Isfahan – A warm welcome (March 29-31 2016)

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Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan

It was six in the morning when I landed at Isfahan International Airport. I was exhausted because of my lack of sleep, but I was excited to finally set foot on Iranian soil. After years of studying the history and culture of Iran I would now finally see the country that I loved so much. Outside my good friend Ali Abroo was waiting for me, along with his cousin Mehdi. Both were eager to carry my luggage for me, even though I repeatedly told them that I could carry the luggage myself. A taxi brought us to the home Mehdi in Baharestan, a relatively wealthy suburb of Isfahan, where a bed had been prepared for me.

Ali Abroo
Ali Abroo is a 26-year-old engineer from Basra, Iraq. He has a prestigious job at the Southern Oil Company and in the evening he helps his friend Maitham Alrekabi in running his pharmacy. As a young Shia Muslim of mixed Iranian and Iraqi descent he has seen more than enough of warfare, tyranny and religious strife throughout his short life, which has made him hate all forms of foreign occupation and despotism. I met Ali in August 2014, when I was on a vacation in Lebanon. We only met for 15 minutes in the cedar forest, but Ali was so happy to meet a European person that he immediately asked for my Facebook name. We have been in touch through Facebook ever since and we have come to know each other very well. We have discussed many topics, including the complexities of Middle Eastern politics. I have learned a lot from him and, to be honest, one of the reasons that I traveled to Lebanon was to meet people from the Middle East to gain first-hand information about the region. Over time Ali really came to like me. We are both quiet and modest people with an interest in history and an aversion to war, despotism and religious extremism. We met again in Istanbul in August 2015 and in early 2016 he invited me to visit his father’s country – Iran – a country that we both love. He offered to pay for the entire trip and said that his paternal cousin Mehdi would recieve us at his home in Baharestan.

At the Si-o-seh Pol Bridge. From left to right: Ali, me, Mehdi.
At the Si-o-seh Pol Bridge. From left to right: Ali, me, Mehdi.

At Mehdi’s home
On my way to Baharestan I watched the surroundings from the taxi windows. All around me isolated mountains that looked like great heaps of sand arose from the plain. These isolated mountains were nothing like the contiguous mountain ranges that I had seen before in Europe and America. The landscape looked very alien to me. From the arid plain also arose the wealthy suburb of Baharestan, with its wide roads, modern parks and concrete appartment complexes. In one of these lived Mehdi’s family. We were welcomed by Mehdi’s mother, Shariar, his sister Mahrokh and his son Arsham. After sleeping for a few hours Ali and I exchanged our gifts. I had brought for him two editions of Ancient History Magazine that both contained articles written by me, a box of tulip bulbs for the family and a recording of Bach’s Matthaus Passion sung by my choir, Toonkunstkoor Amsterdam. Since Ali loved Iranian history, Christianity and German culture, I though that these were the perfect gifts. The tulip bulbs might seem cliché to many Dutch people, but to people abroad they are a very recognizable symbol of my country. Moreover, since tulips originally come from Iran I thought they were also a good symbol for the interconnectedness of Dutch and Iranian culture. Ali also offered me his gifts. He presented me with a papyrus from Egypt with our names written on it in hieroglyphs, a relief of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, a self-drawn map of the Netherlands with Arabic names and much more. It was only a fraction of what I would recieve from him and his family. After the gift exchange we had lunch; i.e. a meal that was at least twice as big as the dinners that I’m used to. I couldn’t possibly eat it all, but they kept on offering more and more. I didn’t have to ask for anything. Every need was taken care of. After the dinner we went out for a walk. Watching the activity on the streets of Baharestan was quite a good way to get an impression of daily life in Iran. I was surprised by the calm nature of the Iranian people and their well organized traffic and institutions.

At the Abbasi Hotel. From left to right: Richard's wife, Richard, me, Ali.
At the Abbasi Hotel. From left to right: Shirin, Richard, me, Ali.

Meeting with Richard Kroes
The next day we paid a visit to Isfahan. We had reserved the whole day to view this ancient city. A taxi brought us to the monumental Si-o-seh Pol bridge and from there we crossed the river and made our way to the famous Abbasi Hotel. I had agreed to meet up with Richard Kroes at the Abbasi hotel. Richard Kroes is a friend of my friend Jona Lendering, a Dutch historian and journalist and founder of Ancient History Magazine. Richard Kroes is an archaeologist who also writes a lot about historical and religious topics. He also has his own blog. I had met Richard a few times before, but I hadn’t yet spoken to him directly. I was interested to hear about his experiences as a freelance history writer and about his tips for Isfahan. I arrived at Abbasi Hotel with Ali and Mehdi. The hotel is located in an old karwanseray building, where trade caravans used to spend the night ever since the building was founded during the Safavid period. The interior of the hotel was richly decorated and the central court had many beautiful flowers that created a serene atmosphere. Richard Kroes arrived a little bit later, along with his Iranian wife Shirin and their child. An interesting conversation followed, in which all participants could speak English with each other, Richard, Shirin and I could speak Dutch, and Mehdi, Shirin and Richard could speak Persian. I tried to find out how Richard managed to get a steady income from history writing, but it turned out that his writings were mostly a hobby and that he got most of his income from his work as an archaeologist in service of the government. Still, it was good to meet him. He gave us detailed information about the most important sights of Isfahan, most of which we did visit afterwards.

At Naqsh-e Jahan square.
At Naqsh-e Jahan square.

The old city of Isfahan
Upon leaving the Abbasi Hotel, we headed for the famous Naqsh-e Jahan (Image of the World), the central square of Isfahan. The Naqsh-e Jahan was originally a hippodrome built by the Safavid kings (1501-1722). The Safavids brought about a Shia renaissance in Iran and restored the country to its former glory. However, their forcible attempts to convert Iran to Shia Islam and their persecution of Sunni clerics made them hated all across the Sunni world. Even Ali stated that he did not agree with the Safavids’ oppressive religious policies. Nevertheless, despite their religious despotism the Safavids did leave behind some impressive buildings, most of which are centered around the Naqsh-e Jahan square. There are the Shah Mosque and the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, the Ali Qapu Palace and a Bazaar that surrounds the entire square. There was too much for us to see in one day. We tried to enter every mosque and palace around the square and all of them were magnificent to see. The most beautiful sight, however, was the view of the Naqsh-e Jahan square from the balcony of the Ali Qapu palace. After visiting the main buildings on the central square we headed to the Vank Cathedral, an Armenian church with beautiful wall paintings and an interesting museum on the history of Armenians in Iran. There was also a lot of information about the Armenian genocide, a subject that has fascinated Ali ever since his Armenian teacher Khajak Vartanian had told him about it. The Vank Cathedral and its museum offer a great insight into the life of Christians in Iran and they are a great addition to the Safavid monuments of Isfahan.

To be continued…
Tomorrow I will tell you about our stay in Tehran, where we visited the popular Tochal mountain resort, where saw our first snow of the year, where I guided Ali through the Archaeological Museum and where Ali guided me through the Islamic Museum. Stay tuned…