Sunday, May 21, 2006

Catipals I

Iran has a rich and long history under its incarnation as the Persian Empire (it changed its name to Iran in 1932, although even 2000 years ago the people called their country Iranshahr; it was the Greeks that called it Persia) with many ups and downs. There have, however, been several Golden Ages, the most notable being 2500 years ago with the birth of the empire under the Achaemenid rulers Cyrus and Darius (both of whom were "Great") when their domains stretched from India to Bulgaria; and some 2000 years later under the Safavid dynasty and Shah Abbas (who, predictably, also deemed himself "Great"). The former had their capital at Persepolis, in the south of the country, and the latter at Esfahan in the middle. Since my brother has a "real job" and therefore only two weeks' holiday our travel plans are somewhat constrained. We're therefore doing the "highlights of Iran" by visiting Shiraz (the nearest town to Persepolis) and Esfahan on a whirlwind tour, travelling by plane (a fact that pains me immensely) and staying in plush hotels. For those of you who are dismayed at this, frankly disgraceful, drop in hardcore backpacking standards from myself let me reassure you that I will be offsetting this unnecessary luxury by flagellating myself before going to bed.

Anyway, first stop Esfahan. In the 16th century Persia underwent a dramatic renaissance under the Safavid dynasty, reaching its apex under Abbas I. Esfahan became a centre for the arts and many beautiful palaces, gardens and mosques sprung up all over the place, leading to the famous Persian saying Esfahan nesv-e jahan (Esfahan (is) half the world). The centrepiece of this glorious capital was the huge Naqsh-e Jahan square. Despite the fact that everything comes to an end some time, the square is still an amazing sight, surrounded by covered bazaars and two of the most beautiful mosques in the world. The amazingly intricate, blue tilework of the walls and ceilings look almost as new as the day they were built, with floral Arabic writing, geometric motifs and flowers interweaving to form a harmonious whole. This is Islamic architecture at its best and gives the Taj a run for its money (whilst at the same time costing considerably less to view).

There are many things besides to see in Esfahan, but my other favourite is the set of old bridges across the Zayandeh river, most notably the Khaju bridge. Not only are they beautiful in their own right, but they serve as a focal point for the local people who come down to the bridges and the waterfront parks in the late afternoon to relax, cuddle, have a stroll, chat, dance, eat ice-cream or just sit back and watch the world go by. It's such a peaceful place that I could sit there for days (especially if I have a constant supply of tasty Iranian ice-cream to hand!).

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