Saturday, 20 October 2012

Day 200 – Acoustics, Antiques and Religious Atrocities. (Iran)

Our friend Ali who took us around Tehran for a couple of days kindly put us in touch with a host in Esfahan who welcomed us into his home and showed us around the city. We’d heard many great things about Esfahan – everyone we’d spoken to told us about how beautiful and interesting it is and how we absolutely must go there. Well we can’t disagree with this; we did have a great time in Esfahan.

Imam Square is a vast courtyard in the centre of Esfahan, walled by a bazaar on three sides, and Imam Mosque on the other. The city is planned so that no buildings are visible from inside the square. Some time ago a proposal for a high rise was dismissed on the basis that because of the size and location it would have been seen from inside Imam Square. The mosque was in many ways similar to most of the other mosques we’ve visited, but there was one room which was particularly unique. Open on three sides, the high roof was domed and the walls built from stone and marble. In the centre of the space was a plain, unvarnished stone set into the ground. The feature that makes this room stand out so much is the incredible acoustics that are integrated into the structure. From the very centre of the room – marked by the stone in the floor – the echo is crystal clear and will reverberate several times. A single clap for example will bounce back to you as a dozen individual claps. A voice will reverberate back sounding exactly as that person’s voice. From anywhere else you’re able to hear the echo, but only from that single spot is it so perfectly clear. Denner (a graduated sound engineer student) had a fantastic time exploring the room and listening to the differences in the sound, clapping and humming to himself as we left him to it.

Amidst the bazaar surrounding Imam Square, our host showed us to one of the shisha bars where the women’s section still remains. Through a narrow alleyway covered in antique brass objects hanging from the ceilings, a humble door leads into the fruity smelling, smoky room lit by a hotch-potch of various sizes, colours and styles of lights. Like in the alleyway we took to reach it, old Persian tools and utensils covered the ceilings and walls, along with all sorts of paintings, posters and ornaments. The first time we visited this shisha bar we were amongst only a handful of other patrons, but on our second visit we had to wait just to sit at a spare table. Young Iranian couples and groups of friends obviously use this relaxed establishment as a fun hang-out spot. Interestingly though, I never witnessed a group of girls unaccompanied by a male. There was a lot of rolling up of long sleeves and allowing headscarves to slip back without adjusting them though – much more so than you’d usually find in public. Because of its location and the nature of allowing women inside, we also bumped into a few tourists enjoying the shisha, including a group of Melbournians who live in neighbouring suburbs to us!

The Armenian Quarter of Esfahan is iconic for its quite separate culture. Where Iranians drink tea and smoke shishas, Armenians seem to frequent European style coffee shops and sip cappuccinos and lattes. (The coffees incidentally were very peculiar renditions of what we’re used to in Melbourne, involving liquorice in the cappuccino, half the latte glass filled with froth and chocolate sprinkled on everything.) In place of the usual array of mosques, the Vank Cathedral is the landmarked place of worship in the Armenian Quarter. Almost every attraction in Iran costs 5,000 Rial (less than 20c) to visit, and on payment you’re presented with an identical ticket (we have hundreds of this ticket floating around now). The price is fixed and legitimate and the same for locals and foreigners. Iran is far from perfect, but this is one thing they definitely seem to have sorted out. Only a handful of attractions vary from this standardised pricing system and we were very disappointed to find that Vank Cathedral is one of them. Travelling through other parts of the world I have often been shocked and quite disgusted at the way in which a lot of mosques and places of Islamic importance have completely sold out to become a tourist attraction and line the pockets of whoever sells the tickets. Usually though I have found churches and cathedrals and places of Christian importance to be very respectful and focused on aspects other than the income of funds. This is certainly one instance where this trend was revoked. Many mosques in Iran are free to enter, used entirely for religious purposes, yet open to the public as any place of worship should be. The particularly historical ones that are essentially unused now have all been brought under the blanket of the 5,000 Rial entry fee. It is quite inappropriate in my mind that the main Cathedral in town should be rendered un-functioning by the 30,000 Rial ticket price - it’s not much in monetary terms, but at six times the price of any other site it’s certainly a statement.



  1. Sadly, there are too many places of worship around the world that bow to the god of mammon and tourism.
    Yes, we all know they need money for their upkeep, but you're right - an entry fee that is so far out of sync with everything else in the country is unfortunate.
    But.......... did you go in anyway, given that you're not likely to be back that way anytime soon??

    1. Unfortunately we didn't. The entrance fee plastered all over the doors and the gift shop audaciously positioned at the entrance really put us off. There's so many other things to see that we decided to skip this one. And we might not be back soon as such, bur Iran is definitely a future travel destination for all of us.