Throughout the trip, I saw and captured so many extraordinary examples of both ancient and modern elements of Persian architecture and certain features. Here are several examples that move across time, space, and substance.
October 2, 2013
One of the special opportunities that a person has when traveling, especially to very distant lands, is to grow further in self-awareness, both personally and culturally. Such is happening on this trip to Iran.
On our visit to Chehel Sotun, a 17th century palace complex constructed under Shah Abbas II when Esfahan was the capital of Persia, we saw several different individuals who were restoring some of the paintings on interior walls, as well as gardeners maintaining the luxurious grounds, and stones and bricks ready for use in reconstruction projects.
Without too much trouble, we could imagine foreign visitors arriving for lengthy stays and elegant parties. We could, perhaps somewhat less easily, hear what sounds musicians might have been playing during such occasions. But, it was just us, along with modern travelers, trying to capture the sounds and sights that Chehel Sotun provided. Such restoration is not a too distant kin to the palace’s becoming more of what it had originally been so that we can see better what once was.
Both modern and ancient Persians have taken time from their day to improve their physical health. At the Hammam-e-Aliqol Khan, a public bath house built in the late Safavid era, a newly restored set of rooms with dioramas showed the intricate process of not only bathing, but getting a massage, and relaxing as well.
Private rooms with partially intact mosaics and murals showed how 17th century artisans decorated such a space. In fact, if a person couldn’t afford to pay an attendant to scrub his or her back, there was a stone self-service piece that had a bumpy surface embedded into at least two of the walls. Now, Iranians frequent parks all around their cities to maintain their health by using the brightly-colored exercise equipment installed in neat rows alongside garden spaces with fragrant roses nearby. So, physical restoration happens which can enable new health.
We can strengthen our own cultural self-awareness through travel if we are really paying attention to the back-scrubbing, mind-tickling opportunities. So, are we there yet? Have we arrived where we will stay put in our own minds and cultural hearts? I really hope not, as we pick up the chances to see more of what other cultures have to offer us. Am I the same person who arrived in Iran 10 days ago? Nope. Great!
Monday, September 30, 2013
In the mid-3rd century CE, Shapur I, the second king of Persia’s Sassanid Empire, defeated Roman forces in their eastern provinces. Among his victories was his capture of Valerian, a Roman general at Edessa, now Urfa, in Turkey. Shapur’s success against the Romans was the subject of many rock carvings, including one at the Necropolis just north of Persepolis.
While the image of Shapur humbling Valerian is striking, the setting for this particular version of the event is even more dramatic. The tomb of Darius the Great, who died in 486 BCE, is also among the other features of the Necropolis. The visitor can only imagine the sound and sight of workers carving Shapur’s achievement into the same rock face. Clearly, the decision intended to make a statement about Persian leadership over generations. Who owned this moment?
While we were at Persepolis, at bit earlier in the day, we walked through the majestic ceremonial site of halls and palaces, trying to absorb the details of what actually occurred here. Subject nations would arrive to celebrate the ancient Persian new year, pay their taxes, and stay for two weeks, then return home. Messages in various languages were carved into the columns, as well as scenes of archers, priests, and animals. A common motif was a lion devouring a bull, the sign of spring defeating winter….important because Persians marked the new year in March, even as modern Iranians do. These ancient families exchanged gifts, the same occurs now. What would the ancient children receive? What games would they play? What would their squabbles look like, and who would tattle on whom? Would a little one learn to walk here to delight her noble parents? Who owned these moments?
UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites program properly designated Persepolis as a very important location, of course, and yet, as we encounter this place now, in 2013, our drive to see it in another ways tugs at our heritages. The Islamic Republic of Iran cares for it, among the country’s other historical buildings and sites. Iran has many thousands of mosques that are well over 400 years old. Who owns the precious meditative time that passes in them still? Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) assist in surveilling these sites to help ensure that people do not damage them. Who owns what, in this case?
Personal encounters at Perspepolis are magical and transcend international boundaries. Who owns the moment of watching a child try to chase down a tiny lizard?
Who owns the moment of encountering elderly Iranian women, chatting in the shade while nibbling on delicious dark chocolate candies? (They shared.) Who owns the moment of my asking to photograph them, and my seeing one lovely woman take the ring from her finger and use it to hold her scarf under her chin…so the ring would show in the photograph?
Who owns the moment of our coming upon a couple who were heating up their lunch as part of their picnic? We all laughed when they showed us what was in their cooking pot…pizza!
Who owns the laughter that we shared and sent out into the ancient air at Persepolis? Well, all of us, really.
Can we get laughter and such shared moments on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List? Let’s try, at least, to count such times as very important especially as they add to our personal and collective global understanding.
September 26, 2013
Yazd and Shiraz
While travel seems the most obvious way to expose oneself to new cultures and ideas, what should I do with that awareness? Is there an app for that?
This morning, we left the city of Yazd in Yazd province, and by the close of the afternoon, were in Shiraz, in Pars province, passing through the Zagros Mountains. Over the past few days, we had started to recognize some of Yazd’s city landmarks, finding the place increasingly familiar. Once again back in the van, we were leaving that familiarity.
I have been finding wearing a head scarf, oh so clumsily held in place by hair pins, increasingly familiar, too. I can now easily swing the scarf’s ends back over my shoulders when the ends droop down when I lean over. Pretty easy to do, really. My other clothes make me hot in the 90+ sunny, dry weather, but they are appropriate, they “work”.
I recognize much of the delicious food that I have eaten since I arrived in Iran, primarily because some dishes remind me of meals I ate in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. So let’s break this down…one new dish to me is fasenjan, made of chicken, walnuts, and pomegranates. I like all of those foods separately, so there was a good chance I would like them combined. Unbelievably good! In this region of southwestern Iran, farmers grow wheat, grapes, pistachios, and corn, reminding me of portions of Turkey and the United States. Familiar turf, literally.
So, if I step out from the known to the unknown, it isn’t really that far away. We talked today about Avicenna, an ancient Persian physician and lawyer who had written major treaties in these disciplines. I have taught about him many times to 9th graders, but from the outside looking in. His life and career are part of Iran’s prized heritage, more familiar to me now so I can look at his reputation from the inside looking out. Familiar.
On the streets, I have noticed family groups of parents and children, and extended family members…like nanas. I know about these groups of people in my own life with joys, squabbles, so on. I set my mind to imagining what they had for breakfast or what it was like to get ready for school or work, fixing lunches, cooking dinner. I have done all these things. Familiar.
We passed nearby the edges of Bamu National Park where families go to camp and have a get away. I have done that, and I can imagine them getting the gear into the car, figuring out what foods to shop for to eat, agreeing on the time to leave home. Oh, and worrying about ants and bears, and fearing that they won’t get to see the deer their friends had told them about. Given the fact that Iran sees over 300 days of sun a year probably means they don’t worry about soggy tents. All also familiar, except for the no rain concern — always seem to rain for me.
Before arriving in Shiraz, we visited Pasargadae where Cyrus the Great, the ancient Persian king is buried and where his empire had its capital in 550 BCE. While we were there, we saw numerous other groups, some Iranians, some foreigners from east Asia. I watched them encountering the site, and wondered how they integrated knowledge about Cyrus into their understandings about leadership in their own country or as Iranians thinking about the achievements of early Persia under Cyrus’s rule.
Let’s just say that I could download an app for appreciating diversity. I could pull it down from the cloud, and see it soon on my heart-top. I could open it, and energize myself into welcoming all that was different. So, try it, share the app with a friend, even. My guess is that you may find that the ability to appreciate diversity was really there all along just hidden from view somewhere on your heart-top, and you really didn’t need the app.
September 24, 2013
While walking in a park in a park in Tehran a few evenings ago, we encountered several scenes that have enabled me to think about young people and their lives in Iran’s past and present. And, there is a very good reason to consider these particular young people and their basic age range. At least 70% of Iranians are under 30 years of age.
How will they draw from Iran’s past and contemporary era? What key insights do they have about life in modern Iran can they offer to their elders?
When we came upon them they were sketching plans for some graffiti writing they hoped to do, listening to music, and generally celebrating the last night before they resumed high school for the new academic year. They were within earshot of both the prayer commemoration for the war between Iran and Iraq between 1980 and 1988, and teen age girls rollerblading on a cement course. We weren’t completely sure which group had caught more of their attention. There is after all compulsory military service for young men. Elsewhere in Tehran and also in Yazd, we saw more of the commemorative exhibits, developed and installed with money had been set up from Iranian governmental sources.
At the Reza Museum, named for Reza Abbasi, an important 19th century miniaturist, a painting of an old man and a young man set me to wondering how the older person and generation transfer knowledge and tradition to the younger group? And, does the communication go both ways?
Did the many thousands who travelled to Persepolis in the time of Cyrus the Great talk about business, politics, social news? What did the young people think who were there? What did the youths have to say to each other who had also come long distances?
What about future Iranian generations? If we were very quiet, we could imagine the people depicted in those court paintings speaking in French, the language of the elite.
Also at the Reza Museum, another artifact caught my eye and imagination. A pottery bowl, crafted in the 9th century CE in Nayashabur, one of Persia’s northern regions, had been inscribed with this Kufic sentence: “He who has patience, possesses ability, one who is content, possibility.”
Did ancient Persian people show more patience or more contentment? Is it clear which was more highly prized? What about now…?
As for my visiting at this historical moment, when Iran’s new president is visiting the United States, I am charged to trade places with him, even for a few seconds…. As those young boys in the park grow into manhood, and into who they will be as adults, how will they draw from their past and present? Can our American youth reach across the cultural and political divide to meet them half way? What will it mean for those youth to Iranize their futures, solving the dilemmas of providing water, creating bridges with their neighbors near and far, and meeting other challenges? As ancient Persians adopted and adapted the Arabic alphabet to their own use, adding several letters to make it their own, how will Iranian boys and girls adapt, innovate, reach out?
September 21, 2013
The single key theme that keeps reinforcing itself since we arrived late last night is this, Iranians find ways to care for their culture and history in a variety of ways. All cultures do this, of course, but we are witnessing how that happens.
A 12th century blue pitcher, or ewer, with black painted decoration is included in a marvelous collection at the Glassware and Ceramics Museum of Iran. What is striking about this pitcher is that there are people depicted on it. Not a big deal? It is, because many Muslims across the globe do not use the human figure in any of their art. Iranians depart from this broader norm, preferring to maintain the Persian tradition.
Persian gardens are among UNESCO’s intangible cultural spaces, and Iranians use their outdoor spaces for refreshment, always with water flowing in fountains to help create an oasis of cool air.
Iranian women do cover themselves in scarves and long outer garments that vary a great deal in color and patterns. Scarves often match the long-sleeved blouses, for example.
While touring the National Museum, I saw that Iran’s heritage combines Egyptian influences in building and engineering, as well as in the use of natural stones. In a stone staircase brought from Persepolis, artisans carved Persian archers and lancers into the interior side, while Persian and Median clergy brought animals for sacrifice on the exterior side. Surely these figures and others collected at evoke the most ancient complications in secular and religious leadership that are still very much a part of contemporary Iranian political life. Down the corridor from this installation was a tall figure of Darius the Great, a statue that had actually been made in Egypt. The inscription combined Egyptian hieroglyphics with Persian cuneiform writing, making me so curious about military and political stresses between the two civilizations in the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE. In the same museum, numerous animal sculptures and animal-shaped pottery pieces reminded us again of the power that the bulls and other beasts carried for these ancient populations in what they provided for all sorts of needs.
Later in the day, a quick tour of the Contemporary Art Museum, enabled us to see the exhibit of the Saqqakhana Movement which showed renewed devotion to Islam in a very modern manner, painting and mixed media pieces completed in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the pieces utilized Farsi calligraphy in bold statements , among other approaches.
So, Iran’s cultural and political heritage shows a dramatic ability to reinvent, standing forcefully alongside major ancient and modern forces.