My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Wednesday 4 January 2017

Iran: A Persian Odyssey - home from Tehran via Ayatollah Khomeini Mausoleum

at the Ayatollah Khomeini Mausoleum Tehran
We are in Tehran and about to go home after a fantastic tour of Iran over the last 11 days - and how much we have seen - described in the last several blogs.
Smog is bad across the mountains this morning – by 9am they are practically obscured. We see on BBC World News that on the recent Day of Cyrus there was a huge disturbance at Pasargadae around his tomb - a nationalistic demonstration which we visited only the other day – all tour groups had to be kept away as 1000s converged and local guards couldn’t cope – but seemingly all went off without any obvious extreme violence. How lucky we were able to visit when we did.
The smog today has affected my chest badly and I cannot actually now wait to get out of the city. Before we left the hotel I went up to the 13th floor for the advertised view from the Chinese restaurant there but cannot get out of the lift lobby as the doors into the restaurant with the views is locked. 

inside the Ayatollah Khomeini Mausoleum Tehran
The hotel advertises a garden – this must be the public Laleh gardens just up the road to the left from the entrance. I stroll up there and it is quite a large area with map at entrance but I do not have the time to fully explore. Others said it was very pleasant and relaxing among trees once one was away from the rather urbanised entrance.  

Suitcases checked and loaded on the bus - we are soon on our way to the airport via the Ayatollah Khomeini Memorial. We pass by the American Embassy building – scene of the American hostage crisis when the Embassy staff were held hostage for 444 days from October 1979. It is now an exhibition hall and the Swiss embassy is responsible for the American Embassy at the moment. The British Embassy only opened quite recently – hence enabling our own visit.  
Driving through the streets it is noticeable that the many small shops on which the Iranians seem to very much depend are grouped by product – thus there are concentrations of shops selling shoes, brass ware, musical instruments, bread, meat, hardware, building materials, wheelbarrows and so on… 

Ayatollah Khomeini Mausoleum
At the Ayatollah Khomeini Memorial we girls all enter to the left – where we have to take off shoes at the edge of the carpet and put on chadors – it is very difficult to get the hang of these – the ladies there smilingly help us put them on, quite amused probably at our clumsiness. Cell phone cameras are allowed but not other cameras – it is difficult anyway to take a photo and hold on to the chador at the same time!! We meet the men inside, who have their own entrance to the right of the shrine – they are shoeless but no special dress otherwise required for them – they are amused by the ethereal group of white chador clad womenfolk drifting over towards them across the carpets.  

the blood fountain at Behesht-e Zahra (cemetery)
Once outside again we see the blood fountain - red water symbolising the death of the many soldiers who were killed in the Iran Iraq war as well as those killed in the 1978 demonstrations against the Pahlavi regime - and the campsite of tents for the many pilgrims who come here to pay their respects.  
Back on the bus we make our presentations to the driver and Ali – who have looked after us so very well throughout our trip. 

So to the airport – a train line is being built alongside the road to the airport from the city – this should go some way to relieve the traffic pressure on this extremely busy route.   

All in all it was a wonderful trip and I would love to go again to see so much more that we didn't have enough time for in 11 days.

Before taking a break for a while from posting here - until the next pilgrimage perhaps - I would like to thank Rachel and McCabe Pilgrimages for such a well organised trip, the Revd. Canon Adrian Slade who made such a good job of leading and spiritually guiding us, our excellent local guide Ali with his encyclopaedic knowledge of just about anything we wanted to know, and our driver who transported us safely and cheerfully throughout the journey, always there to meet us and look after us and give us another picnic! And thank you to all my fellow pilgrims for being such good company. 

So where shall I be going next? Any ideas welcome and I would love your comments on any of my blogs to date. 

I wish all my readers a very happy New Year. May there be more peace for everyone in 2017.

Sunday 1 January 2017

Iran: A Persian Odyssey - Tehran

pottery Elamite period bull 

We are in Tehran - the capital of Iran. As I write this it is covered by a blanket of snow!! When we were there at the end of October it was hot.
Cuneiform script from Persepolis 5th century BC
We have travelled through 7000 years of civilization during our amazing trip to Iran over 12 days, and I could happily do this all over again. The country is beautiful, the people so friendly and welcoming to the many tourists visiting. We met on our own journey other tour parties from Britain, France, Holland, Germany, Australia and Canada and Russia, as well as seeing some lone backpackers up in Abyaneh. And we could scarcely scratch the surface of the treasures the country holds in the time available to us. 
We have seen a 5000 BC archaeological site where remains of humans, their houses and their pottery have been unearthed. 
We visited remnants of the Achaemenid dynasty (550-330 BCE) at the extraordinary ruins of Pasargadae and Persepolis, and at the necropolis of Naqsh-e Rostam. 
We visited the hauntingly beautiful ancient Zoroastrian Sassanid (224 - 658 CE) village of Abyaneh high in the mountains between Esfahan and Kashan and the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence at Yazd, and enjoyed the wealth of the Safavid court (1501-1736) reflected in the beauty of Esfahan
Bronze statue Parthian nobleman
In Shiraz we saw a charming example of Zand (1750-1794) architecture in the 1767 citadel, Arg-e Karim Khan Zand, perhaps the best surviving example of 18th century fortification in the country. We visited Kashan, which dates from the 12th century, a town which survived the Mongol (c 1220-1340) campaigns but is also home to splendid merchants' houses from the Qajar Dynasty (1757-1924). 
National Museum Tehran
We have been brought right up the present day in Tehran where tomorrow we will visit the shrine to Ayatollah Khomeini founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic which marked the end of the Shah's Pahlavi dynasty (1926-1979). He died in 1989.

Much of this history, from the hunter gatherers of the Lower Paleolithic period to the end of the Sassanian period is brought together in the National Museum of Iran which was our first stop this morning.  Here there are priceless exhibits and an excellent English brochure – make sure you pick this up as you go in.

On our journey through the city we pass the Palestine roundabout – a mural on the wall alongside shows Palestinians throwing stones at the Israelis - a significant example of Iranian graffiti. There is plenty of graffiti in the city, official and otherwise, and some very decorative.

marble throne for Shah by Esfahani craftsmen carved
in 1800s
typical Qajar tiling at Golestan
The population of Tehran is 9 million, with 18 million total counting all the sprawling suburbs. To the North is a mountain range to which the city dwellers love to escape where possible. Iran’s highest peak is here at 5678 metres. Tehran itself is at 1200 metres altitude. There is a state run university here which is highly regarded with much competition to be admitted. I see a lovely pavement sculpture of a girl posting a letter.  

We have a great land train experience – unscheduled I think – and fun! But the land train has a serious purpose - locals use it all the time to travel up and down the long pedestrianised shopping street.

Golestan Palace
 Then we walk on to the Golestan museum complex. This is amazing – but photos are  forbidden within the complex. We have also had to leave our bags in the bus as they are not allowed within the museums.
Golestan Palace
The GolestanPalace (Palace of Flowers) complex, with its ornate rooms and marble throne, was the seat of power of the Qajar dynasty, became the official residence of the Royal family and is the oldest historic monument in Tehran. It would once have been enclosed within the mud-thatched walls of the historic citadel in the city. 

street scene Tehran
pomegranates for sale Tehran bazaar

It is now surrounded by the typical city buildings and roads of the 21st century. Both Reza Khan and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi were crowned here.
The official website supplies some photos and much more information, albeit with a less than perfect translation.
Afterwards we have a long walk to pick up the bus – an amazing feat for our driver to even find us in the midst of total traffic madness! It’s now 1.30 and we have had a very long morning without refreshment – too long actually and many of us are wilting! 

land train Tehran

 So we are driven to Masqh Square complex where we find our restaurant –  this is a top hotel in Tehran and the meal was quite the best we had – 10/10! Superb buffet spread with veggies well catered for – quality sweets and hot drinks – all splendid.

sculpture at Laleh Park Tehran
The National Jewellery Museum holds many of the Qajar monarchs’ jewels, safely stored in a bank vault, access to which involves several security checks and some long waits. But it is all worth it. Again the official web page supplies the photos  
We have a very long wait here to let the crowds subside and then we seem to go through three different security processes – including xray machines, and frisking, before we are allowed through. We then have an official guide to take us around the circuit – our own guide Ali is not allowed to do this. It is all very precisely organised. The jewels are priceless, some vulgar, some exquisite. But it is an interesting experience.  

the Palestine Roundabout Tehran
I guess everyone visiting Tehran has to experience the seemingly impossible task of crossing a road! It’s certainly not for the faint hearted, or to be attempted alone. As a group ably guided by Ali we make it in one piece! We pick up our bus on the other side of the carriageway, with some relief.  

typical cabbage decorated roundabout
Shanderman Restaurant for supper was superb – excellent veggie meal and meat eaters rated theirs highly too – very good salad, buffet and soup with choice of meats and tea with biscuit, coffee or ice cream to finish with a group set meal. 8/10. On our return to the hotel we give Adrian a book on Persepolis with our thanks for his excellent leadership throughout the tour. Sad that we have to go home tomorrow. 

Thursday 29 December 2016

Iran: A Persian Odyssey - The Three Wise Men and Kashan


Fin garden 
We are staying in Kashan for just one night, from where the Three Wise Men are traditionally said to have set off for Bethlehem to visit the infant Jesus. The town is also famous for its ceramics, and the manufacture of expensive silks and carpets for the Safavid Court. Tourists now come here to visit the rather fantastic merchant houses and the impressive Persian Bagh-e Fin or Fin Gardens.
The morning as usual dawns bright and sunny and soon we are in the Fin Gardens – very close to our hotel – and they are really very lovely. We have traditional tea and Iranian biscuits served with style in a garden café there – peaceful and relaxing. The coffee/tea houses here are in a similar style to those experienced on our 2013 visit to South East Turkey at Dana with traditional "beds" to relax upon. There are some very grand houses in Kashan with equally grand furniture shops selling ornate gilded chairs, settees and stair rails and the young people at least are very friendly and chatty and want selfies with us. By contrast an older woman is seen washing clothes in the street side irrigation channel or jub and we pass a motor cycle laden with pomegranates stacked high in lovely wool panniers, the machine being driven by the father with his wife and child clinging on precariously behind him.
Fin garden
Fin Garden
Tea at Fin Garden
The old merchant house we visit -Khaneh Tabatabiyeh - is fantastic – I really enjoyed this. There are many other houses open to the public – plus some interesting looking museums – all tantalising but we have to move on; not before sampling the rose water drink in a nearby shop  – I like it – some find it too sweet. We also saw where two weeks ago thousands gathered in the town for an Imam Hossein commemoration event presumably to mark the beginning of Moharram, and I guess this is held annually.  

Tappeh Sialkh 5000 BCE
We have lunch at the same restaurant as last night – it is very full today but still copes well and the food is just as good. A few of us walk up the road to see from the outside the archaeological site Tappeh Sialkh, dating back to the 5th Millennium BCE, perhaps earlier, with evidence of different very early human settlements and the use of an early potter's wheel. Stained red human remains and the vestiges of their stone, mud and wood dwellings have been found here and outlines of the settlement can still be seen. Some pottery from the site is in the National Museum Tehran which we shall see tomorrow. Sadly we had no time to actually buy tickets to enter the site and view it properly. I think McCabe should consider including this on any future trip.

Khaneh Tabatabiyeh

We are now on the final leg of our journey on the road to Tehran. It is 26 degrees.

Khaneh Tabatabiyeh two doorknockers
for men, and women/children!
The land is agricultural outside Kashan, and it is mostly rose fields, but there are also many pomegranate vendors in the lay bys as we leave the town. The landscape is flat, and it soon becomes quite arid as far as we can see to the east, with mountains to the west. There are golden domed mosques in a local village, and many more qanats are visible on the plain in the distant, evidence of the ancient water irrigation system below. I see the first sign of poly tunnel cultivation and some very curious rock formations. The atmosphere is getting murkier – with smog perhaps? It seems quite cloudy and we have clearly left behind the beautiful deep blue skies of the south.
Khaneh Tabatabiyeh
This is the least interesting leg of our drive and the motorway is not the smoothest of surfaces. We pass through an area of low mountains on each side but are soon back on the plain. Qom is 35 km away – there are large flocks of goats being herded at the side of the road, with much arable farming activity as well, more pomegranate bushes, some very sophisticated irrigation channels, sweet corn fields, old tractors and other fairly basic and old farm implements along with stacked straw bales seen in farm compounds – also I fear much evidence of factory farming. There is a herd of camels at the side of the motorway – I just manage to catch a fleeting photo!

five door room in Khaneh Tabatabiyeh
The traffic now is the busiest we have seen it. Qom looks huge and the atmosphere murky. It is the second most sacred place in Iran after Mashhad. Pilgrims and tourists alike flock here to see the shrine of Fatima sister of the eighth imam, Imam Reza, who died here in 816CE. The golden dome and twin minarets are said to dominate the skyline but I do not see them from the coach and we are passing by straight on to Tehran.

Soon we stop at a huge shopping mall for a comfort break – Adidas outlet store is prominent as we drive into the car park – a family have settled down in a marked parking bay for their picnic – the usual rug on the ground – shoes on its perimeter – food spread out! Imagine that in the UK at Ikea! There is a sparkling 1950s Chevrolet in the entrance foyer attracting a great deal of interest. 

The mall is very grand – with plenty of shops and quite the poshest loos on the whole trip – spotless and we feel even our footprints are being dusted away behind us! We have a picnic set up by the coach before moving on – the driver cutting up a huge water melon to share amongst us. It’s still 26 degrees outside - very pleasantly warm but murky. The air now is noticeably polluted and not nice at all.  

Pottery Kashan

rose water still Kashan

typical smart villa in Kashan

All the tour buses are equipped with a luggage hold, a hold where the driver can sleep as necessary, a hold for the picnic kit, including a gas stove – one driver was seen to light this stove within the hold itself (!). 

We are on the last leg of the journey to Tehran. The view is of desert all around us – with the huge salt lake visible to the east. I find the pollution tough on my chest, just recovering as I am from a very bad cold and cough. I feel the same gloom approaching Tehran as I felt on our way into Athens last year. I am not comfortable in large cities – although found Athens surprisingly agreeable. I hope the same applies for Tehran.  
The motorway here has many break down trucks along the way, waiting for their summonses to help cars in need. Our first sign of the city is the airport and the traffic now is pretty bad – it takes quite a while to get through it to our hotel.
We were going to see the Ayatollah Khomeini monument tonight – but we are running late and it will be very busy being Friday. So we pass it by and we will see it on the way to the airport on Sunday instead.  
our water melon picnic

We eat in the hotel in Tehran- the meal is poor for us all, the usual salads, kebabs, (the meat is reconstituted) and some very uninspiring vegetables and chips for me. The crème caramel is the highlight - the Iranian creme caramel rarely disappoints my sweet tooth! 
1950s Chevrolet at Tehran shopping mall
The hotel fortunately has good triple glazing as I cannot hear the dreadful traffic from the street far below. Opening the window, I am hit in equal measure by the smell and the noise. I shut it again quickly. The room is large, clean comfortable and chintzy with the usual Mecca sign in the corner of the ceiling. Everything under the sun is supplied in the basket of goodies in the bathroom – except shower gel which I need. No tea and coffee facilities in the room - surprising perhaps for a hotel of this calibre but there is 24 hour coffee available in the foyer apparently but I didn’t test this.  

curious rock formation road to Tehran
Tomorrow we have a full day in Tehran - with even more treasures to see before we have to think about travelling home.

Monday 26 December 2016

Iran: A Persian Odyssey - the most beautiful mosque in the world - and more

barley twist cabling of pillars

beautiful ceramic tile work
Visiting the most beautiful mosque in the world is a good way to start the day. We are at the Skeikh Lotfollah Mosque in Esfahan Iran – a mosque more beautiful than the Esfahan Unesco listed Masjed-e Jame which we didn't visit but which is said to be an architectural treasure.
the night prayer hall downstairs
The Skeikh Lotfollah Mosque was probably built for the women of the royal harem and the early seventeenth decorations really are very lovely - the amazing ceramic tile work exhibits whirling dervishes, Koran script, peacocks (look for the one up in the centre of the dome in the prayer hall. We learn that the turquoise and green colours symbolize paradise, (green also supposedly Mohammed's favourite colour) as does gold. Yellow is a symbol of the sunflower, of light and sun. Brown stands for purity and peace and black is for modesty as well as for mourning.
the dome Skeikh Lotfollah Mosque
We go downstairs to the prayer hall where night prayers were said – it has a low ceiling for heat economy – it may be hot now but nights in the winter can be very cold. Ali explains that a brown mark visible on a man’s forehead would be the stain from his clay tablet on which he would push his forehead against the floor to pray more fervently.
Someone in our group leaves their I Pad in the public toilets – we find it handed in at the police station. While the group wait for the guide to sort all this out our leader tells us about the background and good reasons for the different resurrection narratives in the Gospels. See for example here and here for a few ideas.
peacock in centre of dome above main hall
Skeikh Lotfollah Mosque 
We are soon on the road for Tehran
We pass a huge blow up Father Christmas outside a small shop leaving Esfahan – bright red, white beard, huge belly – the lot. Strange sight in this country! There is beautiful brass work decorating the underpass going out of the city – not the first time I have seen such pleasing aesthetics in otherwise soulless concrete road structures. This beats graffiti anytime.

We also pass a huge sports/football stadium. Esfahan has two football teams in the first league and big team games are played here. If only the human race could understand that they are linked by a common spirituality as well as a common game!
On the long coach journey Ali tells us about the Iranianmarriage laws and traditions dating back to the Sassanid period (224-658CE) and Zoroastrian tradition. 

bartering for pomegranates

It is hot outside, the distant mountain range barely discernible across the vast deserts through a haze of sand and dust and heat. There is a lovely little picnic hut in the middle of nowhere just set back from the road with splendid mountain views. Then we pass a very old ruined caravanserai; a flock of wild goats; a road sign for snow chains – evidence of cold winters here.

We are passing through lovely mountain scenery now, the rock colours indicating rich mineral deposits. The rock striations are geologically fascinating. Large birds of prey circle overhead. We pass small village gardens sheltered from the fiercest heat by large vine-covered arbours. Very pretty clumps of vegetation with scarlet flowers adorn the verges.
ancient Sasannid ruins
There are deep concrete irrigation channels. We pass lorries carrying huge marble blocks from the quarries we have passed. One block is load enough for most lorries. They must be very heavy.
We pass the nuclear facilities that have caused the sanction and diplomatic problems recently.
And at a large pomegranate orchard Ali and the driver barter water, cakes, a melon and water melon for a crate of fresh pomegranates.
We see some very ancient ruins from the Sasannid period (224-658 BC). 

Enjoying a cuppa Abyaneh

 And soon we turn off towards Abyaneh, an ancient Zoroastrian village – up a twisting narrow road into the mountains to 2500 m. It’s a very pretty wooded valley we follow upwards- ash, maple, plane and much more displaying autumn colours. Ali tells us this is very beautiful also in the spring. And there are fabulous rock formations also. We pass ruined smallholdings, a big marble quarry, a couple of cemeteries reminding of the many war martyrs buried here.
We come to a pay toll to enter the village area. There are many curious entrances into the hillside – these are for the livestock we are told. There is also a large picnic area where many Iranian families are picnicking. So we arrive at the Abyaneh Hotel for lunch, a reasonable buffet spread. I bought a tea afterwards which was beautifully served on a tray with curious sugar sticks to dip in for sweetening to taste.  

shop entrance Abyaneh
We tour this charming village. The locals are all in traditional Sasannid costumes but good manners and their request via Ali forbid us taking their direct photos. I really cannot blame them and often think we are so obsessed with photos these days we forget our own values – how would we like it if people turned up outside our gardens at home and started taking our photos and snaps of our plots, houses, ourselves; just because we look different from their own norm? Nonetheless people do like to know how other cultures live and work and play. We hear that an important reason for the photo ban is that many of the young people from the village now have good jobs in town and do not want their parents’ pictures emblazoned across social media. 

a sheet of Lavashak
We try the lavashak or fruit leather – this one is is apricot but any fruit can be used it seems. It is a popular sweet snack - a sort of flat sweet dried fruit sheet – 30104 photo in kashan Kids seem to love - we see many over the next few days eating it. There are You Tube videos telling you how to make it if you really want to try it!
We all buy little souvenirs from the many local vendors – some are on the streets – some have their own small shops.
ancient balconied house Abyaneh
We have a picnic by the coach before setting off again. Going back down the valley I see some beehives, and some irrigation channels rather like the Madeiran levadas which provide such wonderful walking. Water gushes down the valley as the vegetation gets ever greener. Soon we are back on the main road towards Kashan – just 55 km of barren desert to go.
We have a one night stay in Kashan at the Negarestan Hotel. It’s OK –clean enough and breakfast is quite a good spread in a pleasant open lounge off the large main reception area – which is itself spacious and relaxed. But I think the staff seem disinterested.
street scene Abyaneh
I would rate 2 or 3 maximum on 5. The bathroom was new/modern and clean but poorly fitted. The rest of the room was tired with cheap fittings and appeared drab. The bed was hard. Some rooms had a balcony which guests could get out onto – for good distance views over town. Mine had views without the balcony on the 7th floor. But there were two chairs and a table with plates and cutlery but no tea/coffee facilities. The TV and wifi reception were very good however. There were the usual slippers and bathroom flip flops – a good custom to discourage use of outdoor shoes in the room- but the bathroom flipflops were used and grubby unlike at many hotels. Some rooms had a double bed and a sofa – mine had two singles and no sofa.
shop in Abyaneh
We go out to eat at the Syalk Star Restaurant. This is very much geared up for tour groups with long tables down the room – but it was a very good quality with a wide and varied buffet spread, veggie friendly with a beautiful aubergine dish, potato cakes, vegetables, salad and rice with plenty of tea and coffee and little cakes/biscuits to finish and friendly staff. The loos here are very clean – each cubicle in the ladies has a squat and a western style loo! There is rose water for sale here at a very good price – in April the rose fields around the town are in full bloom and wonderfully fragrant I am told.
an animal shelter at Abyaneh

Tomorrow we head for Tehran, the last leg of our journey, but not before exploring the wonderful Fin Gardens near our hotel, and one of the magnificent nineteenth century merchant houses, Taba-Tabal. We have two more full days of sightseeing and a final morning before we have to head home from Tehran, from the Imam Khomeini International Airport.