Ardabil

iran-esfahan-imam-detail-geoex

iran-esfahan-imam-detail-geoex

Everyone says you’ll be surprised by Iran (except for those who say, you’re nuts for going — and they’d probably be the most surprised of all). So I went in expecting to be surprised, but I still wasn’t prepared.

I was surprised by the red poppies bursting out all over the landscape, the snowcapped mountains where I’d expected desert, and the national commitment to mystical poetry and song. The most profound surprise of all was the genuine warmth of the people. From Tehran to Tabriz to the smallest village in the desert, people went out of their way to express appreciation at our visit. In Yazd, a restaurant owner went so far as to place an American flag on our table and blast “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the speakers, causing the other patrons to rise from their seats out of respect. Now, that’s surprising.

Below are a few of my favorite memories:

 

Our "Treasures of Persia" group examines the tomb of Nasser al-Din Shah at Golestan Palace in Tehran. The 19th-century Persian king was famous for his courtly visits to Europe, his large harem, and his assassination by a revolutionary in 1896.

Our “Treasures of Persia” group examines the tomb of Nasser al-Din Shah at Golestan Palace in Tehran. The 19th-century Persian king was famous for his courtly visits to Europe, his large harem, and his assassination by a revolutionary in 1896.

The palace was a pleasant surprise — an equivalent place in Europe would be overrun with tourists and selfie sticks. Instead, it was magnificently quiet; you could hear the babble in the fountains and the chattering of parrots overhead.

iran-jess-silber-geoex

iran-jess-silber-geoex

I had my picture taken by a young Iranian couple who were also strolling around Golestan, being tourists themselves. They were thrilled to see a group of Americans touring their capital.

iran-tehran-street-art-geoex

iran-tehran-street-art-geoex

One thing that surprised me about Iranian cities was the fun public art. I expected to see lots of sober portraits of the Supreme Leaders, Khomeini and Khamenei, and yes, I did see those. But I didn’t expect colorful murals and whimsical sculptures, and I saw lots of those, too. I think the picture above is actually an advertisement, but it’s a nice reminder of how Iranian cities can be joyful places, not just somber ones.

On Iran's rural border with Azerbaijan, set within a canyon and reachable only by a steep walk, the centuries-old St. Stephanos Church feels like it's in a different world from cosmopolitan Tehran.

On Iran’s rural border with Azerbaijan, set within a canyon and reachable only by a steep walk, the centuries-old St. Stephanos Church feels like it’s in a different world from cosmopolitan Tehran.

 

Iran’s Islamic architecture is dazzling, no surprise there. But there are other religions in Iran, and exploring sites sacred to Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism was a surprise highlight. Saint Stephanos Church is a long drive from the closest major city; perched just across the border with Azerbaijan, it holds court in a canyon of red rock that feels like one of the archives of time.

The Iranians that we met on the "Treasures of Persia" trip were always eager to have their picture taken with us. Same goes for this group of guys who ran into us at St. Stephanos Church.

The Iranians that we met on the “Treasures of Persia” trip were always eager to have their picture taken with us. Same goes for this group of guys who ran into us at St. Stephanos Church.

We visited Saint Stephanos on a weekend, and it was busy. At each corner and courtyard of the church complex, we were approached by people who wanted to welcome us and chat with us — or take their photo with us. Kathie is pictured here with a group of gentlemen who wanted to immortalize the visit.

A spring fills this volcanic crater at Takht-e Suleiman, Iran - it's easy to see why it was considered a sacred site to different civilizations throughout Iranian history.

A spring fills this volcanic crater at Takht-e Suleiman, Iran – it’s easy to see why it was considered a sacred site to different civilizations throughout Iranian history.

At first I was a bit skeptical as we walked up to Takht-e Suleiman, a windy mountaintop UNESCO World Heritage Site. We’d driven hours through mountain landscapes to get there, and as you approach, you can’t see much except the crumbs of ruins. But the opaque, blue-green pool in the center of the site, formed in a volcanic crater, brought into focus how magnificent and spiritual it was. “One of the most sacred places in Iran,” our trip leader, Sylvie, said, and it was pretty easy to see why.

 

A group gathers around the National Guide at Takht-e Suleiman, a remote, ancient ruin and sacred site in northern Iran.

A group gathers around the National Guide at Takht-e Suleiman, a remote, ancient ruin and sacred site in northern Iran.

As with so many other places in northern Iran, we pretty much had the whole site of Takht-e Suleiman — all of its chambers, tunnels and temples — to ourselves to ponder and explore. Here, our national guide, Peyman, is explaining the Zoroastrian fire temple that once burned here.

The atmospheric ruins of Takht-e Suleiman, a sacred site in rural Iran.

The atmospheric ruins of Takht-e Suleiman, a sacred site in rural Iran.

There was just one other group of tourists visiting the ruins at Takht-e Suleiman that day, an older couple strolling with a young man. The woman asked me to take a photo with her. After the young man had taken the picture, the woman squeezed both of my hands in hers and kissed both of my cheeks. I don’t think anyone has ever been so happy to take a picture with me in any other country I’ve visited.

Military service is compulsory for young men in Iran. These two soldiers serve their time as guards at the crumbling Anahita temple, a pre-Islamic ruin in the town of Kangavar.

Military service is compulsory for young men in Iran. These two soldiers serve their time as guards at the crumbling Anahita temple, a pre-Islamic ruin in the town of Kangavar.

Military service is compulsory for most young men in Iran. These two soldiers serve their time as guards at the crumbling Anahita temple, a pre-Islamic ruin in the town of Kangavar, dedicated to the Zoroastrian goddess of water.

An Iranian woman in Kangavar offers warm bread to a traveler and GeoEx Trip Leader Sylvie Franquet.

An Iranian woman in Kangavar offers warm bread to a traveler and GeoEx Trip Leader Sylvie Franquet.

An Iranian woman in Kangavar offered warm bread to some members of our group. At first we declined, trying to adhere to the Iranian custom of taarof, which governs etiquette, but as you can see, eventually the aroma of warm bread overcame us.

Lions, gryphons, and bulls are represented in the capitals of columns and other ruins at Persepolis.

Lions, gryphons, and bulls are represented in the capitals of columns and other ruins at Persepolis.

Persepolis! Ancient cities haven’t always been my thing — in the Roman Forum I was preoccupied by the scrawny cats begging between the columns — but this site is magnificent from the very first approach. The city was a ceremonial capital for the Achaemenid kings, built on these tremendous stones that heave it toward the sky like an altar, and decorated with astonishing carvings and reliefs. It was more recently famous for being the site of the last Shah’s final big party in 1971, which lavishly celebrated 2,500 years of Persian civilization and provoked the outrage of then-exiled Khomeini.

This third-century relief at Naqsh-e Rustam, just a few miles from Persepolis, depicts the beginning of an empire: Ardashir, the first Sassanid king, is receiving a ring of kingship from the Zoroastrian deity Ahuramazda. The empire only ended four centuries later with the arrival of Islam in Iran.

This third-century relief at Naqsh-e Rustam, just a few miles from Persepolis, depicts the beginning of an empire: Ardashir, the first Sassanid king, is receiving a ring of kingship from the Zoroastrian deity Ahuramazda. The empire only ended four centuries later with the arrival of Islam in Iran.

The highway from Shiraz to Yazd follows historical trade routes, passing the same desert mountains as the camel caravans of previous centuries.

The highway from Shiraz to Yazd follows historical trade routes, passing the same desert mountains as the camel caravans of previous centuries.

The highway from Shiraz to Yazd follows historic trade routes, passing the same desert mountains as the camel caravans of previous centuries.

This man has greeted travelers to the Towers in Silence, a Zoroastrian ruin on the outskirts of Yazd, for years - maybe decades. "Over the years I've come here, he's gone through three different donkeys," the guide explained, "but it's always the same man."

This man has greeted travelers to the Towers in Silence, a Zoroastrian ruin on the outskirts of Yazd, for years – maybe decades. “Over the years I’ve come here, he’s gone through three different donkeys,” the guide explained, “but it’s always the same man.”

I’m posing here with a gentleman who has greeted travelers to the Towers in Silence, a Zoroastrian ruin on the outskirts of Yazd, for years — maybe decades. “Over the years I’ve come here, he’s gone through three different donkeys,” our guide explained, “but it’s always the same man.”

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iran-tile-work-yazd-geoex

Kathie admires the tile work and calligraphy at the Friday Mosque in Yazd.

Only 20 columns support the ceiling of the Chehel Sotun, or Forty Column Palace. The other 20 are created by the reflection in the pool at the entrance to the palace.

Only 20 columns support the ceiling of the Chehel Sotun, or Forty Column Palace. The other 20 are created by the reflection in the pool at the entrance to the palace.

Only 20 columns support the ceiling of the Forty-Column Palace. The other 20 are created by the reflection in the pool at the entrance to the palace.

Esfahan's Forty-Column Palace has an impressive variety of mustaches depicted in the artwork on its walls. On the day we visited, they honored their mustache heritage with a make-your-own-Persian-'stache station.

Esfahan’s Forty-Column Palace has an impressive variety of mustaches depicted in the artwork on its walls. On the day we visited, they honored their mustache heritage with a make-your-own-Persian-‘stache station.

The Forty-Column Palace might have only had 20 columns. What it had in excess was mustaches depicted in its artwork and frescoes — an impressive variety. On the day our group visited, the palace happened to have a temporary exhibit dedicated to this mustache heritage, including a “make your own historical Persian mustache” station that we took full advantage of.

The exterior of the Imam Mosque - known as the Shah Mosque before the 1979 Islamic Revolution - features master calligraphy and tile-work. Here, it is covered in ornamental red bulbs to honor the birthday of the Hidden Imam, a Messianic leader believed by some Shia to be living in secrecy among the people.

The exterior of the Imam Mosque – known as the Shah Mosque before the 1979 Islamic Revolution – features master calligraphy and tile-work. Here, it is covered in ornamental red bulbs to honor the birthday of the Hidden Imam, a Messianic leader believed by some Shia to be living in secrecy among the people.

The exterior of the Imam Mosque, in Esfahan, is covered in ornamental red bulbs to honor the birthday of the Hidden Imam, a Messianic leader believed by some Shia to be living in secrecy among the people.

Esfahan's Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was built in the 17th century as a private mosque for the women of the Shah's family. The pious women were invisible while at prayer thanks to a long, curving hallway that twists away from the entrance doors.

Esfahan’s Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was built in the 17th century as a private mosque for the women of the Shah’s family. The pious women were invisible while at prayer thanks to a long, curving hallway that twists away from the entrance doors.

Lots of people have written about the beauty of the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque in Esfahan. I am happy to confirm that they were all correct. It’s a masterpiece. The mosque was built in the 17th century as a private mosque for the women of the Shah’s family. The pious women were invisible while at prayer thanks to a long, curving hallway that twists away from the entrance doors.

Abyaneh, a rural village in the Karkas mountains north of Esfahan, is beloved for its red-brick historical houses and its dried fruit.

Abyaneh, a rural village in the Karkas mountains north of Esfahan, is beloved for its red-brick historical houses and its dried fruit.

As our trip wound to a close, we stopped in the village of Abyaneh, in the Karkas Mountains north of Esfahan. It’s beloved for its historic red-brick houses and its fruit leather (it tastes better than it sounds).

 

 

The Memory of Saint Thaddeus and His Faithful Followers

 

Iran’s Qara Kelisa will honor the memory of Saint Thaddeus and his faithful followers during a ceremony in the northern province of West Azerbaijan.
The church is located at the end of a road which has been constructed merely for this church and a small nearby village. Qara Kelissa was registered as the ninth historical-cultural heritage of Iran at the 32nd International Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Quebec, Canada.

Scores of Armenians, Assyrians, and Catholics from Iran and other countries will attend the annual event as part of their pilgrimage on the Day of St. Thaddeus.
The ceremony is known as one of the largest religious ceremonies held by Armenians.
Qara Kelisa, also known as the St. Thaddeus Church, is one of the oldest and most notable surviving Christian monuments of Iran that carries great significance for the country’s Armenian Orthodox community.

The church is composed of two parts: a black structure, the original building of the church from which it takes its name and a white structure, the main church, which was added to the original building’s western wing in 1810 CE.
An ancient chapel two kilometers northwest of the church is said to have been the place where the first Christian woman, Sandokh, was martyred. The chapel is believed to be as old as Qara Kelisa. The structure was inscribed along with two other monastic ensembles of the Armenian Christian faith namely St. Stepanos and the Chapel of Dzordzor.

Saint Thaddeus Monastery
The Saint Thaddeus Monastery is an ancient Armenian monastery located in the mountainous area of Iran’s West Azarbaijan Province, about 20 kilometers from the town of Maku. The monastery is visible from a distance because of the massiveness of the church, strongly characterized by the polygonal drums and conical roofs of its two domes. There are several chapels nearby: three on the hills east of the stream, one approximately 3km south of the monastery on the road to Bastam, and another that serves as the church for the village of Ghara-Kilise.
One of the 12 Apostles, St. Thaddeus, also known as Saint Jude, (not to be confused with Judas Iscariot), was martyred while spreading the Gospel. He is revered as an apostle of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Legend has it that a church dedicated to him was first built on the present site in AD 68.
Not much appears to remain of the original church, which was extensively rebuilt in 1329 after an earthquake damaged the structure in 1319. Nevertheless, some of the parts surrounding the altar apse date from the 10th century.
Most of the present structure dates from the early 19th century when Qajar prince Abbas Mirza helped in renovations and repairs. The 19th-century additions are from carved sandstone. The earliest parts are of black and white stone, hence its Turkish name Kara Kilise, the Black Church. A fortified wall surrounds the church and its now-abandoned monastery buildings.

According to Armenian Church tradition, the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew traveled through Armenia in AD 45 to preach the word of God; many people were converted and numerous secret Christian communities were established there.
The ancient Christian historian Moses of Khorene tell the following story, considered a legend by most modern historiography.
Thaddeus converted King Abgar V of Edessa. After his death, the Armenian kingdom was split into two parts. His son Ananun crowned himself in Edessa, while his nephew Sanatruk ruled in Armenia. About AD 66, Ananun gave the order to kill St. Thaddeus in Edessa. The king’s daughter Sandokht, who had converted to Christianity, was martyred with Thaddeus. Her tomb is said to be located near the Ghara Kelisa.

History and Architecture
In Turkish, Qara means black and the church was called so because a part of it was black. Apparently, the main building of the church was built entirely of black stones but after reconstruction part of the stones was replaced by white ones. This was most probably done intentionally so that future generations would be informed of the original shape and façade of the church.
The church was destroyed and reconstructed at different eras for different reasons. A great part of the church was destroyed in the year 1230 (616 Lunar Hejira) during the attack of Genghis Khan.
When Hulagu Khan was residing in Azarbaijan, Khaje Nassireddin Toosi embarked on its reconstruction.
The main church, built in 1811-1820 is a massive structure, built of light sandstone and adorned with blind arches and decorative and geometric shapes.
Its twelve-sided tambour has been built in alternating light- and dark-colored stones and has an equal number of windows.
The church has two large courtyards, the first of which seems to have been used for agricultural purposes, while the second encircles the white structure, the portico, and a number of rooms.
The first courtyard includes oil-extracting rooms, a miniature windmill, an oven, and a fountain. It is decorated with ornamental motifs and two intricately designed stone crucifixes.
A small door opens to the second courtyard where the refectory and the kitchen along with rooms for resident monks and abbots are located.

The portico, which has been left unfinished, dates back to the mid 19th century.
The building’s exterior is adorned with five rows of alternating dark and light stones as well as numerous round and blind arches, decorated with rosettes, coats-of-arms, flowers and animal figures.
Statues of angels adorn the front facade of the church and its northern and southern facades are decorated with dark-colored stone crucifixes.
Sculptured bas-reliefs bearing passages from the Old and New Testaments, mythical animals, and effigies of saints have added to the beauty of the monument.
Armenians hold that Qara Kelisa is the world’s first church and was constructed in 68 CE by one of the apostles of Jesus, Saint Thaddeus, who traveled to Armenia, then part of the Persian Empire, to preach the teachings of Christ.
The church was destroyed as a result of an earthquake in 1319 and as narrated by Andranik Hovian there is a document showing it was rehabilitated by Saint Zachary in 1329.

 

Allah Allah Domes at Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles

Allah Allah Domes at Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles

 

Shah Ismail ascended to power in early 16th century and founded Safavid dynasty in North West of Iran. He and his successors were the followers of a Sufi who had died three centuries before their time, but had kept his popularity and respect among the people. The World Heritage Site I’m going to explain here is the burial place of Shah Ismail and Sheikh Safi as well as a few other dignitaries of Safavid Era. It’s named after this Sufi: Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles.

Who Was Sheikh Safi al-Din?

Courtyard between various structures of Sheikh Safi-al Din Shrine Complex

Courtyard between various structures of Sheikh Safi-al Din Shrine Complex

 

This Sufi used to live 700 years ago, meaning 3 centuries before Shah Ismail came to power. He was the son-in-law of the Grand Master of Sufi orders in Iran, Sheikh Zahed Gilani. As a spiritual leader of his time, Sheikh Safi inherited Zahediyeh from his master, a Sunni Muslim, and transformed it into his order called “Safaviyya”, believing in twelve Imam denomination of Shiite branch. As he’d been given the Ardabil and its dependencies, Safaviyya managed to gain authority over all those areas.

Eventually, the followers of this order managed to obtain the political and military control over that area. In early 17th century, a group of his followers headed by Shah Ismail founded Safavid dynasty in Iran and brought a religious government to power. This was the second time in Iranian history that religious-political leaders ruled the country. The name of this Dynasty comes from the name of this Sufi. So, the monument I introduce here is called “Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles” after him.

Who Was Shah Ismail?

Ceiliing decoration inside Sheikh Safi-Al Din Shrine

Ceiliing decoration inside Sheikh Safi-Al Din Shrine

He was born in Ardabil and turned into a fervent follower of Safaviyya militant order and founded Safavid dynasty. He unified Iran at a time when foreign invasions and political influence had strongly weakened Iranian authority over its territory. This was the largest and mightiest empire established in Iran after the Arabs’ invasion leading to the Iranian political decline.

Shah Ismail brought together different parts of Greater Iran – all the countries ruled by major powerful Iranian empires from Medes to Qajar era. These countries and territories included Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, North Caucasus, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even some parts of today’s Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, and parts of Turkmenistan. Iran became a strong nation again. He converted Iran from Sunni Islam to Shi’a Islam. This differentiated religious and national identity of Iranians and helped Iran’s territorial integrity. Many argue this was a wise political movement strengthening Iran as a nation.

He was also a prolific poet composing poems in both Azerbaijani and Persian. His pen name was Khatai.

Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles

Khangah is a spiritual retreat in the Sufi order. This UNESCO site is a complex consisting of several sections with different functions: a mosque, mausolea, a library, a school, a hospital, a cistern, kitchens, a bakery, and some offices. Iranians refer to it all as “Sheikh Safi Shrine in Ardabil”. In addition to its historical significance, the site is of high value in Iranian architecture. Also, from Islamic architecture point of view, it’s a landmark of Safavid era.

Entrance to Sheikh Safi al Din Shrine in Ardabil

Entrance to Sheikh Safi al Din Shrine in Ardabil

 

The ensemble in this complex refers to a series of spectacular inherited items including:

  • A series of richly decorated and preserved facades and interiors, and
  • An exemplary collection of antique artifacts.

Altogether, it constitutes a rare collection of unique elements of medieval Islamic architecture.

The construction of Sheikh Safi al-Din Khanghah & Shrine Ensembles started in 16th century and continued till the end of Safavid rule, 18th century.  It’s an artistic and architectural accomplishment of Iranians setting an example for all such Sufi retreats built later in Iran. Aesthetics and religion have come together and created a beautiful complex in Ardabil. The dark blue tiles, gilded ceilings of the interior and space allocation for various functions in carefully devised plan and proportion have made it a unique collection of structures.

 

The ceiling inside the Sheikh Safi al-Din Shrine

The ceiling inside the Sheikh Safi al-Din Shrine

afavid architecture is the heir of its predecessors, Ilkhanids and Timurids. Therefore, their arts and architectural features are clearly distinguishable. The delicate ornamentation and spacious inner sections at Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles represent the new architectural style of this era.

The social, religious and cultural influence of the Safavid period have lead to the formation of Safavid architecture. The other Sufi shrines built after that have been largely inspired by it.

Other Details About Sheikh Safi Shrine in Ardabil

The famous Ardabil Carpet is in Victoria & Albert Museum

The famous Ardabil Carpet is in Victoria & Albert Museum

 

The famous “Ardabil Carpet” was an Iranian masterpiece and the best carpet woven in Safavid period for this complex. It’s now in Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A copy has been recently woven in Iran, which is kept by this shrine.

Chinaware at Chini Khaneh of Sheikh Safi Shrine Complex in Ardabil

Chinaware at Chini Khaneh of Sheikh Safi Shrine Complex in Ardabil

Chini Khaneh is the name of a section of this Sheikh Safi Shrine that accommodates several Chinaware from a collection imported from China during Safavid era. A lot of them were plundered at the time of Russians’ invasion to Iran. Most of the vessels displayed here bear the seal of Shah Abbas indicating he had endowed them to this shrine.

Conclusion

Sheikh Safi al-Din Khangah & Shrine Ensembles is  collection you don’t want to miss if you travel to Iran one day. It’s a magnificent set of buildings with circular dome chambers accommodating tombs of Safavid kings, princes, Sufis, etc. The domes themselves known as Allah Allah are quite spectacular.

 

 

Iran builds Mideast’s highest swing bridge
Iran has unveiled the Middle East’s highest suspension bridge in the lap of nature in the northwestern Ardabil province, known for its magnificent pastures, hot mineral springs and towering mountains. The bridge over the river of Khiyav Chai in Meshginshhar is 345 meters long, suspended 80 meters above the ground.
The region, known for its pure natural honey, is undergoing a flurry of construction and sprucing up its face to attract tourists.

It is tucked away at the foot of the iconic Sabalan mountain which oozes a rich stream of thermal waters with healing qualities, attracting millions of tourists every year.
Iran is aiming to raise its tourism revenues put around $6 billion a year, which account for less than 0.5% of the world’s total income from the sector.

“Iran’s 20-year vision plan targets attracting 20 million tourists by 2025 which will earn the country $30 billion,” director of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization Masoud Soltanifar has said.
The country is seen as one of the world’s top potential tourist destinations as it holds countless ancient sites. Iran is home to 17 historic sites listed by the UNESCO.

It has a diverse landscape and its tourism industry offers a myriad of recreational opportunities.

They range from natural hot water showers in the northwest to hiking and skiing in the Alborz mountains to magnificent architectural sight-seeing in the center and beach holidays in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.

Apart from its glorious ancient sites, the country’s allure lies in its people’s reputation for hospitality.