we pass into Iranian airspace. I have for some reason gotten the impression that northwestern Iran is scarcely populated, but below a half a dozen or more small cities or towns are visible at any given time as we proceed eastward. Even though it is past three in the morning they are all extremely well lit up. The downtown areas are ablaze with lights; what look like single-house suburbs are illuminated with grids of bright lights; and the roads leading out of town are lined with street lights for many miles. Iran does not seem to be suffered from a shortage of electricity. Just after four local time we begin our descent into Tabriz. The brilliantly illumined city of around 1.5 million—the fifth (some say fourth)—largest city in Iran—appears to stretch from horizon to horizon. 

On the ground at the airport we file out of the plane to a waiting bus. All the women are now wearing head scarves. There are maybe ten people in front of me at the Immigration desk but they are Iranians and pass through quickly. Just as I present my passport a man outside the barrier to the immigration area shouts, “Mr. Corner!” I see that he is also holding a sign reading “Mr. Corner”. The immigration official waves him inside the barrier and the two have a short confabulation. Finally the young man says, “Welcome to Iran, Mr. Corner. My name is Hamid Taraghi. May I call you Donald?” I said my last name was actually Croner and that he could call me Don. “OK, Don. It will take ten or fifteen minutes for them to straighten out your papers and get you registered. In the meantime we can sit in the here in the reception lounge.” 

According to current rules all American citizens visiting Iran must be accompanied at all times by a guide provided by a government authorized travel agency. Mr. Taraghi will be my guide and compulsory companion for the next sixteen days. He appears to be in his early thirties and from what I can gather speaks nearly perfect English with hardly any accent. I ask him about our itinerary for the day. Before delving into Tabriz I had planned to rest for a few hours and then spend half a day visiting the ancient Armenian Church and Monastery of Stephanos, about eighty miles north of Tabriz, hard by the Iranian-Azerbaijan border. Hamid said the trip was still on and we could visit the church grounds, but he was afraid the church itself might not be open, since today was Ashura, one for the most holy of days on the Shiite calendar. Did I come to Iran specifically on this date to witness the Ashura ceremonies, he wondered? Actually I had picked my arrival date more or less at random, and I did not have the slightest idea today was Ashura. Curiously, however, the last thing I had read in Evliya’s travel account before our plane began its descent was his description of Ashura in Tabriz in the late 1640s.  He had also had his dream in which his future as a traveler was foretold on Ashura. Now I was arriving in Iran for the first time on Ashura, the tenth day of  Muharram. Just a coincidence, apparently.

After all the Iranian passengers had cleared Immigration an official appears and leads us to his office. Here all ten of my digits were electronically finger printed. Apparently this is mandatory for all American citizens entering Iran. Various paperwork is exchanged between Hamid and the official and finally we are free to leave. Just as we approach the door to the public arrival lounge an elderly woman yells at me and points to an x-ray machine. She gives my small carry-on bag a cursory inspection on the x-ray screen and then waves me on. Outside my hired car is waiting for me. My driver’s name is Masud, and he will be accompanying me for the entire trip.
 Pars El Goli Hotel In Tabriz
Twenty minutes after leaving the airport our driver deposited Hamid and me at Pars El Goli Hotel, an eleven story pile of glass and concrete perched atop a small knoll on the outskirt of the city. It was, Hamid assured me, a five-star hotel, the best in Tabriz. The guide, the car and driver, and the up-scale hotels were all part of a package that I as an American citizen had to buy in order to get an Iranian visa. Initially I had been irked by these requirements, but I had finally decided to bow to the unavoidable. Unless the travel agency was misleading me I had no choice if I wished to visit Iran.

The hotel is a standard five-star (OK, maybe four star) business and upscale tourist venue with all the usual amenities, plus a supposedly revolving restaurant at the very top. I am quickly checked for a three night stay. The receptionist says he would keep my passport until I leave. Before going to my room Hamid warns me not to step outside the hotel without him. If I am discovered outside I would probably just be taken back to the hotel and given a light reprimand. He, however, was my authorized guide and responsible for my actions in Iran. If I broke any of the rules, like leaving the hotel without him, he could be fired from his job, lose his guiding license, or worse. I assured him I would not leave the hotel unaccompanied. Otis elevators (apparently pre-Sanctions) whisk me up to the fifth floor. The room was certainly sufficient, with a sitting area and table and a desk. There was even an adequate reading lamp by the bed, the lack of which is one of my pet peeves with hotels. The internet connection was reasonably fast. Blogger.com I soon discover is blocked but all the major news sites work (with the curious exception of dailybeast.com). Finally I collapse on the huge double bed and sleep for three hours. 

Around nine I head down to the huge dining hall. The place probably seats well over a two hundred but only a dozen or so people were having breakfast at this hour. There are two Chinese and two Africans, apparently businessmen, and the rest are besuited Iranian men each eating by themselves. The usual breakfast buffet items are available, including omelets cooked to order, but I quickly decide on comb honey, clotted cream, dates, and flat bread. A better breakfast could hardly be imagined. There was no brewed coffee, so I had to settle for Nescafe. There was an assortment of teabags, but I, a Tea Cognoscenti, could hardly be expected to drink tea made from bags. At ten I met Hamid and Masud in the lobby for our trip to the Church of St. Stephanos.

2 comments:

  1. Dear D, Well, coincidences are after all, well, coincidences. And I know just what you mean about the reading lamps. I don't imagine you can just jump on over to Armenia where Hulegu had built during the years 1261 to 1265 a highland Lamasery named Labnasagut (Sam Grupper's article says Labnasagut just means 'Lamasery'). And while you are there try to find out the names of the Tibetan monks who stayed there. I've been searching for this information for years now, but so far no luck. Evidently, Labnasagut has never been excavated, in part because there is only one Buddhist in all of Armenia who might be interested in what might be found there. Gotta go now. Take care.
    Yours, D

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  2. One of my goals on this trip was to locate any Buddhist temples from the Ilkhanate era which may still exist. From what I was able to discover, none have, at least in Iran (I did not get to Armenia). First, the Ilkhan Ghazan, who converted to Islam, killed many Buddhist monks and destroyed most of the Buddhist temples in his domains. Secondly, the region’s notorious earthquakes have subsequently leveled most of the buildings from the period. And, of course, Buddhists are not “People of the Book”, and therefore later Islamic regimes would have had little interest in preserving traces of Buddhism.

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