fresco inside the Armenian church in Isfahan

Away from Isfahan’s spectacular Islamic architecture the small Armenian community has built its own churches, like the Vank Cathedral and the Bethlehem Church.

Another upshot of Shah Abbas the Great’s construction drive in Isfahan was the large-scale relocation of thousands of Armenians, skilled craft’s people whose know-how and  expertise were to be used in building the new capital. They were housed south of the river – away from the Islamic centre – in a neighbourhood called New Jolfa, after the town where many came from, now in Northern Iran.

mosaic of the Vank Cathedral, outside the Cathedral

An estimated 5000 Armenians are still living here, and meet in Vank Cathedral, the building of which was completed in 1664. The tile decorations on the lower part of the walls are very similar to those in the mosques of Isfahan, with geometrical shapes and animal motifs, whilst the upper part of the walls contain frescoes with images from the Old and New Testament.

More frescos, somehow looking more authentic, can be seen in the nearby Bethlehem Church, much smaller than the Cathedral, but also much quieter, allowing a leisurely inspection of the images, and of the tiles that, here, too, are present on the lower wall sections. Worthwhile your visit, if you have the time.

fresco of institutionalised torture, Bethlehem Church

and more of the same, Bethlehem Church

another fesco, Bethlehem Church

and more animal and flower motifs, also Bethlehem Church

one of the colourful tiles in the Bethlehem Church

abundant frescos inside the Cathedral

graphic depiction of the under-world, in the cathedral

tomb stone outside the Cathedral

first floor balcony of the Kakh-e Hasht Behesht

Kakh-e Hasht Behesht is the only 17th Century private mansion left in Isfahan.

During Safavid rule in the 17th Century there were not only the Royal palaces in Isfahan, but also more than 40 mansions of rich merchants and nobility. Kakh-e Hasht Behesht, the palace of Eight Heavens, was one of them, and the only one left. Built in 1669 the building has suffered badly from neglect through the ages, but it looks that some restoration has taken place recently.

The mansion is located inside another example of a Persian Garden, and like the Chehel Sotun palace, has an extensive pillared terrace looking out over a pool. It is just that it is somewhat smaller than the Royal palace.

one of the corners of the Kakh-e Hasht Behesht

delicate tiles have survived on the outside

plaster inside in less solid, after all these years

the niches, with stucco like in the Ali Qapa palace

the house, and the obligatory pond in front

inlaid ceiling supported by slender wooden pillars

the impressive main reception room

mirrored door inside the Kakh-e Chehel Sotun

The vivid frescos in the Kakh-e Chehel Sotun, the Royal palace of Safavid Isfahan, provide an interesting view of Royal life in the 17th Century.

The construction of the Chesel Sotun palace in Isfahan was probably started by Shah Abbas I, but completed by his son, Shah Abbas II, in 1647. However, the present building dates from the beginning of the 18th Century, after a fire destroyed the original palace.

the back of Chehel Sotun palace, mirror-imaged in the pond

A large terrace dominates one side of the building, twenty wooden pillars supporting a brilliantly inlaid wooden ceiling. Inside, several rooms have been decorated by frescos, many of them depicting historical happenings. Most of the frescos today are original, quite something, given that during the Afghan invasion later on in the 18th Century most walls have been whitewashed. The examples here are of the Battle between the Safavid Shah Ismail and Sheibak Khan the Uzbek, of 1511 and the Battle of Chaldoran between the same Ismail and the Ottoman Sultan Salim in 1518, as well as of the Reception for King Humayoun of India by early Safavid Shah Tamesb in 1550, the Reception for Vali Mohammed Khan of Turkestan by Shah Abbas I in 1628 and that of Nadar Mohammed Khan, also of Turkestan, by Shah Abbas II in 1658. All sought refuge in Safavid Persia after having lost control of their court at home. Of later date is the fresco of the Battle between Nader Shah and the Sultan Mohammed of India, seated on a white elephant, in 1756.

the terrace, pillars, inlaid ceiling

and the mirrored back wall

What is striking in these frescos, especially the ones showing the hospitality of the Shahs, but also smaller frescos not related to any of the large, formal depictions, is that the Muslim court at the time was a rather jolly happening, with music and with dancing girls, many of whom openly show their hair. It is hard to believe that the many bottles contain anything else than wine, too. How things have changed over time; or should I say, how the interpretation of an old book has changed, over time?

Chehel Sotun garden

with just a few flowers, this time of the year

The palace is located in the middle of Chehel Sotun Gardens, the quintessential Persian Garden; never mind that, with ongoing urban development, the garden today is a lot smaller than its original size.

the Kakh-e Ali Qapu behind a fountain on the square

The largest Royal palace of Safavid Isfahan has several spectacularly decorated rooms, including the top floor music hall and the spacious, columned terrace overlooking Iman square.

Perhaps the first of the major buildings to be built by Safavid Shah Abbas the Great at the Iman square of Isfahan – the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, as it is officially called, the second largest square on earth (only Tiananmen Square in Beijing is bigger) – was his own palace, the Ali Qapu palace, in the last years of the 16th Century.

 

 

the roof of the terrace, and the pillars

carefully inlaid ceiling

inside the subtle decoration

subtle in detail, too

with matching ceiling

The six-story building is dominated by a large pillared terrace on the third floor, which was also used by the Royals as viewing platform for activities, like military parades, horse racing and polo, on the Iman square below. The view of the square and its surrounding buildings, like the Mashed-e Sheikh Lutfallah and the Mashad-e Shah, has remained, only the activities have changed in the usual tourist happenings. The inlaid wooden ceiling of the terrace and the crafted columns have been heavily, but tastefully restored..

frescos inside, too, in between the Layeh Cheni decorated walls

and another fresco, same wall decorations

Behind the terrace is the reception hall – the Bar Aam hall -, which has been decorated by a technique known as Layeh Cheni in Iranian, using red mud layers as plaster, with gilded plates in between to provide sparkle to the room.

The top floor contains the Music Hall, which is differently decorated. Using a technique called Tong Borie, large open spaces in forms of pots and vases and other utensils are kept behind and in between plaster layers, apparently as to enhance the acoustics in the room. It also creates a strange, but not unattractive character in the hall.

the restoration is ongoing

the stucco in the music hall

called Tong Borie, with open spaces

another niche, decorated

on closer inspection, with angry birds

did I say ‘angry birds’?

Qapu means gate, in Arabic. The Ali Qapu palace was not only reception and entertainment area for the Shah and his guests, but also the entry to a vast area of residences and gardens behind. Isfahan’s central boulevard is called Chahar Bagh, or Four Gardens, and was originally the link between beautiful Persian gardens in four corners and a range of palaces in between. Two of those, Kakh-e Chehel Sotun and Kakh-e Hasht Behesht, still exist, and are accessible to the public.

the balcony, or viewing platform, or terrace – whatever, it is big!

the imposing Ali Qapu palace at the Iman square

the smaller Mashed-e Sheikh Lotfallah

The small Sheikh Lutfallah mosque is the modest, but equally spectacular counterpart of the Mashed-e Shah, elsewhere on the Iman square.

Humbly touted as the most beautiful mosque in the world, the Sheikh Lutfallah mosque, obliquely located on one of the sides of the fabulous Iman square in Isfahan, was dedicated to Shah Abbas the First’ father-in-law. Like all other buildings around the Iman square – the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, as it is officially called –, it was built at the beginning of the 17th Century (in this case 1602-1618), when Shah Abbas I, at the height of the Safavid Empire, moved his capital to Isfahan.

detail on the entrance portal

mosaics and windows on the outside

Unlike the Mashed-e Shah, which was for the public, Sheik Lutfallah mosque was a private mosque for the royal court. To this effect an underground passage had been constructed from the palace, the Kakh-e Ali Qapu on one side of the Iman square, to the mosque on the other side – so shielding the harem woman from public view.

 

 

the twisted corridor that leads to the prayer hall

the ceiling in the corridor

the main prayer hall

one of the corners of the prayer hall

the merhab – prayer niche

wall tiles making up a mosaic

another tile decoration

The outside of the mosque is made up of a splendid gateway, decorated with intricate patterns of tiles. The building is topped by a cream-coloured low dome, which changes colour in the changing day light. A tiled corridor provides entrance to the main sanctuary of the mosque, which doesn’t have a minaret neither a courtyard. The low passage gives way to the tall, domed chamber that is the main prayer hall, a simple structure with exceedingly complex, and beautiful, decoration. Mosaics in blue and yellow, latticed windows that produce a constantly changing light pattern, a fine mehrab – prayer niche -, and a fabulous ceiling.

the ceiling inside the main prayer hall

Try to get there early in the morning, ahead of the crowd: the mosque is quite small, and the presence of tour groups somewhat diminishes the impact of this, quite possibly, most beautiful mosque in the world!

the cream-coloured dome

the dome of the Mashad-e Sheikh Lutfallah, along the Iman square

the Mashed-e Shah, dominating the Naqsh-e Jahan square

The impressive Mashed-e Shah is the mosque that was meant to replace the old Friday mosque of Isfahan; no effort was spared to make it into the most splendid building in town, if not in all of Iran, at the time.

The stunningly beautiful mosque that Shah Abbas I built when he moved his Safavid capital to Isfahan at the beginning of the 17th Century is still one of the absolute highlights in the city, if not in entire Iran. Construction took a while, from 1611 to 1629, but the result is a fabulous example of Safavid architecture and decoration.

the inside roof of the entrance portal

Like the Sheik Lotfallah mosque, this one is also obliquely oriented with regards to then huge Iman square – the Naqsh-e Jahan Square -, in order to have the mosque point in the direction of Mecca. Via the tall entrance portal one comes to an inner courtyard, surrounded by four iwans – large vaulted open rooms – leading to vaulted prayer halls. The southern praying hall is the biggest, with an enormous domed ceiling, carefully covered with mosaics of exquisite coloured tiles. The two smaller prayer halls behind the east and west iwan are also beautifully tiled, in blue and yellow, the dominant colours in the mosque.

every passage has been colourfully tiled

detail of one of the side iwans

the interior of one of the prayer halls

another corridor, another tile pattern

mosaic wall decoration

one of the many glazed windows

This is a place where you can wander around for hours. Take your time, and look carefully at the mosaics: the longer you look, the more you discover.

the ceiling in the southern prayer hall, below the dome

another part of the ceiling, in blue and green

 

 

the huge turquoise dome of the mosque

the oblique position of the mosque, the huge dome behind the southern iwan, and the entrance portal

Seljuk vaulting in Esfehan’s Mashed-e Jahmed

The Mashed-e Jameh, the Friday mosque in Isfahan, is really an Islamic architectural museum, especially of interest for its Seljuk domed chambers, built of brick, and its beautifully vaulted prayer halls.

The huge Friday mosque in Isfahan is in fact a museum of 800 years Islamic architecture. The mosque was originally built by the Seljuks, who established a Turco-Persian Muslim empire in the 11th Century, uniting the many small entities that existed at the time in the Middle East. Part of the mosque was restored after a fire in the 12th C., and subsequent Muslim rulers added their own specifics.

 

rolled up carpets

central courtyard and west iwan

view into the southern praying area

the dome chamber of Nezam al-Molk

more brick-decorations (Taj al-Molk dome)

the intricate ceiling of the Taj al-Molk dome

One of the highlights of the mosque is the dome built by Nizam al-Mulk, the vizier – minister – in the time of Malek Shah, then the Seljuk ruler. The brick structure is almost 27 meters high and originates probably from 1086. Its construction is closely followed by another, even more sublime, brick dome, that of Taj al-Mulk, in 1088.

The overall structure of the Friday mosque is one with four iwans – large vaulted open rooms – facing each other around the centre courtyard. Some of those have been rebuilt over the years. So was the Southern Iwan burned down in 1121; the current decorative tile work, as well as the two minarets, are a Safavid addition. The Western Iwan, probably also mostly Safavid in decoration, is topped by a small maazeneh, a platform that served as minaret to call  to prayer. Behind the iwans large, vaulted prayer halls open up, with brick ceilings supported by thick stone columns.

the room of Sultan Uljeitu, with stuccoed merhab

minaret on the south iwan

the little mazeeneh that serves as minaret on the west iwan

A small vaulted room on the side of the Western Iwan is that of Sultan Uljeitu, who reigned at the start of the 14th Century. The room contains one of the finest examples of what is called a stuccoed mehrab – mehrab being the Muslim prayer niche that indicates the direction of Mecca.

The mosque is still actively used, which explains the many rolled up carpets in the courtyard.

a window in the southern praying halls

the rather bare, white-washed winter hall

brick-decorations in the Taj al-Molk dome

This site is still very much work in progress. Here you’ll find what’s new on theonearmedcarb.com (and when I added it).

  • Our Feb. 2017 trip also went to Oman, and our experiences and observations can be found on the newly created Oman page (Feb. 2017).
  • A brief visit to Qatar resulted in a Qatar page, and entries on Doha and Outside Doha (Nov. 2016). A return visit added an entry on the Khor Al Adaid inland sea (Feb. 2017)
  • After our two months trip to Iran, I created the Iran page, including a link to the travel blog of Iran, and the Iran reading list (Nov. 2016)
  • I now completed the Myanmar page, with photo-dominated entries on Yangon and Mandalay (July 2016).
  • A Dutch-language article about our first trip in China, to Sichuan and the Three Gorges, from Summer 1997. Accompanied by scanned slides, not of the best quality anymore (July 2016).
  • A travelogue of an old trip through Tibet, in Spring 1999, made it to the site, put together from old notes and scanned slides. As we ended up in Nepal, I also created a country page with, once again, scanned slides, not much text, of Kathmandu and Patan. Ever so slowly catching up with past travels… (July 2016).
  • I finally managed to spend some time on sorting out the photos (scanned slides) of our years in India, which has so far resulted in entries on the rock paintings of the Bhimbetka Caves and on the Sanchi temple complex near Bhopal, as well as a fairly extensive report from a trip to Ladakh, in 2005 (April 2016).
  • One our favourite museums, the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, had a retrospective of Dutch expressionist painter Karel Appel, which we went to see (March 2016)
  • In February 2016 we spent a couple of weeks in Argentina, where we went to Santa Fe, on the Parana River, to Tigre – the delta near Buenos Aires -, and to the Museo National de Bellas Artes, the fine arts museum in Buenos Aires, with its great Latin American modern art section (February 2016).
  • Another thing I hadn’t done yet was to include some works, mostly masks and other ethnic artefacts, from the collection of the National Museum in Jakarta, which we visited in December 2014 (February 2016).
  • Some photos of a pretty unique sculpture exhibition of Miro in the York Sculpture Park, where we were in 2012 (February 2016).
  • To complete the SE Europe section to date, I also posted some old pictures from a 3-day passing through Macedonia, in 1997. One of the humbler pages on the site, to be fair (January 2016).
  • I found a plugin that allows me to present a real world map on the home page of this site, The Map, including the possibility to link from this map to individual countries. Great plugin, except that it now becomes abundantly clear that there is still a lot of work to do on the site: many countries I have been to and have content for are not included yet! (January 2016).

one of the many Omani forts

Oman is working hard to promote tourism, as one of the few countries in the region; this could well be a funcion of its outward looking past.

The Arabian peninsula has never been the easiest tourist destination in the world. Apart from the practical difficulties of getting in – the largest country, Saudi Arabia, being off-limits for most casual travellers because they don’t issue tourist visa, and the most attractive one, Yemen, is mired in a civil war -, there is actually the very real question of what to do, in Arabia. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are developing into major shopping hubs, but outside these modern artificial oilmoney-fuelled urban mini-states, there is only the desert, right?

Oman as the centre of the ancient trading world

Well, not entirely. There is also Oman, which together with Yemen forms the south-eastern edge of the Arabian peninsula, and, unlike Yemen, is far more accessible. In fact, Oman is actively promoting tourism, albeit of the type that won’t appeal to the low-budget backpacker.

It is perhaps thanks to its strategic position, at the mouth of the Arabian/Persian Gulf and the edge of the Indian Ocean, that Oman has been more outward-looking than many of its neighbours. Long before the Europeans dominated the sea-faring routes, Oman traded spices with India. It also had something to offer: its mountains, a rare treasure on the peninsula, produced copper, and in the Dhofar region, near present-day Salalah, the frankincense tree has produced much sought after incense – that smelly stuff that has forever intoxicated followers of mysticism and religion – for thousands of years.

a door in a deserted house

little niche in the wall

The Omanis were able to stave off several Roman overland expeditions to the source of francincense, thanks to the vast desert protecting it on that side – the Romans literally got bogged down in the sand. However, in the Middle Ages the Portuguese invaders were more difficult to withstand, and they established several footholds along the coast, to suppress Omani sea trade. Even though they lasted less than 150 years, their impact is still visible, in the more than one-thousand castles that have been built afterwards, copying the handful of Portuguese examples.

Muscat balcony, the sultan looking on

Nizwa fort at night

the entrance to Nahkal fort

Present-day Oman was divided for a long time, in an interior part behind the Hajar Mountains, and the Sultanate of Muscat along the coast. Repeated instances of, often covered, British military assistance helped the coastal Sultan to expand his control, firstly over the interior in the late 1950’s, and again in the 1960’s fighting a communist insurgency in the Yemeni border area. The latter also led to a British-assisted palace coup, which brought the current Sultan, Qaboos, to the throne at the expense of his father.

Which, according to most people, is the best thing that ever happened to Oman. Not that Oman turned overnight into a rights-respecting democracy; criticising the Sultan and the government is still prohibited by law, and the government decides who can be a journalist and who cannot. But Qaboos modernised the country, established schools and hospitals, and built the infrastructure, without sacrificing too much of the Arab characteristics of his society. Camels were replaced by 4WD’s, but people still return to their villages over the weekend, still camp out and retain many of their Bedouin habits. Including their hospitality.

an Omani man

but not believing it all

discussing the world

and contemplating, too

contemplating

another one

Sultan Qaboos also used, more than any of the neighbours, the oil income to diversify the economy and create jobs for Omanis. Yes, there are lots of immigrant workers (perhaps 40-45% on a population of 4 million), but not as many as in other Arab countries, and unlike with the neighbours, there is a real Omanisation going on, with real skills transfer from expatriates to locals. Omanis are actually working, in shops, restaurants, offices, rather than relying wholly on state hand-outs (it helps that Oman is relatively humbly endowed with oil and gas, compared to its neighbours). Which, in turn, makes it relatively easy for the casual traveller to meet the Omani people.

move on to: Muscat

tourists are welcome, sort of

tools at the Al Baleed archaeological site in Salalah

An entirely different region, and atmosphere, is Dohfar and its capital city Salalah, ancient home of the francincense trade

the view from our hotel balcony

Salalah, capital of the Dhofar region in the far south, is the second largest town in Oman, and it shows. It is a modern city, once again with huge roads and plentiful round-abouts – including grass along the sides, something we haven’t seen for a while. Buildings, too, are mostly modern, and like Muscat not excessively tall, 6-7 storeys high at max. The town centre is full of restaurants, with the usual Turkish and Lebanese variations, an authentic Bedouin eatery – authentic in that one sits on pillows on the floor -, and there is even a Thai. On the edge of town extensive plantations of coconut palm trees and bananas stretch as far as one can see; but especially the banana plants have suffered from the storm of the past few days.

palm tree and banana plantation

the market, selling all those palm tree products

The coastal zone of Salalah is attractive. The wide sandy beaches, fringed by palm trees, are mostly undeveloped, and even where hotels line the boulevard, the beach itself is untouched. Tourism is an important economic component here, with people from all over the Arab world coming to Dohfar during the Khareef season, when the monsoon rains keep the temperatures down compared to the scorching desert, and provide a rare glimpse of abundant, if temporary, vegetation.

abandoned building

this one has already half-collapsed

parts must have ben inhabited until not so long ago

even the mosque seems to have been abandoned

curtains still flying – but the house is empty

another window

A part of town, along the coast, is fenced off. The houses here are not even that old, but as in so many other parts of Oman, they are empty, part-collapsing. Abandoned in a hurry. But unlike in other parts of Oman, this is not because of civil war, or decay, or lack of interest; according to local shop owners this is the site for another resort, except that it has been like this for some 10 years already, without any progress – unlike so much else in Oman, where progress is instant and visible. Would this be a case where government acts faster than private enterprise?

which creates, all together, a paradise for birds

typical souq shop, focus on francincense

a francincense burner

and the francincense concretions themselves

better are the local sweet shops

The Salalah souq, close to the fenced off development site, is a bit disappointing. A few narrow streets contain shops that sell mostly tourist stuff; lots of textile from India, miniature camels in every form and size, from wood, metal, or as soft toy, and the typical Omani headcovers, small round hats – I cannot imagine, but obviously these are also being bought by tourists.

And then there is the frankincense, in large and small bags, in courser and finer nodular concretions, for eating and for burning. The resin of the ugly frankincense tree, seeping out through incursions made in the bark and subsequently dried in the sun, has been the subject of international trade for thousands of years, finding its way from Southern Arabia to Egypt, Jerusalem – the Queen of Sheba reputedly presented it to King Solomon, and so did the three kings to the baby Jesus -, Greece and Roman, where it received fame in mythical and religious ceremonies. The first stop on the overland trail was the city of Ubar, often referred to as the Lost City, as it has since disappeared under the sands of the desert – only to have been found back, perhaps, in the 1990s, even though there is very little to see today. A better idea of incense trade can be gained from Khor Ruwi, the so called archaeological park to the east of Salalah, where the ruins of this 2000 year old harbour town have been restored. The museum is rather uninteresting, but the view from the citadel, across the now silted up lagoon where in ancient times the ships moored to take on their precious load of frankincense, is great.

the archaeological site of Khor Ruwi, with the silted up lagoon in the back

pillars lined up for restoration in Al Baleed archaeoligical site

Another ‘archaeological park’ has been constructed around the ruins of Al Baleed, a 12th Century trading port for incense, which is now inside the city boundaries of Salalah. This is mostly a pile of rubble, with stone paths in between, that are lit in the evening. There is the occasional remains of a structure, a mosque or another building, and the outer walls and the outline of the occasional watch tower, but a lot of imagination is necessary. Unlike in Khor Ruwi, however, the accompanying museum, that of the Frankincense Land, is a great place to wander around, in between many excellent full-scale and miniature examples of local wooden ships, as well as remnants of the ancient history of this place.

view of the cliffs, from Mughsail

Mughsail, west of Salalah, has more of the fabulous white sandy beach we have come to appreciate, immediately along the coastal road. However, they come with few facilities only, perhaps a pavilion to shelter from the sun, but nothing else. The special touristic attraction here are the spectacular blow holes, where sea water splashes up through holes in the rock. But unlike the beaches, this area is very much developed by the Ministry of Tourism, with paved walkways, and viewing platforms, surrounded by wooden railing to prevent anybody from falling in; the blow holes themselves have been covered with metal grating, cemented in place, so any authenticity is well and truly gone here. Like the water – also gone -, so the blow holes were just holes (perhaps we should have been here a few days ago, with the storm!)

and the road upwards

The really attractive part comes past Mughsail, where the road makes a steep ascent into the mountains, providing fabulous views over the cliffs, and towering rock formations. The road itself is an equally impressive engineering feat, winding up onto the plateau well over a thousand meters high; never mind that it is used by camels, too. From here it is still some 100 kms to the Yemeni border, close enough to have to clear an army check point. This took us 15 minutes, but all in good spirits. Yet I wonder what they were really doing: after he had given us our passports back, the soldier asked where we were from…. Right! When we returned, some time later, after having enjoyed more mountain scenery, one of the soldiers wanted to check out our passports all over again – it is not that they get that many foreigners, here -, but common sense prevailed in the end, and we were waved through without further delays.

camels along the track to Fizayah

expressive faces, they have

a rare flower, not yet eaten by the camels

We end the day at one of the pristine and poetic white sandy beaches of Fizayah, reached by a narrow and steep, unsurfaced track from the plateau down. Totally secluded even though a few hundred meters inland literally hundreds of camels enjoy the yellow grass on the slopes, something we, too, haven’t seen for a long time; but the camels don’t come to the beach, which we had all for ourselves.

the beaches at Fizayah

and this is our personal private beach

sunset over Salalah