Showing posts with label Iran. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Iran. Show all posts

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Iran | Esfahan | Khaju Bridge

While in Esfahan I wandered by the 436-foot long Khaju Bridge, built by the Safavid king Shah Abbas II in the 1650s.
The Khaju  Bridge (click on photos for enlargements)
The Khaju  Bridge
The Khaju  Bridge
The Khaju  Bridge
The Khaju  Bridge
The Khaju  Bridge
The Khaju  Bridge
The Khaju  Bridge
The 25 foot wide roadway across the top of the bridge

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

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. I soon discover is blocked but all the major news sites work (with the curious exception of 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.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Iran | Tabriz | Covered Bazaar

The morning after my trip to the Church of St. Stephanos the breakfast hall of my hotel in Tabriz is occupied by two tour groups from Germany, each with maybe fifteen people. These are not adventure tourism types. All appear to be in their seventies or older, retirees checking Iran off their  list while they are still able to ambulate without walkers or motorized carts. They dutifully line up for cold cereal and bowls of prunes. All the women are wearing head scarves. I tuck into comb honey, clotted cream, dates, and flat bread while reviewing the day’s itinerary. Today will be devoted to Tabriz itself. As mentioned, Tabriz was the Il-Khanate capital from 1265 to around 1305, when Ölziit Khan moved the government to Sultaniyya. Even after the capital was transferred to Sulṭaniyya Tabriz remained probably the most prominent city in the Il-Khanate. Unfortunately, there are few if any physical remains of the Il-Khanate period left in Tabriz. Devastating earthquakes that periodically leveled the city, destruction wrought by invasions, wars, and revolutions, and urban renewal and expansion have all taken their toll.The cataclysmic earthquake of 1780, in particular, leveled most of Tabriz. and as  a result, according to one historian, “the city now contains very few structures of historical interest.” On the way back from the Armenian church yesterday I asked Hamid if he knew of any Il-Khanate-era monuments and anxious as he was to please he finally had to admit that he also did not know of any. I am not saying, I should make clear, that there are no Il-Khanate monuments in the city; I am simply stating that if there are any I was unable to locate them. However, the current-day Tabriz Covered Bazaar, dating from after the disastrous 1780 quake, is apparently a continuation of an earlier covered bazaar founded by the Il-Khan Ghazan in the 1290s and thus deserves our attention.

The current version is said to be the largest covered bazaar in the world. It covers 66.7 acres, with 3.41 miles of passageways and 5500 shops. The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, while ranking as the biggest single tourist attraction in the world, with over 91,000,000 visitors a year, has between three and four thousand shops. The largest mall is the United States, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota covers more space than the Tabriz Bazaar—96.4 acres total with 56.8 acres devoted to 530-some shops—but many would argue that it is not really a covered bazaar in the classic sense of the term but rather a New World mutation.

I am on my fourth cup of Nescafe (no filter coffee or lattes here, and the only tea is in bags;  a Tea Cognoscente myself, I would of course not be caught dead using tea bags) when Hamid and Masud appear. Earlier in my room I had binged the covered bazaar and discovered that it always closes for the first ten days of the month of Muharram. I mentioned this to Hamid and he replied, “Don’t worry, yesterday was Ashura, the tenth day of the Muharram. The bazaar will be open today.” The bazaar is close to the center of the city, about a fifteen minute driver from our hotel. “I like Tabriz”, enthused Hamid, a native of Tehran, as we drove toward downtown. “The streets and sidewalk are very clean and you don’t see any of the beggars and street people you see in some districts of Tehran. And the pollution here is nothing like Tehran.”

Tabriz is situated on the western edge of the Iranian Plateau at an altitude of 4430 feet. About twenty-five south of the city looms 12,163-foot Sahand Mountain, the cone of a now-extinct volcano. The earliest history of the city is extremely hazy. Legends that the city was the original Garden of Eden and/or the birthplace of Zoroaster, founder of the Zoroastrian religion, while persistent (tour guides dredge them up to this day), are no doubt apocryphal. A Tarui or Tauris mentioned in an epigraph of the Assyrian King Sargon (r. 722–705)   dated to 714 b.c. may refer to an early version of the city; if so, this may be the first mention of the settlement or town in the historical record. Clearly some sort of town existed here during the time of the  Sassanian Empire (224 a.d. to 651 a.d.). Arabic Muslims invaded the region in 642, after the fall of the Sassanian Empire, and an Arabic tribe from Yemen settled in the town of Tabriz. Zubaida, the wife of Abbasid Calif Harun al-Rashid, he of One Thousand Night and One Arabian Nights fame, is often credited with founding the city, but of course it already existed by her time. Zubaida (d. 831) was famous for providing wells, water reservoirs, and other amenities for Muslim pilgrims traveling from Baghdad to Medina and Mecca. Although she did not found Tabriz, she apparently rebuilt the city after it was destroyed by a devastating earthquake.   

Due to its location close to the unstable suture between the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates earthquakes have been a recurring theme in the history of Tabriz.  “Earthquakes have occurred with greater frequency in Tabriz than in any other major city in Iran,” states one historian who had studied the subject in detail. Although ephemeral sources cite numerous earthquakes affecting Tabriz—the years 634, 694, 746, 838, 949, and 1020 are mentioned—the first quake for which there is firm historical evidence occurred in 858. The 858 quake leveled the city restored by Zubaida. In turn it was rebuilt by Abbasid Caliph Mutawakkil (822–861). Despite the attentions of the illustrious Zubaida, Tabriz was “scarcely little more than a village until at least the mid-ninth century.” It was not until after the city was rebuilt by Mutawakkil that it became a flourishing trade center, but even then it was just one bead on a necklace of cities stretching between the Orient and Occident. It was not until the Mongols made it their capital that Tabriz became what one historian calls a “striking example of a world historical city in both its cosmopolitan intellectual culture and its central role in the thirteenth-century global economy.”

The streets leading to the Covered Bazaar were certainly clean, but they were also suspiciously quiet. We parked a block away from the bazaar and proceeded on foot to one of its many entryways. The portal was open but when we entered we found the long corridor empty.  All the doors leading off to passageways on the the left and right was closed and locked. Proceeding down the dark corridor we finally encountered a janitor with a broom. He announced that the bazaar is closed for the Ashura ceremonies until further notice. “That’s crazy!” said Hamid. “Ashura was yesterday. Why is the bazaar closed today? The man said he wasn’t even sure if it would be open tomorrow.”
 Deserted corridors of the Covered Bazaar
Not only was I eager to tour the bazaar because of its historical significance, I was also interested in its famous carpet shops. Tabriz has been an important carpet manufacturing center for centuries and Tabrizi carpets have assumed a certain cachet among collectors. I had no intention of buying any—some rooms of my Hovel In Zaisan Tolgoi are already three deep in carpets from Bukhara, Samarkand, Khotan, and other historic carpets centers—but I do have a passing interest in the history of carpets and was anticipating a few hours of palaver with carpet dealers while examining their merchandise. They can be an excellent source of information, assuming one can separate the chaff of high-pressure salesmanship from whatever grains of actual information they may have to offer.

Actually I may have seen Tabrizi carpets before. Back in Istanbul I had mentioned to a carpet dealer near the Grand Bazaar that I was going to Tabriz and he quickly produced a dozen or more carpets he said were from Tabriz. His father, he claimed, had recently been in Tabriz and had surreptitiously bought up a stock of better quality antique Tabrizi carpets, most of them dating to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.  These he shipped to near the border with Turkey, which is a little over a hundred miles west of Tabriz, and then had them smuggled via horseback into Turkey to avoid customs restrictions and taxes. Kurdish people on both sides other border facilitated the transfer. 

I had intended on spending most of the day here at the bazaar. As Hamid and I were discussing a new course of action a white turbaned mullah walked by and then knocked on a door leading off the right. The door opened momentarily and he slipped in. Hamid went over and knocked on the door and had a brief discussion with the man who opened it. “I told him that you were from America and that you wanted to see the inside of some galleries. He said we can come in.” As luck would have it, the long gallery we entered was one that specialized in carpets. As luck would also have it, the shops that lined the gallery were all closed. The man who had opened the door invited us into his spacious tea shop just to the left of the entrance to the gallery. Five men who had shops in the galleria were already having tea on what for them was a day off. We were served strong black tea in tall glasses and a plate of fat, luscious dates. The other men just stared at me, their faces like stone masks, not revealing any opinion about the American who had somehow materialized in the middle of their morning tea. Tell them I am an historian (I find this designation excuses a multitude of sins) and ask them which parts of the bazaar are the oldest, I said to Hamid. Also ask them if they know of any parts of the bazaar which may date back to the Il-Khanate period. They seemed to take this request quite seriously and they had a discussion among themselves lasting over ten minutes.
This gallery specializing in carpets was closed the day I was there.
“They are speaking Azeri, and I can only understand a few words. When they are done talking I’ll ask for a summary in Persian,” said Hamid. Azeri belongs to the Turkish language family. An early variant of the language was spoken by the Oghuz Turks who lived around the Aral Sea in what is now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Many of these Oghuz Turks migrated westward and by the eleventh century had settled in the Azerbaijan region. Their descendants, Azerbaijanis, are the second largest ethnic group in Iran, after Persians themselves. Azeri remains the dominant language of the East Azerbaijan province of Iran and especially Tabriz to this day. Hamid claims that Azeri is the first language of the majority of people in Tabriz, although almost all speak at least some Persian. It is also spoken by a sizeable Azerbaijani minority in Tehran. Azerbaijanis, claim Hamid, are legendarily astute traders and businessmen and control Tehran”s largest bazaar.

After the confabulation the spokesman for the group talks to Hamid in Persian. Some parts of the bazaar are clearly older than others, but it’s hard to put a date on any particular part. Yes, the Mongols established a bazaar here in Tabriz but none of the men can point to any identifiable Mongol-era structures. This was about what I was expecting to hear but at least it had been worth a try asking. The idea was to get the guys talking. The spokesman says he is sorry he cannot be of more help, but he could open his carpet shop for us if we were were interested. We were interested. Hamid attempts to pay the tea shop man for our tea and dates but he shrugs this off. “It’s free for our American guest.”

The carpet shop is long and narrow, without any space to display carpets on the floor. The walls are lined with coarse wool carpets with generic designs, the cheapest kind of carpets meant for everyday use in the humblest of abodes. The owner leads us to a dusty, ill-lit storeroom in the back with six-foot high piles of carpets but they are all the same cheap variety. It’s clear we have stumbled into a rather lowbrow establishment. I have taken better carpets than these on Extended Camel Trips in the desert. I won’t learn anything new about carpets here. We thank the man and leave.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Iran | Yazd | Carpets

While in Yazd I wandered by a complex of shops selling pottery, brass and copper work, fabrics, clothes, carpets, and other items of interest to tourists, gadabouts, and pilgrims, both domestic and international. 
Courtyard of the shopping complex (click on photos for enlargements)
Pottery for sale at the complex
I was most interested in carpets. Stepping into one store I was surprised to see a selection of carpets very much like some that I already had in my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi. I had bought mine in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, however. “Where are these carpets made?” I asked. I fully expected the salesmen to say “Yazd”, since most visitors are interested in buying locally made products. Instead he answered, “They are made in Serakhs.” “Serakhs, Iran, or Serakhs, Turkmenistan?” I wondered. The salesmen smiled, “Probably both.”
Salesmen in carpet store
I have of course been in Serakhs, Turkmenistan, since it was one of the cities trashed by Chingis Khan’s son Tolui in 1221. I did not have an Iranian visa at the time, so I could not visit Serakhs in Iran, which is right across the border. Nor did I have time to check out carpets stores, as my Turkmenistan visa was expiring and I had to get back to Ashgabat.
Ruins of the ancient city of Serakhs, destroyed by Tolui. The modern city is nearby, with a sister city just across the border in Iran.
Serakhs carpets in Yazd
Serakhs carpets  in Yazd
Serakhs carpets  in Yazd
Serakhs carpets
Serakhs carpets  in Yazd
These kinds of carpets, single knotted silk, with emphasis on the color red, are often called “Bukhara Carpets” or “Bukharans”, after Bukhara in Uzbekistan. They were given these names because they were commonly sold in Bukhara, one of the great Silk Road emporiums, not because they were made there. Even today dealers in Bukhara will try to tell you that they are made in Bukhara, but even the most cursory investigation will prove this not to be true. The salesmen in the stores adamantly stick to this story, however. Someone else in Bukhara, a salesman in a store selling hand-woven fabrics who appeared to have a grudge against the carpets guys, warning me that they were dyed-in-wool liars and not to believe a word they said about anything, told me that it was common knowledge among local merchants that the carpets in question came from Serakhs, in Turkmenistan.  I seem to have found proof of this assertion here in Yazd. 
Carpet Store in the Abdullah Khan Tim in Bukhara 
“Bukharan” carpets in the Abdullah Khan Tim. In all likelihood they were made in Serakhs.
“Bukharan” carpets
“Bukharan” carpets
A “Bukharan” carpet, probably made in Serakhs, on the floor of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi, Mongolia.
Regardless of where they are made, they are gorgeous carpets. I showed one to some Carpet Guys In Istanbul and they grudgingly admitted—they are not big fans of single-knot carpets—that they were of excellent quality. One dealer even offered me cash for one. The profit would have covered my plane ticket to Ashgabat, but I passed. I certainly do not want to become even a part-time carpet dealer, a profession which on the social scale is only slightly above pimps, prostitutes, bartenders, and lawyers. 

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Iran | Sultaniyya | Mausoleum of Ilkhan Ölziit

Wandered by the town of Sultaniyya, site of the mausoleum of Öljeitü (Ölziit in Mongolian), the eighth Ilkhan. Ölziit was the great-grandson Khülegü Khan, founder of the Ilkhanate, and the great-great-great-grandson of Chingis Khan. It was Ölziit (r. 1305–1316) who had moved the capital of the Ilkhanate from Tabriz to Sultaniyya, 175 miles to the southeast. At the insistence of his mother Uruk Khatun, a Nestorian Christian, he had been baptized as a Christian and given the name Nicholas. When he was still in his teens, however, he married a Muslim girl, and apparently under her influence he converted to Islam. At first he was a Sunni Muslim, but he eventually became disillusioned by Nit-Picking Sunni Jurists and switched to Shiism. Perhaps to burnish his credentials as a Shiite he hatched a scheme to move the bodies of the two proto-martyrs of Shiism, Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and Ali’s son Husain, from their shrines in Iraq to Sultaniyya and house them in an enormous mausoleum of his own making. It is not quite clear if he also intended the building to be a mausoleum for himself.  The mausoleum was built, but the plan to move the remains of Ali and Husain to Sultaniyya came to naught.  The building ended up as the repository for Ölziit’s own remains. 
The structure is 161 feet high, with a dome eighty-four feet in diameter, reportedly the third largest brick dome in the world. Larger are the brick domes of the Cathedral of Florence in Italy (138 feet), and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (103 feet). Apart from brick domes, the largest dome in the world is the steel dome of Cowboys Stadium in Texas, built by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the Khülegü of our age (click on photos for enlargements).
For comparison, here is the dome of Hagia Sophia
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
The vast interior of the mausoleum is undergoing renovation 
Interior of the mausoleum
The interior of the mausoleum was once covered with decoration. This eight-foot high panel is one of few surviving examples.
Catacomb under the mausoleum. This space may have been built for the remains of Ali and Husain.
The open walkway just below the dome
The open walkway just below the dome
Decoration of walkway
Decoration of walkway
Detail of decoration
View of Sultaniyya from open walkway.  Sultaniyya, once the capital of the Ilkhanate, is now a sleepy little town with a population of just over 5000. The freeway from Tehran to Tabriz passes by three miles away and many people make a side trip to Sultaniyya for its justly famous kebabs. We had lamb kebabs in Sultaniyya and they certainly lived up to their reputation.  

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Iran | Yazd | Zoroastrian Fire Temple

After visiting the Towers of Silence in Yazd I wandered by the Zoroastrian Fire Temple. Zoroastrianism is still practised in Iran and may be experiencing a Revival in Iraq.  A dozen or more people came to worship at the Yazd temple while I was there. 
The Fire Temple Grounds (click on photos for enlargements)
The Fire Temple
Faravahar, shown above on roof of the temple porch is one of the best-known symbols of Zoroastrianism. Below is an Explanation of the symbol: 

1. The figure inside is that of an old man, representing wisdom of age. 2. There are two wings in two sides of the picture, which have three main feathers. These main feathers indicate three symbols of "good thoughts, good words, and good deeds," which are at the same time the motive of flight and advancement. 3. The lower part of the Faravahar consists of three parts, representing "bad reflection, bad words and bad deeds" which causes misery and misfortune for human beings. 4. There are two loops at the two sides of the Faravahar, which represent positive forces and negative forces.  The former is directed toward the face and the latter is located at the back. This also indicates that we have to proceed toward the good and turn away from bad. 5. The ring in the center symbolizes the eternity of universe or the eternal nature of the soul. As a circle, it has no beginning and no end. 6. One of the hands points upwards, indicating that there is only one direction to choose in life and that is forward. The other hand holds a ring and some interpreters consider that as the ring of covenant and used in wedding ceremonies representing loyalty and faithfulness which is the basis of Zartosht's philosophy. This means when a true Iranian gives a promise, it is like a ring and it cannot be broken. 
Meanwhile, the American rapper, Roaster, and serial stoner Snoop Dogg has managed to Seriously Annoy Zoroastrians by appropriating this symbol. Also see Parsis Miffed. They claim Snoop is “insensitive towards the religious beliefs of one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world.” Snoop Dogg being insensitive toward religions, imagine that! This is a guy who says he celebrates “Bong Kippur”. 
Snoop chillin’ with Faravahar. And I thought he was a Rastafarian!
The Sacred Flame in the temple. Reportedly it has been burning continuously since A.D 470, although not always at this location. It is behind glass, so it is difficult to get a photo without reflections. That’s me taking the photo.
The Sacred Flame
Inside the small museum attached to the temple is an artist’s rendering of Zoroaster, founder of Zoroastriansim (no one knows what he really looked like) with the holy texts of Zoroastrianism below. 
One of the tenets of Zoroastrianism