Our first stop in the morning is the Chehel Sotoun, the “Palace of 40 columns”. At first, we are a bit disappointed as the signs simply indicate a museum. But after passing through the ticket booth, we see an extraordinary vista: a stunning reflecting pool perhaps 100 yards long, leading the eye towards the mirrors of the King's huge pavilion. The relationship between the pool and the pavilion makes us think of the Taj Mahal. Intricately carved pillars (25 yards high?) lead up to an elaborately tiled ceiling. There are twenty pillars; their reflection in the pool is what inspires the name “Palace of 40 columns” From the back of the pavilion, the pillars lead the eye into the trees in the distance.
The Palace was built by Shah Abbas II to use for entertainment and receptions. The Shah and his successors would receive dignitaries and ambassadors, either on the terrace or in one of the stately reception halls.
Inside the interior rooms are incredible frescoes and paintings. Many of the painted ceramic panels are now in major museums in the west. We had just seen the wonderful Shah Abbas exhibit at the British Museum before we came to Iran.
The paintings depict historical scenes such as a reception for an Uzbek King in 1646, when the palace had just been completed; the battle of Chalderan against the Ottoman Sultan Selim I in 1514 in which the Persians fought without firearms; and the welcome extended to the Mughal Emperor who took refuge in Iran in 1544. There are traditional miniatures picturing the joy of life and love and the private life of the court (drinking, dancing, even bare-breasted women). Many have a strong Chinese influence; others appear more Western.
Some young schoolboys find me much more exotic and interesting than the contents of the museum, following me around giggling and sneaking photos. As we walk out into the lovely gardens, a teenage Iranian girl calls out “Hey, how are you guys doing?" in perfect colloquial American. She was born in Virginia and lived there until she was 15. Her parents then moved back to Iran, perhaps because she was becoming too Westernized. At first, she was very unhappy, not least because she didn't speak Farsi, but she seems happy now with her friends.
Next, Hossein leads us into the Ali Qapu Palace by the entrance outside Jahan (Imam) Square. As we enter, he directs me and George to opposite corners of the 30-foot high Ivan (entance) and instructs us to whisper. You can carry on conversations by a strange acoustical phenomenon by which a whisper in one corner echoes down the opposing corner.
The Ali Qapu was originally designed as a vast portal. It is forty-eight meters high and there are seven floors, each accessible by a difficult but beautifully tiled spiral staircase. Graceful and delicate paintings cover the walls and ceilings. Most are floral themes and swirls, with the occasional figure.
The name Ali Qapu is Turkish for "high gate", as it was at the entrance to the Safavid complex. The complex was built by decree of Shah Abbas in the early seventeenth century. It was here that the great monarch used to entertain noble visitors, and foreign ambassadors.
We climb the tiled stairs; the first two floors were for soldiers and servants of the royal house. The stairway to the third floor opens onto the Shah's pavilion, where the extraordinary panorama of Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square unfolds before us. Hossein wanted us to view the square for the first time from this dramatic perspective because this is how the diplomats of foreign powers first viewed it.
It is the second largest public square in the world (after Tiananmen).
On the south side of the Square the Iman mosque, also known as the Shah mosque, has a grand dome and minarets. Its construction began in 1611, and its splendor is mainly due to the beauty of its seven-color mosaic tiles and calligraphic inscriptions. Over the entrance is a delightful example of mosaic tile, depicting a vase flanked by peacocks. However, the Imam Mosque is said to have been constructed in a hurry, and much of its tilework is not mosaic but painted.
The Iman mosque's interior is reminiscent of the Cordoba mosque in that pillars and arches separate the interior into quiet contemplative chambers. A mullah leads school children in recitals of religious scriptures. The mullah smiles beatifically as the children reply in a religious call-and-response. Teaching children to memorize rote religious slogans is a bit disconcerting, especially as pre-Islamic history is not officially taught at all. Children also learn both English and Arabic.
Along another side of the Square is Sheik Lotfallah mosque, I think it may be the most beautiful mosque that we have visited. The dome is decorated with subtle patterns on the outside. As you walk in, you hear the awed gasps from visitors–it is simply exquisite. Lovely, colorful designs lead the eye around and around the dome.
It was the ladies' mosque and has no stairs or minarets as it was purely for the private use of the Harem. The women of the royal household accessed the Lotfallah Mosque from the Pavilion by an underground tunnel; the Mosque is oriented at an angle to its entrance on the square so the ladies couldn't be seen.
After a brief wait, we have lunch in a restaurant with a lovely interior but truly rotten service. The normally patient Hossein becomes rather grumpy, as he never receives his entree.
Hossein takes us to a few craftsmens' shops so we can see how printed fabrics, miniatures, and ceramics are made. We watch with some interest but decide to wait to buy until we have had a chance to comparison shop. The driver has gotten a ticket while waiting for us. The policeman writing the citation apologizes for delaying us tourists!
We check into our new lodgings--the Abbasi Hotel. This is one of the great hotels of the world, with beautifully decorated ceilings, walls, and furnishings. An ancient caravanserai, it was converted into a hotel to save it from destruction.
We go out for a walk and stumble upon "Isaac's", a Jewish shopkeeper specializing in old Persian tiles and miniatures and Judaica. We haggle over the price of a tile but we think Isaac got the best of us, although from our point of view the tile was a very good buy.
We return to the Abbasi. This former Caravansarai's central courtyard is a charming teahouse. We enjoy a very filling soup with pasta and yogurt, followed by tea and dates, as the stars appear in a Maxfield Parrish blue sky punctuated by blue minarets...a 1001 nights vision.
After a rest, we walk to the Si-o-se bridge. Si-o-se means the Bridge of 33 Arches. As elsewhere in Iran, the street life is vibrant. This double-decker, arched bridge is very lively; a couple surreptitiously smooches in a dark corner, men sing, and teens race along from stone post to stone post along the interior of the bridge. As usual, people are very curious and friendly towards us. We speak with some young men. They say that they are not religious and do not pray. They believe the majority of young people do not follow Islam. Over 70% of the Iranian population is under the age of 30–born after the Islamic Revolution. We discuss their belief that people were much more religious before the Revolution; now, many feel alienated by a regime they believe has become corrupt and has little to offer them. A growing number are interested in Sufiism and Zorastrianism as a result.
We have delicious Saffron ice cream with cherry syrup and a vanilla milkshake back at the Abbasi. Since the Abbasi Hotel is at the pinnacle of Iranian lodging, it makes sense that the hotel coffeeshop takes the odd Persian hotel penchant for playing nonstop Western music to new heights. “Good morning, America, how are you?” sings Arlo Guthrie. Our giggles turn into outright laughter when the song is followed by Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel!” Thus, the title of this travelogue.