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

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.


  1. Sounds like a wonderful trip! I need to go back to the beginning of your trip and begin reading there. I've let online activities lapse considerably recently.

  2. Hi Jo Anne good to hear from you. It was a tremendous experience even topping Ethiopia which I thought was amazing. Hope you are well. I think it was Augustine who said something along the lines that the world is a book and he who does not travel only opens one page. We have been so fortunate you and I to be able to open so many pages between us. All best wishes Eleanor