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

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.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Iran: A Persian Odyssey - the bridges of Esfahan and more

Esfahan sculpture
Esfahan October 2016. The street cleaners are out early – The Iranians do keep their towns spotless – and after the many family picnics which happen everywhere nothing is left behind. I do wish I could say the same in the UK.
Esfahan beats hands down any other city I have ever visited. It is so beautiful with so much to see.
the 40 column palace

battle painting in main hall Chehel Sotun

Imagine twenty 16m high richly decorated columns reflected as in a mirror in the perfectly still waters below them, creating the illusion of there being 40 not 20 columns. After a wonderful breakfast at the Abbasi - claimed to be the best hotel in Iran and easy to see why - this is where we are off to in our coach; the Chehel Sotun  - or 40 columns - the most important surviving Safavid (1501 - 1736) pavilion - and what a sight. 

The painting and gilding of the columns has long since faded, they are no longer hung with curtains scented with rose water, but the overall beauty of the place is still there. The huge battle paintings in the main hall and the exterior murals are all worthy of some detailed study, some dramatic, some very beautiful. Here the Safavid rulers received their foreign envoys and Shah Soleyman was invested in 1668.
beautiful Persian carpets

a display of carpet styles through the ages

No visit to Esfahan could possibly be complete without a visit to a carpet factory – where we see some very beautiful carpets and learn much about the different designs through the ages, about knotting and warps and the dyes used – arrowroot, asparagus, saffron, pomegranate skins, onion skins, cochineal, rose madder (Rubia tinctorum the madder plant).

the Khajou Bridge with octagonal kiosk

The Zayandehrood River flows through Esfahan - or rather it used to. Today it is a very wide and dried up river bed with a row of colourful but forlorn redundant paddle boats lining the bank and locals wondering across its vast expanse. Ten years ago locals swam in it, and it was the centre of social life in the city on balmy summer evenings. Thanks to drought, claims of mismanagement
and increasing population demands it is now a sorry sight. Long gone are the cafes but the gardens remain. Photos to be found online show how very beautiful it must have all looked when the water was in full flow. It seems doubtful if the water will ever return and the city's water supply could be in crisis.
panoramic view of Khajou Bridge
We visit two of the pedestrian bridges here – first the Khaju Bridge with 24 arches, a central octagonal kiosk and guarded by a stone lion, a tomb stone probably of a local champion wrestler. 

Se-o-se Pol or 33 arch bridge

The second bridge, the 33 arches bridge or Se-o-se Pol – with its legendary link to the age of Jesus Christ when he died and the idea that we will all be 33 in heaven, is 360m long, 14m wide, on two levels and with high walls which were designed to protect the camel trains from the potential buffeting of winds on the otherwise exposed trip across the river.
We then hear that the Bosnian president is visiting the city today – in our hotel apparently, so all the city sights have been closed without warning and we were lucky to see Chehel Sotun before it closed to the public. Many other tour groups have not been so lucky. So we have to rethink the itinerary for today.

redundant paddle boats  on dry river - relics of a happier time
no hubble bubbles allowed in park
Lunch is at the Azadi hotel – the inevitable soup starter is said to be the very best the group had tasted – the flat bread was very nice and fresh – with the usual salad plate – then trout, or chicken or meat kebabs – how the Iranians love their kebabs! I thought the veggie option was very good, made of split lentils and potato cubes in a spicy and tasty tomato sauce – until I found three chicken lumps. Our guide complained and they brought a new bowl – but I swear that all they had done was take another scoop out of the same stew taking more care to exclude any chicken lumps! No dessert, tea or coffee – probably because we are now off to the mountain above the city for the view and a tea/coffee served from our coach surrounded by local picnickers. 
locals enjoy a picnic above the city

We climb up above the car park to see splendid views of the city – and young men smoke hubble bubbles under the trees on the shady terraces.
We cannot make our planned visit to the mosque today because of the President of Bosnia visit – most of us opt to go back to the hotel – I fancy some quiet time enjoying the total peace and beauty of the hotel grounds. There is very bad traffic congestion because of the presidential visit– street cleaners in high viz vests travel the city on bikes and motor bikes with besom brooms cleaning the streets where they see the need. And this isn’t just for the President – the streets are always kept clean here. This puts us to shame in England.

our picnic cakes

my veggie supper at Abbasi was delicious
Some of the group are dropped off at the bazaar and make their own way back in time for supper. Back at the hotel I stroll across the road to the shopping mall opposite which gets a guidebook mention – but I am disappointed – it seems to be mostly bookshops. The Chehelsotoun Hall (or 40 column) restaurant at the Abbasi Hotel is a wonderful setting with its paintings, gilding, mirrors and plaster moulding – below the upper breakfast room. 

This was my very best veggie meal of the trip so far – with mixed vegetables, roasted, courgettes, aubergine, peppers, onion, spinach, sweet corn, peas – all beautifully arranged and delicious. A high quality crème caramel completes a satisfying meal.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Iran: A Persian Odyssey - a full day in Esfahan

the breathtaking Naqsh-e Jashan Square Isfahan
Surely the most beautiful city in the world? 
Our first full day in Esfahan or Isfahan.
inside the Vank Cathedral
First we go across the river to the Armenian quarter and see the All Saviours’ or Vank Armenian Cathedral (Vank means monastery or convent in Armenian) dedicated to St Joseph of Arimathea. After the Ottoman War of 1603-05 Armenian immigrants settled here in search of a new life under the Safavid King Shah Abbas I and established this Cathedral, one of the first churches in Esfahan. Construction began around 1606, and was completed with major alterations to design between 1655 and 1664. 

The wall and ceiling paintings are fabulous, described well here 

Edict to protect rights of Armenian
Inside the Vank Cathedral
The adjoining museum is equally superb and both totally absorbed our attention – in the museum we marvelled at the ancient documents, including the 1606 edict of Shah Abbas I establishing New Jolfa and prohibiting interference with, or the persecution of, Armenians and their property and affairs in the district.

Christian Gospel written on parchment 1329 
There are hundreds of handwritten books stored here and we saw beautifully illustrated bibles and Korans, the first book printed in Iran with an old printing press also on display, a variety of objects related to Armenian community in Isfahan such as Safavid costumes, tapestries, paintings, (including Mt Ararat and the Armenian Church on the island in Lake Van, both of which were seen on my pilgrimage to SE Turkey ) embroidery, and other ethnological displays related to Armenian culture and religion, a very moving wall display of the Armenian Genocide, the world's smallest prayer book, in 7 languages, casks for Holy Relics, and all needed quite a while to truly appreciate. 

A visit to a real Iranian coffee shop next was a great treat - especially as we all had a huge chocolate cake to share!
drawing a miniature freehand

window display of camel bone miniatures
Our next stop, suitably refreshed, is to a miniatures workshop – the expert who displays his wares to us here has 40 years’ experience and gives us some information on the different materials in use – ivory (now forbidden of course), camel bone (next best – retains colour for 100 – 200 years), plastic (not so good!), and cow bone which cracks quickly. Therefore when buying these miniatures, we are warned, beware the material used and make sure we know what we are buying to avoid later disappointment. The special pens he uses are made of cat hair, and colours used are mostly natural, for example from pistachios, walnuts and pomegranates.

We walk through the bazaar to lunch – at the Partikan Hotel - and this is very good indeed. They make a special dish for me, I think it is butternut squash in a sweet sour thick sauce with the usual salad but all very freshly prepared. The meat looked like haggis but was rated highly by the meat eaters – there is jelly, water melon and cream custard for a sweet finish to the meal. It is all very good with slick service and rated highly by us all.

inside the Masjed-e Imam

inside the double dome of the Masjed-e Imam
At the Masjed-e Imam Ali treats us to more of his moving singing beneath the epicentre of the double dome structure of the great prayer hall - there is a great echo here - and explains the theory behind the construction. The inner dome is weight bearing - at its apex there is a 14 metre gap between the inner and outer dome, the latter with a more bulbous external profile which stands 54 m high. The courtyard is offset 45 degrees from the main entrance so that it can face Mecca without spoiling the appearance of the entrance on the main square. 
In a further courtyard behind the building we enjoy a question and answer session with a Mullah.
opportunity for discussions with a Mullah

block printing in Esfahan

various traditional blocks for the printing
So onward through the bazaar - to a linen shop and a demonstration of linen block-printing– where we watch the process and I buy a very pretty cushion cover.

At the Romano restaurant in the evening we enjoy the usual soup, followed by a very good, fresh and plentiful salad, and the main course was lion fish from the Persian Gulf, with a sesame chicken and prawns. It was beautifully presented, as was my veggie dish which was moulded vegetables and very tasty. All good quality but huge portions. The bread was very good, the service friendly. There was fruit to finish – like a smooth skinned orange. We were not entirely sure what it was. 

attractive veggie choice at the Romano Restaurant

Lion fish at Romano Restaurant