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.

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